/ Language: English / Genre:sf_heroic, sf_fantasy / Series: Wheel of Time

Wheel of Time • 10 • Crossroads of Twilight

Robert Jordan


WHEEL OF TIME
Book Ten
CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT

Robert JORDAN

For Harriet
Then, now, and always

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And it shall come to pass, in the days when the Dark Hunt rides, when the right hand falters and the left hand strays, that mankind shall come to the Crossroads of Twilight and all that is, all that was, and all that will be shall balance on the point of a sword, while the winds of the Shadow grow.

—From The Prophecies of the Dragon,
translation believed done by Jain
 Charin, known as Jain Farstrider,
shortly before his disappearance

PROLOGUE
Glimmers of the Pattern

Rodel Ituralde hated waiting, though he well knew it was the largest part of being a soldier. Waiting for the next battle, for the enemy to move, to make a mistake. He watched the winter forest and was as still as the trees. The sun stood halfway to its peak, and gave no warmth. His breath misted white in front of his face, frosting his neatly trimmed mustache and the black fox fur lining his hood. He was glad that his helmet hung at his pommel. His breastplate held the cold and radiated it through his coat and all the layers of wool, silk and linen beneath. Even Dart’s saddle felt cold, as though the white gelding were made of frozen milk. The helmet would have addled his brain.

Winter had come late to Arad Doman, very late, but with a vengeance. From summer heat that lingered unnaturally into fall, to winter’s heart in less than a month. The leaves that had survived the long summer’s drought had been frozen before they could change color, and now they glistened like strange, ice-covered emeralds in the morning sun. The horses of the twenty-odd armsmen around him occasionally stamped a hoof in the knee-deep snow. It had been a long ride this far, and they had farther to go whether this day turned out good or ill. Dark clouds roiled the sky to northward. He did not need his weather-wise there to tell him the temperature would plummet before nightfall. They had to be under shelter by then.

“Not as rough as winter before last, is it, my Lord?” Jaalam said quietly. The tall young officer had a way of reading Ituralde’s mind, and his voice was pitched for the others to hear. “Even so, I suppose some men would be dreaming of mulled wine about now. Not this lot, of course. Remarkably abstemious. They all drink tea, I believe. Cold tea. If they had a few birch switches, they’d be stripping down for snow baths.”

“They’ll have to keep their clothes on for the time being,” Ituralde replied dryly, “but they might get some cold tea tonight, if they’re lucky.” That brought a few chuckles. Quiet chuckles. He had chosen these men with care, and they knew about noise at the wrong time.

He himself could have done with a steaming cup of spiced wine, or even tea. But it was a long time since merchants had brought tea to Arad Doman. A long time since any outland merchant had ventured farther than the border with Saldaea. By the time news of the outside world reached him, it was as stale as last month’s bread, if it was more than rumor to begin. That hardly mattered, though. If the White Tower truly was divided against itself, or men who could channel really were being called to Caemlyn... well, the world would have to do without Rodel Ituralde until Arad Doman was whole again. For the moment, Arad Doman was more than enough for any sane man to go on with.

Once again he reviewed the orders he had sent, carried by the fastest riders he had, to every noble loyal to the King. Divided as they were by bad blood and old feuds, they still shared that much. They would gather their armies and ride when orders came from the Wolf; at least, so long as he held the King’s favor. They would even hide in the mountains and wait, at his order. Oh, they would chafe, and some would curse his name, but they would obey. They knew the Wolf won battles. More, they knew he won wars. The Little Wolf, they called him when they thought he could not hear, but he did not care whether they drew attention to his stature—well, not much—so long as they rode when and where he said.

Very soon they would be riding hard, moving to set a trap that would not spring for months. It was a long chance he was taking. Complex plans had many ways to fall apart, and this plan had layers inside layers. Everything would be ruined before it began if he failed to provide the bait. Or if someone ignored his order to evade couriers from the King. They all knew his reasons, though, and even the most stiff-necked shared them, though few were willing to speak of the matter aloud. He himself had moved like a wraith racing on a storm since he received Alsalam’s latest command. In his sleeve where the folded paper lay tucked above the pale lace that fell onto his steel-backed gauntlet. They had one last chance, one very small chance, to save Arad Doman. Perhaps even to save Alsalam from himself before the Council of Merchants decided to put another man on the throne in his place. He had been a good ruler, for over twenty years. The Light send that he could be again.

A loud crack to the south sent Ituralde’s hand to the hilt of his longsword. There was a faint creak of leather and metal as others eased their weapons. For the rest, silence. The forest was as still as a frozen tomb. Only a limb breaking under the weight of snow. After a moment, he let himself relax—as much as he had relaxed since the tales came north of the Dragon Reborn appearing in the sky at Falme. Perhaps the man really was the Dragon Reborn, perhaps he really had appeared in the sky, but whatever the truth, those tales had set Arad Doman on fire.

Ituralde was sure he could have put out that fire, given a freer hand. It was not boasting to think so. He knew what he could do, with a battle, a campaign, or a war. But ever since the Council had decided the King would be safer smuggled out of Bandar Eban, Alsalam seemed to have taken into his head that he was the rebirth of Artur Hawkwing. His signature and seal had marked scores of battle orders since, flooding out from wherever the Council had him hidden. They would not say where that was, even to Ituralde himself. Every woman on the Council that he confronted went flat-eyed and evasive at any mention of the King. He could almost believe they did not know where Alsalam was. A ridiculous thought, of course. The Council kept an unblinking eye on the King. Ituralde had always believed the merchant Houses interfered too much, yet he wished they would interfere now. Why they remained silent was a mystery, for a king who damaged trade did not remain long on the throne.

He was loyal to his oaths, and Alsalam was a friend, besides, but the orders the King sent could not have been better written to achieve chaos. Nor could they be ignored. Alsalam was the King. But he had commanded Ituralde to march north with all possible speed against a great gathering of Dragonsworn that Alsalam supposedly knew of from secret spies, then ten days later, with no Dragonsworn yet in sight, an order came to move south again, with all possible speed, against another gathering that never materialized. He had been commanded to concentrate his forces to defend Bandar Eban when a three-pronged attack might have ended it all and to divide them when a hammer blow could have done the same, to harry ground he knew the Dragonsworn had abandoned, and to march away from where he knew they camped. Worse, Alsalam’s orders often had gone directly to the powerful nobles who were supposed to be following Ituralde, sending Machir in this direction, Teacal in that, Rahman in a third. Four times, pitched battles had resulted from parts of the army blundering into one another in the night while moving to the King’s express command and expecting none but enemies ahead. And all the while the Dragonsworn gained numbers, and confidence. Ituralde had had his triumphs—at Solanje and Maseen, at Lake Somal and Kandelmar—the Lords of Katar had learned not to sell the products of their mines and forges to the enemies of Arad Doman—but always, Alsalam’s orders wasted his gains.

This last order was different, though. For one thing, a Gray Man had killed Lady Tuva trying to stop it from reaching him. Why the Shadow might fear this order more than any other was a mystery, yet it was all the more reason to move swiftly. Before Alsalam reached him with another. This order opened many possibilities, and he had considered every last one he could see. But the good ones all started here, today. When small chances of success were all that remained, you had to seize them.

A snowjay’s strident cry rang out in the distance, then a second time, a third. Cupping his hands around his mouth, Ituralde repeated the three harsh calls. Moments later a shaggy, pale dapple gelding appeared out of the trees, his rider in a white cloak streaked with black. Man and horse alike would have been hard to see in the snowy forest had they been standing still. The rider pulled up beside Ituralde. A stocky man, he wore only a single sword, with a short blade, and there were a cased bow and a quiver fastened to his saddle.

“Looks like they all came, my Lord,” he said in his permanently hoarse voice, pushing his cowl back from his head. Someone had tried to hang Donjel when he was young, though the reason was lost in the years. What remained of his short-cropped hair was iron-gray. The dark leather patch covering the socket of his right eye was a remnant of another youthful scrape. One eye or two, though, he was the best scout Ituralde had ever known. “Most, anyways,” he went on. “They put two rings of sentries around the lodge, one inside the other. You can see them a mile off, but nobody will get close without them at the lodge hearing of it in time to get away. By the tracks, they didn’t bring no more men than you said they could, not enough to count. Course,” he added wryly, “that still leaves you outnumbered a fair bit.”

Ituralde nodded. He had offered the White Ribbon, and the men he was to meet had accepted. Three days when men pledged under the Light, by their souls and hope of salvation, not to draw a weapon against another or shed blood. The White Ribbon had not been tested in this war, however, and these days some men had strange ideas of where salvation lay. Those who called themselves Dragonsworn, for instance. He had always been called a gambler, though he was not. The trick was in knowing what risks you could take. And sometimes, in knowing which ones you had to take.

Pulling a packet sewn into oiled silk from his boot top, he handed it to Donjel. “If I don’t reach Coron Ford in two days, take this to my wife.”

The scout tucked the packet somewhere beneath his cloak, touched his forehead, and turned his horse west. He had carried its like for Ituralde before, usually on the eve of battle. The Light send this was not the time Tamsin would have to open that packet. She would come after him—she had told him so—the first incident ever of the living haunting the dead.

“Jaalam,” Ituralde said, “let us see what waits at Lady Osana’s hunting lodge.” As he heeled Dart forward, the others fell in behind him.

The sun rose to its height and began again to descend as they rode. The dark clouds in the north moved closer, and the chill bit deeper. There was no sound but the crunch of hooves breaking through the snow crust. The forest seemed empty save for themselves. He did not see any of the sentries Donjel had spoken of. The man’s opinion of what could be seen from a mile differed from that of most. They would be expecting him, of course. And watching to make sure he was not followed by an army, White Ribbon or no White Ribbon. A good many of them likely had reasons they felt sufficient to feather Rodel Ituralde with arrows. A lord might pledge the White Ribbon for his men, but would all of those feel bound? Sometimes, there were chances you just had to take.

About midafternoon, Osana’s so-called hunting lodge loomed suddenly out of the trees, a mass of pale towers and slender, pointed domes that would have fitted well among the palaces of Bandar Eban itself. Her hunting had always been for men or power, her trophies numerous and noteworthy despite her relative youth, and the “hunts” that had taken place here would have raised eyebrows even in the capital. The lodge lay desolate, now. Broken windows gaped like mouths with jagged teeth. None showed a glimmer of light or movement. The snow covering the cleared ground around the lodge had been well trampled by horses, however. The ornate brass-bound gates of the main courtyard stood open, and he rode through without slowing, followed by his men. The horses’ hooves clattered on the paving stones, where the snow had been beaten to slush.

No servants came out to greet him, not that he had expected any. Osana had vanished early in the troubles that now shook Arad Doman like a dog shaking a rat, and her servants had drifted quickly to others of her house, taking whatever places they could find. These days, the masterless starved, or turned bandit. Or Dragonsworn. Dismounting in front of the broad marble stairway at the end of the courtyard, he handed Dart’s reins to one of his armsmen, and Jaalam ordered the men to take shelter where they could find it for themselves and the animals. Eyeing the marble balconies and wide windows that surrounded the courtyard, they moved as if expecting a crossbow bolt between the shoulder blades. One set of stable doors stood slightly ajar, but in spite of the cold, they divided themselves between the corners of the courtyard, huddling with the horses where they could keep watch in every direction. If the worst came, perhaps a few might make it out.

Removing his gauntlets, he tucked them behind his belt and checked his lace as he climbed the stairs with Jaalam. Snow that had been trodden underfoot and frozen again crackled beneath his boots. He refrained from looking anywhere but straight ahead. He must appear supremely assured, as though there were no possibility events should go other than as he expected. Confidence was one key to victory. The other side believing you were confident was sometimes almost as good as actually being confident. At the head of the stairs, Jaalam pulled open one of the tall, carved doors by its gilded ring. Ituralde touched his beauty spot with a finger to make sure it was in place—his cheeks were too cold to feel the black velvet star clinging—before he stepped inside. As self-assured as he would have been at a ball.

The cavernous entry hall was as icy as the outside. Their breath made feathered mists. Unlit, the space seemed already wreathed in twilight. The floor was a colorful mosaic of hunters and animals, the tiles chipped in places, as though heavy weights had been dragged over them, or perhaps dropped. Aside from a single toppled plinth that might once have held a large vase or a small statue, the hall was bare. What the servants had not taken when they fled had long since been looted by bandits. A single man awaited them, white-haired and more gaunt than when Ituralde had last seen him. His breastplate was battered, and his earring was just a small gold hoop, but his lace was immaculate, and the sparkling red quarter moon beside his left eye would have gone well at court, in better times.

“By the Light, be welcome under the White Ribbon, Lord Ituralde,” he said formally, with a slight bow.

“By the Light, I come under the White Ribbon, Lord Shimron,” Ituralde replied, making his courtesy in return. Shimron had been one of Alsalam’s most trusted advisors. Until he joined the Dragonsworn, at least. Now he stood high in their councils. “My armsman is Jaalam Nishur, honor bound to House Ituralde, as are all who came with me.”

There had been no House Ituralde before Rodel, but Shimron answered Jaalam’s bow, hand to heart. “Honor be to honor. Will you accompany me, Lord Ituralde?” he said as he straightened.

The great doors to the ballroom were gone from their hinges, though Ituralde could hardly imagine bandits looting those. They left a tall pointed arch wide enough for ten men to pass. Within the windowless oval room, half a hundred lanterns of every size and sort beat at shadows, though the light barely reached the domed ceiling. Separated by a wide expanse of floor, two groups of men stood against the painted walls, and if the White Ribbon had induced them to leave off helmets, all two hundred or more were armored otherwise, and certainly no one had put aside his swords. To one side were a few Domani lords as powerful as Shimron—Rajabi, Wakeda, Ankaer—each surrounded by his cluster of lesser lords and sworn commoners and smaller clusters, of few as two or three, many containing no nobles at all. The Dragonsworn had councils, but no one commander. Still, each of those men was a leader in his own right, some counting their followers in scores, a few in thousands. None appeared happy to be where he was, and one or two shot glares across the floor, to where fifty or sixty Taraboners stood in one solid mass and scowled back. Dragonsworn they might all be, yet there was little love lost between Domani and Taraboners. Ituralde almost smiled at the sight of the outlanders, though. He had not dared to count on half so many appearing today.

“Lord Rodel Ituralde comes under the White Ribbon.” Shimron’s voice rang through the lantern shadows. “Let whoever may think of violence search his heart, and consider his soul.” And that was the end of formality.

“Why does Lord Ituralde offer the White Ribbon?” Wakeda demanded, one hand gripping the hilt of his longsword and the other in a fist at his side. He was not a tall man, though taller than Ituralde, but as haughty as if he held the throne himself. Women had called him beautiful, once. Now a slanting black scarf covered the socket of his missing right eye, and his beauty spot was a black arrowhead pointing at the thick scar running from his cheek up onto his forehead. “Does he intend to join us? Or ask us to surrender? All know the Wolf is bold as well as devious. Is he that bold?” A rumble rose among the men on his side of the room, part mirth, part anger.

Ituralde clasped his hands behind his back to keep from fingering the ruby in his left ear. That was widely known as a sign that he was angry, and sometimes he did it on purpose, but he needed to present a calm face, now. Even while the man spoke past his ear! No. Calm. Duels were entered into in anger, but he was here to fight a duel, and that required calm. Words could be deadlier weapons than swords.

“Every man here knows we have another enemy to the south,” he said in a steady voice. “The Seanchan have swallowed Tarabon.” He ran his gaze over the Taraboners, and met flat stares. He never had been able to read Taraboners’ faces. Between those preposterous mustaches—like hairy tusks; worse than a Saldaean’s!—and those ridiculous veils, they might as well wear masks, and the poor light from the lanterns did not help. But he had seen them veiled in mail, and he needed them. “They have flooded onto Almoth Plain, and moved ever north. Their intent is clear. They mean to have Arad Doman, too. They mean to have the whole world, I fear.”

“Does Lord Ituralde want to know who we will support if these Seanchan invade us?” Wakeda demanded.

“I have true faith you will fight for Arad Doman, Lord Wakeda,” Ituralde said mildly. Wakeda went purple at having the direct insult flung in his teeth, and his oath-men’s hands went to hilts.

“Refugees have brought word that there are Aiel on the plain, now,” Shimron put in quickly, as though he feared Wakeda might break the White Ribbon. None of Wakeda’s oath-men would draw steel unless he did, or commanded them to. “They fight for the Dragon Reborn, so say the reports. He must have sent them, perhaps as an aid to us. No one has ever defeated an Aiel army, not even Artur Hawkwing. You recall the Blood Snow, Lord Ituralde, when we were younger? I believe you agree with me that we did not defeat them there, whatever the histories may say, and I cannot believe the Seanchan have the numbers we did then. I myself have heard of Seanchan moving south, away from the border. No, I suspect the next we hear will be of them retreating from the plain, not advancing on us.” He was not a bad commander in the field, but he had always been pedantic.

Ituralde smiled. Word came more swiftly from the south than from anywhere else, but he had been afraid he would have to bring up the Aiel, and they might have thought he was trying to trick them. He could hardly believe it himself, Aiel on Almoth Plain. He did not point out that Aiel sent to help the Dragonsworn were more likely to have appeared in Arad Doman itself. “I’ve questioned refugees, too, and they speak of Aiel raids, not armies. Whatever the Aiel are doing on the plain may have slowed the Seanchan, but it hasn’t turned them back. Their flying beasts have begun scouting on our side of the border. That does not smack of retreat.”

Producing the paper from his sleeve with a flourish, he held it up so all could see the Sword and Hand impressed in green-and-blue wax. As always of late, he had used a hot blade to separate the Royal Seal on one side while leaving it whole, so he could show it unbroken to doubters. There had been plenty of those, when they heard some of Alsalam’s orders. “I have orders from King Alsalam to gather as many men as I can, from wherever I can find them, and strike as hard as I can at the Seanchan.” He took a deep breath. Here, he took another chance, and Alsalam might have his head on the block unless the dice fell the right way. “I offer a truce. I pledge in the King’s name not to move against you in any way so long as the Seanchan remain a threat to Arad Doman, if you will all pledge the same and fight beside me against them until they are beaten back.”

A stunned silence answered him. Bull-necked Rajabi appeared poleaxed. Wakeda chewed his lip like a startled girl.

Then Shimron muttered, “Can they be beaten back, Lord Ituralde? I faced their... their chained Aes Sedai on Almoth Plain, as did you.” Boots scraped the floor as men shifted their feet, and faces darkened in bleak anger. No man liked to think he was helpless before an enemy, but enough had been there in the early days, with Ituralde and Shimron, for all to know what this enemy was like.

“They can be defeated, Lord Shimron,” Ituralde replied, “even with their... little surprises.” A strange thing to call the earth erupting under your feet, and scouts that rode what looked like Shadowspawn, but he had to sound assured as well as look it. Besides, when you knew what the enemy could do, you adapted. That had been one core of warfare long before the Seanchan appeared. Darkness cut the Seanchan advantages, and so did storms, and a weather-wise could always tell you when a storm was coming. “A wise man stops chewing when he reaches bone,” he continued, “but so far, the Seanchan have had their meat sliced thin before they reached for it. I intend to give them a tough shank to gnaw. More, I have a plan to make them snap so fast they’ll break their teeth on bone before they have a mouthful of meat. Now. I have pledged. Will you?”

It was hard not to hold his breath. Each man seemed to be looking inward. He could all but see them mulling it over. The Wolf had a plan. The Seanchan had chained Aes Sedai and flying beasts and the Light alone knew what else. But the Wolf had a plan. The Seanchan. The Wolf.

“If any man can defeat them,” Shimron said finally, “you can, Lord Ituralde. I will so pledge.”

“I do so pledge!” Rajabi shouted. “We’ll chase them back across the ocean where they came from!” He had a bull’s temperament as well as its neck.

Surprisingly, Wakeda thundered his agreement with equal enthusiasm, and then a storm of voices broke, calling that they would match the King’s pledge, that they would smash the Seanchan, even some that they would follow the Wolf into the Pit of Doom. All very gratifying, but not all Ituralde had come for.

“If you ask us to fight for Arad Doman,” one voice shouted above the rest, “then ask us!” The men who had been calling their pledges fell to angry mutters and half-heard curses.

Hiding his pleasure behind a bland expression, Ituralde turned to face the speaker, on the other side of the room. The Taraboner was a lean man, with a sharp nose that made a tent of his veil. His eyes were hard, though, and keen. Some of the other Taraboners frowned as if displeased he had spoken, so it appeared they had no one leader any more than the Domani, but he had spoken. Ituralde had hoped for the pledges he had received, but they were not necessary to his plan. The Taraboners were. At least, they would make it a hundred times more likely to work. He addressed the man courteously, with a bow.

“I offer you the chance to fight for Tarabon, my good Lord. The Aiel are making some confusion on the plain; the refugees speak of it. Tell me, could a small company of your men—a hundred, perhaps two—cross the plain in that disorder and enter Tarabon, if their armor was marked with stripes, as those who ride for the Seanchan?”

It seemed impossible the Taraboner’s face could grow any tighter, yet it did, and it was the turn of the men on his side of the room to mutter angrily and curse. Enough word had come north for them to know of a king and panarch put on their thrones by the Seanchan and swearing fealty to an empress on the other side of the Aryth Ocean. They could not like reminders of how many of their countrymen now rode for this empress. Most of the “Seanchan” on Almoth Plain were Taraboners.

“What good could one small company do?” the lean man growled, contemptuous.

“Little good,” Ituralde replied. “But if there were fifty such companies? A hundred?” These Taraboners might have that many men behind them, all told. “If they all struck on the same day, all across Tarabon? I myself would ride with them, and as many of my men as can be outfitted in Taraboner armor. Just so you will know this is not simply a stratagem to get rid of you.”

Behind him, the Domani began protesting loudly. Wakeda the loudest of all, if it could be believed! The Wolf’s plan was all very well, but they wanted the Wolf himself at their head. Most of the Taraboners began arguing among themselves, over whether so many men could cross the plain without being discovered, even in such small bands, over what good if any they could do in Tarabon in small companies, over whether they were willing to wear armor marked with Seanchan stripes. Taraboners argued as easily as Saldaeans, and as hotly. Not the sharp-nosed man. He met Ituralde’s gaze steadily. Then gave a slight nod. It was hard to tell, behind those thick mustaches, but Ituralde thought he smiled.

The last tension faded from Ituralde’s shoulders. The fellow would not have agreed while the others argued if he were not more of a leader among them than he seemed. The others would come, too, he was certain. They would ride south with him into the heart of what the Seanchan considered their own, and slap them hard and full across the face. The Taraboners would want to stay afterward, of course, and continue the fight in their own homeland. He could not expect anything more. Which would leave him and the few thousand men he could take with him to be hounded back north again, all the long way across Almoth Plain. If the Light shone on him, hounded with fury.

He returned the Taraboner’s smile, if smile it was. With any luck, furious generals would not see where he was leading them until it was too late. And if they did... Well, he had a second plan.

Eamon Valda held his cloak tight around himself as he tramped through the snow among the trees. Cold and steady, the wind sighed through the snow-laden branches, a deceptively quiet sound in the damp gray light. It sliced through the thick white wool as through gauze, chilling him to the bone. The camp sprawling around him through the forest was too quiet. Movement provided a little warmth, but in this, men huddled together unless driven to move.

Abruptly he stopped in his tracks, wrinkling his nose at a sudden stench, a gagging foulness like twenty midden heaps crawling with maggots. He did not gag; instead, he scowled. The camp lacked the precision he preferred. The tents were clustered haphazardly wherever the limbs overhead grew thickest, the horses tethered close by rather than properly picketed. It was the sort of slackness that led to filth. Unwatched, the men would bury horse dung under a few shovels of dirt to be done with it quicker, and dig latrines where they would not have to walk far in the cold. Any officer of his who allowed that would cease to be an officer, and learn firsthand how to use a shovel.

He was scanning the camp for the source of the smell, when suddenly there was no smell. The wind did not change; the stink just vanished. He was startled for only a moment. Walking on, he scowled all the harder. The stench had come from somewhere. He would find whoever thought discipline had slackened, and make examples of them. Discipline had to be tight, now; tighter than ever.

At the edge of a broad clearing, he paused again. The snow in the clearing was smooth and unmarked despite the camp hidden all around it. Staying back among the trees, he scanned the sky. Scudding gray clouds hid the noonday sun. A flicker of motion made his breath catch before he realized it was just a bird, some small brown thing wary of hawks and staying low. He barked a laugh that was more than touched with bitterness. Little more than a month since the Light-cursed Seanchan had swallowed Amador and the Fortress of Light in one unbelievable gulp, but he had learned new instincts. Wise men learned, while fools...

Ailron had been a fool, puffed up with old tales of glory brightened by age and new hope of winning real power to go with his crown. He refused to see the reality in front of his eyes, and Ailron’s Disaster had been the result. Valda had heard it named the Battle of Jeramel, but only by some of the bare handful of Amadician nobles who escaped, dazed as poleaxed steers yet still trying mechanically to put the best face on events. He wondered what Ailron had called it when the Seanchan’s tame witches began tearing his orderly ranks to bloody rags. He could still see that in his head, the earth turning to fountains of fire. He saw it in his dreams. Well, Ailron was dead, cut down trying to flee the field and his head displayed on a Taraboner’s lance. A suitable death for a fool. He, on the other hand, had over nine thousand of the Children gathered around him. A man who saw clearly could make much out of that in times like these.

On the far side of the clearing, just inside the treeline, was a rude house that had once belonged to a charcoal burner, a single room with winter-brown weeds thick in the gaps between the stones. By all appearances, the man had abandoned the place some time ago; parts of the thatch roof sagged dangerously, and whatever had once filled the narrow windows was long since gone, replaced now by dark blankets. Two guards stood beside the ill-fitting wooden door, big men with the scarlet shepherd’s crook behind the golden sunflare on their cloaks. They had their arms wrapped around themselves and were stamping their boots against the cold. Neither could have reached his sword in time to do any good, had Valda been an enemy. Questioners liked to work indoors.

Their faces might have been carved stone as they watched him approach. Neither offered more than a halfhearted salute. Not for a man without the shepherd’s crook, even if he was Lord Captain Commander of the Children. One opened his mouth as if to question Valda’s purpose, but Valda walked by them and pushed open the rough door. At least they did not try to stop him. He would have killed them both, if they had.

At his entrance, Asunawa looked up from the crooked table where he was perusing a small book, one bony hand cupped around a steaming pewter cup that gave off the odor of spices. His ladder-back chair, the only other piece of furniture in the room, appeared rickety, but someone had strengthened it with rawhide lashings. Valda tightened his mouth to stop a sneer. The High Inquisitor of the Hand of the Light demanded a real roof, not a tent, even if it was thatch sorely in need of patching, and mulled wine when no one else had tasted wine of any sort in a week. A small fire burned on the stone hearth, too, giving a meager warmth. Even cook fires had been banned since before the Disaster, to prevent smoke giving them away. Still, although most Children despised the Questioners, they held Asunawa in a strange esteem, as if his gray hair and gaunt martyr’s face graced him with all the ideals of the Children of the Light. That had been a surprise, when Valda first learned of it; he was unsure whether Asunawa himself knew. In any case, there were enough Questioners to make trouble. Nothing he could not handle, but it was best to avoid that sort of trouble. For now.

“It is almost time,” he said, shutting the door behind him. “Are you ready?”

Asunawa made no move to rise or reach for the white cloak folded across the table beside him. There was no sunflare on that, just the scarlet crook. Instead, he folded his hands over the book, hiding the pages. Valda thought it was Mantelar’s The Way of the Light. Odd reading for the High Inquisitor. More suited to new recruits; those who could not read when they swore were taught so they could study Mantelar’s words. “I have reports of an Andoran army in Murandy, my son,” Asunawa said. “Deep in Murandy, perhaps.”

“Murandy is a long way from here,” Valda said as though he did not recognize an old argument starting anew. An argument that Asunawa often seemed to forget he had already lost. But what were Andorans doing in Murandy? If the reports were true; so many were travelers’ fantasies wrapped in lies. Andor. The very name rankled in Valda’s memory. Morgase was dead, or else a servant to some Seanchan. They had little respect for titles other than their own. Dead or a servant, she was lost to him, and more importantly by far, his plans for Andor were lost. Galadedrid had gone from a useful lever to just another young officer, and one who was too popular with the common soldiers. Good officers were never popular. But Valda was a pragmatic man. The past was the past. New plans had replaced Andor.

“Not so far if we move east, across Altara, my son, across the north of Altara. The Seanchan cannot have moved far from Ebou Dar yet.”

Spreading his hands to catch the hearthfire’s small warmth, Valda sighed. They had spread like a plague in Tarabon, and here in Amadicia. Why did the man think Altara was different? “Are you forgetting the witches in Altara? With an army of their own, need I remind you? Unless they’re into Murandy by now.” Those reports he believed, of the witches on the move. In spite of himself, his voice rose. “Maybe this so-called Andoran army you’ve heard about is the witches, and their army! They gave Caemlyn to al’Thor, remember! And Illian, and half the east! Do you really believe the witches are divided? Do you?” Slowly he drew a deep breath, calming himself. Trying to. Every tale out of the east was worse than the last. A gust of wind down the chimney blew sparks into the room, and he stepped back with a curse. Bloody peasant hovel! Even the chimney was ill made!

Asunawa snapped the small book shut between his palms. His hands were folded as in prayer, but his deep-set eyes suddenly seemed hotter than the fire. “I believe the witches must be destroyed! That is what I believe!”

“I’d settle for knowing how the Seanchan tame them.” With enough tame witches, he could drive al’Thor out of Andor, out of Illian and everywhere else he had settled like the Shadow itself. He could better Hawkwing himself!

“They must be destroyed,” Asunawa asserted stubbornly.

“And us with them?” Valda demanded.

A knock came at the door, and at Asunawa’s curt summons one of the guards from outside appeared in the doorway, standing rigidly erect, arm snapping across his chest in a crisp salute. “My Lord High Inquisitor,” he said respectfully, “the Council of the Anointed is here.”

Valda waited. Would the old fool continue to be stubborn with all ten surviving Lords Captain outside, mounted and ready to ride? What was done, was done. What had to be done.

“If it brings down the White Tower,” Asunawa said finally, “I can be content. For now. I will come to this meeting.”

Valda smiled thinly. “Then I am content. We will see the witches fall together.” Certainly, he would see them fall. “I suggest you have your horse readied. We have a long way to ride by nightfall.” Whether Asunawa would see it with him was another matter.

Gabrelle enjoyed her rides through the wintery woods with Logain and Toveine. He always let Toveine and her follow at their own pace in a semblance of privacy, so long as they did not lag too far behind. The two Aes Sedai seldom spoke more than absolutely necessary, though, even when they truly were private. They were far from friends. In fact, Gabrelle often wished Toveine would ask to stay behind when Logain offered these outings. It would have been very pleasant to be really alone.

Holding her reins in one green-gloved hand and keeping her fox-lined cloak shut with the other, she let herself feel the cold, just a little, just for the refreshing vigor of it. The snow was not deep, but the morning air was crisp. Dark gray clouds promised more snow, soon. High overhead flew a long-winged bird of some sort. An eagle, perhaps; birds were not her strong point. Plants and minerals stayed in one place while you studied them, and so did books and manuscripts, though those might crumble under her fingers, if they were old enough. She could barely make the bird out at that height, in any case, but an eagle fit the landscape. Woodland surrounded them, small dense thickets dotted among more widely spaced trees. Great oaks and towering pines and firs had killed off most of the undergrowth, though here and there the thick brown remains of a hardy vine, waiting for a still distant spring, clung to a boulder or a low gray ledge of stone. She carefully held that landscape in her mind like a novice exercise, chill and empty.

With no one in sight except her two companions, she could almost imagine she was somewhere other than the Black Tower. That horrid name came all too easily to mind, now. A thing as real as the White Tower, and no longer “so-called” for anyone who laid eyes on the great stone barracks buildings that held hundreds of men in training, and the village that had grown up around them. She had lived in that village for nearly two weeks, and there were parts of the Black Tower she still had not seen. Its grounds covered miles, surrounded by the beginnings of a wall of black stone. Still, she could almost forget, here in the woods.

Almost. Except for the bundle of sensation and emotion, the essence of Logain Ablar, that always rode in the back of her mind, a constant feel of controlled wariness, of muscles always on the edge of tensing. A hunting wolf might feel that way, or perhaps a lion. The man’s head moved constantly; even here he watched his surroundings as though expecting attack.

She had never had a Warder—they were needless flamboyance for Browns; a hired servant could do all she needed—and it felt peculiar to be not only part of a bond, but at the wrong end of it, so to speak. Worse than simply the wrong end; this bond required her to obey, and she was hedged about with prohibitions. So it was not the same as a Warder bond, really. Sisters did not force their Warders to obedience. Well, not very often. And sisters had not bonded men against their will for centuries. Still, it did provide a fascinating study. She had worked at interpreting what she sensed. At times, she could almost read his mind. Other times, it was like fumbling through a mineshaft with no lamp. She supposed she would try to study if her neck were stretched on the headsman’s block. Which, in a very real way, it was. He could sense her as well as she could him.

She must always remember that. Some of the Asha’man might believe the Aes Sedai were resigned to their captivity, but only a fool could think fifty-one sisters who had been forcibly bonded would all embrace resignation, and Logain was no fool. Besides, he knew they had been sent to destroy the Black Tower. Yet if he suspected that they were still trying to find a way to end the threat of hundreds of men who could channel... Light, constrained as they were, one order could halt them in their tracks! You will do nothing to harm the Black Tower. She could not understand why that command had not been given as a simple precaution. They must succeed. Fail, and the world was doomed.

Logain turned in his saddle, an imposing, broad-shouldered figure in a well-fitting coat dark as pitch, without a touch of color save for the silver Sword and the red-and-gold Dragon on his high collar. His black cloak was thrown back, as though he were refusing to let the cold touch him. He might be; these men seemed to believe they had to fight everything, all the time. He smiled at her—reassuringly?—and she blinked. Had she let too much anxiety slip into her end of the bond? It was such a delicate dance, trying to control her emotions, to present just the right responses. It was almost like taking the test for the shawl, where every weave had to be made exactly so, without the slightest falter, despite every manner of distraction, only this test went on and on and on.

He turned his attention on Toveine, and Gabrelle exhaled softly. Just a smile, then. A companionable gesture. He was often congenial. He might have been likable if he were anything but what he was.

Toveine beamed back at him, and Gabrelle had to stop herself from shaking her head in wonderment, not for the first time. Pulling her hood a little forward as though against the cold, so it sheltered her face while giving her an edge to peek around, she studied the Red sister surreptitiously.

Everything she knew of the other woman said she buried her hates in shallow graves, if at all, and Toveine loathed men who could channel as deeply as any Red Gabrelle had ever met. Any Red must despise Logain Ablar, after the claims he had made, that the Red Ajah itself had set him up to become a false Dragon. He might be holding his silence now, but the damage was done. There were sisters captive with them who looked at Reds as though thinking they, at least, were caught in a trap of their making. Yet Toveine all but simpered at him. Gabrelle bit her underlip in perplexed thought. True, Desandre and Lemai had ordered everyone to achieve cordial relations with the Asha’man who held their bonds—the men must be lulled before the sisters could do anything useful—but Toveine bristled openly at every command from either sister. She had detested yielding to them, and might have refused if Lemai were not also Red, no matter that she had admitted it must be so. Or that no one had recognized her authority once she led them into captivity. She hated that, too. Yet that was when she had begun smiling at Logain.

For that matter, how could Logain sit at the other end of her bond and take that smile as anything but fraud? Gabrelle had picked at that knot before, too, without coming close to untying it. He knew too much about Toveine. Knowing her Ajah should have been enough. Yet Gabrelle felt as little suspicion in him when he looked at the Red sister as when he looked at her. He was hardly free of suspicion; the man was distrustful of everyone, it seemed. But less of any sister than of some Asha’man. That made no sense, either.

He’s no fool, she reminded herself. So, why? And why for Toveine, as well? What is she scheming at?

Abruptly, Toveine flashed that seemingly warm smile at her, and spoke as if she had voiced at least one of her questions aloud. “With you near,” she murmured in a mist of breath, “he’s barely aware of me. You’ve made him your captive, sister.”

Caught by surprise, Gabrelle flushed in spite of herself. Toveine never made conversation, and to say she disapproved of Gabrelle’s situation with Logain was to understate drastically. Seducing him had seemed such an obvious way to get close enough to learn his plans, his weaknesses. After all, even if he was an Asha’man, she had been Aes Sedai long before he was born, and she was hardly a total innocent when it came to men. He had been so surprised when he realized what she was doing that she almost thought of him as the innocent. More fool, she. Playing the Domani turned out to hide many surprises, and a few pitfalls. Worst of all, a trap she could never reveal to anyone. Something she very much feared that Toveine knew, though, at least in part. But then, any sister who had followed her lead must know, too, and she thought several had. None had spoken of the problem, and none was likely to, of course. Logain could mask the bond, in a crude way she believed would still allow her to find him however well it hid his emotions, but sometimes when they shared a pillow, he let the masking slip. To say the least, the results were... devastating. There was no calm restraint, then, no cool study. Not much of reason at all.

Hurriedly she summoned the image of the snowy landscape again and fixed it in her mind. Trees and boulders and smooth, white snow. Smooth, cold snow.

Logain did not look back at her, or give any outward sign, but the bond told her that he was aware of her momentary loss of control. The man brimmed with smugness! And satisfaction! It was all she could do not to seethe. But he would expect her to seethe, burn him! He had to know what she felt from him. Letting her anger rise, though, only filled the fellow with amusement! And he was not even attempting to hide it!

Toveine was wearing a small, satisfied smile, Gabrelle noticed, but she had only a moment to wonder why.

They had had the morning to themselves, but now another rider appeared through the trees, a cloakless man in black who angled his horse in their direction when he saw them, and dug his bootheels into his animal’s flanks for speed despite the snow. Logain reined in to wait, the image of calm, and Gabrelle stiffened as she halted her mount beside him. The feelings carried by the bond had shifted. Now they were the tension of a wolf waiting to spring. She expected to see his gauntleted hands on his sword hilt rather than resting at ease on the tall pommel of his saddle.

The newcomer was almost as tall as Logain, with waves of golden hair to his wide shoulders and a winning smile. She suspected he knew it was a winning smile. He was too pretty not to know, much more beautiful than Logain. Life’s forges had hardened Logain’s face, and left edges. This young man was smooth, yet. Still, the Sword and the Dragon decorated his coat collar. He studied the two sisters with bright blue eyes. “Are you bedding both of them, Logain?” he said in a deep voice. “The plump one looks cold-eyed, to me, but the other appears warm enough.”

Toveine hissed angrily, and Gabrelle’s jaw clenched. She had made no real secret of what she did—she was no Cairhienin, to cloak in privacy what she was ashamed of in public—but that did not mean she expected to have it bantered about. Worse, the man spoke as though they were tavern lightskirts!

“Don’t ever let me hear that again, Mishraile,” Logain said quietly, and she realized the bond had changed again. It was cold, now; cold to make the snow seem warm. Cold to make a grave seem warm. She had heard that name before, Atal Mishraile, and felt distrust in Logain when he spoke it—certainly more than he felt for her or Toveine—but this was the feel of killing. It was almost laughable. The man held her prisoner, yet he was ready to do violence to defend her reputation? Part of her did want to laugh, but she tucked the information away. Any scrap might be useful.

The younger fellow gave no sign of hearing a threat. His smile never faltered. “The M’Hael says you can go, if you want. Can’t see why you’d want to take on recruiting.”

“Someone has to,” Logain replied in a level tone.

Gabrelle exchanged puzzled glances with Toveine. Why would Logain want to go recruiting? They had seen parties of Asha’man return from that, and they were always tired from Traveling long distances, and usually dirty and snappish besides. Men beating the drum for the Dragon Reborn did not always get the warmest welcome, it seemed, even before anyone learned what they were really after. And why were she and Toveine just hearing of it? She would have sworn he told her everything when they were lying together.

Mishraile shrugged. “Plenty of Dedicated and Soldiers to do that sort of work. Of course, I suppose it bores you looking after training all the time. Teaching fools to sneak around in the woods and climb cliffs as if they couldn’t channel a whisker. Even a fly-speck village might look better.” His smile slid into a smirk, disdainful and not at all winning. “Maybe if you ask the M’Hael, he’ll let you join his classes at the palace. You wouldn’t be bored then.”

Logain’s face never changed, but Gabrelle felt one sharp bolt of fury through the bond. She had overheard tidbits about Mazrim Taim and his private classes, but all any of the sisters really knew was that Logain and his cronies did not trust Taim or any who attended his lessons, and Taim appeared not to trust Logain. Unfortunately, what the sisters could learn of the classes was limited; no one was bonded to a man of Taim’s faction. Some thought the mistrust was because both men had claimed to be the Dragon Reborn, or even a sign of the madness that channeling brought to men. She had not detected any evidence of insanity in Logain, and she watched for it as hard as she watched for signs he was about to channel. If she were still bound to him when he went mad, it might seize her mind, too. Whatever caused a crack in the Asha’man’s ranks must be exploited, though.

Mishraile’s smile faded as Logain merely looked at him. “Enjoy your flyspecks,” he said finally, pulling his horse around. A thud of his heel made the animal spring away as he called over his shoulder, “Glory waits for some of us, Logain.”

“He may not enjoy his Dragon long,” Logain murmured, watching the other man gallop off. “He’s too free with his tongue.” She did not think he meant the comment about her and Toveine, but what else could he mean? And why was he suddenly worried? Hiding it very well, especially considering the bond, but still, he was worried. Light, sometimes it seemed that knowing what was in a man’s head made the confusion worse!

Abruptly, he turned his gaze on her and Toveine, studying. A new thread of concern slipped through the bond. About them? Or—an odd thought—for them?

“I fear we must cut short our ride,” he said after a moment. “I have preparations to make.”

He did not break into a gallop, but he still set a quicker pace back toward the village of the men in training than he had coming out. He was concentrating on something, now; thinking hard, Gabrelle suspected. The bond practically hummed with it. He must have been riding by instinct.

Before they had gone very far, Toveine moved her horse close to Gabrelle’s. Leaning in her saddle, she tried to fix Gabrelle with an intent stare while darting quick glances at Logain as if afraid he might look back and see them talking. She never seemed to pay attention to what the bond told her. The divided effort made her bob about like a puppet, in danger of falling.

“We must go with him,” the Red whispered. “Whatever it takes, you must see to it.” Gabrelle raised her eyebrows, and Toveine had the grace to color, but she lost nothing of her insistence. “We cannot afford to be left behind,” she breathed hurriedly. “The man didn’t abandon his ambitions when he came here. Whatever vileness he plans, we can do nothing if we aren’t right there when he tries.”

“I can see what’s in front of my nose,” Gabrelle said sharply, and felt relief when Toveine simply nodded and fell silent. It was all Gabrelle could do to control the fear that was rising in her. Did Toveine never think about what she must sense through the bond? Something that had always been there in the connection with Logain—determination—now lay hard and sharp as a knife. She thought she knew what it meant, this time, and knowing made her mouth dry. Against whom, she could not say, but she was sure that Logain Ablar was riding to war.

Slowly descending one of the wide hallways that spiraled gently through the White Tower, Yukiri felt prickly as a starved cat. She could barely make herself listen to what the sister gliding beside her was saying. The morning was still dim, first light darkened by the snow falling heavily on Tar Valon, and the middle levels of the Tower were as icy as a Borderland winter. Well, perhaps not so cold as that, she allowed after a moment. She had not been that far north in a number of years, and memory expanded what it did not shrink. That was the reason written records were so important. Except when you did not dare write down anything, at least. Still, it was chill enough. For all the ancient builders’ cleverness and skill, heat from the great furnaces in the basement never reached this high. Drafts made the flames dance on the gilded stand-lamps, and some were strong enough to stir the heavy tapestries spaced along the white walls, spring flowers and woodlands and exotic animals and birds alternating with scenes of Tower triumphs that would never be displayed in the public areas below. Her own rooms, with their warm fireplaces, would once have been much more comfortable.

News from the outside world churned through her head despite her efforts to avoid it. Or rather, more often, the lack of solid news. What eyes-and-ears reported from Altara and Arad Doman was all confusion, and the few reports beginning to seep out of Tarabon again were frightening. Rumor put the Borderland rulers everywhere from the Blight to Andor to Amadicia to the Aiel Waste; the only confirmed fact was that none were where they were supposed to be, guarding the Blightborder. The Aiel were everywhere, and finally out of al’Thor’s control, it appeared, if they had ever been in it. The latest news from Murandy made her want to grind her teeth and weep at the same time, while Cairhien... ! Sisters all over the Sun Palace, some suspected of being rebels and none known to be loyal, and still no word of Coiren and her embassy since they departed the city, though they should have been back in Tar Valon long since. And as if that were not enough, al’Thor himself had vanished like a soap bubble yet again. Could the tales that he had half-destroyed the Sun Palace be true? Light, the man could not go mad yet! Or had Elaida’s witless offer of “protection” frightened him into hiding? Did anything frighten him? He frightened her. He frightened the rest of the Hall, too, let them put whatever face on it they wanted.

The only thing truly certain was that none of that mattered a spit in a rainstorm. Knowing so did not help her mood in the slightest. Worry over being caught in a tangle of roses, even if the thorns might kill you eventually, was a luxury when you had a knife point pressed to your ribs.

“Every time she’s left the Tower in the last ten years, it has been on her own affairs, so there are no recent records to check,” her companion murmured. “It’s difficult to learn exactly when she has been out of the Tower and remain... discreet.” Her dark golden hair held back by ivory combs, Meidani was tall, and slender enough to look overbalanced by her bosom, an effect emphasized by both the fit of her dark silver embroidered bodice and the way she walked in a stoop to put her mouth more on the level of Yukiri’s ear. Her shawl was caught on her wrists, the long gray fringe dragging the floor tiles.

“Straighten your backbone,” Yukiri growled quietly. “My ears aren’t clogged with dirt.”

The other woman jerked herself upright, faint splashes of color in her cheeks. Pulling her shawl higher on her arms, Meidani half glanced over her shoulder toward her Warder Leonin, who was following at a discreet distance. If they could barely hear the faint tinkle of the silver bells in the lean man’s black braids, though, he could hear nothing said in a moderate tone. The man knew no more than necessary—precious little, in fact, except that his Aes Sedai wanted certain things of him; that was enough for any good Warder—and he might cause problems if he learned too much, but there was no need for whispering. People who saw whispering wanted to know what the secret was.

The other Gray was no more the source of her irritation than the outside world, however, even if the woman was a jackdaw in swan’s feathers. Not the main source, anyway. A disgusting thing, a rebel pretending loyalty, yet Yukiri was actually glad that Saerin and Pevara had convinced her that they should not yet turn Meidani and her sister jackdaws over to Tower law. Their wings were clipped, now, and they were useful. They might even gain a measure of clemency, for when they did face justice. Of course, when the oath that had clipped Meidani’s wings came out, Yukiri might easily find herself wishing for clemency herself. Rebels or not, what she and the others had done with Meidani and her confederates was as far outside the law as murder. Or treason. An oath of personal obedience—sworn on the Oath Rod itself; sworn under duress—was all too close to Compulsion, which was clearly prohibited if not really defined. Still, sometimes you had to smudge the plaster to smoke out hornets, and the Black Ajah were hornets with venomous stings. The law would have its course in due time—without the law, there was nothing—but she needed to be more concerned with whether she would survive the smoking out than with what penalties the law would exact. Corpses had no need to worry about punishment.

She motioned curtly for Meidani to go on, but no sooner had the other woman opened her mouth than three Browns rounded a corner from another hallway right in front of them, flaunting their shawls like Greens. Yukiri knew Marris Thornhill and Doraise Mesianos slightly, in the manner Sitters knew sisters from other Ajahs who spent long periods in the Tower, which was to say enough to attach names to faces and not much more. Mild and absorbed in their studies was how she would have described them, if pressed. Elin Warrel was so newly raised to the shawl, she still should have been bobbing curtsies on instinct. Instead of offering courtesies to a Sitter, though, all three stared at Yukiri and Meidani the way cats stared at strange dogs. Or maybe dogs at strange cats. No mildness, there.

“May I ask about a point of Arafellin law, Sitter?” Meidani said, as smoothly as if that were what she had been intending to say all along.

Yukiri nodded, and Meidani began rambling about fishing rights on rivers versus lakes, hardly an inspired choice. A magistrate might ask an Aes Sedai to listen to a case of fishing rights, but only to bolster her own opinion if powerful people were involved and she was worried about an appeal to the throne.

A single Warder trailed the Browns—Yukiri could not recall whether he belonged to Marris or Doraise—a heavyset fellow with a hard round face and a dark top knot who eyed Leonin and the swords on his back with a distrust surely picked up from his sister. That pair stalked by up the slowly spiraling corridor with plump chins high, the skinny newling leaping anxiously to keep up. The Warder strode after them radiating the air of a man in hostile country.

Hostility was all too usual, nowadays. The invisible walls between the Ajahs, once barely thick enough to hide each Ajah’s own mysteries, had become hard stone ramparts with moats. No, not moats; chasms, deep and wide. Sisters never left their own Ajah’s quarters alone, often took their Warders even to the library and the dining rooms, and always wore their shawls, as though someone might mistake their Ajah, otherwise. Yukiri herself was wearing her best, embroidered in silver and thread-of-gold, with the long silk fringe that hung to her ankles. So she supposed she was flaunting her Ajah a bit, too. And lately, she had been considering that a dozen years was long enough to go without a Warder. A horrible thought, once she sifted out the source. No sister should have need of a Warder inside the White Tower.

Not for the first time, the thought hit her hard that someone had to mediate among the Ajahs, and soon, or the rebels would dance in through the front door, bold as thieves, and empty the house while the rest of them squabbled over who got Great Aunt Sumi’s pewter. But the only end of the thread she could see to begin working out the snarl was to have Meidani and her friends publicly admit that they had been sent to the Tower by the rebels to spread rumors—tales they still insisted were true!—that the Red Ajah had created Logain as a false Dragon. Could it be true? Without Pevara knowing? Impossible to think that a Sitter, especially Pevara, could have been fooled. In any case, that bit of the tangle had been overlaid with so many others by now that it scarcely could make any difference by itself. Besides, it would throw away the aid of ten out of the fourteen women she could be sure were not Black Ajah, not to mention likely exposing what the rest of them were doing, before the storm over it blew out.

She shivered, and it had nothing to do with drafts in the corridor. She and every other woman who might reveal the truth would die before that storm ended, by so-called accident or in bed. Or she might just vanish, apparently gone out of the Tower never to be seen again. She had no doubt of that. Any evidence would be buried so deep, an army with shovels could never dig it up. Even rumors would be plastered over. It had happened before. The world and most sisters still believed Tamra Ospenya had died in her bed. She had believed it. They had to have the Black Ajah wrapped up and tied, as near as possible, before they dared risk going public.

Meidani took up her report again once the Browns were safely past, but fell silent only moments later when, just ahead of them, a big hairy hand suddenly thrust aside a tapestry from behind. An icy draft swept out of the doorway that had been hidden by the tapestry’s brightly colored birds from the Drowned Lands, and a heavy fellow in a thick brown workcoat backed into the corridor, pulling a handcart stacked high with split hickory that another serving man in a rough coat was pushing from behind. Common laborers: neither had the white Flame on his chest.

At sight of two Aes Sedai, the men hastily let the tapestry fall back into place and wrestled their cart out of the way against the wall while trying to make their bows, almost toppling the load, which set them grabbing at the sliding firewood frantically while still bobbing. No doubt they had expected to finish their work without encountering any sisters. Yukiri always felt sympathy for the people who had to haul wood and water and everything else up the servants’ ramps all the way from the ground, but she strode past them with a scowl.

Talk while walking was never overheard, and the hallways in the common areas had seemed a good place to be private with Meidani. Much better than her own apartments, where any ward against eavesdropping would only announce to everyone in the Gray quarter that she was discussing secrets, and, far worse, with whom. There were only two hundred or so sisters in the Tower at the moment, a number the White Tower could swallow and seem vacant, and with everyone keeping to themselves, the common areas should have been empty. So she had thought.

She had taken into account the liveried servants rushing about to check lamp-wicks and oil levels and a dozen other things, and the plain-clad workers carrying wicker baskets of the Light knew what on their backs. They were always about in the early hours, readying the Tower for the day, but they made hasty bows and curtsies and scurried to get out of a sister’s way. Out of hearing. Tower servants knew how to be tactful, especially since anyone eavesdropping on a sister would be shown the door. Given the present mood in the Tower, the servants were particularly quick to avoid so much as a chance of overhearing things they should not.

What she had failed to reckon on was how many sisters would choose to walk outside the quarters, by twos and threes, despite the hour and the cold, Reds trying to stare down anyone they encountered except other Reds, Greens and Yellows competing for the crown of haughty and Browns doing their best to outdo both. A few Whites, all but one Warderless, attempted to maintain a façade of cool reason while jumping at their own footfalls. One little group was not out of sight for more than minutes, it seemed, before another appeared, so Meidani spent nearly as much time chattering about points of law as she did giving her report.

Worst of all, twice Grays smiled in what looked like relief on seeing others of their Ajah, and would have joined them had Yukiri not shaken her head. Which infuriated her no end, because it let all who saw know she had special reason to be alone with Meidani. Even if the Black Ajah took no notice, and the Light send there was no reason they should, too many sisters spied on other Ajahs these days, and in spite of the Three Oaths, the tales they carried somehow grew in the carrying. With Elaida apparently trying to force the Ajahs into line by brute force, those tales too often resulted in penances, and the best to be hoped for was that you could pretend to have chosen to take it on for reasons of your own. Yukiri had already suffered through one such, and she had no desire to waste days scrubbing floors again, especially now that she had more on her plate than she knew what to do with. And taking the alternative, a private visit to Silviana, was no better, even if it did save the time! Elaida seemed fiercer than ever since she began summoning Silviana for her own supposedly private penances. The whole Tower was still buzzing with that.

As much as Yukiri hated admitting it, all that made her careful how she looked at the other sisters she saw. Look too long, and you might seem to be spying yourself. Shift your gaze away too fast, and you looked furtive, with the same result. Even so, she could barely keep her eyes from lingering on one pair of Yellows who glided along a crossing corridor like queens in their own palace.

The dark stocky Warder following just far enough behind to give them privacy must have belonged to Pritalle Nerbaijan, a green-eyed woman who had largely escaped the Saldaean nose, because Atuan Larisett had no Warder. Yukiri knew little about Pritalle, but she would learn more after seeing her in close conversation with Atuan. In high-necked gray slashed with yellow and a silk-fringed shawl, the Taraboner was striking. Her dark hair, in thin, brightly beaded braids that hung to her waist, framed a face that somehow seemed perfect as it was without being beautiful. She was even fairly modest, at least as Yellows went. But she was the woman Meidani and the others were trying to study without being caught out. The woman whose name they were afraid to speak aloud except behind strong wards. Atuan Larisett was one of only three Black sisters Talene knew. That was how they organized themselves, three women who knew each other, three women who formed one heart, with each woman knowing one more the other two did not. Atuan had been Talene’s “one more,” so there was some hope she could be followed to two others.

Just before the pair passed out of view beyond the corner, Atuan glanced up the spiral hallway. Her gaze only brushed by Yukiri, yet that was enough to make Yukiri’s heart leap into her throat. She kept walking, holding her face calm with an effort, and risked a quick glance of her own when she reached the corner. Atuan and Pritalle were already well along the corridor, heading toward the outer ring. The Warder was in the way, but neither was looking back. Pritalle was shaking her head. To something Atuan was saying? They were too far for Yukiri to hear any sound other than the faint click of the dark Warder’s bootheels on the floor tiles. It had just been a glance. Of course it had. She quickened her step to take her beyond sight if one of them did look over a shoulder, and let out a long breath she had not realized she was holding. Meidani echoed her faintly, her shoulders sagging.

Strange, how it takes us, Yukiri thought, squaring her own shoulders.

When they first learned Talene was a Darkfriend, Talene had been a shielded prisoner. And she still scared us spitless, she admitted to herself. Well, what they did to make her confess had scared them spitless first, but learning the truth turned their tongues to dust. Now Talene was tethered tighter than Meidani, closely guarded even if she did appear to walk free—how to keep a Sitter prisoner without anyone noticing had been beyond even Saerin—and she was pathetically eager to offer up every scrap she knew or even suspected in hope it might save her life, not that she had any choice. Hardly an object of fear. As for the rest...

Pevara had tried to maintain that Talene must be wrong about Galina Casban, and went into a rage that lasted a full day when she finally was convinced that her Red sister was really Black. She still spoke of strangling Galina with her own hands. Yukiri herself had felt a cold detachment when Temaile Kinderode was named. If there were Darkfriends in the Tower, it stood to reason some had to be Grays, though perhaps disliking Temaile helped. She remained cool even after she did the sums and realized that Temaile had left the Tower at the same time that three sisters were murdered. That provided more names for suspicion, other sisters who had gone then, too, but Galina and Temaile and the rest were out of the Tower, beyond reach for the moment, and only the two could be proven Darkfriends.

Atuan was right there, Black Ajah without doubt, walking the Tower as she wished, unrestrained and unbound of the Three Oaths. And until Doesine could arrange for her to be questioned in secret—a difficult matter, even for a Sitter of Atuan’s Ajah, since it had to be secret from everyone—until then, all they could do was watch. A distant, carefully circumspect watching. It was like living with a red adder, never knowing when you would find yourself eye to eye with it, never knowing when it might bite. Like living in a den of red adders, and only being able to see one.

Suddenly, Yukiri realized that the wide, curving corridor was empty ahead as far as she could see, and a glance back showed only Leonin behind. The Tower might have been empty save for the three of them. Nothing in sight moved except the flickering flames on the stand lamps. Silence.

Meidani gave a small start. “Forgive me, Sitter. Seeing her so suddenly took me aback. Where was I? Oh, yes. I understand that Celestin and Annharid are trying to find out her close friends in the Yellow.” Celestin and Annharid were Meidani’s fellow conspirators, both Yellows. There were two from each Ajah—except the Red and the Blue, of course—which had proven very useful. “I fear that won’t be much help. She has a wide circle of friends, or did before the... current situation rose between the Ajahs.” A touch of satisfaction tinged her voice, however smooth her face; she was still a rebel, in spite of the added oath. “Investigating all of them will be difficult, if not impossible.”

“Forget her for the moment.” It took an effort for Yukiri not to crane her neck trying to look every way at once. A tapestry worked with large white flowers rippled slightly, and she hesitated until she was sure it was a draft and not another servant coming out of a servants’ ramp. She never could recollect where they were located. Her new topic was as dangerous as discussing Atuan, in its own way. “Last night, I remembered you were a novice with Elaida, and close friends as I recall. It would be a good idea for you to renew that friendship.”

“That was some years ago,” the taller woman replied stiffly, lifting her shawl to her shoulders and wrapping it around herself as though she suddenly felt the cold. “Elaida very properly broke it off when she was raised Accepted. She might have been accused of favoritism if I were in a class she was given to teach.”

“As well for you that you weren’t a favorite,” Yukiri said dryly. Elaida’s current ferocity had its precedent. Before she went off to Andor years ago, she had pushed those she favored so hard that sisters had needed to step in more than once. Siuan Sanche had been one of them, strange to remember, though Siuan had never needed rescuing from standards she could not meet. Strange and sad. “Even so, you will do everything in your power to renew that friendship.”

Meidani walked two dozen paces along the corridor opening and closing her mouth, adjusting and readjusting her shawl, twitching her shoulders as though trying to shrug off a horsefly, looking everywhere but at Yukiri. How had the woman ever functioned as a Gray, with so little self-control? “I did try,” she said finally, in a breathy tone. She still avoided Yukiri’s eye. “Several times. The Keeper... Alviarin always put me off. The Amyrlin was busy, she had appointments, she needed rest. There was always some excuse. I think Elaida just doesn’t want to take up a friendship she dropped more than thirty years ago.”

So the rebels had remembered that friendship, too. How had they thought to use it? Spying, most likely. She would have to find out how Meidani was supposed to pass on what she learned. In any case, the rebels had provided the tool, and Yukiri would use it. “Alviarin is out of your way. She left the Tower yesterday, or maybe the day before. No one is quite certain. But the maids say she took spare clothes, so it’s unlikely she’ll return for a few days at the soonest.”

“Where could she have gone in this weather?” Meidani frowned. “It’s been snowing since yesterday morning, and it was threatening before.”

Yukiri stopped and used both hands to turn the other woman to face her. “The only thing that need concern you, Meidani, is that she’s gone,” she said firmly. Where had Alviarin gone in this? “You have a clear path to Elaida, and you will take it. And you will keep a close watch to see if anyone might be reading Elaida’s papers. Just be sure no one sees you watching.” Talene said the Black Ajah knew everything that came out of the Amyrlin’s study before it was announced, and they needed someone close to Elaida if they were to find out how it was done. Of course, Alviarin saw everything before Elaida signed, and the woman had taken on more authority than any Keeper in memory, but that was no reason to accuse her of being a Darkfriend. No reason not to, either. Her past was being investigated, too. “Watch Alviarin, as well, as much as you can, but Elaida’s papers are the important thing.”

Meidani sighed and gave a reluctant nod. She might have to obey, but she knew the added danger she would be in if Alviarin did turn out a Darkfriend. Yet Elaida herself still might be Black, whatever Saerin and Pevara insisted. A Darkfriend as Amyrlin Seat. Now that was a thought to pickle your heart.

“Yukiri!” a woman’s voice called from back up the hallway.

A Sitter in the Hall of the Tower did not jump like a startled goat at hearing her own name, but Yukiri did. If she had not been holding on to Meidani, she might have fallen, and as it was, the pair of them staggered like drunken farmers at a harvest dance.

Recovering, Yukiri jerked her shawl straight and set her face in a scowl that did not diminish when she saw who was hurrying toward her. Seaine was supposed to be keeping close to her own rooms, with as many White sisters around her as she could manage, when she was not with Yukiri or one of the other Sitters who knew about Talene and the Black Ajah, but here she was scurrying down the hallway with only Bernaile Gelbarn, a stocky Taraboner and another of Meidani’s jackdaws, for company. Leonin stepped aside, and gave Seaine a formal bow, fingertips pressed to his heart. Meidani and Bernaile were foolish enough to exchange smiles. They were friends, but they should know better, when they could not tell who might see.

Yukiri was in no mood for smiles. “Taking the air, Seaine?” she said sharply. “Saerin won’t be pleased, when I tell her. Not at all pleased. I’m not pleased, Seaine.”

Meidani made a small sound in her throat, and Bernaile’s head twitched, her multitude of narrow beaded braids rattling against one another. The pair of them took to studying a tapestry that supposedly showed the humbling of Queen Rhiannon, and for all their smooth faces, clearly they wished they were somewhere else. In their eyes, Sitters were supposed to be equals. And so they were. Normally. After a fashion. Leonin should not have been able to hear a word, but he could feel Meidani’s mood, of course, and he moved a step farther away. While still keeping watch along the corridor, of course. A good man. A wise man.

Seaine had sense enough to look abashed. Unconsciously, she smoothed her dress, covered with snowy embroidery along the hem and across the bodice, but almost immediately her hands knotted in her shawl and her eyebrows drew down stubbornly. Seaine had been strong-willed from the day she first came to the Tower, a furniture-maker’s daughter from Lugard who had talked her father into buying passage for her and her mother. Passage for two upriver, but only one down. Strong-willed and confident. And frequently as blind to the world around her as any Brown. Whites were often like that, all logic and no judgment. “There’s no need for me to hide from the Black Ajah, Yukiri,” she said.

Yukiri winced. Fool woman, naming the Black right out in the open. The corridor was still empty in both directions as far as the curve allowed sight, but carelessness led to more carelessness. She could be stubborn herself, when there was need, but at least she showed more brain than a goose about when and where. She opened her mouth to give Seaine a piece of her mind, a sharp piece, but the other woman rushed on before she could speak.

“Saerin told me I could find you.” Seaine’s mouth tightened and spots of color flared in her cheeks, at having asked permission or at having to ask. It was understandable for her to resent her situation, of course. Just witless for her not to accept it. “I need to talk to you alone, Yukiri. About the second mystery.”

For a moment, Yukiri was as puzzled as Meidani and Bernaile looked. They could sham not listening, but that did not shut their ears. Second mystery? What did Seaine mean? Unless... Could she mean the thing that had brought Yukiri into the hunt for the Black Ajah in the first place? Wondering why the heads of the Ajahs were meeting in secret had lost its urgency compared to finding Darkfriends among the sisters.

“Very well, Seaine,” Yukiri said, more calmly than she felt. “Meidani, take Leonin down the hall until you can just see Seaine and me around the curve. Keep a sharp eye for anyone coming this way. Bernaile, do the same up the hall.” They were moving before she finished speaking, and as soon as they were out of earshot, she turned her attention to Seaine. “Well?”

To her surprise, the glow of saidar sprang up around the White Sitter, who wove a ward against eavesdropping around the pair of them. It was a clear sign of secrets to anyone who saw. This had better be important.

“Think about it logically.” Seaine’s voice was calm, but her hands still gripped her shawl in fists. She stood very straight, towering over Yukiri, though she was not much above average height herself. “It’s more than a month, almost two, since Elaida came to me, and nearly two weeks since you found Pevara and me. If the Black Ajah knew about me, I would be dead by now. Pevara and I would have been dead before you and Doesine and Saerin ever walked in on us. Therefore, they don’t know. About any of us. I admit I was frightened, at first, but I have control of myself, now. There’s no reason for the rest of you to keep trying to treat me like a novice,” a little heat invaded the calmness, “and a brainless one, at that.”

“You’ll have to talk to Saerin,” Yukiri said curtly. Saerin had taken charge from the start—after forty years in the Hall for the Brown, Saerin was very good at taking charge—and Yukiri had no intention of going against her unless she must, not without the Sitter’s privilege she could hardly claim in the circumstances. As well try to catch a falling boulder. If Saerin could be convinced, Pevara and Doesine would come around, and she herself would hardly try to stand in the way. “Now, what about this ‘second secret’? You do mean the Ajah heads’ meeting?”

Seaine’s face took on a muley expression. Yukiri almost expected her ears to lie back. Then she exhaled. “Did the head of your Ajah have a hand in choosing Andaya for the Hall? More than usual, I mean?”

“She did,” Yukiri replied carefully. Everyone had been sure Andaya would go into the Hall one day, perhaps in another forty or fifty years, yet Serancha had all but anointed her, when the customary method was discussion until a consensus could be reached on two or three candidates, then a secret ballot. That was Ajah business, though, as secret as Serancha’s name and title.

“I knew it.” Seaine nodded excitedly, not at all her normal manner. “Saerin says that Juilaine was handpicked for the Brown, too, apparently not their usual way, and Doesine says the same about Suana, though she was hesitant about saying anything. I think Suana may be head of the Yellow herself. In any case, she was a Sitter for forty years the first time, and you know it isn’t common to take a chair after you were a Sitter that long. And Ferane stepped down for the White less than ten years ago; no one has ever entered the Hall again so soon. To cap it off, Talene says the Greens nominate choices and their Captain-General chooses one, but Adelorna chose Rina without any nominations.”

Yukiri managed to stifle a grimace, but only by a hair. Everyone had their suspicions about who headed other Ajahs, else no one would ever have noticed the meetings in the first place, yet speaking those names aloud was rude at best. Anyone but a Sitter might face penance for it. Of course, she and Seaine both knew when it came to Adelorna. In her attempts to curry favor, Talene poured out all the secrets of the Green without being asked. It embarrassed all of them, except Talene herself. At least it explained why the Greens had been in such an outstanding rage when Adelorna was birched. Still, Captain-General was a ridiculous title, Battle Ajah or no Battle Ajah. At least Head Clerk really described what Serancha did, in a manner of speaking.

Down the corridor, Meidani and her Warder were standing just in sight on the curve, apparently taking quietly. One or the other always watched further down around the curve, though. In the opposite direction, Bernaile was just in sight, too. Her head was swiveling constantly as she tried to watch Yukiri and Seaine while keeping an eye out for anyone approaching. The way she kept shifting from one foot to the other would attract attention, too, but these days a sister alone outside her Ajah quarter was asking for trouble, and she knew it. This conversation had to end soon.

Yukiri raised one finger. “Five Ajahs had to choose new Sitters after women they had in the Hall joined the rebels.” Seaine nodded, and Yukiri raised a second finger. “Each of those Ajahs chose a woman as Sitter who wasn’t the... logical... choice.” Seaine nodded again. A third finger joined the first two. “The Brown had to choose two new Sitters, but you didn’t mention Shevan. Is there anything...” Yukiri smiled wryly, “odd... about her?”

“No; according to Saerin, Shevan would likely have been her replacement when she decided to step down, but—”

“Seaine, if you’re actually implying the Ajah heads conspired over who would go into the Hall—and I never heard a more crack-brained notion!—if that’s what you’re suggesting, why would they choose five odd women and one who isn’t?”

“Yes, I am suggesting it. With the rest of you keeping me practically under lock and key, I’ve had more time for thinking than I know what to do with. Juilaine and Rina and Andaya gave me a hint, and Ferane made me decide to check.” What did Seaine mean about Andaya and the other two giving a hint? Oh. Of course: Rina and Andaya were not really old enough to be in the Hall yet, either. The custom of not talking about age soon enough became the habit of not thinking about it, either.

“Two might have been coincidence,” Seaine went on, “even three, though that strains credulity, but five makes a pattern. Except for the Blue, the Brown was the only Ajah to have two Sitters join the rebels. Maybe there’s a reason in that why they chose one odd sister and one not, if I can figure it out. But there is a pattern, Yukiri—a puzzle—and whether it’s rational or not, something tells me we had better solve it before the rebels get here. It makes me feel as though somebody’s hand is on my shoulder, but when I look, there isn’t anyone there.”

What strained credulity was the idea of the Ajah heads conspiring in the first place. But then, Yukiri thought, a conspiracy of Sitters is beyond farfetched, and I’m in the middle of one. And there was the simple fact that no one outside an Ajah was supposed to know the Ajah’s head, but the Ajah heads against all custom did. “If there’s a puzzle,” she said wearily, “you have a long time to solve it. The rebels can’t leave Murandy before spring, whatever they’ve told people, and the march upriver will take months, if they hold their army together that long.” She did not doubt they would, though, not any longer. “Go back to your rooms before someone sees us standing here warded, and think on your puzzle,” she said, not unkindly, resting a hand on Seaine’s sleeve. “You’ll have to put up with being looked after until we’re all sure you are safe.”

The expression on Seaine’s face would have been called sullen on anyone but a Sitter. “I’ll speak to Saerin again,” she said, but the light of saidar around her vanished.

Watching her join Bernaile and the two of them glide up the curving hallway toward the Ajah quarters, both as wary as fawns when wolves were out, Yukiri felt a heavy heart. It was a pity the rebels could not get there before summer. At least that might make the Ajahs come together again, so sisters were not forced to slink about the White Tower. As well wish for wings, she thought sadly.

Determined to keep her mood in check, she went to gather up Meidani and Leonin. She had a Black sister to investigate, and at least investigation was a puzzle she knew how to work.

Gawyn’s eyes popped open in the darkness as a new wave of cold rose into the hayloft. The barn’s thick stone walls normally kept out the worst of the night’s chill, if only the worst. Voices murmured below; no one sounded excited. He took his hand away from the sword lying beside him and tugged his gauntlets tighter. Like all the rest of the Younglings, he slept in every stitch he could put on. Probably it was just time to wake some of the men around him for their sentry turns, but he was fully awake now himself, and he doubted he would find sleep again soon. In any case, his sleep was always fretful, troubled by dark dreams, haunted by the woman he loved. He did not know where Egwene was, or whether she was alive. Or whether she could forgive him. He stood up, letting the loose hay he had pulled over himself slide off his cloak, and buckled on his sword belt.

As he picked his way among the shadowy mounds of men sleeping atop the stacked bales of hay, the faint scrape of boots on wooden rungs told him someone was climbing the ladder to the loft. A dim figure appeared at the top of the ladder, then stopped to wait for him.

“Lord Gawyn?” Rajar’s deep voice said softly, in a Domani accent unaltered by six years’ training in Tar Valon. The First Lieutenant’s rumbling voice was always a surprise, coming from a slight man who stood barely higher than Gawyn’s shoulder. Even so, had times been different, Rajar surely would have been a Warder by this time. “I thought I’d have to wake you. A sister just arrived, on foot. A messenger from the Tower. She wanted the sister in charge here. I told Tomil and his brother to take her to the Mayor’s house before they turned in for the night.”

Gawyn sighed. He should have gone home when he returned to Tar Valon and found the Younglings expelled from the city, instead of letting himself be caught here by winter. Especially when he was sure Elaida wanted them all dead. His sister Elayne would come to Caemlyn, eventually, if she was not already there. Certainly any Aes Sedai would see that the Daughter-Heir of Andor reached Caemlyn in time to claim the throne before someone else could. The White Tower would not give up the advantage of a queen who would also be Aes Sedai. On the other hand, Elayne could be on her way to Tar Valon, too, or residing in the White Tower right that minute. He did not know how she had become entangled with Siuan Sanche, or how deeply—she always dove into a pond without checking the depth—but Elaida and the Hall of the Tower might want to question her closely, Daughter-Heir or not. Queen or not. He was sure she could not be held accountable, though. She was still only one of the Accepted. He had to tell himself that frequently.

The newest problem was that an army lay between him and Tar Valon, now. At least twenty-five thousand soldiers on this side of the River Erinin and, he had to believe, as many on the west bank. They had to be supporting the Aes Sedai whom Elaida called rebels. Who else would dare besiege Tar Valon itself? The way that army had appeared, though, seeming to materialize out of nowhere in the middle of a snowstorm, was enough to raise prickles on his back still. Rumor and alarms always flew ahead of any large force under arms on the march. Always. This one had arrived like spirits, in silence. The army was as real as stone, however, so he could neither enter Tar Valon to find whether Elayne was in the Tower, nor ride south. Any army would take notice of upward of three hundred men on the move, and the rebels would have no goodwill toward the Younglings. Even if he went alone, travel in winter was very slow, and he could reach Caemlyn as quickly if he waited until spring. There was no hope of finding passage on a ship, either. The siege would mire river traffic in a hopeless snarl. He was mired in a hopeless snarl.

And now, an Aes Sedai had come in the middle of the night. She would not simplify matters any.

“Let’s find out what news she brought,” he said quietly, motioning Rajar down the ladder ahead of him.

Twenty horses and their stacked saddles crowded nearly every inch of the dark barn not taken by Mistress Millin’s two dozen or so milkcows in their stalls, so he and Rajar had to thread their way to the wide doors. The only warmth came from the sleeping animals. The two men guarding the horses were silent shadows, but Gawyn could feel them watching Rajar and him slip out into the icy night. They would know about the messenger, and be wondering.

The sky was clear, and the waning moon still gave a fair light. The village of Dorlan shone with snow. Holding their cloaks close, the pair of them trudged knee-deep through the village in silence, along what had once been the road to Tar Valon from a city that had not existed for hundreds of years. Nowadays, nobody traveled in this direction from Tar Valon except to come to Dorlan, and there was no reason to come in winter. By tradition, the village supplied cheeses to the White Tower and to no one else. It was a tiny place, just fifteen slate-roofed, gray stone houses with drifts of snow piled up as high as the bottoms of the first-floor windows. A little distance behind each house stood its cowbarn, all crowded with men and horses now, as well as cows. Most of Tar Valon might well have forgotten Dorlan existed. Who thought about where cheese came from? It had seemed a very good place for keeping out of sight. Until now.

All the houses but one in the village were dark. Light leaked through the shutters on several windows of Master Burlow’s dwelling, upstairs and down. Garon Burlow had the misfortune to own the largest house in Dorlan, in addition to being Mayor. Villagers who had shifted sleeping arrangements to find a bed for an Aes Sedai must be regretting it by now; Master Burlow had had two rooms already empty.

Stamping the snow from his boots on the stone step, Gawyn rapped at the Mayor’s stout door with a gauntleted fist. No one answered, and after a moment he lifted the latch and led Rajar in.

The beam-ceilinged front room was fairly large for a farmhouse, and dominated by several tall open-front cabinets, full of pewter and glazed crockery, and a long, polished table lined with high-back chairs. All of the oil lamps had been lit, an extravagance in winter, when a few tallow candles would do, but the flames in the fireplace had made little impression on the split logs, yet, or on the temperature of the room. Even so, the two sisters who had rooms above were barefoot on the rugless wooden floor, with fur-lined cloaks flung hastily over their linen nightdresses. Katerine Alruddin and Tarna Feir were watching a small woman in a dark, yellow-slashed riding dress and cloak that were snow-damp to her hips. She stood as near the wide hearth as she would, tiredly warming her hands and shivering. Afoot in the snow, she could not have made the trip from Tar Valon in less than two or three days, and even Aes Sedai felt the cold eventually. She had to be the sister Rajar had spoken of, yet compared to the others, the agelessness was hardly noticeable in her. Compared to the other two, she was hardly noticeable at all.

The absence of the Mayor and his wife put an extra knot in Gawyn’s middle, though he had half expected it. They would have been there making over the Aes Sedai, offering hot drinks and food, no matter the hour, unless they had been sent back to their bed to give Katerine and Tarna privacy with the messenger. Which likely meant he was a fool to want to know the message. But he had known that before he left the barn.

“... boatman said he would stay where we landed until the siege lifted,” the small woman was saying in weary tones as Gawyn entered, “but he was so frightened, he could be leagues downriver by now.” As the cold from the doorway reached her, she looked around, and some of the fatigue drained from her square face. “Gawyn Trakand,” she said. “I have orders for you from the Amyrlin Seat, Lord Gawyn.”

“Orders?” Gawyn said, drawing off his gauntlets and tucking them behind his belt to gain time. Blunt truth might be in order for once, he decided. “Why would Elaida send me orders? Why should I obey if she did? She disowned me, and the Younglings.” Rajar had taken a respectful stance for the sisters, hands folded behind his back, and he gave Gawyn a quick sidelong glance. He would not speak out of turn, whatever Gawyn said, but the Younglings did not share Gawyn’s belief. Aes Sedai did what they did, and no man could know why until a sister told him. The Younglings had cast their lots with the White Tower wholeheartedly, embracing fate.

“That can wait, Narenwin,” Katerine snapped, jerking her cloak tighter. Her black hair spilled around her shoulders half in tangles, as though she had taken a few hasty swipes with a comb and given up. There was an intensity about her that reminded Gawyn of a hunting lynx. Or maybe one wary of traps. She spared half a glance for him and Rajar; no more. “I have pressing business in the Tower. Tell me how to find this nameless fishing village. Whether or not your boatman is still there, I’ll find someone to take me across.”

“And me,” Tarna put in, her strong jaw stubborn and her blue eyes sharp as spears. In contrast to Katerine, Tarna’s long, pale yellow hair was as neat as if she had had a maid attending her before coming downstairs. She was every bit as focused, though, just more controlled. “I also have urgent reason to reach the Tower without any further delay.” She gave Gawyn a nod and Rajar a lesser, cool as the marble she seemed carved from. Yet, more friendly than the face she showed Katerine or got in return. There was always a stiffness between the two women, though they shared the same Ajah. They did not like one another, perhaps even disliked each other. With Aes Sedai, it was hard to be sure.

Gawyn would not be sorry to see either leave. Tarna had ridden into Dorlan barely a day after the mysterious army arrived, and however Aes Sedai determined these things, she immediately displaced Lusonia Cole from her room upstairs and Covarla Baldene from command of the eleven other sisters already in the village. She might have been a Green from the way she took charge of everything, questioning the other sisters about the situation, inspecting the Younglings closely every day as though searching for possible Warders. Having a Red study them that way made the men start looking over their shoulders. Worse, Tarna spent long hours out riding, no matter the weather, trying to find some local who could show her a way into the city past the besiegers. Sooner or later, she would lead their scouts back to Dorlan. Katerine had come only yesterday, in a fury at having her path to Tar Valon blocked, and straightaway took command from Tarna and her room from Covarla. Not that she used her authority in the same way. She avoided the other sisters, refusing to tell anyone why she had disappeared at Dumai’s Wells or where she had been. But she, too, had inspected the Younglings. With the air of a woman examining an axe she had a mind to use, and not a care how much blood was shed. He would not have been surprised if she had tried to bully him into cutting a way to the bridges into the city for her. He would be more than happy to see them go, in fact. But then, when they left, he would have to deal with Narenwin. And with Elaida’s orders.

“It’s hardly a village, Katerine,” the shivering sister said, “just three or four squalid little fisherman’s houses a full day downriver by land. More than that from here.” Plucking at her damp skirts, she held them nearer the fire. “We may be able to find a way to send messages into the city, but you two are needed here. All that stopped Elaida sending fifty sisters, or more, rather than just me, was the difficulty of getting even one tiny boat across the river unseen, even in darkness. I must say, I was surprised to learn there were any sisters this close to Tar Valon. Under the circumstances, every sister who is outside the city must—”

Tarna cut her off firmly with a raised hand. “Elaida cannot even know I am here.” Katerine closed her mouth and frowned, her chin lifting, but she let the other Red continue. “What were her orders to you regarding the sisters in Dorlan, Narenwin?” Rajar took to studying the floorboards in front of his boots. He had faced battle without flinching, yet only a fool wanted to be around Aes Sedai who were arguing.

The short woman fussed with her divided skirts a moment longer. “I was ordered to take charge of the sisters I found here,” she said stuffily, “and do what I could.” After a moment, she sighed, and amended herself reluctantly. “The sisters I found here under Covarla. But, surely—”

This time, Katerine broke in. “I was never under Covarla, Narenwin, so those orders cannot apply to me. In the morning, I will set out to find these three or four fisherman’s huts.”

“But—”

“Enough, Narenwin,” Katerine said in an icy voice. “You can make your arrangements with Covarla.” The black-haired woman gave her Ajah sister a glance from the corner of her eye. “I suppose you may accompany me, Tarna. A fishing boat should have room for two.” Tarna bent her head the slightest fraction, possibly in thanks.

Their business concluded, the pair of Reds gathered their cloaks around them and glided toward the door deeper into the house. Narenwin shot a vexed look at their backs, and turned her attention to Gawyn, her face settling into the semblance of a calm mask.

“Have you any word of my sister?” he asked before she could open her mouth. “Do you know where she is?”

The woman really was tired. She blinked, and he could almost see her forming an answer that would tell him nothing.

Stopping halfway to the door, Tarna said, “Elayne was with the rebels when I saw her last.” Every head jerked toward her. “But your sister is safe from retribution,” she went on calmly, “so put that out of your mind. Accepted can’t choose which sisters to obey. I give you my word; under the law, she can suffer no lasting harm of it.” She seemed unaware of Katerine’s frozen stare, or Narenwin’s popping eyes.

“You could have told me before this,” Gawyn said roughly. No one spoke roughly to Aes Sedai, not more than once, but he was past caring. Were the other two surprised that Tarna knew the answer, or surprised that she had given it? “What do you mean by ‘no lasting harm’?”

The pale-haired sister barked a laugh. “I can hardly promise she won’t suffer a few welts if she puts her feet too far wrong. Elayne is one of the Accepted, not Aes Sedai. Yet that protects her from greater harm if she is led astray by a sister. And you never asked. Besides, she doesn’t need rescuing, even if you could manage it. She is with Aes Sedai. Now you know as much as I can tell you of her, and I am going to find a few hours’ more sleep before daylight. I will leave you to Narenwin.”

Katerine watched her go without altering her expression by an eyelash, a woman of ice with the eyes of a hunting cat, but then she herself strode from the room so quickly that her cloak flared behind her.

“Tarna is correct,” Narenwin said once the door closed behind Katerine. The small woman might not make a good show of Aes Sedai serenity and mystery alongside the other two, but alone she managed very well. “Elayne is sealed to the White Tower. So are you, for all your talk of disowning. The history of Andor seals you to the Tower.”

“The Younglings are all sealed to the Tower by our own choice, Narenwin Sedai,” Rajar said, making a leg formally. Narenwin’s gaze remained on Gawyn.

He closed his eyes, and it was all he could do not to scrub at them with the heels of his hands. The Younglings were sealed to the White Tower. No one would ever forget that they had fought, on the very grounds of the Tower, to stop the rescue of a deposed Amyrlin. For good or ill, the tale would follow them to their graves. He was marked by that, as well, and by his own secrets. After all that bloodshed, he was the man who had let Siuan Sanche walk free. More importantly, though, Elayne bound him to the White Tower, and so did Egwene al’Vere, and he did not know which tied the tighter knot, the love of his sister or the love of his heart. To abandon one was to abandon all three, and while he breathed, he could not abandon Elayne or Egwene.

“You have my word that I will do all I can,” he said wearily. “What does Elaida want of me?”

The sky above Caemlyn was clear, the sun a pale golden ball near its noonday peak. It shed a brilliant light on the blanket of white covering the surrounding countryside, but gave no warmth. Still, the weather was warmer than Davram Bashere would have expected back home in Saldaea, though he did not regret the marten fur lining his new cloak. Cold enough in any case for his breath to have frosted his thick mustaches with more white than the years had put in them. Standing in ankle-deep snow among the leafless trees on a rise perhaps a league north of Caemlyn, he held a long, gold-mounted looking glass to his eye, studying the activity on lower ground about a mile south of him. Quick nosed his shoulder impatiently from behind, but he ignored the bay. Quick disliked standing still, but sometimes you had to, whatever you wanted.

A sprawling camp was going up down there among the scattered trees, astride the road to Tar Valon, soldiers unloading supply wagons, digging latrines, erecting tents and building lean-tos of brush and tree limbs scattered in clumps of varying size, each lord and lady keeping their own men close. They expected to be in place for some time. From the horselines and the general extent of the camp, he estimated close to five thousand men, give or take a few hundred. Fighting men; fletchers, farriers, armorers, laundresses, wagon drivers and other camp followers as good as doubled that, though as usual they were making their own camp on the fringes. Most of the camp followers spent more time staring toward the rise where Bashere stood than they did working. Here and there a soldier paused in his labors to peer toward the higher ground, too, but bannermen and squadmen quickly drove them back to their work. The nobles and officers riding about the rising camp never so much as glanced north, that Bashere saw. A fold of land hid them from the city, though he could see the silver-streaked gray walls from his rise. The city knew they were there, of course; they had announced themselves that morning with trumpets and banners in sight of the walls. Well out of bowshot, though.

Laying siege to a city with high, strong walls that stretched more than six leagues in circumference was no easy matter, and complicated in this instance by Low Caemlyn, the warren of brick and stone houses and shops, windowless warehouses and long markets, that lay outside Caemlyn’s walls. Seven more like camps were being made, though, spaced around the city where they could cover every road, every gate that would allow a sizable sortie. They already had patrols out, and likely watchers lurked in the now-deserted buildings of Low Caemlyn. Small parties might get past into the city, maybe a few pack animals by night, but not near enough to feed one of the world’s great cities. Hunger and disease ended more sieges than swords or siege engines ever did. The only question was whether they brought down besieged or besieger first.

The plan seemingly had all been well thought out by someone, but what confused him were the banners in the camp below. It was a strong looking glass, crafted by a Cairhienin named Tovere, a gift from Rand al’Thor, and he could make out most of the banners whenever a breeze straightened them. He knew enough of Andoran sigils to pick out the Oak and Axe of Dawlin Armaghn and the five Silver Stars of Daerilla Raened and several more banners of lesser nobles who supported Naean Arawn’s claim to the Lion Throne and Rose Crown of Andor. Yet Jailin Maran’s cross-hatched Red Wall was down there, too, and Carlys Ankerin’s paired White Leopards, and Eram Talkend’s golden Winged Hand. By all reports, they were oathsworn to Naean’s rival, Elenia Sarand. Seeing them with the others was like seeing wolves and wolfhounds sharing a meal. With a cask of good wine opened in the bargain.

Two other banners, gold-fringed and at least twice the size of any others, were on display as well, though both were too heavy for the occasional gust to make them more than stir. They shone with the glisten of thick silk. He had seen the pair clearly enough earlier, however, when the bannermen rode back and forth atop the rise that hid their camp, the banners spread out above them in the breeze of their gallop. One was the Lion of Andor, white on red, the same as flew from the tall round towers dotted along the city wall. In both cases it was a declaration of someone’s right to the throne and crown. The second large banner below him proclaimed the woman throwing her claim against that of Elayne Trakand. Four silver moons on a field of twilight blue, the sign of House Marne. All this was in support of Arymilla Marne? A month ago, she would have been lucky if anyone except her own House or that half-witted Nasin Caeren gave her a bed for the night!

“They ignore us,” Bael growled. “I could break them before sunset, and leave not one alive to see the sun rise again, yet they ignore us.”

Bashere looked sideways at the Aielman. Sideways and up. The man towered above him by well over a foot. Only Bael’s gray eyes and a strip of sun-dark skin were visible above the black veil drawn across his face. Bashere hoped the man was just shielding his mouth and nose from the cold. He was carrying his short spears and bull-hide buckler, and he had a cased bow on his back and a quiver at his hip, but only the veil mattered. This was no time for the Aiel to start killing. Twenty paces downslope toward the camp, thirty more Aielmen were squatting on their heels, holding their weapons casually. One in three had his face bare, so maybe it was the cold. With Aiel, you could never be sure, though.

Quickly considering several approaches, Bashere decided on lightness. “Elayne Trakand would not like that, Bael, and if you’ve forgotten what it’s like being a young man, that means Rand al’Thor won’t like it.”

Bael grunted sourly. “Melaine told me what Elayne Trakand said. We must do nothing on her part. That is simpleminded. When an enemy comes against you, you make use of whoever will dance the spears by your side. Do they play at war the way they play at their Game of Houses?”

“We are outlanders, Bael. That counts, in Andor.”

The huge Aielman grunted again.

There seemed no point trying to explain the politics involved. Outland help could cost Elayne what she was trying to gain, and her enemies knew it and knew she knew it, so they had no fear of Bashere or Bael or the Legion of the Dragon, whatever their numbers. In fact, despite the siege, both sides would go to great effort to avoid pitched battle. It was a war, but of maneuver and skirmishes unless someone blundered, and the winner would be whoever gained an unassailable position or forced the other into one that could not be defended. Bael likely would see it as no different from Daes Dae’mar. In all truth, Bashere saw a great deal of similarity himself. With the Blight on its doorstep, Saldaea could not afford contests for the throne. Tyrants could be endured, and the Blight soon killed the stupid and the greedy, but even this peculiar sort of civil war would allow the Blight to kill Saldaea.

He returned to studying the camp through his looking glass, trying to puzzle out how an utter fool like Arymilla Marne could have gained the backing of Naean Arawn and Elenia Sarand. That pair was greedy and ambitious, each utterly convinced of her own right to the throne, and if he understood the tangled web Andorans used to decide these matters, each had far better claim than Arymilla. Wolves and wolfhounds were not in it. This was wolves deciding to follow a lapdog. Perhaps Elayne knew the reason, but she would barely even exchange notes with him, brief and uninformative. Too much chance someone would learn of it and think she was plotting with him. It was very like the Game of Houses.

“Someone is going to dance the spears, it seems,” Bael said, and Bashere lowered the ornate tube long enough to find where the Aielman was pointing.

There had been a steady stream of people fleeing the city ahead of the siege for days, but someone had left it too late. Half a dozen canvas-topped wagons stood halted in the middle of the Tar Valon Road just outside the edge of Low Caemlyn, surrounded by fifty horsemen under a blue-and-white quartered banner that appeared to show a running bear, or maybe some sort of thick-bodied hound, when it rippled in a sudden wind. Dispirited folk huddled to one side, clutching cloaks around themselves, men with their heads down, children clinging to women’s skirts. Some of the horsemen had dismounted to ransack the wagons; chests and boxes and even what looked to be clothes already dotted the snow. Likely they were searching for coin or drink, though any other valuable that turned up would go into someone’s saddlebags, too. Soon enough someone would cut free the wagon teams, or perhaps they would just take the wagons. Wagons and horses were always useful for an army, and the peculiar rules of this very peculiar Andoran civil war did not appear to give much protection to those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the city gates were swinging open, and as soon as the gap was wide enough, red-coated lancers poured out of the twenty-foot-high arch at a gallop, sunlight glittering on lance points and breastplates and helmets, thundering down the road between the long, empty markets. The Queen’s Guards were coming out. Enough of them, anyway. Bashere swung his glass back to the wagons.

Apparently the officer under the bear, if bear it was, had done his sums already. Fifty against two hundred made very poor odds, with only a few wagons at stake. The men who had dismounted were back in their saddles, and even as Bashere found them, the lot of them galloped away north toward him, the blue-and-white banner streaming behind its staff. Most of the people huddled beside the road stared after the departing soldiers, their confusion as clear as if he had been able to make out their faces, but a few immediately rushed to begin gathering up their scattered belongings out of the snow and piling them back into the wagons.

The arrival of the Guardsmen, drawing rein around the wagons a few minutes later, put a quick end to that. Guardsmen quickly began herding people toward the wagons. Some still tried to dart past them for some prized belonging, and one man began waving his arms in protest at a Guardsman, an obvious officer with white plumes on his helmet and a red sash across his breastplate, but the officer leaned from the saddle and backhanded the protester in the face. The fellow went down on his back like a stone, and after one frozen moment, everyone who was not already scrambling onto the wagons went scurrying, except a pair of men who paused to pick up the fallen man by his shoulders and heels, and they hurried as best they could carrying his limp weight. A woman up on the last wagon in line was already lashing her reins to get her team turned around and headed back toward the city.

Bashere lowered the glass to study the camp, then pressed it back to his eye for a closer look. Men were still digging away with shovel and mattock, and others wrestling sacks and barrels down from wagons. Nobles and officers walked their horses about the camp, keeping an eye on the work. All calm as cattle in pasture. Finally, someone pointed toward the rise between them and the city, then another and another, and mounted men began to trot, plainly shouting orders. The bear-banner was just coming into sight of the camp on the height.

Tucking the glass beneath his arm, Bashere frowned. They had no guards on the high ground to warn them of what might be happening beyond their sight. Even in the certainty no one was going to offer battle, that was stupid. It might also be useful, if the other camps were as careless, and if no one corrected the mistake. He puffed irritably through his mustaches. If he had been going to fight the besiegers.

A glance showed him the wagons halfway back to the Tar Valon Gate with their escort of Guardsmen, the wagon drivers lashing their teams as if pursuit were breathing down their necks. Or maybe it was just the officer with the sash, who was waving his sword over his head for some reason. “There’ll be no dancing today,” he said.

“Then I have better to do with my day than watch wetlanders dig holes,” Bael replied. “May you always find water and shade, Davram Bashere.”

“At the moment, I’d rather have dry feet and a warm fire,” Bashere muttered without thinking, then wished he had not. Step on a man’s formality and he might try to kill you, and the Aiel were formal and strange besides.

But Bael threw back his head and laughed. “The wetlands turn everything on its head, Davram Bashere.” A curious gesture of his right hand brought the other Aiel to their feet, and they loped off eastward in long, easy strides. The snow did not seem to give them any difficulty.

Sliding his looking glass into the leather case hanging from Quick’s saddlebow, Bashere mounted and turned the bay west. His own escort had been waiting on the reverse slope, and they fell in behind him with only the faint creak of leather and never a jingle of unsecured metal. They numbered fewer than Bael’s escort, but they were tough men from his estates at Tyr, and he had led them into the Blight many times before bringing them south. Every man had his assigned part of the trail to watch, ahead or behind, left or right, high or low, and their heads swiveled constantly. He hoped they were not just going through the motions. The forest was sparse here, every branch bare except on oak and leatherleaf, pine and fir, but the snow-covered land rolled so that a hundred mounted men could be fifty paces away and unseen. Not that he expected any such thing, but then, what killed you was always what you never expected. Unconsciously, he eased his sword in its scabbard. You just had to expect the unexpected.

Tumad had command of the escort, as he did most days Bashere did not have something more important for the young lieutenant to do. Bashere was grooming him. He could think clearly and see beyond what was in front of him; he was destined for higher rank, if he lived long enough. A tall man, if a couple of hands shorter than Bael, today he wore disgruntlement on his face like a second nose.

“What troubles you, Tumad?”

“The Aielman was right, my Lord.” Tumad tugged angrily at his thick black beard with a gauntleted fist. “These Andorans spit at our feet. I do not like having to ride away while they thumb an ear at us.” Well, he was still young.

“You find our situation boring, perhaps?” Bashere laughed. “You need more excitement? Tenobia is only fifty leagues north of us, and if rumor can be believed, she brought Ethenielle of Kandor and Paitar of Arafel and even that Shienaran Easar with her. All the might of the Borderlands come looking for us, Tumad. Those Andorans down in Murandy don’t like us being in Andor, either, so I hear, and if that Aes Sedai army they’re facing doesn’t chop them to pieces, or hasn’t already, they may come looking for us. So may the Aes Sedai, for that matter, sooner or later. We’ve ridden for the Dragon Reborn, and I can’t see any sister forgetting that. And then there are the Seanchan, Tumad. Do you really think we’ve seen the last of them? They will come to us, or we will have to go to them; one or the other is sure. You young men don’t know excitement when it’s crawling in your mustache!”

Quiet chuckles rippled through the men following, men as old as Bashere himself for the most part, and even Tumad flashed white teeth through his beard in a grin. They had all been on campaign before, if never one so odd as this. Straightening around, Bashere watched the way through the trees, but with only half his attention.

In all truth, Tenobia did worry him. The Light only knew why Easar and the others had decided to leave the Blightborder together, much less strip away as many soldiers as hearsay said they had brought south. Even hearsay divided by half. Doubtless they had reasons they considered good and sufficient, and doubtless Tenobia shared them. But he knew her; he had taught her to ride, watched her grow up, presented her the Broken Crown when she took the throne. She was a good ruler, neither too heavy-handed nor too light, intelligent if not always wise, brave without being foolhardy, but impulsive was a mild description of her. Sometimes, hotheaded was mild. And he was as sure as he could be that she had her own goal aside from whatever the others aimed at. The head of Davram Bashere. If that was so, she was unlikely to settle for another period of exile, after coming this far. The longer Tenobia worried a bone in her teeth, the harder it was to convince her to give it up. It was a neat problem. She should be in Saldaea guarding the Blightborder, but so should he. She could convict him of treason twice-over at least for what he had done since coming south, but he still could see no other way to have gone. Rebellion—Tenobia could define that loosely when she chose—rebellion was horrible to contemplate, yet he wanted his head firmly attached to his neck a while longer. A neat and thorny problem.

The encampment containing the eight thousand–odd light cavalry he had left after Illian and fighting the Seanchan spread wider than the camp back on the Tar Valon Road, but it could not be said to sprawl. The horselines were uniform rows with a farrier’s forge at either end, stretched between equally straight rows of large gray or shell-white tents, though those showed a good many patches, now. Every man could be mounted and ready to fight inside a count of fifty from a trumpet signal, and his sentries were placed to make sure they had that count and more. Even the camp followers’ tents and wagons, a hundred paces south of the rest, were more orderly than the soldiers besieging the city, as though they had followed the example of the Saldaeans. Somewhat, at least.

As he rode in with his escort, men moved quickly and grimly among the horselines, almost as if the signal to mount had been sounded. More than one had his sword drawn. Voices called to him, but at the sight of a large crowd of men and women, mostly women, gathered in the center of the camp, he felt a sudden numbness inside. He dug in his heels, and Quick sprang forward at a gallop. He did not know whether anyone followed him or not. He heard nothing but the blood pounding in his ears, saw nothing but the crowd in front of his own sharp-peaked tent. The tent he shared with Deira.

He did not rein in on reaching the crowd, just threw himself out of the saddle and hit the ground running. He heard people speak without taking in what they were saying. They parted in front of him, opening a path to his tent, or he would have run over them.

Just inside the tentflaps, he halted. The tent, large enough for twenty soldiers to sleep in, was crowded to the walls with women, wives of nobles and officers, but his eyes quickly found his own wife, Deira, seated on a folding chair in the middle of the carpets that served for a floor, and the numbness faded. He knew she would die one day—they both would—but the only thing he feared was living without her. Then he realized that some of the women were helping her to lower her dress to her waist. Another was pressing a folded cloth to Deira’s left arm, and the cloth was growing red as blood ran down her arm in a sheet and dripped from her fingers into a bowl set on the carpet. There was a considerable amount of dark blood already in the bowl.

She saw him at the same instant, and her eyes flashed in a face that was much too pale. “It comes from hiring outlanders, husband,” she said fiercely, her right hand shaking a long dagger at him. As tall as most men, inches taller than he, and beautiful, her face framed with raven hair winged with white, she had a commanding presence that could become imperious when she was angry. Even when she obviously could barely sit upright. Most women would have been flustered at being bare to the waist in front of so many, with her husband present. Not Deira. “If you did not always insist on moving like the wind, we could have good men from our own estates to do whatever was needful.”

“A dispute with servants, Deira?” he said, cocking an eyebrow. “I never thought you’d start taking knives to them.” Several of the women gave him cool, sidelong glances. Not every man and wife dealt together as he and Deira did. Some thought them odd, since they seldom shouted.

Deira scowled at him, then grunted a short, involuntary laugh. “I will start at the beginning, Davram. And go slowly, so you can understand,” she added with a small smile, pausing to thank the women who draped a white linen sheet around her bare torso. “I returned from my ride to find two strange men ransacking our tent. They drew daggers, so naturally, I hit one of them with a chair and stabbed the other.” She directed a grimace at her cut arm. “Not well enough, since he managed to touch me. Then Zavion and some of the others came in, and the pair fled through a slit they had made in the rear of the tent.”

Several of the women nodded grimly and gripped the hilts of the daggers they all wore. Until Deira said darkly, “I told them to give chase, but they insisted on tending my scratch.” Hands dropped away from hilts, and faces colored, though none looked in the least apologetic for disobeying. They had been in a ticklish position. Deira was their liege lady as he was their liege lord, but whether or not she called it a scratch, she could have bled to death if they had left her to go chasing the thieves. “In any event,” she went on, “I ordered a search. They won’t be hard to find. One has a lump on his head, and the other is bleeding.” She gave a sharp, satisfied nod.

Zavion, the sinewy, red-haired Lady of Gahaur, held up a threaded needle. “Unless you have taken up an interest in embroidery, my Lord,” she said coolly, “may I suggest that you withdraw?”

Bashere acquiesced with a small bow of his head. Deira never liked him to watch her being sewn up. He never liked watching her being sewn up.

Outside the tent, he paused to announce in a loud voice that his lady wife was well and being tended, and that they should all go on about their business. The men departed with wishes for Deira’s well being, but none of the women stirred a foot. He did not press them. They would remain until Deira herself appeared, whatever he said, and a wise man tried to avoid battles he would not only lose, but look foolish losing.

Tumad was waiting on the edge of the crowd, and he fell in beside Bashere, who walked with his hands clasped tightly behind his back. He had been expecting this, or something like, for a long time, but he had almost begun to think it would not happen. And he had never expected Deira to nearly die because of it.

“The two men have been found, my Lord,” Tumad said. “At least, they apparently meet the description the Lady Deira gave.” Bashere’s head jerked around, murder on his face, and the younger man quickly added, “They were dead, my Lord, just outside the camp. Each got one thrust with a narrow blade.” He stabbed a finger at the base of his skull, just behind the ear. “It had to be more than one did it, unless he was faster than a rock viper.”

Bashere nodded. The price of failure often was death. Two to search, and how many to silence them? How many remained, and how long before they tried again? Worst of all, who was behind it? The White Tower? The Forsaken? It seemed a decision had been reached for him.

No one except Tumad was close enough to hear him, but he spoke softly anyway, and chose his words cautiously. Sometimes, the price of carelessness was death, too. “You know where to find the man who came to me yesterday? Find him, and tell him I agree, but there will be a few more than we talked about.”

The light feathery snow falling on the city of Cairhien dimmed the morning sunlight only a little, just muting the brightness. From the tall narrow window in the Sun Palace, fitted with a casement of good glass panes against the cold, Samitsu could see clearly the wooden scaffolding erected around the ruined section of the palace, broken cubes of dark stone still littered with rubble and stepped towers that stopped abruptly short of equaling the rest of the palace’s towers. One, the Tower of the Risen Sun, was simply no longer there. Several of the city’s fabled “topless” towers loomed through the drifting white flakes, enormous square spires with huge buttresses, much taller by far than any in the palace despite its location on the highest hill in a city of hills. They were wrapped in their own scaffolds and still not completely rebuilt twenty years after the Aiel had burned them; another twenty might see them done. There were no workmen clambering along the planks on any of the scaffolding, of course, not in this weather. She found herself wishing the snow could give her a respite, too.

When Cadsuane departed a week past, leaving her in charge, her task had appeared straightforward. Make sure the Cairhienin pot did not begin to boil again. That had appeared a simple task at the time, though she had seldom dabbled in politics to speak of. Only one noble retained sizable forces under arms, and Dobraine was cooperative, for the most part, seeming to want everything kept quiet. Of course, he had accepted that fool appointment as “Steward of Cairhien for the Dragon Reborn.” The boy had named a “Steward” of Tear, too, a man who had been in rebellion against him a month gone! If he had done as much in Illian... It seemed all too probable. Those appointments would cause no end of trouble for sisters to sort out before all was said and done! The boy brought nothing but trouble! Yet so far Dobraine seemed to be using his new post only to run the city. And to quietly rally support for Elayne Trakand’s claim to the Sun Throne, if she ever made one. Samitsu was satisfied to leave it at that, not caring one way or another who took the Sun Throne. She did not care much for Cairhien at all.

The falling snow beyond her window swirled in a gust of wind like a white kaleidoscope. So... tranquil. Had she ever valued tranquility before? She certainly could not recall it, if she had.

Neither the possibility of Elayne Trakand taking the throne nor Dobraine’s new title had brought nearly as much consternation as the ridiculous, and ridiculously persistent, rumors about the al’Thor boy going to Tar Valon to submit to Elaida, though she had done nothing to quell those. That tale had everyone from nobles to stablemen half afraid to breathe, which was very well and good for maintaining the peace. The Game of Houses had ground to a halt; well, compared to how matters normally were in Cairhien. The Aiel who came into the city from their huge camp a few miles east very likely helped, however much they were hated by the general run of folk. Everyone knew they followed the Dragon Reborn, and no one wanted to risk finding themselves on the wrong end of thousands of Aiel spears. Young al’Thor was much more useful absent than present. Rumors out of the west of Aiel raiding elsewhere—looting, burning, killing indiscriminately, so merchants’ hearsay claimed—gave people another reason to step gingerly with those here.

In fact, there seemed to be no burrs to prick Cairhien out of its quiet, aside from the occasional street brawl between Foregaters and city folk who considered the noisy, brightly clad Foregaters as alien as the Aiel and a good deal safer to fight. The city was crowded to the attics, with people sleeping anywhere they could find shelter from the cold, yet food supplies were more than adequate if not overabundant, and trade was actually better than expected in winter. All in all, she should have felt content that she was carrying out Cadsuane’s instructions as well as the Green could wish for. Except that Cadsuane would expect more. She always did.

“Are you listening to me, Samitsu?”

Sighing, Samitsu turned from the peaceful view through the window, taking pains not to smooth her yellow-slashed skirts. The Jakanda-made silver bells in her hair tinkled faintly, but today the sound failed to soothe her. At the best of times she did not feel entirely comfortable in her apartments in the palace, though a blazing fire in the wide marble fireplace gave a good warmth and the bed in the next room had the best-quality feather mattresses and goose down pillows. All three of her rooms were overly ornate in the severe Cairhienin fashion, the white ceiling plaster worked in interlocking squares, the wide bar-cornices heavily gilded, and the wooden wall panels polished to a soft glow yet dark even so. The furnishings were darker still, and massively constructed, edged with thin lines of gold leaf and inlaid with patterned ivory wedges. The flowered Tairen carpet in this room seemed garishly disordered compared to everything else, and emphasized the surrounding stiffness. It all seemed too much like a cage, of late.

What really discomfited her, though, was the woman with her hair in ringlets to her shoulders standing in the middle of the carpet, fists on her hips, a belligerent set to her chin, and a frown narrowing her blue eyes. Sashalle wore the Great Serpent ring, of course, on her right hand, but also an Aiel necklace and bracelet, fat beads of silver and ivory intricately worked and carved, gaudy against her high-necked dress of brown wool, which was plain if fine and well cut. Not crude pieces, certainly, but... flamboyant, and hardly the sort a sister would wear. The oddity of that jewelry might hold the key to much, if Samitsu could ever find the reason behind it. The Wise Ones, especially Sorilea, looked at her as if she were a fool for not knowing without asking, and refused to be bothered with answering. They did that all too often. Most especially Sorilea. Samitsu was unused to being thought a fool, and she disliked it immensely.

Not for the first time, she found it difficult to meet the other sister’s gaze. Sashalle was the major reason contentment eluded her, no matter how well everything was going otherwise. Most maddening, Sashalle was a Red, yet despite her Ajah, she was oathsworn to young al’Thor. How could any Aes Sedai swear fealty to anyone or anything other than the White Tower itself? How in the Light could a Red swear to a man who could channel? Maybe Verin had been right about ta’veren twisting chance. Samitsu could not begin to think of any other reason for thirty-one sisters, five of them Red, to take such an oath.

“The Lady Ailil has been approached by lords and ladies who represent most of House Riatin’s strength,” she replied, much more patiently than she felt. “They want her to take the High Seat of Riatin, and she wants White Tower approval. Aes Sedai approval, at least.” For something to do besides match stares—and likely lose—she moved to a blackwood table where a gold-worked silver pitcher sitting on a silver tray still gave off the faint scent of spices. Filling a cup with mulled wine provided an excuse to break the fleeting eye contact. Needing an excuse made her replace the pitcher on the tray with a sharp clink. She found herself avoiding looking at Sashalle too often. Even now, she realized she was looking at the other woman sideways. To her frustration, she could not quite make herself turn completely to meet her stare.

“Tell her no, Sashalle. Her brother was still alive when last seen, and rebellion against the Dragon Reborn is nothing that need concern the Tower; certainly not now it’s done with.” The memory arose of Toram Riatin as last seen, running off into a strange fog that could take on solid form and kill, a fog that resisted the One Power. The Shadow had walked outside the walls of Cairhien that day. Samitsu’s voice tightened from the effort to stop it short of trembling. Not with fear, but anger. That had been the day she failed at Healing young al’Thor. She hated failures, hated remembering them. And she should not have to explain herself. “Most of Riatin’s strength is not all. Those still tied to Toram will oppose her, with force of arms if necessary, and in any case, fostering upheaval inside the Houses themselves is no way to maintain the peace. There is a precarious balance in Cairhien now, Sashalle, but it is a balance, and we mustn’t disturb it.” She managed to stop short of saying Cadsuane would be displeased if they did. That would hardly carry weight with Sashalle.

“Upheaval will come whether or not we foster it,” the other sister said firmly. Her frown had faded as soon as Samitsu showed she had been listening, though the set of her jaw remained. Perhaps it was stubbornness rather than belligerence, yet that hardly mattered. The woman was not arguing or trying to convince her, just stating her own position. And most galling of all, plainly doing that much as a courtesy. “The Dragon Reborn is the herald of upheaval and change, Samitsu. The herald foretold. And if he weren’t, this is Cairhien. Do you think they have really stopped playing at Daes Dae’mar? The surface of the water may be still, but the fish never stop swimming.”

A Red, preaching the Dragon Reborn like a street-corner demagogue! Light! “And if you are wrong?” In spite of herself, Samitsu bit off the words. Sashalle—burn her!—maintained a perfect serenity.

“Ailil has forsworn any claim to the Sun Throne in favor of Elayne Trakand, which is what the Dragon Reborn desires, and she is ready to swear fealty to him, if I ask it. Toram led an army against Rand al’Thor. I say the change is worth making and the chance worth taking, and I will tell her so.”

The bells in Samitsu’s hair chimed at an irritated shake of her head, and she barely managed to stop herself from sighing again. Eighteen of those Dragonsworn sisters remained in Cairhien—Cadsuane had carried some away with her, then sent Alanna back to take off still more—and others of the eighteen besides Sashalle stood higher than she, but the Aiel Wise Ones kept them out of her way. In principle, she disapproved of how that was done—Aes Sedai could not be apprentices, not to anyone! It was outrageous!—but in practice, it did make her job easier. They could not meddle or try to take charge with Wise Ones running their lives and watching over their every hour. Unfortunately, for some reason she could not learn, the Wise Ones looked differently on Sashalle and the other two sisters who had been stilled at Dumai’s Wells. Stilled. She felt a faint shiver at the thought, but only faint, and it would be less if she ever managed to work out how Damer Flinn had Healed what could not be Healed. At least someone could Heal stilling, even if it was a man. A man channeling. Light, how the horror of yesterday became merely the uneasiness of today, once you grew accustomed.

She was sure that Cadsuane would have arranged matters with the Wise Ones before leaving had she known about the difference with Sashalle and Irgain and Ronaille. At least, she thought she was sure. This was not the first time she had been pulled into one of the legendary Green’s designs. Cadsuane could be more devious than a Blue, schemes inside plots wrapped in stratagems and all hidden behind still others. Some were planned to fail in order to help others succeed, and only Cadsuane knew which were which, not at all a comforting thought. In any case, those three sisters were free to come and go as they desired, do as they desired. And they certainly felt no need to follow the guidance Cadsuane had left behind or to follow the sister she had named to lead. Only their mad oath to al’Thor guided or constrained them.

Samitsu had never felt weak or ineffectual in her life except when her Talent failed her, yet she very much wished that Cadsuane would return and take matters out of her hands. A few words delivered in Ailil’s ear would quench any desire the lady had to mount the High Seat, of course, yet it would come to nothing unless she found some way to deflect Sashalle from her purpose. No matter that Ailil feared having her silly secrets aired abroad, inconsistency in what Aes Sedai told her could well make her decide it was better to try vanishing to her country estates rather than risk offending a sister whatever she did. Cadsuane would be upset over losing Ailil. Samitsu herself would be upset. Ailil was a conduit into half the plots brewing among the nobles, a gauge to be sure those intrigues were all still petty and unlikely to bring any major disturbance. The cursed Red knew that. And once Sashalle gave Ailil this permission, it would be her the woman came running to with her news, not Samitsu Tamagowa.

While Samitsu was floundering in her quandary, the door to the hallway opened to admit a pale, stern-faced Cairhienin woman, a hand shorter than either Aes Sedai. Her hair was in a thick gray roll on the nape of her neck, and she wore an unadorned gray dress so dark it was nearly black, the current livery of a Sun Palace servant. Servants never announced themselves or asked admittance, of course, but Corgaide Marendevin was hardly just another servant; the heavy silvery ring of long keys at her waist was a badge of office. Whoever ruled Cairhien, the Holder of the Keys ruled the Sun Palace in simple fact, and there was nothing submissive in Corgaide’s manner. She made a minimal curtsy carefully aimed halfway between Samitsu and Sashalle.

“I was asked to report anything unusual,” she said to the air, though it had been Samitsu who asked. Very likely, she had known of the power struggle between them as soon as they did themselves. Little in the palace escaped her. “I am told there is an Ogier in the kitchens. He and a young man supposedly are looking after work as masons, but I have never heard of Ogier and human masons working together. And Stedding Tsofu sent word no masons would be available from any stedding for the foreseeable future, when we inquired after... the incident.” The pause was barely perceptible, and her grave expression did not alter, but half the gossip about the attack on the Sun Palace laid it to al’Thor’s doing, the other half to Aes Sedai. A few tales mentioned the Forsaken, but only to pair them with either al’Thor or the Aes Sedai.

Pursing her lips in thought, Samitsu set aside the cursed tangle Cairhienin made of everything they touched. Denials of Aes Sedai involvement did little good; the Three Oaths went only so far in a city where a simple yes or no could give rise to six contradictory rumors. But, Ogier... The palace kitchens scarcely took in stray passersby, yet the cooks very likely would give an Ogier a hot meal just for the strangeness of seeing him. Ogier were even more uncommon than usual, this last year or so. A few were still seen now and then, but walking as fast as only an Ogier could, and seldom stopping in one place more than long enough to sleep. They rarely traveled with humans, much less worked with them. The pairing tickled something in her mind, though. Hoping to tease whatever it was into the open, she opened her mouth to ask a few questions.

“Thank you, Corgaide,” Sashalle said with a smile. “You’ve been most helpful. But if you will leave us, now?” Being abrupt with the Holder of the Keys was a good way to find yourself with dirty bed linens and poorly spiced meals, unemptied chamber pots and messages that went astray, a thousand annoyances that could make life a misery and leave you wading in mud trying to accomplish anything at all, yet somehow, that smile appeared to take the sting out of her words for Corgaide. The gray-haired woman bowed her head slightly in assent and again made the smallest possible curtsy. This time, obviously to Sashalle.

No sooner had the door closed behind the gray-haired woman than Samitsu thumped her silver cup back on the tray hard enough to splash warm wine over her wrist and rounded on the Red sister. She was on the brink of losing control of Ailil, and now the Sun Palace itself appeared to be slipping through her fingers! It was as likely Corgaide would sprout wings and fly as keep silent about what she had seen here, and whatever she said would flash through the palace and infect every servant down to the men who mucked out the stables. That final curtsy had made it quite clear what she thought. Light, but Samitsu hated Cairhien! The customs of civility between sisters were deeply ingrained, but Sashalle did not stand high enough to make her hold her tongue in the face of this disaster, and she intended to deliver the rough side of it.

Frowning at the other woman, though, she saw Sashalle’s face—really saw it, perhaps for the first time—and suddenly she knew why it troubled her so, perhaps even why she had found it difficult to look directly at the Red sister. It was no longer an Aes Sedai face, outside of time and standing apart from age. Most people were unsure of the look until it was pointed out, but it was unmistakable to another sister. Perhaps some bits remained, scraps that made Sashalle appear closer to beautiful than she really was, yet anyone at all would put an age to her, somewhere short of her middle years. The realization froze Samitsu’s tongue.

What was known about women who had been stilled was little better than rumor. They ran away and hid from other sisters; eventually, they died. Usually, they died soon rather than late. The loss of saidar was more than most women could bear for very long. But it was all really tittle-tattle; as far as she knew, no one in a very long time had had the nerve to try learning more. The rarely acknowledged fear in the darkest corner of every sister’s head, that the same fate might come to her one day in a careless moment, kept anyone from wanting to know too much. Even Aes Sedai could hide their eyes when they did not want to see. There were always those rumors, though, almost never mentioned and so vague you could never recall where you heard them first, whispers on the edge of hearing, yet forever floating about. One that Samitsu had only half remembered, till now, said that a woman who was stilled grew young again, if she lived. It had always seemed ludicrous, till now. Regaining the ability to channel had not given Sashalle back everything. Once more she would have to work with the Power for years to gain the face that would proclaim her Aes Sedai to any sister who could see her clearly. Or... would she regain it? It seemed inevitable, yet this was unmapped terrain. And if her face was changed, was anything else about her changed as well? Samitsu shivered, harder than she had for the thought of stilling. Perhaps it was as well she had gone slow in trying to puzzle out Damer’s way of Healing.

Fingering her Aiel necklace, Sashalle seemed unaware that Samitsu had any grievance, unaware of Samitsu’s scrutiny. “This may be nothing, or it may warrant looking into,” she said, “but Corgaide was only reporting what she heard. If we want to learn anything, we must go and see for ourselves.” Without another word, she gathered her skirts and started out of the apartments, leaving Samitsu only a choice between following or remaining behind. It was intolerable! Yet remaining was unthinkable.

Sashalle was no taller than she, not to speak of, but she had to hurry to keep up as the Red glided swiftly along wide, square-vaulted corridors. Taking the lead was out of the question, unless she chose to run. She fumed in silence, though it required gritting her teeth. Arguing with another sister in public was improper at best. Worse, without any doubt, it would be futile. And that would only dig the hole she was in deeper. She felt a very great desire to kick something.

Stand-lamps at regular intervals gave plenty of light even in the darkest stretches of hallway, but there was little color or decoration beyond the occasional tapestry with everything in it arranged in orderly fashion, whether animals being hunted or nobles fighting gallantly in battle. A few niches in the walls held ornaments of gold or Sea Folk porcelain, and in some corridors the cornices were worked in friezes, most left unpainted. That was all. Cairhienin hid their opulence out of public view, as they did with so much. The serving men and women who hurried industriously along the halls like streams of ants wore livery the color of charcoal, except for those in service to nobles resident in the palace, who seemed bright beside the rest, with their House badges embroidered on their breasts, and their collars and sometimes sleeves marked in House colors. One or two even had a coat or dress all in House colors, and appeared almost an outlander among the others. But they all kept their eyes down and barely paused long enough to offer quick bows or curtsies to the two sisters as they passed. The Sun Palace required countless hundreds of servants, and it seemed they were all scurrying about this morning tending their chores.

Nobles strolled in the hallways, too, offering their own cautious courtesies to the Aes Sedai as they passed, perhaps with a greeting carefully balanced between an illusion of equality and the true state of affairs, spoken in low voices that did not carry far. They proved the old saying that strange times make for strange traveling companions. Old enmities had been put away in the face of new dangers. For the moment. Here, two or three pale Cairhienin lords in dark silk coats with thin stripes of color across the front, some with the fronts of their heads shaved and powdered soldier-fashion, promenaded alongside an equal number of dark Tairens, taller in their bright coats with fat, striped sleeves. There, a Tairen noblewoman in a snug pearl-sewn cap, colorfully brocaded gown, and pale lace ruff walked arm-in-arm beside a shorter Cairhienin noble with her hair in an elaborate tower that reached well above her companion’s head, smoky gray lace under her chin, and narrow stripes of her House colors cascading down the front of her wide-skirted dark silk. All like bosom friends and trusted confidants.

Some pairings did look odder than others. A number of women had begun wearing outlandish clothes of late, apparently never noticing how they drew men’s eyes and made even the servants struggle not to stare. Tight breeches and a coat barely long enough to cover the hips were not suitable garments for a woman, no matter how much effort went into rich embroidery or patterning the coat with gemstones. Jeweled necklaces and bracelets and pins with sprays of colorful feathers only pointed up the oddity. And those brightly dyed boots, with their heels that added as much as a hand to a woman’s height, made them appear in danger of falling down with every swaying step.

“Scandalous,” Sashalle muttered, eyeing one such pair of women and twitching her skirts in displeasure.

“Scandalous,” Samitsu murmured before she could stop herself, then snapped her mouth shut so hard her teeth clicked. She needed to control her tongue. Voicing agreement just because she agreed was a habit she could ill afford with Sashalle.

Still, she could not help glancing back at the pair in disapproval. And a bit of wonder. A year ago, Alaine Chuliandred and Fionnda Annariz would have been at each other’s throats. Or rather have had their armsmen at one another’s throats. But then, who would have expected to see Bertome Saighan walking peacefully with Weiramon Saniago, neither man reaching for the dagger at his belt? Strange times and strange traveling companions. Doubtless they were playing the Game of Houses, maneuvering for advantage as they always had, yet dividing lines that once were graven in stone now turned out to have been drawn on water instead. Very strange times.

The kitchens were on the lowest level of the Sun Palace above-ground, at the back, a cluster of stone-walled beamed-ceiling rooms centered around a long windowless room full of iron stoves and brick ovens and dressed-stone fireplaces, and the heat was enough to make anyone forget the snow outside, or even that it was winter. Normally, sweaty-faced cooks and under-cooks, as darkly clad as any other palace servants beneath their white aprons, would have been scurrying about getting ready to prepare the midday meal, kneading loaves on long flour-strewn tables topped with marble, basting the joints and fowl that were turning on spits in the fireplaces. Now, only the trotting spit-dogs were moving, eager to earn their bits from the joints. Baskets of turnips and carrots stood unpeeled and unchopped, and smells sweet and spicy came from untended pots of sauces. Even the scullions, boys and girls surreptitiously wiping their faces on their aprons, stood on the fringe of a group of women clustered around one of the tables. From the doorway, Samitsu could see the back of an Ogier’s head rising above them where he was seated at the table, taller than most men would have been standing up, and broad with it. Of course, Cairhienin were short by and large, and that helped. She laid a hand on Sashalle’s arm, and for a wonder, the woman stopped where they were without protest.

“... vanished without leaving a clue where he was going?” the Ogier was asking in a deep rumble like the earth shifting. His long, tufted ears, sticking up through dark hair that hung to his high collar, flicked back and forth uneasily.

“Oh, do stop talking about him, Master Ledar,” a woman’s voice answered in a quaver that seemed well-practiced. “Wicked, he was. Tore half the palace apart with the One Power, he did. He could turn your blood to ice just looking at you, and kill you as soon as look. Thousands have died by his own hand. Tens of thousands! Oh, I never like talking about him.”

“For someone as never likes talking about something, Eldrid Methin,” another woman said sharply, “you surely talk of little else.” Stout and quite tall for a Cairhienin, nearly as tall as Samitsu herself, with a few strands of gray hair escaping her white plain-lace cap, she must have been the chief cook on duty, because everyone Samitsu could see quickly nodded agreement and twittered with laughter and said, “Oh, right you are, Mistress Beldair,” in a particularly sycophantic way. Servants had their own hierarchies, as rigidly maintained as the Tower itself.

“But that sort of thing really is not for us to be gossiping over, Master Ledar,” the stout woman went on. “Aes Sedai business, that is, and not for the likes of you and me. Tell us more about the Borderlands. Have you really seen Trollocs?”

“Aes Sedai,” a man muttered. Hidden by the crowd around the table, he had to be Ledar’s companion. Samitsu could see no grown men among the kitchen folk this morning. “Tell me, do you really think they bonded those men you were talking about, those Asha’man? As Warders? And what about the one who died? You never said how.”

“Why, it was the Dragon Reborn as killed him,” Eldrid piped up. “And what else would Aes Sedai bond a man as? Oh, terrible, they was, them Asha’man. Turn you to stone with a look, they could. You can tell one just by looking at him, you know. Frightful glowing eyes, they have.”

“Be quiet, Eldrid,” Mistress Beldair said firmly. “Maybe they was Asha’man and maybe not, Master Underhill. Maybe they was bonded and maybe not. All I or anyone else can say is they was with him,” the emphasis in her voice made plain who she was talking about; Eldrid might consider Rand al’Thor fearful, but this woman did not want to so much as name him, “and soon after he left, suddenly the Aes Sedai was telling them what to do and they was doing it. Of course, any fool knows to do as an Aes Sedai says. Anyway, those fellows are all gone off, now. Why are you so interested in them, Master Underhill? Is that an Andoran name?”

Ledar threw back his head and laughed, a booming sound that filled the room. His ears twitched violently. “Oh, we want to know everything about the places we visit, Mistress Beldair. The Borderlands, you say? You might think it’s cold here, but we’ve seen trees crack open like nuts on the fire from the cold in the Borderlands. You have blocks of ice in the river, floating down from upstream, but we’ve seen rivers as wide as the Alguenya frozen so merchants can drive loaded trains of wagons across them, and men fishing through holes cut in ice nearly a span thick. At night, there are sheets of light in the sky that seem to crackle, bright enough to dim the stars, and...”

Even Mistress Beldair was leaning toward the Ogier, caught up, but one of the young scullions, too short to see past the adults, glanced behind him, and his eyes went wide when they lit on Samitsu and Sashalle. His gaze stayed fixed on them as if trapped, but he fumbled with one hand till he could tug at Mistress Beldair’s sleeve. The first time, she shook him off without looking around. At a second tug, she turned her head with a scowl that vanished in a blink when she, too, saw the Aes Sedai.

“Grace favor you, Aes Sedai,” she said, hastily tucking stray hair back under her cap as she bobbed her curtsy. “How may I serve you?” Ledar broke off short in midsentence, and his ears stiffened for an moment. He did not look toward the doorway.

“We wish to speak with your visitors,” Sashalle said, moving into the kitchen. “We won’t disrupt your kitchen for long.”

“Of course, Aes Sedai.” If the stout woman felt any surprise at two sisters wanting to talk to kitchen visitors, she showed none. Head swinging from side to side to take in everyone, she clapped her plump hands and began spouting orders. “Eldrid, those turnips will never peel themselves. Who was watching the fig sauce? Dried figs are hard to come by! Where is your basting spoon, Kasi? Andil, run, fetch some... .” Cooks and scullions scattered in every direction, and a clatter of pots and spoons quickly filled the kitchen, though everyone was plainly making an effort to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb the Aes Sedai. They were plainly making an effort not to even look in their direction, though that involved some contortion.

The Ogier rose to his feet smoothly, his head coming near the thick ceiling beams. His clothing was what Samitsu remembered from meeting Ogier before, a long dark coat that flared over turned-down boots. Stains on his coat said he had been traveling hard; Ogier were a fastidious people. He only half turned to face her and Sashalle even as he made a bow, and he rubbed at his wide nose as if it itched, partially hiding his broad face, but he appeared young, for an Ogier. “Forgive us, Aes Sedai,” he murmured, “but we really must be moving on.” Bending to gather a huge leather scrip that had a large rolled blanket tied across the top and showed the impressions of several square shapes packed around whatever else was stuffed inside, he hoisted the broad strap over one shoulder. His capacious coat pockets bulged with angular shapes, too. “We have a long way to go before nightfall.” His companion remained seated, though, his hands spread on the tabletop, a pale-haired young man with a week’s growth of beard who seemed to have slept more than one night in his rumpled brown coat. He watched the Aes Sedai warily, with dark eyes that belonged on a cornered fox.

“Where are you going that you can reach by nightfall?” Sashalle did not stop until she was standing in front of the young Ogier, close enough to need to crane her neck to look up at him, though she made it seem graceful rather than awkward, as it should have been. “Are you on your way to the meeting we’ve heard about, in Stedding Shangtai? Master... Ledar, is it?”

His tall ears twitched violently, then were still, and his teacup-sized eyes narrowed almost as warily as the young man’s, till the dangling ends of his eyebrows trailed onto his cheeks. “Ledar, son of Shandin son of Koimal, Aes Sedai,” he said reluctantly. “But I’m certainly not going to the Great Stump. Why, the Elders wouldn’t let me close enough to hear what was being said.” He gave a deep bass chuckle that sounded forced. “We can’t get where we’re going tonight, Aes Sedai, but every league behind us is a league we don’t have to walk tomorrow. We need to be on our way.” The unshaven young man stood up, running a hand nervously along the long hilt of the sword belted at his waist, yet he made no move to pick up the scrip and blanket roll at his feet and follow as the Ogier started toward the door that led to the street, even when the Ogier said over his shoulder, “We need to go now, Karldin.”

Sashalle glided fluidly into the Ogier’s path, though she had to take three strides to his one. “You were asking after work as a mason, Master Ledar,” she said in tones brooking no nonsense, “but your hands are not as callused as any mason’s I’ve ever seen. It would be best for you to answer my questions.”

Suppressing a triumphant smile, Samitsu moved up beside the Red sister. So Sashalle thought she could simply push her aside and ferret out what was going on, did she? The woman was in for a surprise. “You really must stay a while longer,” she said to the Ogier in a low voice; the noise in the kitchen should keep anyone from overhearing, yet there was no need to take chances. “When I came to the Sun Palace, I had already heard of a young Ogier, a friend of Rand al’Thor. He left Cairhien some months past, in company with a young man named Karldin. Isn’t that right, Loial?” The Ogier’s ears wilted.

The young man bit off a coarse curse he should have known better than to mouth in front of sisters. “I leave when I want to leave, Aes Sedai,” he said harshly, but in a low voice. For the most part, he divided his gaze between her and Sashalle, yet he was watchful for any of the kitchen workers who might come near. He did not wish to be overheard, either. “Before I do, I want some answers. What happened to... my friends? And him. Did he go mad?”

Loial sighed heavily, and made a pacifying gesture with one huge hand. “Be easy, Karldin,” he murmured. “Rand wouldn’t like you starting trouble with Aes Sedai. Be easy.” Karldin’s scowl only deepened.

Abruptly it occurred to Samitsu that she could have handled this better. Those were not the eyes of a cornered fox, but a wolf. She had grown too accustomed to Damer and Jahar and Eben, safely bonded and tamed. That might be an overstatement, though Merise was making an effort with Jahar—that was Merise’s way—yet it seemed the horror of yesterday could become the complacency of today after long enough exposure. Karldin Manfor was an Asha’man, too, and neither bonded nor tame. Was he embracing the male half of the Power? She almost laughed. Did birds fly?

Sashalle was watching the young man with a studying frown, her hands much too still on her skirts, but Samitsu was glad not to see the light of saidar around her. Asha’man could feel it when a woman held the Power, and that might make him act... precipitately. Certainly she and Samitsu together could handle him—could they, if he already held the Power? Of course they could. Of course!—but it would be much better if they did not have to.

Sashalle certainly was making no move to take charge, now, so Samitsu laid a hand lightly on his left arm. Through his coatsleeve, it felt like a bar of iron. So he was as uneasy as she. As uneasy as she? Light, but Damer and those other two had spoiled all her instincts!

He seemed sane as most men when I last saw him,” she said softly, with just a slight emphasis. None of the kitchen folk were nearby, but a few had begun sneaking peeks toward the table. Loial exhaled heavily in relief, a sound like wind rushing across the mouth of a cave, but she kept her attention on Karldin. “I don’t know where he is, but he was alive as of a few days ago.” Alanna had been closemouthed as a mussel beyond that, and overbearing, too, with Cadsuane’s note in her fist. “Fedwin Morr died of poison, I fear, but I have no idea who gave it to him.” To her surprise, Karldin merely shook his head, with a rueful grimace, and muttered something incomprehensible about wine. “As for the others, they became Warders of their own free will.” As much as any man did anything of his free will. Her Roshan certainly had not wanted to be a Warder, until she decided she wanted him for one. Even a woman who was not Aes Sedai could usually make a man decide the way she wanted. “They thought it a better choice, safer, than returning to... the others like you. You see, the damage here was done with saidin. You understand who must have been behind it? It was an attempt to kill the one whose sanity you fear for.”

That did not seem to surprise him, either. What sort of men were these Asha’man? Was their so-called Black Tower a murder pit? The tightness went out of his arm, though, and suddenly he was just a road-weary young man who needed to shave. “Light!” he breathed. “What do we do now, Loial? Where do we go?”

“I... don’t know,” Loial replied, his shoulders sagging tiredly and his long ears drooping. “I... We have to find him, Karldin. Somehow. We can’t give up now. We have to let him know we did what he asked. As much as we could.”

And what was it al’Thor had asked, Samitsu wondered. With a little luck, she could learn a great deal from these two. A tired man, or Ogier, feeling lost and alone, was ripe for answering questions.

Karldin gave a small jump, his hand tightening on his sword hilt, and she bit back a curse of her own as a palace serving woman came running into the room with her skirts gathered almost to her knees. “Lord Dobraine’s been murdered!” the serving woman squealed. “We will all be killed in our beds! My own eyes have seen the dead walking, old Maringil himself, and my mam says spirits will kill you if there has been a murder done! They—” Her mouth froze open when she caught the presence of Aes Sedai, and she skidded to a halt still clutching her skirts. The kitchen folk seemed frozen, too, all watching the Aes Sedai from the corners of their eyes to see what they would do.

“Not Dobraine,” Loial moaned, ears laying flat against his head. “Not him.” He looked as much angry as saddened, his face stony. Samitsu did not think she had ever seen an Ogier angry.

“What is your name?” Sashalle demanded of the serving woman before Samitsu could even part her lips. “How do you know he was murdered? How do you even know he’s dead?”

The woman swallowed, her eyes held by Sashalle’s cool gaze. “Cera, Aes Sedai?” she said hesitantly, bending her knees in a curtsy and only then realizing that she still had her skirts gathered up. Hastily smoothing them down only seemed to fluster her more. “Cera Doinal? They say... Everybody says Lord Dobraine is... I mean, he was... I mean...” She swallowed again, hard. “They all say his rooms are covered with blood. He was found lying in a great pool of it. With his head cut off, they say.”

They say a great many things,” Sashalle said grimly, “and usually they’re wrong. Samitsu, you will come with me. If Lord Dobraine has been injured, you may be able to do something for him. Loial, Karldin, you come, too. I don’t want you out of my sight before I have a chance to ask a few questions.”

“Burn your questions!” the young Asha’man growled, shouldering his belongings. “I’m leaving!”

“No, Karldin,” Loial said gently, laying a huge hand on his companion’s shoulder. “We can’t go before we know about Dobraine. He’s a friend, Rand’s friend, and mine. We can’t. Anyway, where are we hurrying to?” Karldin looked away. He had no answer.

Samitsu squeezed her eyes shut, and took a deep breath, but there was no help for it. She found herself following Sashalle out of the kitchens, once more hurrying to keep up with the other woman’s quick, gliding stride. In fact, she found herself half-running; Sashalle set an even more rapid pace than before.

The babbling of voices rose behind them as soon as they were out the door. The kitchen folk probably all were pressing the serving woman for particulars, details she very likely would invent where her knowledge failed. Ten different versions of events would find their way out of that kitchen, if not as many as there were kitchen folk. Worst of all, ten different versions of events in the kitchen would find their way out, every one adding to the rumors Corgaide doubtless was already starting. She could hardly recall a day that had gone so badly for her, so suddenly, like slipping on one patch of ice only to find another under her feet, then another. Cadsuane would have her hide to make gloves after this!

At least Loial and Karldin trailed after Sashalle as well. Whatever she learned from them might still be put to advantage, a way to salvage something. Scurrying along at Sashalle’s side, she studied them in brief glances over her shoulder. Taking short strides to keep from over-running the Aes Sedai, the Ogier was frowning in worry. Over Dobraine, very likely, but also perhaps over only completing his mysterious task “as well as he could.” That was a mystery she intended to solve. The young Asha’man had no difficulty keeping up, though he wore an expression of stubborn reluctance and his hand caressed his swordhilt. The danger in him did not lie in steel. He stared suspiciously at the backs of the Aes Sedai ahead, once meeting Samitsu’s glance with a dark glower. He had the sense to keep his mouth shut, though. She would have to find a way to pry it open later for more than snarling.

Sashalle never glanced behind to make sure the pair were following, but then, she had to hear the thud of the Ogier’s boots on the floor tiles. Her face was thoughtful, and Samitsu would have given a great deal to know what she was thinking. Sashalle might be oathsworn to Rand al’Thor, but what protection did that give to an Asha’man? She was Red, after all. That had not changed with her face. Light, this could be the worst patch of ice of all!

It was a long arduous climb from the kitchens to Lord Dobraine’s apartments in the Tower of the Full Moon, which was usually set aside for visiting nobility of high rank, and all along the way, Samitsu saw the evidence that Cera had been far from the first to hear what the ever-anonymous they had to say. Rather than endless streams of servants flowing along the corridors, small excited knots stood whispering anxiously. At sight of the Aes Sedai, they sprang apart and scurried away. A handful did gape at seeing an Ogier striding through the palace, yet for the most part, they all but fled. The nobles who had been about before had all vanished, doubtless back to their own rooms to mull over what opportunities and hazards Dobraine’s death afforded them. Whatever Sashalle thought, Samitsu no longer doubted. If Dobraine had been alive, his own servants would have put paid to the rumor already.

For further confirmation, the hallway outside Dobraine’s rooms was crowded with ashen-faced servants, their sleeves ringed to the elbows in the blue-and-white of House Taborwin. Some wept, and others looked lost, their foundation stone pulled out from under them. At a word from Sashalle, they stood aside for the Aes Sedai, moving drunkenly or mechanically. Dazed eyes swept by the Ogier without actually registering what they saw. Few remembered to make even half-hearted courtesies.

Inside, the anteroom was almost as full of Dobraine’s servants, most staring as if poleaxed. Dobraine himself lay motionless on a litter in the middle of the large room, his head still attached to his body but his eyes closed and a drying sheet of blood, from a long cut in his scalp, across his still features. A dark trickle had leaked from his slack mouth. Two serving men with tears streaming down their cheeks paused in the act of laying a white cloth over his face at the entrance of the Aes Sedai. Dobraine did not appear to be breathing, and there were bloodstained gashes in the chest of his coat, with its thin stripes of color that marched down to his knees. Beside the litter, a dark blot larger than a man’s body marred the green-and-yellow Tairen maze of the fringed carpet. Anyone who lost that much blood had to be dead. Two other men lay sprawled on the floor, one with death-glazed eyes gazing at the ceiling, the other on his side, an ivory knife hilt sticking up from his ribs where the blade had surely reached his heart. Short, pale-skinned Cairhienin, both wore the livery of palace servants, but a servant never carried the long, wooden-handled dagger that lay beside each corpse. A House Taborwin man, his foot drawn back to kick one of the corpses, hesitated on seeing the two sisters, then planted his boot hard in the dead man’s ribs anyway. Clearly, proper decorum lay far from anyone’s mind at the moment.

“Move that cloth out of the way,” Sashalle told the men by the litter. “Samitsu, see whether you can still help Lord Dobraine.”

Whatever she believed, instinct had moved Samitsu toward Dobraine, but that command—it was clearly a command!—put a stutter in her step. Gritting her teeth, she kept moving, and knelt carefully beside the litter, on the side away from the still damp blot, to put her hands on Dobraine’s blood-soaked head. She never minded getting blood on her hands, but bloodstains were impossible to get out of silk unless you channeled, and she still felt a pang of guilt at the waste when she used the Power for something so mundane.

The necessary weaves were second nature to her, so much so that she embraced the Source and delved the Cairhienin lord without a thought. And blinked in surprise. Instinct had made her go ahead, though she had been certain there were three corpses in the room, yet life still flickered in Dobraine. A tiny guttering flame that the shock of Healing might well extinguish. The shock of the Healing she knew.

Her eyes searched out the pale-haired Asha’man. He was crouched beside one of the dead servants, calmly searching the man, oblivious of the shocked stares of the living servants. One of the women suddenly noticed Loial, standing just inside the door, and goggled as if he had leapt out of thin air. With his arms folded across his chest and a grim expression on his broad face, the Ogier looked as though he were standing guard.

“Karldin, do you know the kind of Healing that Damer Flinn uses?” Samitsu asked. “The kind that uses all of the Five Powers?”

He paused for a moment, frowning at her. “Flinn? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I don’t have much Talent for Healing, anyway.” Eyeing Dobraine, he added, “He looks dead to me, but I hope you can save him. He was at the Wells.” And he bent back to rummaging though the dead servant’s coat.

Samitsu licked her lips. The thrill of being filled with saidar always seemed diminished to her, in situations like this. Situations when all of her possible choices were bad. Carefully, she gathered flows of Air, Spirit and Water, weaving them just so, the basic weave of Healing that every sister knew. No one in living memory had the Talent for Healing as strongly as she, and most sisters were limited in what they could Heal, some to little more than bruises. By herself, she could Heal almost as well as a linked circle. Most sisters could not regulate the weave to any degree at all; most did not even try to learn. She had been able to from the start. Oh, she could not Heal one particular thing and leave everything else as it was, the way Damer could; what she did would affect everything from the stab wounds to the stuffed nose Dobraine was also suffering from. Delving had told her everything that ailed him. But she could wash away the worst injuries as if they had never been, or Heal so whoever she Healed appeared to have spent days recovering on her own, or anything in between. Each took no less of her strength, but they did require less from the patient. The smaller the amount of change in the body, the smaller the amount of the body’s strength it drained. Only, except for the gash in his scalp, Dobraine’s wounds were all serious, four deep punctures in his lungs, two of them gashing the heart as well. The strongest Healing would kill him before his wounds finished closing, while the weakest would revive him long enough to drown in his own blood. She had to choose somewhere in the middle and hope that she was right.

I am the best that ever has been, she thought firmly. Cadsuane had told her that. I am the best! Altering the weave slightly, she let it sink into the motionless man.

Some of the servants cried out in alarm as Dobraine’s body convulsed. He half sat up, deep-set eyes opening wide, long enough for what sounded all too much like a long death rattle to rush out of his mouth. Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he slipped from her grasp, thudding back down onto the litter. Hastily, she readjusted the weave and delved him again, holding her breath. He lived. By a hair, and so weak he might yet die, but it would not be those stabs that killed him, except indirectly. Even through the drying blood that matted his hair, shaven away from his forehead, she could see the puckered pink line of a fresh, tender scar across his scalp. He would have the same beneath his coat, and he might be troubled by shortness of breath when he exerted himself, if he pulled through, yet for the moment, he did live, and that was all that mattered. For the moment. There was still the matter of who had wanted him dead, and why.

Releasing the Power, she stood unsteadily. Saidar draining out of her always made her feel tired. One of the serving men, gaping, hesitantly handed her the cloth he had been going to lay on his lord’s face, and she used it to wipe her hands. “Take him to his bed,” she said. “Get as much mild honey-water down him as you can. He needs to gain strength quickly. And find a Wise Woman... a Reader? Yes, a Reader. He will need her, too.” He was out of her hands, now, and herbs might help. At least, they were unlikely to harm, coming from a Reader, and at worst the woman would make sure they gave him enough honey-water and not too much.

With much bowing and many murmurs of thanks, four of the serving men took up the litter and carried Dobraine deeper into the apartments. Most of the other servants followed hurriedly, wearing expressions of relief, and the rest dashed out into the corridor. An instant later, glad shouts and cheers broke out, and she heard her name nearly as often as Dobraine’s. Very gratifying. It would have been more satisfying if Sashalle had not smiled and given her an approving nod. Approving! And why not a pat on the head, while she was about it?

Karldin had paid no mind at all to the Healing, insofar as Samitsu had noticed. Finishing his search of the second corpse, he rose and crossed the room to Loial, attempting to show the Ogier something, shielded by his body, without letting the Aes Sedai notice. Loial plucked it—a sheet of cream-colored paper, creased from folding—out of the Asha’man’s hand and held it up in front of his face opened out in his thick fingers, ignoring Karldin’s scowl.

“But this makes no sense,” the Ogier muttered, frowning as he read. “No sense at all. Unless—” He cut off abruptly, long ears flickering, and exchanged a tense look with the pale-haired fellow, who gave a curt nod. “Oh, this is very bad,” Loial said. “If there were more than two, Karldin, if they found—” He choked off his words again at a frantic head shake from the young man.

“I will see that, please,” Sashalle said, holding out her hand, and please or no please, it was not a request.

Karldin attempted to snatch the paper from Loial’s hand, but the Ogier calmly handed it to Sashalle, who inspected it without any change of expression, then handed it to Samitsu. It was thick paper, smooth and expensive, and new-looking. Samitsu had to control her eyebrows’ desire to climb as she read.

At my command, the bearers of this are to remove certain items, which they will know, from my apartments and take them out of the Sun Palace. Make them private of my rooms, give them whatever aid they require and keep silent on this matter, in the name of the Dragon Reborn and on pain of his displeasure.Dobraine TaborwinShe had seen Dobraine’s writing often enough to recognize the rounded hand as his. “Obviously, someone employs a very good forger,” she said, earning a quick, contemptuous glance from Sashalle.

“It did seem unlikely he wrote it himself and was stabbed by his own men in mistake,” the Red said in cutting tones. Her gaze swung to Loial and the Asha’man. “What is it they might have found?” she demanded. “What is it you are afraid they found?” Karldin stared back at her blandly.

“I just meant whatever they were looking for,” Loial answered. “They had to be here to steal something.” But his tufted ears twitched so hard they almost vibrated before he could master them. Most Ogier made very poor liars, at least while young.

Sashalle’s ringlets swung as she shook her head deliberately. “What you know is important. The pair of you are not leaving until I know it, too.”

“And how are you going to stop us?” The very quietness of Karldin’s words made them more dangerous. He met Sashalle’s gaze levelly, as if he had not a worry in the world. Oh, yes; very much a wolf, not a fox.

“I thought I’d never find you,” Rosara Medrano announced, marching into that moment of perilous silence still wearing her red gloves and fur-lined cloak, with the hood thrown back to reveal the carved ivory combs in her black hair. There were damp patches on the shoulders of the cloak from melted snow. A tall woman, as brown as a sun-dark Aiel, she had gone out at first light to try finding spices for some sort of fish stew from her native Tear. She spared only the briefest glance for Loial and Karldin, and did not waste a moment inquiring after Dobraine. “A party of sisters has entered the city, Samitsu. I rode like a madwoman to get here ahead of them, but they could be riding in at this moment. There are Asha’man with them, and one of the Asha’man is Logain!”

Karldin barked a rough laugh, and suddenly Samitsu wondered whether she was going to live long enough for Cadsuane to have her hide.

CHAPTER 1
Time to Be Gone

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Rhannon Hills. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Born among the groves and vineyards that covered much of the rugged hills, the olive trees in evergreen rows, the ordered vines leafless till spring, the cold wind blew west and north across the prosperous farms dotting the land between the hills and the great harbor of Ebou Dar. The land lay winter fallow still, but men and women were already oiling plowshares and tending harnesses, preparing for the planting to come. They paid little mind to the trains of heavily laden wagons moving east along the dirt roads carrying people who wore odd clothes and spoke with odd accents. Many of the strangers seemed to be farmers themselves, familiar implements lashed to their wagon boxes, and in their wagons unfamiliar saplings with roots balled in rough cloth, but they were heading on toward more distant land. Nothing to do with life here and now. The Seanchan hand lay lightly on those who did not contest Seanchan rule, and the farmers of the Rhannon Hills had seen no changes in their lives. For them, rain or the lack of it had always been the true ruler.

West and north the wind blew, across the broad blue-green expanse of the harbor, where hundreds of huge ships sat rocking at anchor on choppy swells, some bluff-bowed and rigged with ribbed sails, others long and sharp-prowed, with men laboring to match their sails and rigging to those of the wider vessels. Not nearly so many ships still floated there as had only a few days before, though. Many now lay in the shallows, charred wrecks heeled over on their sides, and burned frames settling in the deep gray mud like blackened skeletons. Smaller craft skittered about the harbor, slanting under triangular sails or crawling on oars like many-legged waterbugs, most carrying workers and supplies to the ships that still floated. Other small vessels and barges rode tethered to what appeared to be tree trunks shorn of branches, rising out of the blue-green water, and from those men dove holding stones to carry them down swiftly to sunken ships below, where they tied ropes to whatever could be hauled up for salvage. Six nights ago death had walked across the water here, the One Power killing men and women and ships in darkness split by silver lightnings and hurtling balls of fires. Now the rough rolling harbor, filled with furious activity, seemed at peace by comparison, the chop giving up spray to the wind that blew north and west across the mouth of the River Eldar, where it widened into the harbor, north and west and inland.

Sitting cross-legged atop a boulder covered with brown moss, on the reed-fringed bank of the river, Mat hunched his shoulders against the wind and cursed silently. There was no gold to be found here, no women or dancing, no fun. Plenty of discomfort, though. In short, it was the last sort of place he would choose, normally. The sun stood barely its own height above the horizon, the sky overhead was pale slate gray, and thick purple clouds moving in from the sea threatened rain. Winter hardly seemed winter without snow—he had yet to see a single flake in Ebou Dar—but a cold damp morning wind off the water could serve as well as snow to chill a man to the bone. Six nights since he had ridden out of the city in a storm, yet his throbbing hip seemed to think he was still soaked to the skin and clinging to a saddle. This was no weather or time of day for a man to be out by his own choice. He wished he had thought to bring a cloak. He wished he had stayed in bed.

Ripples in the land hid Ebou Dar, just over a mile to the south, and hid him from the city, as well, but there was not a tree or anything more than scrub brush in sight. Being in the open this way made him feel as though ants were crawling under his skin. He should be safe, though. His plain brown woolen coat and cap were nothing like the clothes he was known by in the city. Instead of black silk, a drab woolen scarf hid the scar around his neck, and the collar of his coat was turned up to hide that, as well. Not a bit of lace or a thread of embroidery. Dull enough for a farmer milking cows. No one he needed to avoid would know him to recognize if they saw him. Not unless they were close. Just the same, he tugged the cap a bit lower.

“You intend to stay out here much longer, Mat?” Noal’s tattered dark blue coat had seen better days, but then so had he. Stooped and white-haired, the broken-nosed old fellow was squatting on his heels below the boulder, fishing off the riverbank with a bamboo pole. Most of his teeth were missing, and sometimes he felt at a gap with his tongue as though surprised to find the empty space. “It’s cold, in case you haven’t noticed. Everybody always thinks it’s warm in Ebou Dar, but winter is cold everywhere, even places that make Ebou Dar feel like Shienar. My bones crave a fire. Or a blanket, anyway. A man can be snug with a blanket, if he’s out of the wind. Are you going to do anything but stare downriver?”

When Mat only glanced at him, Noal shrugged and went back to peering at the tarred wooden float bobbing among the sparse reeds. Now and then he worked one gnarled hand as though his crooked fingers felt the chill particularly, but if so, it was his own fault. The old fool had gone wading in the shallows to scoop up minnows for bait with a basket that now sat half-submerged and anchored by a smooth stone at the edge of the water. Despite his complaints about the weather, Noal had come along to the river without urging or invitation. From things he had said, everyone he cared about was long years dead, and the truth of it was, he seemed almost desperate for any sort of company. Desperate, indeed, to choose Mat’s company when he could be five days from Ebou Dar by now. A man could cover a lot of ground in five days if he had reason to and a good horse. Mat had thought on that very subject often enough himself.

On the far side of the Eldar, half-hidden by one of the marshy islands that dotted the river, a broad-beamed rowboat backed oars, and one of the crew stood up and fished in the reeds with a long boathook. Another oarsman helped him heave what he had caught into the boat. At this distance, it looked like a large sack. Mat winced and shifted his eyes downriver. They were still finding bodies, and he was responsible. The innocent died along with the guilty. And if you did nothing, then only the innocent died. Or as bad as died. Maybe worse than, depending on how you looked at it.

He scowled irritably. Blood and ashes, he was turning into a bloody philosopher! Taking responsibility drained all the joy out of life and dried a man to dust. What he wanted right then was a great deal of mulled wine in a snug common room full of music, and a plump, pretty serving maid on his knee, somewhere far from Ebou Dar. Very far. What he had were obligations he could not walk away from and a future he did not fancy. There seemed no help at all in being ta’veren, not if this was how the Pattern shaped itself to you. He still had his luck, anyway. At least, he was alive and not chained in a cell. Under the circumstances, that counted as luck.

From his perch, he had a fairly clear view down past the last low marshy river islands. Wind-caught spray drifted up the harbor like banks of fine mist, but not enough to hide what he needed to see. He was attempting to do sums in his head, counting ships afloat, trying to count wrecks. He kept losing his place, though, thinking he had counted vessels twice and starting over. The Sea Folk who had been recaptured intruded on his thoughts, too. He had heard that gibbets in the Rahad, across the harbor, displayed more than a hundred corpses, with placards listing “murder” and “rebellion” as their crimes. Normally, the Seanchan used the headsman’s axe and the impaling stake, while the Blood got the strangling cord, but property had to settle for being hanged.

Burn me, I did what I could, he thought sourly. There was no use feeling guilty that that was all he could do. Not a bit of use. None! He had to concentrate on the people who escaped.

The Atha’an Miere who got away had taken ships in the harbor for their flight, and while they might have seized some smaller craft, anything they could board and overwhelm in the night, they had intended to carry off as many of their people as possible. With thousands of them laboring as prisoners in the Rahad, that would have meant big ships, by choice, and that meant Seanchan greatships. Many of the Sea Folk’s own vessels were large enough, for certain, but they all had been stripped of their sails and rigging by that time, to be fitted out in the Seanchan fashion. If he could calculate how many greatships remained, he might have some notion of how many Atha’an Miere had actually reached freedom. Freeing the Sea Folk Windfinders had been the right thing to do, the only thing he could do, but aside from the hangings, hundreds and hundreds of bodies had been fished out of the harbor in the last five days, and the Light only knew how many had washed out to sea with the tides. The gravediggers labored from sunup to sundown, and the graveyards were filled with weeping women and children. Men, too. More than a few of those dead had been Atha’an Miere, with no one to weep while they were dumped into mass graves, and he wanted some idea of the number he had saved to balance his bleak suspicions of the number he had killed.

Estimating how many ships had made it out into the Sea of Storms was difficult, though, quite apart from losing the count. Unlike Aes Sedai, Windfinders had no strictures against using the Power as a weapon, not when the safety of their people was at stake, and they would have wanted to halt pursuit before it began. No one gave chase in a burning ship. The Seanchan, with their damane, had even less compunction against fighting back. Lightning bolts lacing through the rain as numerous as blades of grass and balls of fire streaking across the sky, some the size of horses, and the harbor seemed aflame from one side to the other, till even in a storm the night made any Illuminator’s show look stark. Without turning his head he could count a dozen places where the charred ribs of a greatship stuck up out of shallow water or a huge bluff-bowed hull lay on its side with the harbor waves licking against the tilted deck, and twice as many where the lines of blackened timbers were finer, the remains of Sea Folk rakers. Apparently they had disliked leaving their own vessels to people who had put them in chains. Three dozen right in front of him, and that without adding in the sunken wrecks that had salvage boats working over them. Perhaps a seafarer could tell greatship from raker by the tops of masts sticking out of the water, but the task was beyond him.

Suddenly an old memory tugged at him, of lading ships for an attack from the sea, and how many men could be crowded into how much space for how long. It was not his memory, really, from an ancient war between Fergansea and Moreina, yet it seemed his. Realizing that he had not actually lived one of those ancient bits of other men’s lives that were stuck in his head always took him a little by surprise now, so maybe they were his, in a way. They were certainly sharper than some stretches of his own life. The vessels he recalled had been smaller than most in the harbor, yet the principles were the same.

“They don’t have enough ships,” he muttered. The Seanchan had even more in Tanchico than had come here, but the losses here were sufficient to make the difference.

“Enough ships for what?” Noal said. “I never saw so many in one place before.” That was quite a statement, coming from him. To hear Noal tell it, he had seen everything, and nearly always bigger or grander than what was in front of his nose. Back home, they would have said he kept tight purse-strings on the truth.

Mat shook his head. “They don’t have enough ships left to take them all back home.”

“We don’t have to go home,” a woman drawled behind him. “We’ve come home.”

He did not quite jump at the slurred Seanchan accent, but it was a near thing before he recognized who was speaking.

Egeanin was scowling, her eyes like blue daggers, but not for him. At least, he thought not. She was tall and lean, with a hard face that was pale-skinned despite a life at sea. Her green dress was bright enough for a Tinker, or close to it, and embroidered with a mass of tiny yellow and white blossoms on the high neck and down the sleeves. A flowered scarf tied tightly under her chin held a long black wig on her head, spilling halfway down her back and over her shoulders. She hated the scarf and the dress, which did not quite fit, but her hands checked every other minute to make sure the wig was straight. That concerned her more than her clothes, though concern was not nearly a strong enough word.

She had only sighed over cutting her long fingernails short, but she almost had a fit, red-faced and pop-eyed, when he told her she must shave her head completely. The way her hair had been cut before, shaved above her ears with only a bowl-like cap and a wide shoulder-length tail in the back remaining, shouted that she was of the Seanchan Blood, a lesser noble. Even someone who had never laid eyes on a Seanchan would have remembered seeing her. She had agreed, reluctantly, but afterward she was close to hysterical until she was able to cover her scalp. Not for the reasons most women would have gone over the moon, though. No, among the Seanchan, only the Imperial family shaved their heads. Men who went bald began wearing wigs as soon as their hair started falling out to any noticeable degree. Egeanin would have died before letting anyone think she was pretending to belong to the Imperial family, even people who would never have had the thought in their lives. Well, that sort of pretense did carry a death penalty among the Seanchan, but he would never have believed she would go on about it so. What was one more death penalty when your neck was already being stretched for the axe? The strangling cord, in her case. The noose would be for him.

Slipping the half-drawn knife back up his left sleeve, he slid down from the boulder. He landed poorly and almost fell, barely hiding a wince at the stabbing jar to his hip. He did hide it, though. She was a noblewoman and a ship captain, and she made enough tries at taking charge without him showing any more weakness to give her an opening than he had to. She had come to him for help, not the other way ’round, but that buttered no bread with her. Leaning against the boulder with his arms folded, he pretended he was lounging, idly kicking at tufts of dead grass to work the pain out. That was sharp enough to put sweat on his forehead despite the cold wind. Fleeing in that storm had cost him ground with his hip, and he had not made it up yet.

“Are you sure about the Sea Folk?” he asked her. No point in mentioning the lack of ships again. Too many Seanchan settlers had spread out from Ebou Dar anyway, and apparently even more from Tanchico. However many ships they had, no power on earth would ever root all the Seanchan out, now.

Reaching toward the wig again, she hesitated, frowning at her short fingernails, and instead tucked her hands under her arms. “What about them?” She knew he had been behind the Windfinders’ break for freedom, but neither of them had mentioned it specifically. She always tried to avoid talking about the Atha’an Miere. Quite aside from all the sunken ships and dead, freeing damane was another death-penalty charge, and disgusting besides, in the Seanchan view, as bad as rape or molesting children. Of course, she had helped free some damane herself, though to her way of looking, that was among the least of her crimes. Still, she avoided that topic, too. There were quite a few subjects she held silent on.

“Are you certain about the Windfinders who were caught? I’ve heard talk about cutting off hands, or feet.” Mat swallowed a sour taste. He had seen men die, had killed men with his own hands. The Light send him mercy, he had killed a woman, once! Not even the darkest of those other men’s memories burned so hot as that, and a few of those were dark enough to need drowning in wine when they floated to the surface. But the thought of deliberately cutting off somebody’s hands curdled his stomach.

Egeanin’s head jerked, and for a moment he thought she would ignore his question. “Talk from Renna, I’ll wager,” she said, with a dismissive gesture. “Some sul’dam talk about that nonsense to frighten recalcitrant damane when they’re new-leashed, but nobody’s done it in, oh, six or seven hundred years. Not many, anyway, and people who can’t control their property without... mutilation... are sei’mosiev to start.” Her mouth twisted in loathing, though whether for mutilation or sei’mosiev was unclear.

“Shamed or not, they do it,” he snapped. Sei’mosiev went beyond being shamed, to a Seanchan, but he doubted that anyone who deliberately cut off a woman’s hand could be humiliated enough to kill themselves. “Is Suroth one of that ‘not many’?”

The Seanchan woman glared to match his and planted her fists on her hips, leaning forward with her feet astride as though she were on the deck of a ship and about to berate a fumble-witted sailor. “The High Lady Suroth doesn’t own these damane, you lump-brained farmer! They’re property of the Empress, may she live forever. Suroth might as well slit her own wrists straightaway as order something like that for Imperial damane. That’s even if she would; I’ve never heard of her mistreating her own. I’ll try to put this in terms you can understand. If your dog runs away, you don’t maim it. You switch the dog so it knows not to do that again, and you put it back in the kennel. Besides, damane are just too—”

“Too valuable,” Mat finished for her dryly. He had heard that till he was sick of it.

She disregarded his sarcasm, or maybe did not notice. In his experience, if a woman did not want to hear something, she could ignore it till you yourself started to doubt you had spoken. “You’re finally beginning to understand,” she drawled, nodding. “Those damane you’re so worried about probably don’t even have welts left by this time.” Her gaze went to the ships in the harbor, and slowly took on a look of loss, made deeper by the hardness of her face. Her thumbs ran across her fingertips. “You wouldn’t believe what my damane cost me,” she said in a quiet voice, “her and hiring the sul’dam for her. Worth every throne I paid, of course. Her name’s Serrisa. Well-trained, responsive. She’ll gorge herself on honeyed nuts, if you let her, but she never gets seasick or the sulks, the way some do. A pity I had to leave her in Cantorin. I suppose I’ll never see her again.” She sighed regretfully.

“I’m sure she misses you as much as you miss her,” Noal said, flashing a gap-toothed smile, and for all the world, he sounded sincere. Maybe he was. He contended that he had seen worse than damane and da’covale, for what that was worth.

Egeanin’s back stiffened, and she frowned as if she did not believe his sympathy. Or else she had just realized how she was staring at the ships in the harbor. Certainly, she turned away from the water very deliberately. “I gave orders that no one was to leave the wagons,” she said firmly. Likely, crewmen on her ships had jumped at that tone. She jerked her head away from the river as though she expected Mat and Noal to jump where she indicated, too.

“Did you, now?” Mat grinned, showing teeth. He could manage an insolent grin that sent most puffed-up fools into apoplexy. Egeanin was far from a fool, most times, but puffed-up she was. Ship captain and noblewoman. He did not know which was worse. Bah for both! “Well, I was about ready to head that way. Unless you’re not done fishing, Noal. We can wait here awhile, if you’re not.”

But the old man was already emptying the remaining silver-gray minnows out of his basket into the water. His hands had been broken badly, maybe more than once by their lumpy appearance, yet they were deft in winding his line around the bamboo pole. In the short time he had been fishing, he had caught nearly a dozen fish, the largest less than a foot long, strung through the gills on a looped reed, and he moved those to the basket before picking it up. He claimed that if he could find the right peppers, he was going to make a fish stew—from Shara, of all places! As well say from the moon!—a stew that would make Mat forget all about his hip. The way Noal went on about the peppers, Mat suspected any forgetting would be because he was focused on finding enough ale to cool his tongue.

Egeanin, waiting impatiently, was paying no attention to Mat’s grin, either, so he slipped an arm around her. If they were heading back, they might as well get started. She knocked his hand away from her shoulder. The woman made some maiden aunts he had known look like tavern girls.

“We’re supposed to be lovers, you and I,” he reminded her.

“There’s nobody here to see,” she growled.

“How many times do I have to tell you, Leilwin?” That was the name she was using. She claimed it was Taraboner. At any rate, it did not sound Seanchan. “If we don’t even hold hands unless we see somebody watching, we’re going to look a pretty strange pair of lovers to anybody we don’t see.”

She snorted in derision, yet she let him put his arm back around her, and slipped hers around him. But she gave him a warning stare at the same time.

Mat shook his head. She was crazy as a spring hare if she thought he enjoyed this. Most women had a little padding over their muscles, at least the women he liked, but hugging Egeanin was like hugging a fence post. Almost as hard, and definitely as stiff. He could not puzzle out what Domon saw in her. Maybe she had not given the Illianer any choice. She had bought the man, after all, same as buying a horse. Burn me, I’ll never understand these Seanchan, he thought. Not that he wanted to. The only thing was, he had to.

As they were turning away, he took one last glance back at the harbor, and almost wished he had not. Two small sailing craft broke through a wide wall of mist that was drifting slowly down the harbor. Drifting against the wind. Time to be gone and past time.

It was better than two miles from the river to the Great North Road, across rolling countryside covered in winter-brown grasses and weeds and dotted with clumps of vine-tangled bushes too thick to push through even with most of the leaves gone. The rises hardly deserved the name of hill, not for anyone who had climbed in the Sand Hills and the Mountains of Mist as a boy—there were gaps in his own memories, but Mat could remember some of that—yet before long, he was glad he had an arm around somebody. He had sat motionless on that bloody rock for too long. The throb in his hip had faded to a dull ache, but it still made him limp, and without some sort of support, he would have been staggering on the slopes. Not that he leaned on Egeanin, of course, but holding on helped steady him. The woman frowned at him as though she thought he was trying to take advantage.

“If you did as you were told,” she growled, “I wouldn’t need to carry you.”

He showed his teeth again, this time not trying to disguise it as a smile. The way Noal scampered along beside them easily, never missing a step despite balancing his basket of fish on his hip with one hand and carrying his fishing pole in the other, was embarrassing. For all he looked hard-worn, the old man was spry enough. Too spry by half, at times.

Their route slanted north of the Circuit of Heaven, with its long, open-ended tiers of polished stone seats where, in warmer weather, wealthy patrons sat on cushions beneath colorful canvas awnings to watch their horses race. Now the awnings and poles were stowed away, the horses all in their country stables, those the Seanchan had not taken, and the seats were empty save for a handful of small boys darting up and down the tiers in a game of keep-away. Mat was fond of horses, and racing, but his eyes slid past the Circuit toward Ebou Dar. Whenever he topped a rise, the city’s massive white ramparts were visible, deep enough that they supported a road encircling the city on top, and looking gave him an excuse to pause a moment. Fool woman! A scrap of a limp did not mean she was carrying him! He managed to keep a good temper, take the rough with the smooth and no complaining. Why could she not?

Inside the city white roofs and walls, white domes and spires, ringed in thin bands of color, gleamed in the gray morning light, a picture of serenity. He could not make out the gaps where buildings had burned to the ground. A long line of farmers’ high-wheeled ox-carts was trundling through the wide arched gateway that opened on the Great North Road, men and women on their way to the city markets with whatever they had left to sell this late in winter, and in their midst a merchant’s train of big, canvas-topped wagons behind six- and eight-horse teams, carrying goods from the Light knew where. Seven more trains, ranging from four wagons to ten, stood in line at the side of the road to wait for the gate guards to finish their inspections. Trade never stopped entirely while the sun shone, no matter who ruled a city, unless there was actual fighting. Sometimes it did not stop completely then. The stream of people flowing the other way was mostly Seanchan, soldiers in ordered ranks with their segmented armor painted in stripes and helmets that looked like the heads of huge insects, some marching and some mounted, nobles who were always mounted, wearing ornate cloaks, pleated riding dresses and lace veils, or voluminous trousers and long coats. Seanchan settlers were still departing the city, too, wagon upon wagon filled with farmers and craftsmen and the tools of their trades. The settlers had begun leaving as soon as they came off the ships, but it would be weeks before they were all gone. It was a peaceful scene, workaday and ordinary if you ignored what lay behind it, yet every time they reached a place where he could see the gates, his mind flashed back to six nights ago, and he was there again, at those same gates.

The storm had grown worse as they crossed the city from the Tarasin Palace. Rain fell by buckets, pounding the darkened city and slicking the paving stones under the horses’ hooves, and wind howled off the Sea of Storms, driving the rain like stones from slings and jerking at cloaks so that keeping at all dry was a lost cause. Clouds hid the moon, and the deluge seemed to soak up the light of the pole-lanterns carried by Blaeric and Fen, on foot ahead of the rest. Then they entered the long passageway through the city wall, and gained a bit of shelter, at least from the rain. The wind made the high-ceilinged tunnel keen like a flute. The gate guards were waiting just inside the far end of the passage, four of them also bearing pole-lanterns. A dozen more, half of them Seanchan, carried halberds that could strike at a man in the saddle or pull him out of it. Two Seanchan with their helmets off were peering from the lighted doorway of the guardhouse built into the white-plastered wall, and shifting shadows behind them told of others inside. Too many to fight past quietly, maybe too many to fight past at all. Not without everything going off like an Illuminator’s firework bursting in his hand.

The guards were not the danger, anyway, not the main danger. A tall, plump-faced woman in dark blue, her divided ankle-length skirts bearing red panels worked with silver lightning bolts, stepped past the men in the guardhouse door. A long silvery metal leash was coiled in the sul’dam’s left hand, the free end connecting her to the graying woman in a dark gray dress who followed her out with an eager grin. Mat had known they would be there. The Seanchan had sul’dam and damane at all the gates, now. There could even be another pair inside, or two. They did not mean to let one woman who could channel escape their nets. The silver foxhead medallion beneath his shirt lay cold against his chest; not the cold that signaled someone embracing the Source nearby, just the accumulated chill of the night and his flesh too icy to warm it, but he could not stop waiting for the other. Light, he was juggling fireworks tonight, with the fuses lit!

The guards might have been puzzled by a noblewoman leaving Ebou Dar in the middle of the night and that weather, with over a dozen servants and strings of packhorses indicating a journey of some distance, but Egeanin was of the Blood, her cloak embroidered in an eagle with spread black-and-white wings, and long fingers on her red riding gloves to accommodate her fingernails. Ordinary soldiers did not question what the Blood chose to do, even the low Blood. Which did not mean there were no formalities. Anyone was free to leave the city when they wished, but the Seanchan recorded the movement of damane, and three rode in the entourage, heads down and faces covered by the hoods of their gray cloaks, each linked to a mounted sul’dam by the silvery length of an a’dam.

The plump-faced sul’dam walked by them with barely a glance, strolling down the tunnel. Her damane peered intently at every woman they passed, though, sensing whether she could channel, and Mat held his breath when she paused beside the last mounted damane with a slight frown. Even with his luck, he would not bet against the Seanchan recognizing an Aes Sedai’s ageless face if they looked inside that hood. There were Aes Sedai held as damane, but what were the odds that all three of Egeanin’s would be? Light, what were the odds one of the low Blood would own three?

The plump-faced woman made a clicking sound, as you might to a pet dog, and twitched the a’dam, and the damane followed her on. They were looking for marath’damane trying to escape the leash, not damane. Mat still thought he might choke. The sound of dice rolling had started up again in his head, loud enough to rival the occasional rumble of distant thunder. Something was going to go wrong; he knew it.

The officer of the guards, a burly Seanchan with tilted eyes like a Saldaean but pale honey-brown skin, bowed courteously and invited Egeanin into the guardhouse, to have a cup of spiced wine while a clerk wrote down the information about the damane. Every guardhouse Mat had ever seen was a stark place, yet the lamplight glowing in the arrowslits made this one seem almost inviting. A pitcherplant probably looked inviting to a fly, too. He had been glad of the rain dripping from the hood of his cloak and running down his face. It disguised the sweat of nerves. He held one of his throwing knives, resting flat atop the long bundle draped in front of his saddle. With it lying flat like that, none of the soldiers should notice. He could feel the woman inside the cloth breathing under his hands, and his shoulders were knotted from waiting for her to cry out for help. Selucia kept her mount close to him, peering at him from the shelter of her hood with her golden braid tucked out of sight, never even glancing away when the sul’dam and damane walked by. A shout from Selucia would have put the weasel in the chicken run as much as one from Tuon. He thought the threat of the knife had held both women silent—they had to believe he was desperate enough or crazy enough to use it—but he still could not be sure. There was so much about night he could not be sure of, so much off-balance and askew.

He remembered holding his breath, wondering when someone would notice that the bundle he carried was richly embroidered and question why he was letting it get soaked with rain, wondering and cursing himself for grabbing a wall hanging because it had been close to hand. In memory, everything slowed. Egeanin stepped down, tossing her reins to Domon, who took them with a bow from his saddle. Domon’s hood was pushed back just enough to show that his head was shaved on one side and his remaining hair gathered in a braid that hung to his shoulder. Raindrops dripped from the stocky Illianer’s short beard, yet he managed the proper stiff-necked arrogance of a so’jhin, hereditary upper servant to one of the Blood and thus almost equal to the Blood. Definitely higher than any common soldier. Egeanin glanced back toward Mat and his burden, her face a frozen mask that could pass for hauteur if you did not know she was horrified by what they were doing. The tall sul’dam and her damane turned briskly back up the tunnel, finished with their inspection. Vanin, just behind Mat leading one of the strings of packhorses and as always sitting his horse like a sack of suet, leaned from his saddle and spat. Mat did not know why that hung in his memory, but it did. Vanin spat, and trumpets sounded, thin and sharp in the distance far behind them. From south of the city, where men had been planning to fire Seanchan supplies stored along the Bay Road.

The officer of the guard hesitated at the sound of the trumpets, but suddenly a bell pealed loudly in the city itself, then another, and then it seemed hundreds were clanging alarm in the night as the black sky split with more lightning than any storm had ever birthed, silver-blue streaks stabbing down inside the walls. They bathed the tunnel in flickering light. That was when the shouting started, amid the explosions back in the city, and the screaming.

For a moment, Mat had cursed the Windfinders for moving sooner than he had been promised. But the dice in his head had stopped, he realized. Why? It made him want to curse all over again, but there was no time for even that. In the next instant the officer was hurriedly urging Egeanin back into her saddle and on her way, hurriedly shouting orders to the men boiling out of the guardhouse, directing one into the city at a run to see what the alarm was while he arrayed the rest against any threat from inside or out. The plump-faced woman ran to place herself and her damane with the soldiers, along with another pair of women linked by an a’dam, who came running from the guardhouse. And Mat and the others galloped out into the storm, carrying with them three Aes Sedai, two of them escaped damane, and the kidnapped heir to the Seanchan Crystal Throne, while behind them a far worse storm broke over Ebou Dar. Lightning bolts more numerous than blades of grass... .

With a shiver, Mat pulled himself back to the present. Egeanin scowled at him, and gave him an exaggerated pull. “Lovers arm-in-arm don’t hurry,” he muttered. “They... stroll.” She sneered. Domon had to be blinded by love. That, or he had taken too many thumps on the head.

The worst was over and done, in any case. Mat hoped that getting out of the city had been the worst. He had not felt the dice since. They were always a bad sign. His backtrail was as muddled as he could manage, and he was sure it would take someone as lucky as he to separate the gold from the dross. The Seekers had been on Egeanin’s scent before that night, and she would be wanted on charges of stealing damane now, as well, but the authorities would expect her to be riding as hard as she could and already leagues from Ebou Dar, not sitting just outside the city. Nothing except a coincidence of timing connected her to Tuon. Or to Mat, and that was important. Tylin certainly would have leveled her own charges against him—no woman was going to forgive a man tying her up and shoving her under a bed, even when she had suggested it—yet with any luck, he was beneath suspicion for anything else that had happened that night. With any luck, no one except Tylin had a thought for him at all. Trussing a queen like a pig for market would be enough to get a man dead usually, but it had to count for moldy onions alongside the Daughter of the Nine Moons disappearing, and what could Tylin’s Toy have to do with that? It still irritated him that he had been seen as a hanger-on—worse, a pet!—but there were advantages.

He thought he was safe—from the Seanchan, anyway—yet one point worried him like a thorn buried in his heel. Well, several did, most growing out of Tuon herself, but this one had a particularly long point. Tuon’s disappearance should have been as shocking as the sun vanishing at noon, but no alarm had been raised. None! No announcements of rewards or offers of ransom, no hot-eyed soldiers searching every wagon and cart within miles, galloping through the countryside to root out every cubbyhole and niche where a woman might be hidden. Those old memories told him something of hunting for kidnapped royalty, yet except for the hangings and the burned ships in the harbor, from the outside Ebou Dar seemed unchanged from the day before the kidnapping. Egeanin alleged that the search would be in utter secrecy, that many of the Seanchan themselves might still not know Tuon was missing. Her explanation involved the shock to the Empire and ill omens for the Return and the loss of sei’taer, and she sounded as if she believed every word, but Mat refused to buy a penny’s worth. The Seanchan were strange folk, but no one could be that strange. The silence of Ebou Dar made his skin prickle. He felt a trap in that silence. When they reached the Great North Road, he was grateful that the city was hidden behind the low hills.

The road was a broad highway, a major avenue of trade, wide enough for five or six wagons abreast uncrowded, with a surface of dirt and clay that hundreds of years of use had packed nearly as hard as the occasional ancient paving stone that stuck an edge or corner inches into the air. Mat and Egeanin hurried across to the verge on the other side with Noal dogging their heels, between a merchant’s train rumbling toward the city, guarded by a scar-faced woman and ten hard-eyed men in leather vests covered with metal discs, and a string of the settlers’ oddly shaped wagons, rising to peaks at the ends, that were heading north, some pulled by horses or mules, others by oxen. Clustered between the wagons, barefoot boys used switches to herd four-horned goats with long black hair and big, dewlapped white cows. One man at the rear of the wagons, in baggy blue breeches and a round red cap, was leading a massive humpbacked bull by a thick cord tied to a ring in its nose. Except for his clothes, he could have been from the Two Rivers. He eyed Mat and the others, walking in the same direction, as if he might speak, then shook his head and plodded on without looking at them again. Contending with Mat’s limp, they were not moving fast, and the settlers forged ahead slowly but steadily.

Hunch-shouldered and clutching the scarf beneath her chin with her free hand, Egeanin let out a breath and loosened fingers that had begun to grip Mat’s side almost painfully. After a moment, she straightened and glared at the farmer’s departing back as though she were ready to chase after him and box his ears and his bull’s. If that were not bad enough, once the farmer was twenty or so paces away, she shifted her scowl to a company of Seanchan soldiers marching down the middle of the road at a pace that would soon overtake the settlers, perhaps two hundred men in a column four abreast followed by a motley collection of mule-drawn wagons covered with tightly lashed canvas. The middle of the road was left free for military traffic. Half a dozen well-mounted officers in thin-plumed helmets that hid all but their eyes rode at the column’s head, looking neither left nor right, red cloaks spread neatly over their horses’ cruppers. The banner following on the officers’ heels was marked with what looked like a stylized silver arrowhead, or maybe an anchor, crossed by a long arrow and a jagged lightning bolt in gold, with script and numerals below that Mat could not make out as gusts swept the banner this way and that. The men on the supply wagons wore dark blue coats and breeches and square red-and-blue caps, but the soldiers were even more showy than most Seanchan, their segmented armor striped in blue banded at the bottom with silvery white and red banded with golden yellow, their helmets painted in all four colors so they resembled the faces of fearsome spiders. A large badge with the anchor—Mat thought it must be an anchor—and arrow and lightning was fastened to the front of each helmet, and every man except the officers carried a double-curve bow at his side, with a bristling quiver at his belt balancing a short-sword.

“Ship’s archers,” Egeanin grumbled, glowering at the soldiers. Her free hand had left her scarf, but it was still clenched in a fist. “Tavern brawlers. They always cause problems when they’re left ashore too long.”

They had a well-trained look, to Mat. Anyway, he had never heard of soldiers who did not get in fights, especially when they were drunk or bored, and bored soldiers tended to get drunk. A corner of his mind wondered how far those bows would carry, but it was an absent thought. He wanted nothing to do with any Seanchan soldiers. If he had his way, he would have nothing to do with any soldiers ever again. But his luck never ran that far, it seemed. Fate and luck were different, unfortunately. Two hundred paces at most, he decided. A good crossbow would outrange them, or any Two Rivers bow.

“We’re not in a tavern,” he said through his teeth, “and they’re not brawling now. So let’s not start one just because you were afraid a farmer would speak to you.” Her jaw set, and she shot him a look hard enough to crack his skull. It was the truth, though. She was fearful of opening her mouth near anyone who might recognize her accent. A wise precaution, in his book, but everything seemed to grate at her. “We’ll have a bannerman over here asking questions if you keep glaring at them. Women around Ebou Dar are famous for being demure,” he lied. What could she know of local customs?

She gave him a sidelong frown—maybe she was trying to figure out what demure meant—but she stopped grimacing at the archers. She just looked ready to bite instead of hit.

“That fellow’s dark as an Atha’an Miere,” Noal muttered absently, staring at the passing soldiers. “Dark as a Sharan. But I’d swear he has blue eyes. I’ve seen the like before, but where?” Trying to rub his temples, he almost struck himself on the head with the bamboo fishing pole, and he took a step as though he meant to ask the fellow where he had been born.

With a lurch, Mat caught the old man’s sleeve. “We’re going back to the show, Noal. Now. We should never have left.”

“I told you that,” Egeanin said with a sharp nod.

Mat groaned, but there was nothing for it but to keep walking. Oh, it was way past time to be gone. He only hoped he had not left it too late.

CHAPTER 2
Two Captains

About two miles north of the city a wide blue banner stretched between two tall poles rippled in the wind, proclaiming Valan Luca’s Grand Traveling Show and Magnificent Display of Marvels and Wonders in brilliant red letters large enough to be read from the road, perhaps a hundred paces east. For those unable to read, it at least indicated the location of something out of the ordinary. This was The Largest Traveling Show in the World, so the banner claimed. Luca claimed a great many things, but Mat thought he must be telling the truth about that. The show’s canvas wall, ten feet high and tightly pegged at the bottom, enclosed as much ground as a good-sized village.

The people streaming by looked toward the banner curiously, but the farmers and merchants had their work ahead of them and the settlers their future, and none turned aside. Thick ropes fastened to posts set in the ground were meant to herd crowds to the wide, arched entrance just behind the banner, but there was no one waiting to get in, not at this hour. Of late, few came at any hour. The fall of Ebou Dar had brought only a slight drop in attendance, once people realized the city would not be looted and they did not have to flee for their lives, but with the Return, all those ships and settlers, nearly everyone decided to hold on to their coin against more pressing needs. Two bulky men, huddling in cloaks that might have come from a ragbag, were on duty beneath the banner to keep out anyone who wanted to peek around without paying, but even those were in short supply, nowadays. The pair, one with a crooked nose above a thick mustache and the other missing an eye, were squatting on the dirt, tossing dice.

Surprisingly, Petra Anhill, the show’s strongman, stood watching the two horse-handlers play, arms larger than most men’s legs folded across his chest. He was shorter than Mat, but at least twice as wide, his shoulders straining the heavy blue coat his wife made him wear against the cold. Petra seemed engrossed in the dicing, but the man did not gamble, not so much as pitching pennies. He and his wife, Clarine, a dog trainer, saved every coin they could spare, and Petra needed small excuse to talk at length about the inn they intended to buy one day. Even more surprising, Clarine was at his side, enveloped in a dark cloak and apparently as absorbed in the gaming as he.

Petra glanced warily over his shoulder into the camp when he saw Mat and Egeanin approaching arm-in-arm, which made Mat frown. People looking over their shoulders was never good. Clarine’s plump brown face broke into a warm smile, though. Like most women in the show, she thought he and Egeanin were romantic. The bent-nosed horse-handler, a heavy-shouldered Tairen named Col, leered as he scooped up the wager, a few coppers. No one but Domon could see Egeanin as pretty, but to some fools, nobility bestowed beauty. Or money did, and a noblewoman must be rich. A few thought any noblewoman who abandoned her husband for the likes of Mat Cauthon might be open to leaving him, too, and bringing her money with her. That was the story Mat and the others had put around to explain why they were hiding from the Seanchan: a cruel husband and a lovers’ flight. Everyone had heard that sort of tale, from gleemen or books if seldom real life, often enough to accept it. Col kept his head down, though. Egeanin—Leilwin—had already drawn her belt knife on a sword-juggler, a too-handsome fellow who had been overly suggestive in asking her to share a cup of wine in his wagon, and no one doubted she would have used the blade if he had pressed his suit an inch further.

As soon as Mat reached the strongman, Petra said quietly, “There are Seanchan soldiers talking to Luca, about twenty of them. The officer’s talking with him, leastwise.” He did not sound frightened, but worry creased his forehead, and he laid a protective hand on his wife’s shoulder. Clarine’s smile faded, and she raised one hand to rest atop his. They trusted Luca’s judgment, after a fashion, yet they knew the risk they were running. Or thought they did. The risk they believed in was bad enough.

“What do they want?” Egeanin demanded, pushing free of Mat, before he could crack his teeth. In fact, no one waited for him.

“Hold these for me,” Noal said, handing his pole and basket to the one-eyed man, who gaped up at him. Straightening, Noal slipped a knobbly hand beneath his coat, where he kept two long-bladed knives. “Can we reach our horses?” he asked Petra. The strongman eyed him doubtfully. Mat was not the only one unsure whether Noal still possessed all his wits.

“They don’t seem interested in searching,” Clarine said hastily, making a hint of a curtsy to Egeanin. Everyone was supposed to pretend Mat and the others were part of the show, but few managed to carry it off with Egeanin. “The officer’s been in Luca’s wagon for a good half-hour, but the soldiers have been standing by their horses all that time.”

“I don’t think they’re here about you,” Petra added respectfully. Again, to Egeanin. Why should he be different? Probably practicing to welcome nobles to that inn. “We just didn’t want you to be surprised or worried, seeing them. I’m sure Luca will send them off with no trouble.” Despite his tone, the creases remained in his forehead. Most men became upset if their wives ran off, and a nobleman could make others bear the brunt of his ire. A traveling show, strangers just passing through, made a particularly easy target without added complications. “You don’t have to worry about anybody talking out of turn, my Lady.” Glancing at the horse handlers, Petra added, “Does she, Col?” Bent-nose shook his head, his eyes on the dice he was bouncing on his palm. He was a big man, but not as big as Petra, and the strongman could straighten horseshoes with his bare hands.

“Everybody likes a chance to spit on a noble’s boots now and then,” the one-eyed fellow mumbled, peering into the basket of fish. He was almost as tall and wide-shouldered as Col, but his face was all leathery wrinkles, and he had even fewer teeth than Noal. Glancing at Egeanin, he ducked his head and added, “Begging your pardon, Lady. ’Sides, this way we all get a little coin, which there ain’t been much of lately. Right, Col? Anybody talks, them Seanchan’ll take us all up, maybe hang us like they did them Sea Folk. Or put us to work cleaning them canals the other side of the harbor.” Horse handlers did whatever needed doing around the show, from mucking the horselines and cleaning animals’ cages to erecting and taking down the canvas wall, but he shuddered as though digging out silted canals in the Rahad was a worse prospect than hanging.

“Did I say anything about talking?” Col protested, spreading his hands. “I just asked how long we’re going to sit here, that’s all. I just asked when we’re going to see some of this coin.”

“We sit here as long as I say sit.” It was remarkable how hard Egeanin could make that drawl sound without raising her voice, like a blade sliding free of the scabbard. “You see your coin when we reach our destination. There will be a little something extra for those who serve me faithfully. And a cold grave for anyone who thinks on betrayal.” Col pulled his much-patched cloak tight and widened his eyes trying to look indignant, or maybe innocent, but he just appeared to be hoping she would come close enough for him to filch her purse.

Mat ground his teeth. For one thing, that was his gold she was promising with such a free hand. She had her own, but not near enough for this. More importantly, she was trying to take charge again. Light, except for him, she would still be in Ebou Dar scheming to avoid the Seekers, if not already being put to the question. Except for him, she would never have thought of staying close to Ebou Dar to throw off pursuit, or found a hiding place with Luca’s show. But why were soldiers there? The Seanchan would have sent a hundred men, a thousand, for a vague suspicion of Tuon’s presence. If they suspected the Aes Sedai... No; Petra and Clarine did not know they were helping hide Aes Sedai, but they would have mentioned sul’dam and damane, and the soldiers would not be hunting sisters without them. He fingered the foxhead through his coat. He wore that waking and sleeping, and it might give him a little warning.

He never considered trying for the horses, and not just because Col and a dozen more like him would go running to the Seanchan before he was well out of sight. They had no particular animosity toward him or Egeanin that he knew—even Rumann, the sword-juggler, seemed to have settled in happily with a contortionist named Adria—but some folks would not resist the temptation of a little more gold, either. In any case, no warning dice tumbled in his head. And there were people inside those canvas walls he could not leave behind.

“If they’re not searching, then we have nothing to worry about,” he said confidently. “But thanks for the warning, Petra. I’ve never liked surprises.” The strongman made a small gesture as if to say it was nothing, but Egeanin and Clarine looked at Mat as though startled to find him there. Even Col and the one-eyed lout blinked at him. It took an effort to stop short of gritting his teeth again. “I’ll just wander near Luca’s wagon and see what I can see. Leilwin, you and Noal find Olver and stay with him.” They liked the boy, everyone did, and that would keep them out of his hair. He could eavesdrop better alone. And if they had to run, maybe Egeanin and Noal could help get the boy out, at least. The Light send it did not come to that. He could see nothing but disaster in it.

“Well, I suppose nobody lives forever,” Noal sighed, retrieving his bamboo pole and basket. Burn him, but the fellow could make a colicky goat seem cheerful! Petra’s frown certainly deepened. Married men always seemed to be worried, one reason Mat was in no hurry himself. As Noal vanished around the corner of the canvas wall, the one-eyed man watched the fish go regretfully. He appeared to be another without a full set of wits. He probably had a wife somewhere.

Mat pulled his cap almost down to his eyes. Still no dice. He tried not to think of how many times he had nearly had his throat slit or his skull split without any dice. But surely they would have been there if there was any real danger. Of course they would.

He had not taken three steps inside the entrance before Egeanin caught up to him and slipped her arm around his waist. He stopped in his tracks, eyeing her balefully. She resisted his orders the way a trout fought the hook, but this went beyond stubborn. “What do you think you’re doing? What if this Seanchan officer recognizes you?” That seemed as likely as Tylin herself walking into the show, but anything that might make her leave was worth grabbing.

“What are the chances this fellow is anyone I know?” she scoffed. “I don’t have...” her face twisted for an instant, “didn’t have... many friends this side of the ocean, and none in Ebou Dar.” She touched an end of the black wig over her bosom. “Anyway, in this, my own mother wouldn’t recognize me.” Her voice turned bleak toward the end.

He was going to chip a tooth if he kept on clenching his jaw. Standing there arguing with her would be worse than useless, but the way she had stared at those Seanchan soldiers was fresh in his mind. “Don’t glare at anybody,” he warned her. “Don’t even look at anybody.”

“I’m a demure Ebou Dari woman.” She made it sound a challenge. “You can do all the talking.” She made that into a warning. Light! When a woman was not making everything smooth, she made things very rough indeed, and Egeanin never made anything smooth. He was definitely in danger of chipping a tooth.

Beyond the entrance, the show’s main street meandered among wagons like those the Tinkers used, little houses on wheels with the wagon shafts lifted against the drivers’ seats, and walled tents often as large as small houses. Most of the wagons were brightly painted, every shade of red or green, yellow or blue, and many of the tents were just as colorful, a few even striped. Here and there wooden platforms, where entertainers could perform, stood beside the street, their colored bunting beginning to look a bit grubby. The broad expanse of dirt, near thirty paces wide and beaten flat by thousands of feet, really was a street, one of several that wound through the show. The wind whipped away faint gray streamers of smoke rising from the tin chimneys that stuck from up from the roofs of the wagons, and from some tents. Most of the showfolk were probably at breakfast if not still in bed. They rose late, as a rule—a rule Mat approved—and no one would want to eat sitting around a cook fire outside in this cold. The only person he saw was Aludra, the sleeves of her dark green dress pushed up her forearms, grinding something with a bronze mortar and pestle on a table that folded down from the side of her vivid blue wagon, just around the corner on one of the narrower side streets.

Intent on her work, the slender Taraboner did not see Egeanin and Mat. He could not help looking at her, though. With her dark hair in thin, beaded braids that hung to her waist, Aludra was probably the most exotic of Luca’s marvels. He advertised her as an Illuminator, and unlike many of the other performers and marvels, she really was what Luca claimed, though Luca probably did not believe it himself. Mat wondered what she was grinding. And whether it might explode. She had promised to reveal the secret of fireworks if he could answer a riddle, but he had not found a glimmer, so far. He would, though. One way or another.

Egeanin poked a hard finger into his ribs. “We’re supposed to be lovers, as you keep reminding me,” she growled. “Who’s going to believe it if you stare at that woman as though you’re hungry?”

Mat grinned lasciviously. “I always look at pretty women, haven’t you noticed?” Adjusting her head scarf with a little more vigor than usual, she gave a disparaging grunt, and he was satisfied. Her prudish streak came in handy now and then. Egeanin was on the run for her life, but she was still Seanchan, and she already knew more about him than he liked. He was not about to trust her with all of his secrets. Even the ones he did not know yet.

Luca’s wagon sat in the very middle of the show’s camp, the most favored position, as far as possible from the smells of the animal cages and horselines situated along the canvas walls. The wagon was garish even compared to the others in the show, a red-and-blue thing that shone like the finest lacquerwork, every surface spotted with golden comets and stars. The phases of the moon, in silver, ran all the way around just below the roofline. Even the tin chimney was painted in red and blue rings. A Tinker would have blushed. To one side of the wagon two ranks of helmeted Seanchan soldiers stood stiffly beside their horses, green-tasseled lances slanted at exactly the same angle. One of the men held the reins of an extra mount, a fine dun gelding with strong haunches and good ankles. The soldiers’ blue-and-green armor appeared drab alongside Luca’s wagon.

Mat was unsurprised to see he was not the only one interested in the Seanchan. A dark stocking cap covering his shaved head, Bayle Domon was squatting on his heels with his back against one wheel of the green wagon that belonged to Petra and Clarine, about thirty paces beyond the soldiers. Clarine’s dogs lay under the wagon, a motley collection of smallish animals sleeping huddled together. The thick-bodied Illianer was pretending to whittle, but all he had produced was a small pile of shavings at his feet. Mat wished the fellow would grow a mustache to hide his upper lip or else shave off the rest of his beard. Someone might connect an Illianer to Egeanin. Blaeric Negina, a tall fellow leaning against the wagon as though keeping Domon company, had not hesitated to remove his Shienaran topknot to avoid Seanchan notice, though he ran a hand over the black bristle growing on his head about as often as Egeanin checked her wig. Maybe he should wear a cap.

In their dark coats with frayed cuffs and well-traveled boots, both men could pass for showfolk, maybe horse-handlers, except to other showfolk. They were watching the Seanchan while trying to seem not to, but Blaeric was the more successful, as might be expected from a Warder. His full attention appeared to be on Domon, except for an occasional glance at the soldiers, as casual as could be. Domon scowled at the Seanchan when he was not glaring at the lump of wood in his hand, as though ordering it to turn into a neat carving. The man had taken being so’jhin entirely too much to heart.

Mat was trying to figure out how to sneak close to Luca’s wagon and eavesdrop unseen by the soldiers when the door at the back of the wagon opened and a pale-haired Seanchan marched down the steps, planting a helmet with a thin blue plume on his head as his boot touched the ground. Luca appeared behind him, resplendent in scarlet embroidered with golden sunbursts, bowing with elaborate flourishes as he followed the officer. Luca owned at least two dozen coats, most red and each gaudier than the last. It was a good thing his wagon was the largest in the show, or he would not have had room for them all.

Ignoring Luca, the Seanchan officer stepped up onto his gelding, adjusted his sword, and barked orders that sent his men flowing into their saddles and forming a column of twos that moved off at a slow walk toward the entrance. Luca stood watching them leave with a fixed smile on his face, poised for another bow if any looked back.

Mat stayed well to the side of the street and let his mouth hang open, affecting to gape in wonder as the soldiers rode by. Not that any of them so much as glanced his way—the officer stared straight ahead and so did the soldiers behind him—but no one ever paid any mind to a country yokel, or remembered one.

To his surprise, Egeanin studied the ground in front of her toes, clutching the scarf knotted beneath her chin, until the last horseman passed. Lifting her head to look after them, she pursed her lips for a moment. “It seems I do know that boy,” she drawled softly. “I carried him to Falme on Fearless. His servant died, mid-voyage, and he thought he could use one of my crew. I had to put him straight. You’d have though he was of the Blood, the fuss he put up.”

“Blood and bloody ashes,” Mat breathed. How many other people had she gotten crosswise, fixing her face in their minds? Egeanin being Egeanin, probably hundreds. And he had been letting her walk around with just a wig and a change of clothes for disguise! Hundreds? Thousands, more likely. She could irritate a brick.

In any case, the officer was gone now. Mat exhaled slowly. His luck really was still with him. At times he thought that was all that kept him from bawling like a baby. He headed for Luca to find out what the soldiers had wanted.

Domon and Blaeric reached Luca as quickly as he and Egeanin did, and the scowl on Domon’s round face deepened as he stared at Mat’s arm around Egeanin’s shoulder. The Illianer understood the necessity for the pretense, or said he did, yet he seemed to believe they could carry it off without so much as touching hands. Mat removed his arm from her—there was nothing to carry off here; Luca knew the truth; of everything—and Egeanin started to release him, too, yet after a look at Domon, she tightened her grip on Mat’s waist instead, all without the slightest change of expression. Domon continued to scowl, but at the ground, now. Mat decided he would understand the Seanchan long before he understood women. Or Illianers, for that matter.

“Horses,” Luca growled almost before Mat stopped walking. His frown took in all of them, but he focused most of his anger on Mat. A little the taller, Luca stretched to stare down at Mat. “That’s what he wanted. I showed him the warrant exempting me from the horse lottery, signed by the High Lady Suroth herself, but was he impressed? It didn’t matter to him that I rescued a high-ranking Seanchan.” The woman had not been high-ranking, and he had not so much rescued her as given her a way to travel as a hired performer, but Luca always exaggerated to his own advantage. “I don’t know how long that exemption is really good for, anyway. The Seanchan are desperate for horses. They might take it back any day!” His face was turning almost as red as his coat, and he jabbed a finger at Mat repeatedly. “You’re going to get my horses taken! How do I move my show with no horses? Answer me that, if you can. I was ready to leave as soon as I saw that madness in the harbor, until you twisted my arm. You’re going to get my head cut off! I could be a hundred miles from here, if not for you, riding in out of the night and snaring me in your crazy schemes! I’m not earning a penny here! There haven’t been enough patrons the last three days to pay for feeding the animals one day! Half a day! I should have left a month ago! More! I should have!”

Mat almost laughed as Luca ran down into splutters. Horses. That was all; just horses. Besides, the notion that the show’s heavy-laden wagons could cover a hundred miles in five days was as ludicrous as Luca’s wagon. The man could have gone a month ago, two months, except for wanting to eke every copper he could out of Ebou Dar and its Seanchan conquerors. And as for talking him into staying, six nights past, that had been as easy as falling out of bed.

Instead of laughing, Mat put a hand on Luca’s shoulder. The fellow was vain as a peacock, and greedy besides, but there was no point making him angrier than he already was. “If you’d left that night, Luca, you think nobody would have gotten suspicious? You would have had Seanchan tearing your wagons apart before you made two leagues. You could say I saved you from that.” Luca glowered. Some people just could not see beyond their own noses. “Anyway, you can stop worrying. As soon as Thom returns from the city, we can put as many miles behind us as you want.”

Luca leaped so suddenly that Mat stepped back in alarm, but all the man did was caper in a little circle laughing. Domon goggled at him, and even Blaeric stared. Sometimes, Luca seemed a flat bull-goose fool.

Luca had barely begun his dance when Egeanin shoved Mat away from her. “As soon as Merrilin returns? I gave orders no one was to leave!” Her glare swung between him and Luca in cold fury, a cold that burned. “I expect my orders to be obeyed!”

Luca stopped cavorting abruptly and eyed her sideways, then suddenly made her a bow with so many flourishes you could practically see the cloak. You could almost see the embroidery on the cloak! He thought he had a way with a women, Luca did. “You command, my sweet Lady, and I leap to obey.” Coming upright, he shrugged apologetically. “But Master Cauthon has gold, and I fear gold commands my first obedience.” Mat’s chest full of gold coins in this very wagon had been all the arm-twisting needed to convince him. Maybe Mat being ta’veren had helped, but for enough gold, Valan Luca would help kidnap the Dark One.

Egeanin drew a deep breath, ready to berate Luca further, but the man turned his back and went scampering up the steps into his wagon shouting, “Latelle! Latelle! We must roust everybody out immediately! We’re leaving at last, the minute Merrilin returns! The Light be praised!”

A moment later, he was back again, dashing back down the short stair followed by his wife drawing a black velvet cloak, sewn with glittering spangles, around herself. A stern-faced woman, she wrinkled her nose at Mat as though he had a bad smell and gave Egeanin a look that likely made her trained bears climb trees. Latelle disliked the idea of a woman running away from her husband even when she knew it was a lie. Luckily, she seemed to worship Luca for some reason, and she liked gold nearly as well as he did. Luca ran to the nearest wagon and began pounding on the door, and Latelle did the same at the next.

Not waiting around to watch, Mat hurried off down one of the side streets. More of an alley compared to the main street, it wound among the same sort of wagons and tents, all shut up tight against the cold, with smoke streaming from the metal chimneys. There were no platforms for performers here, but lines for drying laundry hung between some of the wagons, and here and there wooden toys lay scattered on the ground. This street was for living only, the narrowness meant to discourage outsiders.

He moved quickly despite his hip—he had walked most of the ache out—but he had not gone ten steps before Egeanin and Domon caught up to him. Blaeric had vanished, probably gone to tell the sisters they were still safe and could finally leave. The Aes Sedai, masquerading as servants sick with worry that their mistress’s husband would catch them, were fed up with being confined to their wagon, not to mention fed up with sharing with the sul’dam. Mat had made them share, so the Aes Sedai could watch the sul’dam while the sul’dam kept the Aes Sedai out of his hair. Still Mat was glad Blaeric had taken away the necessity for him to visit that wagon again. One or another of the sisters had summoned him four or five times a day since their escape from the city, and he went when he could not avoid it, but it was never a pleasant experience.

Egeanin did not put her arm around him this time. She strode at his side staring straight ahead, not bothering to check her wig, for once. Domon lumbered behind like a bear, muttering under his breath in his heavy Illianer accent. The stocking cap exposed the fact that his dark beard stopped abruptly at the middle of each ear, with only stubble above. It made him look... unfinished.

“Two captains on one ship make sure course for disaster,” Egeanin drawled with overdone patience. Her understanding smile looked as if it hurt her face.

“We aren’t on a ship,” Mat replied.

“The principle’s the same, Cauthon! You are a farmer. I know you’re a good man in a tight spot.” Egeanin shot a dark look over her shoulder at Domon. He was the one who had brought her and Mat together, back when she thought she was getting a hired man. “But this situation needs judgment and experience. We’re in dangerous waters, and you have no knowledge of command.”

“More than you might think,” he told her dryly. He could have spun out a list of the battles he remembered commanding, but only an historian would recognize most of them, and maybe not even an historian. No one would believe it, anyway. He certainly would not if someone else had made that claim. “Shouldn’t you and Domon be getting ready? You wouldn’t want to leave anything behind.” Everything she owned was already stowed away in the wagon she and Mat shared with Domon—not a comfortable arrangement, that—but he quickened his step, hoping she would take the hint. Besides, he saw his destination ahead.

The bright blue wall-tent, crowded between a virulent yellow wagon and an emerald green one, was barely large enough to hold three cots, but providing shelter for everyone he brought out of Ebou Dar had required bribes to make people move and more bribes to make others let them in. What he had been able to hire was what the owners were willing to let him have. At rates suitable for a good inn. Juilin, a dark compact man with short black hair, was sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of the tent with Olver, a thin little boy, if not so skinny as when Mat first saw him, and short for ten, the age he claimed. Both coatless despite the wind, they were playing Snakes and Foxes on a board the boy’s dead father had drawn for him on a piece of red cloth. Tossing the dice, Olver counted the pips carefully and considered his move along the spiderweb of black lines and arrows. The Tairen thief-catcher was paying less attention to the game. He sat up straight at the sight of Mat.

Abruptly, Noal darted around from the rear of the tent, breathing hard as if he had been running. Juilin glanced up in surprise at the old man, and Mat frowned. He had told Noal to come straight here. Where had he gone instead? Noal looked at him expectantly, not with any guilt or embarrassment, just eager to hear what Mat had to say.

“You know about the Seanchan?” Juilin asked, turning his attention to Mat, too.

A shadow moved inside the tent’s entry flaps, and a dark-haired woman, seated on the end of one of the cots with an old gray cloak wrapped around her, leaned forward to rest a hand on Juilin’s arm. And to give Mat a wary look. Thera was pretty, if you liked a mouth that always seemed to be pouting, and it seemed that Juilin did, from the way he smiled at her reassuringly and patted her hand. She was also Amathera Aelfdene Casmir Lounault, Panarch of Tarabon and the next thing to a queen. At least, she had been, once. Juilin had known that, and so had Thom, yet no one thought to tell Mat until they reached the show. He supposed it hardly mattered, alongside everything else. She answered faster to Thera than to Amathera, she made no demands, except on Juilin’s time, and there seemed little chance anyone would recognize her here. In any case, Mat hoped she felt more than gratitude for being rescued, because Juilin certainly felt more for her. Who was to say a dethroned panarch could not fall in love with a thief-catcher? Stranger things had happened. Though he was not sure he could name one, offhand.

“They just wanted to see the warrant for Luca’s horses,” he said, and Juilin nodded, visibly relaxing a little.

“As well they didn’t count the horselines.” The warrant listed the exact number of horses Luca was allowed to keep. The Seanchan could be generous with their rewards, but given their need for mounts and wagon teams, they were not about to hand anyone a license to set up horse trading. “At best, they would have taken the extra. At worst...” The thief-catcher shrugged. Another cheerful soul.

With a gasp, Thera suddenly pulled her cloak tighter and jerked back into the depths of the tent. Juilin looked behind Mat, his eyes going hard, and the Tairen could match the Warders when it came to hard. Egeanin did not seem to catch hints, and she was glaring at the tent. Domon stood beside her with his arms folded, sucking his teeth in thought or forced patience.

“Get your tent packed up, Sandar,” Egeanin ordered. “The show is leaving as soon as Merrilin returns.” Her jaw tightened, and she did not quite glare at Mat. Not quite. “Make sure your... woman... doesn’t give any trouble.” Most lately, Thera had been a servant, da’covale, the property of the High Lady Suroth, until Juilin stole her away. To Egeanin, stealing da’covale was almost as bad as freeing damane.

“Can I ride Wind?” Olver exclaimed, bounding to his feet. “Can I, Mat? Can I, Leilwin?” Egeanin actually smiled at him. Mat had yet to see her smile at anyone else, even Domon.

“Not yet,” Mat said. Not until they were far enough from Ebou Dar that no one was likely to remember the gray winning races with a small boy on his back. “In a few days, maybe. Juilin, will you tell the others? Blaeric already knows, so the sisters are taken care of.”

Juilin did not waste time, aside from ducking inside the tent to reassure Thera. She seemed to need reassuring frequently. When he came out, carrying a dark Tairen coat that was beginning to show wear, he told Olver to put the game away and help Thera with the packing until he returned, then settled his flat-topped conical red hat on his head and started off, shrugging into the coat. He never so much as glanced at Egeanin. She considered him a thief, offensive in itself to a thief-catcher, and the Tairen had no love for her, either.

Mat started to ask Noal where he had been, but the old man darted nimbly after Juilin, calling over his shoulder that he would help let the others know the show was leaving. Well, two could spread the word faster than one—Vanin and the four surviving Redarms shared a crowded tent on one side of the show, while Noal himself shared another with Thom and the two serving men, Lopin and Nerim, on the opposite side—and the question could wait. Probably, he had just delayed to put his precious fish somewhere safe. In any case, the question suddenly seemed unimportant.

The noise of people shouting for horse handlers to bring their teams, and others demanding at the top of their lungs to know what was happening, was beginning to fill the camp. Adria, a slim woman holding a flowered green robe around her, came running up in bare feet and vanished into the yellow wagon, where the other four contortionists lived. Somebody in the green wagon bellowed hoarsely that people were trying to sleep. A handful of performers’ children, some performers themselves, dashed by, and Olver looked up from folding the game. That was his most prized possession, but if not for that, he plainly would have gone after them. It was going to take some time yet before the show was ready to travel, but that was not what made Mat groan. He had just heard those bloody dice start rattling in his head again.

CHAPTER 3
A Fan of Colors

Mat did not know whether to curse or weep. With the soldiers gone and Ebou Dar about to be left in his dust, there seemed no reason for the dice, but there never was a bloody reason he could see until it was too late. Whatever was coming might lie days in the future or only an hour, but he had never been able to figure it out ahead of time. The only certainties were that something important—or dire—was going to happen and that he would not be able to avoid it. Sometimes, like that night at the gate, he did not understand why the dice had been tumbling even after they stopped. All he really knew for sure was that however much the dice made him twitch like a goat with the itch, once they started, he did not want them to stop ever. But they did. Sooner or later, they always did.

“Are you all right, Mat?” Olver said. “Those Seanchan can’t catch us.” He attempted gruff conviction, but a hint of question hung in his voice.

Abruptly Mat realized he had been staring at nothing. Egeanin frowned at him while fiddling absentmindedly with her wig, plainly angry that he was ignoring her. Domon’s eyes had a studious look; if he was not deciding whether to be upset on Egeanin’s behalf, Mat would eat his cap. Even Thera was peeking at him past the tent’s entry flap, and she always tried to keep out of Egeanin’s sight. He could not explain. Only a man with porridge for brains would believe he got warnings from hearing dice no one could see. Or maybe a man marked by the Power. Or by the Dark One. He was not anxious to have any of those things suspected about him. And it might be that night at the gate all over again. No, this was not a secret he cared to reveal. It would do no good, anyway.

“They’ll never catch us, Olver, not you and me.” He ruffled the boy’s hair, and Olver gave a wide-mouthed grin, confidence restored as easy as that. “Not so long as we keep our eyes open and our wits about us. Remember, you can find a way out of any difficulty if you keep your eyes and wits sharp, but if you don’t, you’ll trip over your own feet.” Olver nodded gravely, but Mat meant the reminder for the others. Or maybe himself. Light, there was no way any of them could be more alert. Except for Olver, who thought it was all a great adventure, they had all been jumping out of their skins since before leaving the city. “Go help Thera like Juilin told you, Olver.”

A sharp gust cut through Mat’s coat, making him shiver. “And put your coat on; it’s cold,” he added as the boy ducked past Thera into the tent. Rustles and scraping sounds from inside said that Olver was setting to work, with or without his coat, but Thera remained crouched at the tent’s entrance, peering at Mat. For all the care anybody but Mat Cauthon took, the boy could catch his death.

As soon as Olver disappeared, Egeanin stepped closer to Mat, her fists on her hips again, and he groaned under his breath. “We are going to settle matters now, Cauthon,” she said in a hard voice. “Now! I won’t have our journey wrecked by you countermanding my orders.”

“There’s nothing to settle,” he told her. “I was never your hired hand, and that’s that.” Somehow, her face managed to grow harder, as good as shouting that she did not see matters like that. The woman was as tenacious as a snapping turtle, but there had to be some way to pry her jaws from his leg. Burn him if he wanted to be alone with the dice rolling in his head, yet that was better than having to listen to them while arguing with her. “I’m going to see Tuon before we leave.” The words popped out of his mouth before they were clear in his head. He realized that they had been lying there for some time, though, murky and slowly solidifying.

The blood drained from Egeanin’s cheeks as soon as Tuon’s name left his mouth, and he heard a squeak from Thera followed by the snap of the tentflaps being jerked shut. The onetime panarch had absorbed a great many Seanchan ways while she was Suroth’s property, and many of their taboos as well. Egeanin was made of harder stuff, however. “Why?” she demanded. In almost the same breath, she went on, anxious and furious all at once. “You mustn’t call her that. You must show respect.” Harder in some ways.

Mat grinned, but she did not seem to see the joke. Respect? There was precious little respect in stuffing a gag in someone’s mouth and rolling them up in a wall hanging. Calling Tuon High Lady or anything else was not going to change that. Of course, Egeanin was more willing to talk about freeing damane than she was about Tuon. If she could have pretended the kidnapping never happened, she would have, and as it was, she tried. Light, she had tried to ignore it while it was happening. In her mind, any other crimes she might have committed paled to nothing beside that.

“Because I want to talk with her,” he said. And why not? He had to, sooner or later. People had begun trotting up and down the narrow street, now, half-dressed men with their shirts hanging out and women with their hair still wrapped in night-kerchiefs, some leading horses and others just milling about as far as he could make out. A wiry boy a little bigger than Olver went past doing handsprings wherever the crowd gave him a pace of room, practicing or maybe playing. The sleepy fellow in the deep green wagon still had not appeared. Luca’s Grand Traveling Show would not be traveling anywhere for hours yet. There was plenty of time. “You could come with me,” he suggested in his most innocent voice. He should have thought of this before.

The invitation made Egeanin go fence-post stiff for true. It hardly seemed possible her face could grow any paler, but an extra scrap of color leached out. “You will show her fitting respect,” she said hoarsely, clutching the knotted scarf with both hands as though trying to squeeze the black wig tighter onto her head. “Come, Bayle. I want to make sure my things are stowed properly.”

Domon hesitated as she turned and hurried away into the crowd without looking back, and Mat watched him warily. He had vague memories of a flight on Domon’s rivership, once, but vague was the best he could say of them. Thom was friendly with Domon, a point in the Illianer’s favor, yet he was Egeanin’s man to the knife, ready to back her on anything down to disliking Juilin, and Mat trusted him no further than he did her. Which was to say, not very far. Egeanin and Domon had their own goals, and whether Mat Cauthon kept a whole hide did not factor in them. He doubted that the man really trusted him, for that matter, but then, neither of them had much choice at the moment.

“Fortune prick me,” Domon muttered, scratching the bristles growing above his left ear, “whatever you do be up to, you may be in over your head. I think she do be tougher than you do suspect.”

“Egeanin?” Mat said incredulously. He looked around quickly to see whether anyone in the alley had heard his slip. A few glanced at him and Domon as they brushed by, but nobody glanced twice. Luca was not the only one eager to be gone from a city where the flow of patrons for the show had dried up and night lightning setting the harbor on fire was a fresh memory. They might all have fled that first night, leaving Mat nowhere to hide, except for Luca arguing them out of it. That promised gold had made Luca very persuasive. “I know she’s tougher than old boots, Domon, but old boots don’t count with me. This isn’t a bloody ship, and I’m not letting her take charge and ruin everything.”

Domon grimaced as if Mat were goose-brained. “The girl, man. Do you believe you could be so calm if you did be carried off in the night? Whatever you be playing at, with that wild talk of her being your wife, have a care or she may shave your head at the shoulders.”

“I was just cutting the fool,” Mat muttered. “How many times do I have to say it? I was unnerved for a minute.” Oh, he had been that. Learning who Tuon was, while he was wrestling with her, would have unnerved a bloody Trolloc.

Domon grunted in disbelief. Well, it was hardly the best story Mat had ever come up with. Except for Domon, everyone who had heard him babbling seemed to accept the tale, though. Mat thought they had, anyway. Egeanin might get a knot in her tongue at the very thought of Tuon, but she would have said plenty if she believed he had been serious. Likely she would have put her knife in him.

Peering in the direction Egeanin had gone, the Illianer shook his head. “Try to keep a grip on your tongue from now on. Eg—... Leilwin... do near have a fit whenever she do think about what you did say. I’ve heard her muttering under her breath, and you can wager the girl herself does take it no lighter. You ‘cut the fool’ with her, and you may get us all shortened.” He slid a finger across his throat expressively and gave a curt nod before pushing through the crowd after Egeanin.

Watching him go, Mat shook his own head. Tuon, tough? True, she was the Daughter of the Nine Moons and all of that, and she had been able to get under his skin with a look back in the Tarasin Palace, when he thought she was just another Seanchan noblewoman with her nose in the air, but that was just because she kept turning up where he did not expect. No more than that. Tough? She looked like a doll made of black porcelain. How tough could she be?

It was all you could do to keep her from breaking your nose and maybe more, he reminded himself.

He had been careful not to repeat what Domon called “wild talk,” but the truth of it was, he was going to marry Tuon. The thought made him sigh. He knew it as sure as prophecy, which it was, in a way. He could not imagine how such a marriage could come about; it seemed impossible, on the face of it, and he would not weep if that proved to be so. But he knew it would not. Why did he always find himself bloody lumbered with bloody women who pulled knives on him or tried to kick his head off? It was not fair.

He intended to go straight to the wagon where Tuon and Selucia were being kept, with Setalle Anan to watch—the innkeeper could make a stone seem soft; a pampered noblewoman and a lady’s maid would give her no trouble, especially with a Redarm on duty outside. At least, they had not so far, or he would have heard—but he found his feet wandering, taking him along the winding streets that ran through the show. Bustle filled all of them, wide and narrow alike. Men rushed by leading horses that frisked and shied, too long without exercise. Other people were taking down tents and packing the storage wagons, or hauling cloth-wrapped bundles and brass-bound chests and casks and canisters of every size out of the house-like wagons that had been standing here for months, partially unloading so everything could be repacked for travel even while the teams were being harnessed. The din was constant: horses whickered, women shouted for children, children cried over lost toys or yelled for the pure pleasure of noise, men bellowed to know who had been at their harness or who had borrowed some tool. A troupe of acrobats, slender but muscular women who worked on ropes dangling from tall poles, had surrounded one of the horse handlers, all of them waving their arms and giving voice at the top of their lungs and nobody listening. Mat paused a moment trying to figure out what they were arguing over, but eventually he decided they were not sure themselves. Two fighting coatless men rolled on the ground, watched closely by the likely cause, a willowy hot-eyed seamstress named Jameine, but Petra appeared and pulled them apart before Mat could even get a bet down.

He was not afraid of seeing Tuon again. Of course not. He had stayed away, after sticking her into that wagon, to give her time to settle down and collect herself. That was all. Only... Calm, Domon had called her, and it was true. Kidnapped in the middle of the night, snatched out into a storm by people who would as soon have cut her throat as look at her, as far as she knew, and she had been by far the coolest of them all. Light, she could have planned it herself, that was how upset she was! It had made him feel as if the point of a knife were tickling between his shoulder blades then, and the knife was back again just thinking about her. And those dice were rattling away inside his skull.

The woman’s hardly likely to offer to exchange vows here and now, he thought with a chuckle, but it sounded forced even to him. Yet there was no reason under the sun for him to be afraid. He was just properly wary, not afraid.

The show might have equaled a fair-sized village for size, but there was only so long a man could wander about in that much space before he started doubling back on himself. Soon enough, too soon, he found himself staring at a windowless wagon painted in faded purple, surrounded by canvas-topped storage wagons and in sight of the southernmost horselines. The dung carts had not gone out this morning, and the odor was strong. The wind carried a heavy scent from the nearest animal cages, too, a musky smell of big cats and bears and the Light knew what else. Beyond the storage wagons and pickets, a section of the canvas wall fell and another began to shake as men loosened the guy ropes holding the poles. The sun, half-hidden by dark clouds now, had climbed halfway to its noonday peak or better, but it was still too soon.

Harnan and Metwyn, two of the Redarms, had already hitched the first pair of horses to the shaft of the purple wagon and were almost done with the second pair. Soldiers well trained in the Band of the Red Hand, they would be ready to take the road while the showfolk were still figuring out which way the horses were supposed to face. Mat had taught the Band to move fast when there was need. His own feet dragged as though he were wading in mud.

Harnan, with that fool tattoo of a hawk on his cheek, was the first to see him. Buckling a trace, the heavy-jawed file-leader exchanged looks with Metwyn, a boyish-faced Cairhienin whose appearance belied his age and his weakness for tavern brawls. They had no call to look surprised.

“Everything going smoothly? I want to be away in good time.” Rubbing his hands together against the cold, Mat eyed the purple wagon uneasily. He should have brought her a present, jewelry or flowers. Either worked as well, with most women.

“Smooth enough, my Lord,” Harnan replied in a cautious tone. “No shouting, no screaming, no crying.” He glanced at the wagon as if he did not credit it himself.

“Quiet suits me,” Metwyn said, stringing one of the reins through a ring on a horse-collar. “Woman starts crying, the only thing to do is leave, if you value your hide, and we can hardly drop these off by the side of the road.” But he glanced at the wagon, too, and shook his head in disbelief.

There really was nothing for Mat to do except go inside. So he did. It only took two tries, with a smile fixed on his face, to make himself climb the short flight of painted wooden steps at the back of the wagon. He was not afraid, but any fool would know enough to be nervous.

Despite the lack of windows, the interior of the wagon was well lighted, with four mirrored lamps burning, and the lamps held good oil, so there was no rancid smell. But then, with the stink from outside, it would have been hard to tell. He needed to find a better spot to park this wagon. A small brick stove with an iron door, and an iron top for cooking, made the space toasty compared with outside. It was not a large wagon, and every inch of wall that could be spared was covered with cabinets or shelves or pegs for hanging clothing and towels and the like, but the table that could be let down on ropes was snug against the ceiling, and the three women inside the wagon were hardly crowded.

They could not have been more different, those three. Mistress Anan was sitting on one of the two narrow beds built into the walls, a regal woman with touches of gray in her hair, seemingly intent on her embroidery hoop and not looking at all as if she were a guard. A large golden ring hung in each of her ears, and her marriage knife dangled from a close-fitting silver necklace, the hilt with its red and white stones snug in the cleavage exposed by the narrow plunging neckline of her Ebou Dari dress that had one side of the skirt sewn up to expose yellow petticoats. She wore another knife, with a long, curved blade, tucked behind her belt, but that was just the custom of Ebou Dar. Setalle had refused to take on any disguise, which seemed well enough. No one had reason to be hunting for her, and finding clothes for everyone else had been a big enough problem as it was. Selucia, a pretty woman with skin the color of buttery cream, was cross-legged on the floor between the beds, a dark scarf covering her shaven head and a sullen expression on her face, though normally she was dignified enough to make Mistress Anan look flighty. Her eyes were as blue as Egeanin’s, and more piercing, and she had made more fuss than Egeanin over losing her the rest of her hair. She disliked the dark blue Ebou Dari dress she had been given, too, claiming the deep neckline was indecent, but it hid her as effectively as a mask. Few men who glimpsed Selucia’s impressive bosom would be able to focus long on her face. Mat might have enjoyed the view for a moment or two himself, but there was Tuon, seated on the wagon’s only stool, a leather-bound book open on her lap, and he could barely make himself look at anything else. His wife-to-be. Light!

Tuon was tiny, not just short but almost slim as a boy, and a loose-fitting dress of brown wool, bought from one of the showfolk, made her seem a child wearing her older sister’s clothes. Not at all the sort of woman he enjoyed, especially with only a few days’ growth of black stubble covering her scalp. If you ignored that, she was pretty, though, in a reserved way, with her heart-shaped face and full lips, her eyes large dark liquid pools of serenity. That utter calmness almost unnerved him. Not even an Aes Sedai would be serene in her circumstances. The bloody dice in his head did not help matters.

“Setalle has been keeping me informed,” she said in a cool drawl as he pulled the door shut. He had gotten so he could tell a difference in Seanchan accents; Tuon’s made Egeanin sound as if she had a mouthful of mush, but they all sounded slurred and slow. “She’s told me the story you have put about concerning me, Toy.” Tuon had persisted in calling him that, back in the Tarasin Palace. He had not cared, then. Well, not much.

“My name is Mat,” he began. He never saw where the pottery cup in her hand came from, but he managed to drop to the floor in time for it to shatter against the door instead of his head.

“I am a servant, Toy?” If Tuon’s tone had been cool before, now it was deep winter ice. She barely raised her voice, but it was hard as ice, too. Her expression would have made a hanging judge look giddy. “A thieving servant?” The book slid from her lap as she stood and bent to snatch up the lidded white chamber pot. “A faithless servant?”

“We will need that,” Selucia said deferentially, slipping the bulbous pot out of Tuon’s hands. Setting it carefully to one side, she crouched at Tuon’s feet almost as if ready to hurl herself at Mat, laughable as that was. Though nothing much seemed laughable right then.

Mistress Anan reached up to one of the railed shelves above her head and handed Tuon another cup. “We have plenty of these,” she murmured.

Mat shot her an indignant look, but her hazel eyes twinkled with amusement. Amusement! She was supposed to be guarding those two!

A fist thumped on the door. “Do you need help in there?” Harnan called uncertainly. Mat wondered which of them he was asking.

“We have everything well in hand,” Setalle called back, calmly pushing her needle through the fabric stretched on her hoop. You would have thought that needlework was the most important thing. “Go on about your work. Don’t dawdle.” The woman was not Ebou Dari, but she certainly had soaked up Ebou Dari ways. After a moment, boots thumped back down the steps outside. It seemed Harnan had been too long in Ebou Dar, as well.

Tuon turned the new cup in her hands as though examining the flowers painted on it, and her lips quirked in a smile so small it almost might have been Mat’s imagination. She was more than pretty when she smiled, but it was one of those smiles that said she knew things he did not. He was going to break out in hives if she kept doing that. “I will not be known as a servant, Toy.”

“My name is Mat, not... that other thing,” he said, climbing to his feet and cautiously testing his hip. To his surprise, it ached no worse after smacking the floorboards. Tuon arched an eyebrow and hefted the cup in one hand. “I could hardly tell the showfolk I’d kidnapped the Daughter of the Nine Moons,” he said in exasperation.

“The High Lady Tuon, peasant!” Selucia said crisply. “She is under the veil!” Veil? Tuon had worn a veil in the palace, but not since.

The tiny woman gestured graciously, a queen granting license. “It is of no import, Selucia. He is ignorant, yet. We must educate him. But you will change this story, Toy. I will not be a servant.”

“It’s too late to change anything,” Mat said, keeping an eye on that cup. Her hands looked frail, with those long fingernails cut short, but he remembered how quick they were. “Nobody’s asking you to be a servant.” Luca and his wife knew the truth, but there had to be some reason to give everyone else why Tuon and Selucia were kept confined to this wagon and guarded. The perfect solution had been a pair of serving girls, about to be dismissed for theft, who had intended to betray their mistress’s flight with her lover. It seemed perfect to Mat, anyway. To the showfolk, it only added to the romance. He had thought Egeanin was going to swallow her tongue while he was explaining to Luca. Maybe she had known how Tuon would take it. Light, he almost wished the dice would stop. How could a man think with that in his head?

“I couldn’t leave you behind to raise an alarm,” he went on patiently. That was true, as far as it went. “I know Mistress Anan has explained it to you.” He thought about saying he had been babbling from nerves when he said she was his wife—she must think him a complete looby!—but it seemed best not to bring it up again. If she was willing to let the matter lie, all the better. “I know she’s already told you this, but I promise no one’s going to hurt you. We’re not after ransom, just getting away with our heads still attached. As soon as I can figure out how to send you home safe and sound, I will. I promise. I’ll make you as comfortable as I can until then. You’ll just have to put up with the other.”

Tuon’s big dark eyes crackled, heat lightning in a night sky, but she said, “It seems I will see what your promises are worth, Toy.” At her feet, Selucia hissed like a doused cat, her head half-turning as if to object, but Tuon’s left hand wiggled, and the blue-eyed woman blushed and went silent. The Blood used something like Maiden handtalk with their upper servants. Mat wished he understood the signals.

“Answer me a question, Tuon,” he said.

He thought he heard Setalle murmur, “Fool.” Selucia’s jaw knotted, and a dangerous look kindled in Tuon’s eyes, but if she was going to call him “Toy,” he would be burned if he gave her any titles.

“How old are you?” He had heard that she was only a few years younger than he, but looking at her in that sack of a dress, it seemed impossible.

To his surprise, that dangerous spark burst into flame. Not just heat lightning, this time. He should have been fried on the spot. Tuon threw back her shoulders and drew herself to her full height. Such as that was; he doubted she could reach five feet with her heels flat however she stretched. “My fourteenth true-name day will come in five months,” she said in a voice that was far from cold. In fact, it could have heated the wagon better than the stove. He felt a moment of hope, but she was not finished. “No; you keep your birth names here, don’t you. That will be my twentieth naming day. Are you satisfied, Toy? Did you fear you had stolen a... child?” She almost hissed the last word.

Mat waved his hands in front of him, frantically dismissing the suggestion. A woman started hissing at him like a kettle, a man with any brains found a way to cool her down fast. She was gripping the cup so tightly that tendons stood out on the back of her hand, and he did not want to try his hip with another fall to the floor. Come to think on it, he was not sure how hard she had tried to hit him the first time. Her hands were very fast. “I just wanted to know, that’s all,” he said quickly. “I was curious, making conversation. I’m only a little older myself.” Twenty. So much for hoping she was too young to marry for another three or four years. Anything that came between him and his wedding day would have been welcome.

Tuon studied him suspiciously with her head tilted, then tossed the cup onto the bed beside Mistress Anan and seated herself on the stool again, taking as much care about arranging her voluminous woolen skirts as if they had belonged to a silk gown. But she continued to examine him through her long eyelashes. “Where is your ring?” she demanded.

Unconsciously, he thumbed the finger on his left hand where the long ring usually lay. “I don’t wear it all the time.” Not when everybody in the Tarasin Palace knew he wore it. The thing would have stood out, with his rough layabout’s garb, in any case. It was not even his signet, anyway, just a carver’s try-piece. Strange, how his hand felt noticeably lighter without it. Too light. Strange that she remarked on it, too. But then, why not? Light, those dice had him shying at shadows and jumping at sighs. Or maybe it was just her, a discomforting thought.

He moved to sit on the unoccupied bed, but Selucia swung herself up onto it so quickly any of the acrobats might have been jealous, and stretched out with her head propped on her hand. That pushed her scarf askew for a moment, but she hurriedly straightened it, all the while staring at him proud and cold as a queen. He looked at the other bed, and Mistress Anan set down her embroidery long enough to ostentatiously smooth her skirts, making it clear she did not intend to share an inch. Burn her, she was behaving as though she were guarding Tuon from him! Women always seemed to club together so a man never had a fair chance. Well, he had managed to keep Egeanin from taking charge so far, and he was not about to be bullied by Setalle Anan or a bosomy lady’s maid or the high and mighty High Lady Daughter of the Nine bloody Moons! Only, he could hardly go shoving one of them out of the way to find a place to sit.

Leaning against a drawered cabinet at the foot of the bed Mistress Anan was seated on, he tried to think of what to say. He never had trouble thinking of what to say to women, but his brain seemed deafened by the sound of those dice. All three women gave him disapproving looks—he could all but hear one of them telling him not to slouch!—so he smiled. Most women thought his best smile very winning.

Tuon let out a long breath that did not sound won over in the slightest. “Do you remember Hawkwing’s face, Toy?” Mistress Anan blinked in surprise, and Selucia sat up on the bed frowning. At him. Why would she frown at him? Tuon just continued to look at him, hands folded in her lap, as cool and collected as a Wisdom at Sunday.

Mat’s smile felt frozen. Light, what did she know? How could she know anything? He lay beneath the burning sun, holding his side with both hands, trying to keep the last of life from leaking out and wondering whether there was any reason to hold on. Aldeshar was finished, after this day’s work. A shadow blotted the sun for an instant, and then a tall man in armor crouched beside him, helmet tucked under his arm, dark deep-set eyes framing a hooked nose. “You fought well against me today, Culain, and many days past,” that memorable voice said. “Will you live with me in peace?” With his last breath, he laughed in Artur Hawkwing’s face. He hated to remember dying. A dozen other encounters skittered through his mind, too, ancient memories that were his, now. Artur Paendrag had been a difficult man to get along with even before the wars started.

Drawing a deep breath, he took care choosing his words. This was no time to go spouting the Old Tongue. “Of course I don’t!” he lied. A man who could not lie convincingly got short shrift from women. “Light, Hawkwing died a thousand years ago! What kind of question is that?”

Her mouth opened slowly, and for a moment he was sure she meant to answer question with question. “A foolish one, Toy,” she replied finally, instead. “I can’t say why it popped into my head.”

The stiffness in Mat’s shoulders relaxed, a little. Of course. He was ta’veren. People did things and said things around him they never would elsewhere. Nonsense qualified. Still, a thing like that could become uncomfortable when it hit too close to home. “My name is Mat. Mat Cauthon.” He might as well not have spoken.

“I cannot say what I will do after returning to Ebou Dar, Toy. I have not decided. I may have you made da’covale. You are not pretty enough for a cupbearer, but it might please me to have you for one. Still, you have represented certain promises to me, so it pleases me now to promise, as well. So long as you keep your promises, I will neither escape nor betray you in any way, nor will I cause dissension among your followers. I believe that covers everything necessary.” This time, Mistress Anan gaped at her, and Selucia made a sound in her throat, but Tuon appeared not to notice either woman. She just looked at him expectantly, waiting on a response.

He made a sound in his throat, too. Not a whimper, just a sound. Tuon’s face was as smooth as a stern mask of dark glass. Her calm was madness, but this made gibbering look sane! She would have to be insane to think he would believe that offer. Except, he thought she did mean it. That, or she was a better liar than he ever hoped to be. Again he had that queasy sense that she knew more than he did. Ridiculous, of course, but there it was. He swallowed a lump in his throat. A hard lump.

“Well, that does all right for you,” he said, trying to buy time, “but what about Selucia?” Time for what? He could not think with those dice pounding in his skull.

“Selucia follows my wishes, Toy,” Tuon said impatiently. The blue-eyed woman herself straightened and stared at him as though indignant that he had doubted that. For a lady’s maid, she could look fierce when she tried.

Mat did not know what to say or do. Without thinking, he spat on his palm and offered his hand as if sealing a bargain on a horse.

“Your customs are... earthy,” Tuon said in a dry voice, but she spat on her own palm and clasped his hand. “ ‘Thus is our treaty written; thus is agreement made.’ What does that writing on your spear mean, Toy?”

He did whimper this time, and not because she had read the Old Tongue inscription on his ashandarei. A bloody stone would have whimpered. The dice had stopped as soon as he touched her hand. Light, what had happened?

Knuckles rapped on the door, and he was so on edge that he moved without thought, spinning, a knife coming into either hand ready to throw at whatever came in. “Stay behind me,” he snapped.

The door opened, and Thom stuck his head in. The hood of his cloak was up, and Mat realized it was raining outside. Between Tuon and the dice, he had missed the sound of rain hitting the wagon’s roof. “I trust I’m not interrupting anything?” Thom said, knuckling his long white mustaches.

Mat’s face heated. Setalle had frozen with her embroidery needle trailing blue thread down to her work, and her eyebrows seemed to be trying to climb over the top of her head. Tensed on the edge of the other bed, Selucia watched him slip the knives back up his sleeves with considerable interest. He would not have thought she was the sort to like dangerous men. That kind of woman was worth avoiding; they tended to find ways to make a man need to be dangerous. He did not glance back at Tuon. She was probably staring at him as if he had been capering like Luca. Just because he did not want to get married did not mean he wanted his future wife to think him a fool.

“What did you find out, Thom?” he asked brusquely. Something had happened, or the dice would not have stopped. A thought came that made his hair want to stand on end. This was the second time they had stopped in Tuon’s presence. The third, counting the gate leading out of Ebou Dar. Three bloody times, and all tied to her.

Limping slightly, the white-haired man came the rest of the way in, pushing back his hood, and pulled the door shut behind him. His limp came from an old injury, not trouble in the city. Tall and lean and leathery, with sharp blue eyes and snowy mustaches that hung below his chin, it seemed he would draw attention wherever he went, but he had practice at hiding in plain sight, and his dark bronze coat and brown wool cloak were suitable for a man with a little coin to spend but not too much. “The streets are full of rumors about her,” he said, nodding toward Tuon, “but nothing about her disappearing. I bought drinks for a few Seanchan officers, and they seem to believe she’s snug in the Tarasin Palace or off on an inspection trip. I didn’t sense any dissembling, Mat. They didn’t know.”

“Did you expect public announcements, Toy?” Tuon said incredulously. “As it is, Suroth may be considering taking her own life for the shame. Do you expect her to spread such an ill omen for the Return about for everyone to see on top of that?”

So Egeanin had been right. It still seemed impossible. And it did not seem at all important compared to the dice stopping. What had happened? He had shaken hands with Tuon, that was all. Shaken hands and made a bargain. He meant to keep his side, but what had the dice told him? That she would keep hers? Or that she would not? For all he knew, Seanchan noblewomen were in the habit of marrying—what was it she had said she was going to make him?—a cupbearer—maybe they married cupbearers all the time.

“There’s more, Mat,” Thom said, eyeing Tuon thoughtfully, and with a hint of surprise. It came to Mat that she did not appear overly concerned that Suroth might kill herself. Maybe she was as tough as Domon thought. What were the bloody dice trying to tell him? That was what was important. Then Thom went on, and Mat forgot about how tough Tuon might be and even the dice. “Tylin’s dead. They’re keeping it quiet for fear of disturbances, but one of the Palace Guards, a young lieutenant who couldn’t hold his brandy, told me they’re planning her funeral feast and Beslan’s coronation for the same day.”

“How?” Mat demanded. She was older than he, but not that much older! Beslan’s coronation. Light! How would Beslan cope with that, when he hated the Seanchan? It had been his plan to fire those supplies on the Bay Road. He would have tried an uprising if Mat had not convinced him it would only result in a slaughter, and not of Seanchan.

Thom hesitated, stroking his mustaches with a thumb. Finally, he sighed. “She was found in her bedchamber the morning after we left, Mat, still bound hand and foot. Her head... Her head had been torn off.”

Mat did not realize his knees had given way until he found himself sitting on the floor with his head buzzing. He could hear her voice. You’ll get your head cut off yet if you’re not careful, piglet, and I wouldn’t like that. Setalle leaned forward on the narrow bed to press a hand against his cheek in commiseration.

“The Windfinders?” he said hollowly. He did not have to say more.

“According to what that lieutenant said, the Seanchan have settled on Aes Sedai for the blame. Because Tylin had sworn the Seanchan oaths. That’s what they’ll announce at her funeral feast.”

“Tylin dies the same night the Windfinders escape, and the Seanchan believe Aes Sedai killed her?” He could not imagine Tylin dead. I’m going to have you for supper, duckling. “That doesn’t make sense, Thom.”

Thom hesitated, frowning as he considered. “It could be political, in part, but I think that’s what they really believe, Mat. That lieutenant said they’re sure the Windfinders were running too hard to stop or go out of their way, and the quickest path out of the palace from the damane kennels goes nowhere near Tylin’s apartments.”

Mat grunted. He was sure it was not so. And if it were, there was nothing in the world he could do about it.

“The marath’damane had reason to murder Tylin,” Selucia said suddenly. “They must fear her example for others. What reason had the damane you speak of? None. The hand of justice requires motive and proof, even for damane and da’covale.” She sounded as though she were reading the words off a page. And she was looking at Tuon from the corner of her eye.

Mat looked over his shoulder, but if the tiny woman had been using her hands to tell Selucia what to say, they were resting in her lap, now. She was watching him, a neutral expression on her face. “Did you care for Tylin so deeply?” she said in a cautious voice.

“Yes. No. Burn me, I liked her!” Turning away, he scrubbed fingers through his hair, pushing the cap off. He had never been so glad to get away from a woman in his life, but this... ! “And I left her tied up and gagged so she couldn’t even call for help, easy prey for the gholam,” he said bitterly. “It was looking for me. Don’t shake your head. Thom. You know it as well as I do.”

“What is a... gholam?” Tuon asked.

“Shadowspawn, my Lady,” Thom said. He frowned worriedly. He did not take easily to worry, but anybody except a fool would worry about a gholam. “It looks like a man, but it can slip through a mousehole, or under a door, and it’s strong enough to...” He harrumphed through his mustaches. “Well, enough of that. Mat, she could have had a hundred guards around her, and it wouldn’t have stopped that thing.” She would not have needed a hundred guards if she had not taken up with Mat Cauthon.

“A gholam,” Tuon murmured wryly. Suddenly she rapped Mat hard on the top of the head with her knuckles. Clapping a hand to his scalp, he stared over his shoulder incredulously. “I’m very happy that you show loyalty to Tylin, Toy,” she told him in a severe voice, “but I won’t have superstition in you. I will not have it. It does Tylin no honor.” Burn him, Tylin’s death seemed to concern her as little as whether or not Suroth committed suicide. What kind of woman was he going to marry?

When a fist pounded on the door this time, he did not even bother to stand. He felt numb at the core and scraped raw on the surface. Blaeric pushed into the wagon without asking, his dark brown cloak dripping rain. It was an old cloak, worn thin in spots, but he appeared not to care whether rain leaked through. The Warder ignored everyone but Mat, or almost everyone. The man actually took a moment to consider Selucia’s bosom! “Joline wants you, Cauthon,” he said, still studying her. Light! This was all Mat needed to make it a fine day.

“Who is Joline?” Tuon demanded.

Mat ignored her. “Tell Joline I’ll see her once we’re on the road, Blaeric.” The last thing he wanted was to be forced to listen to more of the Aes Sedai’s grievances now.

“She wants you now, Cauthon.”

With a sigh, Mat got to his feet and gathered his cap from the floor. Blaeric looked as if he might try to drag him, otherwise. In his own current mood, he thought he might put a knife in the man if he tried. And get his neck broken for his pains; a Warder would not take a knife in the ribs lightly. He was fairly sure he had already died the one time he was allowed, and not in an old memory. Sure enough not to take risks he could sidestep.

“Who is Joline, Toy?” If he had not known better, he would have said Tuon sounded jealous.

“A bloody Aes Sedai,” he grumbled, tugging the cap on, and got one small pleasure for the day. Tuon’s jaw dropped in shock. He shut the door behind him on the way out before she could find a word to say. A very small pleasure. One butterfly on a midden heap. Tylin dead, and the Windfinders might take the blame yet, whatever Thom said. And that was aside from Tuon and the bloody dice. A very tiny butterfly on a very large midden.

The sky was full of dark clouds, now, and the downpour steady. A soaking rain, they would have called it back home. It began to slick his hair, cap or no, and seep through his coat as soon as he stepped outside. Blaeric hardly seemed to notice, barely gathering his cloak. There was nothing for it but for Mat to hunch his shoulders and splash through the widening puddles on the dirt streets. By the time he could reach his wagon for a cloak, he would be drenched to the skin anyway. Besides, the weather fit his spirits.

To his surprise, rain or no rain, an incredible amount of work had been done in the short time he was inside. The canvas wall was gone as far as he could see in either direction, and half the storage wagons that had been around Tuon’s wagon were missing, too. So were most of the animals that had been picketed on the horselines. A large, iron-barred cage containing a black-maned lion trundled past toward the road behind a plodding team, the horses as unconcerned with the apparently sleeping lion behind them as they were with the shower. Performers were already taking to the road, too, though how they determined the order of leaving was a mystery. Most of the tents seemed to have vanished; in one place three of the brightly colored wagons together might be missing, another place every second wagon, while elsewhere the wagons standing and waiting still seemed a solid mass. The only thing that said the showfolk were not scattering was Luca himself, a bright red cloak gathered around him against the wet as he paraded along the street, stopping now and then to clap a man on the shoulder or murmur something to a woman that made her laugh. If the show had been breaking apart, Luca would have been out chasing down those who tried to leave. He held the show together as much by persuasion as anything else, and he never let anyone leave without talking himself hoarse trying to argue them out of it. Mat knew he should feel good about seeing Luca still there, though it had never occurred to him that the man would run out on the gold, but right at that moment, he doubted that anything could make him feel anything but numb and angry.

The wagon that Blaeric took him to was almost as large as Luca’s, but it had been whitewashed rather than painted. The white had long since run and streaked and faded, and the rain was washing it a little more toward gray, where the wood was not already bare. The wagon belonged to a company of fools, four morose men who painted their faces for the show’s patrons, dousing each other with water and hitting each other with inflated pig-bladders, and otherwise spent their time and money imbibing as much wine as they could buy. With what Mat had paid for rent, they might be drunk for months, and it had cost more than that to make anyone take them in.

Four shaggy, nondescript horses were already hitched to the wagon, and Fen Mizar, Joline’s other Warder, was up on the driver’s seat, swathed in an old gray cloak and reins in hand. His tilted eyes watched Mat the way a wolf might watch an impudent cur. The Warders had been unhappy with Mat’s plan from the start, sure they could have gotten the sisters away safely once they were outside the city walls. Perhaps they could have, but the Seanchan hunted vigorously for women who could channel—the show itself apparently had been searched four times in the days after Ebou Dar fell—and all it would have taken was one slip to land all of them in the stewpot. From what Egeanin and Domon said, the Seekers could make a boulder tell everything it had ever seen. Luckily, not all the sisters were as sure as Joline’s Warders. Aes Sedai tended to dither when they could not agree on what to do.

When Mat reached the steps at the back of the wagon, Blaeric stopped him with a hand to his chest. The Warder’s face might have been carved, no more concerned than a piece of wood with the rain running down his cheeks. “Fen and I are grateful to you for getting her out of the city, Cauthon, but this can’t continue. The sisters are crowded, sharing with those other women, and they don’t get on. There is going to be trouble if we can’t find another wagon.”

“Is that what this is about?” Mat said crossly, tugging his collar tighter. Not that it did much good. He was already wet through on the back, and not much better in front. If Joline had pulled him here to whine about the accommodations again...

“She’ll tell you what it’s about, Cauthon. Just you remember what I said.”

Grumbling under his breath, Mat climbed the dirt-streaked steps and went in, not quite slamming the door behind him.

The wagon was laid out much like the one Tuon was in, though with four beds, two of them folded flat against the walls above the other two. He had no idea how the six women arranged sleeping, but he suspected it was not done peacefully. The air in the wagon all but crackled like grease on a griddle. Three women sat on each of the lower beds, each variously watching or ignoring the women seated on the other bed. Joline, who had never been held as damane, behaved as though the three sul’dam did not exist. Reading a small wood-bound book, she was an Aes Sedai to the inch and arrogance on a stick despite her well-worn blue dress, lately owned by a woman who taught the lions to do tricks. The other two sisters knew firsthand what it was to be damane, though. Edesina watched the three sul’dam warily, one hand resting near her belt knife, while Teslyn’s eyes shifted constantly, looking at anything except the sul’dam, and her hands kneaded her dark woolen skirts. He did not know how Egeanin had coerced the three sul’dam into helping damane escape, but even though they were being sought by the authorities as surely as Egeanin, they had not changed their attitudes toward women who could channel. Bethamin, tall and as dark as Tuon in an Ebou Dari dress with a very deep neckline and skirts sewn up above her knee on one side to show faded red petticoats, seemed a mother waiting for inevitable misbehavior by children, while yellow-haired Seta, in high-necked gray wool that covered her completely, appeared to be studying dangerous dogs that would need to be caged sooner or later. Renna, she of the talk about cutting off hands and feet, pretended to be reading, too, but every so often her deceptively mild brown eyes rose from the slim volume to study the Aes Sedai, and when they did, she smiled in an unpleasant way. Mat felt like cursing before one of them opened her mouth. A wise man kept clear when women were at odds, especially if there were Aes Sedai among them, but this was how it always was when he came to this wagon.

“This better be important, Joline.” Unbuttoning his coat, he tried to shake some of the water off. He thought he would do better wringing the garment out. “I just learned that the gholam killed Tylin the night we left, and I’m in no mood for complaints.”

Joline marked her place carefully with an embroidered marker and folded her hands on the book before speaking. Aes Sedai never hurried; they just expected everyone else to. Without him, she likely would have been wearing an a’dam by now herself, but he had never found Aes Sedai particularly noted for gratitude, either. She ignored what he had said about Tylin. “Blaeric tells me the show has already begun moving,” she said coolly, “but you must stop it. Luca will only listen to you.” Her mouth tightened slightly on the words. Aes Sedai also were unused to not being listened to, and Greens were not the best at hiding their displeasure. “We must abandon the idea of Lugard for the time being. We must take the ferry across the harbor and go to Illian.”

That was about as bad a suggestion as he had heard out of her, though she did not mean it for a suggestion, of course; she was worse than Egeanin that way. With half the show already on the road, or near enough, it would take all day just to get everyone down to the ferry landing, and it would mean going into the city, besides. Heading for Lugard took the show away from the Seanchan as quickly as possible, while they had soldiers camped all the way to the Illian border and maybe beyond. Egeanin was reluctant to tell what she knew, but Thom had his ways of learning these things. Mat did not bother to crack his teeth, though. He did not need to.

“No,” Teslyn said in a tight voice, her Illianer accent strong. Leaning past Edesina, she looked as though she chewed rocks three meals a day, hard-faced and set-jawed, but there was a nervousness in her eyes, put there by her weeks as a damane. “No, Joline. I have told you, we do no dare risk it! We do no dare!”

“Light!” Joline spat, slamming her book to the floor. “Take hold of yourself, Teslyn! Just because you were held prisoner for a little time is no reason to go to pieces!”

“Go to pieces? Go to pieces? Let them put that collar on you and then speak of going to pieces!” Teslyn’s hand went to her throat as though she felt the a’dam’s collar still. “Help me convince her, Edesina. She will have us collared again, if we do let her!”

Edesina drew back on herself against the wall behind the bed—a slim, handsome woman with black hair spilling to her waist, she always went silent when the Red and the Green argued, as they did often—but Joline did not spare her so much as a glance. “You ask a rebel for help, Teslyn? We should have left her for the Seanchan! Listen to me. You can feel it as well as I. Would you really accept a greater danger to avoid a lesser?”

“Lesser!” Teslyn snarled. “You do know nothing of—!”

Renna held her book out at arm’s length and let it drop to the floor with a bang. “If my Lord will excuse us a little while, we still have our a’dam, and we can teach these girls to behave again in short order.” Her accent had a musical quality, but the smile on her lips never touched her brown eyes. “It never works to let them go slack this way.” Seta nodded grimly and stood as if to fetch out the leashes.

“I think we’re done with a’dam,” Bethamin said, ignoring the shocked looks from the other two sul’dam, “but there are other ways to settle these girls down. May I suggest my Lord return in an hour? They’ll tell you what you want to know without any squabbling once they can’t sit down.” She sounded as though she meant exactly what she said. Joline was staring at the three sul’dam in outraged disbelief, but Edesina was sitting up straight, gripping her belt knife with a determined expression, while Teslyn was now the one shrinking back against the wall, her hands clasped tightly at her waist.

“That won’t be necessary,” Mat said after a moment. Only a moment. However satisfying it might be to have Joline “settled down,” Edesina might draw that knife, and that would set the cat among the chickens no matter how it turned out. “What greater danger are you talking about, Joline? Joline? What danger is greater than the Seanchan right now?”

The Green decided her stare was making no impression on Bethamin and turned it on Mat, instead. Had she been other than Aes Sedai, he would have said she looked sulky. Joline disliked explaining. “If you must know, someone is channeling.” Teslyn and Edesina nodded, the Red sister reluctantly, the Yellow emphatically.

“In the camp?” he said in alarm. His right hand rose on its own to press against the silver foxhead under his shirt, but the medallion had not turned cold.

“Far away,” Joline replied, still unwilling. “To the north.”

“Much farther than any of us should be able to sense channeling,” Edesina put in, a touch of fear in her voice. “The amount of saidar being wielded must be immense, inconceivable.” She fell silent at a sharp glance from Joline, who turned back to study Mat as though deciding how much she had to tell him.

“At that distance,” she went on, “we wouldn’t be able to feel every sister in the Tower channeling. It has to be the Forsaken, and whatever they’re doing, we do not want to be any closer than we can avoid.”

Mat was still for a moment; then finally, he said, “If it’s far, then we stick with the plan.”

Joline went on arguing, but he did not bother to listen. Whenever he thought of Rand or Perrin, colors swirled in his head. A part of being ta’veren, he supposed. This time, he had not thought of either of his friends, but the colors had suddenly been there, a fan of a thousand rainbows. This time, they had almost formed an image, a vague impression that might have been a man and a woman seated on the ground facing one another. It was gone in an instant, but he knew as surely as he knew his name. Not the Forsaken. Rand. And he could not help wondering, what had Rand been doing when the dice stopped?

CHAPTER 4
The Tale of a Doll

Furyk Karede sat staring at his writing table without seeing the papers and maps spread out in front of him. Both of his oil lamps were lit and sitting on the table, but he no longer had need of them. The sun must be rimming the horizon, yet since waking from a fitful sleep and saying his devotions to the Empress, might she live forever, he had only donned his robe, in the dark Imperial green that some insisted on calling black, and sat here without moving since. He had not even shaved. The rain had stopped, and he considered telling his servant Ajimbura to swing a window open for a little fresh air in his room at The Wandering Woman. Clean air might clear his head. But over the last five days there had been lulls in the rain that ended with sudden drenching downpours, and his bed was located between the windows. He had needed to have his mattress and bedding hung in the kitchen to dry once already.

A tiny squeal and a pleased grunt from Ajimbura made him look up to find the wiry little man displaying a limp rat half the size of a cat on the end of his long knife. It was not the first Ajimbura had killed in this room recently, something Karede believed would not have happened if Setalle Anan still owned the inn, though the number of rats in Ebou Dar seemed to be increasing well in advance of spring. Ajimbura looked a little like a wizened rat himself, his grin both satisfied and feral. After more than three hundred years under the Empire, the Kaensada hill tribes were only half civilized, and less than half tamed. The man wore his white-streaked dark red hair in a thick braid that hung to his waist, to make a good trophy if he ever found his way back to those near-mountains and fell in one of the endless feuds between families or tribes, and he insisted on drinking from a silver-mounted cup that anyone who looked closely could see was the top of someone’s skull.

“If you are going to eat that,” Karede said as though there were any question, “you will clean it in the stableyard out of anyone’s sight.” Ajimbura would eat anything except for lizards, which were forbidden to his tribe for some reason he would never make clear.

“But of course, high one,” the man replied with the hunch of his shoulders that passed for a bow among his people. “I know well the ways of the townspeople, and I would not embarrass the high one.” After close to twenty years in Karede’s service, without a reminder he still would have skinned out the rat and roasted it over the flames in the small brick fireplace.

Scraping the carcass off the blade into a small canvas sack, Ajimbura tucked that into a corner for later and carefully wiped his knife clean before sheathing it and settling on his heels to await Karede’s needs. He would wait like that all day, if necessary, as patiently as a da’covale. Karede had never puzzled out exactly why Ajimbura had left his hill fort home to follow one of the Deathwatch Guard. It was a much more circumscribed life than the man had known before, and besides, Karede had nearly killed him three times before he made that choice.

Dismissing thoughts of his servant, he returned to the display on his writing table, though he had no intention of taking up his pen for the moment. He had been raised to banner-general for achieving some small success in the battles with the Asha’man, in days when few had achieved any, and now, because he had commanded against men who could channel, some thought he must have wisdom to share about fighting marath’damane. No one had had to do that in centuries, and since the so-called Aes Sedai revealed their unknown weapon only a few leagues from where he sat, a great deal of thinking had gone into how to cripple their power. That was not the only request littering the tabletop. Aside from the usual run of requisitions and reports that needed his signature, his comments on the forces arrayed against them in Illian had been solicited by four lords and three ladies, and on the special Aiel problem by six ladies and five lords, but those questions would be decided elsewhere, very likely already had been decided. His observations would only be used in the infighting over who controlled what in the Return. In any event, war had always been a second calling for the Deathwatch Guard. Oh, the Guards were always there whenever a major battle was fought, the swordhand of the Empress, might she live forever, to strike at her enemies whether or not she herself was present, always to lead the way where the fight was hottest, but their first calling was to protect the lives and persons of the Imperial family. With their own lives, when necessary, and willingly given. And nine nights past, the High Lady Tuon had vanished as if swallowed by the storm. He did not think of her as the Daughter of the Nine Moons, could not until he knew she was no longer under the veil.

He had not considered taking his own life, either, though the shame cut him keenly. It was for the Blood to resort to the easy way to escape disgrace; the Deathwatch Guard fought to the last. Musenge commanded her personal bodyguard, but as the highest-ranking member of the Guard this side of the Aryth Ocean, it was Karede’s duty to return her safely. Every cranny in the city was being searched on one excuse or another, every vessel larger than a rowboat, but most often by men ignorant of what they were searching for, unaware that the fate of the Return might rest on their diligence. The duty was his. Of course, the Imperial family was given to even more complicated intrigues than the rest of the Blood, and the High Lady Tuon frequently played a very deep game indeed, with a sharp and deadly skill. Only a few were aware that she had vanished twice before, and had been reported dead, to the very arrangement of her funeral rites, all by her own contriving. Whatever the reasons for her disappearance, though, he had to find and protect her. So far he had no clue how. Swallowed by the storm. Or perhaps by the Lady of the Shadows. There had been countless attempts to kidnap or assassinate her, beginning on the day of her birth. If he found her dead, he must find who had killed her, who had given the ultimate commands, and avenge her whatever the cost. That was his duty, too.

A slender man slipped into the room from the hallway without knocking. He might have been one of the inn’s stablemen from his rough coat, but no local had his pale hair or the blue eyes that slid across the room as though memorizing everything in it. His hand slipped under his coat, and Karede rehearsed two ways of killing him bare-handed in the brief moment before he produced a small, gold-bordered ivory plaque worked with the Raven and the Tower. Seekers for Truth did not have to knock. Killing them was frowned upon.

“Leave us,” the Seeker told Ajimbura, tucking away the plaque once he was sure Karede had recognized it. The little man remained crouched on his heels, motionless, and the Seeker’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Even in the Kaensada Hills everyone knew a Seeker’s word was law. Well, perhaps not in some of the more remote hill forts, not if they believed no one knew the Seeker was there, but Ajimbura knew better than this.

“Wait outside,” Karede commanded sharply, and Ajimbura rose with alacrity, murmuring, “I hear and obey, high one.” He studied the Seeker openly, though, as if to make sure the Seeker knew he had marked his face, before leaving the room. He was going to get himself beheaded, one day.

“A precious thing, loyalty,” the pale-haired man said, eyeing the tabletop, after Ajimbura pulled the door shut behind himself. “You are involved in Lord Yulan’s plans, Banner-General Karede? I would not have expected the Deathwatch Guard to be part of that.”

Karede moved two bronze map-weights shaped like lions and let the map of Tar Valon roll up on itself. The other had not been unrolled, yet. “You must ask Lord Yulan, Seeker. Loyalty to the Crystal Throne is precious above the breath of life, followed closely by knowing when to keep silent. The more who speak of a thing, the more will learn of it who should not.”

No one short of the Imperial family rebuked a Seeker or whatever Hand guided him, but the fellow appeared unaffected. Then again, he seated himself in the room’s cushioned armchair and made a tent of his fingers, peering over them at Karede, who had the choice of moving his own chair or leaving the man almost at his back. Most people would have been very nervous about having a Seeker behind them. Most would have been nervous having a Seeker in the same room. Karede hid a smile and did not move. He had only to turn his head a fraction, and he was trained at seeing clearly what lay in the corners of sight.

“You must be proud of your sons,” the Seeker said, “two following you into the Deathwatch Guard, the third listed among the honored dead. Your wife would have been very proud.”

“What is your name, Seeker?” The answering silence was deafening. More people rebuked Seekers than inquired after their names.

“Mor,” the reply came finally. “Almurat Mor.” So. Mor. He had an ancestor who had come with Luthair Paendrag, then, and was rightly proud. Without access to the breeding books, which no da’covale was allowed, Karede had no way of knowing whether any of the tales about his own ancestry were true—he also might have an ancestor who had once followed the great Hawkwing—but it did not matter. Men who tried to stand on their forebears’ shoulders rather than their own feet often found themselves shorter by a head. Especially da’covale.

“Call me Furyk. We are both the property of the Crystal Throne. What do you want of me, Almurat? Not to discuss my family, I think.” If his sons were in trouble, the fellow would never have mentioned them so soon, and Kalia was beyond any misery. From the corner of his eye, Karede could see the struggle on the Seeker’s face, though he hid it almost well enough. The man had lost control of the interview—as he might have expected, flashing his plaque as though a Deathwatch Guard were not ready to thrust a dagger into his own heart on command.

“Listen to a story,” Mor said slowly, “and tell me what you think.” His gaze was fastened to Karede as if by tacks, studying, weighing, evaluating as though Karede were on the block at sale. “This came to us in the last few days.” By us, he meant the Seekers. “It began among the local people, as near as we can tell, though we have not yet found the original source. Supposedly, a girl with a Seandar accent has been extorting gold and jewelry from merchants here in Ebou Dar. The title Daughter of the Nine Moons was mentioned.” He grimaced with disgust, and for a moment, his fingertips turned white, they were pressing against each other so hard. “None of the locals seem to understand what that title means, but the description of the girl is remarkably precise. Remarkably accurate. And no one can recall hearing this rumor before the night after... the night after Tylin’s murder was discovered,” he finished, choosing the least unpleasant event to fix the time.

“A Seandar accent,” Karede said in a flat voice, and Mor nodded. “This rumor has passed to our own people.” That was not a question, but Mor nodded again. A Seandar accent and an accurate description, two things no local could invent. Someone was playing a very dangerous game. Dangerous for themselves, and for the Empire. “How does the Tarasin Palace take recent events?” There would be Listeners among the servants, likely among even the Ebou Dari servants by now, and what the Listeners heard soon passed to the Seekers.

Mor understood the question, of course. There was no need to mention what should not be mentioned. He replied in an indifferent tone. “The High Lady Tuon’s entourage carries on as though nothing has happened, except that Anath, her Truth Speaker, has taken to seclusion, but I am told that is not unusual for her. Suroth herself is even more distraught in private than in public. She sleeps poorly, snaps at her favorites, and has her property beaten over trifles. She ordered the death of one Seeker each day until matters are rectified, and only rescinded the order this morning, when she realized she might run out of Seekers before she ran out of days.” His shoulders moved in a small shrug, perhaps to indicate this was all in a day for Seekers, perhaps in relief at a near escape. “It’s understandable. If she is called to account, she will pray for the Death of Ten Thousand Tears. The other Blood who know what has happened are trying to grow eyes in the backs of their heads. A few have even quietly made funeral arrangements, to cover any eventuality.”

Karede wanted a clearer look at the man’s face. He was inured to insult—that was part of the training—but this... Pushing back his chair, he stood and sat at the edge of the writing table. Mor stared at him unblinking, tensed to defend against an attack, and Karede drew a deep breath to still his anger. “Why did you come to me if you believe the Deathwatch Guards are implicated in this?” The effort of keeping his voice level almost strangled him. Since the first Deathwatch Guards swore on the corpse of Luthair Paendrag to defend his son, there had never been treason among the Guards! Never!

Mor relaxed by increments as he realized that Karede did not intend to kill him, at least not right then, but there was a haze of sweat on his forehead. “I have heard it said a Deathwatch Guard can see a butterfly’s breath. Do you have anything to drink?”

Karede gestured curtly to the brick hearth, where a silver cup and pitcher sat near the flames, to keep warm. They had been there, untouched, since Ajimbura brought them when Karede awoke. “The wine may be cool by now, but be free of it. And when your throat is wet, you will answer my question. Either you suspect Guardsmen, or you wish to play me in some game of your own, and by my eyes, I will know which, and why.”

The fellow sidled to the hearth, watching him from the corner of his eye, but as Mor bent for the pitcher, he frowned and then gave a small start. What appeared to be a silver-rimmed bowl with a ram’s-horn-patterned silver base sat beside the cup. Light of heaven, Ajimbura had been told often enough to keep that thing out of sight! There was no doubt that Mor recognized it for what it was.

The man considered treason possible for the Guards? “Pour for me as well, if you will.”

Mor blinked, showing a faint consternation—he held the only obvious cup—and then a light of understanding appeared in his eyes. An uneasy light. He filled the bowl, too, a trifle unsteadily, and wiped his hand on his coat before taking it up. Every man had his limits, even a Seeker, and a man pushed to them was especially dangerous, but he was also off balance.

Accepting the skull-cup with both hands, Karede raised it high and lowered his head. “To the Empress, may she live forever in honor and glory. Death and shame to her enemies.”

“To the Empress, may she live forever in honor and glory,” Mor echoed, bowing his head and lifting his cup. “Death and shame to her enemies.”

Putting Ajimbura’s cup to his lips, Karede was aware of the other man watching him drink. The wine was indeed cool, the spices bitter, and there was a faint, acrid hint of silver polish; he told himself the taste of dead man’s dust was his imagination.

Mor dashed off half his own wine in hurried gulps, then stared at his cup, seemed to realize what he had done, and made a visible effort to regain control of himself. “Furyk Karede,” he said briskly. “Born forty-two years ago to weavers, the property of one Jalid Magonine, a craftsman in Ancarid. Chosen at fifteen for training in the Deathwatch Guards. Cited twice for heroism and mentioned in dispatches three times, then, as a seven-year veteran, named to the bodyguard of the High Lady Tuon upon her birth.” That had not been her name then, of course, but mentioning her birth-name would have been an insult. “That same year, as one of three survivors of the first known attempt on her life, chosen for training as an officer. Service during the Muyami Uprising and the Jianmin Incident, more citations for heroism, more mentions in dispatches, and assignment back to the High Lady’s bodyguard just before her first true-name day.” Mor peered into his wine, then looked up suddenly. “At your request. Unusual, that. The following year, you took three serious wounds shielding her with your body against another set of assassins. She gave you her most precious possession, a doll. After more distinguished service, with further citations and mentions, you were selected for the bodyguard of the Empress herself, may she live forever, and served there until named to accompany the High Lord Turak to these lands with the Hailene. Times change, and men change, but before going to guard the throne, you made two other requests for assignment to the High Lady Tuon’s bodyguard. Most unusual. And you kept the doll until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of Sohima, a matter of ten years.”

Not for the first time, Karede was glad of the training that allowed him to maintain a smooth face no matter what. Careless expressions gave away too much to an opponent. He remembered the face of the small girl who had laid that doll on his litter. He could hear her still. You have protected my life, so you must take Emela to watch over you in turn, she said. She can’t really protect you, of course; she’s only a doll. But keep her to remind you that I will always hear if you speak my name. If I’m still alive, of course.

“My honor is loyalty,” he said, setting Ajimbura’s cup on the writing table carefully, so as not to slop wine onto his papers. However often the fellow polished the silver, Karede did not think he bothered to wash the thing. “Loyalty to the throne. Why did you come to me?”

Mor moved slightly, so the armchair was between them. No doubt he thought he was standing casually, but he was clearly ready to throw the winecup. He had a knife under his coat in the small of his back, and probably at least one other. “Three requests to join the High Lady Tuon’s bodyguard. And you kept the doll.”

“That much, I understand,” Karede told him dryly. The Guards were not supposed to form attachments to those they were sent to guard. The Deathwatch Guard served only the Crystal Throne, served whoever succeeded to the throne, with a whole heart and a whole faith. But he remembered that serious child’s face, already aware she might not live to do her duty yet trying to do it anyway, and he had kept the doll. “But there’s more to it than rumor of a girl, isn’t there?”

“A butterfly’s breath,” the fellow murmured. “It is a pleasure to talk to someone who sees deeply. On the night that Tylin was murdered, two damane were taken from the Tarasin Palace kennels. Both were formerly Aes Sedai. Do you not find the coincidence too much?”

“I find any coincidence suspect, Almurat. But what has that to do with rumors and... other matters?”

“This web is more tangled than you imagine. Several others left the palace that night, among them a young man who was apparently Tylin’s pet, four men who were certainly soldiers, and an older man, one Thom Merrilin, or so he called himself, who was supposedly a servant, but who displayed much more education than would be expected. At one time or another, they were all seen with Aes Sedai who were in the city before the Empire reclaimed it.” Intent, the Seeker leaned forward slightly over the back of the armchair. “Perhaps Tylin was not murdered because she swore fealty, but because she had learned of things that were dangerous. She might have been careless in what she revealed to the boy on the pillows, and he carried word to Merrilin. We can call him that until we learn a better name. The more I learn of that one, the more intriguing he is: knowledgeable of the world, well-spoken, at ease with nobles and crowns. A courtier, in fact, if you didn’t know he was a servant. If the White Tower had certain plans in Ebou Dar, they might send such a man to carry them out.”

Plans. Unthinking, Karede picked up Ajimbura’s cup and almost drank before he realized what he was doing. He continued to hold the cup, though, so as not to give away his turmoil. Everyone—those who knew, anyway—was sure the High Lady Tuon’s disappearance was part of the contest to succeed the Empress, might she live forever. Such was life in the Imperial family. If the High Lady were dead, after all, a new heir must be named. If she were dead. And if not... The White Tower would have sent their best, if they planned to carry her away. If the Seeker was not playing him in some game of his own. Seekers could try to snare anyone short of the Empress herself, might she live forever. “You have taken this notion to your superiors, and they rejected it, or you would not come to me. That, or... You haven’t mentioned it to them, have you? Why not?”

“Much more tangled than you can imagine,” Mor said softly, eyeing the door as if suspecting eavesdroppers. Why did he grow cautious now? “There are many... complications. The two damane were removed by the Lady Egeanin Tamarath, who has had dealings with Aes Sedai before. Close dealings, in fact. Very close. Clearly, she released the other damane to cover her escape. Egeanin left the city that same night, with three damane in her entourage, and also, we believe, Merrilin and the others. We don’t know who the third damane was—we suspect someone important among the Atha’an Miere, or perhaps an Aes Sedai who was hiding in the city—but we have identified the sul’dam she used, and two have close connections with Suroth. Who herself has many connections to Aes Sedai.” For all his wariness, Mor said that as if it were not a lightning bolt. No wonder he was on edge.

So. Suroth plotted with Aes Sedai and had corrupted at least some of the Seekers above Mor, and the White Tower had placed men under one of their best to carry out certain actions. It was all believable. When Karede was sent with the Forerunners, he had been tasked to watch the Blood for over-ambition. There had always been a possibility, this far from the Empire, that they would try to set up their own kingdoms. And he himself had sent men into a city he knew would fall whatever was done to defend it, so they could harm the enemy from within.

“You have a direction, Almurat?”

Mor shook his head. “They went north, and Jehannah was mentioned in the palace stables, but that seems an obvious attempt at deception. They will have changed direction at the first opportunity. We have checked on boats large enough to have carried the party across the river, but vessels of that size come and go all the time. There is no order in this place, no control.”

“This gives me a great deal to think on.”

The Seeker grimaced, a slight twisting of his mouth, but he seemed to realize he had gotten as much commitment as Karede would make. He nodded once. “Whatever you choose to do, you should know this. You may wonder how the girl extorted anything from these merchants. It seems two or three soldiers always accompanied her. The description of their armor was also very precise.” He half stretched out a hand as though to touch Karede’s robe, but wisely let it fall back to his side. “Most people call that black. You understand me? Whatever you choose to do, do not delay.” Mor raised his cup. “Your health, Banner-General. Furyk. Your health, and the health of the Empire.”

Karede drained Ajimbura’s cup without hesitation.

The Seeker departed as abruptly as he had entered, and moments after the door closed behind him, it opened to admit Ajimbura. The little man stared accusingly at the skull-cup in Karede’s hands.

“You know this rumor, Ajimbura?” As well ask whether the sun rose in the morning as ask whether the fellow had been listening. He did not deny it, in any case.

“I would not soil my tongue with such filth, high one,” he said, drawing himself up.

Karede permitted himself a sigh. Whether the High Lady Tuon’s disappearance was her own doing or some other’s, she was in great danger. And if the rumor was some ploy by Mor, the best way to defeat another’s game was to make the game your own. “Lay out my razor.” Sitting down, he reached for his pen, holding the sleeve of his robe clear of the ink with his left hand. “Then you will find Captain Musenge, when he is alone, and give him this. Return quickly; I will have more instructions for you.”

Shortly after noon on the following day, he was crossing the harbor on the ferry that departed each hour, according to the strict ringing of bells. It was a lumbering barge that heaved as long sweeps propelled it across the harbor’s choppy surface. The ropes lashing a merchant’s half-dozen canvas-covered wagons to the cleats on the deck creaked with every shift, the horses stamped their hooves nervously, and the oarsmen had to fend off wagon drivers and hired guards who wanted to empty their bellies over the side. Some men had no stomach for the motion of water. The merchant herself, a plump-faced woman with a coppery skin, stood in the bow wrapped in her dark cloak, balancing easily with the ferry’s movements, staring fixedly at the approaching landing and ignoring Karede beside her. She might know that he was Seanchan, from the saddle on his bay gelding if nothing else, but a plain gray cloak covered his red-trimmed green coat, so if she thought of him at all, it was as an ordinary soldier. Not a settler, with a sword on his hip. There might have been sharper eyes back in the city, despite all he had done to evade them, but there was nothing he could do about that. With luck, he had a day, perhaps two, before anyone realized he would not be returning to the inn any time soon.

Swinging into his saddle as soon as the ferry bumped hard against the landing dock’s leather-padded posts, he was first off when the loading gate swung aside, the merchant was still chivvying her drivers to the wagons and the ferrymen unlashing wheels. He kept Aldazar to a slow walk across the stones, still slippery with the morning’s rain, a litter of horse dung, and the leavings of a flock of sheep, and let the bay’s pace increase only when he reached the Illian Road itself, though he kept short of a trot even then. Impatience was a vice when beginning a journey of unknown length.

Inns lined the road beyond the landing, flat-roofed buildings, covered in cracked and flaking white plaster and with faded signs out front or none at all. This road marked the northern edge of the Rahad, and roughly dressed men slouching on benches in front of the inns sullenly watched him pass. Not because he was Seanchan; he suspected they would have been no brighter for anyone on horseback. Anyone who had two coins to rub, for that matter. Soon he left them behind, though, and the next few hours took him past olive orchards and small farms where the workers were accustomed enough to passersby on the road that they did not look up from their labors. The traffic was sparse in any case, a handful of high-wheeled farmers’ carts and twice a merchant’s train rumbling toward Ebou Dar, surrounded by hired guards. Many of the drivers and both merchants wore those distinctive Illianer beards. It seemed strange that Illian continued to send its trade to Ebou Dar while fighting to resist the Empire, but people on this side of the Eastern Sea were often peculiar, with odd customs, and little like the stories told of the great Hawkwing’s homeland. Often nothing like. They must be understood, of course, if they were to be brought into the Empire, but understanding was for others, higher than he. He had his duty.

The farms gave way to woodlands and fields of scrub, and his shadow was lengthening in front of him, the sun more than halfway to the horizon, by the time he saw what he was looking for. Just ahead, Ajimbura was squatting on the north side of the road, playing a reed flute, the image of an idler shirking. Before Karede reached him, he tucked the flute behind his belt, gathered his brown cloak and vanished into the brush and trees. Glancing behind to make sure the road was empty in that direction as well, Karede turned Aldazar into the woodland at the same point.

The little man was waiting just out of sight of the road, among a stand of some sort of large pine tree, the tallest easily a hundred feet. He made his hunch-shouldered bow and scrambled into the saddle of a lean chestnut with four white feet. He insisted that white feet on a horse were lucky. “This way, high one?” he said, and at Karede’s gesture of permission, turned his mount deeper into the forest.

They had only a short way to ride, no more than half a mile, but no one passing on the road could have suspected what waited there in a large clearing. Musenge had brought a hundred of the Guard on good horses and twenty Ogier Gardeners, all in full armor, along with pack animals to carry supplies for two weeks. The packhorse Ajimbura had brought out yesterday, with Karede’s armor, would be among them. A cluster of sul’dam were standing beside their own mounts, some petting the six leashed damane. When Musenge rode forward to meet Karede with Hartha, the First Gardener, striding grim-faced beside him with his green-tasseled axe over his shoulder. One of the women, Melitene, the High Lady Tuon’s der’sul’dam, stepped into her saddle and joined them.

Musenge and Hartha touched fists to heart, and Karede returned their salute, but his eyes went to the damane. To one in particular, a small woman whose hair was being stroked by a dark, square-faced sul’dam. A damane’s face was always deceptive—they aged slowly and lived a very long time—but this one had a difference he had learned to recognize as belonging to those who called themselves Aes Sedai. “What excuse did you use to get all of them out of the city at once?” he asked.

“Exercise, Banner-General,” Melitene replied with a wry smile. “Everyone always believes exercise.” It was said the High Lady Tuon in truth needed no der’sul’dam to train her property or her sul’dam, but Melitene, with less black than gray in her long hair, was experienced in more than her craft, and she knew what he was really asking. He had requested that Musenge bring a pair of damane, if he could. “None of us would be left behind, Banner-General. Never for this. As for Mylen...” That must be the former Aes Sedai. “After we left the city, we told the damane why we were going. It’s always best if they know what’s expected. We’ve been calming Mylen ever since. She loves the High Lady. They all do, but Mylen worships her as though she already sat on the Crystal Throne. If Mylen gets her hands on one of these ‘Aes Sedai,’ ” she chuckled, “we’ll have to be quick to keep the woman from being too battered to be worth leashing.”

“I see no cause for laughter,” Hartha rumbled. The Ogier was even more weathered and grizzled than Musenge, with long gray mustaches and eyes like black stones staring out of his helmet. He had been a Gardener since before Karede’s father was born, maybe before his grandfather. “We have no target. We are trying to catch the wind in a net.” Melitene sobered quickly, and Musenge began to look grimmer than Hartha, if that was possible.

In ten days, the people they sought would have put many miles behind them. The best the White Tower could send would not be so blatant as to head due east after trying the ruse of Jehannah, nor so stupid to as to head too close to north, yet that left a vast and ever expanding area to be searched. “Then we must begin spreading our nets without delay,” Karede said, “and spread them finely.”

Musenge and Hartha nodded. For the Deathwatch Guard, what must be done, would be done. Even to catching the wind.

CHAPTER 5
The Forging of a Hammer

He ran easily through the night in spite of the snow that covered the ground. He was one with the shadows, slipping through the forest, the moonlight almost as clear to his eyes as the light of the sun. A cold wind ruffled his thick fur, and suddenly brought a scent that made his hackles stand and his heart race with a hatred greater than that for the Neverborn. Hatred, and a sure knowledge of death coming. There were no choices to be made, not now. He ran harder, toward death.

Perrin woke abruptly in the deep darkness before dawn, beneath one of the high-wheeled supply carts. Cold had seeped into his bones from the ground despite his heavy fur-lined cloak and two blankets, and there was a fitful breeze, not strong or steady enough to be called a light wind, but icy. When he scrubbed at his face with gauntleted hands, frost crackled in his short beard. At least it seemed not to have snowed any more during the night. Too often he had awakened covered with a dusting despite the shelter of a cart, and snowfall made things difficult for the scouts. He wished he could speak with Elyas the same way he talked with wolves. Then he would not have to endure this endless waiting. Weariness clung to him like a second skin; he could not recall when he had last had a sound night’s sleep. Sleep, or the lack of it, seemed unimportant anyway. These days, only the heat of anger gave him the strength to keep moving.

He did not think it was the dream that had wakened him. Every night he lay down expecting nightmares, and every night they came. In the worst, he found Faile dead, or never found her. Those woke him up in shivering sweats. Anything less horrible, he slept through, or only half-woke with Trollocs cutting him up alive for the cookpot or a Draghkar eating his soul. This dream was fading quickly, in the manner of dreams, yet he remembered being a wolf and smelling... What? Something wolves hated more than they did Myrddraal. Something a wolf knew would kill him. The knowledge he had had in the dream was gone; only vague impressions remained. He had not been in the wolf dream, that reflection of this world where dead wolves lived on and the living could go to consult them. The wolf dream always remained clear in his head after he left, whether he had gone there consciously or not. Yet this dream still seemed real, and somehow urgent.

Lying motionless on his back, he sent his mind questing, feeling for wolves. He had tried using wolves to help his hunt, to no avail. Convincing them to take an interest in the doings of two-legs was difficult, to say the least. They avoided large parties of men, and for them, half a dozen was large enough to stay clear of. Men chased away game, and most men tried to kill a wolf on sight. His thoughts found nothing, but then, after a time, he touched wolves, at a distance. How far, he could not be sure, but it was like catching a whisper almost on the edge of hearing. A long way. That was strange. Despite scattered villages and manors and even the occasional town, this was prime country for wolves, untouched forest for the most part, with plenty of deer and smaller game.

There was always a formality to speaking with a pack you were not part of. Politely, he sent his name among wolves, Young Bull, shared his scent, and received theirs in reply, Leafhunter and Tall Bear, White Tail and Feather and Thunder Mist, a cascade of others. It was a sizable pack, and Leafhunter, a female with a feel of quiet certainty, was their leader. Feather, clever and in his prime, was her mate. They had heard of Young Bull, were eager to speak with the friend of the fabled Long Tooth, the first two-legs who had learned to speak with wolves after a gap of time that carried the feel of Ages vanished into the mists of the past. It was all a torrent of images and memories of scents that his mind turned into words, as the words he thought somehow became images and scents they could understand.

There is something I want to learn, he thought, once the greetings were done. What would a wolf hate more than the Neverborn? He tried to recall the scent from the dream, to add that, but it was gone from his memory. Something that a wolf knows means death.

Silence answered him, and a thread of fear blended with hatred and determination and reluctance. He had felt fear from wolves before—above all things they feared the wildfire that raced through a forest, or so he would have said—but this was the prickling sort of fear that made a man’s skin crawl, made him shiver and jump at things unseen. Laced with the resolution to go on no matter what, it felt close to terror. Wolves never experienced that kind of dread. Except that these did.

One by one they faded from his consciousness, a deliberate act of shutting him out, until only Leafhunter remained. The Last Hunt is coming, she said at last, and then she also was gone.

Did I offend? he sent. If I did, it was in ignorance. But there was no reply. These wolves, at least, would not speak with him again, not any time soon.

The Last Hunt is coming. That was what wolves called the Last Battle, Tarmon Gai’don. They knew they would be there, at the final confrontation between the Light and the Shadow, though why was something they could not explain. Some things were fated, as sure as the rise and fall of the sun and the moon, and it was fated that many wolves would die in the Last Hunt. What they feared was something else. Perrin had a strong sense that he also had to be there, was meant to be at least, but if the Last Battle came soon, he would not be. He had a job of work in front of him that he could not shirk—would not!—even for Tarmon Gai’don.

Putting nameless fears and the Last Battle alike out of his mind, he fumbled his gauntlets off and felt in his coat pocket for the length of rawhide cord he kept there. In a morning ritual, his fingers made another knot mechanically, then slid down the cord, counting. Twenty-two knots. Twenty-two mornings since Faile was kidnapped.

At the start, he had not thought there was need to keep count. That first day, he had believed he was cold and numb but focused, yet looking back he could see he had been overwhelmed by unbound rage and a consuming need to find the Shaido as fast as possible. Men from other clans had been among the Aiel who had stolen Faile, yet on the evidence, most were Shaido, and that was how he thought of them. The need to rip Faile away from them, before she could be hurt, had gripped him by the throat till he almost choked. He would rescue the other women captured with her, of course, but sometimes he had to list their names in his head to make sure he did not forget them entirely. Alliandre Maritha Kigarin, Queen of Ghealdan, and his liege woman. It still seemed off-kilter to have anyone oathsworn to him, especially a queen—he was a blacksmith! He had been a blacksmith, once—but he had responsibilities toward Alliandre, and she would never have been in danger except for him. Bain of the Black Rock Shaarad and Chiad of the Stones River Goshien, Aiel Maidens of the Spear who had followed Faile to Ghealdan and Amadicia. They had faced Trollocs in the Two Rivers, as well, when Perrin needed every hand that could raise a weapon, and that earned them the right to call on him. Arrela Shiego and Lacile Aldorwin, two foolish young women who thought they could learn to be Aiel, or some strange version of Aiel. They were oathsworn to Faile, and so was Maighdin Dorlain, a penniless refugee Faile had taken under her wing as one of her maids. He could not abandon Faile’s people. Faile ni Bashere t’Aybara.

The litany came back to her, his wife, the breath of his life. With a groan, he clutched the cord so tightly that the knots impressed themselves painfully on a hand hardened by long days swinging the hammer at a forge. Light, twenty-two days!

Working iron had taught him that haste ruined metal, but in the beginning, he had been hasty, Traveling southward through gateways created by Grady and Neald, the two Asha’man, to where the farthest traces of the Shaido had been found, then leaping south again, the direction their tracks went, as soon as the Asha’man could make more gateways. Fretting every hour it took them to rest from making the first and holding them open long enough for everyone to pass through, his mind was eaten up with freeing Faile at any cost. What he found were days of increasing pain as the scouts spread farther and farther through uninhabited wilderness without locating the slightest sign that anyone had been that way before, until he knew he had to retrace his path, frittering away more days to cover ground the Asha’man had taken him across in a step, searching for any indication of where the Shaido had turned aside.

He should have known they would turn. South took them toward warmer lands, without the snow that seemed so strange to Aiel, yet it took them closer to the Seanchan in Ebou Dar, as well. He knew about the Seanchan, and he should have expected the Shaido to learn! They were after pillage, not a fight with Seanchan and damane. Days of slow marching with the scouts fanning out ahead, days when falling snow blinded even the Aiel and forced them all to a chafing halt, until finally Jondyn Barran found a tree scraped by a wagon and Elyas dug a broken Aiel spear shaft from beneath the snow. And Perrin at last turned east, at most two days south of where he had Traveled to the first time. He had wanted to howl when he realized that, yet he kept a tight hold on himself. He could not give way, not so much as an inch, not when Faile was depending on him. That was when he began to husband his anger, began to forge it.

Her kidnappers had gained a long lead because he was hasty, but since then, he had been as careful as he had been in a smithy. His anger was hardened and shaped to a purpose. Since finding the Shaido’s trail again, he had Traveled no farther in one jump than the scouts could go and come between sunrise and sunset, and it was well that he had been cautious, because the Shaido changed directions suddenly several times, zigzagging almost as though they could not decide on a destination. Or maybe they had turned to joined others of their kind. All he had to go by were old traces, old camps buried by snow, yet all of the scouts agreed the Shaido’s numbers had swollen. There had to be at least two or three septs together, maybe more, a formidable quarry to hunt. Slowly but surely, though, he had begun overtaking them. That was what was important.

The Shaido covered more ground on the march than he would have thought possible, given their numbers and the snow, yet they did not seem to care whether anyone was tracking them. Perhaps they believed no one dared. Sometimes they had camped several days in one spot. Anger forged to a purpose. Ruined villages and small towns and estates littered the Shaido’s path as if they were human locusts, storehouses and valuables looted, men and women carried off along with the livestock. Often no one remained by the time he arrived, only empty houses, the people seeking somewhere for food to survive until spring. He had crossed the Eldar into Altara where a small ferry used by peddlers and local farmers, not merchants, once ran between two villages on the forested riverbanks. How the Shaido had gotten across, he did not know, but he had the Asha’man make gateways. All that remained of the ferry were the rough stone landings on either bank, and the few unburned structures were deserted except for three slat-ribbed feral dogs that slunk away at the sight of humans. Anger hardened and shaped for a hammer.

Yesterday morning, he had come to a tiny village where a double handful of stunned, dirty-faced people had stared at the hundreds of lancers and bowmen riding out of the forest at first light behind the Red Eagle of Manetheren and the crimson Wolfshead, the Silver Stars of Ghealdan and the Golden Hawk of Mayene, followed by long lines of high-wheeled carts and strings of remounts. At first sight of Gaul and the other Aiel, those people overcame their paralysis and began running for the trees in panic. Catching a few to answer questions had been difficult; they were ready to run themselves to death rather than let an Aiel near. Brytan had consisted of only a dozen families, but the Shaido had carried off nine young men and women from there, along with all of their animals, only two days ago. Two days. A hammer was a tool with a purpose, and a target.

He knew he had to be careful, or lose Faile forever, but being too careful could lose her, too. Early yesterday he had told those who were going ahead to scout that they were to go farther than before, push on harder, returning only with a full turn of the sun unless they found the Shaido sooner. In a little while the sun would rise, and at most a few hours after that, Elyas and Gaul and the others would return, the Maidens and Two Rivers men he knew could track a shadow across water. As fast as the Shaido moved, the scouts could move faster. They were not encumbered with families and wagons and captives. This time, they would be able to tell him exactly where the Shaido were. They would. He knew it in his bones. The certainty flowed in his veins. He would find Faile and free her. That came before anything, even living, so long as he lived long enough to accomplish it, yet he was a hammer, now, and if there was any way to accomplish it, any way at all, he intended to hammer these Shaido into scrap.

Tossing the blankets aside, Perrin tugged his gauntlets back on, gathered his axe from where it lay beside him, a half-moon blade balanced by a heavy spike, and rolled out into the open, rising to his feet on trampled, frozen snow. Carts stood all around him in rows, in what had been Brytan’s fields. The arrival of more strangers, so many, and armed, with their foreign banners, had been more than the survivors of the little village could absorb. As soon as Perrin would let them, the pitiful remnant had fled into the forest, carrying what they could on their backs and on drag-sleds. They had run as hard as if Perrin was another Shaido, not looking back for fear he was following them.

As he slipped the axe haft through the thick loop on his belt, a deeper shadow beside a nearby cart grew taller and resolved into a man swathed in a cloak that seemed black in the darkness. Perrin was not surprised; the nearby horselines thickened the air with the smell of several thousand animals, mounts and remounts and cart horses, not to mention the sweet stink of horse dung, but he still had caught the other’s scent on waking. Man smell always stood out. Besides, Aram was always there when Perrin woke, waiting. A waning sickle moon low in the sky still gave enough light for him to make out the other man’s face, if not clearly, and the brass-pommeled hilt of his sword slanting up past his shoulder. Aram had been a Tinker once, but Perrin did not think he would be again, even if he did wear a brightly striped Tinker coat. There was a frowning hardness about Aram now that moon shadows could not hide. He stood as though ready to draw that sword, and since Faile was taken, anger seemed a permanent part of his scent. A great deal had changed when Faile was taken. Anyway, Perrin understood anger. He had not, not really, before Faile was taken.

“They want to see you, Lord Perrin,” Aram said, jerking his head toward two dim forms farther away between the lines of carts. The words came out in a faint mist in the cold air. “I told them to let you sleep.” It was a fault Aram had, looking after him too much, unasked.

Testing the air, Perrin separated out the scents of those two shadows from the masking smell of the horses. “I’ll see them now. Have Stepper readied for me, Aram.” He tried to be in the saddle before the rest of the camp woke. Partly that was because standing still for long seemed beyond him. Standing still was not catching the Shaido. Partly it was to avoid having to share anyone’s company he could avoid. He would have gone out with the scouts himself if the men and women already doing that job were not so much better at it than he.

“Yes, my Lord.” A jaggedness entered Aram’s scent as he trudged away across the snow, but Perrin barely noted it. Only something important would make Sebban Balwer root himself out of his blankets in the dark, and as for Selande Darengil...

Balwer appeared skinny even in a bulky cloak, his pinched face all but hidden in the deep hood. Had he stood straight instead of hunching, he still would have been at most a hand taller than the Cairhienin woman, who was not tall. With his arms wrapped around himself, he was hopping from one foot to the other, trying to avoid the cold that must be soaking through his boots. Selande, in a man’s dark coat and breeches, made a good effort at ignoring the temperature despite the feathery white that marked every breath. She was shivering, but managed to swagger standing still, with one side of her cloak thrown back and a gloved hand on the hilt of her sword. The hood of her cloak was lowered, too, exposing hair cut short except for the tail in the back that was tied at the nape of her neck with a dark ribbon. Selande was the leader of those fools who wanted to be imitation Aiel, Aiel who carried swords. Her scent was soft and thick, like a jelly. She was worried. Balwer smelled... intent... but then, he nearly always did, though there was never any heat to his intensity, only focus.

The skinny little man stopped hopping to make a stiff, hurried bow. “The Lady Selande has news I think you should hear from her lips, my Lord.” Balwer’s thin voice was dry and precise, just like its owner. He would sound the same with his neck on a headsman’s block. “My Lady, if you would?” He was only a secretary—Faile’s secretary, and Perrin’s—a fussy self-effacing fellow for the most part, and Selande was a noblewoman, but Balwer made that more than a request.

She gave him a sharp sideways glance, shifting her sword, and Perrin tensed to grab her. He did not think she would actually draw on the man, but then again, he was not sure enough of her, or any of her ridiculous friends, to put it out of the question. Balwer merely watched her, his head tilted to one side, and his smell carried impatience, not concern.

With a toss of her head, Selande turned her attention to Perrin. “I see you, Lord Perrin Goldeneyes,” she began in the crisp accents of Cairhien, but, aware that he had little patience for her pretend Aiel formality, she hurried on. “I have learned three things tonight. First, the least important, Haviar reported that Masema sent another rider back toward Amadicia yesterday. Nerion tried to follow, but lost him.”

“Tell Nerion I said he isn’t to follow anybody,” Perrin told her sharply. “And tell Haviar the same. They should know that! They are to watch, listen, and report what they see and hear, no more. Do you understand me?” Selande gave a quick nod, a thorn of fear entering her scent for a moment. Fear of him, Perrin supposed, fear that he was angry with her. Yellow eyes on a man made some people uneasy. He took his hand from his axe and clasped both hands behind his back.

Haviar and Nerion were more of Faile’s two dozen young fools, one Tairen, the other Cairhienin. Faile had used the lot of them for eyes-and-ears, a fact that still irritated him for some reason, though she had told him to his face that spying was a wife’s business. A man needed to listen hard when he thought his wife was joking; she might not be. The whole notion of spying made him uncomfortable, but if Faile could use them so, then so could her husband, when there was need. Just the two, though. Masema seemed convinced that everyone except Darkfriends were fated to follow him sooner or later, yet he might grow suspicious if too many left Perrin’s camp to join him.

“Don’t call him Masema, not even here,” he added brusquely. Lately the man claimed Masema Dagar was actually dead and risen from the grave as the Prophet of the Lord Dragon Reborn, and he was touchier than ever about mention of his former name. “You get careless with your tongue in the wrong place, and you might be lucky if he just has a few of his bullyboys flog you the next time they can find you alone.” Selande nodded again, gravely, and this time without any fear smell. Light, those idiots of Faile’s lacked the sense to recognize what they should be afraid of.

“It’s almost dawn,” Balwer murmured, shivering and pulling his cloak tighter. “All will be waking before long, and some matters are best discussed unseen. If my Lady will continue?” Once again, that was more than a suggestion. Selande and the rest of Faile’s hangers-on had been good only for causing trouble, that Perrin could see, and Balwer looked to be trying to put a fly up her nose for some reason, but she actually gave an embarrassed start and murmured an apology.

The darkness truly was beginning to lessen, Perrin realized, at least to his eyes. The sky overhead still looked black, dusted with bright stars, yet he could almost make out the colors of the six thin stripes that crossed the front of Selande’s coat. He could tell one from another, anyway. The realization that he had slept later than usual made him growl. He could not afford to give in to weariness, however tired he was! He needed to hear Selande’s report—she would not be worried about Masema sending out riders; the man did that almost every day—yet he looked anxiously for Aram and Stepper. His ears picked up the sounds of activity among the horselines, but there was no sign of his horse yet.

“The second thing, my Lord,” Selande said, “is that Haviar has seen casks of salt fish and salt beef branded with Altaran markings, a great many of them. He says there are Altarans among Mas... among the Prophet’s people, too. Several appear to be craftsfolk, and one or two could be merchants or town officials. Established men and women, in any case, solid folk, and some seem unsure they made the right decision. A few questions might reveal from where the fish and beef came. And perhaps gain more eyes-and-ears for you.”

“I know where the fish and beef came from and so do you,” Perrin said irritably. His hands knotted into fists behind his back. He had hoped the speed with which he was moving would keep Masema from sending out raiding parties. That was what they were, and as bad as the Shaido if not worse. They offered people a chance to swear to the Dragon Reborn, and those who refused, sometimes those who simply hesitated too long, died by fire and steel. In any case, whether or not they marched off to follow Masema, those who swore were expected to donate generously in support of the Prophet’s cause, while those who died were plainly Darkfriends, their belongings forfeit. Thieves lost a hand, by Masema’s laws, but none of what his raiders did was thieving, according to Masema. By his laws, murder and a whole host of other crimes merited hanging, yet a fair number of his followers seemed to prefer killing to receiving oaths. There was more loot, that way, and for some of them murder was a fine game to play before eating.

“Tell them to keep clear of these Altarans,” Perrin went on. “All sorts drift into Masema’s following, and even if they are having second thoughts, it won’t take them long to stink of zeal like the rest. They wouldn’t hesitate to gut a neighbor then, much less somebody who’s asked the wrong questions. What I want to know is what Masema’s doing, what he’s planning.”

That the man had some scheme seemed obvious. Masema claimed it was blasphemy for anyone except Rand to touch the One Power, claimed he wanted nothing more than to join Rand in the east. As always, thought of Rand brought colors whirling through Perrin’s head, more vividly than usual this time, but anger melted them to vapor. Blasphemy or no, Masema had accepted Traveling, which was not just channeling but men channeling. And no matter what he claimed, he had done it to remain in the west as long as possible, not to help rescue Faile. Perrin tended to trust people until they proved unreliable, but one sniff of Masema had told him the fellow was as insane as a rabid animal and less trustworthy.

He had considered ways to stop that scheme, whatever it was. Ways to stop Masema’s killing and burning. Masema had ten or twelve thousand men with him, maybe more—the man was not very forthcoming about numbers, and the way they camped in a squalid sprawl made counting impossible—while less than a quarter of that number followed Perrin, several hundred of them cart drivers and grooms and others who would be more hindrance than help in a fight, yet with three Aes Sedai and two Asha’man, not to mention six Aiel Wise Ones, he could halt Masema in his tracks. The Wise Ones and two of the Aes Sedai would be eager to take part. More than simply willing, at least. They wanted Masema dead. But dispersing Masema’s army would only break it into hundreds of smaller bands that would scatter across Altara and beyond, still looting and killing, just for themselves instead of in the name of the Dragon Reborn. Breaking the Shaido will do the same thing, he thought, and pushed the thought away. Stopping Masema would take time he did not have. The man would have to keep until Faile was safe. Until the Shaido were smashed to kindling.

“What’s the third thing you learned tonight, Selande?” he said roughly. To his surprise, the smell of worry coming from the woman thickened.

“Haviar saw someone,” she said slowly. “He did not tell me at first.” Her voice hardened for a moment. “I made sure that will not happen again!” Drawing a deep breath, she seemed to struggle with herself, then burst out, “Masuri Sedai has visited Masema... the Prophet. It is true, my Lord; believe me! Haviar has seen her more than once. She slips into their camp hooded and leaves the same way, but he has had a good look at her face twice. A man accompanies her each time, and sometimes another woman. Haviar has not seen the man well enough to be sure, but the description fits Rovair, Masuri’s Warder, and Haviar is certain the second woman is Annoura Sedai.”

She broke off abruptly, her eyes shining darkly in the moonlight as she watched him. Light, she was as worried about how he would take it as by what it meant! He forced his hands to unclench. Masema despised Aes Sedai as much as he did Darkfriends; he nearly considered them Darkfriends. So why would he receive two sisters? Why would they go to him? Annoura’s opinion of Masema lay hidden behind Aes Sedai mystery and double-jointed comments that could mean anything, but Masuri had said straight out that the man needed to be put down like a mad dog.

“Make sure Haviar and Nerion keep a sharp eye for the sisters and see if they can eavesdrop on one of their meetings with Masema.” Could Haviar be mistaken? No, there were few women in Masema’s camp, relatively speaking, and it passed belief that the Tairen could mistake one of those unwashed murderous-eyed harridans for Masuri. The sort of women willing to march with Masema usually made the men look like Tinkers. “Tell them to take care, though. Better to let the chance pass than get caught at it. They’re no good to anyone strung up on a tree.” Perrin knew he sounded gruff, and tried to make his voice milder. That seemed harder since Faile was kidnapped. “You’ve done well, Selande.” At least he did not sound as if he were barking at her. “You and Haviar and Nerion. Faile would be proud if she knew.”

A smile lit up her face, and she stood a little straighter, if that was possible. Pride, clean and bright, the pride of accomplishment, almost overwhelmed any other scent from her! “Thank you, my Lord. Thank you!” You would have thought he had given her a prize. Maybe he had, come to think on it. Though come to think Faile might not be best pleased that he was using her eyes-and-ears, or even knew about them. Once, the thought of Faile displeased would have made him uneasy, but that was before he learned about her spies. And that little matter of the Broken Crown that Elyas had let slip. Everybody always said that wives kept their secrets close, but there were limits!

Adjusting his cloak on his narrow shoulders with one hand, Balwer coughed behind the other. “Well said, my Lord. Very well said. My Lady, I’m sure you want to pass on Lord Perrin’s instructions as soon as possible. It wouldn’t do for there to be any misunderstanding.”

Selande nodded without taking her eyes off Perrin. Her mouth opened, and Perrin was sure she intended to say something about hoping he found water and shade. Light, water was the one thing they had in plenty, even if it was mostly frozen, and this time of year, nobody needed shade even at noon! She probably did intend it, because she hesitated before saying, “Grace favor you, my Lord. If I may be so bold, Grace has favored the Lady Faile in you.”

Perrin jerked his head in a nod of thanks. There was a taste of ashes in his mouth. Grace had a funny way of favoring Faile, giving her a husband who still had not found her after more than two weeks of searching. The Maidens said she had been made gai’shain, that she would not be mistreated, but they had to admit these Shaido already had broken their customs a hundred different ways. In his book, being kidnapped was mistreatment enough. Bitter ashes.

“The lady will do very well, my Lord,” Balwer said softly, watching Selande vanish into the darkness among the carts. This approval was a surprise; he had tried to talk Perrin out of using Selande and her friends on the grounds they were hotheaded and unreliable. “She has the necessary instincts. Cairhienin do, usually, and Tairens to some extent, at least the nobles, especially once—” He cut off abruptly, and eyed Perrin cautiously. If he were another man, Perrin would have believed he had said more than he intended, but he doubted Balwer slipped in that fashion. The man’s scent remained steady, not jiggling the way it would in a man who was unsure. “May I offer one or two points on her report, my Lord?”

The crunch of hooves in the snow announced the approach of Aram, leading Perrin’s dun stallion and his own rangy gray gelding. The two animals were trying to nip at one another, and Aram was keeping them well apart, though with some difficulty. Balwer sighed.

“You can say whatever you need to in front of Aram, Master Balwer,” Perrin said. The little man bowed his head in acquiescence, but he sighed again, too. Everybody in the camp knew that Balwer had the skill of fitting together rumors and chance-heard comments and things people had done to form a picture of what had really happened or what might, and Balwer himself considered that part of his job as a secretary, but for some reason he liked to pretend he never did any such thing. It was a harmless pretense, and Perrin tended to humor him.

Taking Stepper’s reins from Aram, he said, “Walk behind us awhile, Aram. I need to talk with Master Balwer in private.” Balwer’s sigh was so faint that Perrin barely heard it.

Aram fell in behind the two of them without a word as they began to walk, frozen snow cracking beneath their feet, but his scent grew spiky again, and quivery, a thin, sour smell. This time, Perrin recognized the scent, though he paid it no more mind than usual. Aram was jealous of anyone except Faile who spent time with him. Perrin saw no way to put a stop to it, and anyway, he was as used to Aram’s possessiveness as he was to the way Balwer hopped along at his side, glancing over his shoulder to see whether Aram was close enough to hear when he finally decided to speak. Balwer’s razor-thin scent of suspicion, curiously dry and not even warm but still suspicion, provided a counterpoint to Aram’s jealousy. You could not change men who did not want to change.

The horselines and supply carts were located in the middle of the camp, where thieves would have a hard time reaching them, and although the sky still looked black to most eyes, the cart drivers and grooms, who slept close to their charges, were already awake and folding their blankets, some tending shelters made of pine boughs and other small tree limbs harvested from the surrounding forest, in case they might be needed another night. Cook fires were being lit and small black kettles set over them, though there was little to eat except porridge or dried beans. Hunting and trapping added some meat, venison and rabbits, partridges and woodhens and the like, but that could only go so far with so many to feed, and there had been nowhere to buy supplies since before crossing the Eldar. A ripple of bows and curtsies and murmurs of “A good morning, my Lord” and “The Light favor you, my Lord” followed Perrin, but the men and women who saw him stopped trying to strengthen their shelters, and a few began to pull theirs down, as though they had sensed his determination from his stride. They should have known his resolve by now. Since the day he realized how badly he had blundered, he had not spent two nights in one place. He returned the greetings without slowing.

The rest of the camp made a thin ring around the horses and carts, facing the encircling forest, with the Two Rivers men divided into four groups and the lancers from Ghealdan and Mayene spaced between them. Whoever came at them, from whatever direction, would face Two Rivers longbows and trained cavalry. It was not a sudden appearance by the Shaido that Perrin feared, but rather Masema. The man seemed to be following him meekly enough, but aside from this news of raiding, nine Ghealdanin and eight Mayeners had vanished in the last two weeks, and no one believed they had deserted. Before that, on the day Faile was stolen, twenty Mayeners had been ambushed and killed, and no one believed it had been anyone but Masema’s men who did the killing. So an uneasy peace existed, a strange thorny sort of peace, yet a copper wagered on it lasting forever was likely a copper lost. Masema pretended to be unaware of any danger to that peace, but his followers seemed not to care one way or the other, and whatever Masema pretended, they took their lead from him. Somehow, though, Perrin intended to see that it endured until Faile was free. Making his own camp too tough a nut to crack was one way of making the peace last.

The Aiel had insisted on having their own thin wedge of the strange pie, though there were fewer than fifty of them, counting the gai’shain who served the Wise Ones, and he paused to study their low dark tents. The only other tents erected anywhere in the camp were those of Berelain and her two serving women, on the other side of the camp, not far from Brytan’s few houses. Fleas and lice in hordes made those uninhabitable, even for hardened soldiers seeking shelter from the cold, and the barns were putrid ramshackle affairs that let the wind howl through and harbored worse vermin than the houses. The Maidens and Gaul, the only man among the Aiel not gai’shain, were all out with the scouts, and the Aiel tents were silent and still, though the smell of smoke coming from some of the vent holes told him the gai’shain were preparing breakfast for the Wise Ones, or serving it. Annoura was Berelain’s adviser, and usually shared her tent, but Masuri and Seonid would be with the Wise Ones, maybe even helping the gai’shain with breakfast. They still tried to hide the fact that the Wise Ones considered them apprentices, though everyone in camp must be aware of it by now. Anyone who saw an Aes Sedai actually carrying firewood or water, or heard one being switched, could make it out. The two Aes Sedai were oathsworn to Rand—again the colors whirled in his head, an explosion of hues; again they melted under his constant anger—but Edarra and the other Wise Ones had been sent to keep an eye on them.

Only the Aes Sedai themselves knew how tightly their oaths held them, or what room they saw to maneuver between the words, and neither was allowed to hop unless a Wise One said toad. Seonid and Masuri had both said Masema should be put down like a mad dog, and the Wise Ones agreed. Or so they said. They had no Three Oaths to hold them to the truth, though in truth, that particular Oath held the Aes Sedai more in letter than spirit. And he seemed to recall one of the Wise Ones telling him that Masuri thought that the mad dog could be leashed. Not allowed to hop unless a Wise One said toad. It was like a blacksmith’s puzzle with the edges of the metal pieces sharpened. He needed to solve it, but one mistake and he could cut himself to the bone.

From the corner of his eye, Perrin caught Balwer watching him, lips pursed in thought. A bird studying something unfamiliar, not afraid, not hungry, just curious. Gathering Stepper’s reins, he walked on so quickly that the little man had to lengthen his stride into small jumps to catch up.

Two Rivers men had the segment of camp next to the Aiel, facing northeast, and Perrin considered walking a little north, to where Ghealdanin lancers were camped, or south to the nearest Mayener section, but taking a deep breath, he made himself lead his horse through his friends and neighbors from home. They were all awake, huddling in their cloaks and feeding the remnants of their shelters into the cook fires or cutting up the cold remains of last night’s rabbit to add to the porridge in the kettles. Talk dwindled and the smell of wariness grew thick as heads lifted to watch him. Whetstones paused in sliding along steel, then resumed their sibilant whispering. The bow was their preferred weapon, but everyone carried a heavy dagger or a short-sword as well, or sometimes a longsword, and they had picked up spears and halberds and other polearms with strange blades and points that the Shaido had not thought worth carrying off with their pillage. Spears they were accustomed to, and hands used to wielding the quarterstaff at feastday competitions found the polearms not much different once the weight of metal on one end was accounted for. Their faces were hungry, tired and withdrawn.

Someone raised a halfhearted cry of “Goldeneyes!” but no one took it up, a thing that would have pleased Perrin a month gone. A great deal had changed since Faile was taken. Now their silence was leaden. Young Kenly Maerin, his cheeks still pale where he had scraped off his attempt at a beard, avoided meeting Perrin’s eyes, and Jori Congar, lightfingered whenever he saw anything small and valuable and drunk whenever he could manage it, spat contemptuously as Perrin passed by. Ban Crawe punched Jori’s shoulder for it, hard, but Ban did not look at Perrin either.

Dannil Lewin stood up, tugging nervously at the thick mustache that looked so ridiculous beneath his beak of a nose. “Orders, Lord Perrin?” The skinny man actually looked relieved when Perrin shook his head, and he sat down again quickly, staring at the nearest kettle as though he were anxious for the morning gruel. Maybe he was; nobody got a full belly lately, and Dannil had never had much spare flesh on his bones. Behind Perrin, Aram made a disgusted sound very like a growl.

There were others here besides Two Rivers folk, yet they were no better. Oh, Lamgwin Dorn, a hulking fellow with scars on his face, tugged his forelock and bobbed his head. Lamgwin looked like a shoulderthumper, a tavern tough, but he was Perrin’s bodyservant now, when he had need of one, which was not often, and he might just want to keep in a good odor with his employer. But Basel Gill, the stout onetime innkeeper Faile had taken on as their shambayan, busied himself folding his blankets with exaggerated care, keeping his balding head down, and Faile’s chief maid, Lini Eltring, a bony woman whose tight white bun made her face seem even narrower than it was, straightened from stirring a kettle, her thin lips compressed, and raised her long wooden spoon as if to fend Perrin off. Breane Taborwin, dark eyes fierce in her pale Cairhienin face, slapped Lamgwin’s arm hard and frowned up at him. She was Lamgwin’s woman, if not his wife, and the second of Faile’s three maids. They would follow the Shaido till they dropped dead, if necessary, and fall on Faile’s neck when they found her, but only Lamgwin had an ounce of welcome for Perrin. He might have gotten more from Jur Grady—the Asha’man were estranged from everyone else themselves, by who and what they were, and neither had shown any animosity toward Perrin—but despite the noise of people tramping about on the frozen snow and cursing when they slipped, Grady was still wrapped in his blankets, snoring away beneath a pine-branch lean-to. Perrin walked through his friends and neighbors and servants and felt alone. A man could only proclaim his faithfulness so long before he just gave up. The heart of his life lay somewhere to the northeast. Everything would return to normal once he had her back.

A thicket of sharpened stakes ten paces deep encircled the camp, and he went to the edge of the Ghealdanin lancers’ section, where angled paths had been left for mounted men to ride out, though Balwer and Aram had to fall in behind him in the narrow way. In front of the Two Rivers men, a man afoot would have to twist and turn to make it through. The edge of the forest lay little more than a hundred paces distant, easy bowshot for Two Rivers men, huge trees thrusting a canopy high into the sky. Some of the trees here were strange to Perrin, but there were pines and leatherleaf and elms out there, some as much as three or four paces thick at the base, and oaks that were larger still. Trees that big killed anything larger than weeds or small bushes that tried to grow beneath them, leaving wide spaces between, but shadows darker than the night filled those spaces. An old forest, one that could swallow armies whole and never give up the bones.

Balwer followed him all the way through the stakes before deciding that this was as close to alone with Perrin as he was likely to get any time soon. “The riders Masema has sent out, my Lord,” he said, and holding his cloak close he cast a suspicious look back at Aram, who met it with a flat stare.

“I know,” Perrin said, “you think they’re going to the Whitecloaks.” He was eager to be moving, and that much farther from his friends. He put the hand holding his reins on the saddlebow, but refrained from putting a boot in the stirrup. Stepper tossed his head, also impatient. “Masema could be sending messages to the Seanchan just as easily.”

“As you have said, my Lord. A viable possibility, to be sure. May I suggest once again, however, that Masema’s view of Aes Sedai is very close to that of the Whitecloaks? In fact, identical. He would see every last sister dead, if he could. The Seanchan view is more... pragmatic, if I may be permitted to call it that. Less in accord with Masema, in any case.”

“However much you hate Whitecloaks, Master Balwer, they aren’t at the root of every evil. And Masema has dealt with the Seanchan before.”

“As you say, my Lord.” Balwer’s face did not change, but he reeked of doubt. Perrin could not prove Masema’s meetings with the Seanchan, and telling anyone how he had learned of them would only add to his present difficulties. That gave Balwer problems; he was a man who liked evidence. “As for the Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones, my Lord... . Aes Sedai always seem to believe they know better than anyone else, except possibly another Aes Sedai. I believe the Wise Ones are much the same.”

Perrin snorted brief white plumes in the air. “Tell me something I don’t know. Like why Masuri would meet with Masema, and why the Wise Ones allowed it. I’ll wager Stepper against a horseshoe nail she didn’t do it without their permission.” Annoura was another question, but she could be acting on her own. It certainly seemed unlikely she was acting at Berelain’s behest.

Shifting his cloak on his shoulders, Balwer peered back across the rows of sharpened stakes into the camp, toward the Aiel tents, squinting as if he hoped to see through the tent walls. “There are many possibilities, my Lord,” he said testily. “For some who swear an oath, whatever is not forbidden is permitted, and whatever is not commanded can be ignored. Others take actions they believe will help their liege without first asking permission. The Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones fall into one of those categories, it seems, but further than that, I can only speculate, as matters stand.”

“I could just ask. Aes Sedai can’t lie, and if I press hard enough, Masuri might actually tell me the truth.”

Balwer grimaced as though at a sudden stomach pain. “Perhaps, my Lord. Perhaps. More likely is that she would tell you something that sounds like the truth. Aes Sedai are experienced in that, as you know. In any event, my Lord, Masuri would wonder how you knew to ask, and that line of thought might lead to Haviar and Nerion. Under the circumstances, who can say who she might tell? Straightforward is not always the best way. Sometimes, certain things must be done behind masks, for safety.”

“I told you the Aes Sedai couldn’t be trusted,” Aram said abruptly. “I told you that, Lord Perrin.” He fell silent when Perrin raised a hand, but the stink of fury from him was so strong that Perrin had to exhale to clear his lungs. Part of him wanted to draw the scent deep and let it consume him.

Perrin studied Balwer carefully. If Aes Sedai could twist the truth till you could not tell up from down, and they could and did, how far could you trust? Trust was always the question. He had learned that in hard lessons. He took a firm check on his anger, though. A hammer had to be used with care, and he was working a forge where one slip would tear the heart out of his chest. “And might matters change if some of Selande’s friends began spending more time among the Aiel? They want to be Aiel, after all. That ought to give them enough excuse. And maybe one of them can strike up a friendship with Berelain, and with her advisor.”

“That should be possible, my Lord,” Balwer said after the slightest hesitation. “Lady Medore’s father is a High Lord of Tear, giving her sufficient rank to approach the First of Mayene, and also a reason. Possibly one or two of the Cairhienin stand high enough, as well. Finding those to live among the Aiel will be easier still.”

Perrin nodded. Infinite care with the hammer, however much you wanted to smash whatever lay within reach. “Then do it. But, Master Balwer, you’ve been trying to... guide... me to this since Selande left us. From now on, if you have a suggestion to make, make it. Even if I say no to nine in a row, I’ll always listen to a tenth. I’m not a clever man, but I’m willing to listen to people who are, and I think you are. Just don’t try poking me in the direction you want me to go. I don’t like that, Master Balwer.”

Balwer blinked, then of all things, bowed with his hands folded at his waist. He smelled surprised. And gratified. Gratified? “As you say, my Lord. My previous employer disliked me suggesting actions unless I was asked. I won’t make the same mistake again, I assure you.” Eyeing Perrin, he seemed to reach a decision. “If I may say so,” he said carefully, “I have found serving you... pleasant... in ways I did not expect. You are what you seem, my Lord, with no poisoned needles hidden away to catch the unwary. My previous employer was known widely for cleverness, but I believe you are equally clever, in a different way. I believe I would regret leaving your service. Any man might say these things to keep his place, but I mean them.”

Poisoned needles? Before entering Perrin’s service, Balwer’s last employment had been as secretary to a Murandian noblewoman fallen into hard times who could no longer afford to keep him. Murandy must be a rougher place than Perrin thought. “I see no reason for you to leave my employ. Just tell me what you want to do and let me decide, don’t try to prod. And forget the flattery.”

“I never flatter, my Lord. But I am adept at shaping myself to my master’s needs; it is a requirement of my profession.” The little man bowed once more. He had never been this formal before. “If you have no further questions, my Lord, may I go to find the Lady Medore?”

Perrin nodded. The little man bowed yet again, backing away, then went skittering toward the camp, his cloak fluttering behind him as he dodged through the sharpened stakes like a sparrow hopping across the snow. He was a strange fellow.

“I don’t trust him,” Aram muttered, staring after Balwer. “And I don’t trust Selande and that lot. They’ll throw in with the Aes Sedai, you mark my words.”

“You have to trust somebody,” Perrin said roughly. The question was, who? Swinging into Stepper’s saddle, he booted the dun in the ribs. A hammer was useless lying at rest.

CHAPTER 6
The Scent of a Dream

The cold air seemed clean and fresh in Perrin’s nose as he galloped into the forest, the breezes full of the crispness of the snow that fountained in sprays beneath Stepper’s hooves. Out here, he could forget old friends who were willing to believe the worst on rumor. He could try to forget Masema, and the Aes Sedai, and the Wise Ones. The Shaido were welded to the inside of his skull, however, an iron puzzle that would not yield no matter how he twisted. He wanted to wrench it apart, but that never worked with a blacksmith’s puzzle.

After one short burst of speed, he slowed the dun to a walk, feeling a touch of guilt. The darkness beneath the forest canopy was deep, and stone outcrops between the tall trees warned of more hidden beneath the snow, a hundred places that could break a running horse’s leg, and that without counting gopher holes and fox dens and badger sets. There was no need to take the risk. A gallop would not free Faile an hour sooner, and no horse could maintain that pace for long in any case. The snow here was knee-deep in places where it had drifted, and deep enough elsewhere. He rode northeast, though. The scouts would be coming from the northeast, with news of Faile. News of the Shaido, at least, a location. He had hoped for that so often, prayed for it, but today, he knew it would come. Yet knowing only increased his anxiety. Finding them was only the first part of solving this puzzle. Anger made his mind flash from one thing to another, yet no matter what Balwer said, Perrin knew he was methodical at best. He did not do well trying to think quickly, and lacking cleverness, methodical was going to have to do. Somehow.

Aram caught up to him, running his gray hard, and slowed to ride just a little behind and to one side like a heeling hound. Perrin let him. Aram never smelled comfortable when Perrin made him ride alongside. The onetime Tinker did not speak, but eddies in the icy air brought his scent, a melange of anger and suspicion and disgruntlement. He sat his saddle as tense as an over-wound clockspring and watched the forest around them grimly, as though he expected Shaido to leap out from behind the nearest tree.

In truth, almost anything could have hidden from most men in these woods. Where the sky overhead could be seen through the canopy of branches, it held a definite tinge of dark grayness, but for the moment that cast the forest in shadows murkier than night, and the trees themselves were massive columns of darkness. Yet even the shift of a black-winged jackdaw on a snow-mounded branch, its feathers fluffed against the cold, caught Perrin’s eyes, and a hunting pine martin, a deeper black than the darkness, cautiously raising its head on another. He caught the scent of both, too. A faint whiff of man scent came from up in a massive oak with dark spreading limbs as thick as a pony. The Ghealdanin and Mayeners had their mounted patrols circling the camp a few miles out, but he preferred to rely on Two Rivers men closer in. He did not have enough men to ring the camp completely, yet they were used to forests, and to hunting animals that might hunt them in turn, used to noticing movement that would escape a man thinking in terms of soldiers and war. Ridgecats down from the mountains after sheep could hide in plain sight, and bear and wild boar were known to double back on their pursuers and lie in ambush. From branches thirty and forty feet above the ground, the men could see anything that moved below in time to warn the camp, and with their longbows, they could exact a heavy price from anyone who tried to force a way past them. Yet the presence of the guard touched his mind as lightly as the presence of the jackdaw. He was focused ahead through the trees and the shadows, intent on picking out the first sign of the scouts returning.

Abruptly Stepper tossed his head and snorted in a spew of mist, eyes rolling in fear as he stopped dead, and Aram’s gray squealed and shied. Perrin leaned forward to pat the trembling stallion’s neck, but his hand froze as he caught a trace of scent, a smell of burned sulphur faint in the air, that made the hair on the back of his neck try to stand. Almost burnt sulphur; that was only a pale imitation of this smell. It had a reek of... wrongness, of something that did not belong in this world. The scent was not new—you could not ever have called that stink “fresh”—but not old, either. An hour, perhaps less. Maybe about the time he had wakened. About the time he had dreamed of this scent.

“What is it, Lord Perrin?” Aram was having difficulty controlling his gray, which danced in circles fighting the reins and wanting to run in any direction so long as it was away, but even while sawing at his reins he had his wolfhead-pommeled sword out. He practiced with it daily, for hours on end when he could, and those who knew about such things said he was good. “You may be able to make out a black thread from a white in this, but it isn’t day yet to me. I can’t see anything well enough to matter.”

“Put that away,” Perrin told him. “It isn’t needed. Swords wouldn’t do any good, anyway.” He had to coax his trembling mount to move forward, but he followed the rank smell, scanning the snow-covered ground ahead. He knew that smell, and not just from the dream.

It only took a little while to find what he was looking for, and Stepper gave a grateful whicker when Perrin reined him in well short of a slab-like crest of gray stone, two paces wide, that jutted up to his right. The snow all around was smooth and unmarked, but dog tracks covered the tilted span of stone, as though a pack had scrambled over it as they ran. Dimness and shadows or no, they were plain to Perrin’s eyes. Footprints larger than the palm of his hand, pressed into the stone as though it had been mud. He patted Stepper’s neck again. No wonder the animal was frightened.

“Go back to the camp and find Dannil, Aram. Tell him I said to let everyone know there were Darkhounds here, maybe an hour ago. And put your sword away. You wouldn’t want to try killing a Darkhound with a sword, believe me.”

“Darkhounds?” Aram exclaimed, peering around into the murky shadows between the trees. There was an anxious fear in his scent, now. Most men would have laughed about travelers’ tales or stories for children. Tinkers roamed the countryside, and knew what could found in the wilds. Aram sheathed the sword on his back with obvious reluctance, but his right hand remained raised, half-reaching for the hilt. “How do you kill a Darkhound? Can they be killed?” Then again, maybe he did not have much good sense at that.

“Just be glad you don’t have to try, Aram. Now go do like I told you. Everyone needs to keep a sharp lookout in case they come back. Not much chance of that, I’d say, but better safe.” Perrin remembered facing a pack of them once, and killing one. He thought he had killed one, after hitting it with three good broadhead arrows. Shadowspawn did not die easily. Moiraine had had to finish that pack, with balefire. “Make sure the Aes Sedai and Wise Ones learn of this, and the Asha’man.” Small chance any of them knew how to make balefire—the women might not admit knowing a forbidden weave if they did, and maybe not the men either—but maybe they knew something else that could work.

Aram was reluctant to leave Perrin alone until Perrin snapped at him, and then he turned back toward the camp trailing smells of umbrage and hurt, as if two men would have been a whit safer than one. As soon as the other man was out of sight, Perrin reined Stepper southward, the direction the Darkhounds had been heading. He did not want company for this, even Aram’s. Just because people sometimes noted his sharp eyesight was no reason to flaunt it, or his sense of smell. There were already reasons enough to shun him without adding more.

It might have been chance that the creatures had passed so near his camp, but the last few years had made him uneasy with coincidences. All too often, they were not coincidence at all, not the way other men counted such things. If this was another bit of his ta’veren tugging at the Pattern, it was a bit he could have done without. The thing seemed to have more disadvantages than advantages even when it appeared to be working in your favor. The chance that favored you one minute could turn on you in the next. And there was always another possibility. Being ta’veren made you stand out in the Pattern, and some of the Forsaken could use that to find you at times, or so he had been told. Maybe some Shadowspawn could, too.

The trail he followed was surely near an hour old, but Perrin felt a tightness between his shoulder blades, a prickling on his scalp. The sky was still a deep dark gray where it showed, even to his eyes. The sun had not yet crested the horizon. Just before sunrise was one of the worst times to meet the Wild Hunt, when darkness was changing to light but the light had not taken hold. At least there was no crossroads nearby, no graveyard, but the only hearthstones to touch lay back in Brytan, and he was not certain how much safety those hovels held. In his mind, he marked out the location of a nearby stream, where the camp got its water by chopping through the ice. It was no more than ten or twelve paces wide and only knee-deep, but putting running water between you and Darkhounds would stop them supposedly. But then, so would facing them, supposedly, and he had seen the results of that. His nose tested the breezes, searching for that old scent. And for any hint of a newer. Coming on those things unaware would be worse than unpleasant.

Stepper caught scents almost as easily as Perrin, and sometimes noticed what they were sooner, but whenever the dun balked, Perrin forced him forward. There were plenty of tracks scattered in the snow, hoofprints of the mounted patrols going out and coming back, occasional sign of rabbits and foxes, but the only marks left by the Darkhounds were where stone stuck up out of the snow. The burnt sulphur smell was always strongest there, yet enough trace lingered in between to lead him to the next place where their tracks showed. The huge pawprints overlapped one another, and there was no way to tell how many Darkhounds there had been, but whether a pace wide or six, every rock surface they had crossed was smothered in tracks from one side to the other. A larger pack than the ten he had seen outside Illian. Much larger. Was that why there were no wolves in the area? He was sure that the certainty of death he had felt in the dream was something real, and he had been a wolf in the dream.

As the trail began to curve to the west, he felt a growing suspicion that firmed into certainty as it continued to bend. The Darkhounds had circled the camp completely, running right across the place north of the camp where several huge trees lay half toppled and propped by their neighbors, each with a tall chunk sliced cleanly out of its splintered trunk. The tracks covered a stone outcrop as smooth and flat as a polished marble floor except for one hair-thin gouge cut through it straight as a plumb line. Nothing resisted the opening of an Asha’man’s gateway, and two had opened here. A thick pine that had fallen blocking one had a section four paces wide burned out of it, but the charred ends were as neat as if they had come from a sawmill. It seemed that evidence of the One Power did not interest Darkhounds, however. The pack had not paused there any more than anywhere else, or even slowed that he could tell. Darkhounds could run faster than horses, and for longer, and the stench of them hardly seemed to have faded more in one place than another. At two points in that circuit he had picked up a forking in the trail, but that was only the pack coming from the north and departing south. Once around the camp, and then on their way after whatever or whoever they were hunting.

Plainly, that was not him. Perhaps the pack had circled because they sensed him, sensed someone who was ta’veren, yet he doubted that Darkhounds would have hesitated one instant at coming into the camp, had they been after him. The pack he had faced before had entered the city of Illian, though it had not tried to kill him till later. But did Darkhounds report what they saw, the way rats and ravens did? The thought made his jaw clench. The Shadow’s attention was something any sane man feared, the Shadow’s attention might interfere with freeing Faile. That concerned him more than anything else. Yet there were ways to fight Shadowspawn, ways to fight the Forsaken, if it came to that. Whatever came between him and Faile, Darkhounds or the Forsaken or anything else, he would find a way to go around or through, whichever was necessary. A man could only have so much fear in him at one time, and all of his fear was centered on Faile. There just was no room for any more.

Before he reached his starting place again, the breezes brought him the smells of people and horses, sharp in the icy cold, and he reined Stepper to a slow walk, and then to a halt. He had spotted some fifty or sixty horses near a hundred paces ahead. The sun had finally peeked above the horizon and begun to send sharply slanted shafts of light through the forest canopy, reflecting off the snow and lessening the gloom a little, though deep, dappled shadows remained between the sun’s slender fingers. Some of those shadows enveloped him. The mounted party was not far from where he had first seen the Darkhounds’ tracks, and he could see Aram’s sickly green cloak and red-striped coat, the Tinker garments jarring with the sword on his back. Most of the riders wore rimmed red helmets shaped like pots and dark cloaks over red breastplates, and the long red streamers on their lances stirred in the light airs as the soldiers tried to keep watch in every direction. The First of Mayene often rode out in the mornings, with a suitable bodyguard of the Winged Guards.

He started to slip away without having to meet Berelain, but then he saw three tall women afoot among the horses, long dark shawls wrapped around their heads and draped over their upper bodies, and he hesitated. Wise Ones rode when they had to, if unwillingly, but tramping a mile or two in the snow wearing heavy woolen skirts was insufficient reason to force them onto horseback. Almost certainly Seonid or Masuri was in that group, as well, though the Aiel women seemed to like Berelain for some reason he could not fathom.

He had no thought of joining the riders, no matter who was with them, but hesitation cost him his chance at evasion. One of the Wise Ones—he thought it was Carelle, a fire-haired woman who always had a challenge in her sharp blue eyes—raised a hand to point in his direction, and the whole party turned, the soldiers whipping their horses around and peering through the trees toward him, lances tipped with a foot of steel half lowered. It was unlikely they could make him out clearly through the deep pools of shadow and bright bars of sunlight. He was surprised the Wise One had, but then, Aiel generally had sharp eyes.

Masuri was there, a slim woman in a bronze-colored cloak riding a dapple mare, and Annoura as well, keeping her brown mare well back but marked by the dozens of thin dark braids that hung from the opening of her cowl. Berelain herself sat a sleek bay gelding at the forefront, a tall beautiful young woman with long black hair, in a red cloak lined with black fur. A simple flaw lessened her beauty, though; she was not Faile. A worse flaw ruined it, as far as he was concerned. He had learned of Faile’s kidnapping from her, and of Masema’s contact with the Seanchan, but nearly everyone in the camp believed that he had slept with Berelain on the very night Faile was taken, and she had done nothing to correct the tale. It was hardly the kind of story he could ask her to stand up and deny publicly, yet she could have said something, told her maids to deny it, anything. Instead, Berelain held her silence, and her maids, gossiping like magpies, actually fostered the tale. That sort of reputation stuck to a man, in the Two Rivers.

He had avoided Berelain since that night, and he would have ridden away now even after they saw him, but she took a hoop-handled basket from the maid accompanying her, a plump woman wrapped in a blue-and-gold cloak, then spoke to the others and started her sleek bay gelding toward him. Alone. Annoura raised a hand and called something after her, but Berelain never glanced back. Perrin did not doubt she would follow wherever he went, and the way things were, leaving would only make people believe he wanted to be private with her. He dug his heels into Stepper’s flanks, meaning to join the others no matter how little he wanted to—let her follow him back to them if she wanted—but she urged the bay to a canter despite the rough ground and the snow, even leaping a stone outcrop, her red cloak flowing out behind her, and met him halfway. She was a good rider, he admitted grudgingly. Not as good as Faile, but better than most.

“Your scowl is quite fierce,” she laughed softly as she halted right in front of Stepper. From the way she held her reins, she was ready to block him if he tried going around. The woman had no shame at all! “Smile, so people think we are flirting.” She pushed the basket at him with one crimson-gloved hand. “This should make you smile, at least. I hear you forget to eat.” Her nose wrinkled. “And to wash, it seems. Your beard needs trimming, too. A careworn, somewhat disheveled husband rescuing his wife is a romantic figure, but she might not think so well of a dirty ragamuffin. No woman will ever forgive you ruining her image of you.”

Suddenly confused, Perrin took the basket, sitting it in front of him on the tall pommel of his saddle, and unconsciously rubbed at his nose. He was accustomed to certain smells from Berelain, usually those of a hunting she-wolf, and he was the intended prey, but today she gave off no hunting scent. Not a whisker of it. She smelled patient as stone, and amused, with undercurrents of fear. The woman certainly had never been afraid of him that he recalled. And what did she have to be patient about? For that matter, what did she have to amused about? A ridge cat smelling like a lamb would not have confounded him more.

Confusion or no, his stomach rumbled at the aromas drifting from the lidded basket. Roasted woodhen, unless he was much mistaken, and bread still warm from the baking. Flour was in short supply, and bread almost as rare as meat. It was true that he missed eating some days. He really did forget, sometimes, and when he remembered, eating was a chore, for he had to run the gauntlet of Lini and Breane or be given the cold shoulder by people he had grown up with just to get a meal. Food right under his nose made his mouth water. Would it be disloyal to eat food brought by Berelain?

“Thank you for the loaf and the woodhen,” he said roughly, “but the last thing on earth I want is for anyone to think we’re flirting. And I wash when I can, if it’s any of your business. It isn’t easy in this weather. Besides, nobody else smells any better than I do.” She did, he realized suddenly. There was no hint of sweat or dirt under her light, flowery perfume. It irritated him that he had noticed she was wearing perfume, or that she smelled clean. It seemed a betrayal.

Berelain’s eyes widened momentarily in startlement—why?—but then she sighed through her smile, which was beginning to look fixed, and a thread of irritation entered her scent. “Have your tent set up. I know there’s a good copper bathtub in one of your carts. You won’t have thrown that out. People expect a noble to look like a noble, Perrin, and that includes being presentable, even when it takes extra effort. It’s a bargain between you and them. You must give them what they expect as well as what they need or want, or they lose respect and start resenting you for making them lose it. Frankly, none of us can afford for you to let that happen. We’re all far from our homes, surrounded by enemies, and I very much believe that you, Lord Perrin Goldeneyes, may be our only chance of living to reach our homes again. Without you, everything falls apart. Now smile, because if we’re flirting, then we aren’t talking about something else.”

Perrin bared his teeth. The Mayeners and the Wise Ones were watching, but at fifty paces, in this gloom, it would be taken for a smile. Lose respect? Berelain had helped strip him of any respect he once had from the Two Rivers folk, not to mention Faile’s servants. Worse, Faile had given him some version of that lecture about a noble’s duty to give people what they expected more than once. What he resented was hearing this woman, of all people, echo his wife. “What are we talking about, then, that you don’t trust your own people to know?”

Her face remained smooth and smiling, yet the undercurrent of fear in her scent strengthened. It was nowhere near panic, but she believed herself in danger. Her gloved hands were tight on the bay’s reins. “I’ve had my thief-catchers nosing about in Masema’s camp, making ‘friends.’ Not as good as having eyes-and-ears there, but they took wine they supposedly stole from me, and they learned a little by listening.” For an instant she regarded him quizzically, tilting her head. Light! She knew Faile used Selande and those other idiots as spies! It had been Berelain who told him about them in the first place. Likely Gendar and Santes, her thief-catchers, had seen Haviar and Nerion in Masema’s camp. Balwer would have to be warned before he tried to set Medore on Berelain and Annoura. That would certainly make a fine tangle.

When he said nothing, she went on. “I put something in that basket besides bread and a woodhen. A... document... that Santes found early yesterday, locked away in Masema’s camp desk. The fool never saw a lock without wanting to know what it hid. If he had to meddle with what Masema kept under lock and key, he should have memorized the thing instead of taking it, but what’s done is done. Don’t let anyone see you reading it after I went to all this trouble to hide it!” she added sharply as he lifted the basket’s lid, revealing a cloth-wrapped bundle and releasing stronger smells of roasted bird and warm bread. “I’ve seen Masema’s men following you before. They could be watching now!”

“I’m not a fool,” he growled. He knew about Masema’s watchers. Most of the man’s followers were townsmen, and most of the rest awkward enough in the woods to shame a ten-year-old back home. Which was not to say one or two might not be hiding somewhere among the trees close enough to spy from among the shadows. They always kept their distance, since his eyes made them believe he was some sort of half-tame Shadowspawn, so he seldom detected their scents, and he had had other things on his mind this morning.

Fingering the cloth aside to expose the woodhen, almost as large as a fair-sized chicken, with its skin crisply browned, he tore off one of the bird’s legs while feeling under the bundle and sliding out a piece of heavy, cream-colored paper folded in four. Careless of grease spots, he unfolded the paper atop the bird, a little clumsily in his gauntlets, and read while nibbling on the leg. To everyone watching, he would appear to be studying what part of the woodhen to attack next. A thick green wax seal, cracked on one side, held an impression of what he decided were three hands, each with the forefinger and little finger raised and the others folded. The letters written on the paper in a flowing script were oddly formed, some unrecognizable, but the thing was readable with a little effort.

The bearer of this stands under my personal protection. In the name of the Empress, may she live forever, give him whatever aid he requires in service to the Empire and speak of it to none but me.

By her seal

Suroth Sabelle Meldarath

of Asinbayar and Barsabba

High Lady“The Empress,” he said softly, soft like iron brushing silk. Confirmation of Masema’s dealings with the Seanchan, though for himself, he had needed none. It was not the sort of thing Berelain would have lied about. Suroth Sabelle Meldarath must be someone important, to be handing out this kind of document. “This will finish him, once Santes testified where he found it.” Service to the Empire? Masema knew Rand had fought the Seanchan! That rainbow burst into his head, and was swept away. The man was a traitor!

Berelain laughed as if he had said something witty, but her smile definitely looked forced, now. “Santes told me no one saw him in the bustle of setting up camp, so I allowed him and Gendar to go back with my last cask of good Tunaighan. They were supposed to return by an hour after dark, but neither has. I suppose they could be sleeping it off, but they’ve never—”

She broke off with a startled sound, staring at him, and he realized that he had bitten the thighbone in half. Light, he had stripped all the flesh from the leg without noticing. “I’m hungrier than I thought,” he muttered. Spitting the nub of bone into the palm of his gauntlet, he dropped the pieces to the ground. “It’s safe to assume Masema knows you have this. I hope you’re keeping a heavy guard around you all the time, not just when you ride out.”

“Gallenne has fifty men sleeping around my tent as of last night,” she said, still staring, and he sighed. You would think she had never seen anybody bite a bone in two before.

“What has Annoura told you?”

“She wanted me to give it to her to destroy, so if I was asked, I could say I didn’t have it and didn’t know where it was, and she could support my word. I doubt that would satisfy Masema, though.”

“No, I doubt it would.” Annoura had to know that, too. Aes Sedai could be wrongheaded, or even foolish upon occasion, but they were never stupid. “Did she say she would destroy it, or that if you gave it to her, she could?”

Berelain’s brow furrowed in thought, and it took her a moment to say, “That she would.” The bay danced a few impatient steps, but she brought him under control easily, without paying attention. “I can’t think what else she would want it for,” she said after another pause. “Masema is hardly likely to be susceptible to... pressure.” Blackmail, she meant. Perrin could not see Masema standing still for that either. Especially blackmail by an Aes Sedai.

Under cover of tearing the other leg loose from the bird, he managed to refold the piece of paper and tuck it into his sleeve, where his gauntlet would keep it from falling out. It was still evidence. But of what? How could the man be both a fanatic for the Dragon Reborn and a traitor? Could he have taken the document from... ? Who? Some collaborator he had captured? But why would Masema keep it locked away unless it had been meant for him? He had met with Seanchan. And how had he intended to use it? Who could tell what a thing this would allow a man to call on? Perrin sighed heavily. He had too many questions, and no answers. Answers required a quicker mind than his. Maybe Balwer would have a notion.

With a taste of food in it, his stomach wanted him to devour the leg in his hand and the rest of the bird too, but he closed the lid firmly and tried to take measured bites. There was one thing he could find out for himself. “What else has Annoura said? About Masema.”

“Nothing, besides that he’s dangerous and I should avoid him, as if I didn’t know that already. She dislikes him and talking about him.” Another brief hesitation, and Berelain added, “Why?” The First of Mayene was used to intrigues, and she listened for what was not said.

Perrin took another bite to give himself a moment while he chewed and swallowed. He was not used to intrigues, yet he had been exposed to enough of them to know that saying too much could be dangerous. So could saying too little, no matter what Balwer thought. “Annoura has been meeting with Masema in secret. So has Masuri.”

Berelain’s fixed smile remained in place, but alarm entered her scent. She started to twist in her saddle as if to look back at the two Aes Sedai, and stopped herself, licking her lips with the tip of her tongue. “Aes Sedai always have their reasons” was all she said. So, was she alarmed over her advisor meeting Masema, or alarmed that Perrin knew, or... ? He hated all these complications. They just got in the way of what was important. Light, he had managed to clean the second leg already! Hoping Berelain had not noticed, he hastily tossed the bones aside. His belly growled for more.

Her people had maintained their distance, but Aram had ridden a short way toward Perrin and Berelain and was leaning forward to peer at them through the shadowed trees. The Wise Ones were standing to one side talking among themselves, seemingly unaware that they were over their ankles in snow or that the cold breezes had picked up enough to flap the dangling ends of their shawls. Every so often one or another of the three looked Perrin and Berelain’s way, too. Notions of privacy never kept a Wise One from sticking her nose wherever she wanted. They were like Aes Sedai that way. Masuri and Annoura were watching, too, though they appeared to be keeping their distance from one another. Perrin would have wagered that without the Wise Ones there, both sisters would have been using the One Power to eavesdrop. Of course, the Wise Ones probably knew how to do that, too, and they had allowed Masuri’s visits to Masema. Would either Aes Sedai crack her teeth if they saw the Wise Ones listening with the Power? Annoura seemed almost as careful with the Wise Ones as Masuri was. Light, he had no time for this briar thicket! He had to live in it, though.

“We’ve given tongues enough to wag over,” he said. Not that they needed any more than they had. Hooking the basket’s hoop-handles over his pommel, he heeled Stepper’s flanks. It could hardly be disloyal just to eat a bird.

Berelain did not follow immediately, yet before he reached Aram, she caught up and slowed her bay beside him. “I’ll find out what Annoura is up to,” she said determinedly, looking straight ahead. Her eyes were hard. Perrin would have pitied Annoura, if he had not been ready to try shaking answers out of her himself. But then, Aes Sedai seldom needed pity, and they seldom gave answers they did not want to give. The next instant, Berelain was all smiles and gaiety again, though the scent of determination still hung about her, almost crushing the fear scent. “Young Aram has been telling us all about Heartsbane riding these woods with the Wild Hunt, Lord Perrin. Could it really be so, do you think? I remember hearing those tales in the nursery.” Her voice was light and amused and carrying. Aram’s cheeks turned red, and some of the men beyond him laughed.

They stopped laughing when Perrin showed them the tracks in the stone slab.

CHAPTER 7
Blacksmith’s Puzzle

When the laughter cut off, Aram put on a smug grin, and with none of the fear scent he had given off earlier. Anyone would have thought he had already seen the tracks himself and knew everything there was to know. No one paid any mind to his smirk, however, or to much of anything except the huge dog tracks impressed in stone, even Perrin’s explanation that the Darkhounds were long gone. Of course, he could not tell them how he knew that, yet no one seemed to notice the lack. One of the sharply slanting bars of early morning light was falling directly on the gray slab, illuminating it clearly. Stepper had grown accustomed to the fading burnt-sulphur smell—at least he only snorted and laid back his ears—but the other horses shied at the tilted stone. None of the humans except Perrin could detect that smell, and most growled over their mounts’ fractious behavior and peered at the oddly marked stone as if it were a curiosity displayed by a traveling show.

Berelain’s plump maid screamed when she saw the tracks, and swayed on the point of falling off her round-bellied, nervously dancing mare, but Berelain merely asked Annoura in an absent fashion to look after her and stared at the prints with as little expression as if she herself were Aes Sedai. Her hands tightened on her reins, though, until the thin red leather paled across her knuckles. Bertain Gallenne, the Lord Captain of the Winged Guards, his red helmet embossed with wings and bearing three thin crimson plumes, had personal command of Berelain’s bodyguard this morning, and he forced his tall black gelding close to the stone, swinging down from his saddle in knee-deep snow and removing his helmet to frown at the stone slab with his one eye. A scarlet leather patch covered the empty socket of the other, the strap cutting through his shoulder-length gray hair. His grimace said he saw trouble, but he always saw the worst possibilities first. Perrin supposed that was better in a soldier than always seeing the best.

Masuri dismounted, too, but no sooner was she on the ground than she paused with her dapple’s reins in one gloved hand, looking uncertainly toward the three sun-dark Aiel women. A few of the Mayener soldiers muttered uneasily at that, yet they should have been used to it by now. Annoura hid her face deeper in her gray hood as if she did not want to see the rock and gave Berelain’s maid a brisk shake; the woman goggled at her in astonishment. Masuri, on the other hand, waited beside her mare with an appearance of patience, spoiled only by smoothing the russet skirts of her silk riding dress as though unaware of what she was doing. The Wise Ones exchanged silent glances, expressionless as sisters themselves. Carelle stood on one side of Nevarin, a skinny green-eyed woman, and on the other Marline, with eyes of twilight blue and dark hair, rare among Aiel, not covered completely with her shawl. All three were tall women, as tall as some men, and none looked more than a few years older than Perrin, but no one could have managed that calm self-assurance without more years than their faces claimed. Despite the long necklaces and heavy bracelets of gold and ivory that they wore, their dark heavy skirts and the dark shawls that almost hid their white blouses could have suited farm women, yet there was no doubt who was in command between them and the Aes Sedai. In truth, sometimes there seemed to be doubt who was in command between them and Perrin.

Finally, Nevarin nodded. And gave a warm and approving smile. Perrin had never before seen a smile out of her. Nevarin did not walk around scowling, but she usually seemed to be searching for someone to upbraid.

Not until that nod did Masuri hand her reins up to one of the soldiers. Her Warder was nowhere to be seen, and that had to be the Wise Ones’ doing. Rovair usually stuck to her like a burr. Lifting her divided skirts, she waded through the snow, deeper the closer to the stone she came, and began passing her hands above the footprints, obviously channeling, though nothing happened that Perrin could see. The Wise Ones watched her closely, but then, Masuri’s weaves were visible to them. Annoura displayed no interest. The ends of the Gray sister’s narrow braids twitched as if she were shaking her head inside her hood, and she moved her horse back from the maid, well out of the Wise Ones’ line of sight, though that took her farther from Berelain, who anyone could think might want her advice now. Annoura really did avoid the Wise Ones as much as she could.

“Fireside stories walking,” Gallenne muttered, drawing his gelding away from the stone with a sideways glance at Masuri. Aes Sedai, he honored, yet few men wanted to be close to an Aes Sedai who was channeling. “Though I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore after what I’ve seen since leaving Mayene.” Intent on the tracks, Masuri did not seem to notice him.

A stir rippled through the mounted lancers, as though they had not really believed their own eyes until their commander gave confirmation, and some of them began to smell of uneasy fear, as if expecting Darkhounds to leap out of the shadows. Perrin could not pick out individuals among so many with any ease, but the jittery rankness was strong enough that it had to come from more than a few.

Gallenne seemed to sense what Perrin smelled; he had his faults, but he had commanded soldiers for a long time. Hanging his helmet on his long sword hilt, he grinned. The eyepatch gave it a grim quality, a man who could see a joke in the face of death and expected others to see it, too. “If the Black Dogs bother us, we’ll salt their ears,” he announced in a loud and hearty voice. “That’s what you do in the stories, isn’t it? Sprinkle salt on their ears, and they vanish.” A few of the lancers laughed, though the miasma of fear did not lessen appreciably. Stories told by the fire were one thing, those same stories walking in the flesh quite another.

Gallenne led his black to Berelain and rested a gauntleted hand on her bay’s neck. He gave Perrin a considering look that Perrin returned levelly, refusing to take the hint. Whatever the man had to say, he could say in front of him and Aram. Gallenne sighed. “They will keep their nerve, my Lady,” he said softly, “but the fact is, our position is precarious, with enemies on every side and our supplies running out. Shadowspawn can only make matters worse. My duty is to you and Mayene, my Lady, and with all respect to Lord Perrin, you may wish to alter your plans.” Anger crackled in Perrin—the man would abandon Faile!—but Berelain spoke before he could suggest it.

“There will be no alteration, Lord Gallenne.” Sometimes it was easy to forget that she was a ruler, small though Mayene was, but there was a regal note in her voice fit for the Queen of Andor. Back straight, she made her saddle seem a throne, and she spoke loudly enough to make sure everyone heard her decision, firmly enough that everyone knew the decision had been made. “If we have enemies all around, then going on is as safe as turning back or turning aside. Yet if turning back or turning aside were ten times safer, I would still go on. I intend to see the Lady Faile rescued if we must fight our way through a thousand Darkhounds, and Trollocs as well. That I have sworn to do!”

A roar of cheers answered her, Winged Guards shouting and thrusting their lances into the air so the red streamers danced. The smell of fear remained, but they sounded ready to cut their way through any number of Trollocs rather than appear less in Berelain’s eyes. Gallenne commanded them, but they felt more than fondness for their ruler, despite her reputation with men. Maybe because of it, in part. Berelain had kept Tear from swallowing Mayene by playing one man who found her beautiful against another. For his part, Perrin found it hard not to gape in surprise. She sounded as determined as he was! She smelled as determined! Gallenne bowed his gray head in unwilling acceptance, and Berelain gave a small, satisfied nod before turning her attention to the Aes Sedai beside the stone slab.

Masuri had stopped waving her hands about and was staring at the footprints, tapping a finger against her lips thoughtfully. She was a pretty woman without being beautiful, though some of that might have been Aes Sedai agelessness, with a grace and elegance that might also have come from being Aes Sedai. It was often difficult to tell a sister who had been born on a hardscrabble farm from one born in a grand palace. Perrin had seen her red-faced and angry, worn down and on the end of her tether, yet despite hard travel and life in the Aiel tents, her dark hair and her clothing looked as though she had a maid attending her, too. She might have been standing in a library.

“What have you learned, Masuri?” Berelain asked. “Masuri, if you please? Masuri?”

The last came a little more sharply, and Masuri gave a start, as though surprised to realize she was not alone. Possibly she was startled; in many ways she seemed more of the Green Ajah than the Brown, more intent on action than on contemplation, straight to the point and never vague, yet she was still capable of losing herself completely in whatever captured her interest. Folding her hands at her waist, she opened her mouth, but rather than speaking, she hesitated and looked a question at the Wise Ones.

“Go on, girl,” Nevarin said impatiently, planting her fists on her hips in a jangle of bracelets. A frown made her appear more her usual self, but neither of the other Wise Ones looked any more approving. Three frowns in a row like three pale-eyed crows on a fence. “We were not simply letting you exercise your curiosity. Get on with it. Tell us what you learned.”

Masuri’s face reddened, but she spoke up immediately, her eyes on Berelain. She could not like being called down in public, no matter what anyone knew of her relationship with the Wise Ones. “Relatively little is known of Darkhounds, but I’ve made something of a study of them, in a small way. Over the years, I have crossed the paths of seven packs, five of them twice and two others three times.” The color began to fade from her cheeks, and slowly she began to sound as if she were lecturing. “Some ancient writers say there are only seven packs, others say nine, or thirteen, or some other number they believed had special significance, but during the Trolloc Wars, Sorelana Alsahhan wrote of ‘the hundred packs of the Shadow’s hounds that hunt the night,’ and even earlier, Ivonell Bharatiya supposedly wrote of ‘hounds born of the Shadow, in numbers like unto the nightmares of mankind.’ Though in truth, Ivonell herself may be apocryphal. In any case, the—” She gestured as if groping for a word. “Smell is not the right word, and neither is flavor. The sense of each pack is unique, and I can say with certainty that I have never encountered this one before, so we know the number seven is wrong. Whether the correct number is nine or thirteen or something else, tales of Darkhounds are much more common than Darkhounds themselves, and they are extremely rare this far south of the Blight. A second rarity: there may have been as many as fifty in this pack. Ten or twelve is the usual limit. A useful maxim: two rarities combined call for close attention.” Pausing, she raised a finger to emphasize the point, then nodded when she thought Berelain had taken it, and folded her hands again. A gusting breeze pushed her yellowish-brown cloak off one shoulder, yet she did not appear to notice the loss of warmth.

“There is always a feel of urgency about Darkhounds’ trails, but it varies according to a number of factors, not all of which I can be certain of. This one has an intense admixture of... I suppose you could call it impatience. That isn’t really strong enough, by far—as well call a stabwound a pinprick—but it will do. I would say their hunt has been going on for some time, and their prey is eluding them somehow. No matter what the stories say—by the way, Lord Gallenne, salt doesn’t harm Darkhounds in the least.” So she had not been entirely lost in thought after all. “Despite the stories, they never hunt at random, though they will kill if the opportunity presents itself and doesn’t interfere with the hunt. With Darkhounds, the hunt is paramount. Their quarry is always important to the Shadow, though at times we cannot see why. They have been known to bypass the great and mighty to slay a farmwife or a craftsman, or to enter a town or village and leave without killing, though clearly they came for some reason. My first thought for what brought them here had to be discarded, since they moved on.” Her gaze flickered toward Perrin, so quickly he was not sure anyone else noticed. “Given that, I strongly doubt they will return. Oh, yes; and they are an hour or more gone. That, I’m afraid, is really all I can tell you.” Nevarin and the other Wise Ones nodded their approval as she finished, and a touch of color returned to her cheeks, though it vanished quickly as she assumed a mask of Aes Sedai serenity. A shift in the breeze brought her scent to Perrin, surprised and pleased, and upset at being pleased.

“Thank you, Masuri Sedai,” Berelain said formally, making a small bow in her saddle that Masuri acknowledged with a slight motion of her head. “You have put our minds at rest.”

Indeed, the fear smell among the soldiers began to fade, though Perrin heard Gallenne grumble under his breath, “She might have told those last bits first.”

Perrin’s ears caught something else, too, through the stamping of horses’ hooves and men’s quiet, relieved laughter. A bluetit’s trill sounded to the south, beyond the hearing of anyone else there, followed closely by the buzzing call of a masked sparrow. Another bluetit sounded, closer, followed again by a masked sparrow, and then the same pair called again closer still. There might be bluetits and masked sparrows in Altara, but he knew these birds carried Two Rivers longbows. The bluetit meant men were coming, more than a few and maybe unfriendly. The masked sparrow, that some back home called the thiefbird for its habit of stealing bright objects, on the other hand... Perrin ran a thumb along the edge of his axe, but he waited for one more pair of calls, close enough that the others might have noticed.

“Did you hear that?” he said, looking south as if he had just heard. “My sentries have spotted Masema.” That brought heads up, listening, and several men nodded when the calls were repeated, closer still. “He’s coming this way.”

Growling curses, Gallenne clapped his helmet onto his head and mounted. Annoura gathered her reins, and Masuri began floundering back toward her dapple. The lancers shifted in their saddles and began giving off smells of anger, once more touched with fear. The Winged Guards were owed a blood debt by Masema, in their eyes, but none was anxious to try collecting with only fifty men, not when Masema always rode with a hundred at his back.

“I will not run from him,” Berelain announced. She stared south wearing a cold frown. “We will wait for him here.”

Gallenne opened his mouth, and closed it again without speaking—to her, at least. Drawing a deep breath, he began to bellow orders arraying his Guardsmen. That was not an easy matter. No matter how far apart the trees stood, forests were poor places for lancers. Any charge would be disjointed at its start, and sticking a man with a lance was difficult when he could dodge behind a tree trunk and come out behind you. Gallenne tried to form them in front of Berelain, between her and the approaching men, but she gave him a sharp look, and the one-eyed man changed his commands, lining the lancers up in a single crooked rank, bulging around massive trees but centered on her. One soldier Gallenne sent racing back toward the camp, crouching low in his saddle with his lance low as if at the charge, riding as fast as he could in spite of the snow and terrain. Berelain raised an eyebrow at that, yet said nothing.

Annoura began guiding her brown mare toward Berelain, but stopped when Masuri called her name. The Brown sister had gathered her dapple but still stood in the snow with the Wise Ones around her, who were tall enough in comparison to make her seem less than full-grown. Annoura hesitated until Masuri summoned her again, more sharply, and then Perrin thought he heard Annoura sigh heavily before she rode to them and dismounted. Whatever the Aiel women had to say, in voices pitched too softly for Perrin to hear, clustering in front of Annoura with heads bent close to hers, the Taraboner sister did not like. Her face remained hidden in her hood, but her thin braids swung ever faster with the shaking of her head, and at last she turned away abruptly and put a foot in the stirrup of her saddle. Masuri had been standing quietly, letting the Wise Ones have their say, but now she laid a hand on Annoura’s sleeve and said something in a low voice that made Annoura’s shoulders slump and the Wise Ones nod. Pushing back her hood to fall down her back, Annoura waited for Masuri to climb onto her mare before mounting her own horse, and then the two sisters rode back to the line of lancers together, crowding in beside Berelain with the Wise Ones pushing in between them, on the other side from Perrin. Annoura’s wide mouth was turned down in a glum curve, and she was rubbing her thumbs nervously.

“What is it you’re planning?” Perrin asked, trying not to hide suspicious. Maybe the Wise Ones had let Masuri meet with Masema, yet they still claimed to think the man was better dead. The Aes Sedai could not use the Power as a weapon unless they were in danger, but the Wise Ones had no such prohibition. He wondered whether they were linked. He knew more than he wanted about the One Power, and enough about the Wise Ones to be sure that Nevarin would be in control if they had formed a circle.

Annoura opened her mouth, but snapped it shut at a warning touch from Carelle and glared at Masuri. The Brown sister pursed her lips and shook her head slightly, which did not seem to mollify Annoura. Her gloved hands gripped her reins so tightly that they shook.

Nevarin looked up at Perrin past Berelain as if she read his mind. “We plan to see you safely back to the camp, Perrin Aybara,” she said sharply, “you and Berelain Paeron. We plan to see that as many as possible survive this day, and the days to come. Do you have objections?”

“Just don’t do anything unless I tell you,” he said. An answer like that could mean a lot of things. “Not anything.”

Nevarin shook her head in disgust, and Carelle laughed as if he had made a huge joke. None of the Wise Ones seemed to think any more response was needed. They had been commanded to obey him, but their notions of obedience failed to square with any he had ever learned. Pigs would grow wings before he got a better answer out of them.

He could have put a stop to it. He knew he should. No matter what the Wise Ones had planned, meeting Masema this far from the others in the camp, when the man had to know who had stolen his Seanchan paper, was like hoping to snatch your hand off the anvil before the hammer fell. Berelain was almost as bad as the Wise Ones when it came to following orders, but he thought she would listen if he gave an order to withdraw to the camp. He thought she would, for all that her smell said she had her heels dug in hard. Staying was a senseless risk. He was sure he could convince her of that. Yet he did not want to run from the man, either. Part of him said he was being a fool. The larger part smoldered with anger that he found hard to control. Aram crowded in beside him scowling, but at least he had not drawn his sword. Waving a sword might put a hot coal in the hayloft, and the time for a confrontation with Masema had not come yet. Perrin rested a hand on his axe. Not yet.

Despite the sharply angled rays of light that penetrated through the thick branches overhead, the forest as a whole lay wrapped in dim early-morning shadows. Even at noon, it would be dim here. Sounds came to him first, the muffled thud of hooves in snow, the heavy breath of horses pushed for speed, and then a mass of riders appeared, a disordered mob flowing north among the huge trees at a near-gallop in spite of snow and rough ground. Rather than a hundred, they numbered two or three times that. A horse went down with a scream and laying thrashing atop its rider, but none of the others so much as slowed until, some seventy or eighty paces away, the man at their head raised a hand, and they suddenly drew rein in sprays of snow, lathered horses blowing hard and steaming. Here and there, lances stuck up among the riders. Most wore no armor, and many just a breastplate or a helmet, yet their saddles were hung about with swords and axes and maces. Shafts of sunlight picked out a few faces, grim flat-eyed men who looked as though they never had smiled and never would.

It occurred to Perrin that he might have made a mistake not to overrule Berelain. That was what came of hasty decisions, of letting anger do his thinking. Everyone knew that she often rode out in the mornings, and Masema might be desperate to recover his Seanchan document. Even with the Aes Sedai and Wise Ones, a fight in these woods could turn bloody, a free-for-all where men, and women, could die without once seeing who killed them. If no witnesses lived, it could always be blamed on bandits or even the Shaido. That had happened before. And if there were witnesses left, Masema was not above hanging a few dozen of his own men and claiming the guilty had been punished. He likely wanted to keep Perrin Aybara alive for a while yet, though, and he would not have expected the Wise Ones, or a second Aes Sedai. Small points to hang fifty-odd lives on. Very small points to hang Faile’s life on. Perrin eased his axe in its loop on his belt. Beside him, Berelain smelled of cool calm and stony determination. No fear, oddly. Not a whiff. Aram smelled... excited.

The two parties sat regarding one another in silence, until at last Masema rode forward, followed by just two men, all three pushing back their hoods. None wore a helmet, or any piece of armor. Like Masema, Nengar and Bartu were Shienaran, but like him, they had shaved off their topknots, leaving bare heads with a look of skulls. The coming of the Dragon Reborn had broken all bonds, including those that had pledged these men to fight the Shadow along the Blight. Nengar and Bartu each carried a sword on his back and had another hanging at his saddlebow, and Bartu, shorter than the other two, had a cased horsebow and a quiver fastened to his saddle, too. Masema wore no visible weapons. The Prophet of the Lord Dragon Reborn needed none. Perrin was glad to see Gallenne watching the men Masema had left behind, for there was something about Masema that drew the eye. Maybe it was only knowing who he was, but that was more than enough.

Masema stopped his rangy sorrel a few paces from Perrin. The Prophet was a dark frowning man of average size with a faded arrow-scar white on his cheek, in a worn brown woolen coat and a dark cloak with frayed edges. Masema cared nothing for appearances, least of all his own. At his back, Nengar and Bartu held a fever in their eyes, but Masema’s deep-set, almost black eyes seemed as hot as coals in a forge, as though the breezes must soon fan them to a glow, and his smell was the jangled, darting sharpness of pure insanity. He ignored the Wise Ones and Aes Sedai with a scorn he did not bother to hide. Wise Ones were worse than Aes Sedai, in his view; they not only blasphemed by channeling the One Power, they were Aiel savages to boot, a double sin. The Winged Guards could have been just more shadows beneath the trees. “You are taking a picnic?” he said with a glance at the basket hanging from Perrin’s saddle. Normally, Masema’s voice was as intense as his eyes, but now it sounded wry, and his lip curled as his eyes traveled to Berelain. He had heard the rumors, of course.

A wave of rage shot through Perrin, but he seized onto it, forcing it back. Folding it in with the rest, folding it tight. His anger had one target, and he would not waste it striking at another. Catching his rider’s mood, Stepper bared his teeth at Masema’s gelding, and Perrin had to rein him in sharply. “There were Darkhounds here in the night,” he said, not very smoothly, but it was the best he could manage. “They’re gone, and Masuri doesn’t think they’ll come back, so there’s no need to worry.”

Masema did not smell worried. He never smelled of anything except madness. The sorrel thrust his head aggressively toward Stepper, but Masema pulled him up with a harsh jerk. He rode well, Masema did, but he treated his horses as he did people. For the first time, he looked at Masuri. Perhaps his gaze grew a little hotter, if that was possible. “The Shadow can be found everywhere,” he said, a heated pronouncement of unquestionable truth. “No one need fear the Shadow who follows the Lord Dragon Reborn, may the Light illumine his name. Even in death they will find the final victory of the Light.”

Masuri’s mare shied as though burned by that gaze, yet Masuri controlled the animal with a touch on the reins and met Masema’s stare with Aes Sedai inscrutability, as calm as a frozen pond. Nothing hinted that she had been meeting this man in secret. “Fear is a useful spur to the wits, and to determination, when well controlled. If we have no fear of our enemies, that leaves only contempt, and contempt leads to the enemy’s victory.” You could have thought she was speaking to a simple farmer she had never met before. Annoura, watching, looked a little ill. Was she afraid their secret would come out? That their plans for Masema could be spoiled?

Masema’s lip curled again, in a smile, or a sneer. The Aes Sedai seemed to cease to exist for him as he turned his attention back to Perrin. “Some of those who follow the Lord Dragon have found a town called So Habor.” That was how he always referred to his followers: they really followed the Dragon Reborn, not him. The fact that Masema told them what do and when and how was just a detail. “A tidy place of three or four thousand people, about a day back, or a little less, to the south and west. It seems they were out of the Aiel’s path, and their crop was good last year despite the drought. They have storehouses full of barley, millet and oats, and other needful things, I should imagine. I know you are running short on fodder. For your men as well as your horses.”

“Why would their storehouses be full this time of year?” Berelain leaned forward with a frown, her tone just short of a demand, and not far short of disbelief.

Scowling, Nengar put a hand to his saddle-sword. No one made demands of the Prophet of the Lord Dragon. No one doubted him, either. No one who wished to live. Leather creaked as lancers shifted their saddles, but Nengar ignored them. The smell of Masema’s madness slithered and flailed in Perrin’s nose. Masema studied Berelain. He seemed unaware of Nengar or the lancers or the possibility that men might start killing one another any moment.

“A matter of greed,” he said finally. “Apparently the grain traders of So Habor thought to make larger profits by holding their stock until winter drove prices up. But they normally sell west, into Ghealdan and Amadicia, and events there and in Ebou Dar have made them fearful that anything they send out will be confiscated. Their greed has left them with full storehouses and empty purses.” A note of satisfaction entered Masema’s voice. He despised greed. But then, he despised any human weakness, great or small. “I think they will part with their grain very cheaply, now.”

Perrin smelled a trap, and it did not take a wolf’s nose. Masema had his own men and horses to feed, and no matter how thoroughly they had scoured the country they crossed, they could not be in much better shape than Perrin’s own people. Why had Masema not sent a few thousand of his followers into this town and taken whatever it held? A day back. That would take him farther from Faile, and maybe give the Shaido time to gain ground again. Was that the reason for this peculiar offer? Or a further delay to keep Masema in the west, close to his Seanchan friends?

“Perhaps there will be time to visit this town after my wife is free.” Once again, Perrin’s ears caught the faint sound of men and horses moving through the forest before anyone else, coming from the west, this time, from the camp. Gallenne’s messenger must have galloped the whole way.

“Your wife,” Masema said in a flat voice, directing a look at Berelain that made Perrin’s blood boil. Even Berelain colored, though her face remained smooth. “Do you really believe you will have word of her today?”

“I do.” Perrin’s voice was as flat as Masema’s, and harder. He clutched the pommel of his saddle, atop the hoop-handles of Berelain’s basket, to keep from reaching for his axe. “Freeing her comes first. Her and the others. We can fill our bellies to bursting once that’s done, but that comes first.”

The horses approaching were audible to everyone, now. A long line of lancers appeared to the west, sifting through the shadowed trees with another mounted line behind it, the red streamers and breastplates of Mayene interspersed with the green streamers and burnished breastplates of Ghealdan. The lines stretched from opposite Perrin down below the mass of horsemen who were waiting on Masema. Men afoot ghosted from tree to tree, carrying long Two Rivers bows. Perrin found himself hoping that they had not stripped the camp too far. Stealing that Seanchan paper might have forced Masema’s hand, and he was a veteran of fighting along the Blight and against the Aiel. He might have thought further ahead than simply riding out to find Berelain. It was like another blacksmith’s puzzle. Move one piece to shift another just enough to let a third slip free. A camp with weakened defenders could be overrun, and in these woods, numbers could count for as much as who had people channeling. Did Masema want to keep his secret enough to try putting a seal to it here and now? Perrin realized that he had moved one hand to rest on his axe, but he left it there.

Among the mass of Masema’s followers, horses moved nervously at tugs from their riders, men shouted and waved weapons, but Masema himself studied the oncoming lancers and bowmen with no change of expression, neither more dour nor less. They might have been birds hopping from branch to branch. The smell of him writhed madly, unchanging.

“What is done to serve the Light, must be done,” he said when the newcomers halted, some two hundred paces away. That was easy range for a Two Rivers bowman, and Masema had seen demonstrations, but he gave no sign that broadhead shafts might be aimed at his heart. “All else is dross and trash. Remember that, Lord Perrin Goldeneyes. Everything else is dross and trash!”

Jerking his sorrel around without another word, he headed back toward his waiting men trailed by Nengar and Bartu, all three pushing their horses without a care for broken legs or broken heads. The waiting company fell in behind, a mob flowing south, now. A few men at the tail end stopped to drag a limp shape from under the injured horse and put the animal out of its misery with a quick slash of a dagger. Then they began gutting and butchering. That much meat could not be allowed to go to waste. The rider, they left where they had dropped him.

“He believes every word he says,” Annoura breathed, “but where does his belief lead him?”

Perrin considered asking her straight out where she thought Masema’s belief was leading him, where she wanted to lead him, but she suddenly put on that impenetrable Aes Sedai calm. The tip of her sharp nose had turned red from the cold; she regarded him with a level stare. You could pry that Darkhound-marked stone out of the ground bare-handed as easily as get an answer from an Aes Sedai who wore that look. He would have to leave questions to Berelain.

The man who had brought the lancers suddenly spurred his horse forward. A short compact fellow in a silver-plated breastplate and a helmet with a barred faceguard and three short white plumes, Gerard Arganda was a tough man, a soldier who had worked his way up from the bottom, against all odds, to become the First Captain of Alliandre’s bodyguard. He had no liking for Perrin, who had brought his queen south for no good reason and gotten her kidnapped, but Perrin expected him to stop and make his respects to Berelain, perhaps confer with Gallenne. Arganda had a great deal of respect for Gallenne, and often spent time with him both smoking their pipes. Instead, the roan floundered past Perrin and the others, Arganda digging his heels into the animal’s sides, trying to force more speed. When Perrin saw where the man was heading, he understood. A single horseman on a mouse-colored animal was approaching from the east at a steady walk, and beside him, an Aiel shuffled along on snowshoes.

CHAPTER 8
Whirlpools of Color

Perrin did not realize he had moved until he found himself crouched over Stepper’s neck, streaking after Arganda. The snow was no less deep, the ground no smoother, the light no better, but Stepper raced through the shadows, unwilling to let the roan stay in the lead, and Perrin urged him to run faster. The approaching rider was Elyas, his beard fanned out over his chest, a broad-brimmed hat casting his face in shadows and his fur-lined cloak hanging down his back. The Aiel was one of the Maidens, with a dark shoufa wrapped around her head and a white cloak, used for hiding against the snow, worn over her coat and breeches of grays and browns and greens. Elyas and one Maiden, without the others, meant Faile had been found. It had to.

Arganda ran his horse without a care for whether he broke the roan’s neck or his own, leaping stone outcrops, splashing through the snow at a near-gallop, but Stepper overtook him just as he reached Elyas and demanded in a harsh voice, “Did you see the queen, Machera? Is she alive? Tell me, man!” The Maiden, Elienda, her sun-darkened face expressionless, raised a hand to Perrin. It might have been meant for a greeting, or sympathy, but she never broke her skimming stride. With Elyas to make his report to Perrin, she would carry hers to the Wise Ones.

“You’ve found her?” Perrin’s throat was suddenly dry as sand. He had waited so long for this. Arganda snarled soundlessly through the steel bars of his helmet’s faceguard, knowing that Perrin was not asking after Alliandre.

“We found the Shaido we’ve been following,” Elyas said carefully, both hands on the pommel of his saddle. Even Elyas, the fabled Long Tooth who had lived and run with wolves, was showing the strain of too many miles and not enough sleep. His whole face sagged with a weariness emphasized by the golden-yellow glow of his eyes beneath his hat brim. Gray streaked his thick beard and the hair that he wore hanging to his waist and tied with a leather cord at the nape of his neck, and for the first time since Perrin had known him, he looked old. “They’re camped around a fair-sized town they took, in ridge country near forty miles from here. They’ve got no sentries to speak of close in, and those further out seem to be watching for prisoners trying to escape more than anything else, so we got near enough for a good look. But Perrin, there are more of them than we thought. At least nine or ten septs, the Maidens say. Counting gai’shain—folks in white, anyway—there could be as many people in that camp as in Mayene or Ebou Dar. I don’t know how many spear fighters, but ten thousand might be on the low side from what I saw.”

Knots of desperation twisted and tightened in Perrin’s stomach. His mouth was so dry he could not have spoken had Faile miraculously appeared in front of him. Ten thousand algai’d’siswai, and even weavers and silversmiths and old men who passed their days reminiscing in the shade would pick up a spear if they were attacked. He had fewer than two thousand lancers, and they would have been overmatched against an equal number of Aiel. Fewer than three hundred Two Rivers men, who could wreak havoc with their bows at a distance but not stop ten thousand. That many Shaido would shred Masema’s murderous rabble like a cat slaughtering a nest of mice. Even counting the Asha’man and the Wise Ones and Aes Sedai... . Edarra and the other Wise Ones were hardly generous in what they told him about Wise Ones, but he knew ten septs might have fifty women who could channel, maybe more. Maybe fewer, too—there was no set number—but not enough fewer to make a difference.

With an effort, he strangled the despair welling up in him, squeezed until only writhing filaments remained for his anger to burn up. A hammer had no place in it for despair. Ten septs or the whole Shaido clan, they still had Faile, and he still had to find a way.

“What does it matter how many there are?” Aram demanded. “When Trollocs came to the Two Rivers, there were thousands, tens of thousands, but we killed them just the same. Shaido can’t be worse than Trollocs.”

Perrin blinked, surprised to find the man right behind him, not to mention Berelain and Gallenne and the Aes Sedai. In his haste to reach Elyas, he had shut out everything else. Dimly visible through the trees, the men Arganda had brought out to confront Masema still held their rough lines, but Berelain’s bodyguard was forming a loose ring centered on Elyas and facing outward. The Wise Ones stood outside the circle, listening to Elienda with grave faces. She spoke in a low murmur, sometimes shaking her head. Her view of matters was no brighter than Elyas’s. He must have lost the basket in his haste, or thrown it away, because it hung from Berelain’s saddle now. There was a look of... could it be sympathy, on her face? Burn him, he was too tired to think straight. Only, now more than ever, he had to think straight. His next mistake might be the last, for Faile.

“Way I heard it, Tinker,” Elyas said quietly, “the Trollocs came to you in the Two Rivers, and you managed to catch them in a vise. You have any fancy plans for catching the Shaido in a vise?” Aram glared at him sullenly. Elyas had known him before he picked up a sword, and Aram disliked being reminded of that time, despite his brightly colored clothes.

“Ten septs or fifty,” Arganda growled, “there must be some way to free the Queen. And the others, of course. And the others.” His hard-bitten face was creased in a scowl of anger, yet he smelled frantic, a fox ready chew off its own leg to escape a trap. “Will... ? Will they accept a ransom?” The Ghealdanin looked around until he found Marline coming through the Winged Guards. She managed a steady stride in spite of the snow, not staggering in the least. The other Wise Ones were no longer anywhere to be seen among the trees, nor Elienda. “Will these Shaido take a ransom... Wise One?” Arganda’s honorific had the sound of an afterthought. He no longer believed the Aiel with them had any knowledge of the kidnapping, but there was a taint in him regarding Aiel.

“I cannot say.” Marline seemed not to notice his tone. Arms folded across her chest, she stood looking at Perrin rather than Arganda. It was one of those looks where a woman weighed and measured you till she could have sewn you a suit of clothes or told you when your smallclothes were last washed. It would have made him uncomfortable back when he had had time for such things. When she spoke again, there was nothing of offering advice in her tone, merely a setting out of the facts. She might even have meant it so. “Your wetlander paying of ransom goes against our custom. Gai’shain may be given as a gift, or traded for other gai’shain, but they are not animals to be sold. Yet it seems the Shaido no longer follow ji’e’toh. They make wetlanders gai’shain and take everything instead of only the fifth. They may set a price.”

“My jewels are at your disposal, Perrin,” Berelain put in, her voice steady and her face firm. “If necessary, Grady or Neald can fetch more from Mayene. Gold, as well.”

Gallenne cleared his throat. “Altarans are used to marauders, my Lady, neighboring nobles and brigands alike,” he said slowly, slapping his reins against his palm. Although reluctant to contradict Berelain, he clearly intended to anyway. “There’s no law this far from Ebou Dar, except what the local lord or lady says. Noble or common, they’re accustomed to paying off anyone they can’t fight off, and quick to tell the difference. It goes against reason that none of them tried to buy safety, yet we’ve seen nothing but ruins in these Shaido’s path, heard of nothing but pillage right down to the ground. They may accept an offer of ransom, and even take it, but can they be trusted to give anything in return? Just making the offer gives away our one real advantage, that they don’t know we are here.” Annoura shook her head slightly, the barest movement, but Gallenne’s one eye caught it, and he frowned. “You disagree, Annoura Sedai?” he asked politely. And with a hint of surprise. The Gray was almost diffident at times, especially for a sister, but she never vacillated about speaking up when she disagreed with advice offered to Berelain.

This time Annoura hesitated, though, and covered by pulling her cloak around herself and arranging the folds with care. It was clumsy of her; Aes Sedai could ignore heat or cold when they chose, remaining untouched when everyone around them was drenched with sweat or fighting to stop their teeth chattering. An Aes Sedai who paid attention to the temperature was buying time to think, usually about how to hide what she was thinking. Glancing toward Marline with a small frown, she finally reached a decision, and the slight crease in her forehead vanished.

“Negotiation is always better than fighting,” she said in cool Taraboner accents, “and in negotiation, trust is always a matter of the precautions, yes? We must consider with care the precautions that must be taken. There is also the question of who is to approach them. Wise Ones may no longer be sacrosanct, since they took part in the battle at Dumai’s Wells. A sister, or a group of sisters, might be better, yet even that must have careful arrangement. I myself am willing to—”

“No ransom,” Perrin said, and when everyone stared at him, most in consternation, Annoura with her face unreadable, he said it again, in a harder voice. “No ransom.” He would not pay these Shaido for making Faile suffer. She would be afraid, and they had to pay for that, not profit from it. Besides, Gallenne had the right of it. Nothing Perrin had seen, in Altara or Amadicia or before that in Cairhien, so much as hinted that the Shaido could be trusted to keep any bargain. As well trust rats in the grain bins and cutworms with the harvest. “Elyas, I want to see their camp.” When he was a boy he had known a blind man, Nat Torfinn with his wrinkled face and thin white hair, who could disassemble any blacksmith’s puzzle by touch. For years Perrin tried to learn how to duplicate that feat, but he never could. He had to see how the pieces fit together before he could make sense of them. “Aram, find Grady and tell him to meet me as fast as he can, at the Traveling ground.” That was what they had come to call the place where they arrived at the end of each jump, and departed from for the next. It was easier for the Asha’man to weave a gateway in a place already touched by one they had woven before.

Aram gave one short, purposeful nod, then wheeled his gray and sped toward camp, but Perrin could see arguments and questions and demands gathering on the faces around him. Marline was still examining him, as though suddenly not quite sure what he was, and Gallenne was frowning at the reins in his hands, no doubt seeing matters turn out badly whatever he did, but Berelain wore a perturbed expression, objections visible in her eyes, and Annoura’s mouth had tightened to a thin line. Aes Sedai disliked being interrupted, and, diffident for an Aes Sedai or not, she looked ready to vent her displeasure. Arganda, his face growing red, opened his mouth with the clear intention of shouting. Arganda had shouted often since his queen was kidnapped. There was no point in waiting to listen.

Digging in his heels, Perrin sent Stepper lunging through the line of Winged Guards, heading back toward the sheared trees. Not at a run, but not dawdling, either—a quick trot through the towering forests, hands tight on the reins and eyes already searching the dappled gloom for Grady. Elyas followed on his gelding without a word. Perrin had been sure he had no room in him for another ounce of fear, yet Elyas’ silence made the weight grow. The other man never saw an obstacle without seeing a way around. His silence shouted of impassable mountains. There had to be a way, though. When they reached the smooth stone outcrop, Perrin walked Stepper back and forth through the slanting bars of light, around the toppled trees and between the standing ones, unable to make himself stop. He had to keep moving. There had to be a way. His mind darted like a caged rat.

Elyas dismounted to squat and frown at the sliced stone, paying little heed to his gelding tugging at the reins and trying to back away. Beside the stone, the thick trunk of a pine that had stood a good fifty paces tall was propped up at one end by the splintered remains of its stump, high enough that Elyas could have walked beneath the tree trunk upright. Brilliant rays of sunlight piercing the forest canopy elsewhere seemed to deepen the shadow to near blackness around the track-marked outcrop but that troubled him no more than it did Perrin. His nose wrinkled at the burnt-sulphur smell that still hung in the air. “I thought I caught this stink on the way here. I expect you’d have mentioned this if you didn’t have things on your mind. A big pack. Bigger than anything I’ve ever seen or heard of.”

“That’s what Masuri said,” Perrin said absently. What was keeping Grady? How many people were there in Ebou Dar? That was the size of the Shaido camp. “She said she’s crossed the paths of seven packs, and this isn’t one she’s seen before.”

“Seven,” Elyas murmured in surprise. “Even an Aes Sedai would have to go some to do that. Most tales of Darkhounds are just people frightened by the dark.” Frowning at the tracks crossing the smoothed stone, he shook his head, and sadness entered his voice when he said, “They were wolves, once. The souls of wolves, anyway, caught and twisted by the Shadow. That was the core used to make Darkhounds, the Shadowbrothers. I think that’s why the wolves have to be at the Last Battle. Or maybe Darkhounds were made because wolves will be there, to fight them. The Pattern makes Sovarra lace look like a piece of string, sometimes. Anyway, it was a long time ago, during the Trolloc Wars as near as I can make out, and the War of the Shadow before that. Wolves have long memories. What a wolf knows is never really forgotten while other wolves remain alive. They avoid talking about Darkhounds, though, and they avoid Darkhounds, too. A hundred wolves could die trying to kill one Shadowbrother. Worse, if they fail, the Darkhound can eat the souls of those that aren’t quite dead yet, and in a year or so, there’d be a new pack of Shadowbrothers that didn’t remember ever being wolves. I hope they don’t remember, anyway.”

Perrin reined in, though he itched to keep moving. Shadowbrothers. The wolves’ name for Darkhounds had taken on a new grimness. “Can they eat a man’s soul, Elyas? Say a man who can talk to wolves?” Elyas shrugged. Only a handful of people could do what they did, as far as either man knew. An answer to that question might come only at the point of death. More importantly right then, if they had been wolves, once, they must be intelligent enough to report what they found. Masuri had implied as much. Foolishness to hope otherwise. How long before they did? How long did he have to free Faile?

The sound of hooves crunching in snow announced riders coming, and he hurriedly told Elyas that the Darkhounds had circled the camp, that they would be carrying word of him to whomever they reported to.

“I wouldn’t worry overmuch, boy,” the older man replied, watching warily for sight of the oncoming horses. Moving away from the stone, he began to stretch, working muscles over-long in the saddle. Elyas was too careful to be caught studying what would be swallowed in shadows to other eyes. “Sounds like they’re hunting something more important than you. They’ll stay on that till they find it if it takes all year. Don’t worry. We’ll get your wife out before those Darkhounds report you were here. Not saying it’ll be easy, but we’ll do it.” There was determination in his voice, and in his scent, but not much hope. Almost none at all, in fact.

Fighting despair, refusing to let it rise again, Perrin resumed walking Stepper as Berelain and her bodyguard appeared through the trees, with Marline astride behind Annoura. As soon as the Aes Sedai drew rein, the twilight-eyed Wise One slid to the ground, shaking down her thick skirts to cover her dark stockings. Another woman might have appeared flustered over having her legs exposed, but not Marline. She was merely straightening her clothes. Annoura was the one who looked upset, a sour-faced disgruntlement that made her nose seem more like a beak. She kept silent, but her mouth was set to bite. She must have been certain her offer to negotiate with the Shaido would be accepted, especially with Berelain supporting and Marline seemingly neutral at worst. Grays were negotiators and mediators, adjudicators and treaty makers. That might have been her motivation. What else could it have been? A problem that he had to set aside while keeping it in mind. He had to take into account anything that might interfere with freeing Faile, but the problem he had to solve lay forty miles to the northeast.

While the Winged Guards formed their protective circle among the towering trees around the Traveling ground, Berelain brought her bay alongside Stepper and paced him, trying to engage Perrin in talk, to entice him with the rest of the woodhen. She smelled uncertain, doubtful of his decision. Maybe she hoped to talk him into attempting the ransom. He kept Stepper moving and refused to listen. To make that attempt was to gamble everything on one toss of the dice. He could not gamble with Faile as the stake. Methodical as working at a forge, that was the way. Light, but he was tired. He folded himself in tighter around his anger, embracing the heat for energy.

Gallenne and Arganda arrived shortly after Berelain, with a double column of Ghealdanin lancers in burnished breastplates and bright conical helmets who interspersed themselves among the Mayeners between the trees. A trace of irritation entering her scent, Berelain left Perrin and rode to Gallenne. The pair of them sat their horses knee-to-knee, the one-eyed man bending his head to listen to what Berelain had to say. Her voice was low, but Perrin knew their subject, at least in part. Now and then one of them glanced at him as he walked Stepper back and forth, back and forth. Arganda planted his roan in one spot and stared south through the trees toward the camp, still as a statue yet radiating impatience as a fire radiated heat. He was the picture of a soldier, with his plumes and his sword and his silvered armor, his face as hard as stone, but he smelled on the brink of panic. Perrin wondered how he himself smelled. You could never catch your own scent unless you were in a closed space. He did not think he smelled of panic, just fear and anger. All would be well once he had Faile back. All would be well, then. Back and forth, back and forth.

At last Aram appeared, with a yawning Jur Grady on a dark bay gelding, dark enough that the white stripe on its nose made it seem almost a black. Dannil and a dozen Two Rivers men, spears and halberds abandoned for the moment in favor of their longbows, rode close behind, but not too close. A stocky fellow with a weathered face already beginning to show creases, though he was short of his middle years yet, Grady looked like a sleepy farmer despite of the long-hilted sword at his waist and his black coat with the silver sword pin on the high collar, but he had left the farm behind forever, and Dannil and the others always gave him room. They gave Perrin room, too, hanging back and peering at the ground, sometimes darting quick, embarrassed looks at him or Berelain. It did not matter. All would be well.

Aram tried to lead Grady to Perrin, but the Asha’man knew why he had been summoned. With a sigh, he climbed down beside Elyas, who squatted in a patch of sunlight to mark a map in the snow with his finger and speak of distance and direction, describing the place he wanted to go in detail, a clearing on a slope that faced almost south, with the ridge above notched in three places. Distance and direction were enough, if the distance and direction were precise, but the better the picture in an Asha’man’s mind, the closer he could come to an exact spot.

“There’s no margin for error here, boy.” Elyas’s eyes seemed to brighten with intensity. Whatever others thought of Asha’man, they never intimidated him. “There’s lots of ridges in that country, and the main camp is only a mile or so the other side of this one. There’ll be sentries, little parties that camp in a different place every night, maybe less than two miles the other way. You put us out off by much, and we’ll be seen for sure.”

Grady met that stare, unblinking. Then he nodded and scrubbed stubby fingers through his hair, drawing a deep breath. He looked as weary as Elyas. As bone-tired as Perrin felt. Making gateways, holding them open long enough for thousands of people and horses to pass through, was wearing work.

“Are you rested enough?” Perrin asked him. Tired men made mistakes, and mistakes with the One Power could be deadly. “Should I send for Neald?”

Grady stared up at him blearily, then shook his head. “Fager’s no more rested than me. Less, maybe. I’m stronger than he is, a bit. Better if I do it.” He turned to face northeast, and with no more warning, a vertical slash of silver-blue appeared beside the track-marked stone. Annoura jerked her mare out of the way with a loud gasp as the line of light widened into an opening, a hole in the air that showed a sunlit clearing on steep ground among trees much smaller than those around Perrin and the others. The already splintered pine shivered as it lost another thin slice, groaned, and collapsed the rest of the way with a snow-muffled crash that made the horses snort and dance. Annoura glared at the Asha’man, her face growing dark, but Grady just blinked and said, “Does that look like the right place?” Elyas adjusted his hat before nodding.

That nod was all Perrin waited for. He ducked his head and rode Stepper through into snow that was over the dun’s fetlocks. It was a small clearing, but the sky full of white clouds overhead made it seem vastly open after the forest behind. The light was almost blinding compared to the forest, though the sun was still hidden by the tree-covered ridge above. The Shaido camp lay on the other side of that ridge. He stared toward the height yearningly. It was all he could do to stay where he was rather than race ahead to finally see where Faile was. He made himself turn Stepper to face the gateway as Marline came out.

Still studying him, hardly taking her eyes away long enough to place her feet in the snow without tripping, she moved to one side to let Aram and the Two Rivers men ride through. Accustomed to Traveling if not to Asha’man by now, they barely bent their heads enough to clear the top of the opening, and only the tallest did even that. It struck Perrin that the gateway was larger than the first one of Grady’s make that he had passed through. He had had to dismount, then. It was a vague thought, no more important than a fly buzzing. Aram rode straight to Perrin, tight-faced and smelling impatient and eager to be going on, and once Dannil and the others were out of the way, climbing down and calmly fitting arrows to bows while they watched the surrounding trees, Gallenne appeared, peering grimly at the trees around them as though he expected an enemy to come dashing out, followed by half a dozen Mayeners who had to lower their red-streamered lances to crowd through after him.

A long pause passed with the gateway empty, but just when Perrin had decided to go back and see what was holding Elyas up, the bearded man led his horse out, with Arganda and six Ghealdanin riding at his heels, discontent carved on their faces. Their shining helmets and breastplates were nowhere to be seen, and they scowled as though they had been made to leave off their breeches.

Perrin nodded to himself. Of course. The Shaido camp was on the other side of this ridge, and so was the sun. That gleaming armor would have been like mirrors. He should have thought of that. He was still letting fear goad him into impatience and cloud his thinking. He had to be clearheaded, now more than ever. The detail he missed now could kill him and leave Faile in Shaido hands. It was easier to say that he had to let go of fear than to do it, though. How could he not be afraid for Faile? It had to be managed, but how?

To his surprise, Annoura rode through the gateway just ahead of Grady, who was leading his dark bay. Just as every time he had seen her pass through a gateway, she lay as flat on her mare as her saddle’s high pommel would allow, grimacing at the opening that had been made with the tainted male half of the Power, and as soon as she was clear of it, she urged her horse as far up the slope as she could without entering the trees. Grady let the gateway snap shut, leaving the purple afterimage of a vertical bar in Perrin’s eyes, and Annoura flinched and looked away, glaring at Marline, at Perrin. If she had been anyone other than an Aes Sedai, he would have said she was simmering in a sullen fury. Berelain must have told her to come, but it was not Berelain she blamed for her having to be there.

“From here, we go afoot,” Elyas announced in a quiet voice that barely carried over the occasional stamp of a horse’s hoof. He had said the Shaido were careless and had no sentries, or almost none, but he spoke as if they could be within twenty paces. “A man on a horse stands out. The Shaido aren’t blind, just blind for Aiel, which means they see twice as sharp as any of you, so don’t go skylining yourselves when we reach the crest. And try not to make any more noise than you can help. They aren’t deaf, either. They’ll find our tracks, eventually—can’t do much about that in snow—but we can’t let them know we were here until after we’re gone.”

Already sour over being shorn of his armor and plumes, Arganda began to argue about Elyas giving orders. Not being a complete fool, he did it in a quiet voice that would not carry, but he had been a soldier since the age of fifteen, he had commanded soldiers fighting Whitecloaks, Altarans and Amadicians, and as he was fond of pointing out, he had fought in the Aiel War and lived through the Blood Snow, at Tar Valon. He knew about Aiel, and he did not need an unbarbered woodsman to tell him how to put his boots on. Perrin let it pass, since the man did his complaining in between telling off two men to hold the horses. He really was not a fool, just afraid for his queen. Gallenne left all of his men behind, muttering that lancers were worse than useless off their horses and would probably break their necks if he made them walk any distance. He was no fool, either, but he did see the black side first. Elyas took the lead, and Perrin waited only long enough to transfer the thick brass-bound tube of his looking glass from Stepper’s saddlebags to his coat pocket before following.

The underbrush grew in clumps beneath the trees, which were mostly pine and fir, with clusters of others that were winter-gray and leafless, and the terrain, no steeper than the Sand Hills back home, if more rocky, presented no problems for Dannil and the other Two Rivers men, who ghosted up the slope with arrows nocked and eyes watchful, almost as silent as the mist of their breath. Aram, no stranger to the woods himself, stayed close to Perrin with his sword out. Once he started to chop a tangle of thick brown vines out of his way until Perrin stopped him with a hand on his arm, yet he made little more noise than Perrin, the faint crunch of boots in snow. It was no shock that Marline moved through the trees as if she had grown up in a forest instead of the Aiel Waste, where anything that could be called a tree was rare and snow unheard of, though it seemed that all of her necklaces and bracelets should have made some clatter as they swung, but Annoura climbed with almost as little effort, floundering a little with her skirts but deftly avoiding the sharp thorns of dead cat’s-claw and wait-a-minute vines. Aes Sedai usually found a way to surprise you. She managed to keep a wary eye on Grady, too, though the Asha’man appeared to be focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes he sighed heavily and paused for a minute, frowning toward the crest ahead, but somehow he never fell behind. Gallenne and Arganda were not young men, nor accustomed to walking where they could ride, and their breathing began to grow heavier as they ascended, sometimes pulling themselves up from tree to tree, but they watched one another nearly as much as they did the ground, each unwilling to let the other outdo him. The four Ghealdanin lancers, on the other hand, slipped and slid, tripped over roots hidden beneath the snow, caught their scabbards on vines, and growled curses when they fell on rocks or were stabbed by thorns. Perrin began to consider sending them back to wait with the horses. That, or hitting them over the head and leaving them to be picked up when he returned.

Abruptly, two Aiel stepped out of the undergrowth in front of Elyas, dark veils hiding their faces to the eyes, white cloaks hanging down their backs and spears and bucklers in hand. They were Maidens of the Spear by their height, which made them no less dangerous than any other algai’d’siswai, and in an instant, nine longbows were drawn, broadhead points aimed at their hearts.

“You could get hurt that way, Tuandha,” Elyas muttered. “You should know better, Sulin.” Perrin motioned for the Two Rivers men to lower their bows, and for Aram to lower his sword. He had caught their scents as soon as Elyas had, before they stepped into the open.

The Maidens exchanged startled looks, but they unveiled, letting the dark veils hang down their chests. “You see closely, Elyas Machera,” Sulin said. Wiry and leather-faced, with a scar across one cheek, she had sharp blue eyes that could pierce like awls, but they still looked surprised, now. Tuandha was taller and younger, and she might have been pretty before losing her right eye and gaining a thick scar than ran from her chin up under her shoufa. It pulled up one corner of her mouth in a half-smile, but that was the only smile she ever gave.

“Your coats are different,” Perrin said. Tuandha frowned down at her coat, all gray and green and brown, then at Sulin’s identical garment. “Your cloaks, too.” Elyas was tired, to make that slip. “They haven’t started moving, have they?”

“No, Perrin Aybara,” Sulin said. “The Shaido seem prepared to stay in one place for a time. They made the people from the city leave and go north last night, those they would let leave.” She gave a small shake of her head, still perturbed by the Shaido forcing people to become gai’shain who did not follow ji’e’toh. “Your friends Jondyn Barran and Get Ayliah and Hu Marwin have gone after them to see if they can learn anything. Our spear-sisters and Gaul are making their way around the camp again. We waited here for Elyas Machera to return with you.” She seldom let emotion into her voice, and there was none there now, but she smelled of sadness. “Come, I will show you.”

The two Maidens turned up the slope, and he hurried after them, forgetting anyone else. A little short of the crest, they crouched, then went to hands and knees, and he copied them, crawling the last spans through the snow to peer past a tree over the top of the ridgeline. The forest ended there, fading into scattered brush and isolated saplings on the downslope. He was high enough to see for several leagues, across rolling ridges like long treeless hills to where a dark band of forest began again. He could see everything he wanted to see, and so much less than he needed.

He had tried to imagine the Shaido camp from Elyas’ description, but the reality dwarfed his imaginings. A thousand paces below lay a mass of low Aiel tents and every other sort of tent, a mass of wagons and carts and people and horses. It spread for well over a mile in every direction from the gray stone walls of a city halfway to the next rise. He knew the sprawl must be the same on the other side. It was not one of the great cities, not like Caemlyn or Tar Valon, less than four hundred paces wide along the side he could see and narrower on the others, it seemed, but still a city with high walls and towers and what looked like a fortress at the northmost end. Yet the Shaido encampment swallowed it whole. Faile was somewhere in that great lake of people.

Fumbling his looking glass from his pocket, he remembered at the last instant to cup one hand for shade on the far end of the tube. The sun was a golden ball almost ahead of him, just shy of halfway to its noonday height. A stray reflection from the lens could ruin everything. Groups of people leapt up in the looking glass, their faces clear, at least to his eye. Long-haired women with dark shawls over their shoulders, draped in dozens of long necklaces, women with fewer necklaces milking goats, women wearing the cadin’sor and sometimes carrying spears and bucklers, women peeking from the deep cowls of heavy white robes as they scurried across snow already trampled halfway to mud. There were men and children, too, but his eye skipped past them hungrily, ignored them. Thousands upon thousands of women, just counting those in white.

“Too many,” Marline whispered, and he lowered the glass to glare at her. The others had joined the Maidens and him, all lying in a row in the snow along the ridgeline. The Two Rivers men were taking pains to keep their bowstrings up out of the snow without raising their bows above the ridgeline. Arganda and Gallenne were using their own looking glasses to study the camp below, and Grady was staring down the slope with his chin propped on his hands, every bit as intent as the two soldiers. Maybe he was using the Power in some way. Marline and Annoura were staring at the camp, too, the Aes Sedai licking her lips and the Wise One frowning. Perrin did not think Marline had intended to speak aloud.

“If you think I’ll walk away just because there are more Shaido than I expected,” he began heatedly, but she broke in, meeting his scowl with a level look.

“Too many Wise Ones, Perrin Aybara. Wherever I look, I can see a woman channeling. Just for a moment here, a moment there—Wise Ones do not channel all the time—but they are everywhere I look. Too many to be the Wise Ones of ten septs.”

He drew a deep breath. “How many do you think there are?”

“I think maybe all the Shaido Wise Ones are down there,” Marline replied, as calm as if she were talking about the price of barley. “All who can channel.”

All of them? That made no sense! How could they all be together here, when the Shaido seemed to be scattered everywhere? At least, he had heard tales of what had to be Shaido raids all across Ghealdan and Amadicia, tales of raids here in Altara long before Faile was taken and rumors from even farther. Why would they all be together? If the Shaido intended to gather here, the whole clan... No, he had to deal with what he knew for fact. That was bad enough. “How many?” he asked again, in a reasonable tone.

“Do not growl at me, Perrin Aybara. I cannot say exactly how many Shaido Wise Ones remain alive. Even Wise Ones die from sickness, snakebite, accident. Some died at Dumai’s Wells. We found bodies left behind, and they must have carried away those they could for proper burial. Even Shaido cannot have abandoned all custom. If all who remain alive are below, and the apprentices who can channel, I would say perhaps four hundred. Perhaps more, but fewer than five hundred. There were fewer than five hundred Shaido Wise Ones who could channel before they crossed the Dragonwall, and perhaps fifty apprentices.” Most farmers would have shown more emotion over the barley.

Still staring at the Shaido camp, Annoura made a strangled sound, half a sob. “Five hundred? Light! Half the Tower from one clan? Oh, Light!”

“We could sneak in, in the night,” Dannil murmured from down the row, “the way you sneaked into that Whitecloak camp back home.” Elyas gave a grunt that might have meant anything but did not sound hopeful.

Sulin snorted derisively. “We could not sneak into that camp, not with any real hope of getting out. You would be trussed like a goat for the spit before you passed the first tents.”

Perrin nodded slowly. He had thought of slipping in under cover of darkness and somehow spiriting Faile away. And the others, of course. She would not go without the others. He had never had any real belief that could work, though, not against Aiel, and the size of the camp had quenched the last glimmers. He could wander for days among that many people without finding her.

Abruptly, he realized that he was not having to fight down despair. The anger remained, but it was cold as steel in winter, now, and he could not detect a single drop of the hopelessness that had threatened to drown him before. There were ten thousand algai’d’siswai in that camp, and five hundred women who could channel—Gallenne had the right of it; prepare for the worst, and all your surprises were pleasant ones—five hundred women who would not hesitate to use the Power as a weapon; Faile was hidden like one snowflake in a meadow covered with snow, but when you piled up so much, there just was no point in despair. You had to buckle down or be plowed under. Besides, he could see the puzzle, now. Nat Torfinn had always said any puzzle could be solved, once you found out where to push and where to pull.

To the north and south, the land had been cleared farther from the city than the rise where he lay. Scattered farmhouses, none with smoke rising from its chimney, dotted the landscape, and rail fences marked out fields beneath the snow, but more than a handful of men trying to approach from either direction might as well carry torches and banners and blow trumpets. There seemed to be a road leading roughly south through the farms and another roughly north. Useless to him, probably, but you never could tell. Jondyn might bring back some information about the city, though what good that would do when the city was in the middle of the Shaido, he could not begin to guess. Gaul and the Maidens who were making their way around the camp would be able to tell him what lay beyond the next ridge. A saddle in that ridge had the look of a road heading somewhere east. Oddly, a cluster of windmills stood maybe a mile north of the saddle, long white arms turning slowly, and there appeared to another group of windmills atop the next rise beyond. A row of arches, like a long narrow bridge, stretched down the slope from the nearest windmills all the way to the city walls.

“Does anybody know what that is?” he asked, pointing. Studying it through the looking glass told him nothing except that it seemed made of the same gray stone as the wall. The thing was much too narrow for a bridge. It lacked side walls, and there did not seem to be anything for a bridge to cross.

“It is for bringing water,” Sulin replied. “It runs for five miles, to a lake. I do not know why they did not build their city closer, but most of the land around the lake looks as if it will be mud when the cold goes away.” She no longer stumbled over unfamiliar words like mud, yet a touch of awe remained in “lake,” in the idea of so much water in one place. “You think to stop their water supply? That will surely make them come out.” She understood fighting over water. Most fighting in the Waste started with water. “But I do not think—”

The colors erupted inside Perrin’s head, an explosion of hues so strong that sight and hearing vanished. All sight except for the colors themselves, at least. They were a vast tide, as if all the times he had pushed them out of his head had built a dam that they now smashed aside in a silent flood, swirling in soundless whirlpools that tried to suck him under. An image coalesced in the middle of it, Rand and Nynaeve sitting on the ground facing one another, as clear as if they were right in front of him. He had no time for Rand, not now. Not now! Clawing at the colors like a drowning man clawing for the surface, he—forced—them—out!

Sight and hearing, the world around, crashed in on him.

“... it’s madness,” Grady was saying in worried tones. “Nobody can handle enough of saidin for me to feel that far off! Nobody!”

“No one can handle that much of saidar, either,” Marline murmured. “But someone is.”

“The Forsaken?” Annoura’s voice shook. “The Forsaken, using some sa’angreal we never suspected. Or... or the Dark One himself.”

They were all three peering back to the north and west, and if Marline looked calmer than Annoura or Grady, she smelled as frightened and worried. Except for Elyas, the others were watching those three with the look of men awaiting an announcement that a new Breaking of the World had begun. Elyas’s face was accepting. A wolf would snap at a landslide carrying him to his death, but a wolf knew that death came sooner or later, and you could not fight death.

“It’s Rand,” Perrin muttered thickly. He shuddered as the colors tried to return, but he hammered them down. “His business. He’ll take care of it, whatever it is.” Everyone was staring at him, even Elyas. “I need prisoners, Sulin. They must send out hunting parties. Elyas says they have sentries out a few miles, small groups. Can you get me prisoners?”

“Listen to me carefully,” Annoura said, the words rushing out of her. She rose up out of the snow enough to reach over Marline and seize a fistful of Perrin’s cloak. “Something is happening, perhaps wonderful, perhaps terrible, but in any case momentous, more so than anything in recorded history! We must know what! Grady can take us there, close enough to see. I could take us if I knew the weaves. We must know!”

Meeting her gaze, Perrin raised his hand, and she stopped with her mouth open. Aes Sedai never shut up that easily, yet she did. “I told you what it is. Our work is right down there in front of us. Sulin?”

Sulin’s head swung from him to the Aes Sedai to Marline. Finally, she shrugged. “You will learn little useful even if you put them to the question. They will embrace the pain and laugh at you. And shame will be slow—if these Shaido can still be shamed.”

“Whatever I learn will be more than I know now,” he replied. His work lay in front of him. A puzzle to solve, Faile to free, and the Shaido to destroy. That was all that mattered in the world.

CHAPTER 9
Traps

“And she complained again that the other Wise Ones are timid,” Faile finished in her best meek voice, shifting the tall basket she held balanced on one shoulder, shifting from foot to foot in the muddy snow. The basket was not heavy, though filled with dirty laundry, and the wool of her white robe was thick and warm, with two under-robes beneath, but her soft leather boots, themselves bleached white, gave little protection from the cold slush. “I was told to report what the Wise One Sevanna said exactly,” she added quickly. Someryn was one of the “other” Wise Ones, and her mouth had turned down at the word timid.

With her eyes lowered, that was all Faile could see of Someryn’s face. Gai’shain were required to maintain a humble manner, especially the gai’shain who were not Aiel, and though she looked up through her eyelashes to read Someryn’s expression, the other woman was taller than most men, even Aiel men, a yellow-haired giant who towered over her. Most of what she could see was Someryn’s over-large bosom, plump sun-dark cleavage exposed by a blouse unlaced halfway down her chest and covered mainly by a massive collection of long necklaces, firedrops and emeralds, rubies and opals, three-tiered strands of fat pearls and intricately patterned chains of gold. Most of the Wise Ones seemed to dislike Sevanna, who “spoke for the chief” until a new Shaido clan chief could be chosen, an event unlikely to occur any time soon, and they tried to undercut her authority whenever they were not squabbling among themselves or forming cliques, but many shared Sevanna’s love of wetlander jewelry, and some had even begun wearing finger rings, like Sevanna. On her right hand Someryn wore a large white opal that flashed caverns of red whenever she adjusted her shawl, and a long blue sapphire surrounded by rubies on the left. She had not adopted silk clothing, however. Her blouse was plain white algode, from the Waste, and her skirt and shawl thick wool as dark as the folded scarf that held her waist-long yellow hair back from her face. The cold did not appear to discomfort her in the least.

The two of them stood just beyond what Faile thought of as the border between the Shaido camp and the gai’shain camp—the prisoners’ camp—not that there really were two camps. A few gai’shain slept among the Shaido, but the rest were kept to the center of the camp unless doing their assigned work, cattle fenced off from the lure of freedom by a wall of Shaido. Most of the men and women who passed them wore white gai’shain robes, though few as finely woven as what she wore. With so many to clothe, the Shaido scooped up any sort of white cloth they could find. Some were garbed in layers of coarse linen or toweling or robes of rough tent cloth, and many of the robes were stained with mud or soot. Only now and then did one of the gai’shain show the height and pale eyes of an Aiel. The vast majority were ruddy-faced Amadicians, olive-skinned Altarans, and pale Cairhienin, along with occasional travelers or merchants from Illian or Tarabon or elsewhere who had found themselves in the worst place at the worst time. The Cairhienin were the longest held and most resigned to their situation aside from the handful of Aiel in white, but they all kept their eyes down and moved about their tasks as fast as the trampled mush of snow and mud would allow. Gai’shain were expected to display humility, obedience, and an eagerness to embrace both. Any less resulted in painful reminders.

Faile would very much have liked to hurry on herself. Cold feet were only a small part of it, and eagerness to do Sevanna’s laundry less. Too many eyes could see her standing there in the open with Someryn, and even with her deep cowl hiding her face, the broad mesh belt of shiny golden links around her waist and a close-fitting collar to match marked her as one of Sevanna’s servants. No one called them that—in Aiel eyes, being a servant was demeaning—but that was what they were, the wetlanders at least, just unpaid and with fewer rights and less freedom than any servant Faile had ever heard tell of. Sooner or later Sevanna herself was going to learn that Wise Ones were stopping her gai’shain to question them. Sevanna had well over a hundred servants and kept adding to them, and Faile was certain that every last one was repeating every word they heard Sevanna say to the Wise Ones.

It was a brutally efficient trap. Sevanna was a harsh mistress, in a rather casual way, never snapping, seldom openly angry, but the slightest infraction, the smallest slip in demeanor or behavior, was punished immediately with the switch or the strap, and every night the five gai’shain who had pleased her least that day were chosen out for further punishment, sometimes a night bound and gagged on top of a beating, just to encourage the rest. Faile did not want to think of what the woman would order for a spy. On the other hand, the Wise Ones had made it clear that anyone who did not talk freely of what they heard, anyone who tried to hold back or bargain, faced an uncertain future, possibly ending in a shallow grave. Harming a gai’shain beyond the permitted limits of discipline was a violation of ji’e’toh, the web of honor and obligation that governed the lives of Aiel, but wetlander gai’shain seemed to stand outside a number of the rules.

Sooner or later, one side or the other of that trap would snap shut. All that had held the jaws apart this long was that the Shaido seemed to see their wetlander gai’shain as no different from cart horses or pack animals, though in truth the animals received far better treatment. Now and then a gai’shain tried to run away, but aside from that, one simply gave them food and shelter, put them to work and punished them if they faltered. The Wise Ones no more expected them to disobey, Sevanna no more expected them to spy on her, than they expected a cart horse to sing. Sooner or later, though... And that was not the only trap Faile was caught in.

“Wise One, I have nothing more to tell,” she murmured when Someryn said nothing. Unless you were addled in the head, you did not just walk away from a Wise One, not until she dismissed you. “The Wise One Sevanna talks freely in front of us, but she says little.”

The tall woman remained silent, and after a long moment Faile dared to raise her eyes a little more. Someryn was staring over Faile’s head, her mouth hanging open in stunned amazement. Frowning, Faile shifted the basket on her shoulder and looked behind her, but there was nothing to account for Someryn’s expression, just the sprawl of the camp, dark low Aiel tents mingled with peaked tents and walled tents and every sort of tent, most in shades of dirty white or pale brown, others green or blue or red or even striped. The Shaido took everything valuable when they struck, everything that might prove useful, and they left behind nothing that resembled a tent.

As it was, they hardly had enough shelter to go around. There were ten septs gathered here, more than seventy thousand Shaido and nearly as many gai’shain, by her estimate, and everywhere she saw only the usual bustle, dark-clad Aiel going about their lives among scurrying white-clad captives. A smith was working the bellows on his forge in front of an open tent with his tools laid out on a tanned bull hide, children were herding flocks of bleating goats with switches, a trader was displaying her goods in an open pavilion of yellow canvas, everything from golden candlesticks and silver bowls to pots and kettles, all looted. A lean man with a horse on a lead stood talking with a gray-haired Wise One named Masalin, no doubt seeking a cure for some ailment the animal had, from the way he kept pointing at the horse’s belly. Nothing to make Someryn gape.

Just as Faile was about to turn back around, she noticed a dark-haired Aiel woman facing the other way. Not just dark hair, but hair black as a raven’s wing, a great rarity among Aiel. Even from behind, Faile thought she recognized Alarys, another of the Wise Ones. There were over four hundred Wise Ones in the camp, but she had learned quickly to know all of them on sight. Mistaking a Wise One for a weaver or a potter was a quick way to earn a switching.

It might have meant nothing that Alarys was standing stock-still and looking in the same direction as Someryn, or that she had let her shawl slide to the ground, except that just beyond her, Faile recognized still another Wise One, also looking off to the north and west, and slapping at people who walked in front of her. That had to be Jesain, a woman who would have been called short even if she were not Aiel, with a great mass of hair red enough to make fire look pale and a temper to match. Masalin was talking to the man with the horse and gesturing to the animal. She could not channel, but three Wise Ones who could were all staring in the same direction. Only one thing could account for it; they saw someone channeling up there on the forested ridgeline beyond the camp. A Wise One channeling surely would not make any of them stare. Could it be an Aes Sedai? Or more than one? Better not to get her hopes up. It was too soon.

A clout on the head staggered her, and she nearly dropped the basket.

“Why are you standing like a lump?” Someryn snarled. “Go on with your work. Go, before I... !”

Faile went, balancing the basket with one hand, lifting the skirts of her robe out of the muddy snow with the other, and moving as quickly as she could without slipping and falling in the muck. Someryn never hit anyone, and she never raised her voice. If she was doing both, it was best to be out of her way with no delay. Humbly and obediently.

Pride said to maintain a cool defiance, a quiet refusal to yield, yet sense said that was the way to find herself guarded twice as closely as she was. The Shaido might take the wetlander gai’shain for domesticated animals, but they were not completely blind. They must think that she had accepted her captivity as inescapable if she were to be able to escape, and that was very much on her mind. The sooner, the better. Certainly before Perrin caught up. She had never doubted that Perrin was following her, that he would find her somehow—the man would walk through a wall if he took it into his head!—but she had to escape before that. She was a soldier’s daughter. She knew the Shaido’s numbers, she knew the strength Perrin had to call on, and she knew she had to reach him before that clash could take place. There was just the little matter of getting free of the Shaido, first.

What had the Wise Ones been looking at—the Aes Sedai or Wise Ones with Perrin? Light, she hoped not, not yet! But other matters took precedence, the laundry not least. She carried the basket toward what remained of the city of Malden, weaving through a steady flow of gai’shain. Those leaving the city each carried a pair of heavy buckets balanced on the ends of a pole carried across the shoulders, while the buckets of those going in swayed, empty, on their poles. As many people as were in the camp required a great deal of water, and this was how it came to them, bucket by bucket. It was easy to tell the gai’shain who had been inhabitants of Malden. This far north in Altara, they were fair rather than olive-complected, and some even had blue eyes, but all stumbled along in a daze. Shaido climbing the city walls in the night had overwhelmed the defenses before most of the residents knew they were in danger, and they still seemed unable to believe what their lives had come to.

Faile searched for a particular face, though, someone she hoped would not be carrying water today. She had been looking ever since the Shaido made camp here, four days ago. Just outside the city gates, which stood open and shoved back against the granite walls, she found her, a white-clad woman taller than herself with a flat basket of bread on her hip and her hood pushed back just enough to show a bit of dark reddish hair. Chiad appeared to be studying the iron-strapped gates that had failed to protect Malden, but she turned away from them as soon as Faile approached. They paused side by side, not really looking at one another while they pretended to shift their baskets. There was no reason two gai’shain should not talk to one another, but no one should remember that they had been captured together. Bain and Chiad were not watched as closely as gai’shain serving Sevanna, but that might change if anyone remembered. Almost everyone in sight was gai’shain, and from west of the Dragonwall besides, yet too many had learned to curry favor by carrying tales and rumors. Most people did what they must to survive, and some always tried to feather their own nests, whatever the circumstances.

“They got away the first night here,” Chiad murmured. “Bain and I led them out to the trees and obscured the tracks coming back. No one seems to realize they are gone, as far as I can see. With so many gai’shain, it seems a wonder these Shaido notice any who run away.”

Faile heaved a small sigh of relief. Three days gone. The Shaido did notice runaways. Few managed a full day of freedom, but the chances of success increased with every day uncaught, and it seemed certain the Shaido would move on tomorrow, or the next day. They had not halted as long as this since Faile was captured. She suspected they might be trying to march back to the Dragonwall and recross into the Waste.

It had not been easy talking Lacile and Arrela into leaving without her. What finally convinced them had been the argument that they could carry word to Perrin of where Faile was, along with a warning of how many Shaido there were and a claim that Faile already had her own escape well in hand and any interference by him might endanger that and her. She was sure she had made them believe all of that—she did have her escape in hand, in a way; she had several plans, in fact, and one of them had to work—but until this minute she had been half convinced the two women would decide their oaths to her required them to stay. Water oaths were tighter than oaths of fealty in some ways, yet they left considerable room for stupidity in the name of honor. In truth, she did not know whether the pair could find Perrin, but either way, they were free and she had only two other women to worry about. Of course, the absence of three of Sevanna’s servants would be noticed very quickly, within hours, and the best trackers would be sent to bring them back. Faile was accustomed to the woods, but she knew better than to pit herself against Aiel trackers. It was very unpleasant for “ordinary” gai’shain who ran away and were recaptured. For Sevanna’s gai’shain, it might be better to die in the attempt. At best, they would never be allowed the opportunity for a second try.

“The rest of us would have a better chance if you and Bain came with us,” she said in a low voice. The flow of men and women in white carrying water by them continued, no one seeming to more than glance their way, but wariness had become ingrained in her these last two weeks. Light, it seemed more like two years! “What difference can there be between helping Lacile and Arrela reach the forest and helping the rest of us get further?” That was despair talking. She knew the difference—Bain and Chiad were her friends and had taught her about Aiel ways, about ji’e’toh and even a little Maiden handtalk—and it did not surprise her when Chiad turned her head slightly to regard her with gray eyes that had nothing of gai’shain meekness in them. Nor did her voice, though she still spoke quietly.

“I will help you as far as I can because it is not right for the Shaido to hold you. You do not follow ji’e’toh. I do. If I cast aside my honor and my obligations just because the Shaido have, then I allow them to decide how I will act. I will wear white for a year and a day and then they will release me, or I will walk away, but I will not throw away who I am.” Without another word, Chiad strode off into the throngs of gai’shain.

Faile half-raised a hand to stop her, then let it fall. She had asked that question before, receiving a gentler answer, and in asking again, she had insulted her friend. She would have to apologize. Not to keep Chiad’s help—the woman would not withdraw that—but because she had her own honor, even if she did not follow ji’e’toh. You did not insult friends and simply forget it, or expect them to. Apologies must wait, though. They dared not be seen talking too long.

Malden had been a prosperous city, a producer of good wool and great quantities of fair-quality wine, but an empty ruin inside the walls, now. As many of the slate-roofed houses were timber as were stone, and fire had gotten loose during the looting. The southern end of the city was half piles of blackened timbers decorated with icicles, half scorched, roofless walls. The streets everywhere, whether stone-paved or dirt, were gray with windblown ash trampled into the snow, and the whole city stank of charred wood. Water was one thing Malden apparently never ran short of, but like all Aiel, the Shaido placed a very high value on it, and they knew nothing of fighting fires. There was little in the Aiel Waste that could burn. They might have let the entire city be consumed had they been finished with stealing, and as it was, they dithered over the waste of water before forcing gai’shain into bucket lines at spearpoint and letting the men of Malden bring out their pump-wagons. Faile would have thought the Shaido would at least have rewarded those men by allowing them to leave with the people who had escaped being chosen for gai’shain, but the men who worked the pumps were young and fit, just the sort the Shaido wanted for their gai’shain. The Shaido kept some of the rules regarding gai’shain—women who were pregnant or had children under the age of ten had been let go, and youths under sixteen, and the city’s blacksmiths, who had been both mystified and grateful—but gratitude never entered into it.

Furniture littered the streets, large overturned tables and ornate chests and chairs, and sometimes a crumpled wall hanging or broken dishes. Bits of clothing lay everywhere, coats and breeches and dresses, most sliced to tatters. The Shaido had seized anything made of gold or silver, anything that had gems, anything useful or edible, but the furnishings must have been hauled outside in the frenzy of looting, then abandoned when whoever was carrying them decided that a little gilded edging or fine carving did not make them worth the effort. Aiel did not use chairs in any case, except for chiefs, and there was no room on the carts and wagons for any of those heavy tables. A few Shaido still wandered through, searching the houses and inns and shops for anything they might have missed, yet most people she saw were gai’shain carrying buckets. Aiel had no interest in cities except as storehouses to be plundered. A pair of Maidens passed her, using the butts of their spears to drive a naked, wild-eyed man, his arms bound behind him, toward the gates. Doubtless he had thought he could hide in a basement or attic until the Shaido were gone. Doubtless the Maidens had thought to find a cache of coin or plate. When a huge man in the cadin’sor of an algai’d’siswai stepped in front of her, she swerved to go around him as smoothly as she could. A gai’shain always made way for any Shaido.

“You are very pretty,” he said, putting himself in her way. He was the biggest man she had ever seen, perhaps seven feet tall and thick in proportion. Not fat—she had never seen a fat Aiel—but very wide. He belched, and she smelled wine fumes. Drunken Aiel she had seen, since they found all those casks of wine here in Malden. She felt no fear, though. Gai’shain might be punished for any number of infractions, often for transgressions few of the wetlanders understood, but the white robes gave a certain protection, too, and she had another layer besides.

“I am gai’shain to the Wise One Sevanna,” she said in as obsequious a tone as she could manage. To her disgust, she had gotten so she could manage it very well. “Sevanna would be displeased if I shirked my duties to talk.” She tried again to step around him, and gasped when he seized her arm in a hand that could have wrapped around it twice with inches to spare.

“Sevanna has hundreds of gai’shain. She will not miss one for an hour or two.”

The basket fell to the street as he plucked her into the air as easily as picking up a pillow. Before she knew what was happening, he had her tucked beneath his arm, her own arms trapped at her sides. She opened her mouth to scream, and he used his free hand to press her face flat against his chest. The smell of sweaty wool filled her nose. All she could see was gray-brown wool. Where were those two Maidens? Maidens of the Spear would not let him do this! Any Aiel who saw would step in! She never expected help from any of the gai’shain. One or two might run for help, if she was lucky, but the very first lesson a gai’shain learned was that even a threat of violence got you hung up by the ankles and beaten till you howled. The first lesson wetlanders learned, at least; Aiel already knew: a gai’shain was forbidden to offer violence for any reason. Any reason. Which did not stop her from kicking at the man furiously. She might as well have been kicking a wall for all the impression it made. He was moving, carrying her somewhere. She bit as hard down as hard as she could, and got a mouthful of coarse dirty wool for her pains, her teeth sliding over muscle with no slack to give her purchase. He seemed made of stone. She screamed, but her shriek sounded muffled even to her own ears.

Abruptly, the monster carrying her stopped.

“I made this one gai’shain, Nadric,” another man’s deep voice said.

Faile felt a rumble of laughter in the chest against her face even before she heard it. She did not stop her kicking, never stopped writhing or trying to shout, yet her captor seemed unaware of her efforts. “She belongs to Sevanna now, Brotherless,” the huge man—Nadric?—said contemptuously. “Sevanna takes what she wants, and I take what I want. It is the new way.”

“Sevanna took her,” the other man replied calmly, “but I never gave her to Sevanna. I never offered to trade her to Sevanna. Do you abandon your honor because Sevanna abandons hers?”

There was a long silence broken only by the smothered noises Faile was making. She did not stop struggling, could not stop, but she might as well have been an infant in swaddling.

“She is not pretty enough to fight over,” Nadric said finally. He did not sound frightened or even concerned.

His hands fell away from her, and Faile’s teeth ripped loose from his coat so suddenly she thought one or two might be jerked out, but the ground smashed into her back and all of the air rushed out of her lungs along with most of the wits from her head. By the time she could gather enough breath to push up on her hands, the huge man was striding away down the alley, almost back to the street. It was an alley, a narrow track of dirt between two stone buildings. No one would have seen what he did back here. Shivering—she was not trembling, just shivering!—spitting out the taste of unwashed wool and Nadric’s sweat, she glared at his back. If the knife she had hidden away had been within reach, she would have stabbed him. Not pretty enough to fight over, was she? Part of her knew that was ludicrous, but she was grabbing hold of anything that could feed her anger, just for the warmth of it. To help her stop shivering. She would have stabbed him and stabbed him, until she could not lift her arms.

Getting up on legs that wobbled, she explored her teeth with her tongue. They were all sound, nothing broken or missing. Her face had been scraped by the rough wool of Nadric’s coat, and her lips were bruised, but she was unhurt. She reminded herself of that. She was unhurt, and free to walk out of the alley. As free as anyone in gai’shain robes could be, anyway. If there were many like Nadric who no longer saw the protection of those robes, then order was breaking down among the Shaido. The camp would be a more dangerous place, but disorder would bring more opportunities for escape. That was how she had to look at this. She had learned something that could aid her. If only she could stop shivering.

At last, reluctantly, she looked at her rescuer. She had recognized his voice. He stood well back from her, watching her calmly, making no move to offer sympathy. She thought she would have screamed if he touched her. Another absurdity, since he had rescued her, but a fact all the same. Rolan was no more than a hand shorter than Nadric, and almost as wide, and she had reason to want to stab him, too. He was not Shaido, but one of the Brotherless, the Mera’din, men who had left their clans because they would not follow Rand al’Thor, and he had indeed been the one to “make her gai’shain.” True, he had kept her from freezing to death the night after she was captured by wrapping her in his own coat, yet she would not have needed the covering if he had not cut off every last stitch of her clothing in the first place. The first part of being made gai’shain was always being stripped, but that was no reason to forgive him for any of it.

“Thank you,” she said, the words sour on her tongue.

“I do not ask for gratitude,” he said mildly. “Do not look at me as though you want to bite me just because you could not bite Nadric.”

She managed not to snarl at him—barely; she could not have summoned meekness right then had she wanted to—before she turned away and stalked back out to the street. Well, she tried to stalk. Her legs were still shaking enough that it was more of a lurch. The passing gai’shain barely glanced in her direction as they trudged along the street with their water buckets. Few of the captives wanted to share anyone else’s troubles. They had enough of their own.

Reaching the laundry basket, she gave a sigh. It lay on its side, white silk blouses and dark silk skirts divided for riding spilled out over the dirty ash-smeared pavement. At least it seemed no one had trodden on them. Anyone who had been carrying water all morning, and had a day of it to look forward to, could have been forgiven if they failed to step aside, with bits of clothing lying all around that had been cut off the people of Malden who had been made gai’shain. She would have tried to forgive them. Righting the basket, she began gathering the clothes, shaking off the dirt and ash that would come loose and careful not to grind in the rest. Unlike Someryn, Sevanna had taken to silk. She wore nothing else. She was as proud of her silks as she was of her jewelry, and equally possessive of both. She would not be pleased if any of these garments failed to be returned clean.

As Faile laid the last blouse atop the rest, Rolan reached past her and lifted the basket with one hand. On the brink of snapping at him—she could carry her own burdens, thank you very much!—she swallowed the words. Her brain was the only real weapon she possessed, and she had to use it instead of letting her temper have control. Rolan had not been here by chance. That was straining credulity too far. She had seen him frequently since she was captured, much more often than chance could account for. He had been following her. What was it he had told Nadric? He had not given her to Sevanna or offered to trade her. For all that he had been the one to capture her, she thought he disapproved of making wetlanders gai’shain—most of the Brotherless did—but apparently he still claimed his rights to her.

She was sure she did not need to fear him trying to force her. Rolan had had his chance for that, when he had her naked and bound, and he could have been looking at a fence post then. Perhaps he did not like women in that way. In any case, the Brotherless were almost as much outsiders among the Shaido as the wetlanders. None of the Shaido really trusted them, and the Brotherless themselves often seemed like men holding their noses, accepting what they considered a lesser wrong rather than embrace a greater, but no longer truly sure that it was lesser. If she could make a friend of the man, perhaps he would be willing to help her. Not to escape, certainly—that would asking too much—but... Or would it? The only way to find out was to try.

“Thank you,” she said again, and this time she worked up a smile. Surprisingly, he smiled back. A small smile, barely there at all, but Aiel were not demonstrative. They could seem stone-faced till you became used to them.

For a few paces they walked along side by side in silence, him carrying the basket in one hand and her holding up the skirts of her robes. They might have been out for a stroll. If you squinted. Some of the passing gai’shain looked at them in surprise, but they always put their eyes down again quickly. She could not think of how to begin—she did not want him to think she was flirting; he might like women after all—but he took away the necessity.

“I have watched you,” he said. “You are strong and fierce, and not afraid, I think. Most of the wetlanders are frightened half out of their heads. They bluster until they are punished, and then they weep and cower. I think you are a woman of much ji.

“I am frightened,” she replied. “I just try not let it show. Crying never does any good.” Most men believed that. Tears could get in your way if you let them, but a few tears shed at night could help you make it through the next day.

“There are times to weep and times to laugh. I would like to see you laugh.”

She did laugh, a dry laugh. “There’s little reason while I wear white, Rolan.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Was she going too fast? But he only nodded.

“Still, I would like to see it. Smiles suit your face. Laughter would suit it even better. I have no wife, but I can make a woman laugh, sometimes. I have heard you have a husband?”

Startled, Faile tripped over her own feet and caught herself on his arm. Quickly, she snatched her hand away, studying him past the edge of her cowl. He paused long enough for her to steady herself, then walked on when she did. His expression was no more than mildly curious. Despite Nadric, Aiel custom was for a woman to do the asking, after a man attracted her interest. Giving her gifts was one way. Making her laugh was another. So much for his not liking women. “I do have a husband, Rolan, and I love him very much. Very much. I can’t wait to return to him.”

“What happens while you are gai’shain cannot be held against you when you put off white,” he said calmly, “but perhaps you wetlanders do not see it that way. Still, it can be lonely when you are gai’shain. Perhaps we can talk sometimes.”

The man wanted to see her laugh, and she did not know whether to laugh or cry. He was announcing that he did not intend to give up trying to attract her interest. Aiel women admired perseverance in a man. Still, if Chiad and Bain would not, could not, help beyond giving her aid in reaching the trees, Rolan was her best hope. She thought she could convince him, given time. Of course she could; faint hearts never succeeded! He was a scorned outcast, accepted only because the Shaido needed his spear. But she was going to have to give him a reason to persist.

“I would like that,” she said carefully. A little flirting might be necessary after all, but she could not go from telling him how much she loved her husband straight to wide-eyed and breathless. Not that she had any intention of going that far—she was no Domani!—yet she might need to come close. For the time being, a little reminder that Sevanna had usurped his “right” would not go amiss. “I have work to do now, though, and I doubt Sevanna would be pleased if I spent the time talking to you instead.”

Rolan nodded again, and Faile sighed. He might know how to make a woman laugh, as he claimed, but he certainly did not talk very much. She was going to have to work to draw him out if she intended to get anything more than jokes she did not understand. Even with Chiad and Bain’s help, Aiel humor remained incomprehensible to her.

They had reached the broad square in front of the fortress at the north end of the city, a towered mass of gray stone walls that had protected its inhabitants no better than the city walls. Faile thought she had seen the lady who had ruled Malden and everything for twenty miles around, a handsome dignified widow in her middle years, among the gai’shain hauling water. White-clad men and women carrying buckets crowded the stone-paved square. At the eastern end of the square, what looked like a section of the city’s outer wall, gray and thirty feet high, was actually the wall of a huge cistern fed by an aqueduct. Four pumps, each worked by a pair of men, gushed out water to fill the buckets, a good bit more splashing to the paving stones than the men would have dared allow if they had known Rolan was close enough to see. Faile had considered crawling through the tunnel-like aqueduct to escape, but they had no way to keep anything dry, and wherever it let them out, they would be soaking wet and more likely to freeze to death than make it more than a mile or two in the snow.

There were two other places in the city to get water, both fed by stone conduits underground, but here a long, lion-footed blackwood table had been placed at the foot of the cistern wall. Once it had been a banqueting table, the top inlaid with ivory, but the ivory wedges had been pried out and several wooden washtubs sat on the tabletop now. A pair of wooden buckets stood beside the table, and at one end a copper kettle steamed over a fire made from broken-up chairs. Faile doubted that Sevanna had her laundry carried into the city to save her gai’shain the labor of hauling water out to the tents, but whatever the reason, Faile was grateful. A basket of laundry was lighter than full water buckets. She had carried enough of them to know. Two baskets stood on the table, but only one woman wearing the golden belt and collar was at work, the sleeves of her white robe rolled up as high as they would go and her long dark hair tied with a strip of white cloth to keep it from falling into the washtub’s water.

When Alliandre saw Faile approaching with Rolan, she straightened, drying her bare arms on her robe. Alliandre Maritha Kigarin, Queen of Ghealdan, Blessed of the Light, Defender of Garen’s Wall and a dozen more titles, had been an elegant, reserved woman, poised and stately. Alliandre the gai’shain was still pretty, but she wore a perpetually harried expression. With damp patches on her robes and her hands wrinkled from long immersion in the water, she could have passed for a pretty washerwoman. Watching Rolan set down the basket and smile at Faile before striding away, watching Faile return the smile, she raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“He’s the one who captured me,” Faile said, setting pieces of clothing from the basket on the table. Even here among none but gai’shain, it was best to talk while working. “He’s one of the Brotherless, and I think he doesn’t really approve of making wetlanders gai’shain. I think he may help us.”

“I see,” Alliandre said. With one hand she brushed delicately at the back of Faile’s robe.

Frowning, Faile twisted to look over her shoulder. For a moment she stared at the dirt and ash that covered her back from the shoulders down; then heat flooded her face. “I fell,” she said quickly. She could not tell Alliandre what had happened with Nadric. She did not think she could tell anyone. “Rolan offered to carry my basket.”

Alliandre shrugged. “If he helped me escape, I would marry him. Or not, as he wanted. He’s not quite pretty, but it wouldn’t be painful, and my husband, if I had one, would never have to know. If he had any sense, he would be overjoyed to have me back and ask no questions he didn’t want to hear answers to.”

Hands tightening on a silk blouse, Faile gritted her teeth. Alliandre was her liege woman, through Perrin, and she held to that well enough, at least insofar as obeying commands, but the nature of the relationship had become strained. They had agreed that they must try to think like servants, try to be servants, if they were to survive, yet that meant that each had seen the other curtsying and scurrying to obey. Sevanna’s punishments were dealt out by the nearest gai’shain to hand when she made her decision, and once Faile had been ordered to switch Alliandre. Worse, Alliandre had been ordered to return the favor twice. Holding back only meant a taste of the same for yourself plus the other woman having to endure a double dose from someone who would not spare her arm. It had to make a difference when you had twice made your liege-lady kick and shriek.

Abruptly she realized that the blouse she was gripping was one of those that had picked up extra dirt when the basket fell. Loosening her grip, she examined the garment anxiously. It did not seem that she had ground the dirt in. For a moment, she felt relief, and then irritation at being relieved. Even more irritating, the relief did not go away.

“Arrela and Lacile escaped three days ago,” she said in a low voice. “They should be well away by now. Where is Maighdin?”

A worried frown appeared on the other woman’s face. “She is trying to sneak into Therava’s tent. Therava passed us with a group of Wise Ones, and from what we overheard, they seemed to be on their way to meet with Sevanna. Maighdin shoved her basket at me and said she was going to try. I think... I think she’s becoming desperate enough to take too many chances,” she said with a touch of hopelessness in her own voice. “She should have been here by now.”

Faile drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. They were all becoming desperate. They had gathered supplies for their escape—knives and food, boots and men’s breeches and coats that fit near enough, all carefully hidden in the wagons; the white robes would serve as blankets, and as cloaks to hide them in the snow—but the chance to use all that preparation seemed no closer now than the day they were captured. Only two weeks. Twenty-two days to be exact. That should have not been long enough to change anything, but their pretense of being servants was changing them in spite of all they could do. Only two weeks, and they found themselves jumping to obey commands without thought, worrying over punishments and whether they were pleasing Sevanna. The worst of it was, they could see themselves doing these things, knew some part of them was being molded against their wills. For now, they could tell themselves they were just doing what was needed to avoid suspicion until they could escape, yet every day the reactions became more automatic. How long before escape was a pale dream dreamed in the night after a day of being a perfect gai’shain in thought as well as deed? No one had dared ask that question aloud, so far, and Faile knew that she herself tried not to think it, but the question was always on the edge of her consciousness. In a way, she was afraid of it leaving. When it did, would it already have been answered?

With an effort, she forced herself back from despondency. That was the second trap, and only willpower held it open. “Maighdin knows she has to be careful,” she said in a firm voice. “She will be here soon, Alliandre.”

“And if she is caught?”

“She won’t be!” Faile said sharply. If she was... No. She had to think of victory, not defeat. Faint hearts never won.

Washing the silk was time-consuming. The buckets of water they fetched from the cistern pumps were icy cold, but hot water scooped from the copper kettle brought the temperature in the washtubs up to lukewarm. You could not wash silk in hot water. Sinking your hands into the washtubs felt wonderful in the cold, but you always had to take them out again, and then the cold was twice as bitter. There was no soap, not that was mild enough anyway, so each skirt and blouse had to be submersed one by one and delicately scrubbed against itself. Then it was laid on a piece of toweling and gently rolled up to squeeze out as much water as possible. The damp garment was dipped again, in another washtub that was filled with a mixture of vinegar and water—that reduced fading and enhanced the gloss of the silk—then rolled up in toweling again. The wet toweling was wrung out hard and spread in the sun to dry wherever there was room, while each piece of silk was hung on a horizontal pole, slung in the shade of a rough canvas pavilion erected at the edge of the square, and smoothed by hand to rub out wrinkles. With luck, nothing would need ironing. Both of them knew how silk had to be cared for, but ironing it needed experience neither of them had. None of Sevanna’s gai’shain did, not even Maighdin, though she had been a lady’s maid even before entering Faile’s service, but Sevanna did not accept excuses. Every time Faile or Alliandre went to hang another garment, they checked those already there and smoothed any that seemed to need it.

Faile was adding hot water to a washtub when Alliandre said bitterly, “Here comes the Aes Sedai.”

Galina was Aes Sedai, complete with the ageless face and a golden Great Serpent ring on her finger, but she wore white gai’shain robes, too—in silk as thick as anyone else’s wool, no less!—along with a wide, elaborate belt of gold and firedrops that cinched her waist tightly and a tall matching collar around her neck, jewels fit for a monarch. She was Aes Sedai, and sometimes rode out from the camp alone, but she always returned, and she jumped when any Wise One crooked a finger, especially Therava, whose tent she often shared. In a way, that last was the strangest thing of all. Galina knew who Faile was, knew who her husband was and Perrin’s connection to Rand al’Thor, and she threatened to reveal it to Sevanna unless Faile and her friends stole something from the very tent she slept in. That was the third trap lying in wait for them. Sevanna was obsessed with al’Thor, insanely convinced that she could somehow marry him, and if she learned about Perrin, Faile would never be allowed far enough out of her sight to think of escape. She would be staked out like a goat to draw a lion.

Faile had seen Galina slinking and cowering, but now the sister glided through the square like a queen disdaining the rabble around her, an Aes Sedai to the hilt. There were no Wise Ones here for her simper at. Galina was pretty, but nowhere near beautiful, and Faile did not understand what Therava saw in her, unless it was simply the pleasure of dominating an Aes Sedai. That still left the question of why the woman remained when Therava seemed to take every opportunity to humiliate her.

Stopping a pace from the table, Galina surveyed them with a small smile that might have been called pitying. “You are not progressing very far in your work,” she said. She was not speaking of the laundry.

It was Faile’s place to do the talking, but Alliandre spoke up, even more bitterly than before. “Maighdin went to fetch your ivory rod this morning, Galina. When will we see some of the help you promised?” Help in their escape was the carrot Galina offered along with the stick of threatening Faile’s exposure. So far, however, they had seen only the stick.

“She went to Therava’s tent this morning?” Galina whispered, the blood draining from her face.

It dawned on Faile that the sun was halfway down to the horizon in the west, and her heart began to thud painfully. Maighdin should have joined them long since.

The Aes Sedai seemed even more shaken than she. “This morning?” Galina repeated, looking over her shoulder. She gave a start and a cry when Maighdin suddenly appeared out of the throng of gai’shain crowding the square.

Unlike Alliandre, the golden-haired woman had grown tougher by the day since their capture. She was no less desperate, but she seemed to focus it all into determination. She always had a presence that belonged more to a queen than a lady’s maid, though most lady’s maids had it, but now she stumbled past them, dull-eyed, and plunged her hands into a water bucket, cupping a double handful to her mouth to drink thirstily, then scrubbing the back of a hand across her mouth.

“I want to kill Therava when we go,” she said thickly. “I would like to kill her now.” Her blue eyes took on life again, and heat. “You’re safe, Galina. She thought I was there to steal. I hadn’t started looking. Something... Something happened, and she left. After tying me up. For later.” The heat faded from her gaze to be replaced by puzzlement. “What is it, Galina? Even I feel it, and I have so little ability these Aiel women decided I was no danger.” Maighdin could channel. Not reliably, though and not very much—from what little Faile knew, the White Tower would have sent her away in a matter of weeks, and she claimed never to have gone—so her ability would not be of much use in aiding their escape. Faile would have asked what she was talking about, but she never got the chance.

Galina’s face was still pale, but otherwise she was all Aes Sedai calm. Except that she seized a handful of Maighdin’s cowl and the hair beneath and wrenched her head back. “Never you mind what it is,” she said coolly. “Nothing to do with you. All you need worry about is getting me what I want. But you should worry about that very hard.”

Before Faile could move to defend Maighdin, another woman wearing the wide golden belt over her white robes was there, pulling Galina away and slinging her to the ground. Plump and plain, Aravine had been weary-eyed and resigned the first time Faile saw her, the day the Amadician woman handed her the golden belt she wore and told her she was now in the service of “the Lady Sevanna.” The intervening days had stiffened Aravine even more than they had Maighdin, though.

“Are you mad, to lay hands on an Aes Sedai?” Galina snapped, struggling to her feet. Brushing at the dirt staining her silk robes, she directed all her fury at the plump woman. “I will have you—”

“Shall I tell Therava you were manhandling one of Sevanna’s gai’shain?” Aravine broke in coldly. Her accents were cultured. She might have been a merchant of some note, or perhaps even a noble, but she never spoke of what she had been before putting on white. “The last time Therava thought you’d poked your nose where she didn’t want it, everybody inside a hundred paces could hear you squealing and begging.”

Galina actually quivered with rage, the first time Faile had ever seen an Aes Sedai so outdone. With a visible effort, she gained control of herself. Just. Her voice dripped acid. “Aes Sedai do what we do for our own reasons, Aravine, reasons you could not possibly understand. You will regret incurring this debt when I decide to collect payment. You will regret it to your heart.” Giving her robes a last brush, she stalked away, no longer the queen disdaining rabble but a leopard daring sheep to block her path.

Watching her go, Aravine seemed unimpressed, and uninclined to chat. “Sevanna wants you, Faile” was all she said.

Faile did not bother to ask why. She just dried her hands, rolled down her sleeves, and followed the Amadician woman, after promising Alliandre and Maighdin to return as soon as she could. Sevanna was fascinated with the three of them. Maighdin, the only true lady’s maid among her gai’shain, seemed to interest her as much as Queen Alliandre, and Faile herself, a woman powerful enough to have a queen as her liege woman, and sometimes she summoned one of them by name to help her change clothes or bathe in the large copper bathtub that she used more often than the sweat tent, or just to pour her wine. The rest of the time they were given the same chores as her other servants, but she never asked whether they had already been assigned work or let them off because of it. Whatever Sevanna wanted, Faile knew she still would be held accountable for the laundry along with the other two. Sevanna wanted what she wanted when she wanted it, and she did not accept excuses.

There was no need for Faile to be shown the way to Sevanna’s tent, but Aravine led the way through the throng of water carriers until they reached the first low Aiel tents, and then she pointed in the opposite direction to Sevanna’s tent and said, “This way, first.”

Faile stopped where she stood. “Why?” she asked suspiciously. There were actually men and women among Sevanna’s servants who were jealous of the attentions she gave Faile, Alliandre and Maighdin, and though Faile had never detected that in Aravine, some of the rest might well try to get them in trouble by passing on false instructions.

“You will want to see this before you see Sevanna. Believe me.”

Faile opened her mouth to demand more explanation, but Aravine simply turned and walked away. Faile gathered up the skirts of her robes and followed.

All sorts and sizes of carts and wagons stood among the tents, their wheels replaced by sleds. Most were piled high with bundles and wooden crates and barrels, with the wheels tied on top of the loads, but she did not have to follow Aravine far before she saw a flatbed cart that had been emptied. Except that the cart bed was not empty. Two women lay on the rough wooden planks, naked and cruelly hogtied, shivering in the cold yet panting as if they were running. Both women’s heads hung tiredly, but as if they somehow knew Faile was there, both looked up. Arrela, a dark Tairen as tall as most Aiel women, averted her eyes in embarrassment. Lacile, slim and pale and Cairhienin, went bright red.

“They were brought back this morning,” Aravine said, watching Faile’s face. “They will be untied before dark, since it’s the first time they’ve tried to escape, though I doubt they will be in any condition to walk before tomorrow.”

“Why did you show me this?” Faile said. They had been so careful to keep the connection between them a secret.

“You forget, my Lady, I was there when you were all put in white.” Aravine studied her a moment, then suddenly took Faile’s hands and turned them so that her own hands were between Faile’s palms. Bending her knees just short of kneeling, she said quickly, “Under the Light and by my hope of rebirth, I, Aravine Carnel, do pledge my fealty and obedience in all things to the Lady Faile t’Aybara.”

Only Lacile appeared to have noticed; the Shaido walking past paid no mind to two gai’shain women. Faile jerked her hands free. “How do you know that name?” She had had to give more of her name than Faile, of course, but she had chosen Faile Bashere once she realized that none of the Shaido had a clue who Davram Bashere was. Aside from Alliandre and the others, only Galina knew the truth. Or so she had thought. “And who have you told?”

“I listen, my Lady. I overheard Galina speaking to you, once.” Anxiety touched Aravine’s voice. “And I have told no one.” She did not sound surprised that Faile wanted to hide her name, though clearly t’Aybara meant nothing to her. Perhaps Aravine Carnel was not her true name, or not all of it. “In this place, secrets must be held as closely as in Amador. I knew these women were yours, but I told no one. I know you intend to escape. I’ve been certain since the second or third day, and nothing I’ve seen since convinces me otherwise. Accept my oath, and take me with you. I can help, and what is more, I can be trusted. I have proved it by keeping your secrets. Please.” The last word came out strained, as if from someone unused to saying it. A noblewoman, then, rather than a merchant.

The woman had proven nothing beyond that she could spy out secrets, but that in itself was a useful trait. On the other hand, Faile knew of at least two gai’shain who had tried to escape and been betrayed by others. Some people really did try to feather their own nests no matter what the circumstances. But Aravine already knew enough to ruin everything. Faile thought about her hidden knife again. A dead woman could betray nothing. But the knife was half a mile away, she could think of no way to hide the body, and besides, the woman could have curried favor with Sevanna just by saying she thought Faile was planning escape.

Taking Aravine’s hands between hers, she spoke as quickly as the other woman had. “Under the Light, I do accept your pledge and will defend and protect you and yours through battle’s wrack and winter’s blast and all that time may bring. Now. Do you know anyone else who can be trusted? Not people you think you can trust, people you know you can.”

“Not with this, my Lady,” Aravine said grimly. Her face shone with relief, though. She had not been sure Faile would accept her. That it was relief rather that anything else made Faile tend to believe in her. Tend to, which was not to say completely. “Half would betray their own mothers in hopes of buying freedom, and the other half are too afraid to try or too stunned to be trusted not to panic. There must be some, and I have my eye on one or two, but I want to be very careful. One mistake is one more than I’ll be allowed.”

“Very careful,” Faile agreed. “Did Sevanna really send for me? If she didn’t—”

It seemed that she had, and Faile was quick about reaching Sevanna’s tent—quicker than she would have liked, in truth; it was irritating to leap to avoid Sevanna’s displeasure—but no one paid her the slightest heed when she walked in and stood meekly by the entry flaps.

Sevanna’s tent was no low Aiel structure, but a wall-tent of red canvas large enough to need two center poles, lit by near a dozen mirrored stand-lamps. Two gilded braziers gave a little warmth, emitting thin tendrils of smoke that eddied out through the smoke holes in the roof, but the interior was little warmer than outside. Rich carpets, the snow carefully scraped away before they were laid, made a floor of reds and greens and blues, Tairen mazes and flowers and animals. Tasseled silk cushions lay strewn about the carpets, and one chair, a massive thing intricately carved and heavily gilded, sat in a corner. Faile had never seen anyone sit in it, but its presence was supposed to evoke the presence of a clan chief, she knew. She was just as happy to stand quietly with her eyes down. Three other gai’shain with golden belts and collars, one a bearded male, stood along one wall of the tent, in case some service was needed. Sevanna was there, and so was Therava.

Sevanna was a tall woman, a little taller than Faile herself, with pale green eyes and hair like spun gold. She might have been beautiful except for a strong hint of avarice around her plump mouth. Little about her really seemed Aiel, beyond her eyes and hair and sun-dark face. Her blouse was white silk, her skirt divided for riding and also silk, if a dark gray, and the scarf folded around her temples was a blaze of crimson and gold. Also silk. Red boots peeked out beneath the hem of her skirt when she moved. Jeweled rings decorated her every finger, and her necklaces and bracelets of fat pearls and cut diamonds and rubies as large as pigeon’s eggs, sapphires and emeralds and firedrops, paled anything Someryn had. Not a single one was Aiel-made. Therava, on the other hand, was all Aiel, in dark wool and white algode, her hands bare and her necklaces and bracelets gold and ivory. No finger rings or gems for her. Taller than most men, her dark red hair touched with streaks of white, she was a blue-eyed eagle that it seemed must devour Sevanna like a crippled lamb. Faile would rather anger Sevanna ten times than Therava once, but the two women faced another across a table inlaid with ivory and turquoise, and Sevanna met Therava glare for glare.

“What is happening today means danger,” Therava said with the air of someone tired of repeating herself. And perhaps about to draw the knife at her belt. She caressed the hilt as she spoke, and not entirely absently, Faile thought. “We need to put as much distance between ourselves and whatever it is as we possibly can, and as soon as we can. There are mountains to the east. Once we reach them, we can be safe until we gather all the septs together again. Septs that would never have been separated if you had not been so sure of yourself, Sevanna.”

“You speak of safety?” Sevanna laughed. “Have you grown so old and toothless you need to be fed bread and milk? Look. These mountains of yours are how distant? How many days, or weeks, when we must crawl through this cursed snow?” She gestured to the table between them where a map lay spread out, weighted down with two thick golden bowls and a heavy three-pronged golden candlestick. Most Aiel disdained maps, but Sevanna had taken to them along with other wetland customs. “Whatever happened is far away, Therava. You agreed it is so, as did every Wise One. This city is full of food, enough to feed us for weeks, if we remain here. Who is there to challenge us, if we do? And if we do... You have heard the runners, the messages. In two or three weeks, four at the most, ten more septs will have joined me. Perhaps more! This snow will have melted by then, if these wetlanders from the city can be believed. We will travel quickly instead of having to drag everything on sleds.” Faile wondered whether any of the city people had mentioned mud.

“Ten more septs will join you,” Therava said, her voice flat except for the last word. Her hand tightened on the knife hilt. “You speak for the clan chief, Sevanna, and so I was chosen to advise you as a clan chief, who must listen to advice for the good of our clan. I advise you to move east and keep moving east. The other septs can join us as easily in those mountains as here, and if we must go a little hungry on the way, who among us is a stranger to privation?”

Sevanna fingered her necklaces, a large emerald on her right hand like green fire in the light of the stand-lamps. Her mouth tightened, and seemed hungrier for it. She might have known privation, but despite the lack of warmth in the tent, she no longer chose to. “I speak for the chief, and I say we will remain here.” There was more than a hint of challenge in her voice, but she did not give Therava a chance to meet it. “Ah, I see that Faile has come. My good, obedient gai’shain.” Taking something wrapped in a cloth from the table, she stripped away the cloth. “Do you recognize this, Faile Bashere?”

What Sevanna held was a knife with a single-edged blade a hand and a half long, a simple tool of the sort that thousands of farmers carried. Except that Faile recognized the pattern of rivets in the wooden handle, and the chip in the edge. It was the knife that she had stolen and hidden away with such care. She said nothing. There was nothing to say. Gai’shain were forbidden to possess any weapon, even a knife except when cutting meat or vegetables for cooking. She could not help jerking when Sevanna went on, though.

“As well Galina brought me this before you could use it. For whatever purpose. If you stabbed someone, I would have to be very angry with you.”

Galina? Of course. The Aes Sedai would not allow them to escape before they did as she wanted.

“She is shocked, Therava.” Sevanna’s laughter was amused. “Galina knows what is required of gai’shain, Faile Bashere. What should I do with her, Therava? That is advice you can give me. Several wetlanders have been killed for hiding weapons, but I would hate to lose her.”

Therava tipped Faile’s chin up with a finger and stared into her eyes. Faile met that gaze without blinking, but she felt her knees tremble. She did not try telling herself it was only the cold. Faile knew she was not a coward, but when Therava looked at her, Faile saw herself as a rabbit in that eagle’s talons, alive and waiting for the beak to descend. It had been Therava who first told her to spy on Sevanna, and however circumspect the other Wise Ones might have been, Faile had no doubt that Therava would slit her throat without the slightest qualm if she failed her. There was no use pretending the woman did not frighten her. She just had to control that fear. If she could.

“I think she was planning to run away, Sevanna. But I think she can learn to do as she is told.”

The rough wooden table had been set out between the tents in the nearest open space to Sevanna’s tent, a hundred paces away. At first, Faile thought that the shame of being naked would be the worst of it, that and the icy cold that pebbled her skin. The sun sat low in the sky; the air had grown colder, and it would get much colder before morning. She had to stay there till morning. The Shaido were good at learning what shamed wetlanders, and they used shame as a punishment. She thought she would die of blushing whenever anyone looked at her, but the Shaido who passed by did not even pause. In itself, nudity was no reason for shame among Aiel. Aravine appeared in front of her, but she stopped only long enough to whisper, “Keep your courage,” and then she was gone. Faile understood. Whether or not the woman was loyal, she did not dare do anything to help.

After a very short time, Faile no longer worried about shame. Her wrists had been tied behind her, and then her ankles had been doubled back and tied to her elbows. She understood now why Lacile and Arrela had been panting. Breathing was an effort in this position. The cold bit deeper and deeper, until she was shivering uncontrollably, but even that soon seemed secondary. Cramps began to burn in her legs, her shoulders, her sides, bunching muscles that seemed on fire, twisting tighter and tighter and tighter. She focused on not screaming. That became the center of her existence. She—would—not—scream. But, oh, Light, she hurt!

“Sevanna ordered that you were to remain here till dawn, Faile Bashere, but she did not say you could not have company.”

She had to blink several times before she could see clearly. Sweat stung her eyes. How could she be sweating when she was frozen to the marrow? Rolan was standing in front of her, and strangely, he was carrying a pair of low bronze braziers full of glowing coals, with pieces of cloth wrapped around a leg of each to protect his hands from the heat. Seeing her stare at the braziers, he shrugged. “Once, a night in the cold would not have bothered me, but I have grown soft since I crossed the Dragonwall.”

She almost gasped when he set the braziers beneath the table. Warmth flooded up through the cracks between the planks. Her muscles still shrieked with cramps, but oh, the blessed warmth. She did gasp when the man put an arm across her chest and the other across her bent knees. Suddenly she realized the pressure was gone from her elbows. He had... squeezed... her. One of his hands began working at her thigh, and she almost screamed as his fingers dug into knotted muscles, but she felt the knots begin to loosen. They still hurt, his massaging hurt, but the pain in that one thigh muscle was changing in kind. Not growing less, exactly, but she knew that it would, if he continued.

“You do not mind if I occupy myself while I try to think of a way to make you laugh, do you?” he asked.

Suddenly she realized that she was laughing, and not hysterically. Well, it was only partly hysteria. She was trussed like a goose for the oven and being saved from the cold for the second time by a man she thought maybe she would not stab after all, Sevanna would be watching her like a hawk from now on, and Therava might be trying to kill her as an example; but she knew she was going to escape. One door never closed but another opened. She was going to escape. She laughed until she cried.

CHAPTER 10
A Blazing Beacon

The wide-eyed maid was more used to kneading bread dough than doing up rows of tiny buttons, but eventually she finished buttoning Elayne into her dark green riding dress, curtsied and stepped back breathing heavily, though whether from the effort of concentration or just from being in the presence of the Daughter-Heir was hard to tell. The Great Serpent ring on Elayne’s left hand might have had something to do with it, too. Just over twenty miles in a straight line would take you from the manor of House Matherin to the River Erinin and all its great commerce, but the distance was far greater in actual miles to be covered through the Chishen Mountains, and people here were more accustomed to cattle raids across the border from Murandy than any sort of visitor, especially a visitor who wrapped the Daughter-Heir and an Aes Sedai into one package. The honor seemed beyond what some of the servants could bear. Elsie had been painfully conscientious in folding the blue silk gown that Elayne had worn last night and packing it away in a large leather traveling chest, one of a pair in the apartment’s dressing room, so conscientious that Elayne had nearly taken over the task herself. She had slept poorly at first, fitful and waking, then slept late when she could sleep, and she was beyond chafing to be on her way back to Caemlyn.

This was the fifth time she had spent a night out of Caemlyn since learning the city was threatened, and on each trip she had given a day to visiting three or four manors, once five, all the property of men and women bound to House Trakand by blood or oaths, and every visit took time. The press of time weighed down her bones, yet presenting the proper image was necessary. Riding clothes were needed to travel from one manor to the next lest she arrived rumpled and looking a fugitive, but she had to change before settling in whether it was for the night or just a few hours. Half those hours might be taken up by shifting from riding clothes to a gown and back again, but riding clothes spoke of haste and need, perhaps of desperation, while the coronet of the Daughter-Heir and an embroidered gown trimmed with lace, unpacked from a set of traveling cases and donned after washing, portrayed confidence and strength. She would have brought her own maid to add to the impression if Essande had been up to keeping the pace in winter, though she suspected the white-haired woman’s slowness would have had her chewing her tongue in frustration. Still, Essande could not have been as slow as this goggled-eyed young Elsie.

At last Elsie handed her her fur-lined crimson cloak with a curtsy, and she slung the cloak around her shoulders hastily. A fire blazed on the stone hearth, but the room was nowhere near warm, and recently she could not seem to ignore the cold with any reliability. The girl bobbed as she asked whether she could fetch men to carry down the chests if it pleased Her Majesty. The first time she had done that, Elayne had gently explained that she was not yet Queen, but Elsie seemed horrified at the idea of addressing her simply as my Lady, or even as Princess, though in truth the last was considered very old-fashioned. Proper or not, it usually pleased Elayne to hear someone acknowledge her right to the throne, but this morning she was too tired to be anything but anxious to be on the road. Suppressing a yawn, she told Elsie curtly to fetch the men and be quick about it, and turned for the paneled door. The girl rushed to open it for her, which took longer than if she had done it herself, with a curtsy before opening and yet another after. Her divided silk skirts whispered furiously against each other as she strode out of the room tugging on her red riding gloves. If Elsie had delayed her one more second, she thought she would have screamed.

It was the girl who shrieked, however, before Elayne had gone three paces, a horrified howl that sounded ripped from her throat. The cloak flared as Elayne spun around, embracing the True Source, feeling the richness of saidar flood through her. Elsie was standing on the strip of carpet that ran along the middle of the pale brown floor tiles, staring the other way down the hall with both hands pressed to her mouth. Two crossing corridors opened in that direction, but there was not another soul in sight.

“What is it, Elsie?” Elayne demanded. She had several weaves already on the edge of forming, ranging from a simple net of air to a fireball that would have demolished half the walls in front of her, and in her present humor, she wanted to use one of them, to strike out with the Power. Her moods were uncertain of late, to say the least.

The girl looked back over one shoulder, trembling, and if her eyes had been wide before, they bulged now. Her hands remained clamped to mouth as if to prevent another scream. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, tall and plump-bosomed in House Matherin’s gray-and-blue livery, she was not really a girl—Elsie might be four or five years older than herself—but the way she behaved made it difficult to think of her any other way.

“What is it, Elsie? And don’t tell me it was nothing. You look as if you’d seen a ghost.”

The girl flinched. “I did,” she said unsteadily. That she gave Elayne no title showed just how unsteady she was. “Lady Nelein, as was Lord Aedmun’s grandmother. She died when I was little, but I remember even Lord Aedmun tiptoed around her temper, and the maids used to jump if she looked at them, and other ladies who visited, too, and the lords, as well. Everybody was afraid of her. She was right there in front of me, and she scowled so furious—” She broke off, blushing, when Elayne laughed.

It was more a laugh of relief than anything else. The Black Ajah had not somehow followed her to Lord Aedmun’s manor. There were no assassins waiting with knives in their fists, no sisters loyal to Elaida wanting to whisk her back to Tar Valon. Sometimes she dreamed about those things, about all of them in the same dream. She released saidar, reluctantly as always, regretful as that fullness of joy and life drained out of her. Matherin supported her, but Aedmun might have taken it amiss if she had ruined half his home place.

“The dead cannot harm the living, Elsie,” she said gently. The more gently because she had laughed, not to mention wanting to box the ninny’s ears. “They’re not of this world anymore, and they can’t touch anything in it, including us.” The girl nodded, and dropped another curtsy, but by the size of her eyes and the trembling of her lips she was unconvinced. Elayne had no time to cosset her, though. “Fetch the men for my cases, Elsie,” she said firmly, “and don’t worry about ghosts.” With yet another curtsy the girl dashed off, her head swiveling anxiously in case the Lady Nelein leaped out of the paneled walls. Ghosts! The fool girl was a ninny!

Matherin was an old House, if not large or strong, and the main stairs, leading down to the entry hall, were broad and trimmed with marble railings. The entry hall itself was a generous space, with gray-and-blue floor tiles and mirrored oil lamps hanging on chains from the ceiling twenty feet above. There was nothing in the way of gilding and little inlay, but ornately carved chests and cabinets stood along the sides of the hall, and two wall hangings were displayed on one wall. One showed men hunting leopards from horseback, a chancy business at best, and the other women of House Matherin presenting a sword to the first Queen of Andor, an event that Matherin treasured and that might or might not have actually happened.

Aviendha was already down, pacing restlessly in the hall, and Elayne sighed at the sight. They would have shared a room, if not for the implication that Matherin could not provide adequately for two visitors of note, but Aviendha did not really understand that the smaller the House, the loftier the pride. Often, the smaller Houses possessed little more. Pride, she should have understood, since a fierce pride and strength all but shone from her. Straight-backed and even taller than Elayne, a thick dark shawl draped over her pale blouse and a folded gray head scarf holding back her long reddish hair, she was the very picture of a Wise One despite being only a year older than Elayne. Wise Ones who could channel often appeared to be much younger than they were, and Aviendha had the dignity. At this moment she did, anyway, though the pair of them had giggled together often enough. Of course, her only jewelry was a long, silver Kandori necklace, an amber brooch in the shape of a turtle and a wide ivory bracelet, and Wise Ones always wore festoons of necklaces and bracelets, but Aviendha was not a Wise One yet, merely an apprentice. Elayne never thought of Aviendha as merely anything, but it did present problems now and then. Sometimes she thought the Wise Ones considered her an apprentice of some sort as well, or at least a student. A silly thought, to be sure, but sometimes...

As Elayne reached the foot of the stairs, Aviendha adjusted her shawl and asked, “Did you sleep well?” Her tone was untroubled, but anxiety nestled around her green eyes. “You did not send for wine to help you sleep, did you? I made sure your wine was watered when we ate, but I saw you looking at the wine pitcher.”

“Yes, Mother,” Elayne said in a sickly sweet voice. “No, Mother. I was wondering how Aedmun got his hands on such a fine vintage, Mother. It was a shame to water it. And I drank the goat’s milk before I went to sleep.” If anything brought her to birthing sickness, it would be goat’s milk! And to think she used to like it.

Aviendha planted her fists on her hips, such an embodiment of indignation that Elayne had to laugh. There were inconveniences to being with child, ranging from abrupt swings in her temper to tenderness in her breasts to always being tired, but the coddling was the worst, in some ways. Everyone in the Royal Palace knew she was pregnant—a good many had known before she did, courtesy of Min’s viewing and Min being too free with her tongue—and she did not think she could have been so mothered when she was an infant. Still, she put up with all the bother with as much grace as she could muster. Usually, she did. They were only trying to be helpful. She just wished every woman she knew did not believe that pregnancy had made her brainless. Nearly every woman she knew. Those who had never borne a child themselves were the worst.

Thinking of her baby—at times she wished Min had said whether it would be a boy or girl, or rather that Aviendha or Birgitte could recall exactly what Min actually had said; Min was always right, but the three of them had consumed a great deal wine that night, and Min had been gone from the palace long before Elayne herself knew to ask—thinking of the child growing in her always made her think of Rand, just as thinking of him made her think of the babe. One followed the other as surely as cream rose in the milkpan. She missed Rand terribly, and yet she could not miss him. A part of him, the sense of him, rode always in the back of her head unless she masked the bond, right alongside her sense of Birgitte, her other Warder. The bond had its limits, however. He was somewhere to the west, far enough that she could tell little more than that he was alive. Nothing more, really, though she thought she would know if he had been badly injured. She was not sure she wanted to know what he was up to. He had been far to the south for a long time after leaving her, and now, just this morning, he had Traveled to the west. It was disconcerting, really, to feel him in one direction and then suddenly have him off in another, even farther away. He could be pursuing enemies or running from enemies or any one of a thousand things. She hoped very much it was something innocuous that made him Travel. He was going to die on her all too soon—men who could channel always died of it—but she wanted so very much to keep him alive as long as possible.

“He is well,” Aviendha said almost as though she could read her mind. They had their own shared sense of one another since their mutual adoption as first-sisters, but it did not go as far as the Warder bond they and Min shared with Rand. “If he allows himself to be killed, I will cut off his ears.”

Elayne blinked, then laughed again, and after a startled glance, Aviendha joined in. It was not that funny, except maybe to an Aiel—Aviendha’s sense of humor was very odd—but Elayne could not stop laughing, and Aviendha seemed as helpless. Shaking with mirth, they hugged one another and hung on. Life was very strange. Had anyone told her a few years ago that she would share a man with another woman—with two other women!—she would have called them mad. The very idea would have been indecent. But she loved Aviendha every bit as much as she did Rand, only in a different way, and Aviendha loved Rand as much as she did. Denying that meant denying Aviendha, and she could as easily step out of her skin. Aiel women, sisters or close friends, often married the same man, and seldom gave him any say in the matter. She was going to marry Rand, and so was Aviendha, and so was Min. Whatever anyone said or thought, that was all there was to it. If he lived long enough.

Suddenly she became afraid that her laughter was edging toward tears. Please, Light, let her not be one of those women who became weepy when they were with child. It was bad enough not knowing whether she was going to be melancholy or furious from one minute to the next. Hours might pass when she felt perfectly normal, but then there were hours when she felt like a child’s ball bouncing down an endless flight of stairs. This morning, she seemed to be on the stairs.

“He is well, and he will be well,” Aviendha whispered fiercely, as if she intended to assure his survival by killing anything that threatened him.

With the tips of her fingers, Elayne brushed a tear from her sister’s cheek. “He is well, and he will be well,” she agreed softly. But they could not kill saidin, and the taint on the male half of the Power was what was going to kill him.

The lamps overhead flickered as one of the tall doors to the outside opened, letting in a gust of air even colder than that in the entry hall, and they quickly moved a little apart, just holding hands. Elayne schooled her face to a serene smoothness fully worthy of an Aes Sedai. She could not afford to let anyone see her apparently seeking comfort in a hug. A ruler, or one who sought to rule, was not allowed the slightest suggestion of weakness or tears, not in public. There were rumors enough about her as it was, as many bad as good. She was benevolent or cruel, fair-minded or arbitrary, generous or avaricious, all according to which tale you listened to. At least the tales balanced out one another, but anyone who could say they had actually seen the Daughter-Heir huddling in the arms of her companion might add a tale of fear to the blend, and if her enemies believed she was afraid, they would only grow bolder. And stronger. Cowardice was the sort of rumor that stuck like greasy mud; you never could wash it off completely. History recorded women who had lost their bids for the Lion Throne on no further discernible grounds. Capability was a requirement for a successful ruler and wisdom was to be hoped for, though women lacking both had gained the throne and muddled through somehow, but few would support a coward, and none of those people she wanted on her side.

The man who came in, turning to push the massive door shut behind him, had only one leg and used a crutch in place of the other. Even with fleece padding, the sleeve of his heavy woolen coat was worn from it. A heavy-shouldered former soldier, Fridwyn Ros managed Lord Aedmun’s estate, with the aid of a fat clerk who had blinked at the Daughter-Heir in consternation, gaped at her Great Serpent ring with something near to awe, and scurried back to his ledgers in relief as soon as he realized she had no business with him. He had probably feared a levy on the manor’s accounts. Master Ros had stared at her ring in amazement, to be sure, but he had grinned with delight at the Daughter-Heir and regretted that he could no longer ride for her with such sincerity that, had he been a liar, he would already have bilked Aedmun and the clerk of everything they owned between them. She did not fear him carrying the wrong tales.

His crutch made a rhythmic thump as he came up the hall, and he managed a credible bow in spite of it, including Aviendha in his courtesy. He had been startled by her at first, but surprisingly quick to catch their friendship, and if he did not entirely trust an Aiel, it meant he accepted her. You could not ask for everything.

“The men are strapping your cases to the pack animals, my Queen, and your escort is ready.” He was one of those who refused to call her anything except “my Queen” or “Majesty,” but a hint of doubt entered his voice at mention of her escort. He covered it hastily with a cough and hurried on. “The men we’re sending with you are all mounted as well as I could manage. Young men, mainly, and a few more experienced, but they all know which end of a halberd has the point. I wish the manor could give you more, but I explained, when Lord Aedmun heard there were others claiming what’s yours by right, he decided not to wait for spring, and he called in his armsmen and set out for Caemlyn. We’ve had a couple of bad snowfalls since, but he might be halfway there by now with luck in the passes.” His gaze carried conviction, but he knew better than she that with the wrong luck Aedmun and his armsmen might be dead in those passes.

“Matherin has always maintained faith with Trakand,” Elayne told him, “and I put my trust that it always will. I value Lord Aedmun’s loyalty, Master Ros, and yours.”

She did not insult Matherin, and him, by promising to remember or offering rewards, yet Master Ros’ broad smile said she had already given him as much reward as he desired. Matherin would receive rewards, if they were earned, but they could not be held out as if offering to buy a horse.

Thumping along on his crutch, Master Ros bowed her to the door, and bowed her out onto the broad granite step where servants wearing heavy coats waited in the bitter cold with a stirrup cup of hot spiced wine that she rejected with a murmur. Until she had a chance to adjust to the sharp air, she wanted both hands to hold her cloak closed. Aviendha would probably have found a way to make her drop it anyway. She took a cup, after wrapping her shawl around her head and shoulders, the only concession she made to the icy morning. She was ignoring the cold, of course. Elayne was the one who had taught her how. Elayne tried again to push the cold away, and to her surprise, it receded. Not all the way—she still felt chilly—but it was better than freezing.

The sky was clear, the sun bright as it sat over the mountains, but storm clouds could come boiling across the surrounding peaks at any time. It would be best to reach their first destination today as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Fireheart, her tall black gelding, was living up to his name, rearing and snorting gouts of steamy breath as if he had never worn a bridle before, and Aviendha’s leggy arch-necked gray had taken it into her head to imitate him, dancing in the knee-deep snow and trying to go anywhere except where the groom tried to lead her. She was a more spirited animal than Elayne would have chosen for her sister, yet Aviendha herself had insisted after learning the mare’s name. Siswai meant spear, in the Old Tongue. The grooms seemed capable women, but they appeared to think they needed to calm the animals before handing them over. It was all Elayne could do not to snap at them that she had managed Fireheart before they ever saw him.

Her escort was already mounted, to avoid standing in the snow, twenty-odd riders in the white-collared red coats and brightly burnished breastplates and helmets of the Queen’s Guard. Master Ros’ doubt might be explained by the fact that the riders’ coats were silk, as were their red breeches with the white stripe up each leg, and by the pale lace they wore at neck and cuff. They certainly appeared more ceremonial than effective. Or it might have been that they were all women. Women were uncommon in jobs that required using weapons, just the occasional merchants’ guard or a rare woman who turned up in an army during time of war, and Elayne had never heard of a group of all-female soldiers before she created one. Except the Maidens, of course, but they were Aiel and a different matter. She hoped people would think them an affectation on her part, and largely decorative with all the lace and silk. Men tended to underestimate a woman carrying weapons until they faced one, and even most other women tended to think her a brainless fool. Bodyguards usually tried to appear so ferocious that no one would dare trying to get past them, but her enemies would just find a new way to attack if she stood the whole Queen’s Guard around her shoulder-to-shoulder. A bodyguard her enemies would dismiss until it was too late for more than regrets was her aim. She intended to make their uniforms more elaborate, partly to feed those misconceptions and partly to feed the women’s pride as soldiers marked out from the rest, but she herself had no doubts. Every one of them, from merchants’ guards to Hunters of the Horn, had been carefully chosen for her skills, experience and courage. She was ready to put her life in their hands. She already had.

A lean woman wearing a lieutenant’s two golden knots on the shoulder of her red cloak saluted Elayne with an arm across her chest, and her roan gelding tossed his head, making the silver bells in his mane chime faintly, as if he too were saluting. “We are ready, my Lady, and the area is clear.” Caseille Raskovni was one of those who had been a merchant’s guard, and her Arafellin accents were not those of an educated woman, but her voice was brisk and no-nonsense. She used the proper form of address, and would until Elayne was crowned, yet she was ready to fight to gain that crown for Elayne. Very, very few, male or female, signed the roster of the Queen’s Guard these days unless they were ready for that. “The men Master Ros handed over are ready, too. As ready as they’ll ever be.” Clearing his throat, the man shifted his crutch and took to studying the snow in front of his boots.

Elayne could see what Caseille meant. Master Ros had scraped together eleven men from the manor to send to Caemlyn and outfitted them with halberds and short-swords and what armor he could find, nine anique helmets without faceguards and seven breastplates with dents that made them vulnerable. Their mounts were not bad, though hairy with their winter coats, but even huddled as their riders were in thick cloaks, she could see that eight were unlikely to need to shave above once in a week, if that. The men Master Ros had described as being experienced had wrinkled faces and bony hands and probably not a full set of teeth between them. He had not been lying or trying to stint; Aedmun would have gathered all the fit men in the area to take with him and outfitted them in the best he had. The story had been the same everywhere. Apparently a great number of hale and hearty men scattered the length of Andor were trying to reach her in Caemlyn. And none of them likely to get into the city until all was decided, now. She could search every day without finding a single band. Still, this little bunch held their halberds as if they knew how to use them. Then again, that was not hard to do sitting a saddle at rest with the halberd’s butt tucked in your stirrup. She could have managed that.

“We have visited nineteen of these manors, sister,” Aviendha said softly, moving closer until their shoulders touched, “and counting these, we have gathered two hundred and five boys too young to be blooded and old men who should have laid down the spear long ago. I have not asked before. You know your people and your ways. Is this worth the time you give it?”

“Oh, yes, sister.” Elayne kept her voice just as low, so the one-legged former soldier and the servants could not overhear. The best of people could turn muleheaded if they realized you wanted them to behave a certain way. Particularly if they realized that the help they had painfully gathered and offered, and you had accepted, was not what you were after at all. “Everyone in that village down by the river knows I’m here by now, and so do half the farms for miles. By noon, the other half will know, and by tomorrow, the next village over, and more farms. News travels slowly in winter, especially in this country. They know I’ve spoken my claim to the throne, yet if I gain the throne tomorrow or die tomorrow, they might not learn of it before the middle of spring, maybe not even until summer. But today they know that Elayne Trakand is alive that she visited the manor in silks and jewels and summoned men to her banner. People twenty miles from here will claim they saw me and touched my hand. Few people can say that without speaking in favor of whoever they claim to have seen, and when you speak in favor of someone, you convince yourself to favor them. There are men and women in nineteen places around Andor talking about how they saw the Daughter-Heir just this last week, and every day the area that talk covers spreads like an inkblot.

“If I had time, I’d visit every village in Andor. It won’t make a hair of difference in what happens in Caemlyn, but it may make all the difference after I win.” She would not admit to any possibility other than winning. Especially not given who would take the throne if she failed. “Most Queens in our history spent the first years of their rule gathering the people solidly behind them, Aviendha, and some never did, but harder times than these are coming. I may not have one year before I need every Andoran to stand behind me. I can’t wait until I have the throne. Harder times are coming, and I have to be ready. Andor has to be ready, and I must make it so,” she finished firmly.

Smiling, Aviendha touched Elayne’s cheek. “I think I will learn a great deal about being a Wise One from you.”

To her mortification, Elayne blushed in embarrassment. Her cheeks felt on fire! Maybe the swings in humor were worse than the cosseting. Light, she had months of this to look forward to! Not for the first time, she found a kernel of resentment toward Rand. He had done this to her—all right, she had helped him, instigated the doing, in fact, but that was beside the point—he had done this and walked away with a smug grin on his face. She doubted his grin had really been smug, but she could picture it all too easily. Let him dart from giddy to weepy every other hour and see how he liked it! I can’t think in a straight line, she thought irritably. That was his fault, too.

The grooms finally deemed Fireheart and Aviendha’s Siswai meek enough to be mounted by ladies, and Aviendha climbed to her saddle from the stone mounting block with a good deal more grace than she once had shown, arranging her bulky undivided skirts to cover as much of her dark-stockinged legs as possible. She still believed that her own legs were superior to any horse, yet she had become a passable rider. Though she did have a tendency to look surprised when the horse did as she wanted. Fireheart tried to dance once Elayne was on his back, but she reined him in smartly, and a bit more sharply than she would have normally. Her teetering moods had taken her to a sudden sense of dread for Rand, and if she could not ensure his safety, there was one male at hand she could make certain did exactly as he was supposed to.

Six of the Guardswomen led the way down the road from the manor at a slow walk, all the depth of snow would allow, with the rest following her and Aviendha in smart columns, the last horsewomen in line leading the pack animals. The local men trailed behind raggedly with their own packhorse, a shaggy creature tied about with cookpots and rough bundles and even half a dozen live chickens. A few cheers greeted them as they rode through the thatch-roofed village and across the stone bridge that crossed a snake-curved frozen stream, loud cries of “Elayne of the Lily!” and “Trakand! Trakand!” and “Matherin stands!” But she saw a woman crying on her husband’s chest, and tears on his face, too, and another woman who stood with her back to the riders and her head down, refusing even to look. Elayne hoped she would send their sons home to them. There should be little fighting at Caemlyn, unless she blundered badly, but there would be some, and once the Rose Crown was hers, battles lay ahead. To the south lay the Seanchan, and to the north, Myrddraal and Trollocs waiting to descend for Tarmon Gai’don. Andor would bleed sons in the days to come. Burn her, she was not going to cry!

Beyond the bridge, the road slanted up again, a steep climb through pine and fir and leatherleaf, but it was no more than a long mile to the mountain meadow they sought. The snow shining beneath the midmorning sun still bore the marks of hooves coming from where a gateway had left a deep furrow in the snow. It could have been nearer the manor, but the possibility of someone standing where your gateway opened was always the danger.

The glow of saidar surrounded Aviendha as they rode into the meadow. She had made the gateway to come here from their last stop yesterday afternoon, a manor a hundred miles north, so she would weave the gateway to go to Caemlyn, but the sight of Aviendha shining with the Power made Elayne go broody. Whoever made the gateway to leave Caemlyn always ended up making all the others until they returned, since she learned the ground at each place her gateway touched, but on each of their five trips, Aviendha had asked to make that first gateway. She might simply have wanted the practice, as she claimed, though Elayne hardly had more practice than she did, but another possibility had come to mind. Maybe Aviendha wanted to keep her from channeling, in any considerable amount at least. Because she was pregnant. The weave that had made them sisters of the same mother could not have been used if either of them had been with child, because the unborn child would have shared in the bond, a thing it could not be strong enough to survive, but surely one of the Aes Sedai in the palace would have said something if channeling was to be avoided in pregnancy. Then again, very few Aes Sedai ever bore children. They might not know. She was aware there were many things Aes Sedai did not know, however much they might pretend otherwise to the rest of the world—she herself had taken advantage of that presumption from time to time—but it seemed very strange that they might be ignorant of something so important to most women. It was as though a bird knew how to eat every seed and grain except barley, so supposedly knew, because if it did not know how to eat barley, what else might it be ignorant of? Wise Ones bore children, though, and they had said nothing about—

Abruptly concerns over her babe and channeling and what Aes Sedai might or might not know were pushed right out of her head. She could feel someone channeling saidar. Not Aviendha, not someone on one of the surrounding mountains, not anyone near as close as that. This was distant, like a beacon blazing on a far mountaintop in the night. A very distant mountain. She could not imagine how much of the One Power was needed for her to feel channeling at that distance. Every woman in the world who could channel must be able to sense this. To point straight to it. And the beacon lay to the west. Nothing had changed in the bond with Rand, she could not have said exactly where he was within a hundred miles, but she knew.

“He’s in danger,” she said. “We must go to him, Aviendha.”

Aviendha gave herself a shake and stopped staring westward. The glow remained around her, and Elayne could feel that she had drawn on the Source as deeply as she could. But even as Aviendha turned to her, she felt the amount of saidar the other woman held dwindle. “We must not, Elayne.”

Aghast, Elayne twisted in Fireheart’s saddle to stare at her. “You want to abandon him? To that!” No one could handle so much of saidar, not the strongest circle, not unaided. Supposedly a sa’angreal existed, greater than anything else ever made, and if what she had heard was correct, that might be able to handle this. Maybe. But from what she had heard, no woman could use it and live, not without ter’angreal made for the purpose, and no one had ever seen one that she knew of. Surely no sister would try even if she had found one. That much of the One Power could level mountain ranges at a stroke! No sister would try except perhaps one of the Black Ajah. Or worse, one of the Forsaken. Maybe more than one. What else could it be? And Aviendha simply wanted to ignore it, when she must know that Rand was there?

The Guardswomen, unaware, were still waiting patiently on their horses, keeping watch on the treeline around the meadow and little concerned with that after their reception at the manor, though Caseille was watching Elayne and Aviendha, a slight frown visible behind the face-bars of her helmet. She knew they never delayed at opening a gateway. The men from the manor were gathered around their packhorse, pawing at the bundles and apparently arguing over whether or not something had been included. Aviendha still moved her gray closer to Elayne’s black and spoke in a voice that would not carry.

“We know nothing, Elayne. Not whether he is dancing the spears or this is something else. If he dances the spears and we rush in, will he attack us before he knows who are? Will we distract him because he does not expect us, and allow his enemies to win? If he dies, we will find who took his life and kill them, but if we go to him now, we go blindly, and we may bring disaster on our backs.”

“We could be careful,” Elayne said sullenly. It infuriated her that she was feeling sullen, and showing it, but all she could do was ride her moods and try not let them get the upper hand completely. “We don’t have to Travel right to the spot.” Gripping her pouch, feeling the small ivory carving of a seated woman that nestled inside, she looked pointedly at her sister’s amber brooch. “Light, Aviendha, we have angreal, and neither of us is exactly helpless.” Oh, Light, now she was sounding petulant. She knew very well that both of them together, angreal and all, would be flies battling a flame against what they could sense, but even so, a flybite at the right moment might make the difference. “And don’t tell me I’ll endanger the baby. Min said she will be born strong and healthy. You told me so yourself. That means I will live at least long enough for my daughter to be born.” She hoped for a daughter.

Fireheart chose that moment to nip at the gray, and Siswai nipped back, and for a bit Elayne was occupied with getting her gelding under control and keeping Aviendha from being thrown and telling Caseille that they did not need any help, and by the end of it, she was not feeling sullen any longer. She wanted to smack Fireheart right between his ears.

Aside from making the animal obey the reins, Aviendha behaved as if nothing had happened at all. She did frown, a little uncertainly, her face framed by the dark wool of her shawl, but her uncertainty had nothing to do with the horse.

“I have told you about the rings in Rhuidean,” she said slowly, and Elayne gave an impatient nod. Every woman who wanted to become a Wise One was sent through a ter’angreal before she began training. It was something like the ter’angreal used to test novices for being raised to Accepted in the White Tower, except that in this one, a woman saw her whole life. All of her possible lives, really, every decision made differently, an infinite fan of lives based on differing choices. “No one can remember all of that, Elayne, only bits and pieces. I knew I would love Rand al’Thor...” she was still uncomfortable sometimes about using just his first name in front of others, “and that I would find sister-wives. For most things, all you retain is a vague impression at best. A hint of warning, sometimes. I think if we go to him now, something very bad will happen. Maybe one of us will die, maybe both in spite of what Min said.” That she said Min’s name without fumbling was a measure of her concern. She did not know Min very well, and usually named her formally, as Min Farshaw. “Perhaps he will die. Perhaps something else. I do not know for sure—maybe we will all survive, and we will sit around a fire with him roasting pecara when we find him—but the glimmer of a warning is there in my head.”

Elayne opened her mouth angrily. Then she closed it again, anger draining away like water down a hole, and her shoulders slumped. Perhaps Aviendha’s glimmer was true and perhaps not, but the fact was that her arguments had been good from the start. A great risk taken in ignorance, and taking it might bring disaster. The beacon had grown brighter still. And he was there, right where the beacon was. The bond did not tell her so, not at this distance, but she knew. And she knew she had to leave him to take care of himself while she took care of Andor.

“I don’t have anything to teach you about being a Wise One, Aviendha,” she said quietly. “You are already much wiser than I. Not to mention braver and more coolheaded. We return to Caemlyn.”

Aviendha colored faintly under the praise—she could be very sensitive, at times—but she wasted no time in opening the gateway, a rotating view of a stableyard in the Royal Palace that widened into a hole in the air and let snow from the meadow fall onto the clean-swept paving stones as near three hundred miles away as made no difference. The sense of Birgitte, somewhere in the palace, sprang alive in Elayne’s head. Birgitte had a headache and a sour stomach, not unusual occurrences of late, but they suited Elayne’s mood all too well.

I must leave him to take care of himself, she thought as she rode through. Light, how often had she thought that? No matter. Rand was the love of her heart and the joy of her life, but Andor was her duty.

CHAPTER 11
Talk of Debts

The gateway was positioned so that Elayne seemed to be riding out of a hole in the wall against the street, into a square marked out for safety by sand-filled wine barrels standing on the paving stones. Oddly, she could not feel a single woman channeling anywhere in the palace, though it housed more than a hundred and fifty with the ability. Some would be stationed on the city’s outer walls, of course, too far for her to sense anything short of a linked circle, and a few would be out of the city altogether, yet someone in the palace was almost always using saidar, whether to try forcing one of the captive sul’dam to admit that she really could see weaves of the One Power or simply to smooth the wrinkles from a shawl without heating an iron. Not this morning, though. Windfinder arrogance often matched the worst shown by any Aes Sedai, yet even that must be quashed by what they sensed. Elayne thought that if she climbed to a high window, she must be able to see the weaves of that great beacon, hundreds of leagues distant as they were. She felt like an ant that had just become aware of mountains, an ant comparing the Spine of the World to the hills it had always held in awe. Yes, even the Windfinders must be walking small in the face of that.

On the eastern side of the palace and fronted on north and south by two-story-high stables of pure white stone, the Queen’s Stableyard traditionally was given over to the Queen’s personal horses and carriages, and she had hesitated over using it before the Lion Throne was acknowledged hers. The steps that led to the throne were as delicate as any court dance, and if the dance sometimes came to resemble a tavern brawl, you still had to make your steps with grace and precision in order to gain your goal. Claiming the perquisites before being confirmed had cost some women their chance to rule. In the end, she had decided it was not a transgression that would make her seem over-proud. Besides, the Queen’s Stableyard was relatively small and had no other use. There were fewer people to keep away from an opening gateway here. In fact, when she entered it, the stone-paved yard was empty apart from a single red-coated groom standing in one of the arched stable doorways, but he turned to give a shout inside, and dozens more came spilling out as she guided Fireheart clear of the marked-off square. After all, she might have returned with an entourage of powerful lords and ladies, or perhaps they just hoped she had.

Caseille brought the Guardswomen through the gateway, and ordered most to dismount and see to their animals. She and half a dozen more remained in their saddles, keeping watch over the heads of the people afoot. Even here, she would not leave Elayne unguarded. Particularly here, where she faced more danger than in any manor she had visited. The Matherin men milled about, getting in the way of grooms and Guards while gaping at the white stone balconies and colonnades that overlooked the yard and the spires and golden domes visible beyond. The cold seemed less here than in the mountains—refusing to let it touch her, as far as she could at present, did not make her totally unaware—but men and women and horses all still breathed faint plumes of mist. The odor of horse dung seemed strong, too, after the clean air of the mountains. A hot bath in front of a roaring fire would be welcome. Afterward, she would have to plunge back into the business of securing the throne, but right now a long soak would be just the thing.

A pair of grooms ran to Fireheart. One took his bridle with a hurried curtsy for Elayne, more concerned with seeing that the tall gelding made no bother while Elayne dismounted than with making courtesies herself, and another who made his bow and remained bent with his hands making a stirrup for Elayne. Neither gave more than a glance at the view of a snow-covered mountain meadow where they would normally see a stone wall. The stableworkers were accustomed to gateways by now. She had heard that they garnered drinks in the taverns by boasting of how often they saw the Power used and the things they supposedly had seen done with it. Elayne could imagine what those tales sounded like by the time they reached Arymilla. She rather enjoyed the thought of Arymilla chewing her fingernails.

As she set foot on the paving stones, a cluster of Guardswomen appeared around her, in crimson hats with white plumes lying flat on the broad brims, and lace-edged crimson sashes, embroidered with the White Lion, that slanted across their bright breastplates. Not until then did Caseille take the remainder of Elayne’s escort to the stable. Their replacements were just as wary, eyes watching every direction, hands hovering near their sword hilts, except for Deni, a wide, placid-faced woman who carried a long brass-studded cudgel. They were only nine in number—Only nine, Elayne thought bitterly. I need only nine bodyguards in the Royal Palace itself!—yet every one who carried a sword was expert. Women who followed the “trade of the sword,” as Caseille called it, had to be good, or else sooner or later they were cut down by some fellow whose only advantage was strength enough to batter her down. Deni possessed no facility with a sword at all, but the few men who had tested her cudgel regretted doing so. Despite her bulk, Deni was very quick, and she had no concept of fighting fair, or of practice, for that matter.

Rasoria, the stocky under-lieutenant in charge, seemed relieved when the grooms led Fireheart off. If Elayne’s bodyguard had their way, no one except themselves would have been allowed within arm’s reach. Well, maybe they were not quite that bad, but they looked with suspicion at almost everyone except Birgitte and Aviendha. Rasoria, a Tairen despite her blue eyes and the yellow hair she wore cut short, was among the worst in that regard, even insisting on watching the cooks make Elayne’s meals and having everything tasted before it was brought up. Elayne had not protested, however over-zealous they might be. One experience of drugged wine was more than enough, even when she knew she would live at least long enough to bear her child. But it was neither the Guardswomen’s mistrust nor the need for it that tightened her mouth. It was Birgitte, weaving her way through the crowded stableyard, but not toward her.

Aviendha was last to appear out of the gateway, of course, after she was sure that everyone was through, and before she let the gateway wink out of existence, Elayne started in her direction, striding off so suddenly that her escort had to leap to maintain their guarding ring around her. As quickly as she moved, though, Birgitte, with her thick golden braid hanging to her waist, was there first, helping Aviendha down and handing the gray mare over to a long-faced groom who seemed almost as leggy as Siswai. Aviendha always had more difficulty getting off a horse than getting on, but Birgitte had more than assistance in mind. Elayne and her escort arrived just in time to hear the woman say to Aviendha in a low, hurried voice, “Did she drink her goat’s milk? Did she get enough sleep? She feels...” Her voice trailed off at the end, and she drew a deep breath before turning to face Elayne, outwardly calm, and unsurprised to find her right there. The bond did work both ways.

Birgitte was not a big woman, though she stood taller than Elayne in her heeled boots, as tall as Aviendha, but she usually had a presence that was only heightened by the uniform of the Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards, a short red coat with a high white collar worn over baggy blue trousers tucked into gleaming black boots, four golden knots on her left shoulder and four bands of gold on each white cuff. After all, she was Birgitte Silverbow, a hero out of legend. She remained wary of trying to live up to those legends; she claimed that the stories were grossly inflated where they were not complete fabrications. Yet she was still the same woman who had done every one of the things that formed the heart of those legends and more besides. Now, despite her apparent composure, unease tinged the concern for Elayne that flowed through the bond along with her headache and her sullen stomach. She knew very well that Elayne hated for them to check on her behind her back. That was not the whole reason for Elayne’s irritation, but the bond let Birgitte know just how upset she was.

Aviendha, calmly unwrapping her shawl from around her head and draping it over her shoulders, attempted the gaze of a woman who had done nothing wrong and certainly was not involved with anyone else who had done anything wrong. She might have managed it if she had not widened her eyes for an added touch of innocence. Birgitte was a bad influence on her in some ways.

“I drank the goat’s milk,” Elayne said in a level voice, all too conscious of the Guardswomen ringing the three of them. Facing outward, eyes scanning the yard and the balconies and the rooftops, nearly every one was certainly listening. “I got enough sleep. Is there anything else you want to ask me?” Aviendha’s cheeks colored faintly.

“I think I have all the answers I need for the moment,” Birgitte replied without a hint of the blush Elayne had been hoping for. The woman knew she was tired, knew she had to be lying about the sleep.

The bond was decidedly inconvenient at times. She had drunk nothing but half a cup of extremely well watered wine last night, but she was beginning to have Birgitte’s morning-after head and her sour stomach. None of the other Aes Sedai she had spoken to about the bond had mentioned anything of the kind, but she and Birgitte all too often mirrored one another, physically and emotionally. The last presented real problems when her moods were on a seesaw. Sometimes she managed to shrug it off, or fight it off, but today she knew she was going to have to suffer until Birgitte was Healed. She thought the mirroring must occur because they were both women. No one had heard of anyone bonding another woman before. Few had heard of it now, to tell the truth, and some of them seemed to believe it could not be true. A Warder was male as surely as a bull was male. Everyone knew that, and not many stopped to think that anything that “everyone knew” deserved close examination.

Being caught in a lie, when she was trying to follow Egwene’s dictate about living as if she had already taken the Three Oaths, made Elayne defensive, and that made her blunt. “Is Dyelin back?”

“No,” Birgitte said just as bluntly, and Elayne sighed. Dyelin had left the city days before Arymilla’s army appeared, taking Reanne Corly with her to make gateways and speed her travel, and a great deal depended on Dyelin’s return. On what news she brought back. On whether she brought anything besides news.

Choosing who would be Queen of Andor was quite simple, boiled down to essentials. There were over four hundred Houses in the realm, but only nineteen strong enough that others would follow where they led. Usually, all nineteen stood behind the Daughter-Heir, or most of them, unless she was plainly incompetent. House Mantear had lost the throne to Trakand when Mordrellen died only because Tigraine, the Daughter-Heir, had vanished and Mantear had begun running heavily to boy children. And because Morgase Trakand had gathered thirteen Houses in her support. Only ten of the nineteen were necessary to ascend the throne, by law and custom. Even claimants who still thought they should have the throne themselves usually fell in with the rest, or at least fell silent and gave up their pursuit, once another woman had ten Houses at her back.

Things had been bad enough when she had three declared rivals, but now Naean and Elenia were united behind Arymilla Marne, of all people, the least likely of the three to have succeeded, and that meant she had two Houses—two large enough to count; Matherin and those eighteen others she had visited were too small—her own Trakand and Dyelin’s Taravin, to face six. Oh, Dyelin insisted that Carand, Coelan and Renshar would come to Elayne, and Norwelyn and Pendar and Traemane besides, but the first three wanted Dyelin herself on the throne, and the last three seemed to have gone into hibernation. Dyelin was firm in her loyalty, though, and tireless on Elayne’s behalf. She persisted in her belief that some of the Houses that were keeping silent could be convinced to support Elayne. Of course, Elayne could not approach them herself, but Dyelin could. And now the situation verged on desperate. Six Houses supporting Arymilla, and only a fool would think she had not sent feelers out toward the others. Or that some might listen just because she did have six already.

Despite the fact that Caseille and her Guards had vacated the courtyard, Elayne and the others had to thread their way across the paving stones though a crowd. The men from Matherin were finally down off their horses, but they were still moiling about, dropping their halberds and picking them up only to drop them again, trying to unload their packhorse there in the stableyard. One of the boys was chasing a chicken that somehow had gotten loose and was scuttling between the horses’ legs, while one of the wrinkled old men shouted encouragement, though whether for the boy or the chicken was unclear. A leather-faced bannerman with the merest fringe of white hair remaining, in a faded red coat that strained across his belly, was trying to establish order with the help of an only slightly younger Guardsman, both of them likely returned from their pensions, as a good many had, but another of the boys seemed about to lead his shaggy horse into the palace itself, and Birgitte had to order him out of the way before Elayne could enter. The boy, a fuzz-cheeked lad who could not have been above fourteen, gaped at Birgitte as widely as he had at the palace. She was certainly more picturesque in her uniform than the Daughter-Heir in a riding dress, and he had already seen the Daughter-Heir. Rasoria gave him a shove back toward the old bannerman, shaking her head.

“I don’t flaming know what I can do with them,” Birgitte grumbled as a maid liveried in red-and-white took Elayne’s cloak and gloves in the small entry hall. Small in terms of the Royal Palace. With gilded stand-lamps flickering between narrow, fluted white columns, it was half again the size of Matherin’s main entry hall, though the ceiling was not so high. Another maid with the White Lion on the left breast of her dress, a girl not that much older than the boy who had tried to bring his horse inside, offered a ropework silver tray with tall cups of steaming spiced wine before simultaneous frowns from Aviendha and Birgitte made her shy back. “The flaming boys fall asleep if they’re put on guard,” Birgitte went on, scowling at the retreating maid. “The old men stay awake, but half can’t remember what they’re flaming supposed to do if they see somebody trying to scale the bloody wall, and the other half together couldn’t fight off six shepherds with a dog.” Aviendha raised an eyebrow at Elayne and nodded.

“They aren’t here to fight,” Elayne reminded them as they started down a blue-tiled corridor lined with mirrored stand-lamps and inlaid chests, Birgitte and Aviendha on either side of her and the Guardswomen spreading out a few paces ahead of them and behind. Light, she thought, I wouldn’t have taken the wine! Her head pounded in rhythm with Birgitte’s, and she touched her temple, wondering whether she should order her Warder to go find Healing immediately.

Birgitte had other ideas, though. She eyed Rasoria and the others in front, then looked over her shoulder and motioned those following to fall back a little more. That was strange. She had handpicked every last woman in the Guards, and she trusted them. Even so, when she spoke it was in a hurried near-whisper, bending her head close to Elayne. “Something happened just before you returned. I was asking Sumeko if she’d Heal me before you got back, and she suddenly fell over in a faint. Her eyes just rolled up in her head, and down she went. It isn’t only her. Nobody will admit a flaming thing, not to me, but the other Kin I’ve seen have been jumping out of their bloody skins, and the Windfinders, too. Not one of them could spit if she had to. You were back before I could find a sister, but I suspect they’d give me the fish eye, too. They’ll tell you, though.”

The palace required the population of a large village to keep running, and servants had begun to appear, liveried men and women scurrying along the corridors, flattening themselves against the walls or ducking into crossing hallways to make room for Elayne’s escort, so she explained the little she knew in as soft a voice and as few words as possible. Some rumors she did not mind reaching the streets, and inevitably Arymilla, but tales of Rand could be as bad as tales of the Forsaken by the time they were twisted through a few retellings. Worse, in a way. No one would believe the Forsaken were trying to put her on the throne as a puppet. “In any event,” she finished, “it’s nothing to do with us here.”

She thought she sounded very convincing, very cool and detached, but Aviendha reached out to squeeze her hand, for an Aiel as much as a comforting hug with so many people to see, and Birgitte’s sympathy flooded through the bond. It was more than commiseration; it was the shared feeling of a woman who had already suffered the loss she herself feared and more. Gaidal Cain was lost to Birgitte as surely as if he were dead, and on top of that, her memories of her past lives were fading. She remembered almost nothing clearly before the founding of the White Tower, and not all of that. Some nights, the fear that Gaidal would fade from her memory, too, that she would lose any remembrance of actually having known and loved him, left her unable to sleep until she drank as much brandy as she could hold. That was a poor solution, and Elayne wished she could offer a better, yet she knew her own memories of Rand would not die until she did, and she could not imagine the horror of knowing those memories might leave her. Still, she hoped someone Healed Birgitte’s morning-after head soon, before her own split open like an over-ripe melon. Her ability with Healing fell short of the task, and Aviendha’s was no stronger.

Despite the emotion she could feel in Birgitte, the other woman kept her face smooth and unconcerned. “The Forsaken,” she muttered dryly. And softly. That was not a name to bandy about. “Well, as long as it has nothing to do with us, we’re bloody all right.” A grunt that might have been a laugh gave her the lie. But then, although Birgitte said she had never been a soldier before, she had a soldier’s view. Long odds were usually the only odds you could find, but you still had to get the job done. “I wonder what they think of it?” she added, nodding toward the four Aes Sedai who had just stepped out of a crossing corridor down the hallway.

Vandene, Merilille, Sareitha and Careane had their heads together as they walked, or rather, the last three were clustered around Vandene, leaning toward her and talking with urgent gestures that made the fringes on their shawls sway. Vandene glided along slowly as if she were alone, paying no heed. She had always been slender, but her dark green dress, embroidered with flowers on the sleeves and shoulders, hung on her as though made for a stouter woman, and the white hair gathered at the nape of her neck seemed in need of a brush. Her expression was bleak, but that might have had nothing to do with whatever the other sisters were saying. She had been joyless ever since her sister’s murder. Elayne would have wagered that dress had belonged to Adeleas. Since the murder, Vandene wore her sister’s clothes more often than her own. Not that that accounted for the fit. The two women had been of a size, but Vandene’s appetite for food had died with her sister. Her taste for most things seemed to have died then.

Sareitha, a Brown whose dark square face was not yet touched with agelessness, saw Elayne just then, and put a hand on Vandene’s arm as if to draw her up the corridor. Vandene brushed the Tairen woman’s hand away and glided on with the merest glance at Elayne, disappearing on along the hallway they had come out of. Two women in novice white, who had been following the others at a respectful distance, offered quick curtsies to the remaining sisters and hastened after Vandene. Merilille, a tiny woman in dark gray that made her Cairhienin paleness seem like ivory, stared as if she might follow. Careane adjusted her green-fringed shawl on shoulders wider than those of many men and exchanged quiet words with Sareitha. The pair of them turned to meet Elayne as she approached, making her curtsies almost as deep as the novices had given them. Merilille noticed the Guardswomen and blinked, then noticed Elayne and gave a start. Her curtsy matched the novices’.

Merilille had worn the shawl for over a hundred years, Careane for more than fifty, and even Sareitha had worn it longer than Elayne Trakand, but standing among Aes Sedai went with strength in the Power, and none of these three was more than middling strong among sisters. In Aes Sedai eyes, increased strength gave, if not increased wisdom, at least increased weight to your opinions. With a sufficient gap, those opinions became commands. Sometimes, Elayne thought the Kin’s way was better.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said before any of the other Aes Sedai could speak, “but there is nothing we can do about it, so we might as well quit worrying. We have enough right in front of us without fretting over things we can’t affect.”

Rasoria half-turned her head, frowning and plainly wondering what she had missed, but the words smoothed the anxiety from Sareitha’s dark eyes. Perhaps not from the rest of her, since her hands moved as if she wanted to smooth her brown skirts, yet she was willing to follow the lead of a sister who stood as high as Elayne. Sometimes, there were advantages to standing high enough that you could quell objections with a sentence. Careane had already regained serenity, if she had ever lost it. It sat easily on her, though she looked more like a wagon driver than an Aes Sedai despite her beryl-slashed silks and smooth, ageless coppery face. But then, Greens usually were made of tougher stuff than Browns. Merilille did not look at all serene. Wide eyes and half-parted lips gave her the appearance of startlement. That was usual for her, though.

Elayne continued along the hallway, hoping they would go about their business, but Merilille fell in beside Birgitte. The Gray should have taken primacy among the three, but she had developed a tendency to wait for someone to tell her what to do, and she shifted over without a word when Sareitha politely asked Birgitte to give her room. The sisters were unfailingly courteous to Elayne’s Warder when she was acting as Captain-General. It was Birgitte as Warder they tried to ignore. Aviendha received no such civility from Careane, who elbowed in between her and Elayne. Anyone not trained in the White Tower was a wilder by definition, and Careane despised wilders. Aviendha pursed her lips though she did not draw her belt knife or even suggest that she might, for which Elayne was grateful. Her first-sister could be... precipitate, at times. On second thought, she would have forgiven a little hastiness from Aviendha right then. Custom forbade rudeness toward another Aes Sedai under any circumstances, but Aviendha could have growled threats and waved her knife to her heart’s content. That might have been enough to make the threesome leave, even if in a tizzy. Careane did not seem to notice the cool green gaze marking her.

“I told Merilille and Sareitha it was nothing we could do anything about,” she said calmly. “But shouldn’t we be ready to flee if it comes closer? There’s no shame flying from that. Even linked, we would be moths fighting a forest fire. Vandene wouldn’t bother to listen.”

“We really should make some sort of preparations, Elayne,” Sareitha murmured absently, as if making lists in her head. “It’s when you don’t make plans that you wish you had. There are a number of volumes in the library here that mustn’t be left behind. I believe several can’t be found in the Tower library.”

“Yes.” Merilille’s voice was breathless, and as anxious as her large dark eyes. “Yes, we really should be ready to go. Perhaps... Perhaps we should not wait. Surely going from necessity would not violate our agreement. I am sure it would not.” Only Birgitte as much as glanced at her, but she flinched.

“If we do go,” Careane said as if Merilille had not spoken, “we’ll have to take all of the Kin with us. Allow them to scatter, and the Light only knows what they’ll do or when we will ever catch them again, especially now that some have learned to Travel.” There was no bitterness in her voice, though only Elayne among the sisters in the palace could Travel. It seemed to make a difference to Careane that the Kinswomen had begun in the White Tower, even if most had been put out and a few had run away. She had identified no fewer than four of them herself. At least they were not wilders.

Sareitha’s mouth tightened, though. It weighed on her that several Kinswomen could weave gateways, and she had very different notions of the Kin. Normally, she limited her objections to the occasional frown or disparaging grimace, since Elayne had made her own views clear, but the stress of the morning seemed to have loosened her tongue. “We do indeed need to take them with us,” she said in a cutting tone, “else they’ll all be claiming to be Aes Sedai as soon as they’re out of our sight. Any woman who maintains she was put out of the Tower over three hundred years ago will claim anything! They need to be kept under a close watch, if you ask me, instead of going about as they please, most especially those who can Travel. They may have gone where you told them and come back so far, Elayne, but how long before one of them doesn’t return? Mark my words, once one of them escapes, others will follow, and we will have a mess on our hands we’ll never clean up.”

“There is no reason for us to go anywhere,” Elayne said firmly, as much for the Guards as for the sisters. That distant beacon was still in the same spot where she had first sensed it, and if it did move, the chance seemed small that it would move toward Caemlyn, much less actually come there, but a rumor that Aes Sedai were planning flight might be enough to engender a stampede, mobs clawing to reach the gates ahead of whatever could frighten Aes Sedai. An army sacking the city would not kill as many. And these three chattered away as if there were no one to hear but the wall hangings! There was some excuse for Merilille, but not the others. “We will remain here, as the Amyrlin Seat has commanded, until the Amyrlin commands otherwise. The Kinswomen will continue to receive every courtesy until they are welcomed back into the Tower, and that is the Amyrlin’s command, too, as you very well know. And you will continue teaching the Windfinders and go about your lives as Aes Sedai should. We are supposed to deal with people’s fears and soothe them, not spread senseless gossip and panic.”

Well, perhaps she had been a touch more than firm. Sareitha put her gaze on the floor tiles like a rebuked novice. Merilille flinched again at mention of the Windfinders, but that was to be expected. The others gave lessons, but the Sea Folk held Merilille as tightly as they did one of their apprentices. She slept in their quarters and normally was not seen without two or three of them, and her trailing meekly at their heels. They refused to accept anything less than meekness from her.

“Of course, Elayne,” Careane said hastily. “Of course. None of us would suggest disobeying the Amyrlin.” Hesitating, she adjusted her green-fringed shawl over her arms, seemingly occupied with setting it just so. She did spare a pitying look for Merilille. “But speaking of the Sea Folk, could you tell Vandene to take her share of the lessons?” When Elayne said nothing, her voice took on an edge that would have been called sullen in anyone not Aes Sedai. “She says she’s too busy with those two runaways, but she finds enough time to keep me talking some nights until I’m half asleep. That pair is already so cowed they wouldn’t squeak if their dresses caught fire. They don’t need her attention. She could take her portion of teaching those cursed wilders. Vandene needs to start behaving as an Aes Sedai, too!”

Standing or no, rebuke or no, she gave Elayne a baleful glare that took her a moment to smother. Elayne had been the one who made the bargain that led to Aes Sedai having to teach Windfinders, but so far she herself had managed to miss giving more than a handful of lessons, claiming the press of other, more important duties. Besides, the Sea Folk saw a shorebound teacher as a hireling, even an Aes Sedai, and a hireling with less standing than a scullion at that. A scullion who might try to cheat on her labor. She still thought Nynaeve had gone away just to avoid giving those lessons. Certainly no one expected to end up in Merilille’s state, but even a few hours at a time was bad enough.

“Oh, no, Careane,” Sareitha put in, still avoiding Elayne’s eye. And Merilille’s. In her opinion, the Gray had gotten herself into this fix and thus deserved what came of it, but she did try not to rub salt in the wounds. “Vandene is distraught over her sister, and Kirstian and Zarya help her occupy her mind.” Whatever she thought of the other Kin, she accepted that Zarya was a runaway, as she had to, since Adeleas had recognized her, and if Kirstian must be a liar, her own lie would make her pay in full for that. Runaways were not treated kindly. “I spend hours with her, too, and she almost never talks of anything but Adeleas. It’s as if she wants to add my memories to her own. I think she needs to be allowed as much time as she needs, and those two keep her from being alone too often.” Giving Elayne a sidelong glance, she drew breath. “Still, teaching the Windfinders is certainly... challenging. Perhaps an hour now and then would help pull her out of despondency, if only by making her angry. Don’t you agree, Elayne? Just an hour or two, now and then.”

“Vandene will be allowed as much time to grieve for her sister as she needs or wants,” Elayne said in level tones. “And there will be no more discussion of it.”

Careane sighed heavily and rearranged her shawl again. Sareitha sighed faintly and began twisting the Great Serpent ring on the forefinger of her left hand. Perhaps they had sensed her mood, or perhaps it was just that neither looked forward to another session with the Windfinders. Merilille’s permanently surprised expression did not change, but then, her sessions with the Sea Folk lasted all day and all night unless Elayne managed to pry her away, and the Windfinders were becoming less and less willing to let her go no matter how Elayne pried.

At least she had managed to avoid being curt with the three. It took an effort, especially with Aviendha there. Elayne did not know what she would do if she ever lost her sister. Vandene was not only grieving for a sister, she was searching for Adeleas’s murderer, and there could be no doubt that the killer was Merilille Ceandevin, Careane Fransi or Sareitha Tomares. One of them, or worse, more than one. The charge was hard to believe of Merilille, in her present condition, but it was not easy to believe of any sister. As Birgitte had pointed out, one of the worst Darkfriends she had ever met, during the Trolloc Wars, was a mild-as-milk lad who jumped at loud noises. And poisoned an entire city’s water supply. Aviendha’s suggestion was to put all three to the question, which had horrified Birgitte, but Aviendha was considerably less in awe of Aes Sedai than she once had been. The proper courtesies must be maintained, until there was evidence to convict. Then there would be no courtesy at all.

“Oh,” Sareitha said, brightening suddenly. “Here’s Captain Mellar. He was a hero again while you were gone, Elayne.”

Aviendha gripped the hilt of her belt knife, and Birgitte stiffened. Careane’s face went very still, very cold, and even Merilille managed a disapproving hauteur. Neither sister made any secret of her dislike for Doilan Mellar.

With a narrow face, he was not pretty, or even handsome, yet he moved with a swordsman’s lithe grace that spoke of physical strength. As Captain of Elayne’s bodyguard, he rated three golden knots of rank, and he wore them soldered to each shoulder of his brightly burnished breastplate. An ignorant observer might have thought he outranked Birgitte. The falls of snow-white lace at his throat and wrists were twice as thick and twice as long as those worn by any of the Guardswomen, but he had left off the sash again, perhaps because it would have obscured one set of golden knots. He claimed that he wanted nothing more in life than to command her bodyguard, yet he frequently talked of battles he had fought as a mercenary. It seemed he had never been on the losing side, and victory had often come from his unsung efforts on the field. He swept off his white-plumed hat in a deep, flourishing bow, managing his sword deftly with one hand, then offered a slightly lesser to Birgitte with an arm across his chest in salute.

Elayne arranged a smile on her face. “Sareitha says you were a hero again, Captain Mellar. How so?”

“Nothing more than my duty to my queen.” Despite a voice thick with self-deprecation, his answering smile was warmer than it should have been. Half the palace thought him the father of Elayne’s child. That she had not crushed that rumor seemed to make him believe he had prospects. The smile never reached his dark eyes, though. They remained as cold as death. “My duty to you is my pleasure, my Queen.”

“Captain Mellar led another sortie without orders yesterday,” Birgitte said in a carefully even voice. “This time the fighting almost spilled into the Far Madding Gate, which he had ordered left open against his return.” Elayne felt her face growing hard.

“Oh, no,” Sareitha protested. “It wasn’t like that at all. A hundred of Lord Luan’s armsmen tried to reach the city in the night, but they left it too late, and sunrise caught them. So did three times their number of Lord Nasin’s men. If Captain Mellar hadn’t opened the gates and led a rescue, they’d have been cut to pieces in sight of the walls. As it was, he managed to save eighty for your cause.” Smiling, Mellar basked in the Aes Sedai’s praise as if he had not heard Birgitte’s criticism. Of course, he seemed unaware of Careane and Merilille’s disapproving stares, too. He always managed to ignore disapproval.

“How did you know they were Lord Luan’s men, Captain?” Elayne asked quietly. A small smile that should have given Mellar warning appeared on Birgitte’s face. But then, he was one of those who seemed not to believe she was a Warder. Even if he did, few except Warders and Aes Sedai knew what the bond entailed. If anything, Mellar’s expression grew more smug.

“I didn’t go by banners, my Queen. Anybody can carry a banner. I recognized Jurad Accan through my looking glass. Accan is Luan’s man to his toenails. Once I knew that....” He made a dismissive gesture in a flurry of lace. “The rest was no more than taking a little exercise.”

“And did this Jurad Accan bring any message from Lord Luan? Anything signed and sealed, affirming House Norwelyn’s support for Trakand?”

“Nothing in writing, my Queen, but as I said—”

“Lord Luan has not declared for me, Captain.”

Mellar’s smile faded somewhat. He was unused to being cut short. “But, my Queen, Lady Dyelin says that Luan is as good as in your camp right now. Accan showing up is proof of—”

“Of nothing, Captain,” Elayne said coldly. “Perhaps Lord Luan will be in my camp eventually, Captain, but until he declares, you’ve given me eighty men who need to be watched.” Eighty out of a hundred. And how many of hers had he lost? And he had risked Caemlyn doing it, burn him! “Since you can find time in your duties commanding my bodyguard to lead sorties, you can find time to arrange for watching them. I won’t spare anyone from the walls for it. Set Master Accan and his fellows to drilling the men I’ve brought in from the manors. That will keep them all busy and out of trouble most of each day, but I leave it to you how to keep them away from the walls the rest of the time. And I do expect them kept away from the walls and out of trouble, Captain. You may see to it now.”

Mellar stared at her, stunned. She had never taken him to task before, and he did not like it, particularly in front of so many witnesses. There were no over-warm smiles now. His mouth twitched, and a sullen heat grew in his eyes. But there was nothing for him to do except to jerk another bow, murmur “As my Queen commands” in a hoarse voice, and leave with as good a grace as he could muster. Before he had gone three paces he was striding down the hall as if to trample anyone who got in his way. She would have to tell Rasoria to take care. He might try to soothe his bile by taking it out on those who had seen and heard. Merilille and Careane gave almost identical nods; they would have seen Mellar called down, and preferably put out of the palace, long since.

“Even if he did wrong,” Sareitha said carefully, “and I am not convinced that he did, Captain Mellar saved your life at risk to his own, Elayne, your life and that of the Lady Dyelin. Was there really need to embarrass him in front of the rest of us?”

“Never think I avoid paying my debts, Sareitha.” Elayne felt Aviendha grip one of her hands, and Birgitte the other. She gave each of them a light squeeze. When you were surrounded by enemies, it was good to have a sister and a friend close by. “I am going to find a hot bath now, and unless one of you wishes to scrub my back... ?”

They could recognize a dismissal, and they departed more gracefully than Captain Mellar, Careane and Sareitha already discussing whether or not the Windfinders would actually want lessons today, Merilille trying to look every direction at once in hope of avoiding any Windfinders. What would they talk of later, though? Whether Elayne was having a spat with the father of her child? Whether they had successfully hidden their guilt in killing Adeleas?

I always pay my debts, Elayne thought, watching them go. And I help my friends pay theirs.

CHAPTER 12
A Bargain

A bath was not hard to find, though Elayne had to wait in the hall frowning at the lion-carved doors of her apartments, drafts flickering the mirrored stand-lamps while Rasoria and two of the Guardswomen went in to search. Once they were sure there were no assassins lying in wait, and guards had been arrayed in the corridor and outer room, Elayne entered to find white-haired Essande waiting in the bedchamber with Naris and Sephanie, the two young tirewomen she was training. Essande was slim, with Elayne’s Golden Lily embroidered over her left breast and a very great dignity emphasized by her deliberate way of moving, though some of that came from age and aching joints she refused to acknowledge. Naris and Sephanie were sisters, fresh-faced, sturdy and shy-eyed, proud of their livery and happy to have been chosen out for this rather than cleaning hallways but almost as much in awe of Essande as of Elayne. There were more experienced maids available, women who had worked years in the palace, but sadly, girls who had come seeking any sort of work they could find were safer.

Two copper bathtubs sat on thick layers of toweling laid atop the rose-colored floor tiles where one of the carpets had been rolled up, evidence that word of Elayne’s arrival had flown ahead of her. Servants had a knack for learning what was happening that the Tower’s eyes-and-ears might envy. A good blaze in the fireplace and tight casements in the windows made the room warm after the corridors, and Essande waited only to see Elayne enter the room before sending Sephanie off at a run to fetch the men with the hot water. That would be brought up in double-walled pails with lids to keep it from getting cold on the way from the kitchens, though it might be delayed a little by Guardswomen checking to make sure there were no knives hidden in the water.

Aviendha eyed the second bathtub almost as doubtfully as Essande eyed Birgitte, the one still uneasy about actually stepping into water and the other still not accepting that anyone more than necessary should be present during a bath, but the white-haired woman wasted no time before quietly bustling Elayne and Aviendha both into the dressing room, where another fire on a wide marble hearth had taken the chill from the air. It was a great relief to have Essande help her out of her riding clothes, knowing that she had more ahead of her than a hasty wash and a show of ease while worrying about how quickly she could move on to her next destination. Other pretenses awaited, the Light help her, and other worries, but she was home, and that counted for much. She could almost forget about that beacon shining in the west. Almost. Well, not at all, really, but she could manage to stop fretting over it as long as she did not dwell on the thing.

By the time they had been undressed—with Aviendha slapping Naris’ hands away and removing her own jewelry, doing her best to pretend that Naris did not exist and her garments were somehow removing themselves—by the time they had been bundled into embroidered silk robes and had their hair tied up in white toweling—Aviendha tried to wrap the towel around her own head three times, and only after the construction collapsed down her neck for the third time did she allow Naris to do it, muttering about getting so soft that she soon would need someone to lace up her boots until Elayne began laughing and she joined in, throwing her head back so that Naris had to start over again—by the time all that was done and they had returned to the bedchamber, the bathtubs were full and the scent of the rose oil that had been added to the water filled the air. The men who had brought up the water were gone, of course, and Sephanie was waiting with her sleeves pushed above her elbows in case someone wanted her back scrubbed. Birgitte was sitting on the turquoise-inlaid chest at the foot of the bed, her elbows on her knees.

Elayne allowed Essande to help her off with her pale green, swallow-worked robe and sank into her tub immediately, submerging herself to her neck in water just a hair short of too hot. That left her knees poking up, but it immersed most of her in the warmth, and she sighed, feeling weariness leach out of her and languor creep in. Hot water might have been the greatest single gift of civilization.

Staring at the other tub, Aviendha gave a start when Naris attempted to remove her robe, lavender and embroidered with flowers on the wide sleeves. Grimacing, she finally allowed it, and stepped gingerly into the water, but she snatched the round soap out of Sephanie’s hand and began washing herself vigorously. Vigorously, but very careful not to slop so much as a spoonful of water over the tub’s rim. The Aiel did use water for washing, as well as in the sweat tents, especially for rinsing out the shampoo they made from a fat leaf that grew in the Waste, yet the dirty water was conserved and used for watering crops. Elayne had shown her two of the great cisterns beneath Caemlyn, fed by a pair of underground rivers and large enough that the far side of each was lost in a forest of thick columns and shadows, but the arid Waste was in Aviendha’s bones.

Ignoring Essande’s pointed looks—she seldom said two words more than necessary, and thought baths no time to say anything—Birgitte talked while they bathed, though she took care of what she said in front of Naris and Sephanie. It was unlikely they were in the pay of another House, but maids gossiped almost as freely as men—it seemed almost a tradition. Some rumors were worth fostering, nonetheless. Mostly Birgitte talked of two huge merchants’ trains that had arrived yesterday from Tear, the wagons heavy with grain and salted beef, and another from Illian with oil and salt and smoked fish. It was always worthwhile reminding people that food continued to flow into the city. Few merchants braved the roads of Andor in winter, none carrying anything as cheap as food, but gateways meant that Arymilla could intercept all the merchants she wished and her forces still would starve long before Caemlyn felt the first pangs of hunger. The Windfinders, who were making most of those gateways, reported that the High Lord Darlin—claiming the title of Steward in Tear for the Dragon Reborn, of all things!—was besieged in the Stone of Tear by nobles who wanted the Dragon Reborn out of Tear completely, but even they were unlikely to try stopping a rich trade in grain, particularly since they believed the Kin who accompanied the Windfinders were Aes Sedai. Not that any real attempt was made at deception, but Great Serpent rings had been made for Kinswomen who had passed their tests for Accepted before being put out of the Tower, and if anyone drew the wrong conclusion, no one actually lied to them.

The water was going to shed its heat if she waited much longer, Elayne decided, so she took a rose-scented soap from Sephanie and allowed Naris to begin scrubbing her back with a long-handled brush. If there had been news of Gawyn or Galad, Birgitte would have mentioned it straight off. She was as eager to hear as Elayne, and she could not have held it back. Gawyn’s return was one rumor they dearly wanted to reach the streets. Birgitte performed her duties well as Captain-General, and Elayne meant her to keep the position, if she could be convinced, but having Gawyn there would allow both women to relax a little. Most of the soldiers in the city were mercenaries, and only enough of them to man the gates strongly and make a display along the miles of wall surrounding the New City, but they still numbered more than thirty companies, each with its own captain who inevitably was full of pride, obsessed with precedence, and ready to squabble over any imagined slight from another captain at the drop of a straw. Gawyn had trained his whole life to command armies. He could deal with the squabblers, leaving her free to secure the throne.

Apart from that, she simply wanted him away from the White Tower. She prayed that one of her messengers had gotten through and that he was well downriver by this time. Egwene had been besieging Tar Valon with her army for more than a week, now, and it would be the cruelest spinning of fate for Gawyn to be caught between his oaths to defend the Tower and his love for Egwene. Worse, he had already broken that oath once, or at least bent it, for love of his sister and perhaps his love of Egwene. If Elaida ever suspected that Gawyn had aided Siuan’s escape, whatever credit he had gained by helping her replace Siuan as Amyrlin would evaporate like a dewdrop, and if he was still within Elaida’s reach when she learned, he would find himself in a cell, and lucky to avoid the headsman. Elayne did not resent his decision to aid Elaida; he could not have known enough then to make any other choice. A good many sisters had been confused over what was happening, too. A good many still seemed to be. How could she ask Gawyn to see what Aes Sedai could not?

As for Galad... She had grown up unable to like the man, sure he must resent her, and resent Gawyn most of all. Galad had to have thought he would be First Prince of the Sword one day, until Gawyn was born. Her earliest memories of him were of a boy, a young man, already behaving more like a father or uncle than a brother, giving Gawyn his first lessons with a sword. She remembered being afraid he would break open Gawyn’s head with the practice blade. But he had never given more than the bruises any youth expected in learning swords. He knew what was right, Galad did, and he was willing to do what was right no matter the cost to anyone, including himself. Light, he had started a war to help her and Nynaeve escape from Samara, and it was likely he had known the risk from the start! Galad fancied Nynaeve, or had for a time—it was hard to imagine he still felt that way, with him a Whitecloak, the Light only knew where and doing what—but the truth was, he had started that war to rescue his sister. She could not condone him being a Child of the Light, she could not like him, yet she hoped that he was safe and well. She hoped he found his way home to Caemlyn, too. News of him would have been nearly as welcome as news of Gawyn. That surprised her, but it was true.

“Two more sisters came while you were away. They’re at the Silver Swan.” Birgitte made it sound as though they were merely stopping at an inn because every bed in the palace was taken. “A Green with two Warders and a Gray with one. They came separately. A Yellow and a Brown left the same day, so there are still ten altogether. The Yellow went south, toward Far Madding. The Brown was heading east.”

Sephanie, waiting patiently beside Aviendha’s tub with nothing to do, exchanged a glance with her sister over Elayne’s head and grinned. Like many in the city, they knew for a fact that the presence of Aes Sedai at the Silver Swan signified White Tower support for Elayne and House Trakand. Watching the two girls like a hawk, Essande nodded; she knew it, too. Every streetsweeper and ragpicker was aware that the Tower was divided against itself, but even so, the name still carried weight, and an image of strength that never failed. Everyone knew the White Tower had lent support to every rightful Queen of Andor. In truth, most sisters looked forward to a sitting monarch who was also Aes Sedai, the first in a thousand years and the first since the Breaking of the World to be openly known as Aes Sedai, but Elayne would not be surprised to find there was a sister in Arymilla’s camp, keeping discreetly out of notice. The White Tower never placed all of its coin on one horse unless the race was fixed.

“That’s enough of the brush,” she said, irritably twisting away from the bristles. Well trained, the girl laid the brush down on a stool and handed her a large Illianer sponge that she used to begin sluicing off soap. She wished she knew what those sisters meant. They were like a grain of sand in her slipper, so tiny a thing that you could hardly imagine it being a discomfort, but the longer it remained, the larger it seemed. The sisters at the Silver Swan were becoming a sizable stone just by being there.

Since before she arrived in Caemlyn the number at the inn had been changed frequently, a few sisters leaving every week and a few coming to replace them. The siege had not changed anything; the soldiers surrounding Caemlyn were no more likely to try stopping an Aes Sedai from going where she wanted than were the rebellious nobles in Tear. There had been Reds in the city too, for a while, asking after men heading for the Black Tower, but the more they learned, the more they had let their disgruntlement show, and the last pair had ridden out of the city the day after Arymilla appeared before the walls. Every Aes Sedai who entered the city was carefully watched, and none of the Reds had gone near the Silver Swan, so it seemed unlikely the sisters there had been sent by Elaida to kidnap her. For some reason she imagined little groups of Aes Sedai scattered from the Blight to the Sea of Storms, and constant streams of sisters flowing between, gathering information, sharing information. A peculiar thought. Sisters used eyes-and-ears to watch the world, and rarely shared what they learned unless it was a threat to the Tower itself. Likely those at the Swan were among the sisters sitting out the Tower’s troubles, waiting to see whether Egwene or Elaida would end with the Amyrlin Seat before they declared themselves. That was wrong—an Aes Sedai should stand for what she thought was right without worrying over whether she was choosing the winning side!—but these made her uneasy for another reason.

Recently one of her watchers at the Swan had overheard a disturbing name, murmured and quickly shushed, as if in fear of eavesdroppers. Cadsuane. Not a common name, that. And Cadsuane Melaidhrin had meshed herself closely with Rand while he was in Cairhien. Vandene did not think much of the woman, calling her opinionated and muleheaded, but Careane had almost fainted in awe at hearing her name. It seemed the stories surrounding Cadsuane amounted to legends. Trying to deal with the Dragon Reborn single-handed was just the sort of thing Cadsuane Melaidhrin might do. Not that Elayne had concerns about Rand and any Aes Sedai, except that he might outrage her beyond her control—the man was too pigheaded himself sometimes to see where his own good lay!—but why would a sister in Caemlyn mention her name? And why had another hushed her?

Despite the hot bathwater, she shivered, thinking of all the webs the White Tower had spun through the centuries, so fine that none could see them except the sisters who did the spinning, so convoluted that none but those sisters could have unraveled them. The Tower spun webs, the Ajahs spun webs, even individual sisters spun webs. Sometimes those schemes blended into one another as though guided by a single hand. Other times they had pulled one another apart. That was how the world had been shaped for three thousand years. Now the Tower had divided itself neatly into rough thirds, one third for Egwene, one for Elaida, and one that was standing aside. If those last were in contact with one another, exchanging information—forming plans?—the implications...

A sudden tumult of voices, dimmed by the closed door, made her sit up straight. Naris and Sephanie squealed and leaped to clutch one another, staring wide-eyed at the door.

“What in the bloody flaming... ?” Snarling, Birgitte hurled herself off the chest and out of the room, slamming the door behind her. The voices rose higher.

It did not sound as if the Guardswomen were fighting, just arguing at the tops of the lungs, and the bond carried mainly anger and frustration, along with her bloody headache, but Elayne climbed out of the bathtub, holding out her arms for Essande to slip her robe on. The white-haired woman’s calmness, and perhaps Elayne’s, soothed the two maids enough that they blushed when Essande looked at them, but Aviendha leaped from her tub, splashing water everywhere, and dashed dripping into the dressing room. Elayne expected her to return with her belt knife, but instead she came back surrounded by the glow of saidar and holding the amber turtle in one hand. With the other she handed Elayne the angreal that had been in her belt pouch, an aged ivory carving of a woman clothed only in her hair. Excepting the towel atop her head, Aviendha wore only a wet sheen, and she angrily waved Sephanie away when the woman tried to put her robe on her. Knife or no knife, Aviendha still tended to think as if she were going to fight with a blade and might need to move suddenly.

“Put this back in the dressing room,” Elayne said, handing the ivory angreal to Essande. “Aviendha, I really don’t think we need to—”

The door opened a crack, and Birgitte put her head in, scowling. Naris and Sephanie jumped, not so soothed as they had seemed.

“Zaida wants to see you,” Birgitte growled at Elayne. “I told her she’d have to wait, but—” With a sudden yelp, she staggered into the room, catching her balance after two steps and whirling to face the woman who had pushed her.

The Wavemistress of Clan Catelar did not look as though she had pushed anyone. The ends of her intricately knotted red sash swirling about her knees, she entered the room calmly, followed by two Windfinders, one of whom shut the door in Rasoria’s angry face. All three swayed when they moved nearly as much as Birgitte did in her heeled boots. Zaida was short, with streaks of gray in her tightly curled hair, but her dark face was one of those that grew more beautiful with the years, and her beauty only seemed magnified by the golden chain, heavy with small medallions, that connected one of her fat golden earrings to her nose ring. More importantly, her air was one of command. Not of arrogance, but of the knowledge that she would be obeyed. The Windfinders eyed Aviendha, still glowing with the Power, and Chanelle’s angular face tightened, yet aside from a murmur from Shielyn that “the Aiel girl” was ready to weave, they remained silent and waited. The eight earrings in Shielyn’s ears marked her as Windfinder to a Clan Wavemistress, and Chanelle’s honor-chain carried nearly as many golden medallions as that of Zaida herself. Both were women of authority, and it was plain in the way they held themselves and moved, yet one needed to know nothing of the Atha’an Miere to know as soon as one saw them that Zaida din Parede held the first spot.

“Your boots must have tripped you, Captain-General,” she murmured with a small smile on her full lips, one dark tattooed hand toying with the golden scent-box that dangled on her chest. “Clumsy things, boots.” She and the two Windfinders were barefoot as always. The soles of the Atha’an Miere’s feet were as tough as shoe soles, unbothered by rough decks or cold floor tiles. Strangely, in addition to their blouses and trousers of brightly colored silk brocades, each woman wore a wide stole of plain white that hung below her waist and almost hid her multitude of necklaces.

“I was taking a bath,” Elayne said in a tight voice. As if they could not see that with her hair done up and her robe clinging to her damply. Essande was almost quivering with indignation, which meant she must be beside herself with fury. Elayne felt close to it herself. “I will be taking a bath again as soon as you go. I will speak with you when I have finished taking my bath. If it pleases the Light.” There! If they were going to shove into her rooms, let them chew on that for ceremony!

“The grace of the Light be upon you also, Elayne Sedai,” Zaida replied smoothly. She raised an eyebrow at Aviendha, though neither at the continuing light of saidar, since Zaida could not channel, nor at her nudity, since the Sea Folk were quite casual about that, at least out of sight of landmen. “You have never invited me to bathe with you, though it would have been courteous, but we will not speak of that. I have learned that Nesta din Reas Two Moons is dead, killed by the Seanchan. We mourn her loss.” All three women touched their white stoles and touched fingertips to lips, yet Zaida seemed as impatient with formality as Elayne. Without raising her voice or speeding its pace, she merely pushed on, almost shockingly abrupt and to the point for one of the Sea Folk.

“The First Twelve of the Atha’an Miere must meet to choose another Mistress of the Ships. What is happening to the west makes it clear there can be no delay.” Shielyn’s mouth tightened, and Chanelle raised her pierced scent box to her nose as if to drown the smell of something. Its spicy perfume was sharp enough to slice through the scent of rose oil in the room. However they had described what they sensed to Zaida, she displayed no unease, or anything but certainty. Her gaze held steady on Elayne’s face. “We must be ready for whatever comes, and for that we need a Mistress of the Ships. In the name of the White Tower, you promised twenty teachers. I cannot take Vandene in her grief, or you, but I will take the other three with me. The rest, the White Tower owes, and I will expect prompt payment. I have sent to the sisters at the Silver Swan to see whether some of them will meet the Tower’s debt, but I cannot wait on their reply. If it pleases the Light, I will bathe with the other Wavemistresses tonight at the harbor of Illian.”

Elayne fought very hard to keep her own face smooth. The woman just announced that she intended to scoop up every Aes Sedai lying around loose in Caemlyn and carry them off? And it sounded very much as if she did not intend to leave any of the Windfinders behind. That made Elayne’s heart sink. Until Reanne returned, there were seven of the Kin with sufficient strength to weave a gateway, but two of those could not make one large enough to admit a horse cart. Without the Windfinders, plans for keeping Caemlyn supplied from Tear and Illian became problematical at best. The Silver Swan! Light, whoever Zaida had sent would reveal every line of the bargain she had made! Egwene was not going to thank her for spilling that mess out into the open. She did not think she had ever had so many problems dropped in her lap in the course of one short statement.

“I regret your loss, and the Atha’an Miere’s loss,” she said, thinking fast. “Nesta din Reas was a great woman.” She had been a powerful woman, anyway, and a very strong personality. Elayne had felt happy to walk away with more than her shift after her one meeting with her. Speaking of shifts, she could not afford time to dress. Zaida might not wait. She belted her robe tighter. “We must talk. Have wine brought for our guests, Essande, and tea for me. Weak tea,” she sighed at a burst of caution through the bond to Birgitte. “In the smaller sitting room. Will you join me, Wavemistress?”

To her surprise, Zaida merely nodded as if she had expected this. That started Elayne thinking about Zaida’s side of the bargain between them. The bargains; there were two, really, and that might be a key point.

No one had expected the smaller sitting room to be used for some time, so the air held a chill even after Sephanie rushed with a spark-wheel to light the kindling laid beneath split oak on the wide white hearth and scurried out of the room. Flames leapt up from the fatwood, catching on the log atop the fire-irons as the women arrayed themselves in the lightly carved low-backed chairs arranged in a semicircle in front of the fireplace. Well, Elayne and the Sea Folk women arrayed themselves, Elayne arranging her robe carefully over her knees and wishing Zaida had delayed just an hour so she could be properly dressed, the Windfinders coolly waiting for the Wavemistress to take a chair, then sitting to either side of her. Birgitte stood in front of the writing table with her hands on her hips and her feet apart, her face a thunderhead. The bond carried a clear desire to wring an Atha’an Miere neck. Aviendha leaned casually against one of the sideboards, and even when Essande brought her robe and pointedly held it out for her, she merely put it on and resumed her pose with her arms folded beneath her breasts. She had released saidar, but the turtle was still in her hand, and Elayne suspected she was ready to embrace the Power again in an instant. Neither Aviendha’s cold green-eyed stare nor Birgitte’s scowl affected the Sea Folk in the least, however. They were who they were, and they knew who they were.

“The Atha’an Miere were promised twenty teachers,” Elayne said, emphasizing slightly. Zaida had said that she had been promised, that she would collect payment, but that bargain had been made with Nesta din Reas. Of course, Zaida might believe she would become the new Mistress of the Ships herself. “Proper teachers, to be selected by the Amyrlin Seat. I know that the Atha’an Miere pride themselves on meeting their bargains in full, and the Tower will meet its side, too. But you knew when sisters here agreed to teach, that it was temporary. And a bargain quite apart from that made with the Mistress of the Ships. You admitted as much when you agreed for Windfinders to weave gateways to bring supplies to Caemlyn from Illian and Tear. Surely you would not have gotten involved in the affairs of the shorebound for any reason other than paying off a bargain. But if you are leaving, your help is at an end, and so is our requirement to teach. I fear you will harvest no teachers at the Silver Swan, either. The Atha’an Miere will have to wait until the Amyrlin sends teachers. According to the bargain made with the Mistress of the Ships.” A pity she could not demand they stay away from the inn, but it might already be too late for that, and every reason she could think of sounded hollow. An argument that shattered for lack of a center would only embolden Zaida. The Atha’an Miere were ferocious hagglers. Scrupulous, but ferocious. She had to go very slowly, very carefully.

“My sister has you by the ear, Zaida din Parede,” Aviendha chortled, slapping her thigh. “Hung up by the ankles, in fact.” That was a Sea Folk punishment that she found incredibly amusing, for some reason.

Elayne stifled a burst of irritation. Aviendha enjoyed chances to tweak the Sea Folk’s noses—she had begun while they were fleeing Ebou Dar and never really stopped—but this was no time for it.

Chanelle stiffened, her calm face sinking into a glare. The lean woman had been the butt of Aviendha’s nose-tweaking more than once, including a regrettable episode involving oosquai, a very potent Aiel drink. The glow of saidar actually surrounded her! Zaida could not see that, but she knew about the oosquai and Chanelle being carried to her bed, sicking up the whole way, and she raised a peremptory hand toward the Windfinder. The glow faded, and Chanelle’s face darkened. It might have been a blush or anger.

“All that you say may be so,” Zaida said, which was not far from insulting, especially said to an Aes Sedai. “In any event, Merilille was not part of that. She agreed to be one of the teachers long before she reached Caemlyn, and she will go with me to continue her teaching.”

Elayne drew a long breath. She could not even try to argue Zaida out of this. A great part of the White Tower’s influence rested on the fact that the Tower kept its word as surely as the Sea Folk. That it was known to keep its word. Oh, people said you had to listen carefully to be sure an Aes Sedai had promised what you thought she had, and that was often true, but once the promise was clear, it was as good as an oath under the Light. At least the Windfinders were not likely to let Merilille get away. They hardly let her out of their sight. “You may have to return her to me, if I have particular need of her.” If Vandene and the two helpers found proof that she was Black Ajah. “If that happens, I will arrange a replacement.” And who that could be, she had no idea.

“She has the rest of her year to serve. At least a year, by the bargain.” Zaida gestured as if making a concession. “But so long as you understand that her replacement must come before she leaves. I will not let her go without another in her place.”

“I suppose that will do,” Elayne replied calmly. It would bloody well have to, since she had no other choice!

Zaida smiled faintly and let the silence stretch. Chanelle shifted her feet, but more in impatience than as if to rise, and the Wavemistress did not stir. Plainly she wanted something more, intended another bargain, and plainly she wanted Elayne to speak first. Elayne set herself to outwait the other woman. The fire had begun to blaze and crackle, sending sparks up the chimney and radiating a fine warmth into the room, but her damp robe absorbed the chill in the air and transferred it to her skin. Ignoring the cold was all very well, but how were you supposed to ignore being cold and wet? She met Zaida’s gaze levelly and matched her tiny smile. Essande returned, followed by Naris and Sephanie carring ropework trays, the one with a silver teapot in the shape of a lion and thin green cups of Sea Folk porcelain, the other hammered silver cups and a tall-necked wine pitcher that gave off the aroma of spices. Everyone took wine, except for Elayne, who was never offered the choice. Peering into her tea, she sighed. She could see the bottom of the cup quite clearly. If they made it any weaker, they might as well give her water!

After a moment, Aviendha strode across the room to set her winecup back on the tray atop one of the sideboards and pour herself a cup of tea. She gave Elayne a nod and a smile combining sympathy with a suggestion that she really preferred watery tea to wine. Elayne smiled back in spite of herself. First-sisters shared the bad as well as the good. Birgitte grinned over the top of her silver cup, and proceeded to empty half of it in a gulp. The bond carried her amusement at the grumpiness she felt from Elayne. And it still carried her headache, in no way reduced. Elayne rubbed her temple. She should have insisted that Merilille Heal the woman as soon as she had seen her. A number of the Kin outstripped Merilille when it came to Healing, but she was the only sister in the palace with a halfway decent ability.

“You have great need of women to make these gateways,” Zaida said suddenly. Her full mouth was no longer smiling. She disliked having spoken first.

Elayne sipped her wretched excuse for tea and said nothing.

“It might please the Light that I could leave one or two Windfinders here,” Zaida went on. “For a set time.”

Elayne wrinkled her brow as though considering. She needed those bloody women, and more than one or two. “What would you ask in return?” she said finally.

“One square mile of land on the River Erinin. Good land, mind. Not marshy or boggy. It is to be Atha’an Miere land in perpetuity. Under our laws, not Andor’s,” she added as if that were a small afterthought hardly worth mentioning.

Elayne choked on her tea. The Atha’an Miere hated leaving the sea, hated being out of sight of it. And Zaida was asking for land a thousand miles from the nearest salt water? Asking for it to be ceded absolutely, at that. Cairhienin and Murandians and even Altarans had bled trying to take bits of Andor, and Andorans had bled to keep them out. Still, one square mile was a small bit, and a small price to keep Caemlyn supplied. Not that she would let Zaida know that. And if the Sea Folk began trading directly into Andor, then Andoran goods would be able to move in Sea Folk bottoms everywhere the Sea Folk sailed, and that was everywhere. Zaida surely knew that already, but there was no point in letting her know that Elayne had thought of it. The Warder bond urged caution, yet there were times for boldness, as Birgitte should know better than anyone.

“Sometimes tea goes down the wrong way.” Not a lie; merely an evasion. “For a square mile of Andor, I deserve more than two Windfinders. The Atha’an Miere got twenty teachers and more for help using the Bowl of the Winds, and when they go you will have twenty to replace them. You have twenty-one Windfinders with you. For a mile of Andor, I should have all twenty-one, and twenty-one more in their places when they leave, for as long as Aes Sedai teach Sea Folk.” Best not to let the woman think that was her way of rejecting the offer out of hand. “Of course, the normal customs duties would apply to any goods moving off this land into Andor.”

Zaida raised her silver cup to her mouth, and when she lowered it, she wore the tiniest smile. Yet Elayne thought it was a smile of relief rather than triumph. “Goods moving into Andor, but not goods coming from the river onto our land. I might leave three Windfinders. For half a year, say. And they must not be used in fighting. I will not have my people die for you, and I will not have other Andorans angry at us because Sea Folk have killed some of them.”

“They will be asked only to make gateways,” Elayne said, “though they must make them wherever I require.” Light! As if she intended using the One Power as a weapon! The Sea Folk did so without a second thought, but she was trying very hard to behave as Egwene demanded, as though she had already taken the Three Oaths. Besides, if she blasted those camps outside the walls with saidar, or allowed anyone else to, not a House in Andor would stand with her. “They must stay until my crown is secure, whether that is half a year or longer.” The crown should be hers in much less time, but as her old nurse Lini used to say, you counted your plums in the basket, not on the tree. Once the crown was hers, though, she would not need Windfinders to supply the city, and in all truth, she would be happy to see their backs. “But three is not nearly enough. You will want Shielyn, since she is your Windfinder. I will keep the rest.”

The medallions on Zaida’s honor-chain swayed gently as she shook her head. “Talaan and Metarra are apprentices still. They must return to their training. The others have duties, too. Four might be spared until your crown is secure.”

From there it was just a matter of bargaining. Elayne had never expected to keep the apprentices, and Windfinders to Clan Wavemistresses could not be spared either, which she had expected. Most Wavemistresses used their Windfinders and Swordmasters as close advisors, and would be parted from one as easily as she would be parted from Birgitte. Zaida tried to exclude others as well, such as Windfinders who served on large vessels like rakers and skimmers, but that would have disqualified the greater number right there, and Elayne refused, and refused to come down in her demands unless Zaida came up in her offers. Which the woman did slowly, grudging every concession. But not so slowly as Elayne might have expected. Clearly, the Wavemistress needed this bargain as much as she herself needed women who could weave gateways.

“Under the Light, it is agreed,” she was able to say at last, kissing the fingertips of her right hand and leaning forward to press them to Zaida’s lips. Aviendha grinned, obviously impressed. Birgitte kept a smooth face, but the bond said she found it hard to believe Elayne had come out so well.

“It is agreed, under the Light,” Zaida murmured. Her fingers on Elayne’s lips were hard and callused, though she could not have hauled on a rope herself in many years. She looked quite satisfied for a woman who had yielded nine of the fourteen Windfinders who had been on the table. Elayne wondered how many of those nine would be women whose ships had been destroyed by the Seanchan in Ebou Dar. Losing a ship was a serious matter among the Atha’an Miere, whatever the reason, and maybe cause enough to want to stay away from home a little longer. No matter.

Chanelle looked glum, her tattooed hands tight on the knees of her red brocaded trousers, yet not so glum as might be expected from a Sea Folk woman who would have to remain ashore a while longer. She was to command the Windfinders who stayed, and she did not like it that Zaida had acceded to her being under Elayne’s authority, and Birgitte’s. There were to be no more Sea Folk striding about the palace as if they owned it and making demands left and right. But then, Elayne suspected that Zaida had come to this meeting knowing she would leave some of her party behind, and Chanelle had come knowing she would command them. That hardly mattered, either, nor did it matter what advantage Zaida hoped to gain toward becoming Mistress of the Ships. That she saw some was clear as good glass. All that mattered was that Caemlyn would not go hungry. That and the... the bloody beacon still blazing in the west. No, she would be a queen, and she could not be a moonstruck girl. Caemlyn and Andor were all that could matter.

CHAPTER 13
High Seats

Zaida and the two Windfinders departed from Elayne’s apartments, graceful and outwardly unhurried but with almost as little ceremony as they had entered, a bare wish that the Light illumine Elayne and see her safe. For Atha’an Miere, that was almost rushing off without a word. Elayne decided that if Zaida did indeed want to be the next Mistress of the Ships, the woman had a rival she hoped to steal a march on. It might be well for Andor if Zaida did attain the Atha’an Miere throne, or whatever the Sea Folk called it; bargain or no bargain, she would always be aware that Andor had helped her, and that had to be for the good. Though if she failed, her rival would be aware of where Andor’s favor had gone, too. Still, it was all if and maybe. Here and now was another thing altogether.

“I do not expect anyone to manhandle an ambassador,” she said quietly once the doors had closed behind them, “but in the future I do expect the privacy of my rooms. Even ambassadors are not to be allowed simply to wander in. Am I understood?”

Rasoria nodded, her face wooden, but by the color that flashed into her cheeks, she felt the mortification of having let the Sea Folk pass as keenly as Birgitte, and the bond... writhed... until Elayne felt her own face growing red with a stinging embarrassment. “You did nothing wrong, exactly, but don’t let it happen again.” Light, now she sounded a dolt! “We will speak no more of it,” she said stiffly. Oh, burn Birgitte and the bond! They would have had to wrestle with Zaida to stop her, but adding bone-deep humiliation to the other woman’s headache was piling insult on injury! And Aviendha had no call to grin in that... that smarmy way. Elayne did not know when or how her sister had learned that she and Birgitte sometimes reflected one another, but Aviendha found the whole thing vastly amusing. Her sense of humor could be rough at times.

“I think you two will make each other melt, one day,” she said, laughing. “But then, you already played that joke, Birgitte Trahelion.” Birgitte scowled at her, sudden alarm crushing embarrassment in the bond, and she returned such a look of innocence it seemed her eyes might fall out of her face.

Better not to ask, Elayne decided. When you ask questions, Lini used to say, then you have to hear the answers whether you want to or not. She did not want to hear, not with Rasoria studiously examining the floor tiles in front of her boots and the rest of the Guardswomen in the anteroom failing to pretend not to be listening. She had never realized how precious privacy was until she lost it completely. Near enough completely, anyway. “I am going to finish my bath now,” she said calmly. Blood and ashes, what joke had Birgitte played on her? Something that made her... melt? It could not have been much if she still did not know what it was.

Unfortunately, the bath water had gone cold. Tepid, anyway. Hardly anything she wanted to sit in. A little while longer soaking would have been wonderful, but not at the expense of waiting while the tubs were emptied bucket by bucket and more hot water brought up. The entire palace must know she was back by now, and the First Maid and the First Clerk would be anxious to make their daily reports. Daily when she was in the city, and doubly anxious because she had been gone for a day. Duty came before pleasure, if you were going to rule a country. And that went doubly for trying to gain the throne in the first place.

Aviendha pulled the towel from her head and shook down her hair, appearing relieved that she would not have to climb into water again. She started for the dressing room, shedding her robe before she reached the door, and had donned most of her garments when Elayne and the maids entered. With only a few mutters, she let Naris complete the job, although little remained beyond stepping into her heavy woolen skirt. She slapped the maid’s hands away and tightened the laces of her soft knee-high boots herself.

For Elayne, it was not so easy. Unless some emergency loomed, Essande felt slighted when she did not discuss her choice of dresses. With close servants, there was always a delicate balance to maintain. Without exception a bodyservant knew more of your secrets than you thought she did, and she saw you at your worst, grumpy, tired, weeping in your pillow, in rages and sulks. Respect had to go both ways, or the situation became impossible. So Aviendha was sitting on one of the padded benches, allowing Naris to comb out her hair, before Elayne could conclude on a simple gray in fine wool, embroidered in green on the high neck and the sleeves and trimmed with black fox. It was not so much that she had difficulty deciding, but that Essande kept putting forward silks sewn with pearls or sapphires or firedrops, each more ornately embroidered than the last. No matter that the throne was not yet hers, Essande wanted to dress her every day as a queen readying for an audience.

There had been a point to that, back when every day brought delegations of merchants to offer petitions or make their respects, especially outlanders hoping the troubles in Andor would not affect their trade. The old saying that who held Caemlyn held Andor had never really been true, and in merchant eyes, the chances she would actually gain the throne had diminished with the arrival of Arymilla’s army outside the gates. They could count the Houses arrayed on either side as easily as they could count coin. Even Andoran merchants avoided the Royal Palace now, keeping out of the Inner City as much as possible so no one would think they had gone to the palace, and bankers came well hooded, in anonymous carriages. None wished her ill, that she knew, and certainly none wanted to anger her, but neither did they want to anger Arymilla, not now. Still, the bankers did come, and so far she had not heard of any merchants presenting petitions to Arymilla. That would be the first sign that her cause was lost.

Getting into the dress took twice as long as it should have, since Essande allowed Sephanie to help Elayne. The girl breathed heavily the whole time, unaccustomed as yet to dressing someone else and fearful of making a mistake under Essande’s eye. Much more than of making one in front of her mistress, Elayne suspected. Apprehension made the sturdy young woman clumsy, clumsiness made her more painstaking, and taking pains made her worry more about mistakes, so the result was that she moved more slowly than the frail older woman ever had. Finally, however, Elayne found herself seated facing Aviendha, letting Essande draw an ivory comb through her curls. In Essande’s view, allowing one of the girls to slip a shift over Elayne’s head or fasten her buttons was one thing, but risking either of them making a tangle in her hair quite another.

Before the comb had made two dozen strokes, though, Birgitte appeared in the doorway. Essande sniffed, and Elayne could all but see the woman grimace behind her back. Essande had given way on Birgitte being present at baths, however reluctantly, but the dressing room was sacrosanct.

Surprisingly, Birgitte let the maid’s disapproval slide past without so much as a placating look. Usually, she refrained from pushing Essande an inch further than Elayne required. “Dyelin has returned, Elayne. She’s brought company. The High Seats of Mantear, Haevin, Gilyard and Northan.” For some reason, the bond carried streaks of puzzlement and annoyance.

Shared headache or no, Elayne could have jumped for joy. If Essande had not had the comb deep in her hair, she might have. Four! She had never expected Dyelin to accomplish so much. Hoped for it, prayed for it, but never expected it, certainly not in one short week. In truth, she had been sure Dyelin would return empty-handed. Four gave her an equal footing with Arymilla. It was galling to think of being on “an equal footing” with that foolish woman, but truth was truth. Mantear, Haevin, Gilyard and Northan. Why not Candraed? That was the fifth House Dyelin had gone to approach. No. She had four more Houses, and she was not going to fret over the lack of one.

“Entertain them in the formal sitting room until I can come, Birgitte.” The small sitting room had been sufficient for Zaida—she hoped the Wavemistress had not noticed the slight—but four High Seats required more. “And ask the First Maid to arrange apartments.” Apartments. Light! The Atha’an Miere would have to be hurried out of theirs to make room. Until they left, most beds that did not have two occupants had three. “Essande, the green silk with the sapphires, I think. And sapphires for my hair, too. The large sapphires.”

Birgitte left still feeling puzzled and upset. Why? Surely she could not think she should have left Dyelin cooling her heels because of Zaida? Oh, Light, now she was feeling puzzled over Birgitte feeling puzzled; if that was allowed to feed on itself, they would both end up dizzy! As the door closed, Essande moved to the nearest wardrobe wearing a smile that might have been called triumphant.

Looking at Aviendha, who had motioned Naris and her comb away and was folding a dark gray scarf to tie her hair back, Elayne smiled herself. She needed something to take her out of that spinning loop. “Maybe you should wear silks and gems just this once more, Aviendha,” she said in a gently teasing tone. “Dyelin won’t mind, of course, but the others aren’t used to Aiel. They might think I’m entertaining a stablehand.”

She meant it for a joke—they twitted one another about clothes all the time, and Dyelin looked askance at Aviendha whatever she wore—but her sister frowned at the wardrobes lining the wall, then nodded and set the scarf down beside her on the tufted cushion. “Just so these High Seats will be properly impressed. Do not think I will do this all the time. It is a favor to you.”

For someone just doing a favor, she pored over the clothes that Essande pulled out with a great deal of interest before deciding on a dark blue velvet slashed with green, and a silver net to catch her hair. They were her clothes, made for her, but since reaching Caemlyn she had avoided them as if they were crawling with death’s-head spiders. Stroking the sleeves, she hesitated as if she might change her mind, but finally she let Naris do up the tiny pearl buttons. She declined Elayne’s offer of emeralds that would have suited the gown admirably, keeping her silver snowflake necklace and heavy ivory bracelet, but at the last minute she did pin the amber turtle to her shoulder.

“You can never tell when it might be needful,” she said.

“Better safe than sorry,” Elayne agreed. “Those colors look beautiful on you.” It was true, but Aviendha blushed. Compliment her on how well she shot a bow or how fast she could run, and she took it as no more than her due, but she had difficulty coming to grips with the fact that she was beautiful. That was a part of herself she had managed to ignore, till recently.

Essande shook her head in disapproval, unaware that the brooch was an angreal. Amber did not go with blue velvet. Or maybe it was Aviendha’s horn-hilted knife, which she tucked behind her green velvet belt. The white-haired woman made sure that Elayne wore a small dagger with sapphires on the scabbard and pommel, hanging from a belt of woven gold. Everything had to be just so to gain Essande’s approbation.

Rasoria gave a start when Aviendha entered the anteroom in her high-necked velvets. The Guardswomen had never seen her in anything but Aiel garb before. Aviendha scowled as if they had laughed, and gripped her belt knife firmly, but luckily her attention was diverted by a cloth-covered tray sitting on the long side table against the wall. Elayne’s midday meal had been delivered while they were dressing. Whisking the blue-striped cloth aside, Aviendha tried to interest Elayne in eating, smiling and pointing out how sweet the stew of dried plums would be and exclaiming over the pieces of pork in the grainy mush. Slivers, they looked like. Rasoria cleared her throat and mentioned that a fire was burning nicely in the apartment’s larger sitting room. She would be more than happy to carry the tray in for the Lady Elayne. Everyone tried to make sure Elayne ate properly, however they saw “properly,” but this was ridiculous. The tray had been sitting there some time. The mush was a congealed mass that would have stuck in the bowl if she turned it upside down!

She had the High Seats of four Houses waiting on her, and they had waited long enough. She pointed that out, but offered to let the two of them eat if they were hungry. In fact, she implied that she might insist on them eating. That was enough to make Aviendha drop the cloth back over the tray with a shudder, and Rasoria wasted no more time, either.

It was only a short walk down the icy hallway to the formal sitting room, and the only things that moved, aside from them, were the bright winter wall hangings that stirred in the corridor’s drafts, but the Guardswomen formed a ring around Elayne and Aviendha and kept watch as if they expected Trollocs. It was only with an effort that Elayne convinced Rasoria there was no need to search the sitting room before she entered. The Guardswomen served her and obeyed her, but they also were pledged to keep her alive, and they could be as muley over that last duty as Birgitte was over deciding whether she was Warder, Captain-General or elder sister at any given moment. Likely, following on the heels of the incident with Zaida, Rasoria would have wanted the lords and ladies waiting inside to surrender their weapons! The threat with the mush might have had its part, too. After a short argument, however, Elayne and Aviendha swept in through the wide doorway together, and alone. Elayne’s feeling of satisfaction did not last, though.

The sitting room was large, meant to accept dozens of people comfortably, a dark-paneled space with layered carpets covering the floor tiles and a horseshoe arch of high-back chairs in front of a tall fireplace of white marble with fine red veins. Here, important dignitaries could be received with more honor than an audience before the throne, because it was more intimate. The blaze dancing along the logs on the hearth had barely had time to take an edge off the chill in the air, but that certainly was not the reason Elayne felt as if she had been struck in the stomach. She understood Birgitte’s puzzlement, now.

Dyelin turned from warming her hands at the fire as they entered. A strong-faced woman with fine lines at the corners of her eyes and hints of gray in her golden hair, she had not waited to change on reaching the palace, and still wore a riding dress of deep gray that showed a few travel stains on the hem. Her curtsy was the merest bend of her neck, the slightest dip of her knees, but she intended no discourtesy. Dyelin knew who she was as surely as Zaida did—her only jewelry was a small golden pin in the shape of Taravin’s Owl and Oak on her shoulder, a clear statement that the High Seat of Taravin needed nothing more—yet she had almost died to prove her loyalty to Elayne. “My Lady Elayne,” she said formally, “it gives me honor to present to you Lord Perival, High Seat of House Mantear.”

A pretty, golden-haired boy in a plain blue coat jerked away from peering through the four-barreled kaleidoscope on a gilded stand taller than he was. He had a silver cup in his hand that Elayne hoped very much did not contain wine, or at least extremely well watered if it did. One of the side tables held several trays laden with pitchers and cups. And an ornate teapot she knew might as well be filled with water. “My pleasure, my Lady Elayne,” he piped, blushing and managing a credible bow despite a little clumsiness in handling the sword belted to his waist. The weapon looked much too long for him. “House Mantear stands with House Trakand.” She returned his courtesy in a daze, spreading her skirts mechanically.

“Lady Catalyn, High Seat of House Haevin,” Dyelin continued.

“Elayne,” a dark-eyed young woman at her side murmured, touching her dark green divided skirts and making a fractional dip that might possibly have been intended for a curtsy, though perhaps she just meant to imitate Dyelin. Or perhaps she wanted to avoid poking her chin against the large enameled brooch on the high neck of her dress, the Blue Bear of Haevin. Her hair was caught in a silver net worked with the Blue Bear, too, and she wore a long ring with the sigil as well. A touch too much pride of House, perhaps. Despite her cool haughtiness, she was a woman only by courtesy, her cheeks still round with baby fat. “Haevin stands with Trakand, obviously, or I would not be here.”

Dyelin’s mouth tightened slightly, and she gave the girl a hard glance that Catalyn seemed not to see. “Lord Branlet, High Seat of House Gilyard.”

Another boy, this one with unruly black curls, in green embroidered with gold on the sleeves, who hastily set his winecup down on a side table as if uneasy at being seen with it. His blue eyes were too big for his face, and he nearly tripped himself with his sword, bowing. “It is my pleasure to say that House Gilyard stands for Trakand, Lady Elayne.” Halfway through, his voice broke from treble to bass, and he blushed even harder than Perival.

“And Lord Conail, High Seat of House Northan.”

Conail Northan grinned over the rim of his silver cup. Tall and lean, in a gray coat with sleeves just too short to cover his bony wrists, he had an engaging grin, merry brown eyes, and an eagle’s beak for a nose. “We drew straws for the order to be introduced, and I drew short. Northan stands with Trakand. Can’t let a ninny like Arymilla take the throne.” He managed his sword smoothly, and he at least had reached his majority, but if he was many months past sixteen, Elayne would eat his turned-down boots and his silver-knot spurs.

Their youth was no surprise, of course, but she had expected Conail to have a graying head at his side to advise him and the others to have their guardians looking over their shoulders. There was no one else in the room aside from Birgitte, standing in front of the tall arched windows with her arms folded beneath her breasts. Bright midday sunlight flooding through the clear glass set in the casements made her a silhouette of displeasure.

“Trakand welcomes all of you, and I welcome all of you,” Elayne said, suppressing her dismay. “I will not forget your support, and Trakand will not forget.” Something of her consternation must have crept through, because Catalyn’s mouth compressed and her eyes glittered.

“I am past my guardianship, as you must know, Elayne,” she said in a stiff voice. “My uncle, Lord Arendor, said at the Feast of Lights that I was as ready as I would ever be and might as well have free rein then as in a year. Truth, I think he wanted more time to go hunting while he still can. He has always loved hunting, and he’s quite old.” Once again she failed to see Dyelin’s frown. Arendor Haevin and Dyelin were roughly of an age.

“I have no guardian either,” Branlet said uncertainly, his voice nearly as high-pitched as Catalyn’s.

Dyelin gave him a sympathetic smile and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. It promptly fell forward again. “Mayv was riding alone, as she liked to do, and her horse stepped into a gopher hole,” she explained quietly. “By the time anyone found her, it was too late. There has been some... discussion... over who’s to take her place.”

“They’ve been arguing for three months,” Branlet muttered. For a moment he looked younger than Perival, a boy trying to find his way with no one to show him the path. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone that, but I can tell you. You’re going to be the Queen.”

Dyelin put a hand on Perival’s shoulder, and he stood up straighter, though he still was shorter than she. “Lord Willin would be here with Lord Perival, but the years have him bedridden. Age creeps up on us all, eventually.” She shot another look at Catalyn, but the girl was studying Birgitte, now, her lips pursed. “Willin said I was to tell you that he sends his good wishes and also one he considers a son.”

“Uncle Willin told me to uphold the honor of Mantear and of Andor,” Perival said, intent as only a child being serious could be. “I will try, Elayne. I will try very hard.”

“I’m sure you will succeed,” Elayne told him, managing to put at least a little warmth into her tone. She wanted to chase them all out and ask Dyelin some very pointed questions, but that could not be, not right away. Whatever their ages, they were all the High Seats of powerful Houses, and she had to offer refreshment and at least a modicum of conversation before they went to change from their journey.

“Is she really the Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards?” Catalyn asked as Birgitte handed Elayne a thin blue porcelain cup of slightly darkened hot water. The girl spoke as though Birgitte was not there. Birgitte raised an eyebrow before leaving, but Catalyn seemed practiced in not seeing what she did not want to see. The winecup in her plump hand gave off the sharply sweet aroma of spices. There was not so much as a drop of honey in Elayne’s miserable excuse for tea.

“Yes, and my Warder, too,” she said. Politely. As ready as she would ever be! The girl probably thought it a compliment. She deserved a switching for pure rudeness, yet you could not switch a High Seat. Not when you needed her support.

Catalyn’s eyes flashed to Elayne’s hands, but the Great Serpent ring did nothing to alter the coolness of her expression. “They gave you that? I had not heard you had been raised Aes Sedai. I thought the White Tower had sent you home. When your mother died. Or perhaps because of the troubles in the Tower we hear about. Imagine, Aes Sedai squabbling like farmwives at market. But how can she be a general or a Warder without a sword? In any case, my aunt Evelle says a woman should leave swords to men. You don’t shoe your own horse when you have a farrier, or grind your own grain when you have a miller.” A quote from Lady Evelle, no doubt.

Elayne schooled her face, ignoring the only slightly buried insults. “An army is a general’s sword, Catalyn. Gareth Bryne says a general who uses another blade is mistaking the job.” The name seemed to make no impression on her, either. Miners’ children in the Mountains of Mist knew Gareth Bryne’s name!

Aviendha appeared at Elayne’s side, smiling as though delighted at the opportunity to talk with the girl. “Swords are no use at all,” she said sweetly. Sweetly! Aviendha! Elayne had never realized her sister could dissemble so skillfully. She had a cup of mulled wine, too. It would have been too much to expect her to continue drinking bitter tea out of sisterly affection. “You should learn the spear. Also the knife, and the bow. Birgitte Trahelion could shoot your eyes out at two hundred paces with her bow. Maybe at three hundred.”

“The spear?” Catalyn said faintly. And then, in a slightly incredulous tone, “My eyes?”

“You have not met my sister,” Elayne said. “Aviendha, Lady Catalyn Haevin. Catalyn, Aviendha of the Nine Valleys Taardad.” Perhaps she should have done that the other way around, but Aviendha was her sister, and even a High Seat must settle for being introduced to the sister of the Daughter-Heir. “Aviendha is Aiel. She’s studying to become a Wise One.”

The fool girl’s mouth dropped open at the start, her chin falling more and more with each pronouncement until she was gaping like a fish. Very satisfying. Aviendha gave Elayne a smaller smile, her green eyes sparkling with approbation above her winecup. Elayne kept her own face smooth, but she wanted to grin back.

The others were much more easily handled, much less infuriating. Perival and Branlet were shy their first time in Caemlyn much less in the Royal Palace, hardly saying two words unless someone drew them out. Conail did think the claim that Aviendha was Aiel must be a joke, and nearly got her belt knife in his brisket for laughing raucously, but luckily, he thought that was a joke as well. Aviendha adopted an icy composure that might have made her seem a Wise One in her usual clothes; in velvets, she appeared even more a lady of the court no matter how she fingered her knife. And Branlet did keep sneaking sidelong peaks at Birgitte. It took Elayne a little while to realize that he was watching her walk in her heeled boots—those wide trousers were actually quite snug over the hips—but she only sighed. Fortunately, Birgitte never noticed, and the bond would have let Elayne know even if she tried to hide it. Birgitte liked having men look at her. Grown men. It would have done Elayne’s cause no good if her Warder smacked young Branlet’s bottom.

Mainly they wanted to know whether Reanne Corly was an Aes Sedai. None of the four had ever seen a sister before, but they thought she must be, since she could channel, and carry them and their armsmen across hundreds of miles in a step. It was a good opportunity to practice evasion without actually lying, helped by the Great Serpent ring on her own finger. A lie would taint her relations with these four at the start, but it would hardly do to hope that rumors of Aes Sedai aid would filter out to Arymilla while spreading the truth about freely. Of course, all four were eager to let her know how many armsmen they had brought, a total of just over three thousand, nearly half of them crossbowmen or halberdiers who would be especially useful on the walls. That was a sizable force for four Houses to have had ready to hand when Dyelin came calling, but then, no House wanted its High Seat unguarded in these times. Kidnapping was not unheard of when the throne sat in question. Conail said as much, with a laugh; he seemed to find everything worth a laugh. Branlet nodded and scrubbed a hand through his hair. Elayne wondered how many of his numerous aunts, uncles and cousins knew he was gone, and what they would do when they learned.

“If Dyelin had been willing to wait a few days,” Catalyn said, “I could have brought more than twelve hundred men.” That was the third time in as many sentences that she had managed to point out that she had brought the largest contingent by a considerable margin. “I have sent to all of the Houses pledged to Haevin.”

“And I to every House pledged to Northan,” Conail added. With a grin, of course. “Northan may not summon as many swords as Haevin or Trakand—or Mantear,” he put in with a bow to Perival, “but whoever rides when the Eagles call will be riding for Caemlyn.”

“They will not ride very fast in winter,” Perival said quietly. And astonishingly, since no one had spoken to him. “I think that whatever we do, we will have to do it with who we have now.”

Conail laughed and cuffed the lad’s shoulder and told him to buck up his spirits, because every man with a heart was on his way to Caemlyn to support the Lady Elayne, but Elayne studied Perival more closely. His blue eyes met hers for a moment without blinking before he shyly lowered his gaze. A boy, but he knew what he had ridden into better than Conail or Catalyn, who proceeded to tell them yet again how many armsmen she had brought, and how many Haevin could call on, as if everyone there except Aviendha did not know exactly how many rode to each House’s summons, in trained soldiers and farmers who had carried a halberd or pike in some war and village men who could be drafted at need. Close enough to exactly, anyway. Lord Willin had done good work with young Perival. Now she had to keep it from going to waste.

Eventually it was time to exchange kisses, with Branlet blushing to his hair, and Perival blinking bashfully when Elayne bent to him, and Conail vowing never to wash his cheek. Catalyn returned a surprisingly hesitant peck to Elayne’s cheek, as if it had just occurred to her that she had consented to placing Elayne above her, but after a moment she nodded to herself, cool pride settling back on her like a mantle. Once the four were handed over to the maids and serving men who would take them to the apartments that Elayne hoped the First Maid had had time to ready, Dyelin refilled her winecup and settled herself in one of the tall, carved chairs with a weary sigh.

“As fine a week’s work as I’ve ever done, if I do say so myself. I got Candraed out of the way straight off. I never thought Danine would be able to make up her mind, and it only took an hour to prove me right, though I had to stay three to keep from offending her. The woman must keep in bed till noon from being unable to decide to which side of the mattress to climb down from! The rest were ready to see sense with only a little convincing. No one with any sense wants to risk Arymilla gaining the throne.”

For a moment, she frowned at her wine, then fixed Elayne with a steady look. She never hesitated to speak her mind, whether or not she thought Elayne would agree, and plainly she intended to do so now. “It may have been a mistake to pass these Kinswomen off as Aes Sedai, however side-mouthed we’ve been about it. The strain may be too much to ask of them, and it puts us all at risk. This morning, for no reason I could make out, Mistress Corly was staring and gaping like a goose-girl come to the city. I think she almost failed at weaving the gateway to bring us here. That would have been wonderful, everyone lined up to ride through a miraculous hole in the air that never materialized. Not to mention that it would have stuck me in Catalyn’s company for the Light knows how long. Odious child! There’s a good mind there, if someone took her in hand for a few years, but she has a double dose of the viperous Haevin tongue.”

Elayne gritted her teeth. She knew how cutting Haevins could be. The whole family took pride in it! Catalyn obviously did. And she was tired of explaining what on this day could frighten any woman who could channel. She was tired of being reminded of what she was trying to ignore. That bloody beacon was still blazing in the west, an utter impossibility both for its size and its duration. The thing had been unchanging for hours! Anyone who channeled for this long without a rest must have fallen over with exhaustion by now. And Rand bloody al’Thor was right there, in the heart of it. She was certain of that! He was alive, but that only made her want to slap his face for putting her through this. Well, his face was not there, but—

Birgitte slammed her silver cup down on a side table so hard that wine flew everywhere. Some laundress was going to sweat to take that stain out of her coatsleeve. A maid would labor for hours to restore the side table’s polish. “Children!” she barked. “People are going to die because of the decisions they make, and they’re flaming children, Conail worst of all! You heard him, Dyelin. He wants to challenge Arymilla’s champion like Artur bloody Hawkwing! Hawkwing never fought anybody’s flaming champion, and he knew when he was younger than Lord Northan that it was a fool’s game to rest so much on a flaming duel, but Conail thinks he can win Elayne the flaming throne with his flaming sword!”

“Birgitte Trahelion is right,” Aviendha said fiercely. Her hands were fists gripping her skirts. “Conail Northan is a fool! But how could anyone follow those children into the dance of spears? How could anyone ask them to lead?”

Dyelin regarded them both, and chose to answer Aviendha first. She was plainly bemused by Aviendha’s garb. But then, she was bemused by Aviendha and Elayne adopting one another as sisters, by Elayne having an Aiel friend in the first place. That Elayne chose to include that friend in their counsels was something she tolerated. Though not without letting her toleration show. “I became High Seat of Taravin at fifteen, when my father died in a skirmish on the Altaran Marches. My two younger brothers died fighting cattle raiders out of Murandy that same year. I listened to advisors, but I told Taravin riders where to strike, and we taught the Altarans and the Murandians to look elsewhere for their thieving. The times choose when children must grow up, Aviendha, not we, and in these times, a High Seat who is a child cannot be a child any longer.

“As for you, Lady Birgitte,” she went on in a drier voice. “Your language is, as ever... pungent.” She did not ask how Birgitte presumed to know so much of Artur Hawkwing, things no historian knew, but she studied her appraisingly. “Branlet and Perival will take guidance from me, and so will Catalyn, I think, much as I regret the time I’ll have to spend with the girl. As for Conail, he’s hardly the first young man to think he’s invincible and immortal. If you can’t keep him reined in as Captain-General, I suggest you try walking for him. The way he was eyeing those breeches of yours, he’ll follow anywhere you lead.”

Elayne... shrugged off... the pure fury welling up in her. Not her fury, any more than it had been her anger at Dyelin in the first place, or her anger at Birgitte splashing wine about. It was Birgitte’s. She did not want to slap Rand’s face. Well, she did, but that was beside the point. Light, Conail had been looking at Birgitte, too? “They are the High Seats of their Houses, Aviendha. No one in their Houses would thank me for treating them as less; far from it. The men who ride for them will fight to keep them alive, but it is Perival and Branlet, Conail and Catalyn they ride for, not me. Because they are the High Seats.” Aviendha frowned, and folded her arms as though pulling a shawl around herself, but she nodded. Abruptly, and reluctantly—no one rose to such prominence among the Aiel without years of experience, and the approval of the Wise Ones—but she nodded.

“Birgitte, you will have to deal with them, Captain-General to High Seat. White hair wouldn’t necessarily make them any wiser, and it definitely wouldn’t make them any easier to deal with. They’d still have their own opinions, and with years of experience to give them weight, most likely they’d be ten times as certain they knew what needs to be done better than you do. Or than I do.” She made a great effort to keep her tone clear of sharpness, and no doubt Birgitte felt the effort. At least, the flow of rage through the bond suddenly diminished. It was only tamped down, not gone—Birgitte enjoyed having men look, at least when she wanted them to look, but she very much did not like anyone saying she was trying to attract their attention—yet even so, she knew the danger to both of them of letting their emotions run too free.

Dyelin had begun sipping at her wine, still studying Birgitte. Only a bare handful knew the truth that Birgitte desperately wanted to keep hidden, and Dyelin was not among them, yet Birgitte had been careless enough, a slip of the tongue here, a slip there, that the older woman was certain that some mystery hid behind Birgitte’s blue eyes. The Light only knew what she would think if she solved that riddle. As it was, the two were oil and water. They could argue over which way was up, and certainly over everything else. This time, Dyelin clearly thought she had won, foot and horse.

“Be that as it may, Dyelin,” Elayne continued, “I would have been more pleased if you had brought their advisors with them. What’s done is done, but Branlet troubles me in particular. If Gilyard accuses me of kidnapping him, matters become worse than they were, not better.”

Dyelin waved that away. “You don’t know the Gilyards well, do you? The way they squabble among themselves, they may not notice the boy is gone before summer, and if they do, none will repudiate what he’s done. None of them will admit they were so busy in arguing over who’s to be his guardian that they forgot to keep an eye on him. And second, none of them will admit they weren’t consulted beforehand. In any event, Gilyard would stand for Zaida before standing for Marne, and they don’t like Arawn or Sarand much better.”

“I hope you’re right, Dyelin, because I’m appointing you to deal with any angry Gilyards who appear. And while you’re advising the other three, you can keep a thumb on Conail so he doesn’t do anything completely harebrained.”

For all her talk, the first suggestion made Dyelin wince slightly. The second made her sigh.

It made Birgitte laugh out loud. “If you have any problems, I’ll lend you a pair of breeches and some boots, and you can walk for him.”

“Some women,” Dyelin murmured into her wine, “can make a fish bite by crooking a finger, Lady Birgitte. Other women have to drag their bait all over the pond.” Aviendha laughed at that, but Birgitte’s anger began to edge upward in the bond.

A wave of cold air swept into the room as the door opened, and Rasoria entered, coming to a stiff attention. “The First Maid and the First Clerk have come, my Lady Elayne,” she announced. Her voice faltered at the end, as she caught the mood in the room.

A blind goat could have caught it, with Dyelin smug as a cat in the creamery, and Birgitte scowling at her and Aviendha both, and Aviendha choosing this moment to remember that Birgitte was Birgitte Silverbow, which on this occasion made her stare at the floor, as abashed as if she had been laughing at a Wise One. Now and again Elayne wished her friends could all get on as well as she and Aviendha did, but somehow they managed to rub on together, and she supposed that was really all she could ask from real people. Perfection was a thing for books and gleemen’s stories.

“Send them in,” she told Rasoria. “And don’t disturb us unless the city is under attack. Unless it is important,” she amended. In stories, women who gave orders like that were always setting themselves up for disaster. Sometimes, there were lessons in stories, if you looked for them.

CHAPTER 14
What Wise Ones Know

Halwin Norry, the First Clerk, and Reene Harfor, the First Maid, entered together, him making a jerky, unpracticed bow, and her a graceful curtsy that was neither too low nor too shallow. They could not have been more different. Mistress Harfor was round-faced and regally dignified, her hair in a neat gray bun atop her head, Master Norry tall and gawky as a wading-bird, with his little remaining hair sticking up behind his ears like sprays of white feathers. Each carried an embossed leather folder stuffed with papers, but she held hers at her side as if not to rumple her formal scarlet tabard, unwrinkled as it always seemed to be, no matter the hour or how long she had been on her feet, while he clutched his folder to his narrow chest as if to hide old inkstains, of which several spotted his tabard, including a large blot that made the White Lion’s tail end in a black tuft. Courtesies done, they immediately put a little distance between them, each not quite watching the other.

As soon as the door closed behind Rasoria, the glow of saidar sprung up around Aviendha, and she wove a ward against eavesdropping that clung to the walls of the room. What was said between them was now as safe as they could make it, and Aviendha would know if anyone even tried to listen with the Power. She was very good with this sort of weave.

“Mistress Harfor,” Elayne said, “if you will begin.” She did not offer wine or seats, of course. Master Norry would have been shocked to his toenails by such a lapse in the proprieties, and Mistress Harfor might well have been offended. As it was, Norry twitched and glanced sideways at Reene, and her mouth thinned. Even after a week’s meetings, their dislike for giving their reports where the other could hear was palpable. They were jealous of their fiefs, the more so since the First Maid had moved into territory that once might have been considered Master Norry’s responsibility. Of course, running the Royal Palace had always been the First Maid’s charge, and it might be said that her new duties were only an extension of that. It would not be said by Halwin Norry, though. The blazing logs settled in the fireplace with a loud crack, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney.

“I am convinced the Second Librarian is... a spy, my Lady,” Mistress Harfor said finally, ignoring Norry as if to make him disappear. She had resisted letting anyone else know that she was searching out spies in the palace, yet the First Clerk knowing seemed to grate on her worst of all. His only authority over her, if such it was, came from paying the palace accounts, and he never questioned an expenditure, but even that little was more than she wished. “Every three or four days Master Harnder visits an inn called the Hoop and Arrow, supposedly for the ale made by the innkeeper, one Millis Fendry, but Mistress Fendry also keeps pigeons, and whenever Master Harnder visits, she sends off a pigeon that flies north. Yesterday, three of the Aes Sedai staying at the Silver Swan found reason to visit the Hoop and Arrow, though it caters to a much poorer crowd than the Swan. They came and went hooded, and were closeted with Mistress Fendry in private for over an hour. All three are Brown Ajah. I fear that indicates Master Harnder’s employer.”

“Hairdressers, footmen, cooks, the master cabinetmaker, no fewer than five of Master Norry’s clerks, and now one of the librarians.” Leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs, Dyelin glowered sourly. “Is there anyone we won’t eventually learn is a spy, Mistress Harfor?” Norry stretched his neck uncomfortably; he took the malfeasance of his clerks as a personal affront.

“I have hopes I may be reaching the bottom of that barrel, my Lady,” Mistress Harfor said complacently. Neither spies nor the High Seats of powerful Houses ruffled her. Spies were pests she intended to rid the palace of as surely as she kept it clear of fleas and rats—though she had been forced to accept Aes Sedai aid with rats recently—while powerful nobles were like rain or snow, facts of nature to be endured until they went away, but nothing to get flustered over. “There are only so many people who can be bought, and only so many can afford to buy, or want to.”

Elayne tried to picture Master Harnder, but all she could bring up in her mind was vague, a chubby, balding man who blinked incessantly. He had served her mother, and as she recalled, Queen Mordrellen before that. No one commented on the fact that it seemed he also served the Brown Ajah. Every ruler’s palace between the Spine of the World and the Aryth Ocean contained the Tower’s eyes-and-ears. Any ruler with half a brain expected it. Doubtless the Seanchan would soon be living under the White Tower’s gaze, too, if they were not already. Reene had discovered several spies for the Red Ajah, assuredly legacies of Elaida’s time in Caemlyn, but this librarian was the first for another Ajah. Elaida would not have liked other Ajahs knowing what went on in the palace while she was advisor to the Queen.

“A pity we have no false stories we want the Brown Ajah to believe,” she said lightly. A great pity they, and the Reds, knew about the Kin. At best, they had to know there were a large number of women in the palace who could channel, and it would not take them long to figure out who they were. That would create any number of problems down the road, yet those difficulties did lie somewhere in the future. Always plan ahead, Lini used to say, but worry too hard over next year, and you can trip over tomorrow. “Watch Master Harnder and try to find out his friends. That will have to suffice for the time being.” Some spies depended on their ears, either to hear gossip or listen at doors; others lubricated tongues with a few friendly cups of wine. The first part of counteracting a spy was to find out how he learned what he sold.

Aviendha snorted loudly and, spreading her skirts, started to sit down on the carpet before realizing what she wore. With a warning glance at Dyelin, she perched stiffly on the front edge of a chair instead, the picture of a court lady with her eyes flashing. Except that a lady of the court would not have checked the edge of her belt knife with a thumb. Left to her own devices, Aviendha would slit every spy’s throat as soon as it could be stretched for the knife. Spying was a vile business, in her view, no matter how often Elayne explained that every spy found was a tool that could be used to make her enemies believe what she wanted.

Not that every spy necessarily worked for an enemy. Most of those the First Maid had uncovered took money from more than one source, and among those she had identified were King Roedran of Murandy, various Tairen High Lords and Ladies, a handful of Cairhienin nobles, and a fair number of merchants. A good many people were interested in what happened in Caemlyn, whether for its effect on trade or other reasons. Sometimes it seemed that everyone spied on everyone else.

“Mistress Harfor,” she said, “you haven’t found any eyes-and-ears for the Black Tower.”

Like most people who heard the Black Tower mentioned, Dyelin shivered, and took a deep drink of her wine, but Reene just grimaced faintly. She had decided to ignore the fact that they were men who could channel, since she could not change matters. To her, the Black Tower was... an annoyance. “They haven’t had time, my Lady. Give them a year, and you’ll find footmen and librarians taking their coin, too.”

“I suppose I will.” Dreadful thought. “What else do you have for us today?”

“I’ve had a word with Jon Skellit, my Lady. A man who turns his coat once is often amenable to turning it again, and Skellit is.” Skellit, a barber, was in the pay of House Arawn, which for the present made him Arymilla’s man.

Birgitte bit off an oath in midword—for some reason, she tried to watch her language around Reene Harfor—and spoke in a pained voice. “You had a word with him? Without asking anyone?”

Dyelin was under no compunctions regarding the First Maid, and she muttered, “Mother’s milk in a cup!” Elayne had never heard her use an obscenity before. Master Norry blinked and almost dropped his folder, and busied himself with not looking at Dyelin. The First Maid, however, merely paused until sure she and Birgitte were done, then went on calmly.

“The time seemed ripe, and so did Skellit. One of the men he hands his reports to left the city and hasn’t returned yet, while it appears the other broke his leg. The streets are always icy where a fire has been put out.” She said that so blandly, it seemed more than likely she had engineered the man’s fall somehow. Hard times uncovered hard talents in the most surprising people. “Skellit is quite agreeable to carrying his next communication out to the camps himself. He saw a gateway made, and he won’t have to pretend terror.” You would have thought she herself had been seeing merchants’ wagons rumble out of holes in the air for her entire life.

“What’s to stop this barber keeping on running once he’s outside the fla... uh... the city?” Birgitte demanded irritably, beginning to pace in front of the fire with her hands clasped behind her. Her heavy golden braid should have been bristling. “If he goes, Arawn will hire somebody else, and you’ll have to hunt him out all over again. Light, Arymilla must have heard of the gateways almost as soon as she arrived, and Skellit has to know it.” It was not the thought of Skellit escaping that irritated her, or not only that. The mercenaries thought they had been hired to stop soldiers, but for a few silvers they would allow one or two to slip through the gates by night in either direction. One or two could do no harm, as they saw matters. Birgitte did not like being reminded of that.

“Greed will stop him, my Lady,” Mistress Harfor replied calmly. “The thought of earning gold from the Lady Elayne as well as from Lady Naean is enough to make the man breathe hard. It’s true, Lady Arymilla must already have heard of the gateways, but that only adds credit to Skellit’s reason for going in person.”

“And if his greed is great enough for him to try earning still more gold by turning his coat a third time?” Dyelin said. “He could cause a great deal of... mischief, Mistress Harfor.”

Reene’s tone became a little crisper. She would never step over the boundaries, but she disliked anyone thinking her careless. “Lady Naean would have him buried under the nearest snowdrift, my Lady, as I made certain he is aware. She has never been patient. As I am sure you are aware. In any case, the news we get from the camps is quite sparse, to say the least, and he might see a few things we would like to know.”

“If Skellit can tell us which camp Arymilla, Elenia and Naean will be in and when, I’ll give him his gold with my own hand,” Elayne said deliberately. Elenia and Naean stayed close to Arymilla, or she kept them close, and Arymilla was much less patient than Naean, much less willing to believe that anything could function without her presence. She spent half of each day riding from camp to camp, and never slept in the same two nights running, as far as anyone could learn. “That is the only thing he can tell us of the camps that I want to know.”

Reene inclined her head. “As you say, my Lady. I will see to it.” She too often tried not to say things straight out in front of Norry, but she gave no sign that she had heard any reproof. Of course, Elayne was not sure she actually would rebuke the woman openly. Mistress Harfor would continue to perform her duties properly if she did, and she certainly would continue hunting spies with undiminished ardor, if for no other reason than their presence in the palace offended her, yet Elayne might find a dozen inconveniences in every day, a dozen small discomforts that added up to misery, and not a one that she could directly attribute to the First Maid. We must follow the steps of the dance as surely as our servants, her mother had told her once. You can keep hiring new servants, and spend all your time training them and suffering till they learn, only to find yourself back where you started, or you can accept the rules as they do, and live comfortably while you use your time to rule.

“Thank you, Mistress Harfor,” she said, for which she received another precise curtsy. Reene Harfor was another who knew her own worth. “Master Norry?”

The heron-like man gave a start and stopped frowning at Reene. In some ways, he saw the gateways as his, and not to be trifled with. “Yes, my Lady. Of course.” His voice was a dusty monotone. “I trust the lady Birgitte already has informed you of the merchants’ trains from Illian and Tear. I believe that is... um... her usual custom when you return to the city.” For a moment, his eyes rested reproachfully on Birgitte. He would never think of causing Elayne the smallest irritation even if she shouted at him, but he lived by his own set of rules, and, in a mild fashion, he resented Birgitte stealing his chance to enumerate the wagons and casks and barrels that had arrived. He did love his numbers. At least, Elayne supposed it was in a mild fashion. There seemed to be very little heat in Mister Norry.

“She did,” she told him, with just a hint of apology, not enough to embarrass him. “I fear some of the Sea Folk are leaving us. We’ll only have half the number to make gateways after today.”

His fingers spidered across the leather folder against his chest as though feeling the papers within. She had never seen him consult one. “Ah. Ah. We shall... cope, my Lady.” Halwin Norry always coped. “To continue, there were nine arsons yesterday and last night, slightly more than usual. Three attempts were made to fire warehouses storing food. None successful, I hasten to add.” He might hasten to add, yet he did it in that same drone. “If I may say so, the Guards patrolling the streets are having an effect—the number of assaults and thefts has declined to little more than normal for this time of year—but it seems evident that some hand is directing the arsons. Seventeen buildings were destroyed, all save one abandoned,” his mouth narrowed in disapproval; it would take far more than a siege to make him leave Caemlyn, “and in my opinion, all of the fires were placed so as to draw the water-wagons as far as possible from the warehouses where attempts were made. I now believe that pattern holds for every fire we’ve seen these past weeks.”

“Birgitte?” Elayne said.

“I can try plotting the warehouses on a map,” Birgitte replied doubtfully, “and put extra Guards on the streets that seem to be farthest away, but it’s still leaving a lot to fla... uh... to chance.” She did not look toward Mistress Harfor, but Elayne felt a faint hint of a blush from her. “Anybody can have flint and steel in a belt pouch, and it only takes a minute with some dry straw to start a fire.”

“Do what you can,” Elayne told her. It would be pure luck if they caught an arsonist in the act, and beyond luck if the arsonist could say more than that she had been handed coin by someone with a hood hiding her face. Tracing that gold back to Arymilla or Elenia or Naean would require Mat Cauthon’s luck. “Have you anything more, Master Norry?”

Knuckling his long nose, he avoided her gaze. “It has... uh... come to my attention,” he said hesitantly, “that Marne, Arawn and Sarand have all recently taken very large loans against the revenues of their estates.” Mistress Harfor’s eyebrows climbed before she got them under control.

Peering into her teacup, Elayne discovered that she had actually emptied it. Bankers never told anyone how much they had loaned to whom, or against what, but she did not ask how he knew. It would be... embarrassing. For both of them. She smiled when her sister took the cup, then grimaced when Aviendha returned with it filled again. Aviendha seemed to think she should drink weak tea till her eyes floated! Goat’s milk was better, but dishwater for tea would do. Well, she would hold the bloody cup, but she did not have to drink.

“The mercenaries,” Dyelin growled, the heat in her eyes enough to make a bear back up. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; the trouble with sell-swords is they don’t always stay bought.” She had opposed hiring mercenaries to help defend the city from the start, though the fact was that without them, Arymilla could have ridden in with her army by any gate she picked, or near enough. There simply had not been enough men to guard every gate properly otherwise, much less man the walls.

Birgitte had opposed the mercenaries, too, yet she had accepted Elayne’s reasons, if reluctantly. She still distrusted them, but now she shook her head. Sitting on the arm of a chair near the fire, she rested her spurred boot on the seat. “Mercenaries have a concern for their reputations if not their honor. Changing sides is one thing; actually betraying a gate is something else entirely. A company that did that would never be hired again, anywhere. Arymilla would have to offer enough for a captain to live the rest of his life like a lord, and at least convince his men they’d be able to, as well.”

Norry cleared his throat. Even that sounded dusty, somehow. “It seems they may have borrowed against the same revenues twice or even three times. The bankers, of course, are... unaware... of this, as yet.”

Birgitte began to curse, then cut herself off. Dyelin scowled at her wine hard enough to make it turn sour. Aviendha squeezed Elayne’s hand, just a quick pressure quickly released. The fire crackled in a shower of sparks, some nearly reaching the carpets.

“The mercenary companies will have to be watched.” Elayne raised a hand to forestall Birgitte. The other woman had not opened her mouth, but the bond shouted volumes. “You will have to find the men for it somewhere.” Light! They seemed to be guarding against as many people inside the city as outside! “It shouldn’t take that many, but we need to know if they start to act strangely, or secretively, Birgitte. That might be our only warning.”

“I was thinking what to do if one of the companies does sell out,” Birgitte said wryly. “Knowing won’t be enough unless I have men to rush to any gate I think is going to be betrayed. And half the soldiers in the city are mercenaries. Half the rest are old men who were living on their pensions a few months gone. I’ll shift the mercenaries’ postings at irregular intervals. It will be harder for them to betray a gate if they can’t be sure where they’ll be tomorrow, but that doesn’t make it impossible.” Protest how she would that she was no general, she had seen more battles and sieges than any ten generals living, and she knew very well how these matters unfolded.

Elayne almost wished she had wine in her cup. Almost. “Is there any chance the bankers will learn what you have, Master Norry? Before the loans come due?” If they did, some might decide they preferred Arymilla on the throne. She could strip the country’s coffers to repay those loans, then. She might even do it. Merchants rode the political winds, whichever way they blew. Bankers had been known to attempt to influence events.

“In my opinion, it is unlikely, my Lady. They would have to... um... ask the right questions of the right people, but bankers are normally... um... closemouthed... with one another. Yes, I think it unlikely. For the time being.”

There was nothing to be done in any case. Except to tell Birgitte there might be a new source for assassins and kidnappers. Only given her hard expression and a sudden grimness in the bond, she had already realized that. There would be little chance of keeping the bodyguard under a hundred women, now. If there ever had been.

“Thank you, Master Norry,” Elayne said. “You’ve done well, as always. Let me know immediately if you see any indications that the bankers have asked those questions.”

“Of course, my Lady,” he murmured, ducking his head like an egret darting after a fish. “My Lady is very kind.”

When Reene and Norry left the room, him holding the door for her and making a bow that was a hair more graceful than usual and her giving him a slight bow of her head as she glided past him into the corridor, Aviendha did not release the ward she was holding. As soon as the door closed, its solid sound swallowed by the ward, she said, “Someone tried to listen.”

Elayne shook her head. There was no way to tell who—a Black sister? A curious Kinswoman?—but at least the eavesdrop had failed. Not that there was much chance of anyone getting past one of Aviendha’s wards, maybe not even the Forsaken, but she would have spoken up right away if someone had.

Dyelin took Aviendha’s announcement with less aplomb, muttering about the Sea Folk. She had not turned a hair at hearing that half the Windfinders were leaving, not in front of Reene and Norry, but now she demanded to know the whole story. “I never did trust Zaida,” she grumbled when Elayne finished. “This agreement sounds good for trade, I suppose, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had one of the Windfinders try to listen in. She struck me as a woman who wants to know everything, just in case it might be useful one day.” There was very little hesitant about Dyelin, yet she hesitated now, rolling her winecup between her palms. “Are you certain this... this beacon... can’t harm us, Elayne?”

“As certain as I can be, Dyelin. If it was going to crack open the world, I think it would have by now.” Aviendha laughed, but Dyelin turned quite pale. Really! Sometimes you had to laugh if only to keep from crying.

“If we tarry much longer now that Norry and Mistress Harfor are gone,” Birgitte said, “somebody might start wondering why.” She waved a hand at the walls, indicating the ward she could not see. She knew it was still in place, though. The daily meetings with the First Maid and the First Clerk always concealed a little something more.

Everyone gathered around her as she moved a pair of golden Sea Folk porcelain bowls on one of the side tables and pulled a much-folded map from inside her short coat. It rode there always, except when she slept, and then it resided beneath her pillow. Spread out, with empty winecups at the corners to hold it flat, the map displayed Andor from the River Erinin to the border between Altara and Murandy. In truth, it could have been said to show all of Andor, since what lay farther west had been only half under Caemlyn’s control for generations. It had hardly been a masterpiece of the mapmaker’s art to begin with, and creases obscured much of the detail, but it showed the terrain well enough, and every town and village was marked, every road and bridge and ford. Elayne set her teacup down at arm’s length from the map to avoid spilling on it and adding more stains. And to rid herself of the wretched excuse for tea.

“The Borderlanders are moving,” Birgitte said, pointing to the forests north of Caemlyn, to a spot above Andor’s northmost border, “but they haven’t covered much ground. At this rate, they’ll be well over a month getting close to Caemlyn.”

Swirling her silver cup, Dyelin peered into the dark wine, then looked up suddenly. “I thought you northerners were used to snow, Lady Birgitte.” Even now she had to probe, and telling her not to would only make her ten times as certain that Birgitte was hiding secrets, and twenty times as determined to learn them.

Aviendha scowled at the older woman—when she was not in awe of Birgitte, sometimes she became fiercely protective of Birgitte’s secrets—but Birgitte herself met Dyelin’s gaze levelly, with no hint of alarm in the bond. She had become quite comfortable with the lie about her origins. “I haven’t been back to Kandor in a long time.” That was simple truth, though it had been far longer than Dyelin could have imagined. The country had not even been called Kandor, then. “But no matter what you’re used to, moving two hundred thousand soldiers, not to mention the Light alone knows how many camp followers, is slow going in winter. Worse, I sent Mistress Ocalin and Mistress Fote to visit some of the villages a few miles south of the border.” Sabeine Ocalin and Julanya Fote were Kinswomen who could Travel. “They say the villagers think the Borderlanders are camped for the winter.”

Elayne tsked, frowning at the map as she traced distances with a finger. She was counting on news of the Borderlanders, if not on the Borderlanders themselves. Word of an army that size entering Andor should be leaping ahead of it like wildfire in dry grass. No one but a fool could believe they had marched all those hundreds of leagues to try conquering Andor, but everyone who heard would be speculating on their intentions and what to do about them, a different opinion on every tongue. Once the news began to spread, anyway. When it did, she had an advantage over everyone else. She had arranged for the Borderlanders to cross into Andor into the first place, and she had already arranged for them to leave.

The choice had not been very difficult. Stopping them would have been a bloody affair, if it could have been managed at all, and they wanted no more than the width of a road to march onward into Murandy, where they thought they would find the Dragon Reborn. That was her doing, as well. They hid their reason for seeking Rand, and she was not about to give them a true location, not when they had as many as a dozen Aes Sedai with them and hid that fact, too. But once news of them reached the High Seats...

“It should work,” she said softly. “If necessary, we can plant rumors of the Borderlanders ourselves.”

“It should work,” Dyelin agreed, then added in a dark voice, “As long as Bashere and Bael keep a close rein on their men. It’s going to be a volatile mix, with Borderlanders, Aiel and the Legion of the Dragon all within a few miles of one another. And I can’t see how we can be sure the Asha’man won’t do something mad.” She ended with a sniff. In her book, a man had to be mad in the first place, or he would never have chosen to become an Asha’man. Aviendha nodded. She disagreed with Dyelin almost as frequently as Birgitte did, but for the most part, the Asha’man were one thing they agreed on.

“I’ll make sure the Borderlanders stay well clear of the Black Tower,” Elayne reassured them, though she had done the same before. Even Dyelin knew that Bael and Bashere would hold their forces in check—neither man wanted a battle he did not need, and Davram Bashere certainly would not fight his own countrymen—but anyone had a right to be uneasy about the Asha’man and what they might do. She slid her finger from the six-pointed star identifying Caemlyn across the few miles to the ground the Asha’man had usurped. The Black Tower was not marked, but she knew all too well exactly where it lay. At least that was well away from the Lugard Road. Sending the Borderlanders south into Murandy without upsetting the Asha’man would not be difficult.

Her mouth compressed at the thought that she must not upset the Asha’man, but there was nothing to be done about it any time soon, so she mentally shifted the black-coated men to one side. What could not be dealt with now, had to be dealt with later.

“And the others?” She did not have to say more. Six major Houses remained uncommitted—at least to her or Arymilla. Dyelin claimed they would all come to Elayne eventually, but they showed no sign of it so far. Sabeine and Julanya had been looking for word of those six, too. Both women had spent the last twenty years as peddlers, accustomed to hard journeys, sleeping in stables or under the trees, and listening to what people did not say as much as to what they said. They made perfect scouts. It would be a great loss if they had to be shifted to helping keep the city supplied.

“Rumor has Lord Luan a dozen places, east and west.” Frowning at the much-creased map as though Luan’s position should have been marked on it, Birgitte muttered a curse, much viler than called for, now that Reene Harfor was absent. “Always the next village over, or the one beyond that. Lady Ellorien and Lord Abelle seem to have vanished completely, difficult as that has to be for a High Seat. At least, Mistress Ocalin and Mistress Fote haven’t been able to find a whisper of them, or of any House Pendar or House Traemane armsmen, either. Not a man or a horse.” That was very unusual. Someone was exerting great effort.

“Abelle was always a ghost when he wanted to be,” Dyelin muttered, “always able to catch you wrong-footed. Ellorien...” Brushing fingers against her lips, she sighed. “The woman’s too flamboyant to disappear. Unless she’s with Abelle or Luan. Or both of them.” She was not happy with that idea, no matter what she said.

“As for our other ‘friends’,” Birgitte said, “Lady Arathelle crossed out of Murandy five days ago, here.” She touched the map lightly, some two hundred miles south of Caemlyn. “Four days ago, Lord Pelivar crossed about five or six miles west of that, and Lady Aemlyn here, another five or six miles.”

“Not together,” Dyelin said, nodding. “Did they bring any Murandians? No? Good. They could be moving to their estates, Elayne. If they move further apart, we’ll know for certain.” Those three Houses made her most anxious of all.

“They could be heading home,” Birgitte agreed, reluctantly as always when agreeing with Dyelin. Drawing her intricate braid over her shoulder, she gripped it in a fist almost the way Nynaeve did. “The men and horses must be worn out, after marching into Murandy in winter. But all we can be sure of is that they’re on the move.”

Aviendha snorted. With her in elegant velvets, it was a startling sound. “Always assume your enemy will do what you do not want. Decide what you least want them to do, and plan on that.”

“Aemlyn, Arathelle and Pelivar aren’t enemies,” Dyelin protested weakly. Wherever she believed their allegiance would fall in time, those three had announced their support of Dyelin herself for the throne.

Elayne had never read of any queen being forced onto the throne—that sort of thing might not have made it into the histories in any case—yet Aemlyn, Arathelle and Pelivar seemed willing to try, and not for hope of power for themselves. Dyelin did not want the throne, but she would hardly be a passive ruler. The simple fact was that Morgase Trakand’s final year had been marred by blunder after blunder, and few knew or believed that she had been a captive of one of the Forsaken during that time. Some Houses wanted anyone except another Trakand on the throne. Or thought they did.

“What is the last thing we want them to do?” Elayne said. “If they disperse to their estates, then they are out of it until spring at the earliest, and everything will be decided by then.” The Light willing, it would. “But if they continue on to Caemlyn?”

“Without the Murandians, they don’t have enough armsmen to challenge Arymilla.” Studying the map, Birgitte rubbed her chin. “If they don’t know by now that the Aiel and the Legion of the Dragon are staying out of this, they’ll have to learn of it soon, but they’ll want to be careful. None of them seems foolish enough to provoke a fight they can’t win when they don’t have to. I’d say they’ll camp somewhere to the east or southeast, where they can keep an eye on events and maybe influence what happens.”

Downing the last of her wine, which must have been cold by now, Dyelin exhaled heavily and walked over to fill her cup again. “If they come to Caemlyn,” she said in a leaden tone, “then they are hoping that Luan or Abelle or Ellorien will join them. Perhaps all three.”

“Then we must figure out how to stop them reaching Caemlyn before our plans come to fruit, without making them permanent enemies.” Elayne worked to make her voice as sure and firm as Dyelin’s was dull. “And we must plan what to do in case they arrive here too early. If that happens, Dyelin, you will have to convince them the choice is between me and Arymilla. Otherwise, we’ll be in a tangle we may never straighten out, and all of Andor in it with us.”

Dyelin grunted as if she had been punched. The last time the great Houses split evenly among three claimants for the Lion Throne had been nearly five hundred years ago, and seven years of open war followed before a queen was crowned. The original claimants were all dead by that point.

Without thinking, Elayne picked up her teacup and took a sip. The tea had gone cold, but honey exploded on her tongue. Honey! She looked at Aviendha in astonishment, and her sister’s lips quirked in a small smile. A conspiratorial smile, as if Birgitte did not know exactly what had happened. Even their strangely enhanced bond did not extend to her tasting what Elayne did, yet she had surely felt Elayne’s surprise and pleasure on tasting the tea. Planting fists on hips, she adopted a censorious look. Or rather, she tried to; despite all she could do, a smile crept onto her face, too. Abruptly, Elayne realized that Birgitte’s headache was gone. She did not know when it had vanished, but it certainly was not there any longer.

“Hope for the best and plan for the worst,” she said. “Sometimes, the best actually happens.”

Dyelin, unaware of the honey or anything except that they were all three grinning, harrumphed loudly. “And sometimes it doesn’t happen. If your clever scheme comes off exactly as planned, Elayne, we won’t have any need for Aemlyn or Ellorien or the others, but it’s a terrible gamble. All it takes to go wrong is—”

The left-hand door opened to admit a wave of cold and an apple-cheeked woman with icy eyes and the golden knot of an under-lieutenant on her shoulder. She might have knocked first, but if so, the ward had sealed off the sound. Like Rasoria, Tzigan Sokorin had been a Hunter for the Horn before joining Elayne’s bodyguard. It seemed the guard had changed. “The Wise One Monaelle wishes to see the Lady Elayne,” Tzigan announced, drawing herself up rigidly. “Mistress Karistovan is with her.”

Sumeko could be put off, but not Monaelle. Arymilla’s people would as soon interfere with Aes Sedai as with the Aiel, yet only something important would have brought a Wise One into the city. Birgitte knew that, too; she immediately began folding the map up again. Aviendha let the warding dissipate and released the Source.

“Ask them to come in,” Elayne said.

Monaelle did not wait on Tzigan, gliding into the room as soon as the ward vanished, her multitude of gold and ivory bracelets rattling as she lowered her shawl from shoulders to elbows in the comparative warmth. Elayne did not know how old Monaelle was—Wise Ones were not as reticent about age as Aes Sedai, but they were oblique—yet she appeared not far into her middle years. There were hints of red in her waist-long yellow hair, but not a touch of gray. Short for an Aiel, shorter than Elayne, with a mild, motherly face, she was barely strong enough in the Power to have been accepted in the White Tower, but strength did not count among Wise Ones, and among them, she stood very high. More importantly for Elayne and Aviendha, she had been the midwife at their rebirth as first-sisters. Elayne offered her a curtsy, ignoring Dyelin’s disapproving sniff, and Aviendha made a deep bow, folding herself over her hands. Aside from the duties owed to her midwife under Aiel customs, she was still only an apprentice Wise One, after all.

“I assume your need for privacy is ended, since you lowered the ward,” Monaelle said, “and it is time I checked on your condition, Elayne Trakand. It should be done twice in the month until full term.” Why was she frowning at Aviendha? Oh, Light, the velvets!

“And I have come to see what she does,” Sumeko added, following the Wise One into the room. Sumeko was imposing, a stout woman with confident eyes, in well-cut red-belted yellow wool, with silver combs in her straight black hair, and a red-enameled silver circle-pin on the high neck of her dress. She might have been a noblewoman or a successful merchant. Once she had shown a certain diffidence, at least around Aes Sedai, but no longer. Not with Aes Sedai or soldiers of the Queen’s Guards. “You may go,” she told Tzigan. “This doesn’t concern you.” Or with nobles, for that matter. “You may leave, too, Lady Dyelin, and you, Lady Birgitte.” She studied Aviendha as if considering adding her to the list.

“Aviendha may remain,” Monaelle said. “She is missing a great many lessons, and she must learn this sooner or later.” Sumeko nodded in acceptance of Aviendha, but she kept a coolly impatient gaze on Dyelin and Birgitte.

“Lady Dyelin and I have matters to discuss,” Birgitte said, stuffing the folded map back under her red coat as she started for the door. “I’ll tell you tonight what we’ve thought of, Elayne.”

Dyelin gave her a sharp look, almost as sharp as the one she had given Sumeko, but she set her winecup on one of the trays and made her courtesies to Elayne, then waited with visible impatience while Birgitte bent to murmur at length in Monaelle’s ear and the Wise One replied briefly, but just as quietly. What were they whispering about? Probably goat’s milk.

Once the door closed behind Tzigan and the other two women, Elayne offered to send for more wine, since what was in the pitchers was cold, but Sumeko declined curtly, and Monaelle politely if rather absently. The Wise One was studying Aviendha with such intensity that the younger woman began to redden and looked away, gripping her skirts.

“You mustn’t take Aviendha to task about her clothes, Monaelle,” Elayne said. “I asked her to wear them, and she did as a favor to me.”

Pursing her lips, Monaelle thought before answering. “First-sisters should give one another favors,” she said finally. “You know your duty to our people, Aviendha. So far, you have done well at a difficult task. You must learn to live in two worlds, so it is fitting that you become comfortable in those clothes.” Aviendha began to relax. Until Monaelle continued. “But not too comfortable. From now on, you will spend every third day and night in the tents. You can return with me tomorrow. You have a great deal to learn yet before you can become a Wise One, and that is as much your duty as is being a binding cord.”

Elayne reached out and took her sister’s hand, and when Aviendha tried to let go after one squeeze, she held on. After a brief hesitation, Aviendha clung, too. In a strange way, having Aviendha there had comforted Elayne for the loss of Rand; she was not only a sister but a sister who also loved him. They could share strength and make each other laugh when they wanted to cry, and they could cry together when that was needed. One night in three alone very likely meant one night in three weeping alone. Light, what was Rand doing? That awful beacon to the west was still blazing as strongly as ever, and she was certain that he was in the heart of it. Not one particle had changed in the bond with him, but she was certain.

Suddenly she realized that she had a crushing grasp on Aviendha’s hand, and Aviendha was holding hers as fiercely. They loosened their grips at the same instant. Neither let go, however.

“Men cause trouble even when they are elsewhere,” Aviendha said softly.

“They do,” Elayne agreed.

Monaelle smiled at the exchange. She was among the few who knew about the bonding of Rand, and who the father of Elayne’s baby was. None of the Kinswomen did, though.

“I’d think you’ve let a man cause you all the trouble he could, Elayne,” Sumeko said primly. The Kin’s Rule followed the rules for novices and Accepted, forbidding not only children but anything that might lead to them, and they held to it strictly. Once, a Kinswoman would have swallowed her tongue before suggesting an Aes Sedai fell short of their Rule. Much had changed since then, however. “I’m supposed to travel to Tear today so I can bring back a shipment of grain and oil tomorrow, and it is growing late, so if you are done talking about men, I suggest you let Monaelle get on with what she came for.”

Monaelle positioned Elayne in front of the fireplace, close enough that the heat from the nearly consumed logs was near to uncomfortable—it was best if the mother was very warm, she explained—then the glow of saidar surrounded her, and she began to weave threads of Spirit and Fire and Earth. Aviendha watched almost as avidly as Sumeko.

“What is this?” Elayne asked as the weave settled around her and sank into her. “Is it like Delving?” Every Aes Sedai in the palace had Delved her, though only Merilille had sufficient skill with Healing for it to be much use, but neither they nor Sumeko had been able to say much more than that she was with child. She felt a faint tingling, a sort of hum inside her flesh.

“Don’t be silly, girl,” Sumeko said absently. Elayne raised an eyebrow, and even thought of waving her Great Serpent ring under Sumeko’s nose, but the round-faced woman did not appear to notice. She might not have noticed the ring, either. She was leaning forward, peering as though she could see the weave inside Elayne’s body. “The Wise Ones learned about Healing from me. And from Nynaeve, I suppose,” she allowed after a moment. Oh, Nynaeve would have gone up like an Illuminator’s firework, hearing that. But then, Sumeko had outstripped Nynaeve long since. “And they did learn the simple form from Aes Sedai.” A snort like ripping canvas showed what Sumeko thought of the “simple” form, the only sort of Healing Aes Sedai had known for thousands of years. “This is something of the Wise Ones’ own.”

“It is called Caressing the Child,” Monaelle said in an abstracted voice. Most of her attention was focused on the weave. A simple Delving to learn what ailed someone—it was simple, come to think—would have been finished by now, but she altered the flows, and the hum inside Elayne changed pitch, sinking deeper. “It may be some part of Healing, a sort of Healing, but we have known this since before we were sent to the Three-fold Land. Some of the ways the flows are used are similar to what Sumeko Karistovan and Nynaeve al’Meara showed us. In Caressing the Child, you learn the health of mother and child, and by changing the weaves, you can cure some problems of either, but they will not work on a woman who is not with child. Or on a man, of course.” The hum grew louder, until it seemed everyone must be able to hear it. Elayne thought her teeth were vibrating.

An earlier thought returned to her, and she said, “Will channeling hurt my child? If I channel, I mean.”

“No more than breathing does.” Monaelle let the weave vanish with a grin. “You have two. It is too early to say whether they are girls are boys, but they are healthy, and so are you.”

Two! Elayne shared a wide smile with Aviendha. She could almost feel her sister’s delight. She was going to have twins. Rand’s babies. A boy and a girl, she hoped, or two boys. Twin girls would present all manner of difficulties for the succession. No one ever gained the Rose Crown with everyone behind her.

Sumeko made an urgent sound in her throat, gesturing toward Elayne, and Monaelle nodded. “Do exactly as I did, and you will see.” Watching Sumeko embrace the Source and form the weave, she nodded again, and the round Kinswoman let it sink into Elayne, letting out a gasp as if she felt the humming herself. “You will not have to worry about birthing sickness,” Monaelle went on, “but you will find that you have difficulty in channeling sometimes. The threads may slip away from you as though greased or fade like mist, so you will have to try again and again to make the simplest weave or hold it. This may grow worse as your pregnancy progresses, and you will not be able to channel at all while in labor or giving birth, but it will come right after the children are born. You soon will become moody, too, if that has not already started, weepy one minute and snarling the next. The father of your child will be wise to step warily and keep his distance as much as he can.”

“I hear she’s already snapped his head off once this morning,” Sumeko muttered. Releasing the weave, she straightened and adjusted her red belt around her girth. “This is remarkable, Monaelle. I never thought of a weave that could only be used on a pregnant woman.”

Elayne’s mouth tightened, but what she said was “You can tell all of that with this weave, Monaelle?” It was best that people thought her babes were Doilan Mellar’s. Rand al’Thor’s children would be targets, stalked for fear or advantage or hatred, but no one would think twice about Mellar’s, perhaps not even Mellar. It was for the best, and that was that.

Monaelle threw back her head, laughing so hard that she had to wipe a corner of her eyes with her shawl. “I know this from bearing seven children and having three husbands, Elayne Trakand. The ability to channel shields you from the birthing sickness, but there are other prices to pay. Come, Aviendha, you must try, too. Carefully, now. Exactly as I did.”

Eagerly, Aviendha embraced the Source, but before she had begun to weave a thread, she let saidar go and turned her head to stare toward the dark-paneled wall. Toward the west. So did Elayne, and Monaelle, and Sumeko. The beacon that had been burning for so long had just vanished. One instant it had been there, that raging blaze of saidar, and then it was gone as if it had never existed.

Sumeko’s massive bosom heaved as she drew a deep breath. “I think something very wonderful or very terrible has happened today,” she said softly. “And I think I am afraid to learn which.”

“Wonderful,” Elayne said. It was done, whatever it was, and Rand was alive. That was wonderful enough. Monaelle glanced at her quizzically. Knowing about the bond, she could puzzle out the rest, but she only fingered one of her necklaces in a thoughtful manner. In any case, she would pry it out of Aviendha soon enough.

A knock at the door made them all start. All but Monaelle, anyway. Pretending not to see the other women jump, she focused a little too intently on adjusting her shawl which made the contrast all the greater. Sumeko coughed to hide her embarrassment.

“Come,” Elayne said loudly. A half-shout was necessary to be heard through the door even without a ward.

Caseille put her head into the room, plumed hat in hand, then came in the rest of the way and closed the door carefully behind her. The white lace at her neck and wrists was fresh, the lace and lions on her sash gleamed, and her breastplate sparkled as if freshly burnished, but obviously she had gone right back on duty after cleaning up from their overnight trip. “Forgive me for interrupting, my Lady, but I thought you should know right away. The Sea Folk are in a frenzy, those that are still here. It seems one of their apprentices has gone missing.”

“What else?” Elayne said. A missing apprentice might be bad enough, but something in Caseille’s face told her there was more.

“Guardswoman Azeri happened to tell me that she saw Merilille Sedai leaving the palace about three hours ago,” Caseille said reluctantly. “Merilille and a woman who was cloaked and hooded. They took horses, and a loaded pack mule. Yurith said the second woman’s hands were tattooed. My Lady, no one had any reason to be looking for—”

Elayne waved her to silence. “No one did anything wrong, Caseille. No one will be blamed.” Not among the Guards, anyway. A fine pickle this was. Talaan and Metarra, the two apprentice Windfinders, were very strong in the Power, and if Merilille had been able to talk either one into trying to become Aes Sedai, she might have been able to convince herself that taking the girl where she could be entered into the novice book was reason enough to evade her own promise to teach the Windfinders. Who would be more than upset over losing Merilille, and more than furious over the apprentice. They would blame everyone in sight, and Elayne most of all.

“Is this general knowledge about Merilille?” she asked.

“Not yet, my Lady, but whoever saddled their horses and loaded that mule won’t hold their tongues. Stablehands don’t have much to gossip about.” More of a brush fire than a pickle, then, and small chance of putting it out before it reached the barns.

“I hope you will dine with me later, Monaelle,” Elayne said, “but you must forgive me, now.” Duty to her midwife or no, she did not wait for the other woman’s assent. Trying to douse the fire might be enough to stop the barns from catching. Maybe. “Caseille, inform Birgitte, and tell her I want an order sent to the gates immediately to watch for Merilille. I know; I know; she may be out of the city already, and the gate guards won’t stop an Aes Sedai, anyway, but maybe they can delay her, or frighten her companion into scuttling back into the city to hide. Sumeko, would you ask Reanne to assign every Kinswoman who can’t Travel to start searching through the city. It’s a small hope, but Merilille may have thought it was too late in the day to start out. Check every inn, including the Silver Swan, and...”

She hoped Rand had done something wonderful today, but she could not waste time even thinking about that now. She had a throne to gain and angry Atha’an Miere to deal with, before they could vent their anger on her, it was to be hoped. In short, it was a day like every other since she returned to Caemlyn, and that meant her hands were quite full enough.

CHAPTER 15
Gathering Darkness

The evening sun was a ball of blood on the treetops, casting a lurid light across the camp, a widely spaced sprawl of horselines and canvas-covered wagons and high-wheeled carts and tents in every size and sort with the snow between trampled to slush. Not the time of day or sort of place that Elenia wished to be on horseback. The smell of boiling beef wafting from the big black iron cookpots was enough to turn her stomach. The cold air frosted her breath and promised a bitter night to come, and the wind cut through her best red cloak without regard for the thick lining of plush white fur. Snowfox was supposed to be warmer than other furs, but she had never found it so.

Holding the cloak closed with one gloved hand, she rode slowly and tried very hard, if not very successfully, not to shiver. Given the hour, it seemed more than likely she would be spending the night here, but as yet, she had no idea where she would sleep. Doubtless in some lesser noble’s tent, with the lord or lady shuffled off to find haven elsewhere and trying to put the best face on being evicted, but Arymilla liked leaving her on tenterhooks until the very last, about beds and everything else. One suspense was no sooner dispelled than another replaced it. Plainly the woman thought the constant uncertainty would make her squirm, perhaps even strive to please. That was far from the only miscalculation Arymilla had made, beginning with the belief that Elenia Sarand’s claws had been clipped.

She had just four men with the two Golden Boars on their cloaks as escort—and her maid, Janny, of course, huddling in her cloak till she seemed a bundle of green wool piled on her saddle—and she had not seen a single fellow more in the camp who she could be sure held a scrap of loyalty to Sarand. Here and there one of the clumps of men huddled around the campfires with their laundresses and seamstresses displayed House Anshar’s Red Fox, and a double column of horsemen wearing Baryn’s Winged Hammer passed her heading in the opposite direction at a slow walk, hard-faced behind the bars of their helmets. They were of little real account, in the long run. Karind and Lir had gotten singed badly by being slow when Morgase took the throne. This time they would take Anshar and Baryn wherever the advantage lay the instant they saw it clearly, abandoning Arymilla with as great an alacrity as they had leapt to join her. When the time came.

Most of the men trudging through the muddy slush or peering hopefully into those disgusting cookpots were levies, farmers and villagers gathered up when their lord or lady marched, and few wore any sort of House badge on their shabby coats and patched cloaks. Even separating putative soldiers from farriers and fletchers and the like was near impossible, since nearly all had belted on a sword of some description, or an axe. Light, a fair number of the women wore knives large enough to be called short-swords, but there was no way to tell some conscripted farmer’s wife from a wagon driver. They wore the same thick wool and had the same rough hands and weary faces. It did not really matter, in any case. This winter siege was a dire mistake—the armsmen would begin going hungry long before the city did—but it gave Elenia an opportunity, and when an opening presented itself, you struck. Keeping her hood back far enough to show her features clearly in spite of the freezing wind, she nodded graciously to every unwashed lout who so much as looked in her direction, and ignored the surprised starts that some gave at her condescension.

Most would remember her affability, remember the Golden Boars her escort wore, and know that Elenia Sarand had taken notice of them. On such a foundation power was built. A High Seat as much as a queen stood atop a tower built of people. True, those at the bottom were bricks of the basest clay, yet if those common bricks crumpled in their support, the tower fell. That was something Arymilla appeared to have forgotten, if she had ever known. Elenia doubted that Arymilla spoke to anyone lower than a steward or a personal servant. Had it been... prudent... she herself would have passed a few words at every campfire, perhaps grasping a grubby hand now and then, remembering people she had encountered before or at least dissembling well enough to make it seem she did. Pure and simple, Arymilla lacked the wit to be queen.

The camp covered more ground than most towns, more like a hundred clustered camps of varying