In the city of Ebou Dar, in a room on the top floor of a white-plastered building by the river, a man stands, staring blindly out of the window at the night-shrouded city below him. An ordinary man, to look at him, more than twenty, less than thirty, with dark hair and olive skin. Of medium height, and rather slightly built, his clothes of good quality but not too fine. Not a man you would look at twice, passing by on the street. No reason, one would think, for the haunted look in his brown eyes. But then, he no longer goes out, often, to be seen.
Abruptly the man turns, moves from the window. Now he faces a full-length mirror on the wall, stares into it, but what he sees is not the ordinary man that another sees. What he sees is someone strange, someone dangerous, even to himself. With a sound that is half a sob, half the snarl of a cornered animal, he spins away from the mirror, and with no hand touching it, it shatters and crashes to the floor behind him.
The tinkling of broken glass as the mirror fell woke Ralon from his trance. He stared for a moment, dazedly, at the shards of glass and silver at his feet, glinting even in the dim light of a single lamp. Then, with a sharp, convulsive movement, he bent to gather up the glittering pieces. His hands bled, but he scarcely noticed the pain. Mad, a little voice whispered, you're going mad. He looked frantically for somewhere to hide the glass.
"I am not going mad," Ralon said aloud, and was shocked by the harshness of his own voice. He started to gather the shards into a cloth.
Mad, the voice whispered. How long can you hide the evidence? How long will you even be sane enough to care?
"I am not going mad!" He flung the cloth and its contents to the floor, shattering it even further. His voice rose above the tinkle of glass. "I am not going mad! Burn you, I am not going mad!" Abruptly he realised he was shouting and sagged against the wall in despair. "I am not mad." Even to his own ears, it sounded hollow.
He would go mad. It was inevitable, whether it took him quickly or crept up on him as the years passed. Six months now he had held it off, but Ralon knew that eventually the madness would overwhelm him. For a man born with the curse of saidin, death was the only way out. Or gentling. But what's that but a slower way to die? Of one thing Ralon was determined. While his will was still his own, he would not give himself up to Aes Sedai.
He jerked upright, spinning to stare at the door which now stood open. A shadow moved outside, a shadow with human shape. Who? Have they found me already? His mind raced. I won't give myself up!
"Ralon?" It was a woman's voice, soft and musical, and relief jolted through him as he recognised it. He felt the madness lift from him, as if a cool breeze had blown through the room. There were few cool breezes nowadays, of course. The Dark One touched more than saidin now.
"Come in, Leika."
She came through the door with her usual grace, silk skirts whispering softly around her as she moved. A step into the room, and she stopped, eyes wide with shock. "What happened? Are you hurt?"
Ralon looked at the shattered glass lying all around him. There was blood on the floor, and dripping from his hands. I'm going mad, Leika, and I smashed the mirror because I didn't want to see my own face in it. I can channel and I'm going mad. "I fell and knocked the mirror over," he said aloud. "I'm all right."
"You're bleeding -"
"It's nothing!" He softened his voice. "I was clumsy, that's all. No more than that."
For a moment Leika stood where she was, studying him silently. She was a beautiful woman with those bold Saldaean features, dusky skin golden in the lamplight. Her tilted eyes were like pools that a man could drown in, and be glad of it. "At least let me bandage your hands." She pulled a scarf from her belt, white and gold silk. "Is there water?"
"On the table." He gestured towards it. "But you can't use that, Leika, it's far too fine to ruin."
"Of course I can." With a quick movement, she tore the scarf in two. "There! Now it's ruined already." She dipped the torn silk into the water jug and took his hands. Her own hands were gentle, wiping the blood away and removing glass from the cuts. "Ralon, what's wrong? Every time I see you lately you've fallen, or tripped over and broken something."
"I'm clumsy." He pulled his hand away as she knotted the makeshift bandage. "That's all it is."
"More than that. Something's on your mind, Ralon."
He stayed silent, unable to contradict her. Something was on his mind, but if he told her, she would look at him with revulsion. Revulsion and fear. He would almost rather be gentled than that.
"What's wrong?" she repeated, her voice soft. "Ralon, tell me. Please."
"Nothing is wrong! Why should there be?" With an effort he lowered his voice. His anger was at himself, not her. "Forgive me for shouting, Leika. But I think you should go. I will be poor company for you tonight."
"I will go." She did not move. "But first I will say something. Two things."
Ralon made his way to a chair and sat down, suddenly weary. "What things?" She would say now she was leaving him. No woman would put up with the way he was acting these last few months. He dreaded her going - and yet, would she not be safer away from him? "What things, Leika?"
Leika sat down opposite him, smoothing her skirts. Her dark eyes never left his. "First - tomorrow night I sing in the White Swan. I want you to come."
"I will come," he said slowly. Why was she asking this? "And second?"
"Second is this." Her face was serene, but her hands trembled in her lap. "Ralon, I love you, and I thought you loved me. But lovers don't hide things from each other. Tell me what's wrong, and let me help - or by the Light, though I love you, we are lovers no longer."
"I love you, Leika." It was the simple truth. "But it is my burden to bear, not yours. If you want to leave, I will understand."
"I don't want to leave, idiot!" she flared. "I want to help you!"
"There is nothing you can do to help."
After a long moment, Leika stood. Slowly. "Come tomorrow night, Ralon. That is all I ask. And tomorrow night I will ask you again." She crossed the room to the door, but paused to turn back to him. An unshed tear sparkled in her eye. "I love you, Ralon," she said softly. "If you believe nothing else, believe that."
Then she was gone.
"Where is he?" Leika whispered.
She was waiting in a small room that led off the common, garbed already in the Domani silks she wore for performance. Black, her gown was tonight, unrelieved save for a silver belt. It fitted her mood.
"Where is he? The Light help me, where is he?"
Through the half-open door, she could see the common room rapidly filling. A fair few of the customers tonight were nobles, the rest wealthy merchants, or people who had saved for months to hear her. No inn had empty tables when Leika sang. But there's only one I care about. Where is Ralon?
He had said he would come. He had promised. But if he didn't - He has to come! Leika brushed tears away with her hand.
Ralon would come. He had said he would, and he always kept his word. He would come, and he would hear her sing. And then what? If he still won't tell me - then I'll leave. I don't want to leave, but I won't stay here as if we were strangers, and I can't live with him if he won't trust me.
I love him, he knows that. And he loves me. What can be so dreadful he has to hide it from me?
A thousand possibilities flitted through her mind. Is he ill? Dying? No! No, he can't be. He was well enough earlier, distracted, but not ill. A death in his family? Or a friend? But why wouldn't he tell me that?
"Where are you, Ralon?" she said aloud.
"You said something, lady?"
A freckle-faced serving girl put her head round the door. "The room's full, lady, and the musicians ready. What were you saying?"
"I was just thinking aloud." She looked out at the room. 'Full' was perhaps an understatement. Whether or not Ralon was there, she could not see in the crowd. "Tell them I'll be out in a moment."
The freckled maid vanished, and a few seconds later Leika heard her name being announced. An immediate hush fell over the inn, and in the silence Leika left the room where she waited and walked across the common room. As she mounted the small stage at one end, the hush was broken by applause.
With a practiced smile she turned to face her audience, signalling to the two musicians to play. As the harp and flute struck up, she began to sing.
My dreams are like petals on the water,
"Floating Downstream" was a song they had come to expect from her, and one that suited her sensual voice to perfection. But it was for another reason she had chosen it to begin with: she had sang it so often she could sing it now without paying attention to the music, and her eyes and mind roamed the crowd, searching for Ralon.
My dreams are like petals that fall on the water,
Was he listening to her? Was he even there at all?
My heart is a rose that I cast on the water,
He was not there.
I cast my life on the water,
As the audience cheered and clapped, Leika smiled blindly. It was still early. Ralon would come sooner or later. She did not know what she would do if he did not come.
She sang more songs, favourites, songs she was known for. "Falling Star." "The Last Leaves of Autumn." "Mirage." "In the Light of the Moon." "Shariana," with its haunting refrain. It was nearly midnight before she stopped to rest. Under cover of sipping her drink, she scanned the crowd once more, but everyone seemed the same to her. She had to trust that Ralon was here.
Taking the stage again, she raised a hand to hush the musicians. "I have one more song to sing tonight. One song, that I have never sung before." Leika summoned a smile to her lips. "But one that I mean with all my heart." Very quietly, the flute began to play, a sweet, plangent melody. As the strains of the harp joined it, she took a breath. Now...
It's said that two who love enough
Leika's voice was soft, almost inaudible, a silvery whisper of music that drifted rather than was carried through the room.
It's said that if love's strong enough
This song was nothing like the ones she often sang. There were no soaring high notes, no shimmering cadenzas or complex keys. It was unadorned, gentle, the simplest of sentimental songs, but it came from her heart.
But others say the dream's a sham
The candles were burning down. The moon outside was low in the sky.
Yet even if it's just a dream -
Pale and glimmering, a sliver of light, it hung just above the horizon. A knife moon, the crescent was called back in Saldaea. A poem she had once read called it 'the moon of dreams.' Which was it tonight? A dream coming true, or a knife to destroy the dream?
Tell me where you've gone, and let me follow,
The dream, if Ralon heard and understood her song.
Tell me your dream -
The knife if he did not.
It may be just a dream, Leika whispered.
Blinded with tears, the lights blurring into a faraway gleam, Leika sang. Whether Ralon was out there or not, she could not see. She could only hope, hope and dream.
Yet even if it's just a dream,
What more could she do? What more?
Leika stood in the doorway, the shadows veiling her. In her black gown, black hair flowing to her waist, she seemed shadowy herself. Her eyes were darker than any shadow, and he looked away to avoid the plea in those dark eyes.
"Tell me," she said again, and Ralon winced at the raw tone of her voice. She sounded as if she had been weeping. "Were you there tonight, Ralon? Did you hear my song?"
"I was there. And I heard." I love you, my Leika, but I have no right. If I was stronger I would have left already. "I heard your song."
"Then tell me!" She caught at his arm, pulling him around to face her. "Don't turn away; look at me. I laid my heart bare for you, Ralon! For the love of the Light - for our own love, if that means anything to you - tell me what's wrong!"
He stared down into her eyes, seeing the naked pain there. I'm causing her more pain by hiding it. She's right. I have to tell her; I owe it to her. I'll tell her now, and then I'll leave. Sooner or later he would have to leave anyway. Leika would not try to stop him leaving, once she knew: she would be only too glad to have him as far away as possible. And if she told someone - I'll still fight. I won't give myself up meekly, not even for Leika. And yet, if it came to harming her or being captured - it was no choice at all. He would die first.
"Leika, I -" His courage gave out. "It's not an easy thing to say."
"Say it, Ralon. Just say it. Whatever it is, it won't stop me loving you."
But it will, Leika. It couldn't do otherwise. And that's what I dread. "Last year," he began again, "I found out -" He stopped again. "This isn't easy. Leika, yesterday you said to me that if I believed anything I should believe that you loved me. If you ever believe anything, then believe this: I love you, and if I could avoid it I would never do anything to hurt you. Do you believe me, Leika?"
"I believe you," she said quietly. "Since you have said it, I believe you. But what must you now do, Ralon, that will hurt me?"
"Tell you that -" For a third time courage failed him. Tell her, you idiot! he raged silently. Tell her and be gone! He tried to step back, away from her eyes, and almost fell.
Leika was at his side in an instant, steadying him with a hand. "Are you ill?" In a way he was ill, but not in the way she believed. "Is that it? Ralon, there are Aes Sedai in the Tarasin Palace, one a Yellow, I've heard. If I ask -"
"Aes Sedai!" He surprised himself with a bark of laughter. "Oh, Aes Sedai could do something, all right, and I've no doubt they would. But it's not something I'd care to have done."
"I don't understand." Bewilderment and anger clouded Leika's face. "Ralon, what are you saying?"
No more evasions. No more lies. "Leika," Ralon said very quietly, "I can channel."
"No," Leika whispered. "No!"
"No! You can't, you can't be -"
"I can." Ralon's tone held only sadness. "I am." He reached out a hand, but she flinched away, staring at him with horror. This was a nightmare. It had to be. Ralon hadn't said those words, he hadn't - "Show me!" It was a gasp. "Show me, Ralon. I won't believe it otherwise."
Although he did not move, the lamps by the window flared, their light suddenly brighter. The room was as bright as day. She reached out a trembling hand, and jerked it away as she felt the fire's heat.
"You see?" Ralon said quietly. He looked pale and weary. "I can channel, Leika. For months I've known, though I told myself I was wrong. I hoped it was a dream that I would wake from. But this is real, Leika. I am."
Ralon can channel. Ralon is a man who can channel. The words ran through her mind, over and over. A man touched by the Dark One. A man who will go mad.
A man who can channel.
The lamps faded back to their normal brightness, but she barely noticed. She had loved Ralon, had laughed with him, had lain with him all night in the moonlight while the world turned beneath them. But this man was a stranger.
"I never wanted to hurt you, Leika."
She didn't hear him, the words running through her mind. A man I loved. A man who can channel. A man who can channel - and yet he's Ralon, the Light help me. How could I have been so close to him and never known?
A man who can channel.
"I'm leaving," he continued, and her thoughts stopped. "I'll go to Cairhien, to the Black Tower. Maybe I can do some good there - rather die in battle than -" He cut off, but she knew what he was thinking. Than die in madness. "You won't have to see me any more. I love you, Leika - but goodbye."
"You're not going anywhere without me, Ralon Alarrin!" His jaw dropped, yet if anything she was the more shocked. Did I really say that? "I said I love you, and I love you. If you're going to Cairhien then so am I."
I don't believe I said that, Leika thought, dazed. But it's true. He's still Ralon, and I still love him. How could I have been afraid of him? She stepped closer to him, looking up into his face. Ralon. This is Ralon. "Channeling or no channeling, you're the same man I fell in love with two years ago. That hasn't changed. We'll go anywhere you want to, Ralon, whether it be Cairhien or the Pit of Doom - but we'll go. Together."
"No!" Ralon snapped, stepping back from her. "I won't take you into that kind of danger, Leika. If you want to stay with me, you're as mad as - as I'll end up being!"
"Then we'll be mad together," she said lightly, though inwardly she flinched at his words. "Stop glaring, you Ebou Dari barbarian, and close your mouth. I'm coming with you whether you like it or not."
"Leika -" His words came slowly, reluctantly. "There's nothing tying you to me. If we were married - but you've no duty toward me, no reason to come. You should stay as far away from me as possible. Stay here, Leika."
"Do you want me to stay? Look me in the eyes, Ralon, and tell me you don't want me with you." She looked straight at him. "Just that. Tell me you want me to stay here, and I'll stay. Well?"
"I want you to be safe," Ralon began, but he avoided her eyes. She waited, and he sighed. "I want you to come. I want to marry you and take you with me and stay with you forever. And other such sentimental things." He smiled. A crooked smile, true, and it vanished in a second, but it was a smile. "But what I want has nothing to do with it, Leika. You should stay here."
"What you want has everything to do with it." She slipped her arms about his waist, and this time he did not pull back. "Because, as it happens, I want to marry you and come with you and stay with you forever, along with everything else sentimental. Since we agree, that's settled."
His arms came around her. "Leika, Leika, I love you - Wait a moment." He moved back, disentangling her arms. In solemn tones, Ralon said, "I, Ralon Alarrin, do pledge you my love, Leika, to have and to hold, to protect and cherish, all the days of my life, and may the Light be witness to my pledge."
Recognising the marriage vow, Leika smiled. "I, Zuleika Tyrone, do pledge you my love, Ralon Alarrin, to have and to hold, to protect and cherish, all the days of my life. May the Light be witness to my pledge. Now will you kiss me - husband?"
It was a while before either of them could draw breath again.
"Zuleika Tyrone," Ralon murmured later. They were lying together, twined in each other's arms. "We've lived together for nearly two years, and do you realize I never knew your name?"
"Leika is all I ever told anyone, since I left Saldaea. My family and I quarrelled." She propped herself up on one elbow to smile down at him. "Besides, as soon as you found it out, it changed. Zuleika ni Tyrone t'Alarrin is my name now. But you can still call me Leika - or even better, Ralon," she brushed his lips softly with hers, "call me your love."
"My love." Ralon pulled her down to him, kissing her back. "My wife..."
It was a dream.