They arrived at a three-story inn with a hanging sign painted with a blue rose. The woman who owned this particular inn had once been a poor camp follower who had been knocked up and abandoned by a lieutenant in the Cairhien Calvary. She had been one of the first women Moiraine interviewed on the birth of her son. He had been born just one day too late. The woman had taken the bounty given by the Tower and bought an inn, which she named the Blue Rose. From that day forward she had been one of Moiraine’s most loyal eyes and ears, and despite their long relationship, the woman’s grating voice and near constant cursing still bothered the Aes Sedai.
“Mistress Alys! The light be good to you, and if it don’t, you just tell me where the bloody thing is and I’ll find it and make it be good for you.” On some level, she most likely believed she could do just that, “Now, I doubt you’re here just to call on an old woman and her drunken son. I see you brought that tall dish with you again.” She still had a liking for Lan, who abhorred her overly forward manners.
“You’re quite right Swiana, we’re not here for a social call. I’d like the same arrangements I had last time, with a few more hounds guarding the flock.” She delivered this whole message in the blink of an eye, and in the same breath carried on about how the weather was quite warm for this time of year. The arrangements had been very Cairhien in nature. She wanted any messages addressed to her opened in her presence by the inn keeper herself, she wanted her rooms watched day and night, to keep her privacy safe, and lastly she wanted any rumors winging through the city about either an Aes Sedai or a Lady Damodred entering the city squashed.
Laughing quietly to herself, the large woman answered, “But of course, Mistress Alys. I have my own flock watched by at least five hounds, and I can send twice that to your herd. As for the rest of your previous arrangements, they will of course be honored.” Bowing, she led the Aes Sedai and the warder into their private dinning room. She left, bowing at every third step. Once the door shut and latched behind her, Moiraine finally let her hood drop, along with it the weave that changed her features. It was a tiring weave to maintain, as it required the weaver to hold it, and if tied off would break or freeze, and that would be a fine thing, to have people stop and ask questions of the woman with the frozen face.
Once she was herself again, Moiraine looked at Lan, and he left the room. In the few times they had stayed at inns in Cairhien, they had established a habit. They would be escorted to a private dining room, and Lan would check their rooms for any unpleasantness, and remove them if necessary. While he did that, the Aes Sedai swept the inn of mice and rats. Those creatures, though not always servants of the Dark One, were always disgusting and vile. Moiraine had always disliked the creatures, mainly because of an unfortunate event in her childhood when her younger cousin, one Barthanes, had placed a rat in her bed. She had disliked the boy ever after, and according to her sources, he had risen to be Head of the House after she did not claim the position on Laman’s death. Briefly channeling, she sent out the now familiar weaves and felt as she pushed nine different rats out of the inn. She kept pushing them until they were more than a mile away. The weave she used made them want to leave the area, and hopefully none of them realized that it wasn’t really their desire to leave. If any of them were being controlled by a darkfriend, their master surely knew that an Aes Sedai was behind their sudden departure. Just as she finished tying off the shield to keep the pests out, Lan slowly entered the room.
“Moiraine, I found a man under the bed and two in the wardrobe, all with knives. Each one of them had either instructions from house Riatin or some article with the colors of that house. It seems rather blatant, and I doubt any assassins actually hired by a house would carry that much evidence. If you want, you can look over their bodies.” He delivered this speech as he crossed the room to the pitcher of mulled wine. Pouring himself a glass, he watched her eyes.
Sighing, “I expected as much. Were you able to ask any questions before they died?” His eyebrow arched and she sighed again. “Very well. Have the bodies removed to the cellar where I can examine them later. I am going to my room now. I feel the need to rest, but wake me in an hour so I can go over the bodies. Make sure they are guarded. We’ll hunt the Dromanes woman later.” Summoning the classic Aes Sedai serenity, she left the room in a steady glide, followed closely by Lan who only left her after she was inside her door.
The hour was a quick one, and it felt like she had hardly closed her eyes when there was a timid knocking at her door. Rising out of the bed, she went to the door, and was about to unlatch it, when it struck her. The bond told her Lan was several paces directly beneath her, and even if that had not been the case, he was never timid. Preparing several weaves, some of which were very… unpleasant… Moiraine opened the door. Standing there was a small woman wrapped in as much silk as Moiraine had been upon her arrival to the city.
“Cousin,” her musical tones were very similar to Moiraine’s own accent, “I think we may have more in common than you thought before. My younger brother arrived at the estates today with a description of a woman and a man who he had met on the road. By his description I knew it must be you, and felt that your plans would work nicely with my own. I ask simply that two cousins meet over water.” Again, the codes drilled into her mind as a child surfaced and forced her to invite the woman in to the room. This would be a peaceful meeting, that was assured by the words ‘over water,’ not many knew that the Damodreds had borrowed that from the aiel, and even if this cousin had plans that included the death of Moiraine, the Aes Sedai was far from helpless.
“Please come in. There is water near the chair on the left, and wine near the right. Sit where you will, but I can but drink what you drink, so choose wisely for both of us.” The subtle dance of the game was something all Cairhien children took in with their mother’s milk, and Moiraine had always had a healthy appetite.
“Of course, cousin. It is much too early for wine, for now we shall drink water. Later though we may have the wine. Thank you for agreeing to this audience,” her tone made it sound as if she were the one giving the audience. “My name is Caraline Damodred, your niece by your sister. A certain event has brought many of our cousins home rather quickly. My uncle, your brother was killed setting off a succession for the High Seat of the House. Within weeks each of the members of your generation were killed and my cousin securely held the seat. He has certain… tendencies that make him less than ideal for the seat.” This girl was decent at the game, and unless Moiraine had lost all her touch, the girl was holding back, trying to be direct.
“Caraline, we are both Cairhien. Play your games as you will, and I will understand them. Don’t try to be direct, it mars your message and makes it more convoluted. Let me be direct for a moment. My nephew, your cousin, was instrumental in the removal of my brothers, sister, and cousins, and has seized the High Seat himself. Forgive me, but all I see there is a normal Cairhien family gathering.” Hidden in the directness was a hook that Caraline might miss if she truly were only an intermediate player of the game.
“But Moiraine, there is something different about this event. None of the assassins who removed your peers were paid by the same man, some were even paid by people who have no connection at all to Cairhien politics. Point in case, my own mother died at the hands of a maid who had taken money from an Andoran merchant. Before we could apprehend the merchant, Morgase of Andor had him arrested and tried for being a darkfriend. He hung.” She was good. Neatly sidestepping the hook Moiraine had planted, she set one of her own.
“I see what you are trying to side step saying, but I will not rise to that bait. You my young cousin have one choice: Go home and tell no one what you know about me. If anyone asks you thought I was a friend you have not seen in years. I tell you this now, I will take care of Barthanes as my time allows. If it suits me to allow him to remain in power, then that is according to my plans. You will not harm him or do anything to inconvenience his continued good health. Have I made myself clear, younger cousin?” There was a time for the game, and a time for an out right show of power.
Bowing her head meekly, the girl answered, “Yes, cousin. I will do nothing to endanger either your secret, your plans, or Barthanes’ life. If I may ask, how long do you plan on staying in the city?” Even when giving in the girl still tried to maneuver. She had spirit!
“As long as is necessary, child. Now, run along, and remember our agreement.” From the way Caraline stiffened that was probably the closest thing to a dismissal she had ever received. The girl stood, curtsied, and wrapped herself in her dark silk cloak. With one hand on the door latch, she turned back.
“You know, you’re nothing like mother. She was stubborn and firm, yes like you, but she could never switch from playing the game to commanding and back again as often or as fluently as you just did. I hope someday that my own children come to be as skilled as you are.” There was a small note of family pride, both in Moiraine’s skill and in the future children.
“Well, child, before you hope for your future heirs, speak with your brother. He has the finesse of a Riatin, and about half as much subtlety.” They both had a merry spark in their eyes. It was a long running joke through noble Cairhien houses that House Riatin was the least skilled in the Game and only managed to come out on top as often as they did because they had wealthy lands and could use them to attract more intelligent spouses. “It would not do for him to wade too deeply into a ploy, and have to flounder out of it. It would be even worse if he were to drown. Our house can hardly do with that shame, let alone losing a strong marriage alliance. He could possibly match with that girl in House Taborwin; though her uncle may insist Grammel marry into their house.” Both Moiraine and Caraline laughed at that idea, the older woman’s alto laugh nicely complimented by the younger woman’s contralto. A sudden realization hit Moiraine. The woman in front of her was, at most, only 10 years her junior. During this whole conversation, the Aes Sedai had treated the other woman as a girl, but Caraline probably remembered the grand festival that was held to honor Moiraine’s departure for the Tower. Laughing, Moiraine allowed the other woman to leave, and sank back into her chair.
Just as she closed her eyes, a hard knock sounded and within a heartbeat, the door opened revealing Lan. His eyes widened a fraction to see her already awake, but with no other outward sign of shock, he began to speak.
“The girl smothered in the silks? Do I need to follow her? The bodies are ready for your inspection.” His icy eyes latched onto hers, and held them as she answered each of his questions.
“Yes, she is a cousin of mine who recognized me from the boy’s description, blast him. No, do not follow her. I think we can trust her. She has the best interest of the House in her mind, and hopes that those best interests include her on the High Seat. She will do as I told her, if only for as long as it takes for my instructions to run out, then it is all up the game. Now, escort me to the bodies.” As they stepped out of the room, Moiraine’s eyes swept the hallway, passing over the other doors, the rugs, the man with a knife, the walls… suddenly her eyes jerked back and her hand flew out and the weave she had held ready for the visitor who woke her flew at the greyman.