Gah! I looked about some more around Book Ideas/Talk/Previews and found out you're NirvanaSword/PhantasmagoricBlade on FF.Net... I'm disappointed to hear your "Rand is gentled early on" story was stopped, but now I just want more of this story! :sisi:
___________ How does the new name sound?
Beyond Void and Solace
Chapter 2 û Infiltration
________________________________________ ôàAlÆThor was always a blunt instrument, if there ever was one. Always the cudgel, never the knife in the dark I wanted him to be. But there is some amount of cleverness to be had in bluntness, I suppose, as he has demonstrated many timesàö
-excerpt from a conversation held between a rather vexed Queen Morgase of Andor and her Captain-General, Gareth Bryne, after a particularly audacious stunt pulled by Rand AlÆThor.
________________________________________ One month laterà
ôNow, for my latest trick!ö Rand let a jaw aching smile slip onto his lips as he stared at the crowd. ôI will require the assistance of one particularly courageous lassàhow about you, fair lady?ö Rand inquired, taking the hand of one pretty dark haired girl, who blushed prettily as he got down on one knee and stared deep into her eyes. ôWould you spare this simple performer a scanty trifle and help me in my next feat of daring and accuracy?ö
ôOh, Lightàeràme?ö She stuttered, feeling rather shy as most of the crowd start urging her on. Another girl, a friend of hers perhaps, nudged the girl forward a bit. ôAl-alright, then.ö She replied timidly, and stepped forward.
ôMarvelous!ö Rand roared, along with most of the crowd. The bells tied to RandÆs lincoln green coat jingled as he led her forward to sit on the stool he used. ôAnd perhaps this lovely damsel with spare us her nameà?ö He asked.
ôJille.ö She murmured, so quietly Rand almost didnÆt catch it.
ôAnd what a pretty name it is.ö Rand said, flashing a smile. Jille ducked her head, her cheeks staining red. ôEveryone! This here is Jille, and she will be assisting me in my next spectacle of flying steel!ö Rand held up one knife, and an apple. He peeled a thin slice of skin off the apple. ôAs you can see here, the knife is quite sharp, and the apple, rather small, wouldnÆt you say?ö RandÆs voice was low and mysterious.
There were mutters of agreement among the crowd. Rand smiled wide and went on.
ôThis apple, will sit right here-!ö Rand gently straightened the girls back, and balanced the apple quickly. Cries of disbelief and encouragement rose up. ôThen, I shall stand, rightàö Rand took a multitude of wide, exaggerated steps away, the crowd parting easily for him. ôHere!ö He finished. He took a brief glance at the apple. It was no bigger than the GuardÆs throat had been, about the size of a childÆs marble.
ôOn three, my good people! Oneàö Rand started them off.
ôTwooooooo!ö The crowd caught on. Jille was scrunching her eyes shut tight and trying not to tremble. Smart girlà
ôThree!ö Came the thunderous roar, muting the thud of a knife hitting apple flesh and the splat as it hit the ground.
There was tumultuous applause, Rand helped the shaking girl off of the stool, and retrieved his knife from the apple, smashed on the street cobblestones.
A bit of a true grin stretched his face as waved the collection hat around, and people threw multitude of coins in. Rand even saw a flash a silver every once and then.
When the coins ceased, he sighed dramatically. ôMy people, it is with great sorrowàthat I must take a break.ö There was widespread boos and sounds of disappointment. ôTruly, I am sorry, but even a simple performer such as myself must warm his bones and fill his stomach every once in a while. Matrim the Magnificent will be back tomorrow, I assure you.ö
The crowd started dispersing quickly, as Rand picked up his stool and mostly depleted bag of apples, and headed inside the Black Stallion Inn, which bore a picture of a man on a black horse, with a letter in his hand.
Inside, was a generally well-natured crowd, as was to be expected from an Inner City tavern. NobleÆs armsmen would sometimes frequent these places, even the nobles themselves on rare occasion. The atmosphere was light hearted and easy, fit for men just taking time off.
Rand spotted the owner of the inn, Mistress Dowel, a heavyset if cheerful woman, with her hair in a bun. ôGood Mistress!ö Rand called, and the woman turned from the table she was clearing. ôMy pay for tonight.ö He picked the correct coins from his hat and offered them.
She looked at them and flapped and hand, giggling. ôOh, dearie, you can keep them. My inn hasnÆt this busy in I donÆt know how long. Your act outside really helps business, Matrim, and I couldnÆt possibly take that from you when IÆm makinÆ twice as much inside.ö
Rand touched his scalp and made an elaborate bow. ôYour generosity is surpassed only by your beauty, my good woman.ö He drawled, and Mistress Dowel laughed. ôI will go change, I think, take a day in the city, but worry not! For I shall be back for your superb roast mutton before the night is up!ö
ôOh, go on, you cheeky boy. Have a good time.ö She giggled.
Rand let his smile drop when he closed the door to his room. He stripped off the coat û bloody fool thing, it was û and grabbed a clean tunic from his bag, pulling it over the many leather knots and ties holding his knives in place.
He had arrived in Cairhien barely a week ago, having nearly rode his horse to death getting here quickly. He knew his own limits, and he was no master thief. He would need as much time as possible if he wanted to get that scepter.
He had done a bit of scouting. He had taken a few days watching DamodredÆs manor, and seen lots of people going in and out, more than usual for even a wealthy noble house such as Damodred. Cooks, decorators, furnishers. He watched several servants walk out and buy several large pheasants and made a guess.
Barthanes was having a party. Rand had been pleasantly surprised.
He went over his options. He could try to go as a guest, except the only people Lord Damodred would be inviting would likely be lords and nobles, and Rand knew that to be a guest, he would have to provide a background, which went against his objectives. He could, of course, make one up, but Rand also did not believe he could scrounge up believable retainers in that short amount of time.
Servant was out of the equation, since there were plenty of trained servants, trusted servants, enough that Lord Damodred would not need one more.
So that only left a person who would be providing a service for the party. Rand couldnÆt cook more than army gruel and basic roast on a spit, he didnÆt know that many stories, and wasnÆt the most acrobatic of fellows. So that only leftàentertainment.
Knife throwing is fairly uncommon. Rand mused. IÆve only seen two or three acts in Cairhien that were halfway decent, and I can buy them off if they get picked instead of me.
Rand had picked this inn for a reason. He had seen a good deal of DamodredÆs armsmen take their breaks here. If he preformed outside enough times, it wouldnÆt seem like he was purposefully trying to get into the party, but would still be close enough for the armsmen to notice him.
Rand shrugged on his coat, and grabbed his cloak from the coat stand, and pulled it on and settled it around his shoulders.
He then buckled on his sword belt, sliding his heron marked sword in the plain unmarked wooden sheath.
ItÆs only a matter of time. Rand assured himself, as he stumped down the stairs and out of the inn. He quickly became lost in the sea of similar common garb. He needed to buy more apples.
And two days later, his suspicions were proved correct.
ôYour act was impressive. YouÆre a very skilled fellow.ö
Rand put on a smile and turned, to see a single man, wearing dark green livery bearing the Damodred crest and colors, the Crown and Tree. The rest of the crowd was dispersing after his last grand trick, where he had hit an apple that a particularly wool-headed young man had agreed to hold between his teeth.
ôThank youàmy good fellow.ö Rand nearly slipped, his excitement nearly making him forget his grandstanding act. He schooled his face, and offered forth his hand. ôAnd who might you be?ö
The servant didnÆt answer. Instead, he offered forth a small pouch, which Rand took and opened. Ten silver crowns.
ôThe Lord Damodred would like to formally invite you, Matrim the Magnificent, to perform your act at his party come tomorrow night. You would receive thrice that amount there, and a chance to see the inside of the home of the most ancient and noble House in Cairhien.ö The servant obviously had this rehearsed well.
Rand pushed a look of surprise on his face, before bowing deeply. ôSay no more, my good man. I shall be there without fail, and it will be my honor to present my modest skills before the most noble and ancient House of Damodred.ö
The servantÆs mouth twitched, ever so slightly, in annoyance at the excess of flowery speech. ôThe House of Damodred thanks you, and looks forward to seeing you soon.ö He replied dourly, before turning and leaving promptly.
Rand watched his retreating back. He hefted the small pouch, and grinned.
Barthanes's manor was a toad in the dark, sprawling over like a fortress. The tall windows and lights coming from them, however, shattered that illusion.
Rand arrived early as he dared, waiting for several other performers to show first before walking up to the large, burly fellow with a shaven head that stood at the door the appointment book. He looked for all the world a ruffian who had been forced into green livery.
He looked up briefly, his eyes taking in Rand's sequined green coat, with bells hanging from every which where. "Entertainer, then." He grunted. "Name?"
"Matrim the Magnificent." Rand lied smoothly, silently burning with indignation on the inside. If this fool could be a servant, then he wouldn't have had to prance around like a fool for the last ten days!
The great lout scanned his list briefly. He nodded suddenly. "Right, tha' way. You've got the announcement hall. Pick a corner and set up."
As it turned out, 'tha' way', happened to the servant entrance. Rand kept his eyes open through the halls, but he doubted that Barthanes would leave the scepter in the kitchens. He made a note of several possible escape routes, however, if things went bottom-over-teakettle and he needed to make a speedy exit.
From there, he made his way through a labyrinth of servant tunnels, asking for directions several times, before he pushed open a set of doors to the announcement hall.
There were liveried servants bustling about, setting up tables and bowls of punch. The floor was white marble, and Rand could see several servants moving off with other tables and punches, suggesting the presence of other party rooms. He glanced around. Plenty of coat of arms hung on the walls, along with several tapestries bearing the Charging Boar, Barthanes's personal sigil, but nothing looking like a scepter.
That leaves either a trophy room, or some vault or safe. Rand considered briefly. More likely the former. Nobles like to look at their valuables.
He set himself up in one of the corners diagonal to the great white staircase, which the entering guests would be announced upon, and started setting up several targets for himself, trying to come up with an excuse to tour the other rooms.
Luckily for him, the excuse came also in the form of an old friend.
Sorry, got to de-walloftext it. It's rather annoying.
"Matrim the Magnificent, eh, boy?" A scratchy, familiar voice spoke up from behind him. Rand nearly dropped his knife in shock before turning slowly around, with a genuine smile on his face.
"Thom Merrilin, you old fool gleeman!" Rand chuckled. "You near well gave me a heart attack!"
Thom spread his arms, grinning, and embraced Rand warmly, thumping him on the back. He let go and stepped back. His moustaches were as long and his patched cloak as colorful as ever. The only visible change was, perhaps, a few more lines on his wrinkled face.
"Imagine me finding you here, of all places, m'boy. Sharing a profession, no less!" Thom grinned, looking positively delighted. "Last I saw you, you were in Saldaea, signing up with the first banner you saw!"
Rand's smile slipped slightly. ôYes, well, as I remember, youÆre the one who suggested that.ö Rand replied quickly, deflecting away from that particular subject. ôAnd youÆre the one who taught me how to throw knives.ö
ôI suppose so, boy, I suppose so. But you were always such a stubborn lad, I guess I shouldnÆt be surprised youÆre following the path of a gleeman. Traveling the world, right?ö
ôàYes, traveling the world. I did learn to play that harp, despite my æclumsy sheepherder fingersÆ.ö Rand ignored the last comment, not really wanting to go into his profession. ôNot as good as you, but, wellàö
ôHah! You, playing a real instrument like the harp? I wonÆt believe it until I see it.ö Thom scoffed. Then he let a smile break through his countenance. He jerked a thumb towards the other rooms. ôIÆm set up in the Treasure Room. Want to see? IÆve got a feeling itÆs something you wonÆt want to miss.ö
Rand blinked. Could Thom know? No. It was highly improbable. ôIÆm sure itÆs impressive. Why not?ö
The old gleeman threw an arm around RandÆs shoulders. ôExcellent, boy! Now, whatÆs Barthanes paying you? I got some odd sixty silver crowns.ö
They passed through a room almost all green. Rand felt a prickle of annoyance. ôForty. It seems IÆve been robbed.ö Rand replied.
ôBah! Forty crowns is nothing to scoff at, mÆboy. I lived in Tear once for nearly a year on forty crowns.ö
ôSo Barthanes is stealing a half-yearÆs pay from me?ö
ôBoy! DonÆt go meddling with any more nobles.ö Thom said sternly. ôLight knows how that turned out last time, and even though the Cairhienians may not be quite as prickly as the Domani bloodborn, theyÆre twice as vicious. And Barthanes is the worst of them. The Damodred family was dealt quite the blow in prestige and funds, what with them being the ones who effectively started the Aiel War, and Barthanes is been plotting for years to get it all back.ö
ôRelax, Thom. IÆll try not to attract too many eyes.ö Rand replied smoothly.
ôYour lips may say no, but your coatàwhere, in the CreatorÆs name, did you acquire this monstrosity?ö Thom gesticulated wildly, indicating RandÆs belled and sequined coat as the culprit of his ire.
ôA Tinker caravan. I learned how to sew, so I could put the bells on.ö Rand answered, amused.
ôBoy, you have a few things to learn about subtlety, thatÆs for certain.ö Thom muttered.
ôI changed my name. That counts, right?ö
ôHardly. Matrim the Magnificent, ha! YouÆd be King of Andor before anyone would consider you to magnificent.ö Thom chuckled. He stopped abruptly, and swept a hand in a wide arc in front of them. ôThis, lad, is magnificence.ö
Looking on, Rand couldnÆt help but agree silently.
The Treasure Room was thin and cylindrical in nature, with a high ceiling and a small glass dome ceiling to let in light. The floor was covered in fine mosaic, and under the domed ceiling, a grand chandelier hung from an iron hook affixed to the frame of the dome. It was very nearly a tower.
And everywhere Rand looked, there was nobility.
Trophies hung from the walls; swords bearing the crests of enemy Houses, great, many pointed stags from some hunt long ago. Rand even saw Trolloc heads, hung proudly above the generous fireplace in a V shape.
There glass cases on the floor, holding jewelry of incalculable value, artifacts from untold time. Rand saw antique suits of armor and reckoned that just one of them would cost likely a hundred golden crowns, at the very least.
ôThe House of Damodred is old, boy. Very, very old.ö Thom rubbed his weathered palms together ôLamanÆs Sin was like a slap in the face of the Aiel, and these fools honor him for it, despite the fact it started the war that decimated the continent. Plenty of
this is just LamanÆs rubbish. You see there? His robe, bloody fool thing it was, all the gold sewn in.ö Thom snorted.
ôI suppose they must near to pray to his throne then, made all out of Avendoraldera as it was?ö Rand replied, smoothly steering his conversation towards where he wanted it to go.
ôThe throne? Ha! Boy, the Aiel burned the bloody thing right in the Palace where it stood, if the stories are to be believed. House Damodred would be praying to nothing but ashes.ö
Rand had been scanning the walls while the gleeman talked. He seized upon one treasure like a hawk, a slow smile spread on his face.
ôThom-ô Rand pointed, just above the V of Trolloc heads. ô-whatÆs that?ö
The scepter was long and thin, capped by gold on each end. The golden top was engraved into the shape of a rose. The neck was smooth and unblemished.
ôHmm? Oh, good eye, lad. That is the Mad KingÆs Scepter. LamanÆs old glory stick while he sat in audience. Brought it everywhere with him, supposedly.ö Thom knuckled his moustaches in amusement. ôBarthanes damn near worships the thing.ö
ôDoes he, now?ö Rand murmured, under his breath. He smiled slowly, unpleasantly, as he gazed on his prize.
Thom saw. He stared downwards at his feet, shifting, before looking back up, straight at Rand. His eyes were hard.
ôàyouÆre not here to entertain, are you, boy?ö Thom asked, quietly. He glanced at the servants.
Rand broke his stare, and turned. ôNot really, no.ö He admitted, as he heard ThomÆs spry footsteps behind him. There was a brief period of silence as they passed through the rooms towards RandÆs corner, which he assumed Thom used to think.
ôYou changed your name, so you obviously donÆt want to be followed.ö Thom muttered finally. ôYou, or whoever sent you. You are working for someone, I assume?ö
ôMore like a debt.ö Rand turned smoothly, finally entering the announcement hall. ôOne that will have rather drastic repercussions on my life should I not pay it off.ö
ôOh, for the love of the Light, Rand.ö Thom sighed wearily. ôWhatÆs the terms?ö
ôOne term. The Mad KingÆs Scepter. I need to get it and get out of this city before the night is up, with as much discretion as can be afforded.ö Rand explained, pretending to straighten his target. ôI plan to use my position as an entertainer to slip away during the end of the party and hide. Naturally, theyÆll assume IÆve left for the night, and after the manor is locked up, IÆll come out, steal the scepter, sneak out of the city, and make haste back to my employer.ö
The gleeman stared at him, an incredulous look on his face. ôAre you insane?ö He asked in a disbelieving tone.
ôAn insane genius, perhaps.ö Rand clarified jokingly, dismissing the doubts like a pesky biteme.
ThomÆs mouth worked, but no sound came out. He finally managed to hinge his jaw back, and stepped closer.
ôYou, boy, obviously have a death wish.ö
ôItÆs a good plan.ö Rand offered, a bit defensive.
ôItÆs an insane plan, that will not work because it is flawed.ö Thom hissed. He sounded serious, so Rand lent him an ear.
ôCompletely, since itÆs based on your assumptions. Barthanes may be vain, but he is no fool. He has everyone in his manor watched carefully. The servants may not seem to be important, but each one of them has keen ears and eyes. Secondly, he has his manor patrolled, in and out, in case of assassins. How many of his handpicked, expertly trained guards could you defeat? One, two? And at the same time?ö Thom took another glance at the servants. ôIÆm warning you, Rand. DonÆt do this. YouÆre a fair hand at hunting and tracking. Lose yourself for a while until whoeverÆs after you for this debt loses interest. But forget your plan, and that scepter. ItÆs impossible to get at.ö
Rand had gone silent, his face hard and seemingly carved from stone as Thom had said this. His lips were a thin line.
ôRand!ö ThomÆs voice was sharp yet quiet, like a whip against stone.
ôFine.ö Rand bit out testily. ôIÆll just enjoy my evening, then.ö
ôSee that you do, Rand.ö Thom replied softly, turning to leave. ôI wouldnÆt want the life I saved to be wasted on some foolishness such as this.ö
The servants that passed afterwards stayed carefully clear of the knife-thrower, who stood still as a statue in front of his target. His gaze seemed fit to bore a hole straight through it and the wall behind it.
The guests arrived one after another. Rand lost count of the titles and lordships announced.
The guests all gathered in small, tight circles. The social levels and distinctions between nobility were clear to see, if one looked hard enough. It was in the clothes and body language, the slightly finer cut in one jacket to the crossed arms warding a person off. Rand made it a personal challenge, trying to guess who was more wealthy and noble than who.
The only reason he had time to do even this was because there was scarcely anyone watching him. Most of the entertainers were nearly ignored. Rand watched in amusement as a juggler tried and failed to interest a couple of minor nobles in his hoop-juggling performance.
Rand shrugged, and threw his wooden target once again, sticking it with two knives in mid-flight, and watching as it thudded to the floor. Perhaps he could sneak off for a goblet of chilled wine; he was rather bored after all.
He surveyed the many twos and threes and fours of nobles with an apathetic gaze. He took particular disdain in the hairstyles of the highborn ladies. Why, in the name of the Light, did they feel the need to stack their hair as high and long as their heads and necks? The Creator knows itÆs not attractive, so are they just competing for the most ridiculous hairdo?
There was a loud rapping of a staff; many eyes flitted to the head of the stairs at once. The announcer (Ashim, or Ashin, or some such name), called out in a loud voice.
ôArriving now, is Lady Caraline of House Damodred, and Lord Toram of House Riatin! Welcome, honored guests, to the House of Damodred.ö
Rand eyed the woman with considerable approval; although short, she was most certainly a dark beauty, with her slim figure and pale skin. And her hair was almost tolerable. Her smile seemed strained slightly, and her body language said she did not really want to be on the arm of the haughty Lord beside her.
That was the first time of the night that Rand laid eyes upon the owner of the manor, the Lord Barthanes Damodred. Being extremely tall for a Carhienien, he came within half a head of RandÆs own height, an impressive feat. He had a way of standing that made him seem even taller.
From the way Barthanes looked at Toram, you would think that he were a dead bird some cat dropped on his doorstep. Rand wasnÆt that surprised, considering that the House of Riatin, which currently held the Sun Throne, was the direct rival of the House of Damodred. The Lord Damodred settled on ignoring him, instead liberating Caraline from the manÆs arm and taking her aside.
Rand watched with amusement as Toram angrily snatched a blown glass goblet of wine from a passing servant. Toram turned, and Rand quickly looked down, shuffling his knives, hoping the man hadnÆt noticed.
It was not to be, as Rand found his gaze of the floor obscured by two fine leather boots. He quickly knuckled his forehead and bowed, as Toram stood imperiously before him.
ôMy lord Riatin.ö Rand murmured, keeping gaze lowered.
Toram was unconvinced. He gestured with one hand, his eyes narrow, taking a long swallow of the wine. ôWell? What are you waiting for? Entertain me, fool.ö
Rand felt a prickle of annoyance. He muscled a smile onto his face. ôOf course, my lord.ö
Rand grabbed three of the wooden balls, pockmarked with wounds, and tossed them in the air, one after another. His hands made three whip-like slashes forward.
There were dull thuds as metal met pulp. Rand caught the balls easily, and bowed.
Toram seemed somewhat mollified by this. ôI suppose his fools are decent, at the very least.ö He muttered, as he walked away.
Rand watched him go with thinly veiled ire. He could not kill Barthanes, but perhaps Morgase would not be terribly displeased if one his knives slipped and accidentally found itÆs way into the KingÆs House.
Rand turned back to his corner, yanking his knives out of the wooden orbs. The announcer rapped his staff again, and Rand didnÆt bother to turn around.
He would regret it shortly.
ôArriving now, is Lord Perrin of House Aybara, Verin Aei Sedai of the Brown Ajah, Lord Ingtar of House Shinowa, and Brother Loial, son of Arent son of Halan, of Stedding Shangtai! Welcome now, to the House of Damodred.ö
Rand froze, before he turned, his gaze shooting to the top of the stairs like every other eye in the hall.
Standing there, was his childhood friend, dressed in a fancy red and gold coat, looking as if he had just swallowed something foul as he stood straight and tall. He stood next to a stout man, whose Shienar origins were apparent from the topknot he wore proudly. Beside him stood a shapely woman with an ageless face, wearing a brown shawl with grapevines down the hems. And beside her stood an honest-to-Light Ogier, looming above the humans.
RandÆs brain had froze in motion as he attempted to process this information. What in the name of the Creator is Perrin doing here? With an Aei Sedai, no less! Rand paused. And an Ogier!?
By some foul magic, PerrinÆs eyes seemed to leap straight to RandÆs over the crowded announcement hall.
Noàno, he canÆt recognize me. ItÆs been years since I last saw him. The Creator canÆt possibly hate me that much.
PerrinÆs eyes widened, and his mouth fell slightly open. Rand cursed in futility.
The Creator hated him. Blasphemy or not, it was official.
ôRand? Is it really you?ö
ôDonÆt call me that, you lummox!ö Rand hissed, pouring himself a quick glass of the punch. He had snuck away hoping Perrin would ignore his presence. When that had failed, he had stole over to one of the punch tables, for some privacy. ôItÆs Matrim, or Matrim the Magnificent. Make sure to only call me that!ö
Perrin looked at Rand as if he were crazy. ôWhy? ItÆs your name.ö
ôJust remember when-Oh, blood and ashes, here he comesàö RandÆs voice was quietly strangled as the Lord Barthanes Damodred walked right in between them, and calmly began pouring himself his own glass of punch. ôMy lord Damodred.ö Rand smiled nervously.
He knew that nothing this man would say would be as it seems. Fights and swords and killings were like childÆs games compared to the mighty Game of Houses, or Daes DaeÆmar, as it was known.
It was similar to a fight between two blademasters, where a single slip could mean your life.
ôMatrim, wasnÆt it?ö Barthanes queried, almost idly. ôMatrim the Magnificent.ö
ôYou honor me, my lord.ö Rand shifted his weight from one foot to the other. ôI suppose I shall return to my duties, then?ö Please, please, please sayà
ôNo need. I would much rather hear the tale of your friendship with young Lord Perrin, here, than see you throw knives.ö BarthanesÆs voice was easy and smooth, completely at odds with how dangerous Rand knew the man to be. ôYou seem very close.ö
Oh, Perrin, the Light damn you for putting his eye on me. ôNot so much, my lord.ö Rand replied quickly, seeing Perrin open his mouth. ôI simply had the pleasure of performing for my lord Perrin, once upon a time. I am surprised he remembered me.ö He sweated as Barthanes swirled his punch around in his glass.
Circling slowly. Cautiously.
Perrin had been edging away, but stopped in his tracks as the Lord Damodred turned his gaze upon him. ôThen it must have been either a memorable party or memorable performance.ö He reasoned. ôWhich was it, Lord Perrin?ö
Rand sent him a pointed look. Perrin blinked.
A sudden lunge.
ôTheàthe performance, Lord Barthanes.ö Rand shut his eyes tightly closed, almost in pain. ôMatrimÆs skills were rather impressive.ö
Thank you, Perrin. Thank you for bringing even more of his attention on me. Thank you so very, very much.
ôHmm.ö There was no sign as to whether he believed this or not.
ôIf my lord would excuse me, I would feel terrible to accept the coin of House Damodred without working for it.ö Rand put in quickly, sidling away.
ôI will not excuse you.ö Barthanes said, cold and short. His mood quickly lightened. ôOur young Lord Perrin here is the guest of the evening. I would not have one of his men work like a dog. Come, come! Join the festivities. Have a dance or two.ö
Rand let out a short, forced chuckle. ôMy Lord, I did not anticipate joining the party this evening, so the attire I brought is as seen.ö He gestured towards his coat. ôThis is not fit for any but a festival of the blind and deaf.ö
Guard. Retreat. Advance.
ôIt is of no consequence.ö Barthanes waved his hand, and suddenly a servant was at his side, offering a fine grey coat, fit for a noble, albeit of minor status. ôPlease accept it, as a gift.ö
Rand smiled, though it was more of a grimace, as he shrugged on the new coat. ôWords cannot express my gratitude, my Lord.ö He replied, through gritted teeth.
ôThen thank me by enjoying my party.ö The Lord Damodred replied simply, a bland smile upon his face.
ôOf course, my Lord.ö Rand murmured, before making haste away from the punch table. It did not matter that he was leaving Perrin to BarthanesÆs tender mercies; all that mattered was losing himself, as quickly as-
A woman stepped fluidly into RandÆs path, forcing him to halt or bowl her over. Reluctantly, he chose the former.
If the ageless face didnÆt give her away, the brown shawl would have. That, or perhaps the man looming at her shoulder, staring at Rand with a gaze as flat and unyielding as marble. Her Warder, most likely.
ôGood evening, young man.ö She greeted him smoothly. ôI am Verin Mathwin, Aei
Sedai of the Brown Ajah. Perhaps you might spare me a moment of your time?ö
Rand composed himself with some difficulty. It was obviously not a request, something that made him prickle with indignation which he swallowed promptly. Aei Sedai were to be obeyed quickly, and fled from quicker. ôOf course, Verin Sedai.ö He managed.
ôExcellent.ö She replied airily. Rand had to repress a start as she easily looped one arm through his. Normally, he wouldnÆt have minded, since Verin was fairly attractive in a bookish sort of way, but he personally would have chosen a live scorpion dropped down his breeches to an Aei Sedai on his arm.
Still, he made the best of any situation he was dropped into. He stood straighter, and resisted the urge to smirk as the Warder drifted a tad closer.
ôI never did get your name.ö She said suddenly, as if she were commenting on the tapestries.
Rand mulled this over a moment, before mentally shrugging. If not from me, sheÆll get it from Perrin. If thereÆs anything left of him after Barthanes is done. ôRand AlÆThor to my friends, though hereabouts I am known as Matrim the Magnificent.ö There. That was like a blunt demand in Aei Sedai terms. Do not reveal my name to others.
Verin bowed her head briefly. ôAfter your friend, young Cauthon, no doubt.ö
That did make Rand blink in surprise. ôNow, for the last trick, guess the name of my favorite Inn.ö He quipped, and Verin actually tittered slightly.
ôThereÆs only one Inn in EmondÆs Field, so I daresay that is cheating.ö Verin replied coyly.
So. She had paid a visit to his home town. She also knew that he grew up there. The reason eluded him, though. ôI was unaware the Two Rivers had grown so popular in my absence.ö Rand replied slowly. An Aei Sedai, in a backwater village like EmondÆs Field? What next, an Andoran taxman?ö
ôIt did not. I simply heard it from another of my sisters.ö
Two Aei Sedai (at least!) were interested in the Two Rivers. It seemed impossible to believe. Rand shook away his incredulousness, and focused.
ôI must confess, IÆm curious to your intentions here, with this mask youÆve constructed for Perrin.ö Rand replied pointedly. He glanced down at the diminutive Aei Sedai. Her mask of serenity was nigh-flawless, but a tightness to her lips betrayed her annoyance. ôWe both know he is no lord.ö
Verin had fair reasons. Aei Sedai asked questions, they did not answer them.
ôYou should be careful with your tongue, boy, else it might run loose and fall out.ö Verin returned, her voice cool now. Rand could almost feel the WarderÆs gaze boring a hole in the back of his neck.
ôMy tongue never runs loose; I direct it with utmost purpose, in any situation it is required in.ö RandÆs reply was far more cheeky than any normal man would dared with an Aei Sedai. It bordered on innuendo.
Indeed, VerinÆs eyes actually widened, and her lips parted slightly. For an Aei Sedai, this was equivalent to gaping in shock.
But the Brown was nothing if not quick on the recovery. Her disbelief soon morphed to amusement in the form of a wry smile.
ôAs well-ordered or well-traveled as your tongue may be, that is a subject for another time.ö Verin murmured, her voice laced with humor. Rand raised one eyebrow at the subtle invitation.
ôAnd the subject for now?ö Rand queried.
ôYour future.ö She offered simply, as if it ever was, with Aei Sedai. Rand chuckled richly, drawing several eyes.
ôHave you the Foretelling, Verin Sedai?ö He replied, now he himself amused. ôShall I die in some terribly gruesome or fascinating way, or be required to perform some three impossible tasks that may affect the world as we know it?ö
ôNothing so dramatic. I was wondering if you wouldnÆt mind terribly joining an expedition weÆre currently undertaking.ö Verin idly picked at one hem of her shawl, finding some invisible flaw.
ôAnd æweÆ would beà?ö Rand trailed off, deciding to humor the notion of her strange request, if only for a moment.
ôMyself, Tomas, here-ô She nodded towards her Warder. ô-young Perrin, the true Matrim, Lord Ingtar and his band of loyal armsmen, and Loial, our delightful young Ogier Treesinger and scholar in the making.ö
ôAnd what would be the nature and purpose of this expedition?ö Rand asked, feeling the odd need to ask.
ôRetrieving several items of great importance and value from those who would misuse them.ö Verin answered, while not answering, a trick Rand was sure all Aei Sedai had mastered. ôYou would be performing a great service, and the gratitude of Aei Sedai is not inconsiderable.ö
Rand opened his mouth to refuse-
àand suddenly found the offer strangely compelling. A chance to see Mat and Perrin again, it would be just like home again. And the ægratitude of Aei SedaiÆ might be able to shield him from MorgaseÆs wrath, the White Tower being the only power that all nations truly shied away from.
A cold feeling of wrong coiled in RandÆs stomach, and he seized the void, feeding all his emotions to the flame until he could think clearly enough to recoil in horror from what he had almost just agreed to. Light, get it together, man! You know we donÆt travel with groups; not anymore, not since the Blight. Had Verin done something to him? Doubtful, considering the Three Oaths, and the fact that Rand hadnÆt threatened her in any manner.
But still, enough was enough. The endless machinations and manipulations had caused a rapidly rising migraine, and he knew he needed then and now to get out of this manor.
ôIÆm afraid I already have an enterprise in which IÆm currently entangled.ö Rand knew his voice was cold and flat, and didnÆt care; caring was an emotion ill-afforded by the void. He slipped his arm from her grasp. ôSo I will have to decline to running off on your little adventure.ö
He made to leave, and found an iron grip on his shoulder. RandÆs eyes narrowed as he followed it to the Warder it was connected to.
Rand grasped the wrist of Tomas. ôRemove your hand, or lose it.ö He snarled coldly, staring unflinching into the eyes of the bonded man. Was that a flicker of uncertainty, or was Rand imagining things? He tightened his grip.
Then, there was a soft womanÆs hand on the WarderÆs arm. ôThere is no need for that, Tomas. RandÆs decision is his own; there is no need foràcomplications.ö VerinÆs voice was soothing, hypnotic.
Tomas did not release, he stared harder at Rand. RandÆs lips turned up into an unpleasant smile.
ôDidnÆt you hear her, lapdog? Paws off.ö Rand accentuated the last word by wrenching the wrist off of his shoulder with a good effort. Tomas let his hand fall to his side. Rand noted the muscle in the WarderÆs jaw clenching, and smirked. ôGood boy.ö
He then turned and stalked away, ignoring the many curious and greedy eyes upon him.
Verin sighed in disappointment as she saw AlÆThorÆs figure disappear into the dark of the door, and out of the manor. Then, she glanced at her companion.
Tomas was still glaring fit to burn a hole through the wall at the exit of the manor. His face was impassive, but the bond showed her icy fury and frustration, most likely at her. Verin tutted under her breath. Did he expect her to let him initiate a confrontation in the middle of the party? A Cairhienien party, no less? There was something to be said about men and thinking with the hair on their chests, but this was simply ridiculous.
ôHe felt wrong.ö Tomas suddenly muttered, his jaw working as he stared. ôAlmost like the feeling of Shadowspawn, onlyàmore diluted. A Darkfriend?ö That would make sense. Standing near creatures of Shadow often caused feelings of aggression and increased violent urges in Warders. Being so near Rand must have driven poor Tomas near mad, if he was telling the truth. And Tomas never lied to her.
ôWho can know?ö Verin turned on her heel, and Tomas followed, his fury dying down to sullen anger and annoyance.
ôAre we not going to follow him?ö Tomas asked, his tone returning to normal. Mostly. There was a spike of eagerness through the bond.
ôNo.ö Verin replied. ôThe Horn is too important. But that feeling, the one I mentioned earlieràö
ôThe missing piece?ö Tomas supplied.
ôYes. I believe young Rand is the one thing they lack. Say that Perrin is strength, and Mat is speedàthen Rand is their stealth. Three pieces of a puzzle. All three are necessary to function as one, to be complete.ö
ôAnother taÆveren, even?ö
ôThat is a definite possibility.ö
Verin saw Ingtar across the floor, speaking with several of the more minor Cairhienien ladies. He caught her eyes, sending her a look, before turning back to the ladies.
ôIt seems our sniffer has found something.ö Verin announced coolly. Tomas merely nodded. His head was already cooled, not lingering on the confrontation before. Men forgot but never forgave, supposedly, and Tomas was no different, but he had the special skill of being able to forget quickly if needed. One of the reasons why she chose him as her Warder.
They would leave the young man to his devices. The Tracking she had placed upon him wouldnÆt be wearing off any time soon, so she could find him if she wished, anywhere he went.
Rand AlÆThoràyou are a very interesting boy. Verin decided that she would most certainly devote more time to study him later.
Study him intensely.
ôWait! The Light burn you, boy, wait!ö
Rand stopped, controlling his breathing in a matter of seconds as he heard the familiar voice of Thom Merrilin addressing him. He turned, seeing Thom rush up in front of him.
ôWhat are you doing, boy?ö The gleeman exclaimed. ôI heard your little exchange with Barthanes. Do you want to be killed in your sleep? You should have just laid down and given him what he wanted!ö
ôWell, IÆve never been good at following instructions.ö Rand retorted icily, turning to leave again.
Just like earlier, a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Only this time, it was just ThomÆs grizzled old paw, holding him gently back.
ôRand, wait.ö Thom looked at him with sad old eyes. ôArenÆt you even going to get your pay?ö
ôIÆll get it tomorrow. If not, then I donÆt need it anyway.ö Rand shook free and began heading towards the gate once more.
He got about seven paces before ThomÆs voice stopped him cold in his tracks.
ôYouÆre still planning to go after it.ö Rand paused midstep, and stopped.
The silence was answer enough. Rand heard Thom sigh.
ôBarthanes will have you followed. Two men, probably, maybe three. The alleyways are a good place to lose them. Take care of yourself, Rand.ö
Rand felt a rush of affection for the old gleeman, and nodded. ôI will Thom. Thank you.ö
He disappeared into the dark streets.
It was hard not to lose the foolÆs grey coat in the crowd, but Alecks Lelidred managed with a brief application of the void, concentrating on the red head of hair bobbing above the crowd.
He knew that to his right, Nurman was milling in the crowd, blending in easily. The once-cutpurse had much practice in not being noticed, and he had been hired by the Lord Damodred once a hundred purses were found, trophies, in his home. Discreetly, of course.
He, himself, was hired because of one thing. His skills with a sword. One hand ran a thumb down the engraved heron on his blade, beneath his hooded cloak. A prodigy, he had been called, by his teachers. Blademaster, at only the age of twenty.
The Lord Damodred had taken an interest in him, being of one of the more minor noble houses under the protection of the Crown and Tree. Now, Alecks was a part of the Lord BarthanesÆs personal guard of honor, something which brought great pride and honor to his family. His father had had the heron-marked sword commissioned as a congratulatory present.
The fool û Matrim the Magnificent, what a name! û suddenly turned and shot into an alley. Alecks cursed in surprise, and shared a look with Nurman, who nodded. They both headed quickly into the alley.
The alleys were thin, barely two shoulder widths apart, and they went throughout the city of Cairhien, cramped and tightly packed together as it was. They were the home of the scum and beggars of Cairhien. A person could get lost here as easily.
The fool stood at the end of the alley. Alecks took a moment to appreciate the speed of the larger man, before he turned and disappeared down another alley.
ôFind a way to head him off.ö Alecks ordered Nurman, who nodded, and shot down another alley. Being a criminal, Nurman would know these alleys like that back of his hand. Alecks was not so fortunate, and could only follow Matrim.
And so he did. The young blademaster rocketed down the alley, sword drawn without a care, since the need for secrecy was a moot point, now.
Alecks turned down an alley just to see the manÆs boot whisking down another. He resisted the urge to curse. He was very athletic, as swordplay kept the body in prime condition, but Matrim was taller and had longer legs by far.
He embraced the void, banishing weariness and annoyance, and ran towards the alley that Matrim had went down. He turned the corner.
Nurman was standing at the end of the alley, stock still. Frowning, Alecks trotted up towards him.
ôWhat are you doing, man?ö Alecks reached out a hand. ôHave you found-ô
His words died in his throat as Nurman toppled backwards, his own belt knife buried hilt deep in his eye.
His sword rose in an automatic guard, and he circled warily. Matrim had to be around here, close, at least.
ôCome out, man!ö Alecks called, hearing his voice echo around the thin alleys. The night cast deep shadows on the high walls, the few torches lit only enhancing the eerie darkness. ôWe only have a few questions, nothing more! There might be spot of gold in it for you, even!ö
In the void, he heard the soft rustle of clothing, and whirled around. He caught a glimpse of something dark moving above, before everything was still again.
ôEasy, Matrim!ö AlecksÆs hand felt leaden and hot on his sword. A trickle of sweat beaded and trailed down his temple. ôJust a few questions, about that Andoran Lord friend of yours, and we can all go home with fat crowns in our pockets!ö
A complete lie, of course. Get what he knew and then kill him, that was his orders. But if he could get the man out into the light he knew he could overpower him, despite his shorter stature.
There was small jingle behind him. Alecks spun around, only to find a small bell, hitting the cobblestones, lying innocent and alone.
Alecks felt his heart leap into his throat as he realized he had been tricked. He heard the scrape of boots behind him, and only had time to begin turning around before something hard smashed into his temple and he lost conciousness.
Alecks woke up bound and gagged to a chair. The fool sat in front of him, in another chair, idly spinning a knife in one hand.
ôHello there. My name is Rand AlÆThor.ö Matrim û Rand? û smiled an unpleasant smile. ôNow youÆre going to tell me everything I need to know.ö
Alecks thrashed, and realized that the chair had been bolted to the floor. Rand smiled wider.
ôNice try. Feel free to scream, however. Maybe someone will hear you.ö
Later that night, a figure in a hooded cloak was stopped at the gates of the manor of Lord Damodred. The guards snapped to attention, their halberds at the ready.
ôLower your hood and identify yourself!ö One ordered sternly.
Instead of complying, the figure held out a hand, parting the cloak. On it was tattooed a crown, covered in rose vines, on the wrist.
The guards relaxed slightly. One of them, a tall (well, tall for a Cairhienien), unshaved fellow, sneered.
ôOne of the spies? Come back in the morning. The Lord Barthanes is sleeping.ö
The figure silently retracted the hand. The guard felt a chill as he caught a glimpse of cold blue eyes beneath the hood.
ôIÆll be back.ö The spy replied flatly. Then, he abruptly turned, and headed back off into the night.
The guards slowly eased back into their comfort zones. The unshaved guard turned to his fellow and grimaced.
ôSpies. Always so bloody arrogant. IÆd like to see one of them do a proper patrol.ö The guard spat on the ground.
Seconds later, two knives lanced out of the darkness and caught them both in the throat, one after another. They dropped to the ground, gurgling and clutching their throats. Rand shook his head as he melted out of the dark of the night, discarding the severed arm of Alecks.
ôGuards. You never bloody listen, do you?ö Rand retorted. The unshaven guard gave one last kick and was still, shortly followed by the other.
Rand dragged the bodies out of sight and hooked his boot into one of the rungs of the gate. More ornamental than functional. Rand mused. But then, nobles must have their displays of finery.
He eased himself over to the ledge of the wall, and pulled himself up. He glanced at the guards patrolling the top of the manor, just above the billowing banners of the Damodred crest, and thanked his lucky stars for the dark cloak he wore. It blended in perfectly with the black iron of the top of the wall. All he would likely seem to be would be a slightly lumpy blob in the black.
Carefully, he watched their faces, crawling along the top of the short wall until he found a spot where they did not normally glance, one where the torches along the walls lit poorly.
Rand waited until the patrol atop the manor turned the corner, and threw himself over the edge, and into the grounds. It was a short fall, perhaps only half again as tall as Rand himself.
He watched the guards carefully, sidling as quickly as he could towards the door. Rand knew from Alecks that the guards changed every hour, so he had roughly forty minutes before the absence of guards was discovered and the alarm would be raised.
He pressed himself close to the door, and slipped one of his thinner knives down his sleeve. He tested the handle. Locked.
Rand jammed the blade into the lock, and wrench as hard as he could. There was a loud snap, which made Rand wince and glance around hurriedly, before pulling open the door and slipping inside.
The halls of the Damodred manor were dark, the torches extinguished. Rand stole over to the wall of the room, and glanced around the corner. Empty. He made his way into the next room.
His memory from the party remained fresh. He retraced his steps, until he was halted by an obstacle.
A guard stood in the middle of the room, holding a lantern in one hand and a keeping his other on his sword. The main color theme seemed to be purple, and the fireplace and many chairs and sofas suggested a living or resting room.
Rand soundlessly dropped to a crouch, and crept behind one of the high backed chairs as the guard looked at one side. He was obviously bored, from the expression on his face, but he kept his hand held tightly on his sword. Not expecting anything, but vigilant. Thom was right about them being well-trained.
Rand mulled his problem over. He could kill the guard with little effort, but the more bodies he left behind, the more chance there was of one being found and the alarm being raised sooner.
The guard began moving to the next room, and Rand went prone on the floor, crawling to lay at the foot of a large sofa. He moved as fast as he dared, measuring speed against silence.
A board creaked under RandÆs elbow, and he froze at the sound, at the same time that the guard paused. The patrolman cocked his head to one side, listening, and Rand slowly slipped a knife out of his sleeve, and mentally prepared himself for a sprint towards the Treasure Room.
After a brief, tense silence, the guard shook his head ruefully and moved on. Rand heard him mutter ôBloody servants.ö
Rand waited until he heard the footsteps of the patrolman no longer, before rising to his feet. He stilled his shaking hands, and made a mental note to watch for servants prowling about as well.
Rand quickly made his way through the rooms, arriving at the Treasure Room in a matter of minutes. He could feel the minutes ticking away, the new patrol coming closer and closer to finding the empty gate.
While Rand had expected it to be almost completely dark, he was wrong. Silver moonlight shone through the circular window in the middle of the ceiling. The werelight hit the chandelier and reflected diamond motes of light all over the cylindrical room.
Rand stopped in front of the wall of the scepter, going over the plan he had made previously. The scepter was some odd five paces high, far too high for Rand to reach on his own.
He grabbed the top of the dormant fireplace, and hung from it, eyeing the Trolloc head just above him. Rand braced his legs on the ledge of the fireplace.
Then, he pushed off with all of his might, yanking his body into the air. Rand hands clasped around the dead TrollocÆs snout, and he locked his legs around itÆs neck. Rand pulled to the side and managed to sit astride the head.
Shakily, he rose to his full height, balancing on the TrollocÆs large cranium. Rand stared up at the scepter, now much closer.
His heart nearly stopped as he heard a piercing whistle, and a loud clanging from above the manor. The alarm. Shouts rose up in the halls, along with the tramping of boots.
What in the Pit of Doom!? I know I had at least ten more minutes! Rand shook his shock and looked up again, focusing on his objective. He had to get the scepter and get out of here, and he needed to do it now.
Rand reached, and fell short, by at least a half pace. He cursed, hearing the shouts and running grow louder.
Rand crouched, bending his legs, and jumped.
His hand closed around the smooth brown neck, and landed wrong. Off balance. Rand was falling.
He saw the floor spin up towards him, and pulled his legs as best be could. Rand landed on his feet, before the force of the fall drove him to his knees. His legs felt shaky and jarred. Rand supposed he should feel lucky they werenÆt broken.
The only warning he had was a grunt and slight whooshing sound, before Rand threw himself to the floor to avoid the spear that nearly nailed him to the wall. The spear embedded itself in the wall over his head, almost right above his nose.
He turned and saw a guard rushing across the floor, sword drawn, face an angry mask. ôAssassin in the Treasure Room!ö He roared.
Rand twitched a knife into his hand and let it fly. The awkward position threw off his aim, and pierced the guardÆs arm rather than his neck.
But it gave him time to roll out and get to his feet, as the armsman yanked the knife out, before rushing forward once more.
They met in the middle. Rand stepped into the downwards swing of the blade, and caught the manÆs wrist. He raised the scepter to strike, and the guard grabbed his wrist in turn.
For a moment, they struggled against eachother, before the guard butted Rand in the head with his steel clad head, making him see stars for a moment.
The armsman reared back his neck for another strike, and Rand yanked backwards, placing one boot on the guardÆs stomach and flipping him behind him.
The guard almost immediately surged to get up, before Rand rammed his sword-arm to the ground with his knee, yanked the dagger from the manÆs own belt, and plunged it into the armsmanÆs neck, several times.
He left the man to his death throes and rushed to the door, hearing shouts come from down the corridor. Rand looked to see five guards rushing towards him, swords drawn. They seemed to come even faster as they saw him, shouting warcries.
RandÆs brain seemed to slow to a crawl as he processed his situation. The way he came in, blocked. No windows or exits. And an entire manor up in arms, all out for his blood.
He froze and his thoughts rewound themselves, and he glanced towards the ceiling, where the moonlight sent the white diamonds out. There was one window.
Rand tucked the scepter into his belt, running to the tied rope that held the chandelier up. He took his stolen dagger and began sawing through the root of the white knot, winding it firmly around his other arm.
This would either be madness or salvation.
The guards were in the room, swords already held high in preparation to strike. The cord was only halfway cut. Rand frantically redoubled his efforts, just as the first guardÆs strike came down.
Thinking fast, Rand twisted the rope violently into the way of the blade. The downwards chop severed the rope neatly.
The chandelier, now unbound, fell towards the floor, yanking Rand, entangled in the other end, high into the air, heading straight towards the iron hook, attached to the moonlit window.
As Rand shot towards the glass panes, he saw freedom in their surface, and pulled his boots towards the sky, bracing for impact.
He was thrown up through the ceiling window just as the chandelier crashed into the floor in a horrific shriek of broken crystal and metal. Rand landed with a thud on the exquisitely thatched roof, grunting as the breath was expelled from his lungs.
He struggled to his feet, and took in his surroundings with a single look.
He stood at the apex of the roof of the manor. Down, he could see the gate, a distant dark blob illuminated by the torches. Much closer, he saw the guards atop the wall at the bottom of the roof, and straight down from him, the path of least resistance, with only the single guard who was beating the wooden stick frantically against the tin alarm.
Rand broke into a run, down the slope of the roof, his boots pounding on the thatch. His muscles still burned from the landing, but he embraced the void and ignored it as best he could.
The world narrowed to a tunnel. That one guard, between him and freedom.
The guard shrank back. Rand could see his face, a rather young lad, probably not even yet shaving, his features contorted in fear. He beat the alarm as if it would save him from Rand.
At the bottom, Rand leapt into the air, dagger drawn back, and landed with both boots onto the young guardÆs chest, driving him to the floor of the stone rampart. His blade jammed into the boyÆs throat.
Rand rose rapidly from the kill, and jerked his gaze in both directions. Guards were rushing in from both sides. He rushed to the side and looked over. Nearly a thirty pace drop, he would never survive the jump.
Rand eyed the banner bearing the Crown and Rose, affixed to the side of the wall. He nicked two cuts in it with his stolen knife, took the ripped section firmly in both hands, and jumped.
There was a loud ripping sound as the banner tore evenly down, Rand clutching the strip for dear life. The ground grew steadily closer, until it halted with a jerk, several paces from the turf.
Rand let go, and landed with a thump and a groan on the front lawns of the manor, on hands and knees. He forced his screaming muscles forward, his hands clawing through dirt and grass as he threw himself forward, towards the gate.
He pumped his legs as fast as he could, whipping his watery tendons into action. Several arrows thudded in front of him and to his side, and something punched into his right shoulderblade. He was pitched to the ground, and tasted copper and dirt as he pushed himself up.
No! IÆm too close! He mentally snarled, staring at the iron gate, so close. Gathering all of his remaining strength and will, he roared as he rammed his shoulder into the gate, and the lock that held it.
The ornamental iron snapped like brittle charcoal as he escaped into the empty streets of Cairhien, free as a bird. The darkness of the streets soon swallowed him up, as he made his way towards Black Stallion Inn.
One month laterà
Rand didnÆt bother to hide the smug smile on his face, as he daintily dropped the Mad KingÆs Scepter on the table in front of the Queen.
He pushed back into his own seat, basking in his own satisfaction, as the Queen picked it up, running one slender finger over the neck of the scepter.
ôCompletely authentic, I assure you, my Queen. It was a bit of trouble, and I did get shot once, but the riots over King GalldrianÆs assassination let me get out of the city quite easily. If Barthanes isnÆt raising hell over that thing, then itÆs only because heÆs trying to get the throne.ö Rand announced primly. ôAnd he has absolutely no idea that I did it. Nor that I work for you. IÆm even here a week early.ö He locked his hands together. ôNow, about those Mayener rugsàö He began.
Morgase didnÆt respond to his taunt, running that one finger along the Avendoraldera wood of the scepter.
Finally, she locked eyes with him. Her face was expressionless.
ôThe King is dead.ö Her voice was level and cold.
Rand raised one eyebrow. ôYes, I happen to know, considering-ô He froze midsentence, and his eyes narrowed. ôI didnÆt kill him.ö He stated flatly. ôWhat reason would I have, my Queen? Plus, the KingÆs Guard is nearly twice as large as BarthanesÆs, I wouldnÆt get within fifty feet of him!ö
Morgase rose from her seat, her eyes stormy and her face thunderous. ôAnd I suppose you arenÆt the one that ripped Barthanes limb from limb and left his head on his bloody mantle!ö Her voice was pure fury.
RandÆs mind went blank with shock. ôàBarthanes is dead?ö He repeated dumbly. This quickly turned into uncertainty and wariness, as he gritted his teeth as he rose from his seat. ôI did not kill him, my Queen.ö Rand stated slowly, and carefully.
If anything, this only served to anger the Queen further. ôDo not lie to me, boy! You were there the night he was killed, and expect me to believe that it was mere coincidence? And then, you come back here!ö From the white knuckled grip she had on the scepter, Rand could almost believe she might strike him with it. ôYour arrogance and sheer gall is positively astounding.ö Her voice was now cold venom.
Rand found himself accosted by strong grips on each of his arm, and suddenly found QueenÆs Guard on each of his sides. He struggled briefly before he felt the cold steel of a third at his throat. He turned to glare at Morgase, his eyes cold blue and gray fire.
ôSo, what? YouÆre just going to lock me away and throw away the key, after I did exactly what you asked? Somehow I doubt I am the arrogant one here.ö
Morgase was unaffected by his glare, or if she was, she didnÆt show it. ôI should have had you killed when I had the chance.ö She replied frostily. ôAnd as for your fate, I believe that House Damodred will pay handsomely for the killer of their Head of House.ö She nodded towards the guard with the sword at RandÆs throat. ôRemove him from my presence.ö
RandÆs face turned stony and his lips thinned into a narrow, angry line, as his hands were shackled and he was led out of the room.
The QueenÆs anger faded as she turned her gaze towards the scepter in her hand. The slightest smile graced her lips, as she turned it over, inspecting the engraved rose top.
ôàfanciful ideasàö She murmured.
She frowned, as she heard a muffled grunt. Then a thud. She found the origin of the sound to be the door Rand had disappeared through.
A coil of disbelief and dread found its way into her stomach as she heard a muted yell, and a dull clang, like metal on metal.
After that there was silence. MorgaseÆs hand crept to her ruby-encrusted dagger, hanging at her hip.
The door burst open, admitting Rand, who was discarding the shackle on his left wrist with a small grey key. The Queen could see her guards, lying groaning and crumpled in heaps on the floor behind him.
ôGuards, to me!ö She yelled as loud as possible, yanking her dagger from its sheath.
Rand crossed the distance easily, and she lunged forward with her dagger. Rand caught her wrist and deftly disarmed her, plucking the knife from her grasp.
Then, he stepped back, both of his hands held wide to the side, dropping the dagger to the ground. ôI didnÆt kill him.ö Rand said, keeping his gaze straight and gaze locked with hers, just as guardsmen burst in from nearly every door.
There had to be a dozen swords at his neck, and twice as many spearpoints digging into his torso, all a second from drawing blood. Yet Rand stood stock still, his stance unafraid as he stared unflinchingly into the eyes of the Queen.
ôI am not a monster, my Queen.ö RandÆs voice did not waver an inch, not a hair. ôI do not kill without reason. If I was, would I not have just killed you there?ö RandÆs chin rose, the swordblades digging into his neck alarmingly. ôI do not claim innocence. But I did not kill him. I will swear this upon any oath that you name. If you do not believe me, then kill me here.ö There was not an ounce of fear in his eyes.
Morgase stared at him as if he had turned into an entirely different creature. There was grudging respect in her eyes.
ôMy Queen?ö One of the Guard asked, his sword digging a little harder into RandÆs neck. Rand sent him a disdainful look, as if he were something he found smeared on the bottom of his boot. ôYour orders?ö
There was a pause as the Queen considered. She seemed to be seeing if she could discern his intentions and veracity by staring into his eyes.
Rand only looked flatly back at her, blue and grey completely unyielding.
ôArmsmenàyou mayàleave us.ö The Queen announced reluctantly, crossing her arms and staring at him coolly.
The QueenÆs Guard stared at her in disbelief. She made a small shooing gesture with her hands, as if they were disobedient cats.
There was a few seconds of hesitation, before the weapons were lowered and swords sheathed. Quite a few glares of warning and intimidation were shot RandÆs way, as they reluctantly began vacating the room.
One of the Guardsmen stayed behind. He had sheathed his sword, but he stood straight, glaring daggers at Rand. Rand looked at him. Young, perhaps his age or a tad older. The Queen fixed him with an imperious gaze.
ôDo you have trouble hearing, Guardsman?ö She inquired dryly.
ôNo, my Queen.ö He replied, without a hint of humor.
ôThen, you may leave us, Lieutenant-Captain Tallanvor.ö This time, it held a hint of steel.
The man sent one last narrow eyed look at Rand, before thumping his chest with his fist. ôàYes, my Queen.ö His mouth twisted as if he had bitten a rotten plum. It sounded as though he had just been denied something he desired more than his next breath.
Rand watched him as he left, rubbing his neck as he felt the phantom blades against his skin. ôCheeky, IÆll give him that.ö Rand offered. He turned to the Queen, who was slowly rubbing her temple with two fingers. ôYou do know heÆs likely to wait right outside, hand on his sword, right?ö
ôLoyalty is not a thing to be scoffed at, AlÆThor.ö Morgase sat back down in her chair. She sent him a decidedly hostile look. ôThough there is a limit to where the term can be stretched. Any other man in your position would have had the common sense to have defected by now. I have great trouble believing you truly didnÆt know that Barthanes had been murdered. It was news second only to GalldrianÆs death.ö
ôBelieve it. Caemlyn is the first city IÆve been in since I fled Cairhien.ö Rand took his seat back on the sofa, spreading his arms and leaning back. ôI cut across the country side on the off chance I missed a tail. If anyone was following me, theyÆre not now, or otherwise are lost in Braem Wood.ö
MorgaseÆs eyebrows rose. ôReally, now? IÆve heard that Braem Wood is rather treacherous.ö She asked, slightly interested in this newly revealed skill.
Rand shrugged. ôI grew up on a farm in the Two Rivers, my Queen. I know enough of woodcraft to take care of myself.ö
ôHmm.ö The Queen hummed. If Rand had to guess, she appeared to be slightly mollified by the fact that Rand was in fact an Andoran. ôWell, I have not received any missives demanding the scepter back, so I suppose you have done your job.ö Her withering look killed the smile on RandÆs face before it formed. ôIt does not mean I approve in any way of your methods.ö
ôWhy, because Iàkill people?ö Rand asked, putting his best æashamedÆ tone into it.
ôNo.ö She snapped. ôBecause you donÆt care that you do. YouÆre not a monster, AlÆThor, but youÆre half-way there.ö
ôBut youÆre the one employing the half-monster, my Queen.ö Rand replied easily, cocking his head to the side. ôDoesnÆt that make you something of an accomplice?ö
The look she sent him could have impaled a Shienaran heavy cavalry. ôPerhaps I should let you sit a few days in prison.ö The Queen muttered. ôTo starve that blasted ego of yours a bit.ö
ôBut, my Queen, that would mean my ego was important enough to you to pay personal attention to it.ö Rand smiled, knowing it was infuriating and enjoying it. ôAnd that would only make it fatter.ö
Morgase sighed in annoyance, rubbing her temples again. ôNevertheless, AlÆThor, your methods are a problem that require correction.ö
ôMy Queen, tell me what you need done.ö Rand cut in. ôTell me what you need stolen, tell me who you need killed. Tell me their names, tell me their locations. Tell me who, what, when, and where. You donÆt even have to tell me why.ö Rand leaned in, his fingertips pressed together as he became serious. ôBut do not tell me how, because we live in very different worlds, and there is a reason you hire me to do these things instead of doing it yourself. Just as there are aspects of your world that I will never comprehend, there are aspects of mine that would shrivel your soul to even consider, so I suggest that you do your job, and let me do mine.ö
The QueenÆs face was cold and impassive. ôAre you quite done? Because I assure you, I have had men flogged ætil they screamed for far less than this little tirade you just subjected me to.ö Her voice could have frozen the sun mid flight. ôYou will respect my authority, AlÆThor, for I am your employer, and more importantly, your Queen.ö
ôAnd I assure you, my Queen, that I have killed men for far less than what you have subjected me to this past three months.ö Rand was undaunted by her coldness, a cold smile of his own slipping onto his face. ôAnd I hope you will learn to respect me, or at least my skills, or we will have a great deal of difficulty working together.ö
For a moment they silently stared each other down, both too stubborn in their own right to back down.
Morgase was the first to break the silence. ôYou may pick up your pay tomorrow, and choose your quarters as well. For now, you can recover, recuperate, and relax, while I find another task for you.ö Her voice was weary. She let out a fatigued sigh. ôYou may leave, AlÆThor.ö
Rand quirked an eyebrow upwards, smirking. ôTired, my Queen? I happen to be a rather talented masseuse, and would-ô
Rand cut off, as she sent him a look that truly surpassed all the rest she had directed his way. He was sure that any lesser man would have been incinerated on the spot. As it was, Rand wasnÆt entirely sure she wasnÆt within an inch of castrating him, from the hungry look she sent to her dagger, still lying on the floor.
ôRand AlÆThor, get out of my Palace.ö The Queen all but hissed.
Rand wisely heeded this, fleeing the room as fast as dignity allowed. Any longer, and he wasnÆt sure he would be able to keep his face straight.
He didnÆt slow until he was safely out of the Royal Palace and on the streets of Caemlyn. Rand slowed to a halt, and turned back to gaze at its white walls and red banners. He smiled, for once a true one.
He had a job. More importantly, he had an important job. One that could make a difference. One that could let him see the world.
Rand AlÆThor once again had a purpose in the world.
Bloody hell, that was a longÆun. Lots of fun stuff. Now I need to go and dream up an official title for RandÆs position at MorgaseÆs side; and maybe put together a meeting between him and Elaida. Oh, thatÆll be giggles and shits.
Tell me if it was believable. Laters.
Nice. Thanks for giving us some closure so we don't have to wait for the next chapter to find out what happened.
I kind of thought that Rand would call the Queen out on her loyalty remark. After all, while Rand was only too willing to kill people to get out of that place, the Queen had no hesitation in blackmailing and betraying Rand. And THEN she goes and makes a remark on loyalty...
The funny thing is that as annoying as someone might be, it's only if one is petty and arrogant that troubles arise over being irritated. Being betrayed, threatened or blackmailed, however, would push just about -anybody- over the edge, no need for an ego.
Is Rand going to recall that "assassin!" remark he heard way back then?
And yes, I am very much looking forward to their meeting with Elaida.. and I'm wondering how you're going to make the meeting with the other Aes Sedai come back to haunt Rand, mwahahahahaha....
...and, of course, how Rand will drive that Aes Sedai mad for daring to manipulate him. Oi vey.
It looks like THIS Rand is having to deal with women threatening him, -shudder-, politically rather than simply bossing him around... You'd think a Rand al'Thor modeled after such a ladies' man wouldn't have trouble with women, hah.
I hereby introduce THE first 'just wait until you see what my tongue can do' joke, to WoT, ever.
Rand had enough wits gathered together to throw a pickup line at an Aei Sedai, and the massive stones to do it while her Warder was right fucking behind them.
Rand's a womanizer, it's no secret. Once again, once we delve into his past, you'll see why. But if this guy has the sheer balls to start trying to get inbetween the sheets with an Aei Sedai - most men, scorpion in the breeches, remember? - who are Jordan's equivalent to superwomen (right next to Aiel, of course), then he will have no trouble with women.
Oh and, ah, you caught the assassin hint. Good one.
And Morgase is a Queen. She holds allegiance only to her people.
And Rand was a free agent she didn't know she had hired. Hell, she didn't even know he was an Andoran, until after the first mission. Rand's a loose cannon, a powerful one, and she knows she can't afford to let him run free.
She's a good judge of character, it comes with the job. Queenie can tell Rand'll be a force to be reckoned with in the right hands, and she's making sure that it'll either be her hands, or no one's.
And also, she was pissed as hell that Rand killed twenty seven of her people, even if they were in the payroll of the Children. Especially since four of them were without her knowing.
She blackmailed Rand because she knew that he needed a leash of some sort, like a disobeidiant dog. Morgase knows she won't be able to tame him (she makes a remark about this in the series, that 'even the best of men are only house-trained at most'), but she wants to be able to point him in the right direction and let him loose.
The threat and the money are leashes. That kind of salary is a godsend, considering half the time he might not even being doing anything. She's also being quite lenient with him, if you'll remember. It was well within her rights to send him to prison first, and THEN come back and admit he didn't kill Barthanes.
Yes, Morgase thinks things very through. You'll remember, she was married to a Cairhienien.
But the thing is, Rand is smart, and also the type to think things through. He's like a half-Cairhienien, half-Aiel. Meticulous and cunning, but very violent and willing to kill on a whim. And he doesn't have ji'e'toh or noble birth stopping him.
Ultimate leash meets that which cannot be leashed by anything. Thing is, we'll see which one is really a fake.
And Morgase is a very, very smart woman. She's got plans, and she never does things without reason.
Frankly, she would deserve far more criticism for not knowing who he was from the start. On the topic of her accusations however, exactly how did she think he would have killed Barthanes anyway? Despite what you may read and see in media, it is not easy to rip a person limb from limb, certainly not while trying to avoid large amounts of noise, and downright insane if you're trying to avoid guards. If Rand hasn't learned to use Saidin he would be in no condition to do so. As a last question, what will he do when does learn about that?
I have...and I think I'll wait a coupla more chapters before I do.
On the topic of her accusation...yeah, it is kind of unbelievable. But Morgase is ticked, and like I said, she sees Rand as a rabid dog. I mean, he splattered a guy's blood all over her without a shred of remorse. Combine her temper and the ruthless way she saw him kill a man and then joke about it, then it becomes believable.
And don't make any assumptions when it comes to the Power. No assumptions. None.
I refuse to elaborate further and ruin the surprise.
That's... not quite what I meant by trouble. I figured he'd be a womanizer, and I did notice his innuendo. But, in the original series, he's engaged to three women.
This fact does not in any way stop the fact that he's so often told off by, irritated, thwarted, and commanded by women throughout the series. Maybe I'm working too much off of other people's complaints about bitchy women in WOT, but I was trying to draw a connection as to how in this story Rand's life was so profoundly changed by Egwene's dying, by Morgase's hiring, and by the Aes Sedai's impromptu planning... [As a side note, I'm wondering who and how many women Rand has, and will, sleep with/seduce..]
..and it just occurred to me that the Aes Sedai with her tracker weave probably suspects Rand of the assassination... Man, if the group shows up in Andor, it's going to be a total clusterfuck if they suspect Rand of trying to systematically murder nobles...
GAH! I HAVEN'T read any WOT books... I've read, like... book 6 and book 8? I know generalities, some specific stuff, some basic stuff, am impressively ignorant of many basic and DUH-obvious things (I'm sure there's obvious stuff I don't know of...). For instance, if Damodred was murdered for a specific reason in the OTL, people would smirk upon reading the result of the actions, and know a little bit of what Rand has gotten mixed up in.. I, on the other hand, simply know that Perrin has been picked up by Aes Sedai, and has possibly embarked upon the beginning of the original journey..
Anyhow. Looking at it from Morgase's POV, it does occur to me that all she really knows/has seen of Rand is that he's a killer. A very good one.
Also... Rand has n. Um. We haven't seen Rand channel, and you've just answered a question about it by saying "I'm not spoiling that," so let me try to phrase my question a bit better.. I know that men can notice women channeling; they have a chill up their spines. In fact, I think your young, gentled, Rand makes a note of being able to tell when the women do so... Can this Rand tell when women channel? When men channel?
Or does he have to wait till his talent comes forth first?
..and it just occurred to me that the Aes Sedai with her tracker weave probably suspects Rand of the assassination... Man, if the group shows up in Andor, it's going to be a total clusterfuck if they suspect Rand of trying to systematically murder nobles...
And you wouldn't get the Damodred assassination thing if you haven't read the Great Hunt, book 2.
This fact does not in any way stop the fact that he's so often told off by, irritated, thwarted, and commanded by women throughout the series. Maybe I'm working too much off of other people's complaints about bitchy women in WOT, but I was trying to draw a connection as to how in this story Rand's life was so profoundly changed by Egwene's dying, by Morgase's hiring, and by the Aes Sedai's impromptu planning... [As a side note, I'm wondering who and how many women Rand has, and will, sleep with/seduce..]
Yeah, looking back, even a hardcore fan like me has to admit he uses pretty much varying levels of bitchiness as characterization for the females.
On the bright side, he's not a misogynist, he gives the women 60% of the power in all of WoTland, at the very least.
On the minus side, that makes his women rather boring.
So I've decided to correct that a little. I'll focus on the traits he did give us. He said Morgase was strong willed, so I'm focusing on that. For Elayne, I'm going to focus on her stubbornness, Thom, his slyness, and for Tallanvor, his loyalty.
And for Elaida...nah, she's pretty much a huge narcissistic, egotistical bitch all around. No need to change a good thing. ^_^
The women would be more interesting if they didn't seem to keep getting power-ups or sudden (and improbable) rises in status. Nynaeve I can understand being close to their equivalent of a super-power Aes Sedai. Mat I can understand the memories bit (I still thought the marriage was a bit contrived). Its when we get to "you will become the next Amyrlin and manipulate an order of manipulators" or "you have a special ability that almost no-one else has ever had" that I draw the line.
Well Nynaeve can't even channel without being pissed as fuck until the seventh book. The Daughter of the Nine Moons bullshit was so Jordan could give Rand a link to the Seanchan.
But after that, the Talents came kinda rapidshot, I agree. I have to tone that a bit, hmm...
I mean, if they're going to be throwing Talents every which way, most of them should go to RAND. Since he's, yano, TA'VEREN. Bends the pattern around himself to help himself, in exchange for crap luck everyonce in a while.
Admittedly, Jordan gave him dreamwalking, though he seemed to try to forget it. And Dreamwalking, in Sorilea's words, is as common as legs on snakes. And Rand is bitch-strong when it comes to saidin. But he also took one of Rand's hands(after he took the last six or so books making Rand bitch-strong with a blade too), he made him paranoid, gave him a voice in his head, and made him pussywhipped to three women, one who's a whiny bitch, and another of which is a walking plot device/Rand's concubine of the hour.
You can figure out who I'm talking about on your own.
But Rand's literally got almost all the resources in the world at his disposal. He's got like, seven Aiel clans under his flag, and it only took three completely make the wetlands their bitch in the Aiel War. He's got most of the major nations under his control. He has Aei Sedai servants and a whole corps of male channellers at his beck and call (more or less).
It's very difficult to balance those. I admire Jordan for managing it so well. He made Rand into a crazy, paranoid, emotionally and physically-beaten down asshole because he literally had no other choice, lest he over-power him. And he still made it interesting to read about.
I'm fairly sure I won't be able to do it. But it will be fun trying, even if I fail.
Rand's the one I actually felt was underpowered in later volumes, which is probably why Jordan gave him the old killing powers the rest forgot. His (potential) madness did make for excellent reading, and also allowed for an excellent quote from Bryne about another general.
What's your point? Since his books are bestsellers, I'm not allowed to dislike them? I automatically have to love them? I can't express that I do dislike them and I don't give a flying freak if they sold four billion copies? Paris Hilton was very recently everywhere in media, her many antics recorded and shown, her reality series widely talked about. She has obviously done SOMETHING right to get that much attention. Am I suppose to not say anything bad about her too?
If you came here just to bitch on how much you hate RJ, then seriously, why are you even here?.
This is a Wheel of Time fic. Based on WHEEL OF TIME.
I see someone is jumping to conclusions. No where have I said I hate RJ, or even the WoT series. It has interesting characters and scenarios, nicely written battle scenes and a very developed world. It also has too many characters, not enough emphasis on the characters I like and the many subplots can get convulated. I both like and dislike many things about it.
Remember, that book where all the men are pussywhipped and yet still get large amounts of pussy, and the author is obviously Japanese because he gives women a slice of the power?
Given how a large portion of manga/anime has submissive men and domineering women, and also taking in account the target audience, one can say that even though Japan is mostly a patriachal nation, a good portion of them have fantasies or desires geared toward that. Enough to keep that genre of the industry afloat and very healthy. Maybe they think that can help them get laid, I don't know.
When I said RJ was Japanese, I meant that most of his male characters, no matter their position or station, are easily manipulated/governed/commanded/ordered/led around and what have you by women. They accept it, expect it, and in some cases, like it. And yes, they sometimes get laid. Yes, Rand has three girls. Meh. It can get annoying to read after a while.
I like the WoT series, and good fanfics of such are rare, and unfinished. This fic focuses on my favorite char, is shaping him into a multi-talented assassin or what have you, and he stands up for himself quite nicely.
I had no idea the author was a conclusion jumping, opinion hating *insert derogatory term here.*
Whatever. I'm going to ignore those two and just focus on the fic as its somewhat interesting instead of spewing out arguments I've heard a million times before.
I like this Rand. He is a cold callous bastard and he KNOWS it. This Rand reminds me of the Rand in later books but he did it much more completely. THIS is the kind of utter ruthless asshole that could be the Dragon Reborn. The Reason? He can LIVE with himself. The things that he is going to have to do are monstrous, Jordon makes no bones about that. This Rand KNOWS them and will do them anyway.
Now the potential plot of Rand killing Nobles or the fact that Verrian is half convinced that Rand is a Dark Friend is really interesting. This could lead to all KINDS of interesting situations. Remember in Book one what Moiriane said? That especially devoted Dark Friends could feel the dagger like Myrridal and Trollocs could? The fact that Rand Felt sort of like one of their own is interesting. I assume its related to this event that took place in the blight, whatever that was.
As for the Talents argument they SHOULD have gone to Rand. You were right he is Ta'Veranan and not just a uncommonly strong one like Perrian or Mat. He was so bloody strong that when Siune looked at him she had to shield her eyes. He is literally wrapping the ENTIRE pattern around himself, not just his local geography. And then there is of course the fact that he is LEWS THERIN REBORN... you know the most prominent channeler to exist in the Age of Legends. The man that people thought was just one step below the creator? And at that it was a VERY SMALL step.
Hmm... is Elayne still present in Andor now that Rand has returned or has she and Eladia headed of to the Tower yet?
This lis looking interesting. I need to pull out my novels again
By this point she should be on her way to the tower, thereby lessening their chances of meeting and Rand being crazy enough to flirt with her, but increasing the chances of Elayne developing fantasies about him without any unpleasant realities to get in the way. I am interested to know what the matter was in the Blight, but revealing too much of it too soon could actually decrease its impact.