If Elayne and Birgitte seemed to deflect any thought of talk, Nynaeve al’Meara, directly opposite Aviendha by the door, rebuffed it firmly. Nynaeve; not Nynaeve al’Meara. Wetlanders liked to be called by only half their names, and Aviendha was trying to remember, however much it felt like using a honey-name. Rand al’Thor was the only lover she had ever had, and she did not think even of him so intimately, but she had to learn their ways if she was to wed one of them.
Nynaeve’s deep brown eyes stared through her. Her knuckles were white on a thick braid as dark as Birgitte’s was golden, and her face had gone beyond pale to a faint green. From time to time she emitted a tiny muted groan. She did not usually sweat; she and Elayne had taught Aviendha the trick. Nynaeve was a puzzle. Brave to the point of madness sometimes, she moaned over her supposed cowardice, and here she displayed her shame for all to see without a care. How could the motion disturb her so, when all that water did not?
Water again. Aviendha shut her eyes to avoid seeing Nynaeve’s face, but that only made the sounds of the birds and the lapping water fill her head.
“I have been thinking,” Elayne said suddenly, then paused. “Are you all right, Aviendha? You. . . .” Aviendha’s cheeks reddened, but at least Elayne did not say aloud that she had jumped like a rabbit at the sound of her voice. Elayne seemed to realize how close she had come to revealing Aviendha’s dishonor; color flushed her own cheeks as she continued. “I was thinking about Nicola, and Areina. About what Egwene told us last night. You don’t suppose they can cause her any trouble, do you? What is she to do?”
“Rid herself of them,” Aviendha said, drawing a thumb across her neck. The relief of speaking, of hearing voices, was so great that she almost gasped. Elayne appeared shocked. She was remarkably softhearted at times.
“It might be for the best,” Birgitte said. She had revealed no more name than that. Aviendha thought her a woman with secrets. “Areina could have made something of herself with time, but—Don’t look at me that way, Elayne, and stop going all prim and indignant in your head.” Birgitte often slipped back and forth between the Warder who obeyed and the older first-sister who instructed whether or not you wished to learn. Right then, waving an admonishing finger, she was the first-sister. “You two wouldn’t have been warned to stay away if it was a difficulty the Amyrlin could solve by having them set to work with the laundresses or the like.”
Elayne gave a sharp sniff in the face of what she could not deny, and adjusted her green silk skirts where they were drawn up in front to expose layers of blue and white petticoats. She was wearing the local fashion, complete with creamy lace at her wrists and around her neck, a gift from Tylin Quintara, as was the close-fitting necklace of woven gold. Aviendha did not approve. The upper half of the dress, the bodice, fitted as snugly as that necklace, and a missing narrow oval of cloth revealed the inner slopes of her breasts. Walking about where all could see was not the same as the sweat tents; people in the streets of the city were not gai’shain. Her own dress had a high neck that brushed her chin with lace and no parts of it missing.
“Beside,” Birgitte went on, “I would think Marigan would worry you more. She frightens me spitless.”
That name got through to Nynaeve, as well it might. Her groaning ceased, and she sat up straight. “If she comes after us, we will just settle for her again. We’ll . . . we’ll. . . .” Drawing breath, she stared at them pointedly, as if they were arguing with her. What she said, in a faint voice, was. “Do you think she will?”
“Fretting will do no good,” Elayne told her, much more calmly than Aviendha could have managed if she thought one of the Shadowsouled had marked her out. “We will just have to do as Egwene said and be careful.” Nynaeve muttered something inaudible, which was probably just as well.
Silence descended again, Elayne settling to a browner study than before, Birgitte propping her chin on one hand as she frowned at nothing. Nynaeve kept right on grumbling under her breath, but she had both hands pressed to her middle now, and from time to time she paused to swallow. The splashing of water seemed louder than ever, and the cries of the birds.
“I have been thinking too, near-sister.” She and Elayne had not reached the point of adopting each other as first-sisters yet, but she was sure they would, now. Already they brushed each other’s hair, and every night in the dark shared another secret never told to anyone else. This Min woman, though. . . . That was for later, when they were alone.
“About what?” Elayne asked absently.
“Our search. We prepare for success, but we are as far away as when we began. Does it make sense not to use every weapon at hand? Mat Cauthon is ta’veren, yet we work to avoid him. Why not take him with us? With him, we might find the bowl at last.”
“Mat?” Nynaeve exclaimed incredulously. “As well stuff your shift full of nettles! I would not endure the man if he had the bowl in his coat pocket.”
“Oh, do be quiet, Nynaeve,” Elayne murmured, without any heat. She shook her head wonderingly, taking no notice of the other’s sudden glower. “Prickly” only began to describe Nynaeve, but they were all used to her ways. “Why didn’t I think of that? It is so obvious!”
“Maybe,” Birgitte murmured dryly, “you had Mat the scoundrel set so hard in your mind, you couldn’t see he had any use.” Elayne gave her a cool stare, chin raised, then abruptly grimaced, and nodded reluctantly. She did not accept criticism easily.
“No,” Nynaeve said in a voice that somehow managed to be sharp and weak at the same time. The sickly cast of her face had deepened, but it no longer seemed caused by the boat’s heaving. “You cannot possibly mean it! Elayne, you know what a torment he can be, how stubborn he is. He’ll insist on bringing those soldiers of his like a feastday parade. Try finding anything in the Rahad with soldiers at your shoulder. Just try! Inside two steps, he’ll try to take charge, flaunting that ter’angreal at us. He’s a thousand times worse than Vandene or Adeleas, or even Merilille. The way he behaves, you would think we’d walk into a bear’s den just to see the bear!”
Birgitte made a noise in her throat that might have been amusement, and received a darted glare. She returned such a look of bland innocence that Nynaeve began to sou