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A lesson in etiquette (attn: Merdyn, open)


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At his day’s end, Ful sniffed out the tavern where Merdyn would be found. This was it. He stopped and looked at the tavern. Built into the basement level of a shabby building, there was a steep set of steps running down from street level to the scratched, nondescript door. The tavern looked closed but he could clearly hear the noises from within.


Though it was still early, the place was already dismal and littered with loud men and broken furniture. Some black tower men drank their nights away, boasting and carousing. Workers were sweeping up debris of smashed glasses - already filled two sacks. The owner was furiously scrubbing his walls with a brush dipped in soap, trying to get rid of the obscenities plastered on the crumbling structure.


Ful caught sight of a particularly striking dedicated within the graffitied walls. It was Merdyn. Ful smiled.


He moved over to his friend. He had always liked Merdyn’s smile.


“Choice place for teaching me manners,” he whispered mockingly in Merdyn’s ear as he eagerly clasped the other’s hand to shake it. 


Greetings aside, Ful and Merdyn took seats on a high bench beside the bar. 


“What will you have?” asked the bar owner. He had carefully set down his bristle-brush and faced them. The recent stitching around his blood-shot eyes made his glare even angrier than usual. 


“Please give us a moment." Ful advised him. He turned to Merdyn, still smiling outwardly at the dingy scene before him. “Well, what do you like to drink?"

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                It was a typical night at the Tavern. Hot sweaty men in close quarters, countless casks of ‘adult beverages’ lining the back wall, gamblers breaking bottles over each other’s heads… well, that last bit he missed. Merdyn was sad about that, he did always love a good barroom brawl. He hadn’t seen one in a while, not since the day that Nox was injured. Since then, Merdyn hadn’t touched much wine, ale or beer.


                A stunning man with finely turned calves had caught Merdyn’s eye when he first entered. The pair had been making calve eyes at each other across the room. That was another thing Merdyn hadn’t done in a while… Not since Kyllian. Tonight wasn’t the night for it either. He just wanted to test the waters a little, see if he still had ‘it.’


                Judging by that smirk, I’d say I still have it… and then some… maybe it’s the coat. These village people love a man in uniform.


                Merdyn nearly jumped out of his skin when Ful appeared at his side, whispering in his ear. The two clasped hands as Merd gave a laugh and they quickly sat themselves at the bar.


                “We will both be having wine tonight, that is probably the most common drink you will find among the highborn. I wouldn’t risk ale or beer unless it is a gentlemen’s gathering… There is a certain refinement that wine possesses, but the other two lack. There is even an art to drinking wine! Although we won’t be practicing that with this swill.” The Bartender shot a dirty look over his shoulder towards Merdyn at the comment. He affected no notice, “If you’re interested in that, I have a private stash or two back in my rooms that are much finer vintage. Does this even have a vintage, Bertrand?” he asked the Bartender as the man tossed two mugs on the counter with a slosh. Bertrand ignored Merdyn’s question.


                “He’s grumpy because I’ve paid him a very fat sack of coin to put up with us and our frivolity tonight!” The last bit was said in such a way that Bertrand, the Bartender, would know that Merdyn was actually directing that comment at him and not Ful. He also gave Bertrand a sweet smile and pushed a silver penny across the grimy countertop, “One more for the pile, then?” Merdyn said with a laugh and then returned his attention to Ful.


                “I’m getting ahead of myself here. We are having our impromptu lesson here because there’s supposed to be a few musicians coming in later. It’ll probably just end up being that haggard woman with the dulcimer again… she’s the worst… It’s not ideal, but I did bribe the owner to help refine the atmosphere a little. After our first… mug… of wine, Bertrand will be serving us a three-course meal so I can show you what a highborn dinner might be like and how to eat. Yes, there’s even rules regarding that as well, but not so many as you think. We can talk about etiquette and the like while we eat, and after that, I have one more lesson for the night… But we have to wait for the musicians to arrive for that bit,” Merdyn gave Ful a knowing wink, “There are a few more things I can teach you if you like, but we can do that another night. I don’t want to keep you here till the sun comes back up.”


                Bringing the mug up to his lips, Merdyn took a light, graceful sip. He carefully lowered the mug back to the bar top and looked to Ful, “Like that. Don’t ever gulp your wine. It’s sloppy and unsightly. Not to mention the fact that if you get drunk too early in the night, you’re likely to make a fool of yourself. Take light sips. At a highborn dinner, you’re expected to partake in all of your host’s offerings. It would be considered a great insult if you didn’t, so you’ll have to have at least a few glasses of wine before switching over to water or… Am I talking too much? I feel like one of my old tutors blathering on like this… Do you have any questions so far? And please let me know if I sound dull at any point during the evening.”

Edited by Oddpositions
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The bar owner scowled, and returned with two mugs. Perhaps all the owner’s glasses had been broken, so there was none left for the wine. There was no doubt in his mind Merdyn had to pay the owner well to get them this. There’d be no shame in admitting Merdyn tossed his money around like candy - now, if there were better drinks to be had, he’d probably be buying drinks for the whole camp. Ful was not sure what ‘vintage' was, but it seemed to him like maybe the humorless bar owner didn’t have any left of the fine vintage either. No matter. In that case, this was perfect. When Merdyn tipped generously, the owner set a decanter of wine down in front of pair of dedicated. Ah, so there was still glassware left. He didn’t expect too much from Bertrand re: refined three-course dinner. Should old bread and cheese count as two separate courses?


Nodding as Merdyn explained the night’s schedule, Ful took up his pathetically dented mug and studied it dubiously like it was venom. Ful laughed at Merdyn’s comment about the haggard musician. “Hey, dulcimers are expensive." 


He held his mug, but didn’t drink. 


“Have you seen Nox? How is he?” he asked. “I’ve been at practice until now . . . not had a chance to . . . you know . . ."


He turned his mug slowly, eyeing the serious measure of alcohol. “So far what you say makes sense. What do you nobles drink to?”


He sipped his drink like Merdyn showed him, and shrugged at tasting the bitter tannins. You can’t throw back a mug and sink this in one gulp. “What topics are highborns interested in? Fortune prick me. I don’t have anything to wear to the ball.” He growled. Ful only shopped for cheap clothes. What did he know about the rich, lavish fabrics of society men? Maybe he shouldn’t attempt to go to the dance after all. He didn’t look the part, much less speak or act the part. But he couldn’t back out now. To whine or bemoan his poverty and to complain, say, the unfairness of nobility, was useless. Merdyn used his precious time to educate him in the ways of the highborn, and damned if he was to be pitied.


He nodded here and there as he listened, sipping at his drink . . . time had improved the taste, mellowing the wine. But all things considered, he’d rather just have juice. Perhaps he would drink ‘vintage’ wine at this dance they got invited to. He brightened at that thought, and forced himself to face reality and drink this down.


“All gone,” Ful said, playing with his now empty mug. He cheerfully refreshed Merdyn’s mug, then refilled his own from the decanter left by the bar owner. “What’s for dinner?”

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                “Are they?” Merdyn asked about the Dulcimer. His concept of finances was dismal, regardless of how much money he had hidden in his rooms. His whole life Father had just tossed gold and silver around as if it were dirt. It should be no surprise that Merdyn behaved in the same way. That was not to say that he was ignorant of his finances, he knew the money would run out eventually… That just meant that Merdyn had to figure out how he was going to claim what was his.


                As a member of the Black Tower, he was supposed to forsake all previous ties… But he had been a noble for the Creator’s sake. Surely some concessions could be made for him. He was literally the only highborn man at the Farm. That should carry some weight. If he were allowed to claim his birthright as the head of House Gilyard, he would have access to the estates and fortune that came with it. That alone would benefit the Black Tower for years to come. He would have to have words with the M’hael once he had obtained the second pin and was finally able to proclaim himself Asha’man.


                All of that would have to wait. What was important was the present and Ful was here with Merdyn at that moment. He snapped out of his thoughts and returned his attention to the younger man before downing the last of his wine.


                Merdyn shrugged off the Dulcimer woman and went on to the next topic, “I have not seen Nox since the incident. I would love to check in on him, but you know how he is… I’m not even sure if he likes me very much. Not that that matters, of course. He is my Teacher and I respect him regardless… Still… I feel a little responsible for the events of that day… I was right next to him, Ful. I could have- I should have made the shield large enough for the two of us, but I didn’t. I panicked and I only protected myself and I am responsible.”


                With a loud exhale, Merdyn gladly accepted a refill from Ful. To be sure, Merdyn did not want to get drunk, but the wine was cheap enough that he’d have to drink at least two decanters to even feel the giggles take hold. It was for that reason that he gladly indulged in another glass. The taste and smell were enough to fool the mind into relaxing; if only a tiny bit.


                “Nevermind that, Ful. We are here for you. Not me,” Merdyn said before clearing his throat and looking directly at the younger man. “You’re talking about a toast. That is a more powerful tool amongst nobles than you would think. Whether or not you play the Game of Houses, anything you say during a toast can be misconstrued. For our purposes, however, I think anything you say would be safe so long as you are more than gracious to our hosts. It is their hospitality that we are indulging in and you do not want to appear ungrateful. If you find yourself amongst a small cluster of nobles chattering, as will undoubtedly happen,  be sure to ask questions of your fellow partygoers. Find out what they do and who they are. All nobles enjoy talking about themselves. If you do this, you will butter their ego and also find out morsels of information. Figure out what those people are proud of about themselves and toast to it. This one Lord runs an efficient estate? Toast it. That Lady has the finest gowns in all of Andor? Toast it. They’ll thank you for it, if only silently.”


                Merdyn smirked as Ful commented on his clothing, “As I said, they like talking about themselves. Keep the conversation spun towards them and you’ll do fine. Don’t worry about your outfit! You’ll come by my rooms tomorrow and we will pick you out a few pieces. I have more than enough to share. I actually need to get rid of a few things, so you’d be helping me out. And please don’t worry about alterations. I will take care of that too. We’re friends, aren’t we? Friends help each other out.”


                Ful commented on dinner, and as if by magic, Bertrand came striding out of the backroom with one crooked looking platter, two beige bowls sitting atop the rickety thing. With a clatter, Bertrand tossed the tray on the counter before the pair, shoving the bowls at the two of them.


                Merdyn looked down and exhaled in relief. He had made the three-course meal himself. The large bribe was to ensure that Bertrand or some other grubby handed goose wouldn’t touch the food he had prepared for tonight. He was sure that Bertrand was going to bring them out a basket of three-day old crusty bread and spoiled butter. Instead, the bowls contained a light vegetable stew with fried bits of bread floating in the yellow liquid.


                It smelled divine.


                “First round is soup. Napkin on your lap, no slurping, and don’t eat too fast,” Merdyn proclaimed in a playfully lecturing tone. He shot Ful a sideways smirk and tasted the soup.



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To Ful’s surprise, Merdyn’s face was awash with guilt. For a moment Merdyn’s words about Nox hung in the air, answered by Ful’s silence; for a moment Ful imagined leaning closer, putting his arms around to embrace his friend, pulling his head onto his shoulder. Merdyn’s breath on his cheek. His soft, honeyed hair tickling Ful’s face. It might help. But, no it occurred to him that his first impulse might not help - it might be awkward; he didn’t want to make Merdyn uncomfortable, or for the other man to reject him, to pull away from the hug. 


Would it help if Ful pointed out how the very next day after Nox got injured, Merdyn’s shield saved five people from harm, including Ful? How Merdyn sought every opportunity to correct the wrongs he saw? The young man always seemed to be suited in complete self-confidence. It was strange to see the cracks in that armor.


Fortunately, Merdyn disabused him of attempting any action; he now smiled his most charming smile at Ful. That was what Ful needed to see; he visibly relaxed. And smiled back. He held his mug but didn’t drink any more wine. Instead, he listened with cool appraisal as the noble talked of tailored wardrobes and the artful buttering up of egos.


Ful took his duties seriously, and found joy in them. For the last months he had passed through a rigorous, exhilarating course of studies. His body was shaped and trained in the company of other men— running, riding, combat with swords, combat with sticks, fist-to-fist, and this foremost- saidin. Along with Merdyn, his memory was filled with weaves by their teachers. He looked up to the older men: Nox, and Merdyn. As for Adrim, his praise made Ful dance all the way back to Isha’s house; Adrim’s mildest rebuke made him spend hours tracing diagrams and practicing weaves in his room, until he felt worthy to return to the healing tents.


No one was much surprised except Ful himself that he had learnt all these lessons much more quickly and thoroughly than the other boys his age.


When Ful turned his attention back to his dinner, Merdyn was speaking. 


Per Merdyn’s instructions, he placed the napkin over his lap.


Then he gave a blank look at the first course. Its presentation had been . . . unenthusiastic. 


Ful raised the beige bowl tentatively and sniffed the soup. The aromatic smell wafting toward Ful made him salivate. And the taste was unbelievable. The freshness of the vegetables and herbs teased his tongue. It became hard to keep himself from eating too quickly. 


It was his turn to laugh. Playfully. “Shall we toast the cook?” 


“But Merdyn,” said Ful, with mock sweetness, “why don’t you tell me what you like to cook?"

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                The soup bowl was emptied before Merdyn even realized it. The dish truly was tasty, however subtle the flavoring. Sometimes that type of cooking was an art. It was surprisingly hard to find a simple combination of tastes that was pleasing to the pallette, but once you did the results were always fine. That specific recipe had been his Mother’s. He downed the last of his wine before refilling both his and Ful’s cups.


                With mock pomp, Merdyn raised his cup to Ful and proclaimed, “No. I propose we drink to you, Ful. You are a kind, caring, and humble. Your skill on the battlefield is second to none. I applaud you, friend. You are a credit to the Black Tower!” With a clink, Merdyn gently knocked his cup against Ful’s and took a deep gulp from the cup. “I am fortunate to count you amongst my friends.”


                Pushing the dish away from him, Merdyn went on, “I’ve always had a weakness for baking, myself. I only cook here because I have to; that is not to say that I do not enjoy it. I do love to bake a good apple pie, however. So much work goes into something like that. If you want to do it right… Not too much cinnamon or sugar. The crust has to be a touch savory as well. You’d be hardpressed to find a pie in all of Andor half as good as I can make. That’s what landed me the spot at the Soup Kitchen.”


                “I am sure you think my hobbies are odd for a noble. They are. Make no mistake on that. I’ve always liked the hobbies commonly associated with ladies of high birth. I can’t help it. I like what I like and I am good at all of them. I’ll have to show you my needlepoint sometime, although my pieces are a bit darker than what my Grandmother stitched,” he said with a laugh, “No, most noble men prefer hunting for sport or counting their coins. Ask the nobles of their hobbies when we go to the ball, although do not fake knowledge where you have none. There is no shame in claiming ignorance in conversation, although with them you might steer it towards a learning opportunity. I am sure one of the Lords or such will just love to explain their various games. You might even play a few. Do you gamble? They love to gamble.”


                Merdyn felt the heat rising in his cheeks. “It appears that I’ve caught a little buzz,” he giggled again, “And I keep going on about them when I should be asking more about you. What do you enjoy Ful? What are your hobbies and interests? What do you excel in that no one else does? When you strip away the black coat and the pins, who are you? I know less about you than I should, embarrassingly enough, and if I am going to make a noble out of you, I need to know what makes you tick.”


                During that time, the bartender had cleared away the dishes and was now making his way back with another steaming platter. “Our second course has arrived! Perfect!” Merdyn ignored the dirty look from the bartender and smiled down at their plates. The second course consisted of roasted lamb with a mint sauce served with a side of steamed wild carrots and parsnips. A crusty roll each was served as well with a thick slab of salted butter. A fresh decanter of wine replaced the old one and Merdyn slid another silver penny across the counter.


                “Hold the fork with your right hand and cut with the left. Do the opposite if you are left-handed. Oh! And do not take too big of bites, I saw you with that soup,” Merdyn said with a chuckle.

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They toasted—as Ful pursed his lips as if stifling amusement. His battle skills, second to none? He laughed and shook his head, “Do you believe that about me? I’m average, definitely not as strong or creative with saidin as you. But I take a lot of risks. I don’t think sometimes. Just charge in and that’s my style. That’s why I got promoted. It’ll also get me killed one day.” 


He’d been made to think that way by this place. The things he learnt here could well make a difference in the end. And his was a style Ful learnt from Isha - the giant attack leader, brave and loyal, led from the front, which was a good way of getting himself and others killed. He’d always wondered, if Isha was still alive somewhere? Since Isha, Linten, and the two bonded aes sedai left home, all Ful had thought about was their situation, if they’re safe, how unfair it was that Isha wasn’t with him. He knew Isha was steeped in saidin’s taint for some time, before it was cleansed. Perhaps he had been led astray. Please let it be a moment of weakness, not the residue taint, prayed Ful. He wondered if the attack leader was scared, wherever he was. Perhaps it was a dumb way to think that way, a risky way to soldier, but it was the only way he had been taught; the only way he knew how. 


He sipped slowly at the wine as the other moved their conversation toward baking. It occurred to Ful, there was something else he should think about. When he was done with this place, that’ll be fine, and maybe he’d see Isha again. What if he did something dumb and died in the midst of it all? How would that be for Merdyn? For Nox and Adrim? His students? It hadn't occurred to him it might work the other way around where he’d be leaving friends and mentors behind . . . Perhaps the way he was acting was a warning of things to come. Would the day come, if they defeated the shadows, would they then have to turn and fight one another, destroying everything they’ve built?


Ful, who had been opening his mouth to speak, held his silence. He took another sip of tepid wine. He was annoyed to notice the petty human emotions in his own heart. He turned his attention to Merdyn again. 


Ful hadn’t known any nobles except Merdyn, so couldn’t tell if Merdyn was an odd sort of noble or not. For all he knew, all highborn males were like Merdyn, skilled at needlepoint and in the kitchen. But Merdyn was also bold enough to act instantly when the opportunity presented itself, and - perhaps without even realizing it himself, he believed in Nox and Ful completely. And by teaching Ful, Merdyn was helping him move that much closer to Ful's goals. Ful could see in Merdyn a true and faithful friend.


“Games? I can play chops (card game). And my brother and I always tested one another in stones." Ful answered as it dawned on him, stirred up by memories. The memories of people he loved.  How long had it been since he had last played Gavin? He loved his brother, but he couldn’t show much of himself to Gavin, not anymore. “Do nobles play these commoner games? If not,” Ful shrugged, “I can listen.”


And yet. 


He thought: And yet this was how children of the light felt about channelers. Gavin would have been indoctrinated in a similar fashion the black tower trained Ful. Did he really want his older brother Gavin to come home from the fortress of light in Amador, Amadicia? Would he have turned out like Ful, if he’d also had the ability to channel? Or would he be arrogant? Aloof? But Ful was assuming that Gavin cared whether the world was a better place. What if all he cared about was his own survival or advancement? The only question that would matter would be, could Gavin use Ful to advance his own plans? Gavin never told anybody anything they wanted to do, unless it would be useful to him for them to know it. But whether or not Ful trusted Gavin had more to do with the kind of person he was, rather than what Gavin have become . . . maybe living in the light far apart from one another wasn’t such a drawback.


For some reason Merdyn blushed. Even that looked pretty on the fair skinned dedicated. Ful looked down at his plate of roasted lamb, feeling the warmth of his own cheeks in response to the other’s giggling. He was thinking of the openness of Merdyn, the way Merdyn wanted to know more about him, and the way he knew the noble. It had left Ful almost gasping, the unguardedness of Merdyn’s conversations with him. 


Their conversations together. Comments at meals. He heard Merdyn’s ideas. Of what nobility was. Integrity and honor. He’d seen Merdyn do things that were very hard, not just for show or fun, because he believed in what he was doing. 


What made him tick? He advised, forcing his voice to be light despite the weight of his thoughts. “No hobbies or any interests so far. I just sleep when there's free time. I guess . . . I’d like to grow into a good person. A person my simple merchant family can be proud of. That’s why I always know the value of coins you squander.” Then he could find Isha; he could some day watch over his beloved brother, and find ways to help him find such things, like goodness and honesty, within himself. In life the only thing that brought happiness was binding yourself to other people you cared for, all other ambitions brought only momentary pleasure. That was what he wanted to get for himself.


For now he didn’t want to open himself to conversation; he couldn’t, not tonight. He directed attention to the second course smoothly.


“Yumm. This is indeed tender,” he said approvingly as he cut easily through the meat. Were it the normal fare from the canteens he’d be sawing at it for a half hour. And this, this just melted in the mouth! 


“I’m not sure if I can handle dessert. Depends on if it's your speciality pie?"

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                “I think that you are forgetting just how many times you have knocked me over the head with a lathe,” Merdyn said with a hearty chuckle as he took another long sip of his wine. The boy was modest, to be sure. “I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. Your style is what makes you great. If you have any doubts, then know that you’ll only get better. Isn’t that what we’re here for? To be turned into weapons? And please do not talk so… I would like to think that the two of us will live long enough to retire… If there is such a thing,” He barked another laugh at that. “Perhaps one day we will both settle down, once this Final Battle business is done, and just enjoy the world… A fool’s dream, I’m sure. Still. It is nice to have a dream.”


                Color-infused Merdyn’s cheeks. He was definitely feeling a little funny. Taking a mental note, he made sure never to underestimate the wine that Veric produced. This had to be some sort of joke. The man knew that Merdyn was trying to live a more sober life… So had he intentionally given them a stronger cask of wine? Probably. And knowing Veric, Merdyn would pay for it tomorrow with a swollen head… He’d have to see one of the Asha’men for Healing. No more hangovers for Merdyn Gilyard. Even if it killed him.


                “Of course we play those games. Although I’ve never heard of chops… I’m not great at stones either. There is this one game I used to play as a child, however… Snakes and Foxes… My wetnurse taught it to me. She had this hand-drawn game mat and everything… Thing is, you can’t win if you don’t cheat. A poor lesson to teach a young child, if you ask me…” She was a kind woman, if however simple.


                “Although I do think you’d have a poor go at engaging nobles with talk of such games. Again, unless they involve betting. How’s your dice hand or your card game? If you’re any good, you just might walk away with half of a Noble's fortune… If you make it out the door alive, that is. You’re Dedicated, however, so I don’t doubt you’d have an issue,” Merdyn said again with a hearty chuckle. Oh, he was feeling good tonight. All the better with such pleasant company.


                It was a pity that Ful had no hobbies. Surely he did, the young man just must be too bashful to share them. Could they be as embarrassing as Merdyn’s hobbies were supposed to be? He doubted it. Ful kept a tight lip on his past and what he did alone. The pair had only ever talked, or sparred, or cooked, or ate. It dawned on him that they had never just sat alone and enjoyed each other’s company. Tonight was an exception because it was under the pretense of teaching Ful the ways of the Noble. The night was quickly devolving into a pleasant conversation between friends. There was nothing wrong with that. If he and Ful really were friends, then this should be nothing out of the ordinary. He was not guarded around Ful by any means, and he almost felt as if he could tell this young man anything. Perhaps that was the wine, though. Still. This was not the first time he had felt that way.


                “I think we need to spend more time together, Ful. I know you think I waste coin, but that’s how I was raised. Although Father always had some to spare, I know that there is not an infinite supply in my quarters, but I do not mind throwing it around freely for you or anyone else that I consider a friend. You are worth it… Besides, I consider it an investment. I am no Asha’man, so I cannot teach you how to channel better, but if anything, I can expose you to different parts of the world. Show you how others live and help culture you. No doubt you’ll want to travel a little after gaining the title of Asha’man. I would rest easy knowing that you’re prepared for multiple social circles in the world… Provided I am not there with you to enjoy the adventure!” He had hoped against hope that Ful would still want his friendship after they gained their new titles. He had heard the tales of pillow-friends amongst Aes Sedai, and he hoped that this was the Asha’man equivalent… Minus the whole pillow business. They hadn’t slept together, and Merdyn had no intentions to do rectify that, so already there was a differentiation. Still, Merdyn couldn’t help to worry that Ful would outgrow him.


                The two finished their dinner and the bartender wasted not a moment in bringing out the final course. The plates were not steaming, of course. This particular dish had been a little bit more expensive than Merdyn would have liked to admit to Ful. The chocolate alone cost a few golden coins…


                Two large bowls were set before Ful and Merdyn. Inside was a delicate array of cream and chocolate. The display looked artful in it’s arrangement. Merdyn was especially proud of this one, “This is what all of the nobles in Andor were eating before I left for Tear… It is called a ‘moose’. Not the animal, mind. I do not know why they named it so… Still. It is delicious.”


                It was at that moment that the doors to the Tavern burst open to admit the haggard woman with the dulcimer. Merdyn exhaled in relief to see the rest of her band enter after she did.


                Coin not wasted!


                “Same dinning rules apply to the desert, friend. Don’t look now, but it seems that my wish was granted.”


                Ful didn’t know it, but in a few moments, Merdyn planned on having the young man on his feet and waltzing for the entire room to see. Too bad he couldn't capture the moment on paper to look back upon in the years to come.

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“Whatever you can do is better than nothing. You’ve been educated by the best tutors in the city, so I feel certain you can teach me many things. And the cheating game sounds fun, if unorthodox. Please show me some day.” 


Ful relaxed a little, seeing Merdyn so relaxed. He sat in the softly lit, warm room of the tavern, and pushed aside his spoon with a content sigh. The ‘moose’ was the best thing he ever tasted. He wondered idly if ordinary retainers got to sample the meals their nobles couldn’t finish.


The food and wine made him feel hot. He took off his black, belted floor-length coat and brushed aside the strands of hair that itched his brow. He should cut it soon.


There was a commotion in the common area where the musicians set up. He was young, only fifteen, short but cleanly handsome, from a good merchant family, and the men here liked him. He ignored Merdyn, looking past the graceful Andoran to - as he called it - the haggard woman and her band in the far corner of the room. Just a few steps beyond the musicians was a space open on display, and observers all around the cleared area, most of them soldiers and dedicated from the farm. 


He looked around for a moment, his hand on his hips. The satisfaction he had gained from the evening’s extraordinary meal was ebbing. There was something akin to dread creeping into him as he turned back to confirm with his etiquette teacher. 


“I . . .” he began, then paused. 


Light, he needed time to think. 

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                Merdyn wasted no time in rising from his stool and stepping away from the bar. He made a motion to look as if he was throwing an invisible cloak open and bowed deeply to Ful. Head lowered, if only to hide his amusement, Merdyn went on loudly, “It would be my honor if the Lord Ful would have this dance with me.” He raised his head with a devilish grin.


                Rising gracefully, Merdyn didn’t wait for a response. He grabbed Ful’s hand and lead him to the middle of the room. Every man in the room had gone silent once they saw Merdyn’s little display. It wasn’t anything special, but it was such a stark contrast to what this lot normally saw throughout the night.


                 The music began and the haggard woman started to sing as the rest of the band went on with their instruments. It was a fitting song she had opened with. Merdyn had heard it a few times before, but never in a Tavern.


Give me your trust, said the Aes Sedai.

On my shoulders I support the sky.

 Trust me to know and to do what is best,

And I will take care of the rest.

But trust is the color of a dark seed growing.

Trust is the color of a heart’s blood flowing.

Trust is the color of a soul’s last breath.

Trust is the color of death.


                Merdyn took Ful by the waist and swung him out on to the floor in a quickstep. The young man seemed to struggle at first but caught on quickly; although Merdyn knew that the younger man’s feet were a knot of tangles. Still, Ful was at least able to move with Merdyn across the floor. Judging by the looks on the other men’s faces, Ful was doing better than any of them could have managed.


                “This song is a bit darker than I remember… Trust is the name of it. I’ve always liked it… But again, I forgot that bit about death. Trust in me does not mean death, however, Friend,” Merdyn gave a hearty chuckle, “Just follow my steps. I will lead during this song, all you have to do is surrender. Do not fight against our movements. Let me guide you across the floor and everything will be fine. It’s really just a light two-step… See? Start with your right and then we go to the left… One and two… One and two… There. You’re getting the hang of it, friend.” Merdyn laughed even harder as he dipped his friend low to the ground and then rose up quickly, pulling the young man to his chest.


                “If you didn’t learn anything tonight, please pay close attention to what we are doing now. You can fumble your conversations, squander your toasts, and even sick up over dinner; but no woman, or man, will ever forget the way you made them feel when you take them across the dancefloor. And everyone loves to dance, even Aes Sedai, so do not worry about looking like a fool. See the other men staring at us? That’s not judgment… That’s jealousy.” Merdyn winked at Ful before dipping him again. He went on conversationally, “Really, there is no wrong way to dance. You and I are really just sidestepping, back and forth, in beat with the rhythm. So long as you can keep your moves in time with  the music, no one will care a fig what you do on the dancefloor.”


                “Oh, and you’re leading during the next dance, so again, do pay attention,” He said with a wolfish grin, “If this is too complicated for you, we can try something slower… But I think you’re a natural.”

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A good hand-span taller than Ful, Merdyn firmly held his waist in his gloved hands. Ful was swaying back and forth in the fancy two-step pattern to the music, his fingers on Merdyn’s chest, his eyes wide as he briefly muttered “ah, there’s no need to teach me dancing”, and Merdyn’s face next to him.


As he was dipped to the ground, Ful sucked in a breath through his teeth and tried to control his breathing. He could feel the rigid muscles of Merdyn’s arms behind his back. The other men in the tavern, who had been watching from seated stools, exchanged a few words and went to request something else to listen to. Half-broken furniture was piled up along one wall of the battered tavern to make room for the next dance.


“What do I do?” Ful whispered anxiously to Merdyn as he leaned besides him, pulling on his own arctic white gloves and black dress uniform. His first lesson in dancing felt quite fleeting. Merdyn reminded him it was all about the rhythm.


Ful nodded and swallowed as he strode purposefully up to Merdyn. Holding onto Merdyn’s trim waist, he set first one foot and then the other when the music began. What had Merdyn called it, back at the last song? The waltz? He was picking it up. To his complete surprise, he was getting it. And so were some of the men, as they paired off suddenly, grinning at them as they waltzed by. Ful glanced around. Merdyn moved prominently, patiently in the group of men who had gathered to watch and now partnered up to dance.


Ah, these men must be naturals . . .


He stumbled over his toes and nearly dragged Merdyn down with him. Ful quickly dusted himself off and took a jokey bow to the scattered applause and jeers of the men watching. “Yeah, I can do better. Let’s go for a third try.”


By the time the musicians were done playing, it was almost morning, and most of the others were already gone. The harp woman stood talking with the bartender, and the other two in the band sat on packs with their backs to the wall, smoking, drinking and chatting. 


Ful and Merdyn lounged over near the bar in a huddle, conversing privately. “Well that was interesting.” Ful said and smiled gently “thank you for a wonderful time."

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                Merdyn really enjoyed the embarrassment that was plainly visible on Ful’s face as the pair waltzed across the grimy barroom floor. He smirked at the younger man and said, “Good, then you really shouldn’t have a problem leading during the next dance. Do you not want to dance, friend? I can’t say I’d feel comfortable throwing you out into the world without knowing that you possess this skill.” Merdyn dipped Ful again.


                The first dance was over and the pair separated for a moment, while the rest of the patrons began to move about. Surprise painted Merdyn’s own face as every man in the room paired up, save the grumpy looking bartender. Another tune started up, the haggard woman looked quite pleased with the sight before her. Merdyn’s eyes goggled as the pairs of men all broke out into perfect imitations of the dance that Ful and he had just finished.


                “What do you do?” Merdyn asked his partner, cocking an eyebrow, “Well, for starters, your hands should be on my waist.” Ful pulled Merdyn into the dance, albeit clumsily. Their legs quickly became a tangle, no matter how much Merdyn tried to resist the knot. Ful fell and Merdyn blushed while the men around them laughed, clapped, and hooted.


                Embracing the One Power, Merdyn pulled out a thin thread of thickened air and tripped one of the men laughing. The rest of the room promptly forgot about Ful’s mishap and took to laughing and pointing at the other man.


                Boys will be boys, I suppose.




                The night drew to a close and Merdyn found himself huddled with Ful at the bar. Their coats were slung on the backs of their stools, sweat was plastered on Merdyn’s face and his hair was sticking up in the back. He took no notice, however.


                “We’re friends, Ful, we help each other out. Don’t thank me until you’ve successfully attended your first Ball. You’ll have to stop by tomorrow when you have some free time. I still intend to give you a few things from my wardrobe, but I won’t hand them over until I am sure that they fit you… I know you won’t have much use of them here, but at least you’ll have something nice to wear when you leave the Tower or attend a social function… Is there anything I didn’t cover? I’m sure some of my advice isn’t the most conventional, but it’s all based on my own experiences, and I’ve never met a noble that didn’t like me after a nice conversation.” Merdyn said, smiling at Ful and downing the last of his wine.

Edited by Oddpositions
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