Hello, and welcome back to the Wheel of Time Re-read!
Today’s entry covers Chapter 19 of Towers of Midnight, in which a bargain is made, and a box is unknowingly opened.
The post is short today due to an unexpected family medical issue, which is currently ongoing. I’ll try to make it up for next week.
Previous re-read entries are here. The Wheel of Time Master Index is here, which has links to news, reviews, interviews, and all manner of information about the Wheel of Time in general, including the upcoming final volume, A Memory of Light.
This re-read post contains spoilers for all currently published Wheel of Time novels. If you haven’t read, read at your own risk.
And now, the post!
Chapter 19: Talk of Dragons
Mat is on his way out of the camp to head for the city when he is intercepted by Olver, who excitedly tells him he has some ideas about how to defeat the Snakes and Foxes, and wants to plan. Mat curses himself for talking about any of that in front of the boy, and tells him he has to go talk to a Queen right now, but will come by Olver’s inn and talk to him tomorrow. He is dismayed to learn that Olver has talked about their mission to several Redarms as well as Talmanes, and warns him to be more discreet.
Olver nodded. “All right, Mat. But… blood and bloody ashes!” He turned and walked away.
“And stop swearing!” Mat called after him, then shook his head. Bloody soldiers would have Olver corrupted by the time he was twelve.
Mat joins Thom and Talmanes, and is shocked to see Thom decked out in finery for once; Thom says that if he is going to go back to Caemlyn after all this time, he may as well look the part. Talmanes is critical of Mat’s own coat, which is rather the worse for wear, and Mat retorts that he is a farmer, no matter what Musenge called him.
“He was mistaken,” Mat said. “Just because a man marries someone doesn’t mean he suddenly becomes bloody nobility.”
Thom and Talmanes exchanged a look.
“Mat,” Thom said. “That’s actually exactly how it works. It’s pretty much one of the only ways to become nobility.”
Mat insists that it might not be that way in Seanchan, and suspects that Talmanes is laughing at him. Thom asks dryly if he doesn’t want to also roll in the mud first, and they set out with fifty of the Band as escort. Mat spends the ride worrying about how to convince Elayne to give him the exorbitant amount of materiel Aludra claims to require, and wondering how he gets himself into these situations. He also wonders if Elayne knows how unstable the situation out here is, with almost ten thousand mercenaries camped around the city in various groups, though the Band is larger and more organized than any of them. He is unnerved by the number of people who come to watch them pass. They enter the city and wind their way to the Inner City and the Palace, where Charlz Guybon meets them at the gate, and Mat wonders what it signifies that Elayne sent someone so high-ranking to meet him. Guybon comments that he’s heard a lot about Mat, and Mat replies that half are lies and the rest wasn’t his fault.
Guybon laughed. “What of the story of you hanging from a tree for nine days?”
“Didn’t happen,” Mat said, resisting the urge to tug at the scarf around his neck. Nine days? Where did that come from? He had not even hung for nine bloody minutes! Nine seconds had been too long.
“They also say,” Guybon continued, “that you never lose at dice or at love, and that your spear never misses its target.”
“Wish those second two were true. Burn me, but I wish they were.”
Mat also denies the rumor that he had killed one of the Forsaken, but admits he killed Couladin, though he tries to make light of it.
“Well, there’s this rumor that says you stepped into death’s domain to challenge him and demand answers to your questions,” Guybon said, looking more embarrassed. “And that he gave you that spear you hold and foretold to you your own death.”
Mat felt a chill. That one was close enough to the truth to be frightening.
“Silly, I know,” Guybon said.
“Sure,” Mat said. “Silly.” He tried to laugh, but it came out as a cough. Guybon regarded him curiously.
Light, Mat realized, he thinks I’m dodging the question! “Only rumors, of course,” Mat said quickly. Too quickly, maybe. Blood and bloody ashes!
Guybon nodded, looking thoughtful.
Mat then realizes that many of the onlookers are looking at Thom, not him, the court bard returned from exile. Guybon takes him and Thom to a sitting room (Talmanes is disappointed to be left behind), and Mat gathers himself, preparing to be humiliated at Elayne’s hands. They enter to find Elayne and Birgitte inside, and Elayne immediately rushes to embrace Thom tearfully, and then welcomes Mat warmly, saying Andor owes him a debt for his service. Disconcerted, Mat warns her he’s not going to bow or anything, and Elayne laughs and replies she would only expect it in public for appearance’s sake. Birgitte hugs Mat, and Elayne apologizes to him for making him wait so long, explaining about the mix-up with Norry, and offers to let the Band move closer to the walls. Mat is astounded to learn she is pregnant with twins, and divines that Rand is the father, though Elayne does not confirm that. Birgitte asks after Olver, and Thom says he fears the boy is destined to be a soldier.
“Not a bad life,” Birgitte said. “Eh, Mat?”
“There are worse,” he said, still trying to get his legs underneath him. How had becoming Queen made Elayne less high-and-mighty? Had he missed something? She actually seemed agreeable now!
Thom (dramatically) tells the story of their escape from Ebou Dar, but Mat cuts him off before he gets to the part where he married Tuon, and asks if they’d seen Verin. Elayne says they haven’t, and Mat gets down to business, showing them Aludra’s lists and what they’re for. Elayne doesn’t get it at first, but Birgitte immediately realizes the dragons’ purpose. Mat tells them Aludra claims that fifty dragons could knock down a wall like the one around Caemlyn in a few hours. Elayne pales, and Mat hastens to explain to her how they could also be used to fight Trollocs, against whose numbers they will be at a distinct disadvantage otherwise. Mat thinks she is upset, but:
“Mat, I could kiss you,” she declared. “This is exactly what I needed!”
Mat blinked. What?
Elayne says they’ll need proof the dragons work as promised of course, but if so she will put every man she can on building them. Mat is puzzled by her generosity until he realizes she means them to be for Andor, not the Band. He protests that they are his plans, and Elayne counters that they are her resources. Mat tells her he doesn’t trust these weapons in any hands but his own, and Elayne offers to make the Band part of Andor’s forces, with full backing from the Crown. Mat is tempted, but doesn’t think Elayne will be pleased when she finds out his connection with the Seanchan, who he doesn’t want to have the dragons either. He offers to split the dragons with Andor, and Elayne counteroffers to limit their use to the Band until they leave Andor. Mat insists that the Band must be able to keep one quarter of them even when they do leave, and to sweeten the deal, offers to let her study his medallion for one day. Elayne demands a one-year contract and to keep four out of five dragons. Mat counters that he wants one out of four, and a new serving man.
“A what?” Elayne said.
“A serving man,” Mat said. “You know, to take care of my clothing. You’d do a better job of picking than I would.”
Elayne looked at his coat, then up at his hair. “That,” she said, “I’ll give you regardless of how the other negotiations go.”
She wants the medallion for three days, and Mat shivers, thinking of the gholam, and asks what she wants to do with it. Elayne says she wants to copy it, and Mat is relieved that she doesn’t seem to want to find a way to counteract it. He tells her about the gholam being in town, and worried, she promises to return the medallion to him in three days promptly. He agrees to the deal, and she tells him she will want the Band to move to Cairhien right away. Mat realizes she is making a play for the Sun Throne, and has no problem with that, but warns her that the Band must be free to fight in the Last Battle, and that she cannot sell the technology to others. She comments that someone will replicate it eventually, but Mat says they won’t be as good as Aludra. Elayne campaigns once more to have the Band a fully commissioned Andoran force, but Mat refuses to let anyone but him decide when his men are put to risk. Elayne hesitates, and then agrees, and they spit and shake on it.
“Did you know that I might ask you to take arms against the Two Rivers?” she asked. “Is that why you demanded the right to leave if you want?”
Against the Two Rivers? Why under the Light would she want to do that? “You don’t need to fight them, Elayne.”
“We shall see what Perrin forces me to do,” she replied.
She invites them to dinner, and gives a paper to Thom, telling him it is an offer to reinstate him as court bard. Thom is honored, but tells her there are things he needs to do. She replies he would be free to come and go as he wishes, and he says he will consider it. Elayne is pleased, and comments she looks forward to finding out what Mat had meant in his letter about being a married man, and Mat curses himself for mentioning it. She teases him about lending him money for a proper coat, and he declares he is no nobleman; she says she’ll see about getting him a title, and adroitly dismisses them. Outside, Thom examines the paper she gave him and is startled to see it includes a pardon for all crimes “known or unknown” he may have committed in Andor or Cairhien.
“I wonder who told her….”
“Told her what?”
“Nothing, Mat. Nothing at all. We have a few hours until dinner with Elayne. What do you say we go buy you a new coat?”
“All right,” Mat said. “You think I could get one of those pardons, too, if I asked for it?”
“Do you need one?”
Mat shrugged, walking down the hallway with him. “Can’t hurt to be safe. What kind of coat are you going to buy me, anyway?”
“I didn’t say I’d pay.”
“Don’t be so stingy,” Mat said. “I’ll pay for dinner.” And bloody ashes, somehow, Mat knew, he would.
Well, that was unexpectedly refreshing, wasn’t it?
Perhaps it is just wish-fulfillment at this stage, but nevertheless I really liked how Elayne so confounded Mat’s expectations. It’s really nice to have the characters finally come to something resembling maturity and surpass some of their fundamental flaws and actually be nice to each other for once. And I also think that it is something that should absolutely happen as the series begins to wind to a close, because otherwise what was the point? A triumph of good over bad doesn’t only just have to be on the macro, world-affecting scale, after all.
And Mat’s observation that Elayne’s snottiness has largely receded once she gained actual power rang very true to me, as well. How much of people’s unnecessary (and obnoxious) bravado has resulted from insecurity, after all? It makes total sense to me that once Elayne had some assurance that her place in the world was not only secured, but that she was worthy of it, that her need to insist on the appearance of power, rather than the actuality of it, was greatly reduced. So I greatly enjoyed their haggling-as-equals shtick here. Also, the bit about the serving man made me laugh out loud.
That bargaining session itself brought up some interesting issues, though. Most particularly the unavoidable truth of any kind of arms race, which is that discovering new ways to wage war is like opening Pandora’s box: once released, it can never be stuffed back into where it came from. What Mat and Elayne were really haggling over wasn’t who gets to have this shiny, deadly new innovation; it was over who gets to enjoy the advantage of the first shock of deploying it, before everyone else has it too.
Mind you, this is an extremely significant advantage to have, as everything from the English bowmen at Crécy to the bombing of Hiroshima can tell you. It is interesting to contemplate that even as much as both Elayne and Mat grasp of the importance of the dragons, neither of them (I think) really have any clue how far-reaching the eventual consequences of the invention will actually be. Part of what is fascinating about watershed moments in history is how seldom anyone recognizes their significance when they are actually occurring. It’s kind of awesome and terrible at the same time, which is a pretty neat trick when you think about it.
This chapter also featured one of my other favorite things, which is people getting to realize the awesomeness of Mat even despite his attempts not to let it happen. It’s even nicer when that includes some very nice references to Mat’s series-long association with the Norse god Odin, who (among many other things which have already been associated with Mat) was supposed to have been hanged from the world tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in order to learn wisdom. Also, Odin’s spear, Gungnir, was supposed to never miss its target, and while Mat’s ashanderei is not quite so infallible, perhaps, it can be agreed that it hits far more often than it misses, eh?
The only sour note, really, was Elayne’s mention of the Two Rivers and Perrin, which I’m still pretty ambivalent on as a thing. Because, yes, Elayne’s basically in Secure-All-The-Things mode right now, which I can get behind on a practical level even if it makes my anti-imperialist subconscious go all twitchy, but on the other, come ON. If you haven’t even collected taxes from the place in umpty-however many generations, much less extended the protection of the Crown to them in, say, their very recent influx of murderous monsters, how much of a self-righteous leg do you have to stand on here if someone else comes in and takes up the slack? Go build something on the Caralain Grass or something, sheesh. Or conquer Cairhien, whatever.
And that’s all for now, y’all! Have a week, and I’ll see you in the next one!