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The Peppered Bin
Wed Aug 16, 2006 10:59 (XFF:

The Peppered Bin was a sprawling three story establishment of golden pine that swept up and out from the wide cobble avenue. A wide porch invited travelers in and then wrapped around the sides of the building, large logs of pine waxed to a shine hanging overhead to protect the traveler from any weather. A stablehand took the reins of their mounts and Demetri led the way into the entrance of the inn, two wide doors of golden wood sliding inward with not a single squeak and beckoned them into the great room of the inn. The room was vast with high ceilings that would have made the White Tower proud, and was circled by an open balcony around the perimeter, a balcony reached by going up a wide staircase.

She could feel Laurian's surprise and wonder at the unique building, even Dai was somewhat mollified; the room itself was filled with people, large rectangular tables occupied by people of all walks of life. And although the room was close to capacity, the din was soft and hushed, a subdued and respectful quiet for those around them and in no way conveying that the conversations were secret.

A girl approached them in a typical Saldaean dress that was high to the neck and narrow in the skirts of a burnt red-orange. Her green tilted eyes took one look at Deme and Laurian and she bobbed a curtsey. "What can I do for you, Aes Sedai?"

"I would like lodgings for myself and my companions." Her flicker of a glance was quick to look at Laurian, and she amended. "Two rooms."

There was a knowing sparkle in the girl's eye as she nodded. "Of course, Aes Sedai. We have a suite that is reserved for travelers such as yourself, and it can accommodate a Green Sister with five Warders comfortably. Will that do?"

Keeping her face smooth, she assured the girl it was, amused that the innkeeper went to such lengths to keep the White Tower appeased. "Yes, please lead the way." The girl led them up the flight of stairs and along the balcony where one was provided with a bird's eye view of the room below before moving up another set of stairs that weren't as wide to the third level above. Led down the hallway, Demetri was admitted into a respectably sized sitting room and then beyond where her bedroom was and doors leading off in different directions. The bed was made of the same roughly cut pine that was the foundation of the whole inn, canopy draping along wooden slats at the top. "Could you tell me how I would get in contact with Mistress Balene Tipshur?"

"Yes, Aes Sedai. She's due to come in to work in around two hours. Would you like me to have her set up?" The girl responded.

Considering the offer, Demetri nodded her head. "Yes, in what capacity does she work at the inn?"

"She's another of the serving girls like me. Been here around ten years but you wouldn't know it by her face…" The girl's words drifted off as if she said too much and then she shook her head as if to clear away her cobwebs.

"Please inform your innkeeper that I'll require a private dining room then, and if possible have Balene attend us." The girl looked up at Demetri in surprise. "There are some who speak well of her, and I would enjoy being served by someone with high recommendations." Her mouth twisted around the truth and tasted the bitter tang of the near-lie. The girl swept the floor with another curtsey and left the room after assuring them she'd send for Balene.

Dai sprawled on a small sofa near the large stone hearth and drawled, "It doesn't matter if you're in the saddle for a day on a hot, dusty road or one hour on a damp spring day. I still feel gritty and dirty. You don't suppose I could wash up in that tub back there before we have dinner?"

There was more to Balene Tipshur than just the information she provided to the Keeper's Eyes and Ears Network. The girl had touched the Source at one time in her life and was, as the serving girl had said, untouched by the years. It was a common thing among channelers, Demetri knew both from her own experience and Tierney's memories. Any man or woman who touched the Power, even briefly embracing or seizing just once would begin to slow and stop showing signs of aging. They might even have extended lives that reach past one hundred years. When Demetri remarked about it, Balene nodded and sank into the chair.

"Yes, that's right. About twenty years ago I came to the Tower in some foolish hope I could do better than I had in Saldaea." Balene affirmed at the question. "It turns out I could channel, I had the ability to learn, but it was so weak that it took me nearly thirty tries to embrace and that was about all I could do. So they kept me for a year and sent me back home where I picked up here."

"When did you become an agent for the Keeper's Eyes and Ears?" Laurian asked. He was perched on the arm of a chair, one long arm draped over his knee casually.

"Elienna Sedai said she would like to recruit me to her Network, to the Eyes and Ears network, she said. All I'd have to do is report back things that I've heard, answer pigeons on occasion if she sent them, and nothing more." Balene shrugged and smiled. "I liked the thought of helping the Tower even if I couldn't become Aes Sedai so I said yes. Then about five years ago, the pigeons stopped and requests for information were sent back without a response." She looked to the three of them with curiosity. "Why are you here asking about this? Has something happened to Elienna Sedai?"

Demetri smiled. "Light, no! I'm sorry you were given that impression. Around ten years ago, Elienna retired from her position and another Keeper took up her Network, a Keeper who hadn't had much experience with keeping one up and that's probably the reason for the neglect." She continued to smile in assurance. "But in the past two months I was placed in that position and I wanted to strengthen some lines of communication that were weakened, and you're one of them."

Relief passed swiftly over Balene's face. "Good, I liked Elienna Sedai. She was always very nice to me every time that Accepted Arwyn bullied me."

Demetri burst out in laughter. "And now she's Aes Sedai, able to bully Accepted and Novices alike." Balene laughed as well, and as the mirth died down, Demetri looked to the woman with a frank expression. "Would you consider working for the network again, Balene? I could use any information you get from the great room in this inn, and anything else for that matter."

Balene's face became serious, her mouth pinching in thought. "I could give you a couple days to think on it, if you like. I plan on remaining in Maradon for two more nights and I wouldn't rush you in this decision."

"I would like that, Demetri Sedai." Balene's face shone with gratitude and relief.

Demetri invited Balene to sit back and eat the meal with them, and it gave Demetri a chance to get to know the woman. She was married and had four children, a daughter nearly old enough to show the spark or be tested for the ability. "I'm just afraid that if she's a wilder, I won't know until it's too late, and if she has the ability to learn I can't channel enough to test her."

"How old is she, Balene?"

"She'll turn sixteen next month, Aes Sedai."

"She's old enough that the spark will have manifested in her if she has it and her ability as well. And if not, you should take her to the nearest Aes Sedai when she turns 18 for another testing." Demetri replied. "Bring her by the inn tomorrow evening and I'll speak to her."

It was nearing midnight before Laurian and Dai turned in for the evening; Laurian was curled up, his back to her and giving her an ample display of his bony spine, but she couldn't sleep. When had her life as an Aes Sedai become so routine? Traveling around the world, looking for agents for her network, testing girls for an ability to channel—she recalled the first few weeks of her Sisterhood, in that Alessandra had demanded Demetri break off all relations with Laurian and then sent her for a year to Tremalking to pose as one of the Sea Folk. She'd stopped a revolution from happening.

Turning on her side, she gave a deep sigh. Instead of hunting down traitors, she was sniffing out agents in an network of Eyes and Ears that she'd inherited. Instead of infiltrating the Amayar, she was carting herself through streets to re-establish a link with an agent.

Are you unhappy with being Keeper, Demetri? At least you're not Amyrlin.

It was Ariana's voice that chided her, and she recalled a lifetime ago when she had been chained to a desk, to the Tower, to her duty, so that when her husband was murdered by Darkfriends, she had been unable to do anything. At least Demetri wasn't bound and chained by traditions, customs and laws, it could be worse, she told herself.

The problem for Demetri wasn't the position, it was the results she evoked from every action. At least when she was on Tremalking, she was able to see a direct correlations between her actions and what happened after. There was no "pulling strings" behind the scenes, no stones game where one move could defeat her twenty moves down the game. In some ways, Demetri guessed that she was going to have to figure out a way to make need for immediate results work for her as a Keeper.

Rolling over on her side, it was a long time before she got to sleep.

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