The gig is up, the news is out,
They've finally found me
That renegade who had it made
Retrieved for a bounty...
A chorus of oaths and curses went up around the table, and Valentine's was as loud as any, and more profane than most. The lucky winner, a skinny grinning fellow with a gold tooth and a hoop in his left ear, raked in the pile of silver and copper coins.
There were five or six of them, hunkered in the corner of the common room in a pub called The Feathered Fox. It was a dive, but not one of the worst stripe...seldom was there more than one brawl a night, and they mostly broke themselves up without need of the watch, although Luigi, the hulking Mayener bouncer, did occasionally find the need to employ the big cudgel he called "Peacemaker". This weapon, nearly as thick as Luigi's arm (which was thick indeed) did not require more than one blow to settle the most unruly drunk.
The grinning fellow did not bother to hide his glee, which in Val's opinion was poor manners...and stupid, considering that most of the other players were not bothering to hide their ugly looks. He had won a fair bit out of most of them, and they were not taking it well. If the man was smart, he'd quit while he was ahead soon. Cutpurses and robbers were uncommon in Tar Valon, but only a fool thought that made the streets totally safe. Streets like this one, Two Penny Pathway, were places where an incautious man could find himself with a lump on his head and his pockets empty.
"Come on then, lads," he said, still shining that gold tooth. "Another round?" He rattled the dice in the cup, and signalled the barmaid to bring him another flagon. "I'd wager you have a bit more coin I could win, if you're man enough to risk it."
Two of the other players muttered excuses and stood to walk off, deciding to cut their losses. The others tossed coppers into the circle, placing their wagers on the next round of dice. Valentine considered, then added his own. The cocky gambler shook the cup ostentatiously, then made his toss. The others were either directing black looks at the gold-toothed man or watching the spinning dice, waiting to see the outcome. Not Valentine...he was watching the gambler's hands.
The dice came down...three crowns and two roses. There were groans and more curses; it was a good throw, unlikely to be beaten, though it was possible. But they wouldn't see...Valentine had made his decision.
"Anyone think they'll beat that?" the skinny man crowed, but his smile vanished as Val reached over and gripped him by the wrist.
"Why do you no open your palm there, that's a good fellow," Val said, in a perfectly amiable voice. But his grip was iron-hard on the man's wrist, and despite his soft smile there was nothing friendly about his eyes. The gambler could see it, and he paled visibly. But he didn't open his hand.
Oh well. The hard way. Val squeezed steadily, and he had a very strong grip...he could crack walnuts with his hands, when he wanted to. One could almost hear the bones grinding in the man's wrist, and he gasped in pain, but other than that it was silent in the dice circle. After a few seconds, the man groaned and his hand opened, his fingers numb. Five more dice clattered to the floor...two of them showed the crown, the others various symbols. But it didn't matter. Everyone there knew how the man had just thrown the King, as he had twice previously that evening, and how he managed to produce a just the right number of crowns when he needed them.
Val released him and settled back on his heels. "Well now," he said quietly. "I would say you do be in a bit of trouble, friend."
The man tried his grin again, but it looked weak and sickly. A moment later he went down under a pile of men, and coins and curses flew as the man received the penalty due to cheats. Shortly, after Luigi did some cursing and thumping of his own, the skinny man was tossed out on his ear, minus all his coins, his gold tooth, and his breeches.
Valentine, his pouch satisfyingly jingling, walked back toward the barracks.
When he arrived, he was surprised to find a note on crisp white paper slipped under his door. Go to the first library on the ground floor of the Tower. The girl there will give you further instructions.
It was signed and sealed by his Guard Captain. Val tugged at his short beard...curious, very curious. But he didn't hesitate...orders were orders, that was something he'd learned in the regular army. The Tar Valon Guard had been good to him in his years there...it had been safe enough to be comfortable, but not so safe that it was boring. The pay was good, and regular. And he had grown to like the city...but he couldn't say his feet didn't itch sometimes. But he liked working for the Tower...when the Tower commanded, he could obey.
But things only grew more mysterious when he reached the library. The girl there, a Novice in white, led him without a word through a maze of corridors, up several flights of steps, before handing him off to an Aes Sedai with a gorgeous figure...and a red-fringed shawl. He bowed and made the courtesies, but once the Novice was gone, the Aes Sedai didn't even introduce herself...only made a curt gesture to follow and continued on.
Something about this intrigued Val, and soon he had to hide a smile...but something about it made him a trifle unsettled as well. He had left the club, shortsword, and spear that were his usual sidearms as a Tower Guard back in his room...but he was not unarmed. Even these days, he was never unarmed, even while he slept.
The mysterious--but very attractive, Val decided, watching her backside surreptitiously as she led the way--Red Sister eventually led him to a small room on the upper levels of the Tower. She went in, and he followed her, but had taken three strides in before he realized she had stayed by the door, to close it behind them. He stopped and his eyes took in the room.
It was plain enough...a study, perhaps, or a scribe's room. There was a square table with a quartet of sturdy chairs, a scrap of carpet on the floor, and a writing table over by the window. More interesting than the furniture were the occupants, though. Standing by the wall was a tall Domani woman in an embroidered green dress. Despite being very modest by Domani standards, Val couldn't fault her beauty, which was quite the equal of his Red escort. On the windowsill lounged a tall, rail-thin man with a pale blond ponytail and eyes like pieces of slate. He was whetting a long, curved knife...and staring at Val with a cold gaze. For some reason, he looked vaguely familiar.
And seated at the table was a woman Valentine had seen several times, but never spoken a word to. He knew her, of course...in a manner of speaking, she was his boss.
"Mother," he said, bowing quite low. "I did no expect this honor...and confess that I do no understand why I have been called here."
"To discuss an important matter, Valentine Spartakos," the Amyrlin said in her cool, musical voice. "An offer, if you like. Please, sit." She gestured to the chair opposite her. Val's eyes flickered to the man by the window...if he sat, it would put the blond-haired man at his back.
"No offense, Mother, but I do think I will stand, do it please you," he said, keeping his voice calm and friendly. "I would no feel proper, sitting with the Amyrlin Seat as if we did be in a tavern somewhere."
"As you like," she said, as if the matter were of no importance. She picked up a piece of paper on the table before her and began to speak, as if reading. "Valentine Spartakos, born in the city of Illian a bit over thirty years past. Mother deceased, father unknown. Still wanted in Illian, if not pursued very hotly, for a wide variety of crimes, including robbery, assault, arson...and murder. Did you know they blamed you for your own mother's death?" She looked at him, and her clear blue eyes were utterly calm. She discussed the death of his mother as if talking about the price of fish in the market.
Valentine felt as though he had been struck with a mallet. How did she...
The question of "how" was irrelevant; she was the Amyrlin Seat. If she wanted information on him, of course she could find it out. The question was why
She didn't wait long for a response, but went back to the paper. "After leaving Illian, led an extensive career as a river pirate, preying on traffic up and down the Erinin mainly. Never caught, though it was a near thing at times. Called "Blackheart" by some Cairhienin...I believe they caught the worst of your predations, didn't they? Shall I go on?"
"What..." His voice was hoarse. He swallowed, then went on in an almost normal tone. "What is this all about, Mother? I can no deny what you've just said...except that I did no kill my mother, and I will have the ears of whatever lying dog did claim that. Aye, I was a crook and a scoundrel and a pirate. I did what I did have to do, when I was young, and will no apologize for it. And if I did become a greedy bastard later...well, I did never kill any that did no have it coming. But I did put all that behind me. I did fight honorably for Andor during the border wars, and I have worn your tabard proudly for three years. If you do mean to repatriate me to Illian..." Better them then the Cairhienin...some there might still remember me, and would be happy to have me a piece at a time...
She smiled, or he thought she did...it was quite faint. "No, Valentine, I have no interest in turning you over to your countrymen. I bring this all up so that you know that I know who you are. And I want you to know that you could be of use to me. This brings me to the offer I spoke of."
"I want you to work for me. Not for the Tower, as you do now, or for Tar Valon, as you did for the Andorans. You would answer to no one but me and my select agents--" she motioned to the Domani woman "--and would act as my eyes, ears, and hands when I am...unable to act for myself." Her voice didn't change, but her eyes grew even colder if possible. "This will mean, on occasion, dipping back into those skills you 'put behind you'. It will mean bending the law, or fracturing it, or even shattering it if such becomes necessary. And it means keeping all of this secret, of course. That should go without saying."
It did. Valentine's thoughts were racing...a secret cabal, a group of select agents working exclusively for the Amyrlin Seat? "What do be in this for me?" he asked, and was pleased that his voice was calm, almost casual.
The Amyrlin quirked an eyebrow. "What do you want? I don't promise you riches or fame...but I will do whatever I can to aid you, in secret. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you will be serving a greater good, aiding the Tower and the Light." Her voice softened slightly. "You have seen, I'm sure, those who use the law to hide behind, to serve their own ends. There are times when the law serves to pervert justice and right...times when the law must be avoided in order to do what should be done, or what must be done. That will be your calling. And you will, if you wish to see it this way, work towards atoning for a few of those sins in your past."
"What if I do say no?"
In an instant, any trace of softness was gone. Those blue eyes might have been ice. "Come now, Valentine...I'm sure a smart man like yourself knows the answer to that question."
Val didn't even need to look at the ponytailed man to know the change in his posture, the tensing of his muscles. And he knew now where he'd seen him before...that man was Elijah Hawke, a man who sometimes trained in the yards with Guards and Gaidin. A deadlier man would be hard to find. And of course, he was in a room with three Aes Sedai. No, this was no choice at all.
But even if it were
a choice, he would have said yes anyway.