It was late afternoon by the time Nynaeve noticed the chill in the air, and she didn't notice it until she felt Lan's hands dropping a shawl over her shoulders. She looked down at the dress which had once been golden and was now a sooty chestnut brown. Idly, she remembered the lacy shawl which that unearthly wind had sucked outside the Pattern, into the very face of the Dark One, only a few hours before. It seemed like centuries ago when she had had to consider how to dress for walking into the Pit of Doom. She'd had no idea of how hot or cold it would be.
The shawl had seemed so practical.
What happened to it? she found her tired mind wondering. Does it still exist? Is it laying gently atop some part of the Pattern—smothering it? Warming it? Is the Dark One nesting his filth in it? Is it an irritant, a persistent itch he won't be able to scratch in all the millennia until the Bore is opened again?
And now it was Lan's arms around her that made her realize she was crying. "Shhh," he whispered, "they knew the cost. And paid it willingly."
He was talking about something else entirely, of course. But Nynaeve supposed he was right—that, deep down, she was crying over Egwene's lost life. And Rand's, which was slowly ebbing away on the pallet in the middle of this sprawling tent, where he lay preternaturally still a few feet from the restless shape of the man who was called Moridin. But Rand had called him Elan Morin Tedronai, and that had taken Nynaeve's breath away, though she'd stifled it after a cool glance from Moiraine. That woman. Unbearably poised in the Pit of Doom itself.
Nynaeve sighed at herself now, knowing—Light, but she hated admitting it—that Moiraine had saved her life a few hours before, dragging her out of the Pit. Had saved it when, years ago, she'd made provisions for Lan in the event of her own death. That memory got Nynaeve's blood heating up again, in the endless whirl of distractions her brain was offering her. If I were to tell her what Myrelle did, she'd look at me with that relentlessly serene expression, and—
Nynaeve's tears flowed faster, remembering the most recent list of the Aes Sedai who'd been killed at Tarmon Gai'don. The Greens had suffered the heaviest casualties. No surprise that Myrelle's name had been on that list.
Moiraine had seen that list, too, and there had been a name on it that had shaken even her cool composure. Something Nynaeve had never thought she'd see: hands flying to her porcelain doll face, stricken eyes flying to Thom Merillin, as Siuan Sanche's name had flown across her lips.
Nynaeve couldn't bear that memory, those stricken eyes—she needed Moiraine's serenity, the Light burn her—that list. She especially couldn't bear that.
There was serenity in both of these bodies, too, a serenity almost flagrant, as though the one were simply floating back to life, not clawing for it, and the other embracing a welcome descent into oblivion.
But there would be a difference soon. Ishamael would wake to face stilling and execution. And Rand… Nynaeve felt her fingers stroking around the rings on her fingers compulsively. Rand would fade away in his sleep.
"My shawl," she whispered into Lan's shoulder now, seizing upon the one loss she could bear to discuss, "it just flew into the abyss…" He pulled her head roughly to his chest.
"Sometime we'll have to tell each other what we saw at Tarmon Gai'don," he murmured. She shuddered into him. She knew he'd almost died—she'd felt it—and she wasn't ready to face hearing about it in any detail. "Sometime," he repeated.
There was a rustling nearby. The Maidens outside had allowed so many people to come and go from this tent—rulers of every land, Aes Sedai of every Ajah, Asha'man and Sea Folk and clan chiefs and Wise Ones and Galad Damodred, in full Whitecloak regalia and looking as sorrowful as she'd ever seen him as he, one-armed and much the worse for wear, knelt at the side of the man he'd called brother. There'd been so many that Nynaeve barely looked up at the sound, this time. But Lan swung swiftly between her and the tent entrance, his characteristic swift grace belying the deep weariness she could feel emanating from him dully and persistently, like a heartbeat coming from a seashell. He relaxed only slightly when he saw the men who entered.
"Agelmar," he touched the hilt of his sword and his heart in reflexive greeting. "If you've come to see about the Lord Dragon—"
"No, no," the great captain murmured. "I've come for other reasons." His gaze flickered to Nynaeve, seeming to rest on the ki'sain, smudged but still vividly red, in the center of her forehead. "An honor to meet you again in this life, my Lady Aes Sedai," he nodded.
"The Light favor your House and peace your sword, Lord Jagad," she returned with equal formality. "Did you come about the Compulsion weaves?" Ituralde had already been by, wanting her to Delve him for remaining traces of Compulsion before he swore his oath as King of Arad Doman. "I'm afraid I have to tell you what I told King Rodel. What remains of my strength must be reserved for Rand—for the Dragon Reborn. I'm sure you can understand—"
"Of course, of course, my lady. One of the Kinswomen—Sumeko, I think she said her name was—looked into it already, in any case. No, I simply wanted to meet you again. This time, as the woman who caught Lan Mandragoran." A smile flickered across his mouth, now. "Never thought we'd see the day. A Warder is a confirmed bachelor with an Aes Sedai for a wife, as they say, and you, Dai Shan, were already married to your duty to Malkier, besides. 'Two wives, and no hope of grandchildren,' Amalisa said last time she saw you. She'd hoped for your mother's sake—they were friends, you remember—that you'd marry, have children, start training younger men to take up some of the burden of warfare… but she thought you'd had your fill of romance in your youth, and that you'd rather die fighting." He turned to Nynaeve, an outright twinkle in his eyes, now. "You've never seen such a fight as there was to be your husband's carneira, my Lady—"
A choked sound from Lan interrupted that train of thought. "Carneira?" Nynaeve asked curiously, her eyes narrowing.
"Ancient history," he said, shooting a blue look of warning Jagad's way. "So you came to reacquaint yourself with my wife. I have to ask you to wait until tomorrow. The Lord Dragon is," Lan struggled for the words, "about to feel the last embrace of the mother." He let his eyes, blue but more sad than cold for the first time in as long as his friend could remember, fall to the red-haired man on the pallet. "In any case, my wife has been through an ordeal—"
"Your wife," Agelmar interrupted gently, but firmly, "has added considerably to your own stature in the minds of the Shienaren people, Dai Shan. Rumors fly on every tongue—she cleansed the taint from saidin, she battled Forsaken as a hobby and went with the Lord Dragon into the Pit of Doom where she gave the Dark One a piece of her mind. She travelled—some say on a flying horse, mind you—from World's End to Tarwin's Gap to rouse the last of the Malkieri to arms. Why, I heard a man claim that you were the Lord Dragon's wet nurse and that he'd suckled from your teat as a babe."
"Suckled from my…!" Nynaeve's hands were disciplined to not having a braid to tug, but she could still clench her skirts in her fists. "I was six years old when Tam and Kari al'Thor came home with a newborn!"
"Hush, now, I didn't say I believed all of that," he said soothingly, as Nynaeve muttered on about only wanting white hair, not having it yet, angrily wiping the tear trails from her cheeks. He turned back to Lan. "And you. You've been a legend since shortly after you were born, and I think even you don't know how hard a burden that is to bear. A Blademaster from just after you were allowed to wear the hadori, your first campaign into the Blight only a few months after that. People still tell stories of the time you killed that Draghkar with only a piece of rope and your two hands. No one but fools would fight you from before the time you could grow a decent beard." Agelmar paused significantly. "Added to the mystique surrounding your journeys with Moiraine Sedai, when you found the Dragon, and carried him out into the world to meet his fate—just lately, you raised the Golden Crane, saved the Borderland army—from me—and severed Demandred's head from his body."
Nynaeve was standing still, but at that, she somehow managed to stumble. "You—you… what?"
"We dueled," Lan said briefly. There was a satisfied set to his jaw when he concluded his story only by saying, "I won."
"And that was when I felt—"
He grabbed her hand tightly in his, feeling some of the same fear again now. "Yes." She looked at him a long time, let the retrospective fear course through her as she imagined him challenging one the strongest channelers who'd ever lived to a duel, and then squared her shoulders and returned his tight squeeze.
Pride in each other flowed through their bond, and it showed a little in their expressions as Lan turned back to his old mentor. He tried, and failed, to keep the question out of his tone. "My wife is a woman of courage, honor, beauty, and ferocity. No man has been better favored in his bride than I have."
"So I have surmised." Agelmar let out a breath. "You know that King Easar met his end on the heights. Caught between two Myrdraal, and he took out one as he was hit and the other as he lay dying."
Lan had heard this news, and had set it aside among the many things he would mourn in the coming days. "A glorious death," he said now. "Shienar can celebrate with pride."
"His son was killed in the same melee. His daughter died three months ago, of fever. His granddaughter returned to Fal Moran—for her husband's battle medals, of all foolish things—just after we burned it, fleeing Tarwin's Gap." He swallowed. "No one's heard from her since."
In her hand, in her head, Nynaeve felt Lan tense. "So I am speaking to the next King of Shienar," he murmured.
Agelmar shook his head. "I cannot. I could never trust myself after what I…"
Nynaeve interrupted, exasperation evident in her voice. "It was Compulsion. It could have happened to anyone, and everyone who knows the weave and might use it against you is dead. You have nothing to fear anymore, you—you…" She sighed. "Lord Agelmar," she finished, almost gently.
He looked at her sadly. "I am an old man, Nynaeve Sedai. I had already reached my 21st name day when your husband's father, Akir, arrived to apprentice under me at Fal Dara." Nynaeve's brows lifted at that; Borderlanders sent their sons to be apprenticed at a very young age—sometimes as young as eight or nine. Lan himself was near enough twice her age… and his father that much older again… that made Agelmar… she drew in a breath. He wasn't young, even in Aes Sedai terms. Though he looked a fair bit younger, he wouldn't have been called young standing beside Cenn Buie, either.
"In Shienar, our great cities are ash. Our population is severely depleted. Our spirits are… low, or they will be, when the gratitude over our victory ebbs away and we begin to count the lost and the dead. But we see Malkier." There was a note of wonder in his voice on that last word. "The mother of the Borderlands, the land which, even if by other names, stood against Shayol Ghul in the long centuries since the Breaking, and rose again to thrust its sword into the heart of the Dark at the end of the Age. The hope of all the Northern peoples. Malkier rises from its own ashes, and beckons us all to do the same. And we see her king as a boy we raised, who is one of us. As we are… as we would be one with him." He paused. "I've spoken to the Seats of House Shinowa and House Ruvin, House Abo and House Genshu. The Great Houses of Shienar. We would like to become a part of the dream that is Malkier." He dropped to his knee. "On behalf of my countrywomen and countrymen and under the Light, I pledge to you, al'Lan Mandragoran and el'Nynaeve Mandragoran, our lands, our swords, and our honor. We were born Shienaran, but we will die in the Shienar provinces of Malkier. As Malkieri. Our hope of salvation—more salvation than we have already had—and rebirth, rest upon it."
There was a long silence in which the only sound was the quiet rasp of breath rattling in Elan Morin Tedronai's throat a few feet away. Nynaeve moved swiftly to bend down beside Rand, where she spent the time it took her to confirm that nothing about Rand's condition had changed composing herself. Lan also felt stunned, in the back of her head, and she suspected his eyes were bright, but when he spoke, his voice was level. "We accept your pledge. Rise, Agelmar Jagad, of House Jagad, in Malkier."
Agelmar rose, and bowed slightly again, as he did. "There are a few minor matters to see to."
Nynaeve was smoothing Rand's shirt over his chest, pressing the back of her hand over his forehead to feel his temperature. "Yes, and one of them is the law. Does not the Peace of the Dragon," she nodded at the man lying on the pallet beneath her hands, "freeze the borders on the map? Is what you've just done a breach of the peace?"
Agelmar shook a quick negative. "The Dragon's Peace forbids conquest, not voluntary association."
Lan frowned at Agelmar's explanation. "And moreover," he said, "Malkier isn't a signatory to it. Something I'll have to see to, it seems."
"Yes, Your Highness," the title fell easily from Agelmar's tongue, "there has been some concern about that, and it was one of the reasons I thought it best not to delay coming to you. Best to sign the Peace as soon as possible to prevent… unrest. But first, as a matter of decorum, I think you ought to allow yourselves to be officially coroneted. As soon as possible."
Nynaeve shook her head. Coroneted! She tried to imagine what her father would say if he had lived to see this. Light! "I can't leave Rand. Not tonight. Not until…" She wouldn't finish. "I can't abandon another of them, Lan," she whispered.
"I know, my love. We'll be there for him—but this new Age doesn't seem to want to wait for us to be ready." He looked around the small space meditatively, then gave a sharp nod. "It will have to be here, then. It is well enough. There have been less auspicious places from which a nation might rise."
Agelmar nodded. "I'll summon your Great Lords, your Highness, to cast the rods. A formality." Lan nodded, and Agelmar left almost as suddenly as he had come. Only world maps needed to be redrawn because of the few minutes in the interim.
Nynaeve was reeling. "Your… Great Lords?" she asked.
Lan nodded. "At any given time, a Malkieri King has five Great Lords," he explained. "They're counselors to the King. Rods are cast to elect a new King when one dies without a successor. Each Great Lord has five rods, which they may distribute as they choose. A simple majority—thirteen—are needed to be elected."
"Right. I remember—your uncle…"
"Yes," Lan said grimly. "But not this time. We need a Crowning Stone. I think I saw something outside that might work…" Nynaeve gaped at him.
"You're going to pull a rock from the heart of Shayol Ghul—from the Pit of Doom itself—to be a symbol of our country?"
She thought that Lan smiled at least partly because of the words "our country" and how easily she uttered them. And though the light in the tent was purposefully dim, she could suddenly see a light in his eyes, a sustained light, that she hadn't seen since before Moiraine died. She thanked the Light for that glow.
"It's not the Pit of anything anymore, my heart. It's the site of the salvation of everything that's ever lived. Just a little cave that has seen blood nobly shed in the cause of honor." He bent and pressed his lips briefly to her forehead. "You stay with the sheepherder. I'll ask the Maidens if they can find you a suitable change of clothes. Mundane, I know, but…"
Nynaeve squeezed her eyes shut. When she had begun this day a thousand years ago, it had been to seek clothes to wear in which she could help usher in the salvation or the doom of the whole world. And now, before she slept, she'd wear the clothes in which she'd become a queen. This day… she knew that outside the Pit of Doom, the day had actually stretched on for weeks. How could time contain this day?
Lan paused in the doorway. "I had five battle advisors, not of my choosing, at Tarwin's Gap and at Merrilor, and although I didn't think of the significance of the number, I suspect that they did… My Great Lords. Don't be surprised in Prince Kaisel comes by, and wants to negotiate joining Kandor to Malkier, at least until he's of age. At this rate, the Arafellin may join us, as well." He let out a short bark of laughter that echoed roughly in this place. "And we'll certainly spread northward as far as here, even above Shayol Ghul now that the Blight is receding…
Before any of that had a chance to settle in Nynaeve's mind, Perrin appeared in front of her—as though he'd Travelled, but without the One Power—with Faile clutched tightly in his arms.
"How did you—"
But Perrin cut her off. "Please, Nynaeve," was all he said. "Faile." Nynaeve's hands were already at Faile's temples from the moment she heard the word "please." When Perrin felt Faile's heartbeat steady and quicken, he swayed on his feet, and she thought he might fall down where he stood.
At least my Healing helped someone today, she thought tiredly. She noted idly that Moridin's left hand was clenching and unclenching reflexively. It wouldn't be long, she thought, before he woke up.
Less than an hour later, Lan affixed his name to the Treaty of Merrilor, and he and Nynaeve knelt before his five Great Lords and affirmed the oath of Malkieri kings and queens. For Lan, it was merely the intonation of a promise which had been carved into his bones before he could speak any words at all, and which he'd spent his life struggling to uphold. "I, Lan Mandragoran, swear under the Light and by my hope of rebirth and salvation that I will stand against the Shadow so long as iron is hard and stone abides—that I will defend the Malkieri while one drop of blood remains—and that I will avenge what cannot be defended."
He saw Nynaeve wipe away a tear—and dart a look into his eyes, curiously—as she whispered, "so long as iron is hard…" and Agelmar lower his head as he heard "one drop of blood" and Kaisel's hand reach for his sword at the word "avenge." And perhaps Nynaeve saw that last, too, saw it and felt as chilled by it as he did, because she added her own oaths without prompting: "I swear that I will prosecute with mercy where I can and force only where I must. I pledge my life to the Light and to Malkier," and as Lan reached for her hand and echoed her words, he saw Moridin's hand move to clutch his side. Yes. Let our oaths be a sword in your belly, Darkfriend.
Strange, but the man didn't look like a Darkfriend, somehow. There was a tranquility about him, an aura that said he had earned the peacefulness of his slumber through good works.
Lan discarded the thought. He had lived long enough to know that appearances could lie.
The assemblage gathered in witness was strange; Damer Flinn, standing between the al'Thor and Moridin to keep guard and watch at once. Tam al'Thor, a copy of The Travels of Jain Farstrider in his lap in a small chair at Rand's bedside. Cadsuane Sedai, her ter'angreal wells sagging oddly into her hair, her arms folded across her chest as though protecting herself against sudden buffets of fate gusting around her, and warning that she was about to reciprocate. Perrin sitting beside Faile, who'd yet to fully regain consciousness, on a pallet he'd dragged in and placed on the far side of Rand. Bran and Marin al'Vere, who seemed to have appointed themselves Nynaeve's surrogate parents in the hours since she'd been the one to tell them that their daughter's life had ended on the Field of Merrilor.
Though Marin's eyes were red from weeping, she told Nynaeve that they wouldn't miss her coronation as they'd missed her wedding. It was strange, Marin told Nynaeve, to think that they had all danced together at Egwene and Gawyn's only a few weeks before, and he saw Nynaeve swallow and close her eyes, and knew that she could hardly bear the thought.
Elayne, Min, and Aviendha came together, with Alivia in tow, a while after the coronation. They told Nynaeve that they would sit with Rand through the afternoon. Lost in her own grief, Nynaeve didn't notice that only Elayne's face as blotched from crying—she'd been making Gawyn's funeral plans in conjunction with Egwene's, she explained, and let Nynaeve hold her awhile because of it. But Lan noticed the small smile that Aviendha and Min exchanged as they ducked into the tent. And he thought about Moridin's aura of serenity, and how he'd reached for his side as if by reflex, and when Elayne ordered Elan Morin Tedronai's body out of the tent he was sharing with Rand's, he began to wonder…
He kept his thoughts to himself, as he watched Rand al'Thor's body draw in a last shuddering breath, and then subside into a stillness more permanent, it seemed, than even death—and kept them later, even as he let out the first notes of "The Mother's Welcome" in the assembly around Rand's pyre.
But his own tent, in which somehow there was a real bed to share with the wife he'd not seen in even longer than it had been since he'd last slept, pulled him away from oddities and suspicions. "I should see if I can help the wounded," Nynaeve whispered, but her head was bent in a weariness that bordered on defeat, and Lan shook his head. Perhaps because they were officially in a private place, but more likely because of the exhaustion that had penetrated every joint and organ and muscle of her small body, she agreed without argument, staying still while he unbuttoned her dress, scooped her off her feet, and laid her on the bed.
There, he wrapped his whole body around her, though he left his right arm free to reach for his sword at a moment's notice out of a habit bred into him as much as his need to breathe. There, with her struggling not to weep against his chest and clutching her arms around him as though she feared he might float away, he began to be sure that he was alive—that she was alive—that there would be a tomorrow. In that, their thoughts were running together.
He knew that because, "Lan," she whispered in the semi-darkness, "what shall we do… tomorrow?"
He'd thought about that—thought about the luxury of making plans for tomorrow—as he'd tried to snatch a few hours' sleep here and there on the battlefield, as he let himself dream to stave off the rage that had been slowly consuming him over the last weeks and months and even years. Now, it was easy to think, almost—just almost—easy to say. "Cleanse the Lakes… restore the Seven Towers' glory… re-light the torches on the Wall of First Fires… begin to build the cities of Malkier and Shienar—of Malkieri Shienar—again. Perhaps the Ogier from Stedding Sanshen will do us honor in aiding us at the capital." He buried his face in her hair. "I only want to rebuild Malkier. And to make the Borderlands a place not of war, but of peace—just and lasting." He spoke the words without emphasis, as though they were the simplest truths in the world—as someone might say, I want to learn shoemaking, or, I hope it rains tomorrow. "And you, my dearest one? What are your hopes?"
"Well," she said, "I'd like to Delve each of the Asha'man, remove the last traces of the taint. That's one accomplishment Agelmar Jagad didn't list off as if it's common knowledge," she said with no little satisfaction. Lan smiled into the back of her neck. They were going to have some difficulties with their monarchical obligations and the public scrutiny attached to them, no doubt. He looked forward to hearing her grumble through it.
It had been so long since he'd looked forward to anything. And never like this. There had never been so much future to look forward to, before; he had always been two steps from his grave. If that.
"There are so few…" she broke off, and he could hear the tears in her throat. "There are so few of us left. Aes Sedai, I mean. The Yellow were relatively little at the battlefield and so we fared best, I think. But all of the novices and Accepted who…. who lived… they'll need training, and there are fewer than 200 of us left to do it. I think they might need me to make regular trips to Tar Valon for a while." Lan nodded slowly. That hadn't occurred to him, but of course his wife had an obligation to the future of the White Tower. And though politics was more a curiosity than a habit to him, he reminded himself that it would be in the interest of Malkier, too, to maintain that tie.
"There's… there's one novice, in particular, Lan. Her name is Sharina. I've never met her but I know her from…" Nynaeve hesitated. "Did I ever tell you about my test for the Accepted?"
"I know you were raised as soon as you arrived," he said, a note of pride in his voice, a hint of caution.
She nodded. "I'd just left you—remember—at Fal Dara. You'd given me your ring…" He felt rather than saw her reach for the chain at her throat, but of course, the ring wasn't there, anymore. She'd slid the ring of Malkieri kings back onto his finger at the coronation. He'd have to have a ring made for his wife, though. For her peace of mind, and for his. That custom she'd mentioned of ring exchange among married couples in the Two Rivers… he hadn't seen anyone else observe it, but he could see its usefulness in manifesting his claim on her. The White Tower had made one such claim in the form of the Great Serpent; so the Golden Crane would make another, just as permanent, just as visible.
He thought now with some small shock of the hopelessness, vast and certain, that he'd felt when he'd given her his ring in the first place. His only hope had been that it might offer her some protection—not that he would live to offer it himself. "Yes, I remember," was all he said.
"The test… I'm sorry, this is difficult. It's not only that it's a Tower secret, but that it was one of the hardest moments of my life. But my first loyalty…" She swallowed, unable to speak the words—the Oaths, undoubtedly. He knew perfectly well that the White Tower would be competing with him and Malkier for her loyalty as long as he lived, so he stroked her hair and waited. "The test uses a ter'angreal. Three rings. You walk through each ring and you enter… another world. One as real as the one around us in every respect. You're yourself, but you can remember a set of different memories, ones true to that world… but you can only remember them faintly. The test is to show fidelity to the Tower. To turn away from the temptations of those realities and to return. In the first two rings, I saw my friends tortured, Emond's Field overrun by Trollocs, Rand going mad, and they all needed me… and I walked away. But the third test—and the third is the most difficult, Lan—in the third test, I confronted you."
"Me? What, and I was… being held captive by Darkhounds?" His voice was teasing, trying to combat her sudden despondence.
She turned in his arms and burrowed herself as far into his chest as she could get. He clutched her close. "Tell me, my love. Let it go."
So she told him—about the field, and the flowers, and how he'd laughed that great laugh of his which she'd never heard before that moment, but had later proved to be exactly right. And how he'd kissed her, there, in another universe, for the first time. About their son Maric, which she hadn't known when she stepped into the ring was his paternal grandfather's name, and their daughter Elnore, and the small babe that she'd known inside the world of the silver ring was a boy. About Sharina Sedai, and the day two years later when she'd heard the name of Sharina Melloy was written into the Book of Novices, and could already picture her face.
"It's faded," she said, and her voice came from against his neck, "most of it, but not the sound of you telling me," she choked, "that you'd tried to be g-good husband and… and… b-begging me to… s-s-stay." She gasped to hold in the tears. It wasn't the memory of his cries; it was the specter of the man she loved, in another world, searching for her for the rest of his days and unable to find her.
And Lan suddenly understood. "You think you left me."
She was crying in earnest, now. "I swear you were as real there as you are here. Maybe it was another you, another universe that never happened… but you were real, and I left you alone."
"I wasn't real there, Nynaeve." He lifted her chin to look into her eyes in the dark. "I can prove it."
She blinked. "How?"
"There was no Last Battle there, was there?"
She frowned, then shook her head slowly. "No. I don't think so."
"Malkier owes its life to the Last Battle. To the women and men who died to reclaim the world from the Shadow. Without those sacrifices, there is no Malkier. And in that world, we didn't make them." He pressed his lips to hers, tenderly. "So it wasn't real, because we hadn't fought to make it real. And that man might have had my face and might even have loved you like I do, but it wasn't me. I was riding southward with Moiraine, dreaming of you, and stubbornly wishing I could quit having that dream."
Nynaeve took in a deep breath, let it out. He could tell she didn't fully believe it, but she was no longer crying, either. "Well. It doesn't matter exactly how real that world was, and how much of it we might get to live in this one, because… you asked what my plans were—and that is my plan. For… after. That field is the goal. Nearby it, good children we've raised, a just society we've built for an honorable people of whom we're proud to be a part. You and I, together in a field of flowers in that Malkier. That is my plan."
"And I claim it as mine," he murmured, rolling onto his back, and pulling her down onto his left shoulder. His mind was using its training, quietly working on multiple problems at once. Could they trust the young Borderlander guards he'd tapped to stand outside? He was tripping over young men pledging their lives to Malkier on bent knee, but surely they couldn't all be trustworthy. The wind was coming from the north tonight, and that meant in case of a fire, the tent was opening in the wrong direction, so he quickly determined where he would cut their way out. He needed to appoint stewards for Kandor until such time as Prince Kaisel was allowed to rule there, and meet with Faile and Perrin to work out the border problems between Kandor and Saldaea that had only been footnotes when there was a Blight to worry about. And, too, his brain was soaking in all it could perceive about Nynaeve… she smelled like herself, though neither of them had had time or energy for a full bath. Through the stench of battle, which his nose had come to accept as normal, she had him thinking of the woods outside Fal Dara on a summer morning in his youth, replete with crape alder blossoms and pine sap and clear water. He raised only one of his thoughts. "We should meet this Sharina Melloy while she's still a novice and see if we can't impress her while she's young—if she's to be our Aes Sedai advisor. Although Light knows we won't get much choice about it, in any case."
"We get as much choice as we need," Nynaeve murmured a reflexive rebuke on behalf of the White Tower, "and I think you'll be surprised by her age." She murmured something that sounded like "though she's getting younger every day," but that was nonsense, and reinforced the his sense from the bond that she was right on the edge of sleep. "Lan?" she asked, and he felt her alertness dramatically shift, though her voice was still tired. "Are you going to want to command in public, now?"
Weary as he was, here at the end of the hardest-fought battle in perhaps the whole history of humankind, he had to stifle a laugh.
"You can't hide anxiousness behind even that much exhaustion, Nynaeve. Not from your Warder."
"It would make sense," she said, more stiffly, "if we switched. Our vows allow…"
"We'll work it out from day to day," he said gently, suspecting that there might still be days when she needed a Warder more than Malkier needed its king, and days, too, when Malkier needed its queen's many talents more than his own. "But after all," his tone lowered provocatively, "commanding in private has its advantages. Unless you've forgotten?"
Nynaeve blushed and scowled at the same time, a specialty of hers, but Lan realized it in the darkness only because of a combination of how well he knew his wife and how close he was to her face. He felt her fingers move to trace above his ear, where he felt the absence of the hadori he'd traded for a crown this afternoon still more keenly as he remembered that his wife enjoyed tugging on it in their more intimate moments. "I've forgotten?" she protested. "You haven't spent a night in the same country as me since I left you at World's End, and nonetheless you're just lying here talking—"
He cut her off in the most effective and time-honored way possible—with his mouth. He felt something spark in his blood, a jolt of pure… what was that? Was that joy? Lan wasn't sure he'd ever known joy. And then it was joined by hope and relief and gratitude, all shooting like comets through the sludge of his weariness and grief. When he raised his lips, it was only to do as she'd asked. "Your husband directs you to take off your shift—el'Nynaeve, Queen of Malkier."
The new queen blushed again, but hastened to obey. And before too long—as always—she was giving some commands of her own.
They slept for longer than either had in weeks, and emerged from their tent early, just before the first dawn of the Fourth Age. Nynaeve's eyes were sad but dry and steady, and Lan's were cool, but no one who'd seen him before would have called them cold. His hand rested lightly on the sword that had once been his father's. Whatever the weight of his duty, now, it felt lighter than it ever had and he was eager to be about the business of fulfilling it.