The following is the opening section of Chapter 11 to A Memory of Light, the final novel in The Wheel of Time series. It was written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. The novel will be available beginning January 8, 2013. For more information, go here.
Mat had not remembered so many Tinkers around Ebou Dar. Brilliantly colored wagons grew like vibrant mushrooms on an otherwise dun field. There were enough of them to make a bloody city. A city of Tinkers? That would be like...like a city of Aiel. It was just wrong.
Mat trotted Pips along the roadway. Of course, there was an Aiel city. Maybe there would be a Tinker city someday, too. They would buy up all of the colored dye, and everyone else in the world would have to wear brown. There would be no fighting in the city, so it would be downright boring, but there also would not be a single bloody pot with a hole in the bottom for thirty leagues!
Mat smiled, patting Pips. He had covered over his ashandarei as best he could to make it look like a walking pole strapped to the side of the horse. His hat lay inside the pack he had hung from the saddlebags, along with all of his nice coats. He had ripped the lace off the one he wore. It was a shame, but he did not want to be recognized.
He wore a crude bandage wrapped around the side of his head, covering his missing eye. As he approached the Dal Eira gate, he fell into line behind the others awaiting permission to enter. He should look just like another wounded sell-sword riding into the city, seeking refuge or perhaps work.
He made certain to slump in the saddle. Keep your head down: good advice on the battlefield and when entering a city where people knew you. He could not be Matrim Cauthon here. Matrim Cauthon had left the queen of this city tied up to be murdered. Many would suspect him of the murder. Light, he would have suspected himself. Beslan would hate him now, and there was no telling how Tuon would feel about him, now that they had had some time apart.
Yes, best to keep his head down and stay quiet. He would feel the place out. If, that was, he ever reached the front of this bloody line. Who ever heard of a line to enter a city?
Eventually, he reached the gate. The bored soldier there had a face like an old shovel—it was half-covered in dirt and would be better off locked in a shed somewhere. He looked Mat up and down.
“You have sworn the oaths, traveler?” the guard asked in a lazy Seanchan drawl. On the other side of the gate, a different soldier waved over the next person in line.
“Yes, I have indeed,” Mat said. “The oaths to the great Seanchan Empire, and the Empress herself, may she live forever. I’m just a poor, traveling sell-sword, once attendant to House Haak, a noble family in Murandy. I lost my eye to some bandits in the Tween Forest two years back while protecting a young child I discovered in the woods. I raised her as my own, but—”
The soldier waved him on. The fellow did not look as if he had been listening. Mat considered staying put out of principle. Why would the soldiers force people to wait in such a long line and give them time to think of a cover story, only to not hear it out? That could offend a man. Not Matrim Cauthon, who was always lighthearted and never offended. But someone else, surely.
He rode on, containing his annoyance. Now, he just needed to make his way to the right tavern. Pity Setalle's place was not an option any longer. That had—
Mat stiffened in the saddle, though Pips continued his leisurely pace forward. Mat had just taken a moment to look at the other guard at the gate. It was Petra, the strongman from Valan Luca’s menagerie!
Mat looked the other way and slumped again in his saddle, then shot another glance over his shoulder. That was Petra, all right. There was no mistaking those log arms and that tree-stump neck. Petra was not a tall man, but he was so wide, an entire army could have taken shade in his shadow. What was he doing back in Ebou Dar? Why was he wearing a Seanchan uniform? Mat almost went over to talk to him, as they had always been amiable, but that Seanchan uniform made him reconsider.
Well, at least his luck was with him. If he had been sent to Petra instead of the guard he had ended up talking to, he would have been recognized for sure. Mat breathed out, then climbed down to lead Pips. The city was crowded, and he did not want the horse pushing someone over. Besides, Pips was laden down enough to look like a packhorse—if the looker knew nothing of horses—and walking might make Mat less memorable.
Perhaps he should have started his search for a tavern in the Rahad. Rumors were always easy to find in the Rahad, as was a game of dice. It was also the easiest place to find a knife in your gut, and that was saying something in Ebou Dar. In the Rahad people were as likely to take out their knives and begin killing as they were to say hello in the morning.
He did not go into the Rahad. The place looked different, now. There were soldiers camped outside it. Generations of successive rulers in Ebou Dar had allowed the Rahad to fester unchecked, but the Seanchan were not so inclined.
Mat wished them luck. The Rahad had fought off every invasion so far. Light. Rand should have just hidden there, instead of going up to fight the Last Battle. The Trollocs and Darkfriends would have come for him, and the Rahad would have left them all unconscious in an alleyway, their pockets turned inside out and their shoes sold for soup money.
Mat shouldered his way over a crowded canal bridge, keeping a close eye on his saddlebags, but so far, not a single cutpurse had tried for them. With a Seanchan patrol on every other corner, he could see why. As he passed a man yelling out the day’s news, with hints that he had good gossip for a little coin, Mat found himself smiling. He was surprised at how familiar, even comfortable, this city felt. He had liked it here. Though he could vaguely remember grumbling about wanting to be away—probably just after the wall fell on him, as Matrim Cauthon was not often one for grumbling—he now realized that his time in Ebou Dar had been among the best of his life. Plenty of friends for card playing and dice games to be had in the Rahad.
Tylin. Bloody ashes, but that had been a fun game. She had had the better of him time and again. Light send him plenty of women who could do that, though not in rapid succession, and always when he knew how to find the back door. Tuon was one. Come to think of it, he would probably never need another. She was enough of a handful for any man. Mat smiled, patting Pips on the neck. The horse blew down Mat’s neck in return.
Strangely, this place felt more like home to him than the Two Rivers did. Yes, the Ebou Dari were prickly, but all peoples had their quirks. In fact, as Mat thought about it, he had never met a people who were not prickly about one thing or another. The Borderlanders were baffling, and so were the Aiel—that went without saying. The Cairhienin and their strange games, the Tairens and their ridiculous hierarchies, the Seanchan and their...Seanchan-ness.
That was the truth of it. Everyone outside the Two Rivers, and to a lesser extent Andor, was bloody insane. A man just had to be ready for that.
He strolled along, careful to be polite, lest he find a knife in his gut. The air smelled of a hundred sweetmeats, the chattering crowd a low roar in his ears. The Ebou Dari still wore their colorful outfits—maybe that was why the Tinkers had come here, drawn to the bright colors like soldiers drawn to dinner—anyway, the Ebou Dari women wore dresses with tight laced tops that showed plenty of bosom, not that Mat looked. Their skirts had colorful petticoats underneath and they pinned up the side or front to show them off. That never had made sense to him. Why put the colorful parts underneath? And if you did, why take such pains to cover them over, then go around with the outside pinned up?
The men wore long vests that were equally colorful, perhaps to hide the bloodstains when they were stabbed. No point in throwing away a good vest just because the fellow wearing it was murdered for inquiring after the weather. Though...as Mat walked along, he found fewer duels than he had expected. They never had been as common in this part of the city as in the Rahad, but some days, he had hardly been able to take two steps without passing a pair of men with knives out. This day, he saw not a single one.
Some of the Ebou Dari—you could often tell them by their olive skin—were parading around in Seanchan dress. Everyone was very polite. As polite as a six-year-old boy who had just heard that you had a fresh apple pie back in the kitchen.
The city was the same, but different. The feel was off a shade or two. And it was not just that there were no Sea Folk ships in the harbor any longer. It was the Seanchan, obviously. They’d made rules since he’d left. What kind?
Mat took Pips to a stable that seemed reputable enough. A quick glance at their stock told him that; they were caring well for the animals, and many were very fine. It was best to trust a stable with fine horses, though it cost you a little more.
He left Pips, took his bundle, and used the still-wrapped ashandarei as a walking staff. Choosing the right tavern was as tough as choosing a good wine. You wanted one that was old, but not broken down. Clean, but not too clean—a spotless tavern was one that never saw any real use. Mat could not stand the types of places where people sat around quietly and drank tea, coming there primarily to be seen.
No, a good tavern was worn and used, like good boots. It was also sturdy, again like good boots. So long as the ale did not taste like good boots, you would have a winner. The best places for information were over in the Rahad, but his clothing was too nice to visit, and he did not want to run into whatever the Seanchan were doing there.
He stuck his head into an inn named The Winter Blossom, and immediately turned around and stalked away. Deathwatch Guards in uniform. He did not want to take any slight chance of running into Furyk Karede. The next inn was too well lit, and the next too dark. After about an hour of hunting—and not a duel to be seen—he began to despair of ever finding the right place. Then he heard dice tumbling in a cup.
At first, he jumped, thinking that it was those blasted dice in his head. Fortunately, it was just ordinary dice. Blessed, wonderful dice. The sound was gone in a moment, carried on the wind through the throng of people in the streets. Hand on his coin purse, pack over his shoulder, he pushed through the crowd, muttering a few apologies. In a nearby alleyway, he saw a sign hanging from a wall.
He stepped up to it, reading the words “The Yearly Brawl” in copper on its face. It had a picture of clapping people, and the sounds of dice mixed with the smells of wine and ale. Mat stepped inside. A round-faced Seanchan stood just inside the door, leaning casually against the wall, a sword on his belt. He gave Mat a distrustful stare. Well, Mat had never met a shoulderthumper who did not give that look to every man who entered. Mat reached up to tip his hat to the man, but of course he was not wearing it. Bloody ashes. He felt naked without it, sometimes.
“Jame!” a woman called from beside the bar. “You aren’t glaring at customers again, are you?”
“Only the ones that deserve it, Kathana,” the man called back with a Seanchan slur. “I’m sure this one does.”
“I’m just a humble traveler,” Mat said, “looking for some dicing and some wine. Nothing more. Certainly not trouble.”
“And that’s why you’re carrying a polearm?” Jame asked. “Wrapped up like that?”
“Oh, stop it,” the woman, Kathana, said. She had crossed the common room and took Mat by the sleeve of his coat, dragging him toward the bar. She was a short thing, dark-haired and fair-skinned. She was not that much older than he was, but she had an unmistakable motherly air. “Don’t mind him. Just don’t make trouble, and he won’t be forced to stab you, kill you, or anything in between.”
She plunked Mat down on a bar stool and started busying herself behind the bar. The common room was dim, but in a friendly way. People diced at one side, the good kind of dicing. The kind that had people laughing or clapping their friends on the back at a good-natured loss. No haunted eyes of men gambling their last coin, here.
“You need food,” Kathana declared. “You have the look of a man who hasn’t eaten anything hearty in a week. How’d you lose that eye?”
“I was a lord’s guard in Murandy,” Mat said. “Lost it in an ambush.”
“That’s a great lie,” Kathana said, slapping a plate down in front of him, full of slices of pork and gravy. “Better than most. You said it really straight, too. I almost believe you. Jame, you want food?”
“I have to guard the door!” he called back.
“Light, man. You expect someone to walk off with it? Get over here.”
Jame grumbled but made his way over to the bar beside Mat, settling down on a stool. Kathana set a mug of ale down, and he took it up to his lips, staring straight ahead. “I’m watching you,” he muttered to Mat.
Mat was not certain this was the right inn for him, but he also was not certain he would be able to escape with his head unless he ate the woman’s food as instructed. He took a taste; it was pretty good. She had moved over and was wagging a finger while lecturing a man at one of the tables. She seemed the type who would lecture a tree for growing in the wrong spot.
This woman, Mat thought, must never be allowed to enter the same room as Nynaeve. At least not when I’m within shouting distance.
Kathana came bustling back. She wore a marriage knife at her neck, though Mat did not stare for more than a few seconds on account of him being a married man. She had her skirt pinned up on the side after the fashion of Ebou Dari commoners. As she came back to the bar and readied a plate of food for Jame, Mat noticed him watching her fondly, and made a guess. “You two been married long?” Mat asked.
Jame eyed him. “No,” he finally said. “Haven’t been on this side of the ocean for long.”
“I suppose that would make sense,” Mat said, taking a drink of the ale she set before him. It was not bad, considering how awful most things tasted these days. This was only a little awful.
Kathana walked over to the dicing men and demanded they eat more food, as they were looking pale. It was a wonder this Jame fellow did not weigh as much as two horses. She did talk some, though, so perhaps he could wiggle the information he needed out of her.
“There don’t seem to be as many duels as there used to be,” Mat said to her as she passed.
“That’s because of a Seanchan rule,” Kathana said, “from the new Empress, may she live forever. She didn’t forbid duels entirely, and a bloody good thing she didn’t. The Ebou Dari won’t riot at something as unimportant as being conquered, but take away our duels...then you’ll see something. Anyway, duels now have to be witnessed by an official of the government. You can’t duel without answering a hundred different questions and paying a fee. It’s drained the whole life out of it all.”
“It has saved lives,” Jame said. “Men can still die by each other’s knives if they are determined. They simply have to give themselves time to cool down and think.”
“Duels aren’t about thinking,” Kathana said. “But I suppose it does mean that I don’t have to worry about your pretty face being cut up on the street.”
Jame snorted, resting his hand on his sword. The hilt, Mat noticed for the first time, was marked with herons—though he could not see if the blade was or not. Before Mat could ask another question, Kathana marched away and began squawking at some men who had spilled ale on their table. She did not seem the type to stand in one place for very long.
“How’s the weather, to the north?” Jame asked, eyes still straight ahead.
“Dreary,” Mat replied, honestly. “As everywhere.”
“Men say it’s the Last Battle,” Jame said.
Jame grunted. “If it is, it would be a bad time for interfering with politics, wouldn’t you think?”
“Bloody right it would be,” Mat said. “People need to stop playing games and have a look at the sky.”
Jame eyed him. “That’s the truth. You should listen to what you are saying.”
Light, Mat thought. He must think I’m a spy of some sort. “It’s not my choice,” Mat said. “Sometimes, people will only listen to what they want to hear.” He took another bite of his meat, which tasted as good as could be expected. Eating a meal these days was like going to a dance where there were only ugly girls. This, however, was among the better of the bad that he had had the misfortune of eating, lately.
“A wise man might just learn the truth,” Jame said.
“You have to find the truth first,” Mat said. “It’s harder than most men think.”
From behind, Kathana snorted, bustling past. “The ‘truth’ is something men debate in bars when they’re too drunk to remember their names. That means it’s not in good company. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it, traveler.”
“The name’s Mandevwin,” Mat said.
“I’m sure it is,” Kathana said. She looked him over then. “Has anyone ever told you that you should wear a hat? It would fit the missing eye quite well.”
“Is that so,” Mat said dryly. “You give fashion advice as well as force-feeding men?”
She swatted him on the back of the head with her cleaning rag. “Eat your food.”
“Look, friend,” Jame said, turning toward him. “I know what you are and why you are here. The fake eye bandage is not fooling me. You have throwing knives tucked into your sleeves and six more on your belt that I can count. I’ve never met a man with one eye who could throw worth a dried bean. She’s not as easy a target as you foreigners think. You’ll never make it into the palace, let alone through her bodyguards. Go find some honest work instead.”
Mat gaped at the man. He thought Mat was an assassin? Mat reached up and took off the bandage, exposing the hole where his eye had been.
Jame started at that.
“There are assassins,” Mat said calmly, “after Tuon?”
“Don’t use her name like that,” Kathana said, beginning to snap her cleaning rag at him again.
Mat reached up beside his head without looking, catching the tip of the rag. He held Jame’s eyes with his single one, not flinching.
“There are assassins,” Mat repeated calmly, “after Tuon?”
Jame nodded. “Mostly foreigners who don’t know the right way of things. Several have moved through the inn. Only one admitted the reason he was here. I saw that his blood fed the dusty earth of the dueling grounds.”
“Then I count you a friend,” Mat said, standing. He reached into his bundle and took out his hat and put it upon his head. “Who is behind it? Who has brought them in, put the bounty on her head?”
Nearby, Kathana inspected his hat and nodded in satisfaction. Then she hesitated and squinted at his face.
“This isn’t what you think,” Jame said. “He isn’t hiring the best assassins. They’re foreigners, so they aren’t meant to succeed.”
“I don’t care how bloody likely their chances are,” Mat said. “Who is hiring them?”
“He’s too important for you to—”
“Who?” Mat said softly.
“General Lunal Galgan,” Jame said. “Head of the Seanchan armies. I can’t make you out, friend. Are you an assassin, or are you here hunting assassins?”
“I’m no bloody assassin,” Mat said, pulling the brim of his hat down and picking up his bundle. “I never kill a man unless he demands it—demands it with screams and thunder so loudly, I figure it would be impolite not to agree to the request. If I stab you, friend, you’ll know that it is coming, and you will know why. I promise you that.”
“Jame,” Kathana hissed. “It’s him.”
“What now?” Jame asked as Mat brushed past, raising his covered ashandarei to his shoulder.
“The one the guards have been looking for!” Kathana said. She looked to Mat. “Light! Every soldier in Ebou Dar has been told to watch for your face. How did you make it through the city gates?”
“By luck,” Mat said, then stepped out into the alleyway.