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Legends 3 2
“Fools,” Bukama grumbled. “Do they think we’re bandits? Do they think we mean to rob the lot of them, at midday on the high road?” He glared and shifted the sword at his hip in a way that brought considering stares from a number of merchants’ guards. A stout farmer prodded his ox wide of them.
Lan kept silent. A certain reputation clung to Malkieri who still wore the hadori, though not for banditry, but reminding Bukama would only send him into a black humor for days. His mutters shifted to the chances of a decent bed that night, of a decent meal before. Bukama seldom complained when there actually was no bed or no food, only about prospects and the inconsequential. He expected little, and trusted to less.
Neither food nor lodging entered Lan’s thoughts, despite the distance they had traveled. His head kept swinging north. He remained aware of everyone around him, especially those who glanced his way more than once, aware of the jingle of harness and the creak of saddles, the clop of hooves, the snap of wagon canvas loose on its hoops. Any sound out of place would shout at him. That had been the first lesson Bukama and his friends had imparted in his childhood: Be aware of everything, even when asleep. Only the dead could afford oblivion. Lan remained aware, but the Blight lay north. Still miles away across the hills, yet he could feel it, feel the twisted corruption.
Just his imagination, but no less real for that. It had pulled at him in the south, in Cairhien and Andor, even in Tear, almost five hundred leagues distant. Two years away from the Borderlands, his personal war abandoned for another, and every day the tug grew stronger. The Blight meant death to most men. Death and the Shadow, a rotting land tainted by the Dark One’s breath, where anything at all could kill. Two tosses of a coin had decided where to begin anew. Four nations bordered the Blight, but his war covered the length of it, from the Aryth Ocean to the Spine of the World. One place to meet death was as good as another. He was almost home. Almost back to the Blight.
A drymoat surrounded Canluum’s wall, fifty paces wide and ten deep, spanned by five broad stone bridges with towers at either end as tall as those that lined the wall itself. Raids out of the Blight by Trollocs and Myrddraal often struck much deeper into Kandor than Canluum, but none had ever made it inside the city’s wall. The Red Stag waved above every tower. A proud man was Lord Varan, the High Seat of House Marcasiev; Queen Ethenielle did not fly so many of her own banners even in Chachin itself.
The guards at the outer towers, in helmets with Varan’s antlered crest and the Red Stag on their chests, peered into the backs of wagons before allowing them to trundle onto the bridge, or occasionally motioned someone to push a hood further back. No more than a gesture was necessary; the law in every Borderland forbade hiding your face inside village or town, and no one wanted to be mistaken for one of the Eyeless trying to sneak into the city. Hard gazes followed Lan and Bukama onto the bridge. Their faces were clearly visible. And their hadori. No recognition lit any of those watching eyes, though. Two years was a long time in the Borderlands. A great many men could die in two years.
Lan noticed that Bukama had gone silent, always a bad sign, and cautioned him. “I never start trouble,” the older man snapped, but he did stop fingering his sword hilt.
The guards on the wall above the open iron-plated gates and those on the bridge wore only back- and breast-plates for armor, yet they were no less watchful, especially of a pair of Malkieri with their hair tied back. Bukama’s mouth grew tighter at every step.
“Al’Lan Mandragoran! The Light preserve us, we heard you were dead fighting the Aiel at the Shining Walls!” The exclamation came from a young guard, taller than the rest, almost as tall as Lan. Young, perhaps a year or two less than he, yet the gap seemed ten years. A lifetime. The guard bowed deeply, left hand on his knee. “Tai’shar Malkier!” True blood of Malkier. “I stand ready, Majesty.”
“I am not a king,” Lan said quietly. Malkier was dead. Only the war still lived. In him, at least.
Bukama was not quiet. “You stand ready for what, boy?” The heel of his bare hand struck the guard’s breastplate right over the Red Stag, driving the man upright and back a step. “You cut your hair short and leave it unbound!” Bukama spat the words. “You’re sworn to a Kandori lord! By what right do you claim to be Malkieri?”
The young man’s face reddened as he floundered for answers. Other guards started toward the pair, then halted when Lan let his reins fall. Only that, but they knew his name, now. They eyed his bay stallion, standing still and alert behind him, almost as cautiously as they did him. A warhorse was a formidable weapon, and they could not know Cat Dancer was only half-trained yet.
Space opened up as people already through the gates hurried a little distance before turning to watch, while those still on the bridge pressed back. Shouts rose in both directions from people wanting to know what was holding traffic. Bukama ignored it all, intent on the red-faced guard. He had not dropped the reins of the packhorse or his yellow roan gelding.
An officer appeared from the stone guardhouse inside the gates, crested helmet under his arm, but one hand in a steel-backed gauntlet resting on his sword hilt. A bluff, graying man with white scars on his face. Alin Seroku had soldiered forty years along the Blight, yet his eyes widened slightly at the sight of Lan. Plainly he had heard the tales of Lan’s death, too.
“The Light shine upon you, Lord Mandragoran. The son of el’Leanna and al’Akir, blessed be their memories, is always welcome.” Seroku’s eyes flickered toward Bukama, not in welcome. He planted his feet in the middle of the gateway. Five horsemen could have passed easily on either side, but he meant himself for a bar, and he was. None of the guards shifted a boot, yet every one had hand on sword hilt. All but the young man meeting Bukama’s glares with his own. “Lord Marcasiev has commanded us to keep the peace strictly,” Seroku went on, half in apology. But no more than half. “The city is on edge. All these tales of a man channeling are bad enough, but there have been murders in the street this last month and more, in broad daylight, and strange accidents. People whisper about Shadowspawn loose inside the walls.”
Lan gave a slight nod. With the Blight so close, people always muttered of Shadowspawn when they had no other explanation, whether for a sudden death or unexpected crop failure. He did not take up Cat Dancer’s reins, though. “We intend to rest here a few days before riding north.”
For a moment he thought Seroku was surprised. Did the man expect pledges to keep the peace, or apologies for Bukama’s behavior? Either would shame Bukama, now. A pity if the war ended here. Lan did not want to die killing Kandori.
His old friend turned from the young guard, who stood quivering, fists clenched at his sides. “All fault here is mine,” Bukama announced to the air in a flat voice. “I had no call for what I did. By my mother’s name, I will keep Lord Marcasiev’s peace. By my mother’s name, I will not draw sword inside Canluum’s walls.” Seroku’s jaw dropped, and Lan hid his own shock with difficulty.
Hesitating only a moment, the scar-faced officer stepped aside, bowing and touching sword hilt, then heart. “There is always welcome for Lan Mandragoran Dai Shan,” he said formally. “And for Bukama Marenellin, the hero of Salmarna. May you both know peace, one day.”
“There is peace in the mother’s last embrace,” Lan responded with equal formality, touching hilt and heart.
“May she welcome us home, one day,” Seroku finished. No one really wished for the grave, but that was the only place to find peace in the Borderlands.
Face like iron, Bukama strode ahead pulling Sun Lance and the packhorse after him, not waiting for Lan. This was not well.
Canluum was a city of stone and brick, its paved streets twisting around tall hills. The Aiel invasion had never reached the Borderlands, but the ripples of war always diminished trade a long way from any battles, and now that fighting and winter were both finished, the city had filled with people from every land. Despite the Blight practically on the city’s doorstep, gemstones mined in the surrounding hills made Canluum wealthy. And, s
trangely enough, some of the finest clockmakers anywhere. The cries of hawkers and shopkeepers shouting their wares rose above the hum of the crowd even away from the terraced market squares. Colorfully dressed musicians, or jugglers, or tumblers performed at every intersection. A handful of lacquered carriages swayed through the mass of people and wagons and carts and barrows, and horses with gold- or silver-mounted saddles and bridles picked their way through the throng, their riders’ garb embroidered as ornately as the animals’ tack and trimmed with fox or marten or ermine. Hardly a foot of street was left bare anywhere. Lan even saw several Aes Sedai, women with serene, ageless faces. Enough people recognized them on sight that they created eddies in the crowd, swirls to clear a way. Respect or caution, awe or fear, there were sufficient reasons for a king to step aside for a sister. Once you might have gone a year without seeing an Aes Sedai even in the Borderlands, but the sisters seemed to be everywhere since their old Amyrlin Seat died a few months earlier. Maybe it was those tales of a man channeling; they would not let him run free long, if he existed. Lan kept his eyes away from them. The hadori could be enough to attract the interest of a sister seeking a Warder.
Shockingly, lace veils covered many women’s faces. Thin lace, sheer enough to reveal that they had eyes, and no one had ever heard of a female Myrddraal, but Lan had never expected law to yield to mere fashion. Next they would take down the oil lamps lining the streets and let the nights grow black. Even more shocking than the veils, Bukama looked right at some of those women and did not open his mouth. Then a jut-nosed man named Nazar Kurenin rode in front of Bukama’s eyes, and he did not blink. The young guard surely had been born after the Blight swallowed Malkier, but Kurenin, his hair cut short and wearing a forked beard, was twice Lan’s age. The years had not erased the marks of his hadori completely. There were many like Kurenin, and the sight of him should have set Bukama spluttering. Lan eyed his friend worriedly.
They had been moving steadily toward the center of the city, climbing toward the highest hill, Stag’s Stand. Lord Marcasiev’s fortress-like palace covered the peak, with those of lesser lords and ladies on the terraces below. Any threshold up there offered warm welcome for al’Lan Mandragoran. Perhaps warmer than he wanted now. Balls and hunts, with nobles invited from as much as fifty miles away, including from across the border with Arafel. People avid to hear of his “adventures.” Young men wanting to join his forays into the Blight, and old men to compare their experiences there with his. Women eager to share the bed of a man whom, so fool stories claimed, the Blight could not kill. Kandor and Arafel were as bad as any southland at times; some of those women would be married. And there would be men like Kurenin, working to submerge memories of lost Malkier, and women who no longer adorned their foreheads with the ki’sain in pledge that they would swear their sons to oppose the Shadow while they breathed. Lan could ignore the false smiles while they named him al’Lan Dai Shan, diademed battle lord and uncrowned king of a nation betrayed while he was in his cradle. In his present mood, Bukama might do murder. Or worse, given his oaths at the gate. He would keep those to the death.
“Varan Marcasiev will hold us a week or more with ceremony,” Lan said, turning down a narrower street that led away from the Stand. “With what we’ve heard of bandits and the like, he will be just as happy if I don’t appear to make my bows.” True enough. He had met the High Seat of House Marcasiev only once, years past, but he remembered a man given entirely to his duties.
Bukama followed without complaint about missing a palace bed or the feasts the cooks would prepare. It was worrying.
No palaces rose in the hollows toward the north wall, only shops and taverns, inns and stables and wagon yards. Bustle surrounded the factors’ long warehouses, but no carriages came to the Deeps, and most streets were barely wide enough for carts. They were just as jammed with people as the wide ways, though, and every bit as noisy. Here, the street performers’ finery was tarnished, yet they made up for it by being louder, and buyers and sellers alike bellowed as if trying to be heard in the next street. Likely some of the crowd were cutpurses, slipfingers, and other thieves, finished with a morning’s business higher up or headed there for the afternoon. It would have been a wonder otherwise, with so many merchants in town. The second time unseen fingers brushed his coat in the crowd, Lan tucked his purse under his shirt. Any banker would advance him more against the Shienaran estate he had been granted on reaching manhood, but loss of the gold on hand meant accepting the hospitality of Stag’s Stand.
At the first three inns they tried, slate-roofed cubes of gray stone with bright signs out front, the innkeepers had not a cubbyhole to offer. Lesser traders and merchants’ guards filled them to the attics. Bukama began to mutter about making a bed in a hayloft, yet he never mentioned the feather mattresses and linens waiting on the Stand. Leaving their horses with ostlers at a fourth inn, The Blue Rose, Lan entered determined to find some place for them if it took the rest of the day.
Inside, a graying woman, tall and handsome, presided over a crowded common room where talk and laughter almost drowned out the slender girl singing to the music of her zither. Pipesmoke wreathed the ceiling beams, and the smell of roasting lamb floated from the kitchens. As soon as the innkeeper saw Lan and Bukama, she gave her blue-striped apron a twitch and strode toward them, dark eyes sharp.
Before Lan could open his mouth, she seized Bukama’s ears, pulled his head down, and kissed him. Kandori women were seldom retiring, but even so it was a remarkably thorough kiss in front of so many eyes. Pointing fingers and snickering grins flashed among the tables.
“It’s good to see you again, too, Racelle,” Bukama murmured with a small smile when she finally released him. “I didn’t know you had an inn here. Do you think—?” He lowered his gaze rather than meeting her eyes rudely, and that proved a mistake. Racelle’s fist caught his jaw so hard that his hair flailed as he staggered.
“Six years without a word,” she snapped. “Six years!” Grabbing his ears again, she gave him another kiss, longer this time. Took it rather than gave. A sharp twist of his ears met every attempt to do anything besides standing bent over and letting her do as she wished. At least she would not put a knife in his heart if she was kissing him. Perhaps not.
“I think Mistress Arovni might find Bukama a room somewhere,” a man’s familiar voice said dryly behind Lan. “And you, too, I suppose.”
Turning, Lan clasped forearms with the only man in the room beside Bukama of a height with him, Ryne Venamar, his oldest friend except for Bukama. The innkeeper still had Bukama occupied as Ryne led Lan to a small table in the corner. Five years older, Ryne was Malkieri too, but his hair fell in two long bell-laced braids, and more silver bells lined the turned-down tops of his boots and ran up the sleeves of his yellow coat. Bukama did not exactly dislike Ryne—not exactly—yet in his present mood, only Nazar Kurenin could have had a worse effect.
While the pair of them were settling themselves on benches, a serving maid in a striped apron brought hot spiced wine. Apparently Ryne had ordered as soon as he saw Lan. Dark-eyed and full-lipped, she stared Lan up and down openly as she set his mug in front of him, then whispered her name. Lira, in his ear, and an invitation, if he was staying the night. All he wanted that night was sleep, so he lowered his gaze, murmuring that she honored him too much. Lira did not let him finish. With a raucous laugh, she bent to bite his ear, hard, then announced that by tomorrow’s sun she would have honored him till his knees would not hold him up. More laughter flared at the tables around them.
Ryne forestalled any possibility of righting matters, tossing her a fat coin and giving her a slap on the bottom to send her off. Lira offered him a dimpled smile as she slipped the silver into the neck of her dress, but she left sending smoky glances over her shoulder at Lan that made him sigh. If he tried to say no now, she might well pull a knife over the insult.
“So your luck still holds with women, too.” Ryne’s laugh had an edge. Perhaps he fancied her h
imself. “The Light knows, they can’t find you handsome; you get uglier every year. Maybe I ought to try some of that coy modesty, let women lead me by the nose.”
Lan opened his mouth, then took a drink instead of speaking. He should not have to explain, but Ryne’s father had taken him to Arafel the year Lan turned ten. The man wore a single blade on his hip instead of two on his back, yet he was Arafellin to his toenails. He actually started conversations with women who had not spoken to him first. Lan, raised by Bukama and his friends in Shienar, had been surrounded by a small community who held to Malkieri ways.
A number of people around the room were watching their table, sidelong glances over mugs and goblets. A plump copper-skinned woman wearing a much thicker dress than Domani women usually did made no effort to hide her stares as she spoke excitedly to a fellow with curled mustaches and a large pearl in his ear. Probably wondering whether there would be trouble over Lira. Wondering whether a man wearing the hadori really would kill at the drop of a pin.
“I didn’t expect to find you in Canluum.” Lan said, setting the wine mug down. “Guarding a merchant train?” Bukama and the innkeeper were nowhere to be seen.
Ryne shrugged. “Out of Shol Arbela. The luckiest trader in Arafel, they say. Said. Much good it did him. We arrived yesterday, and last night footpads slit his throat two streets over. No return money for me this trip.” He flashed a rueful grin and took a deep pull at his wine, perhaps to the memory of the merchant or perhaps to the lost half of his wages. “Burn me if I thought to see you here, either.”
“You shouldn’t listen to rumors, Ryne. I’ve not taken a wound worth mentioning since I rode south.” Lan decided to twit Bukama if they did get a room, about whether it was already paid for and how. Indignation might take him out of his darkness.
“The Aiel,” Ryne snorted. “I never thought they could put paid to you.” He had never faced Aiel, of course. “I expected you to be wherever Edeyn Arrel is. Chachin, now, I hear.”