Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Sea Folk, Whitecloaks, and a Darkfriend in Robert Jordan’s A Crown of Swords (Part 9)

Hello and welcome back at last to Reading The Wheel of Time. It’s been a bit of a long break, but I’m happy to return to the read in 2023 with Chapters 13 and 14 of A Crown of Swords, in which Aviendha faces the terror of open water, Nynaeve and Elayne try to represent the Aes Sedai, and Mat does some gambling. Darkfriends abound, but allies too, or at least potential ones.

Aviendha, Nynaeve, Elayne, and Birgitte sit in a small cabin on a boat. It was Aviendha’s idea to ask the Sea Folk for help using the weather ter’angreal, since Elayne and Nynaeve may not be able to return to Egwene until the Areina and Nicola situation is dealt with. Aviendha is doing her best to keep her fear hidden, so as not to shame herself in front of the others. She tries various ways of distracting herself, and eventually suggests to Elayne that they consider enlisting Mat’s help in searching for the bowl. Since he is ta’veren, he might well twist chance in their favor. Elayne can’t believe she didn’t think of that herself, and Birgitte chastises Elayne for seeing only Mat the scoundrel, and being blinded to other parts of him. Nynaeve argues against including Mat, not wanting to deal with his attitude and flippant nature, but is overruled.

When the boat comes to a stop, Elayne tactfully suggests to Aviendha to keep her eyes on the ship, not the horizon. Aviendha appreciates that Egwene hasn’t acknowledged her shame, and the fact that a near-sister could see your deepest humiliation without it mattering, but her pride still leads her to look back across the water. She is immediately overwhelmed by the sight, telling Elayne that she was a fool not to listen to good advice.

Elayne intervenes before Nynaeve’s lack of diplomacy can get them into trouble with the Sea Folk, and when she declares their knowledge of Windfinders and Weaving the Winds, that is enough to have them all hoisted up the side of the huge Sea Folk ship.  They are met by Malin din Toral Breaking Wave, the Wavemistress of Clan Somarin and Sailmistress of the ship Windrunner. She seems resigned as she escorts the two Aes Sedai below decks, where they meet other Sea Folk. A handsome woman named Nesta din Reas Two Moons turns out to be the Mistress of Ships for the Atha’an Miere, a rank which Elayne compares to a Queen. The Windrunner’s Windfinder, a young women named Dorile din Eiran Long Feather and a man named Baroc, who seems to obey Nesta in some ways and to command as an equal in others.

Nesta examines each of them in turn, seemingly dismissive of Elayne and Nynaeve’s status as Aes Sedai. Birgitte accidentally uses a Sea Folk phrase, sparking curiosity and attention that makes her clearly uncomfortable, while Aviendha’s identity comes as an even bigger shock. Elayne explains to Nesta that they have come for two reasons—the first is to ask how they intend to aid the Dragon Reborn, who the Sea Folk call the Coramoor, and the second is to enlist their Windfinder’s help. Nesta is dismissive, telling Elayne that “the Bargain” is with the Coramoor and has nothing to do with the other shorefolk. She also points out that Aes Sedai never ask for anything. However, when they learn that Elayne and her companions are looking for a weather ter’angreal they are suddenly interested, and after receiving the description they name it as the Bowl of Winds. Dorile and Malin are excited and awestruck, but Nesta commands them to pull themselves together. She sends Baroc to summon the other Sailmistresses and Wavefinders, as well as “the First Twelve” and then sits down to negotiate with Nynaeve and Elayne. Aviendha, beset by strange questions and assumptions from Dorile about Aiel women, can tell that Elayne and Nynaeve are out of their depth even before Baroc returns to rejoin the discussion.

When she learns that the boat which brought them has departed and that the Sea Folk will ferry them back to the shore in a small, open boat, she has to ask for a bucket.

Meanwhile, Mat has gone to the races. He advises Nalesean to bet all his money on Olver and Wind, despite the fact that there are two horses who are currently favorites to win. Nalesean does so, reluctantly, but Mat is confident in his ability to judge horses. Even if Nalesean was to lose the bet, Mat has an easy time acquiring more gold. His worry is for Olver, who is the smallest boy in the race. He wishes Nalesean had never snuck the boy and horse out to race in the first place, but supposes there is worse trouble Olver could get into.

Juilin arrives to report to Mat that Elayne, Nynaeve, Aviendha, and Birgitte went down to the docks and hired a boat, and that Thom hired someone to follow them.

But he had promised Rand to see Elayne safely to Caemlyn, and Nynaeve and Egwene with her. And he had promised Egwene to see the other two safe on this trip to Ebou Dar, not to mention Aviendha; that was the price of getting Elayne to Caemlyn. Not that they had told him why they needed to be here; oh, no. Not that they had spoken twenty words to him since arriving in the bloody city!

He promises himself that he’ll see them safe even if he has to shove them into a barrel and haul them off to Caemlyn in a cart, and then sends Juilin back to rendezvous with Thom and find out what “those fool women” are up to.

His thoughts preoccupied by Elayne and Nynaeve, Mat finds that his eyes keep being drawn to one particular woman in the crowed, sharp-faced and wearing white plumes in her hat. He dismisses her as reminding him of someone from one of his gifted memories, despite the way that associations—straw, stables, a knife—keep dawning in his mind.

The race begins, and Mat ignores Nalesean’s fretting as he watches Olver and Wind pull out ahead. As his eyes follow the running horses his gaze is drawn to the woman again, and suddenly he remembers sitting in a stable with Rand, who is burning up with a fever. A woman, that woman, offers to help, only to draw a knife at the last moment. Already suspicious, Mat was able to react in time only because he was ready to.

The woman froze, trying to look down at the sharp edge dimpling her skin. He wanted to slice. Especially when he saw where her own dagger had stabbed into the stable wall. Around the slim blade a black circle of char grew, and a thin gray tendril of smoke rose from wood about to burst into flame.

Mat knows that being ta’veren might explain the coincidence of seeing her here, a Darkfriend who had once tried to kill him and Rand, but he’s suspicious of that. As the race comes to a close and Olver wins easily, Mat slips away from the excited Nalesean with the explanation that he’s seen a woman who once tried to kill him.

The woman seems to have made a losing bet and leaves angrily. Mat struggles to follow her through the crowded streets, climbing up on statues and fountains and poles to look over the sea of heads for the white plumes. Following her into a jewelry shop he has to pretend to be looking for something as well, and ends up purchasing a sample signet ring when it gets stuck on his finger just as the woman leaves the store again.

He seems to lose her eventually, but at the last second sees her entering a small palace where she seems to be known. Wondering aloud about the place, Mat is surprised when an old man in a worn but once fancy coat tells him that the Chelsaine Palace is let to Jaichim Carridin. The man disappears as soon as Mat takes his eyes off him, but a moment later Mat remembers that he also saw the old fellow in the crowd at the races, standing not far from the Darkfriend woman.

Turning his hat in his hands, he frowned uneasily at the palace. The Mire never held a bog like this one. He could feel the dice tumbling in his head suddenly, and that was always a bad sign.

 

I really enjoyed having a chapter from Aviendha’s point of view. We don’t get a lot of her, really, compared to the other main characters, and I find her perspective fascinating. We often get the Two Rivers folks’ point of view on the new lands and customs they’re encountering on their travels, but Aviendha is a stranger to all of the Westlands, so her reaction to the customs of other places is even more different, and that makes it fun, especially for readers who are also strangers to the world.

As someone who has always loved the ocean, and who loves the poetic and mythic way high fantasy usually handles the ocean and ocean imagery, I really loved how Jordan has created an entirely different perspective in Aviendha. It makes sense, of course, given where Aviendha comes from, but it still takes a deal of imagination on the author’s part to envision how encountering an ocean would feel to a woman who has only ever seen the desert. I was particularly struck by the phrase “useless water.” Aviendha is used to water as a rare and precious resource—for her, encountering a river is like encountering a world where the streets are paved with gold. But in the ocean she sees an abundance that has been ruined—only the bad parts (like the ability to drown in it) remain.

I enjoyed the exchange between her and Elayne very much, and the fact that Aviendha has too much pride for her own good, which leads her to risk looking out at the bay after Elayne carefully warns her not to. There is something very lovely in the way she acknowledges that she should have listened to Elayne’s advice. Despite the fact that most of their friendship has been built, as it were, “off screen,” you can see how close the two have become.

Speaking of that closeness, I am quite curious about one particular line in Chapter 13. Aviendha is reflecting on her relationship with Elayne—they now consider each other near-sisters and Aviendha is certain that they will eventually become first-sisters. And then it goes:

Already they brushed each other’s hair, and every night in the dark shared another secret never told to anyone else.

What. Does. That. Mean.

Probably talking about their shared love for Rand or something, but my goodness I would ship the heck out of Aviendha and Elayne. Also, I would be much more on board with the concept of Aiel polyamory if it wasn’t just two (or several?) women orbiting around one man and considering each other to be akin to biological sisters. I don’t really think a romantic and sexual relationship between Aviendha and Elayne is what Jordan is implying here, but hey. I can hope.

Another aspect of Chapter 13 that I thought was really well done is Aviendha’s confusion over the different ways that wetlanders talk about their own bravery. Both Elayne and Nynaeve can display a remarkable humility at times, so much so that Aviendha almost wonders if it is part of Wetlander culture to deny one’s own courage. But she also knows that Nynaeve can be quite boastful at times, and she’s seen how the Ebou Dari talk almost constantly about their own bravery.

Of course, one of the reasons for Aviendha’s confusion is that she is thinking of everyone on this side of the Spine of the World as a monolith. There are traits wetlanders mostly share because of the kind of land they live on, but Aviendha probably expects the nations to be only about as different from each other as the different Aiel septs are. She hasn’t yet realized that there isn’t much use comparing the Ebou Dari to Elayne and Nynaeve. And more than that, there is a great deal more individualism among most of the Westland nations than there is among the Aiel. Culture is certainly relevant, but two Andorans might have a fairly different interpretation of whether or not, for example, seasickness was an embarrassing condition. They might also have a very different interpretation of what cowardice is—Birgitte and Elayne, for example, are both very pragmatic people. For them, it’s silly and unhelpful to deny one’s fear, and there is no shame in admitting that they are afraid of something that it is very wise and logical to be afraid of. Even Aviendha recognizes this—as an Aiel, she would feel shamed at any display of fear, no matter how justified, but she doesn’t dwell at all on the fact that Birgitte admits that she’s afraid of Marigan. Instead, she focuses on the contradiction of Nynaeve—and let’s be fair, Nynaeve’s a contradiction by any society’s standards. The basic point still stands, though. There are certain things Nynaeve thinks of as being cowardly or weak. Seasickness isn’t one of them.

Poor Nynaeve. It’s really rough that she is so sensitive to motion sickness. As a healer, I imagine she wouldn’t be one of those people who thinks showing signs of illness is a weakness, or believes that one should be able to push through physical sickness by sheer force of will. She understands illness and disease too well for that, and while she is not always the kind of reasonable, practical person Elayne tends to be, she does have that quality in certain ways, about certain things. Healing is one of those things.

I can’t stop thinking about how Lan’s out there, riding towards Ebou Dar even as Nynaeve is struggling on the boat and failing to be even a little diplomatic towards the Sea Folk. I imagine that she could use his steadiness right about now. I wonder if Birgitte’s presence in the bond is shoring Elayne up. Or rather, if Birgitte’s discomfiture might be making things a bit more difficult for Elayne during her negotiations.

It’s really entertaining watching Nynaeve and Elayne try to achieve and maintain Aes Sedai dignity. They have been raised so quickly to full sisters, and it’s not just channeling that they’re inexperienced with. They’ve had so little training in other areas of being an Aes Sedai, especially in the mental discipline required to maintain the frosty aloofness and stoicism that the Tower expects. Aes Sedai are trained to do that, over years and even decades of time spent as novices and Accepted. Half of the test for the shawl is about being able to remember and perform various weaves under pressure, the other half is just about maintaining outward composure. A whole half! The maintenance of Aes Sedai stillness, composure, and dignity is as important to the Tower as channeling ability—which is actually kind of wild to think about. And still, there are plenty of instances where full sisters, sisters who have been tested the way we saw Moiraine tested in New Spring, struggle to maintain that image. How, then, could Nynaeve and Elayne, who have been training for about two years (and very little of that in the Tower) possibly achieve the expected level of “proper dignity,” as Elayne puts it?

Elayne decides that Birgitte has to be the one to tell Mat that he’s being recruited to the search for the bowl because Aes Sedai can’t stoop in such a way, and then she does her best to maintain authority and respectful poise with the Sea Folk, but she is mostly drawing from her experience and education as the Daughter Heir, rather than training as an Aes Sedai. And it works for her, I think, as well as it might. The fact that she and Nynaeve are inexperienced negotiators is an adjacent, but ultimately unrelated issue, and one that could have come up for a number of young Aes Sedai, especially if they weren’t Gray or White.

I am immensely curious to know what terms the Sea Folk were proposing. What could Elayne and Nynaeve offer in exchange for this help, especially since they haven’t yet talked to Egwene about this plan? What do the Aes Sedai even have that the Sea Folk could want? Perhaps the Atha’an Miere would like to keep the Bowl once it has been used. Or maybe they would like Nynaeve and Elayne to intercede with Rand and convince him to meet with Nesta, since he’s been ducking all the Sea Folk meeting requests for a while now. I can’t imagine what else they might ask of the shorefolk, though to be fair we don’t know much about them yet. The fact remains that neither the Bowl nor Rand’s time are things that Elayne and Nynaeve have the power to promise—the best they could offer would be to try to convince Rand or Egwene, and I don’t think Nesta or Baroc would accept such terms.

I really enjoyed Chapter 14 as well. There isn’t as much to talk about from a critical analysis point of view, but it’s a great way to catch up with Mat, and it’s just a really beautifully written chapter. Jordan is doing his thing where he paints a really vivid picture of a scene and a culture, and I could imagine every detail of what he was describing. I particular adored the moment after the race ended and all the losers threw away their chips.

Losing tokens made a shower of white onto the track, and dozens of the bookers’ servants rushed out to clear them away before the next race.

It was also really interesting to have the description of how Mat experiences his memory. There have been others, but this one is a bit more thorough, and I think this is the first time that we’ve been told that Mat remembers fleeing the Two Rivers and then basically nothing else until Caemlyn. We’re also told that there are gaps before and after that section—the fact that there are missing memories in the time before the dagger came into his possession shows that the dagger didn’t just prevent the formation of memories while he was possessed, but that it actually damaged his mind, his memories, in other ways as well.

I can’t imagine how disorienting that must be for Mat. We’ve seen other examples of people or things catching at the edge of his memory, and he often has to dismiss those half-remembered things because he can’t place them, or even be sure if the memory is his or one of the ones he was given. He had that reaction to Birgitte, for example. But it feels even more poignant here with Mili (as the next chapter will reveal her name to be), someone we know is from his past. Not only that, but this is a memory that he is ultimately able to retrieve. I think this is the first and only time we’ve seen Mat retrieve a memory from his time with the dagger, and I’m very curious about what it might mean for other memories. Are they also in there somewhere, waiting to be retrieved?

It’s also poignant for the reader because it was an encounter we were also present for. My reading of The Eye of the World was even longer ago for me than the events were for Mat, so I didn’t exactly remember the moment either. Then, reading the flashback, it slowly came back to me just as it did to Mat. Once again, Jordan brings back a bit character in spectacular fashion. Not long ago we had Paitr, another Darkfriend who came after Mat and Rand on the road to Caemlyn, cropping up around Morgase. Now, we have assassin girl. And I will say, it seems like she might be a bit more dangerous, a bit more capable, than Paitr was. I guess time, and a few more chapters, will tell us more about that.

And then there’s the mysterious man who tells Mat about Carridin and the Chelsaine Palace, someone who is either following Mili or following Mat. That’s not a great sign, although if it was an enemy, I wonder why he would bother giving Mat information and drawing attention to himself—Mat is now much more likely to notice the man the next time he sees him in a crowd. Could he be an unexpected ally, perhaps? There is something about his description makes me think of characters like Thom or Elyas—older gentlemen who were once of standing, and remain more than what they seem to be.

There is an interesting juxtaposition here. Elayne and co. are reevaluating how they want to treat and deal with Mat in Chapter 13, while in Chapter 14 Mat is considering his duty to the women and his promise to Rand. Elayne and Nynaeve are struggling to see Mat as anything other than a scoundrel who only wants to kiss girls and have fun, while Mat refuses to recognize that Elayne and Nynaeve, though certainly capable of stubbornness and taking unwise risks, are also Aes Sedai and powerful channelers who have real work to do. I can appreciate his frustration at being kept out of the loop—Aviendha is right, he could be a valuable asset to them, and would not behave as unprofessionally as Nynaeve assumes—but he does know that Egwene sent them to Ebou Dar for a reason. Mat might do well to take that just a bit more seriously. Elayne and Nynaeve might do well to think of Mat with more respect, and to see him for who he is now, rather than who he was two years ago.

Heh. I wonder what Mat would make of the fact that Elayne and Aviendha, rather than being rivals, intend to share Rand as sister-wives.

Finally, though I don’t really have much to say about him this week, I’m always happy for an appearance from Juilin! I really like the way Jordan describes how Juilin carries himself, his confidence in crowds and in the work he does. I like the character choice that Juilin is very confident when he’s in the sphere of his job, and not so much the rest of the time. The thing with the coin was really a nice touch.

We’ll find out a little more about what Mili and Carridin are up to next week, and then Mat will have an adventure in the Tarasin Palace as we tackle Chapters 15 and 16. Until then, and as always, have a lovely week, and stay safe.

Sylas K Barrett always appreciates a mysterious old man character, and looks forward to finding out more about this one. Also, as a New Yorker, he appreciated Mat’s struggle to keep his eyes on Mili in the crowed, and the humor of those who saw him climbing statues and the like.

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