Mornings had often started with Elia's bedroom door being opened, but the conspiratorial giggles of two young children had been replaced by Aldith. The Amyrlin's personal maid wasn't as subtle as the twins, but then her duties included having to wake the Amyrlin each morning. Elia was already rousing from sleep when the curtains were thrown back, casting the dawn's light around the room.
"Good morning, Mother," Aldith chirped. She was young and full of youth's exburance. She was also a nobody from a nowhere village, plucked and raised to her present station by Elia alone. That covered the first criterion Elia sought from her handmaid: loyalty.
"Morning, daughter." The pretty girl beamed in delight; Elia intentionally bestowed the same honour to Aldith as she would an Aes Sedai, but only in the girl's company. Casually irking other Aes Sedai was no longer a habit Elia could afford to keep up. After the disarray caused by her predecessor, the Hall was less willing to prostrate themselves before any one person. Elia had to play the part of the flatterer, not the other way around.
Casting off those bitter thoughts, Elia adjusted into a sitting position as Aldith fetched a silver tray from outside the door. The girl had added a small vase alongside her breakfast. A lovely red rose sat in full bloom, drawing Elia immediately back to her troubles. She needed an 'in' with each of the Ajahs, someone she could liaise with. There were a number of potential candidates in each of the Ajahs, except one. The Red Ajah was so small, and none of them would be too fond of her. Jaryd lorded over them and he would never agree to be at her beck and call. Andraste was a vile wretch of a girl, Torianin was a useless milksop, and Gretchen just had one of those faces. That was practically everyone who was anyone in the Red. Practically everyone...
Elia ignored the pain as she brushed a blackened finger over the rose's petals. Without turning, Elia asked: "Daughter, can you arrange a meeting with Mael Asha'man of the Red Ajah for tonight?"
"Me, Mother?" Aldith's tone of shock was sweet, but Elia didn't address it. Yes, it was more customary to go via the Keeper, but Isadora wasn't her choice of Keeper. She'd served Ninya, and Elia wanted the Kandori to earn her confidences, not the other way around.
"Yes, in my quarters, tonight. Nothing formal, just dinner. And see to it that Corinthea and Tomas are elsewhere at the time. Maybe my brother will watch them for a few hours, or the First Weaver."
"Mael Asha'man? Dinner? Of course, Mother."
- - -
Loyalty was the first criterion but not the only one; Elia also chose Aldith because she wasn't too clever. She was nobody's fool, but independent thought wasn't her forte. That meant that Elia didn't need to watch Aldith too closely for subterfuge. The girl wasn't going to seem a useful spy for anyone when she couldn't grasp complex concepts. As Elia entered her apartments later that night, she had severe regrets about that decision.
The room was, as requested, set out for dinner. There were two places at the dining table: one at the head with a second seat to the right. Appropriate for a meal between close friends but not between an Amyrlin and an Asha'man she didn't know, but the seating was hardly the worst of it. The large fireplace was cold, meaning that the room's lighting needed to come from a different source. To that end, Aldith had placed candles throughout the room. It had an unquestionably intimate feel, reminding her of certain evenings spent in Dax's company. Her cheeks warmed at the thought. A familiar feeling of longing started to rise up within her chest and Elia had to force herself to breathe. Hope was a terrible thing to cling onto; it offered a promise that could never be fulfilled.
Before she could consider anything else, someone knocked at the door. "Peace," she cursed as she whipped her head around, taking in the room. There wasn't time to start the fire and get rid of all these candles. She could apologise for the inappropriate ambience... but Light, what has Aldith planned for the meal? What if one of the courses - and who knew how many courses there would be - only came on one plate. Or with one fork or spoon to share? The girl had wildly misinterpreted Elia's instructions and--
Another knock. Elia felt her knees quaking before she forced herself to draw on her inner fortitude. In the worst case scenario, this would simply be a terribly uncomfortable evening resulting in some public innuendo. Best case, she may actually get the meeting and outcome she had intended. She ran her gloved hands over her dress in a final attempt to smooth them, then reached for the door handle.
"Mael," Elia greeted with a warm if uncertain smile. "Please, come in."