They rode into Tar Valon by the Ostrein Bridge, the guardsmen waving them through as soon as they saw the Great Serpent ring on Moiraine's finger. Though the city had seemed like a prison during her years of training, the sight of it now clenched at her heart. She knew that Siuan's note was true, and the White Tower was home for her, more so than the Sun Palace had ever been.
She glanced at her companion. The beauty of Tar Valon was enough to move kings to tears when they first saw it, but predictably, Lan showed no expression on his face. He had confessed to her that the Amyrlin Seat had summoned him once, the Lord of the Seven Towers and Diademed Battle Lord of the Malkieri, when he had come of age. But he had ignored the summons, choosing instead to ride into the Blight with a company of Shienarans to repel the latest Trolloc raid. Sometimes, Moiraine wondered whether Siuan was right. Only fools ignored a summons from the Amyrlin Seat.
At the thought of her friend, Moiraine unconsciously urged her horse into a trot, Arrow dancing a few steps ahead of Lan's stallion. Though Lan had proven himself to be steadfast companion, and her partner in her battle against the Shadow, she missed Siuan more than she could say. She wanted her wit and her sharp mind, needed to bask in her courage and confidence. She knew now that Siuan felt the same fear that sometimes overwhelmed her, but their relationship was such that they lent strength to the other, urging each other through a mission that sometimes seemed futile. And it had been a fruitless few years, searching for women and children on her list using the barest hint of information, which even if she was successful in finding them, had all come to naught so far.
Lan pulled level then, glancing over at her, the question obvious in his actions. Moiraine had a sudden thought about the jumble of emotions that he must have been feeling through the bond, and she smiled ruefully, shaking her head. But she wasn't forced to explain as they entered the White Tower grounds then, where grooms and servants rushed out to meet them. To Moiraine's surprise, the Tower's Master of Arms was standing with the attendants. "Master Coulin...?"
Coulin bowed to her, his deference exactly correct. "Moiraine Sedai. Honour to serve." But his eyes were fixed on Lan, and when he spoke again, there was a tone of satisfaction in his voice. "Al'Lan Mandragoran. Dai Shan. I heard you had joined us."
But Lan shook his head as he swung down from his horse. "Malkier is dead," he said harshly. "My name is Lan Mandragoran. I am a Warder, sworn to the Flame of Tar Valon."
Coulin nodded, but if anything, the satisfaction in his voice grew. "Moiraine Sedai, I will take Lan Gaidin to our quarters, if it pleases you."
"Of course. Lan, my apartments are in the Blue Ajah quarters, if you have need of me." He nodded to her, and Moiraine watched as he left with Coulin. A serving woman was standing by patiently, with two younger girls who were carrying Moiraine's bags. Once the upper servant saw that she was ready, she curtsied to her, more deeply than Coulin had done. "Moiraine Sedai... if you will follow me?"
All the Tower's servants were excellently trained, and the woman moved assuredly to Moiraine's apartments in the Blue Ajah quarters. But once they reached their destination, Moiraine paused outside Siuan's door as the servants moved into her rooms to unpack her bags and pour water for her to wash. She half-lifted her hand to knock, but stopped again. Surely Siuan would be in Cetalia's apartments, working with the head of the Blue Ajah's eyes-and-ears. And she should definitely wash first, and change out of her travel-stained garments. But she lingered for a few moments more, almost aching with the need to see her friend.
The door to Siuan's room was suddenly flung open. Blue eyes widened at the sight of Moiraine. "I... I thought I heard someone in your rooms..." Siuan's voice sounded strangled and cut off.
"I just got back."
The servants in Moiraine's room finished at that moment, the younger girls brushing past her while the upper servant pulled her door shut. She curtsied to Moiraine once again, before herding the other servants away. But she could feel all of them goggling at her and Siuan, and she groaned inwardly, knowing that they would be gossiped about in the servants' quarters that night.
Siuan must have realised it as well, for she pulled her into her rooms, shutting the door firmly behind her. Moiraine felt a brief tingle and saw a momentary flash of blue light as Siuan channeled a ward around her room, before wrapping her in a tight hug. "Light... I've missed you, Moiraine."
Moiraine relaxed for a moment, taking comfort from the strong arms around her. But it was only for a moment, before she pulled back to study the other woman intently. "I got your note at The Scroll and Quill, not four days past. What's wrong?"
Siuan sighed then, tangling her fingers in hers as she led her into the sitting room. Moiraine sat down on one of the chairs beside the fire, while Siuan settled in front of her, still holding her hand. She seemed reluctant to break their physical contact. "It's Cetalia. She's dead."
Dark eyes widened. Moiraine had only met Cetalia Delarme once, but the woman had seemed like an inexorable force, rolling over even Siuan like she had been of no consequence. "Light Siuan, how? The Black Ajah?"
"It smells like the Whitecloaks. But rotting minnows and silverpike all smell the same in the sun. Cetalia got a message and went to meet with one of her agents in Shol Arbela. She must have thought he was trustworthy, but he slipped a knife between her ribs when he got the chance. The mob tore her assassin apart once they realised he killed an Aes Sedai, and they found a bag of coins from Amadicia on him. But Moiraine, you know how rare it was for her to leave the Tower; she wouldn't even leave her rooms for our welcome when we were raised Aes Sedai! Someone had to know she was the head of the Blue Ajah eyes-and-ears to lay that trap for her. And the only ones who know are Aes Sedai."
"And of the Blue Ajah." Moiraine finished, the sadness clear in her voice. Merean Redhill had been a Black sister, so she knew there were Darkfriends amongst the Blue. But she herself couldn't imagine betraying the blue-fringed shawl. They were committed to causes and justice, to saving the world. The Dark One only wanted to destroy it. Moiraine knew she was biased, but it felt like a betrayal by a Blue sister was worst than a betrayal in any other Ajah. Then she shook her head, it was no time to be sentimental. "But why would they want to kill Cetalia, Siuan? Why show their hand now?"
But instead of answering right away, Siuan was looking at her with a small, fond smile. "I sometimes think that Cetalia chose the wrong person to be her assistant. I might be quick at puzzles but you've always been quicker than me to see what they mean politically."
Moiraine blushed, a compliment from Siuan had always meant more to her than a compliment from her teachers. "I've just had more experience in the Sun Palace."
"Perhaps." With a sigh, Siuan finally let go of her hand, as she stood up and moved closer to the fire. "Moiraine, I've been asking questions about Cetalia. And I found out that she and Tamra had been close, before Tamra was raised to the Amyrlin Seat. I know that the Amyrlin is meant to be of all Ajahs and none, but I think Tamra was using the Blue's eyes-and-ears to get information to and for her searchers. I mean, if we had the idea, of course the Amyrlin Seat would have had it before us!"
"But Tamra's dead. All her searchers have been killed. Cetalia couldn't use any of the information that she gathered."
"Some... some of Cetalia's private documents were passed on to me. She used a cipher, and damn that fangfish of a woman! Trying to understand it was like untangling a net which had been left in the Sea of Storms for a year. Even then, Cetalia was too secretive to put everything to paper." Though her voice was gruff, Moiraine could detect a glimmer in the other woman's eye, and she knew Siuan must have been mourning Cetalia's death. Her friend took a deep breath then, before collecting herself again. "But I think Tamra entrusted Cetalia with what information she could about the Dragon Reborn, in case she died before he was found. She knew Cetalia barely left the Tower, so it was safe to leave it in her hands. And Cetalia was meant to pass on that information when the time was right."
"And it might be now. Sierin's reign has been unpopular, and it's likely that the next Amyrlin will be raised from outside the Grey or the Red," Moiraine said musingly. Then Siuan's words suddenly dawned on her. "Siuan... what do you mean that Cetalia's private documents were passed on to you?"
Siuan smiled bitterly, picking up the poker and jabbing viciously at the burning logs in the fireplace, causing sparks to jump and dance. "I'm now head of the Blue Ajah's eyes-and-ears. So much for seeing the world."
Moiraine got to her feet and went to her friend. She wrapped her arms around her waist, pressing her cheek against the other woman's sturdy back. "It won't be forever, Siuan. We're both amongst the strongest in the Tower now, and no one can tell us what to do. You can get your own assistant and train her to replace you."
"No, Moiraine! Don't you see? We are the last people in the world, on the side of the Light, who know that the Dragon's been reborn. The fate of the world depends on us. Our search is more important that our petty desires." Siuan turned around then, still in the circle of her arms. "That is why I called you back. Everyone has forgotten that we know about the Dragon Reborn because we were Accepted when Gitara had her Foretelling. But if they see us still working together, they might begin to suspect. We can't be seen together anymore."
Moiraine had been expecting this, had been subconsciously preparing herself for it. But the suggestion voiced still hit her like a punch in the gut. And she could see her anguish reflected in the other woman's face. She wanted to scream and cry, to deny what Siuan was suggesting. But all she could do was steel herself, and nod. "This is what it means to be a Blue," she said softly. "Too busy saving the world to save ourselves."
"There's more." With a sigh, Siuan turned back to the fire. Her posture was slightly hunched, like she was embarrassed. And that was another shock for Siuan never seemed to feel embarrassment. "I'm going to get my name brought up in the discussions for the next Amyrlin."
"What? Light Siuan, you've only been Aes Sedai for five years. The Amyrlin Seat is usually a Sitter who has been in the Hall for fifty years, and she would have been wearing the shawl for a hundred years before that!"
Siuan waved her hand impatiently. "I know I won't be elected. This time. But I want the Sitters to start thinking of me as a viable candidate. When the Dragon Reborn reveals himself, he will need a White Tower who will prepare the world for him, for Tarmon Gai'don. The next Amyrlin to be elected may reign for twenty years. We've got that time, the boy needs to be found and if saidar is anything to go by, saidin won't manifest in him until he is a young man. But I need to start working now so that the Hall will elect me when the time comes." She turned back to her friend, her blue eyes intent. "But even though we can't be seen together, we will continue to work together in secret, Moiraine. I will continue to pass information to you through our network."
Moiraine nodded. "And I will send you messages with news on my search."
Siuan reached out then, taking her hands again. She seemed to be marvelling at their contrast. When they first met in the novice quarters of the White Tower, it was Siuan who had rough hands, calloused from her years of working a fishing boat with her father in Tear. But now, five years of doing nothing more strenuous than lifting a pen had softened her fingers, paling her sun-darkened skin. Instead, it was the Cairhenin noblewoman who bore marks from her years on the road and in the saddle. Siuan lifted her head again, and looked at her. Her eyes seemed deep and sorrowful, as if she already saw a life not lived. "And maybe someday, when this is all over and there is still a world for us to enjoy..."
"Maybe." Moiraine smiled sadly. "The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, Siuan."
They stood there for a few moments more, connected yet alone with their thoughts. And each was reluctant to break the connection, knowing that it might never occur again. But finally, Siuan sighed, and led the other woman back to the armchairs by the fireplace. "The Light burn me for a fool... I've been selfish tonight, Moiraine. Tell me about your search."
But Moiraine shook her head. "Nothing has changed since I last sent you a message, Siuan."
"Have you learnt anything new?"
But Siuan knew her better than anyone else, and she could see the shadow of worry in Moiraine's dark eyes. "There is something. Out with it."
"It... it might be nothing. Just a comment. Saera Deosin's husband, Eadwin, was with the Mindean foot soldiers. He mentioned that he saw an Aiel warrior heavy with child. One of the Maidens of the Spear. What if... what if the Dragon Reborn is an Aiel, Siuan? What if we've been looking in the wrong place, this entire time?"
"'On the slopes of Dragonmount shall he be born, born of a maiden wed to no man.'" Siuan quoted. She knew the Prophecies of the Dragon as well as Moiraine did. Realisation suddenly dawned in her eyes. "Blood and bloody ashes... it might be true."
"What do we do?" She couldn't hide the hopelessness in her voice.
Siuan considered for long moments. "'He will be of the ancient blood, and raised by the old blood'," she muttered, half to herself. "Why is there a distinction between 'ancient blood' and 'old blood'? Maybe... maybe he was born of one, and raised by another?" But then Siuan shook her head. "My father used to say 'If there is a hole in the boat, you get to bailing water, not chopping wood for repairs.' We have to focus on what we can do first, Moiraine. We have our list... we need to know that he is not on it. And while you are searching... I have some eyes-and-ears who are peddlers. The Aiel will allow them to enter the Waste. I will send them in, and pass any information I can gather to you."
Moiraine nodded. But she looked so downcast that Siuan couldn't help reaching out to embrace her. "But stay in Tar Valon as long as you need. The Light knows the Blues could use your knowledge of Daes Dae'mar."
"You are the only reason why I would want to stay in Tar Valon." But the words were whispered into her hair, and Siuan couldn't be sure that they were said at all. Moiraine pulled back first, shaking her head grimly. "No. You're right. Our search is the most important thing in the world. I'll stay tonight, but tomorrow Lan and I will leave for Saldaea."
It was what Siuan loved most about Moiraine; how she always got back to her feet immediately after she was knocked down. "At least we'll have tonight."
Moiraine smiled, but didn't reply. Dark eyes studied Siuan's face, like she was memorising every feature. And searching, too, for it had been five years since they last saw each other. Siuan knew how much she had changed from five years of navigating the political currents in the White Tower; she wondered what five years of chasing after prophecy had done to the woman she had known. And the relationship they had shared. As if Moiraine was reading her mind in that uncanny way she always had, she suddenly asked "What story are you going to put out to explain that we're no longer close?"
Siuan pulled back completely then, gazing down at her hands. "I'm going to bond a Warder."
Siuan shook her head irritably. "No more than you are with that cold-hearted lionfish of yours. But I've been watching him at training, and the other students look up to him as a leader. And he seems quiet and gentle, and won't be getting his sails up to ride into every battle like some men. We might not leave the Tower very often and he will have to be content with that."
"Jealousy over a Warder. Sisters have broken up over less than that."
But Siuan snorted in contempt. "Foolishness."
"Even if it's true?" It was Moiraine's turn to avoid her eyes, though Siuan could swear that there was a ghost of a smile on her lips.
"Moiraine..." But then she shook her head. Reaching out, she tilted the other woman's chin towards her. Dark eyes met blue, before Siuan leant forward and pressed against her in a kiss. She could feel Moiraine's surprise for an instant, before the Cairhenin yielded, parting her lips and kissing her back. Siuan drew back first, smiling fondly at the other woman. "Fool. You know I've never loved anyone as much as I love you."
Moiraine was biting her bottom lip, in a gesture that Siuan recognised from their days as novices. Then she suddenly smiled, as if coming to a decision. "Will you help me with my dress?"
Siuan bounded to her feet, unable to hide her eagerness as Moiraine turned around. Her hands trembled as she undid delicate buttons, exposing lean muscles that had been hardened from five years of living on the road. Siuan couldn't help herself, leaning forward to kiss the pale skin, running her tongue over the delicate blades. She could feel Moiraine shudder beneath her lips.
"Siuan..." Her voice was low, pleading and Siuan felt a moment of triumph at making the other woman beg. Her fingers quickened, pushing the dress away, helping Moiraine lift her shift over her head, threading the kesiera out from her hair.
She stopped as Moiraine turned around to face her again. Every other time that they had been together, it happened under the covers, in the dark as they comforted each other on their latest visit to the Mistress of Novices. Or it started from jokes whispered as they shared a pillow, which led to laughter and tickling, which quickly turned into pleading. But this time, Siuan sensed it was different. Moiraine kept her gaze down in a typical display of Cairhenin reserve. But she held herself proudly, her posture erect. And Siuan took the opportunity to admire her, as the golden glow from the fireplace danced amongst the curves and hollows of her body, burnishing her skin to a deep copper. Siuan could see the changes in her as well, her friend had always been slender, too slender, Siuan thought sometimes. Yet Moiraine had retained a certain softness from her childhood amongst the ruling house in the Sun Palace. But that softness was all gone now, worn away by years of hard travel to expose the strength that Siuan always knew she possessed. Blue eyes touched upon fresh scars on her shoulder and belly, but Moiraine didn't offer any explanation and Siuan knew there were some questions one asked and some that one did not. She reached out, again tilting the other woman's chin towards her. "Light... you're beautiful, Moiraine."
Moiraine quirked a smile at the compliment. "Your turn," she murmured, reaching out to help her with her buttons. Then she paused with her fingers on Siuan's sleeve.
Siuan became unnerved. "What?"
"You're wearing silk."
"I like the way it feels on my skin," Siuan muttered. Moiraine's laughter was like the sound of silver bells. But her hands were impatient, as she helped Siuan out of her dress and shift.
They settled on Siuan's bed, lips tasting, testing, relearning familiar paths. Siuan kissed her way up the delicate line of Moiraine's jaw, smiling as she heard Moiraine moan once her tongue touched a particularly sensitive spot on her neck. She pushed the other woman back onto her pillows, her lips trailing down Moiraine's chest, moving over to take an erect nipple in her mouth.
"Mashiara..." Siuan looked up in shock, but Moiraine had her eyes closed, her fingers tangled in Siuan's hair. It was the Old Tongue. Beloved, but a love lost beyond regaining. And by the First Oath, Siuan knew it to be true. Then Moiraine arched into her mouth, demanding her attention again. Siuan scraped her teeth over the pebbled surface, her free hand reaching over to trace around the curve of her breast, teasing the other nipple into stiffness.
She could feel Moiraine's hands on her shoulders, kneading at them, urging her lower. Siuan sat back on her heels to look at the other woman. Moiraine's hair was mussed, her lips still swollen from their earlier kisses, a blush blooming over the fine bones of her throat. But her dark eyes were knowing and serene as she gazed up at Siuan, and Siuan felt her mouth go dry at the sight. She drew her fingers over the hollow of Moiraine's stomach, trailing lower until she reached the warmth between her legs.
Moiraine closed her eyes and sighed softly, as Siuan stretched on the bed again, her fingers continuing to run teasingly through the thatch of dark curls. She dipped her fingers delicately into the warm slit, testing her wetness, before she leant forward to slip her tongue between the other woman's moist folds.
Moiraine moaned again, long and deep and loud, and Siuan drank in the sound. She continued to draw her tongue up and down, her movements slow and languorous, enjoying the taste and sight as she gazed up at the other woman. There was such power in these moments, her actions making the muscles in Moiraine's thighs tense and jump, her belly dropping as she sucked in more air. Slender fingers threaded into her hair, pulling almost to the point of pain. "Please... Siuan..." her lover finally begged.
At that moment, Siuan moved her lips up, the tip of her tongue swirling around Moiraine's hard nub, as she thrust two fingers inside of her. Moiraine cried out as she came, her entire body surging forward. Siuan rode out the convulsion, her mouth and fingers still working until she felt another shudder run through the other woman's body.
She finally looked up then, to see Moiraine with her eyes closed, still breathing heavily but with a smile beginning to appear on her lips. A smile of her own formed as she slid up the other woman's body, trailing a line of kisses over her stomach and chest and neck. Moiraine finally forced her eyes open, sliding tired arms around her and they kissed, their tongues tangling lazily around each other. Once they parted, Siuan rested her head against Moiraine's chest, waiting for her heartbeat to slow. But her hands were still busy, restlessly moving over sweat-soaked skin until Moiraine gave another low, melodious laugh, and stopped her by clasping her hand over hers. Then those hands moved down, falling on to her hips, and Siuan was guided into straddling her lover's thigh. She began to rub herself backwards and forwards, settling into a rhythm, her heated gaze meeting the other woman's heavily-lidded eyes.
Moiraine suddenly sat up, pulling her closer, urging Siuan to wrap her legs around her waist. She felt the other woman slide her fingers down between her legs, tracing slow, exploratory circles, and Siuan growled in frustration. "Burn you, Moiraine... I need you to make me come..."
But Moiraine only smiled, leaning close so that their foreheads touched, until they shared the same breath. "Slowly, Siuan. We've got all night." Then Moiraine wrapped her arms around her, enfolding her in a hug, and Siuan swallowed hard at the feel of her lover's naked body pressed against hers. More words were whispered into her ear. "And I don't want tonight to end."
The sun was already high in the sky when Siuan awoke. She had been the last to fall asleep when the day was dawning grey through her windows, watching over Moiraine as the other woman slept in her arms. She hoped Moiraine would have still been there when she woke up, that they could have made love one last time. But there was a part of her that knew their long goodbye would have turned to tears if Moiraine had stayed, and neither of them could bear that.
Still, she couldn't help hoping. Pulling a robe around herself, she left her rooms. Moiraine's door was ajar, and she cracked it open further. But the room was empty; the servants had already moved everything away. All that remained was the hint of rose-scented soap in the air.
Siuan closed the door behind her.