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

Wheel of Time • 11 • Knife of Dreams

Robert Jordan

Book Eleven


In memory of Charles St. George Sinkler Adams
July 6, 1976–April 13, 2000

ePub: https://is.gd/4wxHcK

The sweetness of victory and the bitterness of defeat are alike a knife of dreams.

—From Fog and Steel by Madoc Comadrin

Embers Falling on Dry Grass

The sun, climbing toward midmorning, stretched Galad’s shadow and those of his three armored companions ahead of them as they trotted their mounts down the road that ran straight through the forest, dense with oak and leatherleaf, pine and sourgum, most showing the red of spring growth. He tried to keep his mind empty, still, but small things kept intruding. The day was silent save for the thud of their horses’ hooves. No bird sang on a branch, no squirrel chittered. Too quiet for the time of year, as though the forest held its breath. This had been a major trade route once, long before Amadicia and Tarabon came into being, and bits of ancient paving stone sometimes studded the hard-packed surface of yellowish clay. A single farm cart far ahead behind a plodding ox was the only sign of human life now besides themselves. Trade had shifted far north, farms and villages in the region dwindled, and the fabled lost mines of Aelgar remained lost in the tangled mountain ranges that began only a few miles to the south. Dark clouds massing in that direction promised rain by afternoon if their slow advance continued. A red-winged hawk quartered back and forth along the border of the trees, hunting the fringes. As he himself was hunting. But at the heart, not on the fringes.

The manor house that the Seanchan had given Eamon Valda came into view, and he drew rein, wishing he had a helmet strap to tighten for excuse. Instead he had to be content with re-buckling his sword belt, pretending that it had been sitting wrong. There had been no point to wearing armor. If the morning went as he hoped, he would have had to remove breastplate and mail in any case, and if it went badly, armor would have provided little more protection than his white coat.

Formerly a deep-country lodge of the King of Amadicia, the building was a huge, blue-roofed structure studded with red-painted balconies, a wooden palace with wooden spires at the corners atop a stone foundation like a low, steep-sided hill. The outbuildings, stables and barns, workmen’s small houses and craftsfolks’ workshops, all hugged the ground in the wide clearing that surrounded the main house, but they were nearly as resplendent in their blue-and-red paint. A handful of men and women moved around them, tiny figures yet at this distance, and children were playing under their elders’ eyes. An image of normality where nothing was normal. His companions sat their saddles in their burnished helmets and breastplates, watching him without expression. Their mounts stamped impatiently, the animals’ morning freshness not yet worn off by the short ride from the camp.

“It’s understandable if you’re having second thoughts, Damodred,” Trom said after a time. “It’s a harsh accusation, bitter as gall, but—”

“No second thoughts for me,” Galad broke in. His intentions had been fixed since yesterday. He was grateful, though. Trom had given him the opening he needed. They had simply appeared as he rode out, falling in with him without a word spoken. There had seemed no place for words, then. “But what about you three? You’re taking a risk coming here with me. A risk you have no need to take. However the day runs, there will be marks against you. This is my business, and I give you leave to go about yours.” Too stiffly said, but he could not find words this morning, or loosen his throat.

The stocky man shook his head. “The law is the law. And I might as well make use of my new rank.” The three golden star-shaped knots of a captain sat beneath the flaring sunburst on the breast of his white cloak. There had been more than a few dead at Jeramel, including no fewer than three of the Lords Captain. They had been fighting the Seanchan then, not allied with them.

“I’ve done dark things in service to the Light,” gaunt-faced Byar said grimly, his deep-set eyes glittering as though at a personal insult, “dark as moonless midnight, and likely I will again, but some things are too dark to be allowed.” He looked as if he might spit.

“That’s right,” young Bornhald muttered, scrubbing a gauntleted hand across his mouth. Galad always thought of him as young, though the man lacked only a few years on him. Dain’s eyes were bloodshot; he had been at the brandy again last night. “If you’ve done what’s wrong, even in service to the Light, then you have to do what’s right to balance it.” Byar grunted sourly. Likely that was not the point he had been making.

“Very well,” Galad said, “but there’s no fault to any man who turns back. My business here is mine alone.”

Still, when he heeled his bay gelding to a canter, he was pleased to have them gallop to catch him and fall in alongside, white cloaks billowing behind. He would have gone on alone, of course, yet their presence might keep him from being arrested and hanged out of hand. Not that he expected to survive in any case. What had to be done, had to be done, no matter the price.

The horses’ hooves clattered loudly on the stone ramp that climbed to the manor house, so every man in the broad central courtyard turned to watch as they rode in: fifty of the Children in gleaming plate-and-mail and conical helmets, most mounted, with cringing, dark-coated Amadician grooms holding animals for the rest. The inner balconies were empty except for a few servants who appeared to be watching while pretending to sweep. Six Questioners, big men with the scarlet shepherd’s crook upright behind the sunflare on their cloaks, stood close around Rhadam Asunawa like a bodyguard, away from the others. The Hand of the Light always stood apart from the rest of the Children, a choice the rest of the Children approved. Gray-haired Asunawa, his sorrowful face making Byar look fully fleshed, was the only Child present not in armor, and his snowy cloak carried just the brilliant red crook, another way of standing apart. But aside from marking who was present, Galad had eyes for only one man in the courtyard. Asunawa might have been involved in some way—that remained unclear—yet only the Lord Captain Commander could call the High Inquisitor to account.

Eamon Valda was not a large man, but his dark, hard face had the look of one who expected obedience as his due. As the very least he was due. Standing with his booted feet apart and his head high, command in every inch of him, he wore the white-and-gold tabard of the Lord Captain Commander over his gilded breast- and backplates, a silk tabard more richly embroidered than any Pedron Niall had worn. His white cloak, the flaring sun large on either breast in thread-of-gold, was silk as well, and his gold-embroidered white coat. The helmet beneath his arm was gilded and worked with the flaring sun on the brow, and a heavy gold ring on his left hand, worn outside his steel-backed gauntlet, held a large yellow sapphire carved with the sunburst. Another mark of favor received from the Seanchan.

Valda frowned slightly as Galad and his companions dismounted and offered their salutes, arm across the chest. Obsequious grooms came running to take their reins.

“Why aren’t you on your way to Nassad, Trom?” Disapproval colored Valda’s words. “The other Lords Captain will be halfway there by now.” He himself always arrived late when meeting the Seanchan, perhaps to assert that some shred of independence remained to the Children—finding him already preparing to depart was a surprise; this meeting must be very important—but he always made sure the other high-ranking officers arrived on time even when that required setting out before dawn. Apparently it was best not to press their new masters too far. Distrust of the Children was always strong in the Seanchan.

Trom displayed none of the uncertainty that might have been expected from a man who had held his present rank barely a month. “An urgent matter, my Lord Captain Commander,” he said smoothly, making a very precise bow, neither a hair deeper nor higher than protocol demanded. “A Child of my command charges another of the Children with abusing a female relative of his, and claims the right of Trial Beneath the Light, which by law you must grant or deny.”

“A strange request, my son,” Asunawa said, tilting his head quizzically above clasped hands, before Valda could speak. Even the High Inquisitor’s voice was doleful; he sounded pained at Trom’s ignorance. His eyes seemed dark hot coals in a brazier. “It was usually the accused who asked to give the judgment to swords, and I believe usually when he knew the evidence would convict him. In any case, Trial Beneath the Light has not been invoked for nearly four hundred years. Give me the accused’s name, and I will deal with the matter quietly.” His tone turned chill as a sunless cavern in winter, though his eyes still burned. “We are among strangers, and we cannot allow them to know that one of the Children is capable of such a thing.”

“The request was directed to me, Asunawa,” Valda snapped. His glare might as well have been open hatred. Perhaps it was just dislike of the other man’s breaking in. Flipping one side of his cloak over his shoulder to bare his ring-quilloned sword, he rested his hand on the long hilt and drew himself up. Always one for the grand gesture, Valda raised his voice so that even people inside probably heard him, and declaimed rather than merely spoke.

“I believe many of our old ways should be revived, and that law still stands. It will always stand, as written of old. The Light grants justice because the Light is justice. Inform your man he may issue his challenge, Trom, and face the one he accuses sword-to-sword. If that one tries to refuse, I declare that he has acknowledged his guilt and order him hanged on the spot, his belongings and rank forfeit to his accuser as the law states. I have spoken.” That with another scowl for the High Inquisitor. Maybe there really was hatred there.

Trom bowed formally once more. “You have informed him yourself, my Lord Captain Commander. Damodred?”

Galad felt cold. Not the cold of fear, but of emptiness. When Dain drunkenly let slip the confused rumors that had come to his ears, when Byar reluctantly confirmed they were more than rumors, rage had filled Galad, a bone-burning fire that nearly drove him insane. He had been sure his head would explode if his heart did not burst first. Now he was ice, drained of any emotion. He also bowed formally. Much of what he had to say was set in the law, yet he chose the rest with care, to spare as much shame as possible to a memory he held dear.

“Eamon Valda, Child of the Light, I call you to Trial Beneath the Light for unlawful assault on the person of Morgase Trakand, Queen of Andor, and for her murder.” No one had been able to confirm that the woman he regarded as his mother was dead, yet it must be so. A dozen men were certain she had vanished from the Fortress of the Light before it fell to the Seanchan, and as many testified she had not been free to leave of her own will.

Valda displayed no shock at the charge. His smile might have been intended to show regret over Galad’s folly in making such a claim, yet contempt was mingled in it. He opened his mouth, but Asunawa cut in once more.

“This is ridiculous,” he said in tones more of sorrow than of anger. “Take the fool, and we’ll find out what Darkfriend plot to discredit the Children he is part of.” He motioned, and two of the hulking Questioners took a step toward Galad, one with a cruel grin, the other blank-faced, a workman about his work.

Only one step, though. A soft rasp repeated around the courtyard as Children eased their swords in their scabbards. At least a dozen men drew entirely, letting their blades hang by their sides. The Amadician grooms hunched in on themselves, trying to become invisible. Likely they would have run, had they dared. Asunawa stared around him, thick eyebrows climbing up his forehead in disbelief, knotted fists gripping his cloak. Strangely, even Valda appeared startled for an instant. Surely he had not expected the Children to allow an arrest after his own proclamation. If he had, he recovered quickly.

“You see, Asunawa,” he said almost cheerfully, “the Children follow my orders, and the law, not a Questioner’s whims.” He held out his helmet to one side for someone to take. “I deny your preposterous charge, young Galad, and throw your foul lie in your teeth. For it is a lie, or at best a mad acceptance of some malignant rumor started by Darkfriends or others who wish the Children ill. Either way, you have defamed me in the vilest manner, so I accept your challenge to Trial Beneath the Light, where I will kill you.” That barely squeezed into the ritual, but he had denied the charge and accepted the challenge; it would suffice.

Realizing that he still held the helmet in an outstretched hand, Valda frowned at one of the dismounted Children, a lean Saldaean named Kashgar, until the man stepped forward to relieve him of it. Kashgar was only an under-lieutenant, almost boyish despite a great hooked nose and thick mustaches like inverted horns, yet he moved with open reluctance, and Valda’s voice was darker and acrid as he went on, unbuckling his sword belt and handing that over, too.

“Take a care with that, Kashgar. It’s a heron-mark blade.” Unpinning his silk cloak, he let it fall to the paving stones, followed by his tabard, and his hands moved to the buckles of his armor. It seemed that he was unwilling to see if others would be reluctant to help him. His face was calm enough, except that angry eyes promised retribution to more than Galad. “Your sister wants to become Aes Sedai, I understand, Damodred. Perhaps I understand precisely where this originated. There was a time I would have regretted your death, but not today. I may send your head to the White Tower so the witches can see the fruit of their scheme.”

Worry creasing his face, Dain took Galad’s cloak and sword belt, and stood shifting his feet as though uncertain he was doing the right thing. Well, he had been given his chance, and it was too late to change his mind, now. Byar put a gauntleted hand on Galad’s shoulder and leaned close.

“He likes to strike at the arms and legs,” he said in a low voice, casting glances over his shoulder at Valda. From the way he glared, some matter stood between them. Of course, that scowl differed little from his normal expression. “He likes to bleed an opponent until the man can’t take a step or raise his sword before he moves for the kill. He’s quicker than a viper, too, but he’ll strike at your left most often and expect it from you.”

Galad nodded. Many right-handed men found it easier to strike so, but it seemed an odd weakness in a blademaster. Gareth Bryne and Henre Haslin had made him practice alternating which hand was uppermost on the hilt so he would not fall into that. Strange that Valda wanted to prolong a fight, too. He himself had been taught to end matters as quickly and cleanly as possible.

“My thanks,” he said, and the hollow-cheeked man made a dour grimace. Byar was far from likable, and he himself seemed to like no one save young Bornhald. Of the three, his presence was the biggest surprise, but he was there, and that counted in his favor.

Standing in the middle of the courtyard in his gold-worked white coat with his fists on his hips, Valda turned in a tight circle. “Everyone move back against the walls,” he commanded loudly. Horseshoes rang on the paving stones as the Children and the grooms obeyed. Asunawa and his Questioners snatched their animals’ reins, the High Inquisitor wearing a face of cold fury. “Keep the middle clear. Young Damodred and I will meet here—”

“Forgive me, my Lord Captain Commander,” Trom said with a slight bow, “but since you are a participant in the Trial, you cannot be Arbiter. Aside from the High Inquisitor, who by law may not take part, I hold the highest rank here after you, so with your permission ...?” Valda glared at him, then stalked over to stand beside Kashgar, arms folded across his chest. Ostentatiously he tapped his foot, impatient for matters to proceed.

Galad sighed. If the day went against him, as seemed all but certain, his friend would have the most powerful man in the Children as his enemy. Likely Trom would have had in any event, but more so now. “Keep an eye on them,” he told Bornhald, nodding toward the Questioners clustered on their horses near the gate. Asunawa’s underlings still ringed him like bodyguards, every man with a hand on his sword hilt.

“Why? Even Asunawa can’t interfere now. That would be against the law.”

It was very hard not to sigh again. Young Dain had been a Child far longer than he, and his father had served his entire life, but the man seemed to know less of the Children than he himself had learned. To Questioners, the law was what they said it was. “Just watch them.”

Trom stood in the center of the courtyard with his bared sword raised overhead, blade parallel to the ground, and unlike Valda, he spoke the words exactly as they were written. “Under the Light, we are gathered to witness Trial Beneath the Light, a sacred right of any Child of the Light. The Light shines on truth, and here the Light shall illuminate justice. Let no man speak save he who has legal right, and let any who seek to intervene be cut down summarily. Here, justice will be found under the Light by a man who pledges his life beneath the Light, by the force of his arm and the will of the Light. The combatants will meet unarmed where I now stand,” he continued, lowering the sword to his side, “and speak privately, for their own ears alone. May the Light help them find words to end this short of bloodshed, for if they do not, one of the Children must die this day, his name stricken from our rolls and anathema declared on his memory. Under the Light, it will be so.”

As Trom strode to the side of the courtyard, Valda moved toward the center in the walking stance called Cat Crosses the Courtyard, an arrogant saunter. He knew there were no words to stop blood being shed. To him, the fight had already begun. Galad merely walked out to meet him. He was nearly a head taller than Valda, but the other man held himself as though he were the larger, and confident of victory.

His smile was all contempt, this time. “Nothing to say, boy? Small wonder, considering that a blademaster is going to cut your head off in about one minute. I want one thing straight in your mind before I kill you, though. The wench was hale the last I saw her, and if she’s dead now, I’ll regret it.” That smile deepened, both in humor and disdain. “She was the best ride I ever had, and I hope to ride her again one day.”

Red-hot searing fury fountained inside Galad, but with an effort he managed to turn his back on Valda and walk away, already feeding his rage into an imagined flame as his two teachers had taught him. A man who fought in a rage, died in a rage. By the time he reached young Bornhald, he had achieved what Gareth and Henre had called the oneness. Floating in emptiness, he drew his sword from the scabbard Bornhald proffered, and the slightly curved blade became a part of him.

“What did he say?” Dain asked. “For a moment there, your face was murderous.”

Byar gripped Dain’s arm. “Don’t distract him,” he muttered.

Galad was not distracted. Every creak of saddle leather was clear and distinct, every ringing stamp of hoof on paving stone. He could hear flies buzzing ten feet away as though they were at his ear. He almost thought he could see the movements of their wings. He was one with the flies, with the courtyard, with the two men. They were all part of him, and he could not be distracted by himself.

Valda waited until he turned before drawing his own weapon on the other side of the courtyard, a flashy move, the sword blurring as it spun in his left hand, leaping to his right hand to make another blurred wheel in the air before settling, upright and rock steady before him, in both hands. He started forward, once more in Cat Crosses the Courtyard.

Raising his own sword, Galad moved to meet him, without thought assuming a walking stance perhaps influenced by his state of mind. Emptiness, it was called, and only a trained eye would know that he was not simply walking. Only a trained eye would see that he was in perfect balance every heartbeat. Valda had not gained that heron-mark sword by favoritism. Five blademasters had sat in judgment of his skills and voted unanimously to grant him the title. The vote always had to be unanimous. The only other way was to kill the bearer of a heron-mark blade in fair combat, one on one. Valda had been younger then than Galad was now. It did not matter. He was not focused on Valda’s death. He focused on nothing. But he intended Valda’s death if he had to Sheathe the Sword, willingly welcoming that heron-mark blade in his flesh, to achieve it. He accepted that it might come to that.

Valda wasted no time with maneuvering. The instant he was within range, Plucking the Low-hanging Apple flashed toward Galad’s neck like lightning, as though the man truly did intend to have his head in the first minute. There were several possible responses, all made instinct by hard training, but Byar’s warnings floated in the dim recesses of his mind, and also the fact that Valda had warned him of this very thing. Warned him twice. Without conscious thought, he chose another way, stepping sideways and forward just as Plucking the Low-hanging Apple became the Leopard’s Caress. Valda’s eyes widened in surprise as his stroke missed Galad’s left thigh by inches, widened more as Parting the Silk laid a gash down his right forearm, but he immediately launched into the Dove Takes Flight, so fast that Galad had to dance back before his blade could bite deeply, barely fending off the attack with Kingfisher Circles the Pond.

Back and forth they danced the forms, gliding this way then that across the stone paving. Lizard in the Thornbush met Lightning of Three Prongs. Leaf on the Breeze countered Eel Among the Lily Pads, and Two Hares Leaping met the Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose. Back and forth as smoothly as a demonstration of the forms. Galad tried attack after attack, but Valda was as fast as a viper. The Wood Grouse Dances cost him a shallow gash on his left shoulder, and the Red Hawk Takes a Dove another on the left arm, slightly deeper. River of Light might have taken the arm completely had he not met the draw-cut with a desperately quick Rain in High Wind. Back and forth, blades flashing continuously, filling the air with the clash of steel on steel.

How long they fought, he could not have said. There was no time, only the moment. It seemed that he and Valda moved like men under water, their motions slowed by the drag of the sea. Sweat appeared on Valda’s face, but he smiled with self-assurance, seemingly untroubled by the slash on his forearm, still the only injury he had taken. Galad could feel the sweat rolling down his own face, too, stinging his eyes. And the blood trickling down his arm. Those wounds would slow him eventually, perhaps already had, but he had taken two on his left thigh, and both were more serious. His foot was wet in his boot from those, and he could not avoid a slight limp that would grow worse with time. If Valda was to die, it must be soon.

Deliberately, he drew a deep breath, then another, through his mouth, another. Let Valda think him becoming winded. His blade lanced out in Threading the Needle, aimed at Valda’s left shoulder and not quite as fast as it could have been. The other man countered easily with the Swallow Takes Flight, sliding immediately into the Lion Springs. That took a third bite in his thigh; he dared not be faster in defense than in attack.

Again he launched Threading the Needle at Valda’s shoulder, and again, again, all the while gulping air through his mouth. Only luck kept him from taking more wounds in those exchanges. Or perhaps the Light really did shine on this fight.

Valda’s smile widened; the man believed him on the edge of his strength, exhausted and fixated. As Galad began Threading the Needle, too slowly, for the fifth time, the other man’s sword started the Swallow Takes Flight in an almost perfunctory manner. Summoning all the quickness that remained to him, Galad altered his stroke, and Reaping the Barley sliced across Valda just beneath his rib cage.

For a moment it seemed that the man was unaware he had been hit. He took a step, began what might have been Stones Falling from the Cliff. Then his eyes widened, and he staggered, the sword falling from his grip to clatter on the paving stones as he sank to his knees. His hands went to the huge gash across his body as though trying to hold his insides within him, and his mouth opened, glassy eyes fixed on Galad’s face. Whatever he intended to say, it was blood that poured out over his chin. He toppled onto his face and lay still.

Automatically, Galad gave his blade a rapid twist to shake off the blood staining its final inch, then bent slowly to wipe the last drops onto Valda’s white coat. The pain he had ignored now flared. His left shoulder and arm burned; his thigh seemed to be on fire. Straightening took effort. Perhaps he was nearer exhaustion than he had thought. How long had they fought? He had thought he would feel satisfaction that his mother had been avenged, but all he felt was emptiness. Valda’s death was not enough. Nothing except Morgase Trakand alive again could be enough.

Suddenly he became aware of a rhythmic clapping and looked up to see the Children, each man slapping his own armored shoulder in approval. Every man. Except Asunawa and the Questioners. They were nowhere to be seen.

Byar hurried up carrying a small leather sack and carefully parted the slashes in Galad’s coatsleeve. “Those will need sewing,” he muttered, “but they can wait.” Kneeling beside Galad, he took rolled bandages from the sack and began winding them around the gashes in his thigh. “These need sewing, too, but this will keep you from bleeding to death before you can get it.” Others began gathering around, offering congratulations, men afoot in front, those still mounted behind. None gave the corpse a glance except for Kashgar, who cleaned Valda’s sword on that already bloodstained coat before sheathing it.

“Where did Asunawa go?” Galad asked.

“He left as soon as you cut Valda the last time,” Dain replied uneasily. “He’ll be heading for the camp to bring back Questioners.”

“He rode the other way, toward the border,” someone put in. Nassad lay just over the border.

“The Lords Captain,” Galad said, and Trom nodded.

“No Child would let the Questioners arrest you for what happened here, Damodred. Unless his captain ordered it. Some of them would order it, I think.” Angry muttering began, men denying they would stand for such a thing, but Trom quieted them, somewhat, with raised hands. “You know it’s true,” he said loudly. “Anything else would be mutiny.” That brought dead silence. There had never been a mutiny in the Children. It was possible that nothing before had come as close as their own earlier display. “I’ll write out your release from the Children, Galad. Someone may still order your arrest, but they’ll have to find you, and you’ll have a good start. It will take half the day for Asunawa to catch the other Lords Captain, and whoever falls in with him can’t be back before nightfall.”

Galad shook his head angrily. Trom was right, but it was all wrong. Too much was wrong. “Will you write releases for these other men? You know Asunawa will find a way to accuse them, too. Will you write releases for the Children who don’t want to help the Seanchan take our lands in the name of a man dead more than a thousand years?” Several Taraboners exchanged glances and nodded, and so did other men, not all of them Amadician. “What about the men who defended the Fortress of the Light? Will any release get their chains struck off or make the Seanchan stop working them like animals?” More angry growls; those prisoners were a sore point to all of the Children.

Arms folded across his chest, Trom studied him as though seeing him for the first time. “What would you do, then?”

“Have the Children find someone, anyone, who is fighting the Seanchan and ally with them. Make sure that the Children of the Light ride in the Last Battle instead of helping the Seanchan hunt Aiel and steal our nations.”

“Anyone?” a Cairhienin named Doirellin said in a high-pitched voice. No one ever made fun of Doirellin’s voice. Though short, he was nearly as wide as he was tall, there was barely an ounce of fat on him, and he could put walnuts between all of his fingers and crack them by clenching his fists. “That could mean Aes Sedai.”

“If you intend to be at Tarmon Gai’don, then you will have to fight alongside Aes Sedai,” Galad said quietly. Young Bornhald grimaced in strong distaste, and he was not the only one. Byar half-straightened before bending back to his task. But no one voiced dissent. Doirellin nodded slowly, as if he had never before considered the matter.

“I don’t hold with the witches any more than any other man,” Byar said finally, without raising his head from his work. Blood was seeping through the bandages even as he wrapped. “But the Precepts say, to fight the raven, you may make alliance with the serpent until the battle is done.” A ripple of nods ran through the men. The raven meant the Shadow, but everyone knew it was also the Seanchan Imperial sigil.

“I’ll fight beside the witches,” a lanky Taraboner said, “or even these Asha’man we keep hearing about, if they fight the Seanchan. Or at the Last Battle. And I’ll fight any man who says I’m wrong.” He glared as though ready to begin then and there.

“It seems matters will play out as you wish, my Lord Captain Commander,” Trom said, making a much deeper bow than he had for Valda. “To a degree, at least. Who can say what the next hour will bring, much less tomorrow?”

Galad surprised himself by laughing. Since yesterday, he had been sure he would never laugh again. “That’s a poor joke, Trom.”

“It is how the law is written. And Valda did make his proclamation. Besides, you had the courage to say what many have thought while holding their tongues, myself among them. Yours is a better plan for the Children than any I’ve heard since Pedron Niall died.”

“It’s still a poor joke.” Whatever the law said, that part had been ignored since the end of the War of the Hundred Years.

“We’ll see what the Children have to say on the matter,” Trom replied, grinning widely, “when you ask them to follow us to Tarmon Gai’don to fight alongside the witches.”

Men began slapping their shoulders again, harder than they had for his victory. At first it was only a few, then more joined in, until every man including Trom was signaling approval. Every man but Kashgar, that was. Making a deep bow, the Saldaean held out the scabbarded heron-mark blade with both hands.

“This is yours, now, my Lord Captain Commander.”

Galad sighed. He hoped this nonsense would fade away before they reached the camp. Returning there was foolish enough without adding in a claim of that sort. Most likely they would be pulled down and thrown in chains if not beaten to death even without it. But he had to go. It was the right thing to do.

Daylight began to grow on this cool spring morning, though the sun had yet to show even a sliver above the horizon, and Rodel Ituralde raised his gold-banded looking glass to study the village below the hill where he sat his roan gelding, deep in the heart of Tarabon. He did hate waiting for enough light to see. Careful of a glint off the lens, he held the end of the long tube on his thumb and shaded it with a cupped hand. At this hour, sentries were at their least watchful, relieved that the darkness where an enemy might sneak close was departing, yet since crossing from Almoth Plain he had heard tales of Aiel raids inside Tarabon. Were he a sentry with Aiel perhaps about, he would grow extra eyes. Peculiar that the country was not milling like a kicked antheap over those Aiel. Peculiar, and perhaps ominous. There were plenty of armed men to be found, Seanchan and Taraboners sworn to them, and hordes of Seanchan building farms and even villages, but reaching this far had been almost too easy. Today, the easiness ended.

Behind him among the trees, horses stamped impatiently. The hundred Domani with him were quiet, except for an occasional creak of saddle leather as a man shifted his seat, but he could feel their tension. He wished he had twice as many. Five times. In the beginning, it had seemed a gesture of good faith that he himself would ride with a force mainly composed of Taraboners. He was no longer certain that had been the right decision. It was too late for recriminations, in any event.

Halfway between Elmora and the Amadician border, Serana sat in a flat grassy valley among forested hills, with at least a mile to the trees in any direction save his, and a small, reed-fringed lake fed by two wide streams lay between him and the village. Not a place that could be surprised by daylight. It had been sizable before the Seanchan came, a stopping point for the merchant trains heading east, with over a dozen inns and nearly as many streets. Village folk were already getting about their day’s tasks, women balancing baskets on their heads as they glided down the village streets and others starting the fires under laundry kettles behind their houses, men striding along toward their workplaces, sometimes pausing to exchange a few words. A normal morning, with children already running and playing, rolling hoops and tossing beanbags among the throng. The clang of a smithy rose, dim with the distance. The smoke from breakfast fires was fading at the chimneys.

As far as he could see, no one in Serana gave a second glance to the three pairs of sentries with bright stripes painted across their breastplates, walking their horses back and forth perhaps a quarter of a mile out. The lake, considerably wider than the village, shielded the fourth side effectively. It seemed the sentries were an accepted matter of every day, and so was the Seanchan camp that had swollen Serana to more than twice its former size.

Ituralde shook his head slightly. He would not have placed the camp cheek-by-jowl with the village that way. The rooftops of Serana were all tile, red or green or blue, but the buildings themselves were wooden; a fire in the town could spread all too easily into the camp, where canvas store-tents the size of large houses far outnumbered the smaller tents where men slept, and great stacks of barrels and casks and crates covered twice as much ground as all the tents combined. Keeping lightfingered villagers out would be all but impossible. Every town had a few tickbirds who picked up anything they thought they could get away with, and even somewhat more honest men might be tempted by the proximity. The location did mean a shorter distance to haul water from the lake, and a shorter distance for soldiers to walk to reach the ale and wine in the village when off-duty, but it suggested a commander who kept slack discipline.

Slack discipline or not, there was activity in the camp, too. Soldiers’ hours made farmers’ hours seem restful. Men were checking the animals on the long horselines, bannermen checking soldiers standing in ranks, hundreds of laborers loading or unloading wagons, grooms harnessing teams. Every day, trains of wagons came down the road into this camp from east and west, and others departed. He admired the Seanchan efficiency at making sure their soldiers had what they needed when and where it was needed. Dragonsworn here in Tarabon, most sour-faced men who believed their dream snuffed out by the Seanchan, had been willing to tell what they knew if not to ride with him. That camp contained everything from boots to swords, arrows to horseshoes to water flasks, enough to outfit thousands of men from the ground up. They would feel its loss.

He lowered the looking glass to brush a buzzing green fly away from his face. Two replaced it almost at once. Tarabon teemed with flies. Did they always come so early here? They would just have begun hatching at home by the time he reached Arad Doman again. If he did. No; no ill thoughts. When he did. Tamsin would be displeased, otherwise, and it was seldom wise to displease her too far.

Most of the men down there were hired workmen, not soldiers, and only a hundred or so of those Seanchan. Still, a company of three hundred Taraboners in stripe-painted armor had ridden in at noon the day before, more than doubling their numbers and requiring him to change his plans. Another party of Taraboners, as large, had entered the camp at sunset, just in time to eat and bed down wherever they could lay their blankets. Candles and lamp oil were luxuries for soldiers. There was one of those leashed women, a damane, in the camp, too. He wished he could have waited until she left—they must have been taking her elsewhere; what use for a damane at a supply camp?—but today was the appointed day, and he could not afford to give the Taraboners reason to claim he was holding back. Some would snatch at any reason to go their own way. He knew they would not follow him much longer, yet he needed to hold as many as he could for a few days more.

Shifting his gaze to the west, he did not bother with the looking glass.

“Now,” he whispered, and as though at his command, two hundred men with mail veils across their faces galloped out of the trees. And immediately halted, cavorting and jockeying for place, brandishing steel-tipped lances while their leader raced up and down before them gesturing wildly in an obvious effort to establish some semblance of order.

At this distance, Ituralde could not have made out faces even with the glass, but he could imagine the fury on Tornay Lanasiet’s features at playing out this charade. The stocky Dragonsworn burned to close with Seanchan. Any Seanchan. It had been difficult to dissuade him from striking the day they crossed the border. Yesterday he had been visibly overjoyed finally to scrape the hated stripes indicating loyalty to the Seanchan from his breastplate. No matter; so far he was obeying his orders to the letter.

As the sentries nearest Lanasiet turned their mounts to speed toward the village and the Seanchan camp, Ituralde swung his attention there and raised his looking glass once more. The sentries would find their warning superfluous. Motion had ceased. Some men were pointing toward the horsemen on the other side of the village, while the rest seemed to be staring, soldiers and workmen alike. The last thing they expected was raiders. Aiel raids or no Aiel raids, the Seanchan considered Tarabon theirs, and safely so. A quick glance at the village showed people standing in the streets staring toward the strange riders. They had not expected raiders, either. He thought the Seanchan were right, an opinion he would not share with any Taraboner in the foreseeable future.

With well-trained men, shock could last only so long, however. In the camp, soldiers began racing toward their horses, many still unsaddled, though grooms had started working as fast as they could. Eighty-odd Seanchan footmen, archers, formed into ranks and set off running through Serana. At that evidence that there truly was a threat, people began snatching up the smaller children and herding the older toward the hoped-for safety of the houses. In moments, the streets were empty save for the hurrying archers in their lacquered armor and peculiar helmets.

Ituralde turned the glass toward Lanasiet and found the man galloping his line of horsemen forward. “Wait for it,” he growled. “Wait for it.”

Again it seemed the Taraboner heard his command, finally raising a hand to halt his men. At least they were still a half-mile or more from the village. The hotheaded fool was supposed to be near a mile away, on the edge of the trees and still in seeming disorder and easily swept away, but half would have to suffice. He suppressed the urge to finger the ruby in his left ear. The battle had begun, now, and in battle you had to make those following you believe that you were utterly cool, completely unaffected. Not wanting to knock down a putative ally. Emotion seemed to leak from a commander into his men, and angry men behaved stupidly, getting themselves killed and losing battles.

Touching the half-moon-shaped beauty patch on his cheek—a man should look his best on a day like today—he took slow measured breaths until certain that he was as cool inside as his outward display, then returned his attention to the camp. Most of the Taraboners there were mounted, now, but they waited for twenty or so Seanchan led by a tall fellow with a single thin plume on his curious helmet to gallop into the village before falling in behind, yesterday’s latecomers trailing at the rear.

Ituralde studied the figure leading the column, viewing him through the gaps between houses. A single plume would mark a lieutenant or maybe an under-lieutenant. Which might mean a beardless boy on his first command or a grizzled veteran who could take your head if you made one mistake. Strangely, the damane, marked by the shining silvery leash that connected her to a woman on another horse, galloped her animal as hard as anyone. Everything he had heard said damane were prisoners, yet she appeared as eager as the other woman, the sul’dam. Perhaps—

Abruptly his breath caught in his throat and all thought of damane fled. There were people still in the street, seven or eight men and women, walking in a cluster and right ahead of the racing column that they seemed not to hear thundering up behind them. There was no time for the Seanchan to stop if they wanted to, and good reason not to try with an enemy ahead, but it looked as though the tall fellow’s hand never twitched on his reins as he and the rest rode the people down. A veteran, then. Murmuring a prayer for the dead, Ituralde lowered the glass. What came next was best seen without it.

Two hundred paces beyond the village, the officer started forming his command where the archers had already stopped and were waiting with nocked arrows. Waving directions to the Taraboners behind, he turned to peer at Lanasiet through a looking glass. Sunlight glinted off the tube’s banding. The sun was rising, now. The Taraboners began dividing smoothly, lance heads glittering and all slanted at the same angle, disciplined men falling into ordered ranks to either side of the archers.

The officer leaned over to converse with the sul’dam. If he turned her and the damane loose now, this could still turn into a disaster. Of course, it could if he did not, too. The last of the Taraboners, those who had arrived late, began stretching out in a line fifty paces behind the others, driving their lances point-down into the ground and pulling their horsebows from the cases fastened behind their saddles. Lanasiet, curse the man, was galloping his men forward.

Turning his head for a moment, Ituralde spoke loudly enough for the men behind him to hear. “Be ready.” Saddle leather creaked as men gathered their reins. Then he murmured another prayer for the dead and whispered, “Now.”

As one man the three hundred Taraboners in the long line, his Taraboners, raised their bows and loosed. He did not need the looking glass to see the sul’dam and damane and the officer suddenly sprout arrows. They were all but swept from their saddles by near a dozen striking each of them at once. Ordering that had given him a pang, but the women were the most dangerous people on that field. The rest of that volley cut down most of the archers and cleared saddles, and even as men struck the ground, a second volley lanced out, knocking down the last archers and emptying more saddles.

Caught by surprise, the Seanchan-loyal Taraboners tried to fight. Among those still mounted, some wheeled about and lowered lances to charge their attackers. Others, perhaps seized by the irrationality that could take men in battle, dropped their lances and tried to uncase their own horsebows. But a third volley lashed them, pile-headed arrows driving through breastplates at that range, and suddenly the survivors seemed to realize that they were survivors. Most of their fellows lay still on the ground or struggled to stand though pierced by two or three shafts. Those still mounted were now outnumbered by their opponents. A few men reined their horses around, and in a flash the lot of them were running south pursued by one final rain of bowshot that toppled more.

“Hold,” Ituralde murmured. “Hold where you are.”

A handful of the mounted archers fired again, but the rest wisely refrained. They could kill a few more before the enemy was beyond range, but this group was beaten, and before long they would be counting every arrow. Best of all, none of them went racing in pursuit.

The same could not be said of Lanasiet. Cloaks streaming, he and his two hundred raced after the fleeing men. Ituralde imagined he could hear them yelping, hunters on the trail of running prey.

“I think we’ve seen the last of Lanasiet, my Lord,” Jaalam said, reining his gray up beside Ituralde, who shrugged slightly.

“Perhaps, my young friend. He may come to his senses. In any case, I never thought the Taraboners would return to Arad Doman with us. Did you?”

“No, my Lord,” the taller man replied, “but I thought his honor would hold through the first fight.”

Ituralde lifted his glass to look at Lanasiet, still galloping hard. The man was gone, and unlikely to come to senses he did not possess. A third of his force gone as surely as if that damane had killed them. He had counted on a few more days. He would need to change plans again, perhaps change his next target.

Dismissing Lanasiet from his thoughts, he swung the glass to glance at where those people had been ridden down, and grunted in surprise. There were no trampled bodies. Friends and neighbors must have come out to carry them away, though with a battle on the edge of the village that seemed about as likely as them getting up and walking away after the horses passed.

“It’s time to go burn all those lovely Seanchan stores,” he said. Shoving the looking glass into the leather case tied to his saddle, he donned his helmet and heeled Steady down the hill, followed by Jaalam and the others in a column of twos. Ruts from farm wagons and broken-down banks indicated a ford in the eastern stream. “And, Jaalam, tell a few men to warn the villagers to start moving what they want to save. Tell them to begin with the houses nearest the camp.” Where fire could spread one way, it could the other, too, and likely would.

In truth, he had already set the important blaze. Breathed on the first embers, at least. If the Light shone on him, if no one had been overcome by eagerness or given in to despair at the hold the Seanchan had on Tarabon, if no one had fallen afoul of the mishaps that could ruin the best laid plan, then all across Tarabon, above twenty thousand men had struck blows like this, or would before the day was out. And tomorrow they would do it again. Now all he had to do was raid his way back across better than four hundred miles of Tarabon, shedding Taraboner Dragonsworn and gathering in his own men, then re-cross Almoth Plain. If the Light shone on him, that blaze would singe the Seanchan enough to bring them chasing after him full of fury. A great deal of fury, he hoped. That way, they would run headlong into the trap he had laid before they ever knew it was there. If they failed to follow, then at least he had rid his homeland of the Taraboners and bound the Domani Dragonsworn to fight for the King instead of against him. And if they saw the trap...

Riding down the hillside, Ituralde smiled. If they saw the trap, then he had another plan already laid, and another behind that. He always looked ahead, and always planned for every eventuality he could imagine, short of the Dragon Reborn himself suddenly appearing in front of him. He thought the plans he had would suffice for the moment.

The High Lady Suroth Sabelle Meldarath lay awake on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. The moon was down, and the triple-arched windows that overlooked a palace garden were dark, but her eyes had adjusted so that she could make out at least the outlines of the ornate, painted plasterwork. Dawn was no more than an hour or two off, yet she had not slept. She had lain awake most nights since Tuon vanished, sleeping only when exhaustion closed her eyes however hard she tried to keep them open. Sleep brought nightmares she wished she could forget. Ebou Dar was never truly cold, but the night held a little coolness, enough to help keep her awake, lying beneath only a thin silk sheet. The question that tainted her dreams was simple and stark. Was Tuon alive, or dead?

The escape of the Atha’an Miere damane and Queen Tylin’s murder spoke in favor of her death. Three events of that magnitude happening on one night by chance was pressing coincidence too far, and the first two were horrifying enough in themselves to indicate the worst for Tuon. Someone was trying to sow fear among the Rhyagelle, Those Who Come Home, perhaps to disrupt the entire Return. How better to achieve that than to assassinate Tuon? Worse, it had to be one of their own. Because she had landed under the veil, no local knew who Tuon was. Tylin had surely been killed with the One Power, by a sul’dam and her damane. Suroth had leaped at the suggestion that Aes Sedai were to blame, yet eventually someone who mattered would question how one of those women could enter a palace full of damane in a city full of damane and escape detection. At least one sul’dam had been necessary to uncollar the Sea Folk damane. And two of her own sul’dam had disappeared at almost the same time.

In any case, they had been noticed as missing two days later, and no one had seen them since the night Tuon vanished. She did not believe they were involved, though they had been in the kennels. For one thing, she could not imagine Renna or Seta uncollaring a damane. They certainly had reasons enough to sneak away and seek employment far off, with someone ignorant of their filthy secret, someone like this Egeanin Tamarath who had stolen a pair of damane. Strange that, for one newly raised to the Blood. Strange, but unimportant; she could see no way to tie it to the rest. Likely the woman had found the stresses and complexities of nobility too much for a simple sailor. Well, she would be found and arrested eventually.

The important fact, the potentially deadly fact, was that Renna and Seta were gone, and no one could say exactly when they had left. If the wrong person noted their departure so close to the critical time and made the wrong calculation... She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and exhaled softly, very near to a groan.

Even should she escape suspicion of murdering Tuon, if the woman was dead, then she herself would be required to apologize to the Empress, might she live forever. For the death of the acknowledged heir to the Crystal Throne, her apology would be protracted, and as painful as it was humiliating; it might end with her execution, or much worse, with being sent to the block as property. Not that it would actually come to that, though in her nightmares it often did. Her hand slid beneath the pillows to touch the unsheathed dagger there. The blade was little longer than her hand, yet more than sharp enough to open her veins, preferably in a warm bath. If time came for an apology, she would not live to reach Seandar. The dishonor to her name might even be lessened a little if enough people believed the act was itself an apology. She would leave a letter explaining it so. That might help.

Still, there was a chance Tuon remained alive, and Suroth clung to it. Killing her and spiriting the body away might be a deep move ordered from Seanchan by one of her surviving sisters who coveted the throne, yet Tuon had arranged her own disappearance more than once. In support of the notion, Tuon’s der’sul’dam had taken all of her sul’dam and damane into the country for exercise nine days ago, and they had not been seen since. Exercising damane did not require nine days. And just today—no; yesterday, now, by a good few hours—Suroth had learned that the captain of Tuon’s bodyguard also had left the city nine days ago with a sizable contingent of his men and not returned. That was too much for coincidence, and very nearly proof. Near enough for hope, at least.

Each of those previous disappearances, however, had been part of Tuon’s campaign to win the approval of the Empress, might she live forever, and be named heir. Each time, some competitor among her sisters had been forced or emboldened to acts that lowered her when Tuon reappeared. What need had she of such stratagems now, here? Rack her brains how she would, Suroth could not find a worthy target outside Seanchan. She had considered the possibility that she herself was the mark, but only briefly and only because she could think of no one else. Tuon could have stripped her of her position in the Return with three words. All she needed to do was remove the veil; here, the Daughter of the Nine Moons, in command of the Return, spoke with the voice of the Empire. Bare suspicion that Suroth was Atha’an Shadar, what those this side of the Aryth Ocean called a Darkfriend, might have been enough for Tuon to have handed her over to the Seekers for questioning. No, Tuon was aiming at someone else, or something else. If she did still live. But she had to. Suroth did not want to die. She fingered the blade.

Who or what else did not matter, except as a clue to where Tuon might be, but that was very important. Immensely so. Already, despite the announcement of an extended inspection trip, whispers floated among the Blood that she was dead. The longer she remained missing, the more those whispers would grow, and with them the pressure for Suroth to return to Seandar and make that apology. She could only resist so long before she would be adjudged sei’mosiev so deeply that only her own servants and property would obey her. Her eyes would be ground into the dirt. Low Blood as well as High, perhaps even commoners, would refuse to speak to her. Soon after that, she would find herself on a ship whatever her wishes.

Without doubt Tuon would be displeased at being found, yet it seemed unlikely her displeasure would extend so far as Suroth being dishonored and forced to slit her wrists; therefore Tuon must be found. Every Seeker in Altara was searching for her—those Suroth knew of, at least. Tuon’s own Seekers were not among the known, yet they must be hunting twice as hard as any others. Unless they had been taken into her confidence. But in seventeen days, all that had been uncovered was that ridiculous story of Tuon extorting jewelry from goldsmiths, and that was known to every common soldier. Perhaps...

The arched door to the anteroom began to open slowly, and Suroth snapped her right eye shut to protect her night vision against the light of the outer room. As soon as the gap was wide enough, a pale-haired woman in the diaphanous robes of a da’covale slipped into the bedchamber and softly closed the door behind her, plunging the room into pitch blackness. Until Suroth opened her eye again, and made out a shadowy form creeping toward her bed. And another shadow, huge, suddenly looming in a corner of the room as Almandaragal rose noiselessly to his feet. The lopar could cross the room and snap the fool woman’s neck in a heartbeat, but Suroth still gripped the hilt of her dagger. It was wise to have a second line of defense even when the first seemed impregnable. A pace short of the bed, the da’covale stopped. Her anxious breathing sounded loud in the silence.

“Working up your courage, Liandrin?” Suroth said harshly. That honey-colored hair, worked in thin braids, had been enough to name her.

With a squeak, the da’covale dropped to her knees and bent to press her face to the carpet. She had learned that much, at least. “I would not harm you, High Lady,” she lied. “You know I would not.” Her voice was rushed, in a breathy panic. Learning when to speak and when not seemed as far beyond her as learning how to speak with proper respect. “We are both bound to serve the Great Lord, High Lady. Have I not proven I can be useful? I removed Alwhin for you, yes? You said you wished her dead, High Lady, and I removed her.”

Suroth grimaced and sat up in the dark, the sheet sliding down to her lap. It was so easy to forget da’covale were there, even this da’covale, and then you let slip things you should not have. Alwhin had not been dangerous, merely a nuisance, awkward in her place as Suroth’s Voice. She had achieved all she had ever wanted in reaching that, and the likelihood of her risking it by so much as the smallest betrayal had been tiny. True, had she broken her neck falling down a flight of stairs, Suroth would have felt some small relief from an irritant, but poison that left the woman with bulging eyes and a blue face was another matter. Even with the search for Tuon, that had brought the Seekers’ eyes to Suroth’s household. She had been forced to insist on it, for the murder of her Voice. That there were Listeners in her household, she accepted; every household had its share of Listeners. Seekers did more than listen, though, and they might uncover what must remain hidden.

Masking her anger required surprising effort, and her tone was colder than she wanted. “I hope you did not wake me merely to plead again, Liandrin.”

“No, no!” The fool raised her head and actually looked straight at her! “An officer came from General Galgan, High Lady. He is waiting to take you to the general.”

Suroth’s head throbbed with irritation. The woman delayed delivering a message from Galgan and looked her in the eyes? In the dark, to be sure, yet an urge swept over her to strangle Liandrin with her bare hands. A second death hard on the heels of the first would intensify the Seekers’ interest in her household, if they learned of it, but Elbar could dispose of the body easily; he was clever in such tasks.

Except, she enjoyed owning the former Aes Sedai who once had been so haughty with her. Making her a perfect da’covale in every way would be a great pleasure. It was time to have the woman collared, however. Already irritating rumors buzzed of an uncollared marath’damane among her servants. It would be a twelve-day wonder when the sul’dam discovered she was shielded in some way so she could not channel, yet that would help answer the question of why she had not been leashed before. Elbar would need to find some Atha’an Shadar among the sul’dam, though. That was never an easy task—relatively few sul’dam turned to the Great Lord, oddly—and she no longer really trusted any sul’dam, but perhaps Atha’an Shadar could be trusted more than the rest.

“Light two lamps, then bring me a robe and slippers,” she said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed.

Liandrin scrambled to the table that held the lidded sand bowl on its gilded tripod and hissed when she found it with a careless hand, but she quickly used the tongs to lift out a hot coal, puffed it to a glow, and lit two of the silvered lamps, adjusting the wicks so the flames held steady and did not smoke. Her tongue might suggest that she felt herself Suroth’s equal rather than a possession, yet the strap had taught her to obey commands with alacrity.

Turning with one of the lamps in her hand, she gave a start and a choked cry at the sight of Almandaragal looming in the corner, his dark, ridge-ringed eyes focused on her. You would think she had never seen him before! Yet he was a fearsome sight, ten feet tall and near two thousand pounds, his hairless skin like reddish brown leather, flexing his six-toed forepaws so his claws extended and retracted, extended and retracted.

“Be at ease,” Suroth told the lopar, a familiar command, but he stretched his mouth wide, showing sharp teeth before settling back to the floor and resting his huge round head on his paws like a hound. He did not close his eyes again, either. Lopar were quite intelligent, and plainly he trusted Liandrin no more than she did.

Despite fearful glances at Almandaragal, the da’covale was quick enough to fetch blue velvet slippers and a white silk robe intricately embroidered in green, red and blue from the tall, carved wardrobe, and she held the robe for Suroth to thrust her arms into the sleeves, but Suroth had to tie the long sash herself, and to thrust out a foot before Liandrin remembered to kneel and fit the slippers on. Her eyes, but the woman was incompetent!

By the dim light, Suroth examined herself in the gilded stand-mirror against the wall. Her eyes were hollow and shadowed with weariness, the tail of her crest hung down her back in a loose braid for sleeping, and doubtless her scalp required a razor. Very well. Galgan’s messenger would think her grief-stricken over Tuon, and that was true enough. Before learning the general’s message, though, she had one small matter to take care of.

“Run to Rosala and beg her to beat you soundly, Liandrin,” she said.

The da’covale’s tight little mouth dropped open and her eyes widened in shock. “But why?” she whined. “Me, I have done nothing!”

Suroth busied her hands with knotting the sash tighter to keep from striking the woman. Her eyes would be lowered for a month if it was learned that she had struck a da’covale herself. She certainly owed no explanations to property, yet once Liandrin did become completely trained, she would miss these opportunities to grind the woman’s face in how far she had fallen.

“Because you delayed telling me of the general’s messenger. Because you still call yourself ‘I’ rather than ‘Liandrin.’ Because you meet my eyes.” She could not help hissing that. Liandrin had huddled in on herself with every word, and now she directed her eyes to the floor, as if that would mitigate her offense. “Because you questioned my orders instead of obeying. And last—last, but most importantly to you—because I wish you beaten. Now, run, and tell Rosala each of these reasons so she will beat you well.”

“Liandrin hears and obeys, High Lady,” the da’covale whimpered, at last getting something right, and flung herself at the door so fast that she lost one of her white slippers. Too terrified to turn back for it, or perhaps even to notice—and well for her that she was—she clawed the door open and ran. Sending property for discipline should not bring a sense of satisfaction, but it did. Oh, yes, it did.

Suroth took a moment to control her breathing. To appear to be grieving was one thing, to appear to be agitated quite another. She was filled with annoyance at Liandrin, jolting memories of her nightmares, fears for Tuon’s fate and even more so her own, but not until the face in the mirror displayed utter calm did she follow the da’covale.

The anteroom to her bedchamber was decorated in the garish Ebou Dari fashion, a cloud-painted blue ceiling, yellow walls and green and yellow floor tiles. Even replacing the furnishings with her own tall screens, all save two painted by the finest artists with birds or flowers, did little to relieve the gaudiness. She growled faintly in her throat at the sight of the outer door, apparently left open by Liandrin in her flight, but she dismissed the da’covale from her mind for the moment and concentrated on the man who stood there examining the screen that held the image of a kori, a huge spotted cat from the Sen T’jore. Lanky and graying, in armor striped blue-and-yellow, he pivoted smoothly at the soft sound of her footsteps and went to one knee, though he was a commoner. The helmet beneath his arm bore three slender blue plumes, so the message must be important. Of course, it must be important to disturb her at this hour. She would give him dispensation. This once.

“Banner-General Mikhel Najirah, High Lady. Captain-General Galgan’s compliments, and he has received communications from Tarabon.”

Suroth’s eyebrows climbed in spite of herself. Tarabon? Tarabon was as secure as Seandar. Automatically her fingers twitched, but she had not yet found a replacement for Alwhin. She must speak to the man herself. Irritation over that hardened her voice, and she made no effort to soften it. Kneeling instead of prostrate! “What communications? If I have been wakened for news of Aiel, I will not be pleased, Banner-General.”

Her tone failed to intimidate the man. He even raised his eyes almost to meet hers. “Not Aiel, High Lady,” he said calmly. “Captain-General Galgan wishes to tell you himself, so you can hear every detail correctly.”

Suroth’s breath caught for an instant. Whether Najirah was just reluctant to tell her the contents of these communications or had been ordered not to, this sounded ill. “Lead on,” she commanded, then swept out of the room without waiting for him, ignoring as best she could the pair of Deathwatch Guards standing like statues in the hallway to either side of the door. The “honor” of being guarded by those men in red-and-green armor made her skin crawl. Since Tuon’s disappearance, she tried not to see them at all.

The corridor, lined with gilded stand-lamps whose flames flickered in errant drafts that stirred tapestries of ships and the sea, was empty except for a few liveried palace servants, scurrying on early tasks, who thought deep bows and curtsies sufficient. And they always looked right at her! Perhaps a word with Beslan? No; the new King of Altara was her equal, now, in law at any rate, and she doubted that he would make his servants behave properly. She stared straight ahead as she walked. That way, she did not have to see the servants’ insults.

Najirah caught up to her quickly, his boots ringing on the too-bright blue floor tiles, and fell in at her side. In truth, she needed no guide. She knew where Galgan must be.

The room had begun as a chamber for dancing, a square thirty paces on a side, its ceiling painted with fanciful fish and birds frolicking in often confusing fashion among clouds and waves. Only the ceiling remained to recall the room’s beginnings. Now mirrored stand-lamps and shelves full of filed reports in leather folders lined the pale red walls. Brown-coated clerks scurried along the aisles between the long, map-strewn tables that covered the green-tiled dancing-floor. A young officer, an under-lieutenant with no plume on her red-and-yellow helmet, raced past Suroth without so much as a move to prostrate herself. Clerks merely squeezed themselves out of her path. Galgan gave his people too much leeway. He claimed that what he called excessive ceremony at “the wrong time” hindered efficiency; she called it effrontery.

Lunal Galgan, a tall man in a red robe richly worked with bright-feathered birds, the hair of his crest snow white and its tail plaited in a tight but untidy queue that hung to his shoulders, stood at a table near the center of the room with a knot of other high-ranking officers, some in breastplates, others in robes and nearly as disheveled as she. It seemed she was not the first to whom he had sent a messenger. She struggled to keep anger from her face. Galgan had come with Tuon and the Return, and thus she knew little of him beyond that his ancestors had been among the first to throw their support to Luthair Paendrag and that he owned a high reputation as a soldier and a general. Well, reputation and truth were sometimes the same. She disliked him entirely for himself.

He turned at her approach and formally laid his hands on her shoulders, kissing her on either cheek, so she was forced to return the greeting while trying not to wrinkle her nose at the strong, musky scent he favored. Galgan’s face was as smooth as his creases would allow, but she thought she detected a hint of worry in his blue eyes. A number of the men and women behind him, mainly low Blood and commoners, wore open frowns.

The large map of Tarabon spread out on the table in front of her and held flat by four lamps gave reason enough for worry. Markers covered it, red wedges for Seanchan forces on the move and red stars for forces holding in place, each supporting a small paper banner inked with their numbers and composition. Scattered across the map, across the entire map, lay black discs marking engagements, and even more white discs for enemy forces, many of those without the banners. How could there be any enemies in Tarabon? It was as secure as...

“What happened?” she demanded.

Raken began arriving with reports from Lieutenant-General Turan about three hours ago,” Galgan began in conversational tones. Pointedly not making a report himself. He studied the map as he talked, never glancing in her direction. “They aren’t complete—each new one adds to the lists, and I expect that won’t change for a while—but what I’ve seen runs this way. Since dawn yesterday, seven major supply camps overrun and burned, along with more than two dozen smaller camps. Twenty supply trains attacked, the wagons and their contents put to the torch. Seventeen small outposts have been wiped out, eleven patrols have failed to report in, and there have been an additional fifteen skirmishes. Also a few attacks against our settlers. Only a handful of fatalities, mostly men who tried to defend their belongings, but a good many wagons and stores burned along with some half-built houses, and the same message delivered everywhere. Leave Tarabon. All this was done by bands of between two and perhaps five hundred men. Estimates are a minimum of ten thousand and perhaps twice that, nearly all Taraboners. Oh, yes,” he finished casually, “and most of them are wearing armor painted with stripes.”

She wanted to grind her teeth. Galgan commanded the soldiers of the Return, yet she commanded the Hailene, the Forerunners, and as such, she possessed the higher rank in spite of his crest and red-lacquered fingernails. She suspected the only reason he did not claim that the Forerunners had been absorbed into the Return by its very arrival was that supplanting her meant assuming responsibility for Tuon’s safety. And for that apology, should it become necessary. “Dislike” was too mild a word. She loathed Galgan.

“A mutiny?” she said, proud of the coolness of her voice. Inside, she had begun to burn.

Galgan’s white queue swung slowly as he shook his head. “No. All reports say our Taraboners have fought well, and we’ve had a few successes, taken a few prisoners. Not one of them can be found on the rosters of loyal Taraboners. Several have been identified as Dragonsworn believed to be up in Arad Doman. And the name Rodel Ituralde has been mentioned a number of times as the brain behind it all, and the leader. A Domani. He’s supposed to be one of the best generals this side of the ocean, and if he planned and carried out all this,” he swept a hand over the map, “then I believe it.” The fool sounded admiring! “Not a mutiny. A raid on a grand scale. But he won’t get out with nearly as many men as he brought in.”

Dragonsworn. The word was like a fist clutching Suroth’s throat. “Are there Asha’man?”

“Those fellows who can channel?” Galgan grimaced and made a sign against evil, apparently unconscious of doing so. “There was no mention of them,” he said drily, “and I rather think there would have been.”

Red-hot anger needed to erupt at Galgan, but screaming at another of the High Blood would lower her eyes. And, as bad, gain nothing. Still, it had to be directed somewhere. It had to come out. She was proud of what she had done in Tarabon, and now the country appeared to be halfway back to the chaos she found when she first landed there. And one man was to blame. “This Ituralde.” Her tone was ice. “I want his head!”

“Never fear,” Galgan murmured, folding his hands behind his back and bending to examine some of the small banners. “It won’t be long before Turan chases him back to Arad Doman with his tail between his legs, and with luck, he’ll be with one of the bands we snap up.”

“Luck?” she snapped. “I don’t trust to luck!” Her anger was open, now, and she did not consider trying to suppress it again. Her eyes scanned the map as though she could find Ituralde that way. “If Turan is hunting a hundred bands, as you suggest, he’ll need more scouts to run them down, and I want them run down. Every last one of them. Especially Ituralde. General Yulan, I want four in every five—no, nine in every ten raken in Altara and Amadicia moved to Tarabon. If Turan can’t find them all with that, then he can see if his own head will appease me.”

Yulan, a dark little man in a blue robe embroidered with black-crested eagles, must have dressed in too great a hurry to apply the gum that normally held his wig in place, because he was constantly touching the thing to make sure it was straight. He was Captain of the Air for the Forerunners, but the Return’s Captain of the Air was only a banner-general, a more senior man having died on the voyage. Yulan would have no trouble with him.

“A wise move, High Lady,” he said, frowning at the map, “but may I suggest leaving the raken in Amadicia and those assigned to Banner-General Khirgan. Raken are the best way we have to locate Aiel, and in two days we still haven’t found those Whitecloaks. That will still give General Turan—”

“The Aiel are less of a problem every day,” she told him firmly, “and a few deserters are nothing.” He inclined his head in assent, one hand keeping his wig in place. He was only low Blood, after all.

“I hardly call seven thousand men a few deserters,” Galgan murmured dryly.

“It shall be as I command!” she snapped. Curse those so-called Children of the Light! She still had not decided whether to make Asunawa and the few thousand who had remained da’covale. They had remained, yet how long before they offered betrayal, too? And Asunawa seemed to hate damane, of all things. The man was unbalanced!

Galgan shrugged, utterly unperturbed. A red-lacquered fingernail traced lines on the map as though he were planning movements of soldiers. “So long as you don’t want the to’raken, too, I raise no objections. That plan must go forward. Altara is falling into our hands with barely a struggle, I’m not ready to move on Illian yet, and we need to pacify Tarabon again quickly. The people will turn against us if we can’t give them safety.”

Suroth began to regret letting her anger show. He would raise no objections? He was not ready for Illian yet? He was all but saying that he did not have to follow her orders, only not openly, not so he had to take her responsibility along with her authority.

“I expect this message to be sent to Turan, General Galgan.” Her voice was steady, kept so by will alone. “He is to send me Rodel Ituralde’s head if he has to hound the man across Arad Doman and into the Blight. And if he fails to send me that head, I will take his.”

Galgan’s mouth tightened briefly, and he frowned down at the map. “Turan sometimes needs a fire lit under him,” he muttered, “and Arad Doman has always been next for him. Very well. Your message will be sent, Suroth.”

She could stay no longer in the same room with him. Without a word, she left. Had she spoken, she would have screamed. She stalked all the way back to her rooms without bothering to mask her fury. The Deathwatch Guards took no notice, of course; they might as well have been carved of stone. Which made her slam the anteroom door behind her with a crash. Perhaps they noticed that!

Padding toward her bed, she kicked off her slippers, let the robe and sash fall to the floor. She must find Tuon. She had to. If only she could puzzle out Tuon’s target, puzzle out where she was. If only—

Suddenly the walls of her bedchamber, the ceiling, even the floor, began to glow with a silvery light. Those surfaces seemed to have become light. Gaping in shock, she turned slowly, staring at the box of light that surrounded her, and found herself looking at a woman made of roiling flames, clothed in roiling flames. Almandaragal was on his feet, awaiting his owner’s command to attack.

“I am Semirhage,” the woman of fire said in a voice like a tolling funeral gong.

“Belly, Almandaragal!” That command, taught as a child because it amused her to have the lopar prostrate himself before her, ended with a grunt because she obeyed it herself even as she gave it. Kissing the red-and-green-patterned carpet, she said, “I live to serve and obey, Great Mistress.” There was no doubt in her mind that this woman was who she said. Who would dare claim that name falsely? Or could appear as living fire?

“I think you would also like to rule.” The tolling gong sounded faintly amused, but then it hardened. “Look at me! I dislike the way you Seanchan avoid meeting my eyes. It makes me believe you are hiding something. You don’t want to try hiding anything from me, Suroth.”

“Of course not, Great Mistress,” Suroth said, pushing herself up to sit on her heels. “Never, Great Mistress.” She raised her gaze as far as the other woman’s mouth, but she could not make herself raise it higher. Surely that would be enough.

“Better,” Semirhage murmured. “Now. How would you like to rule in these lands? A handful of deaths—Galgan and a few others—and you could manage to name yourself Empress, with my help. It’s hardly important, but circumstances provide the opportunity, and you would certainly be more amenable than the current Empress has been so far.”

Suroth’s stomach clenched. She feared she might vomit. “Great Mistress,” she said dully, “the penalty for that is to be taken before the true Empress, may she live forever, and have your entire skin removed, great care being taken to keep you alive. After that—”

“Inventive, if primitive,” Semirhage broke in wryly. “But of no account. The Empress Radhanan is dead. Remarkable how much blood there is in a human body. Enough to cover the whole Crystal Throne. Take the offer, Suroth. I will not make it again. You will make certain matters slightly more convenient, but not enough for me to put myself out a second time.”

Suroth had to make herself breathe. “Then Tuon is the Empress, may she live...” Tuon would take a new name, rarely to be spoken outside the Imperial family. The Empress was the Empress, might she live forever. Wrapping her arms around herself, Suroth began to sob, shaking beyond her ability to stop. Almandaragal lifted his head and whined at her interrogatively.

Semirhage laughed, the music of deep gongs. “Grief for Radhanan, Suroth, or is your dislike of Tuon becoming Empress so deep?”

Haltingly, in spurts of three or four words broken by unmanageable weeping, Suroth explained. As the proclaimed heir, Tuon had become Empress the moment her mother died. Except, if her mother had been assassinated, then it must have been arranged by one of her sisters, which meant that Tuon herself was surely dead. And none of that made the slightest difference. The forms would be carried out. She would have to return to Seandar and apologize for Tuon’s death, for the death of an Empress, now, to the very woman who had arranged it. Who would, of course, not take the throne until Tuon’s death was announced. She could not bring herself to admit that she would kill herself first; it was too shaming to say aloud. Words died as howling sobs racked her. She did not want to die. She had been promised she would live forever!

This time, Semirhage’s laughter was so shocking that it shut off Suroth’s tears. That head of fire was thrown back, emitting great peals of mirth. At last she regained control, wiping away tears of flame with fiery fingers. “I see I didn’t make myself clear. Radhanan is dead, and her daughters, and her sons, and half the Imperial Court, as well. There is no Imperial family except for Tuon. There is no Empire. Seandar is in the hands of rioters and looters, and so are a dozen other cities. At least fifty nobles are contending for the throne, with armies in the field. There is war from the Aldael Mountains to Salaking. Which is why you will be perfectly safe in disposing of Tuon and proclaiming yourself Empress. I’ve even arranged for a ship, which should arrive soon, to bring word of the disaster.” She laughed again, and said something strange. “Let the lord of chaos rule.”

Suroth gaped at the other woman in spite of herself. The Empire ... destroyed? Semirhage had killed the ...? Assassination was not unknown among the Blood, High or low, nor within the Imperial family, yet for anyone else to reach inside the Imperial family in that way was horrifying, unthinkable. Even one of the Da’concion, the Chosen Ones. But to become Empress herself, even here. She felt dizzy, with a hysterical desire to laugh. She could complete the cycle, conquering these lands, and then send armies to reclaim Seanchan. With an effort, she managed to regain possession of herself.

“Great Mistress, if Tuon really is alive, then ... then killing her will be difficult.” She had to force those words out. To kill the Empress ... Even thinking it was difficult. To become Empress. Her head felt as if it might float off her shoulders. “She will have her sul’dam and damane with her, and some of her Deathwatch Guards.” Difficult? Killing her would be impossible in those circumstances. Unless Semirhage could be induced to do it herself. Six damane might well be dangerous even to her. Besides, there was a saying among commoners. The mighty tell the lesser to dig in the mud and keep their own hands clean. She had heard it by chance, and punished the man who spoke it, but it was true.

“Think, Suroth!” The gongs rang strong, imperative. “Captain Musenge and the others would have gone the same night Tuon and her maid left if they had had any inkling of what she was about. They are looking for her. You must put every effort into finding her first, but if that fails, her Deathwatch Guards will be less protection than they seem. Every soldier in your army has heard that at least some of the Guards are involved with an impostor. The general feeling seems to be that the impostor and anyone connected to her should be torn apart bodily and the pieces buried in a dungheap. Quietly.” Lips of fire curled in a small, amused smile. “To avoid the shame to the Empire.”

It might be possible. A party of Deathwatch Guards would be easy to locate. She would need to find out exactly how many Musenge had taken with him, and send Elbar with fifty for every one. No, a hundred, to account for the damane. And then ... “Great Mistress, you understand I am reluctant to proclaim anything until I am certain Tuon is dead?”

“Of course,” Semirhage said. The gongs were amused once more. “But remember, if Tuon manages to return safely, it will matter little to me, so don’t dally.”

“I will not, Great Mistress. I intend to become Empress, and for that I must kill the Empress.” This time, saying it was not very hard at all.

In Pevara’s estimation, Tsutama Rath’s rooms were flamboyant beyond the point of extravagance, and her own beginnings as a butcher’s daughter played no part in her opinion. The sitting room simply put her on edge. Beneath a cornice carved with swallows in flight and gilded, the walls held two large silk tapestries, one displaying bright red bloodroses, the other a calma bush covered in scarlet blossoms larger than her two hands together. The tables and chairs were delicate pieces, if you ignored sufficient carving and gilding for any throne. The stand-lamps were heavily gilded, too, and the mantel, worked with running horses, above the red-streaked marble fireplace. Several of the tables held red Sea Folk porcelain, the rarest, four vases and six bowls, a small fortune in themselves, as well as any number of jade or ivory carvings, none small, and one figure of a dancing woman, a hand tall, that appeared to be carved from a ruby. A gratuitous display of wealth, and she knew for a fact that aside from the gilded barrel-clock on the mantel, there was another in Tsutama’s bedroom and even one in her dressing room. Three clocks! That went far beyond flamboyant, never mind gilding or rubies.

And yet, the room suited the woman seated across from her and Javindhra. “Flamboyant” was exactly the word for her appearance. Tsutama was a strikingly beautiful woman, her hair caught in a fine golden net, with firedrops thick at her throat and ears and dressed as always in crimson silk that molded her full bosom, today with golden scrollwork embroidery to increase the emphasis. You might almost think she wanted to attract men, if you did not know her. Tsutama had made her dislike of men well known long before being sent into exile; she would have given mercy to a rabid dog before a man.

Back then, she had been hammer-hard, yet many had thought her a broken reed when she returned to the Tower. For a while, they had. Then everyone who spent any time near her realized that those shifting eyes were far from nervous. Exile had changed her, only not toward softness. Those eyes belonged on a hunting cat, searching for enemies or prey. The rest of Tsutama’s face was not so much serene as it was still, an unreadable mask. Unless you pushed her to open anger, at least. Even then her voice would remain as calm as smooth ice, though. An unnerving combination.

“I heard disturbing rumors this morning about the battle at Dumai’s Wells,” she said abruptly. “Bloody disturbing.” She had the habits now of long silences, no small talk, and sudden, unexpected statements. Exile had coarsened her language, too. The isolated farm she had been confined to must have been ... vivid. “Including that three of the dead sisters were from our Ajah. Mother’s milk in a cup!” All delivered in the most even tones. But her eyes stabbed at them accusingly.

Pevara took that gaze in stride. Any direct look from Tsutama seemed accusing, and on edge or not, Pevara knew better than to let the Highest see it. The woman swooped on weakness like a falcon. “I can’t see why Katerine would disobey your orders to keep her knowledge to herself, and you cannot believe Tarna is likely to put discredit on Elaida.” Not publicly, at any rate. Tarna guarded her feelings on Elaida as carefully as a cat guarded a mousehole. “But sisters do get reports from their eyes-and-ears. We can’t stop them learning what happened. I’m surprised it’s taken this long.”

“That’s so,” Javindhra added, smoothing her skirts. The angular woman wore no jewelry aside from the Great Serpent ring, and her dress was unadorned, and a red deep enough to appear near black. “Sooner or later, the facts will all come out if we work till our fingers bleed.” Her mouth was so tight she seemed to be biting something, yet she sounded almost satisfied. Odd, that. She was Elaida’s lapdog.

Tsutama’s stare focused on her, and after a moment a flush grew on Javindhra’s cheeks. Perhaps as an excuse to break eye contact, she took a long drink of her tea. From a cup of beaten gold worked with leopards and deer, of course, Tsutama being as she now was. The Highest continued to stare silently, but whether at Javindhra or something beyond her, Pevara could no longer say.

When Katerine brought word that Galina was among the dead at Dumai’s Wells, Tsutama had been raised to replace her by near acclamation. She had possessed a very good reputation as a Sitter, at least before her involvement in the disgusting events that led to her downfall, and many in the Red believed the times called for as hard a Highest as could be found. Galina’s death had lifted a great weight from Pevara’s shoulders—the Highest, a Darkfriend; oh, that had been agony!—yet she was uncertain about Tsutama. There was something ... wild ... about her, now. Something unpredictable. Was she entirely sane? But then, the same question could be asked regarding the whole White Tower. How many of the sisters were entirely sane, now?

As if sensing her thoughts, Tsutama shifted that unblinking gaze to her. It did not make Pevara color or start, as it did so many besides Javindhra, but she did find herself wishing Duhara were there, just to give the Highest a third Sitter to stare at, just to share them out. She wished she knew where the woman had gone and why, with a rebel army camped outside Tar Valon. Over a week ago, Duhara had simply taken ship without a word to anyone, so far as Pevara was aware, and no one seemed to know whether she had gone north or south. These days, Pevara was suspicious of everyone and nearly everything.

“Did you call us here because of something in that letter, Highest?” she said at last. She met that unsettling stare levelly, yet she was beginning to want a long pull from her own ornate cup, and she wished it held wine rather than tea. Deliberately she rested the cup on the narrow arm of her chair. The other woman’s gaze made her feel as though spiders were crawling on her skin.

After a very long moment, Tsutama’s eyes dropped to the folded letter in her lap. Only her hand held it from rolling up into a little cylinder. It was on the very thin paper used for messages sent by pigeon, and the small inked letters clearly visible through the page appeared to cover it densely.

“This is from Sashalle Anderly,” she said, bringing a wince of pity from Pevara and a grunt that might have been anything from Javindhra. Poor Sashalle. Tsutama continued without any outward sign of sympathy, though. “The bloody woman believes Galina escaped, because it is addressed to her. Much of what she writes merely confirms what we already know from other sources, including Toveine. But, without naming them, she bloody well says that she is ‘in charge of most of the sisters in the city of Cairhien.’”

“How can Sashalle be in charge of any sisters?” Javindhra shook her head, her expression denying the possibility. “Could she have gone insane?”

Pevara held her silence. Tsutama gave answers when she wished, rarely when you asked. Toveine’s earlier letter, also addressed to Galina, had not mentioned Sashalle at all, or the other two, but of course, she would have found the entire subject beyond distasteful. Even thinking of it was like eating rotten plums. Most of her words had been devoted to laying the whole blame for events at Elaida’s feet, however indirectly.

Tsutama’s eyes flickered toward Javindhra like dagger thrusts, but she went on without pausing. “Sashalle recounts Toveine’s bloody visit to Cairhien with the other sisters and the flaming Asha’man, though she clearly doesn’t know about the bloody bonding. She found it all very strange, sisters mingling with Asha’man on ‘tense yet often friendly’ terms. Blood and bloody ashes! That is how she puts it, burn me.” Tsutama’s tone, suitable for discussing the price of lace, in strong contrast to the intensity of her eyes, and her language, gave no hint of what she felt on the subject. “Sashalle says that when they left, they took flaming Warders belonging to sisters she believes are with the boy, so it seems bloody certain they were looking for him and likely have found him by now. She has no idea why. But she confirms what Toveine claimed concerning Logain. Apparently, the bloody man is no longer gentled.”

“Impossible,” Javindhra muttered into her teacup, but softly. Tsutama disliked having her statements challenged. Pevara kept her opinions to herself and sipped from her own cup. So far, there seemed nothing in the letter worthy of discussion except how Sashalle could be “in charge” of anything, and she would rather think of anything other than Sashalle’s fate. The tea tasted of blueberries. How had Tsutama obtained blueberries this early in the spring? Perhaps they had been dried.

“I will read the rest to you,” Tsutama said, unfolding the page and scanning almost to the bottom before beginning. Apparently Sashalle had been very detailed. What was the Highest not sharing? So many suspicions.

“I have been so long without communicating because I could not work out how to say what I must, but now I see that simply telling the facts is the only way. Along with a number of other sisters, who I will leave to decide for themselves whether to reveal what I am about to, I have sworn an oath of fealty to the Dragon Reborn which is to last until Tarmon Gai’don has been fought.”Javindhra gasped loudly, her eyes popping, but Pevara merely whispered, “Ta’veren.” It must be that. Ta’veren had always been her explanation for most of the disturbing rumors out of Cairhien.

Tsutama read on right over them.

“What I do, I do for the good of the Red Ajah and the good of the Tower. Should you disagree, I will surrender myself for your discipline. After Tarmon Gai’don. As you may have heard, Irgain Fatamed, Ronaille Vevanios and I were all stilled when the Dragon Reborn escaped at Dumai’s Wells. We have been Healed, however, by a man named Damer Flinn, one of the Asha’man, and we all seem to be restored fully. Unlikely as this seems, I swear beneath the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth that it is true. I look forward to my eventual return to the Tower, where I will retake the Three Oaths to reaffirm my dedication to my Ajah and to the Tower.”Folding the letter again, she gave her head a small shake. “There’s more, but it’s all more bloody pleading that what she’s doing is for the Ajah and the Tower.” A glitter in her eyes suggested that Sashalle might come to regret surviving the Last Battle.

“If Sashalle truly has been Healed,” Pevara began, and could not go on. She wet her lips with tea, then raised the cup again and took a mouthful. The possibility seemed too wonderful to hope for, a snowflake that might melt at a touch.

“This is impossible,” Javindhra growled, though not very strongly. Even so, she directed the comment to Pevara lest the Highest think it meant for her. A deep scowl made her face harsher. “Gentling cannot be Healed. Stilling cannot be Healed. Sheep will fly first! Sashalle must be delusional.”

“Toveine might be mistaken,” Tsutama said, in a very strong voice, “though if she is, I can’t see why these flaming Asha’man would let Logain be one of them, much less command, but I hardly think Sashalle could be bloody mistaken about herself. And she doesn’t write like a woman having flaming delusions. Sometimes what is bloody impossible is only bloody impossible until the first woman does it. So. Stilling has been Healed. By a man. Those flaming Seanchan locusts are chaining every woman they find who can channel, apparently including a number of sisters. Twelve days past ... Well, you know what happened as bloody well as I. The world has become a more dangerous place than at any time since the Trolloc Wars, perhaps since the Breaking itself. Therefore I’ve decided we will move forward with your scheme for these flaming Asha’man, Pevara. Distasteful and hazardous, yet burn me, there is no bloody choice. You and Javindhra will arrange it together.”

Pevara winced. Not for the Seanchan. They were human, whatever strange ter’angreal they possessed, and they would be defeated eventually. Mention of what the Forsaken had done twelve days ago brought a grimace, though, despite her efforts at keeping a smooth face. So much of the Power wielded in one place could have been no one else. To the extent she could, she avoided thinking about that or what they might have been trying to accomplish. Or worse, what they might have accomplished. A second wince came at hearing the proposal to bond Asha’man named as hers. But that had been inevitable from the moment she presented Tarna’s suggestion to Tsutama, while holding her breath against the eruption she was sure would come. She had even used the argument of increasing the size of linked circles by including men, against that monstrous display of the Power. Surprisingly, there had been no eruption, and small reaction of any kind. Tsutama merely said she would think on it, and insisted on having the relevant papers about men and circles delivered to her from the Library. The third wince, the largest, was for having to work with Javindhra, for being saddled with the job at all. She had more than enough on her plate at the moment, besides which, working with Javindhra was always painful. The woman argued against anything put forward by anyone save herself. Nearly anything.

Javindhra had been vehemently against bonding Asha’man, horrified at the notion of Red sisters bonding anyone almost as much as at bonding men who could channel, yet now that the Highest had commanded it, she was stymied. Still, she found a way to argue against. “Elaida will never allow it,” she muttered.

Tsutama’s glittering eyes caught her gaze and held it. The bony woman swallowed audibly.

“Elaida will not know until it is too late, Javindhra. I hide her secrets—the disaster against the Black Tower, Dumai’s Wells—as best I can because she was raised from the Red, but she is the Amyrlin Seat, of all Ajahs and none. That means she is no longer Red, and this is Ajah business, not hers.” A dangerous tone entered her voice. And she had not cursed once. That meant she was on the edge of open fury. “Do you disagree with me on this? Do you intend to inform Elaida despite my express wishes?”

“No, Highest,” Javindhra replied quickly, then buried her face in her cup. Strangely, she seemed to be hiding a smile.

Pevara contented herself with shaking her head. If it had to be done, and she was certain it must, then clearly Elaida had to be kept in the dark. What did Javindhra have to smile about? Too many suspicions.

“I’m very glad that you both agree with me,” Tsutama said dryly, leaning back in her chair. “Now, leave me.”

They paused only to set down their cups and curtsy. In the Red, when the Highest spoke, everyone obeyed, including Sitters. The sole exception, by Ajah law, was voting in the Hall, though some women who held the title had managed to insure that any vote near to their hearts went as they wished. Pevara was certain Tsutama intended to be one such. The struggle was going to be distinctly unpleasant. She only hoped she could give as good as she got.

In the corridor outside, Javindhra muttered something about correspondence and rushed off down the white floor tiles marked with the red Flame of Tar Valon before Pevara could say a word. Not that she had intended to say anything, but surely as peaches were poison, the woman was going to drag her heels in this and leave the whole matter in her lap. Light, but this was the last thing she needed, at the worst possible time.

Pausing at her own rooms only long enough to gather her long-fringed shawl and check the hour—a quarter of an hour to noon; she was almost disappointed that her one clock agreed with Tsutama’s; clocks frequently did not—she left the Red quarters and hurried deeper into the Tower, down into the common areas below the quarters. The wide hallways were well lighted with mirrored stand-lamps but almost empty of people, which made them seem cavernous and the frieze-banded white walls stark. The occasional rippling of a bright tapestry in a draft had an eerie feel, as though the silk or wool had taken on life. The few people she saw were serving men and women with the Flame of Tar Valon on their chests, scurrying along about their chores and barely pausing long enough to offer hurried courtesies. They kept their eyes lowered. With the Ajahs separated into all but warring camps, fetid tension and antagonism filled the Tower, and the mood had infected the servants. Frightened them, at least.

She could not be sure, but she thought fewer than two hundred sisters remained in the Tower, most keeping to their Ajah quarters except for necessity, so she really did not expect to see another sister strolling. When Adelorna Bastine glided up the short stairs from a crossing corridor almost right in front of her, she was so surprised she gave a start. Adelorna, who made slimness appear stately despite her lack of height, walked on without acknowledging Pevara in any way. The Saldaean woman wore her shawl, too—no sister was seen outside her Ajah quarters without her shawl, now—and was followed by her three Warders. Short and tall, wide and lean, they wore their swords, and their eyes never ceased moving. Warders wearing swords and plainly guarding their Aes Sedai’s back, in the Tower. That was all too common, yet Pevara could have wept at it. Only, there were too many reasons for weeping to settle on one; instead she set about solving what she could.

Tsutama could command Reds to bond Asha’man, command them not to go running to Elaida, but it seemed best to begin with sisters who might be willing to entertain the notion without being ordered, especially with rumors spreading of three Red sisters dead at Asha’man hands. Tarna Feir had already entertained it, so a very private conversation with her was in order. She might know others of a like mind. The greatest difficulty would be approaching the Asha’man with the idea. They were very unlikely to agree just because they themselves had already bonded fifty-one sisters. Light of the world, fifty-one! Broaching the subject would require a sister who possessed diplomacy and a way with words. And iron nerve. She was still mulling over names when she saw the woman she had come to meet, already at the appointed place, apparently studying a tall tapestry.

Tiny and willowy and regal in her pale silver silk with a slightly darker lace at her neck and wrists, Yukiri appeared thoroughly engrossed in the tapestry and quite at her ease. Pevara could only recall seeing her the slightest bit flustered on one occasion, and putting Talene to the question had been nerve-racking for everyone there. Yukiri was alone, of course, though of late she had been heard to say she was thinking of taking a Warder again. Doubtless that was equal parts the current times and their own present situation. Pevara could have done with a Warder or two herself.

“Is there any truth in this, or is it all the weaver’s fancy?” she asked, joining the smaller woman. The tapestry showed a long-ago battle against Trollocs, or was purported to. Most such things were made long after the fact, and the weavers usually went by hearsay. This one was old enough to need the protection of a warding to keep it from falling apart.

“I know as much about tapestries as a pig knows about blacksmithing, Pevara.” For all her elegance, Yukiri seldom let long pass without revealing her country origins. The silvery gray fringe of her shawl swung as she gathered it around her. “You’re late, so let’s be brief. I feel like a hen being watched by a fox. Marris broke this morning, and I gave her the oath of obedience myself, but as with the others, her ‘one other’ is out of the Tower. With the rebels, I think.” She fell silent as a pair of serving women approached up the hallway carrying a large wicker laundry basket with neatly folded bed linens bulging from the top.

Pevara sighed. It had seemed so encouraging, at the start. Terrifying and nearly overwhelming, too, yet they had appeared to be making a good beginning. Talene had only known the name of one other Black sister actually in the Tower at present, but once Atuan had been kidnapped—Pevara would have liked to think of it as an arrest, yet she could not when they seemed to be violating half of Tower Law and a good many strong customs besides—once Atuan was safely in hand, she had soon been induced to surrender the names of her heart: Karale Sanghir, a Domani Gray, and Marris Thornhill, an Andoran Brown. Only Karale among them had a Warder, though he had turned out to be a Darkfriend, too. Luckily, soon after learning that his Aes Sedai had betrayed him, he had managed to take poison in the basement room where he had been confined while Karale was questioned. Strange to think of that as lucky, but the Oath Rod only worked on those who could channel, and they were too few to guard and tend prisoners.

It had been such a bright beginning, however fraught, and now they were at an impasse unless one of the others returned to the Tower, back to searching for discrepancies between what sisters claimed to have done and what it could be proven they actually had, something made harder by the inclination of most sisters to be oblique in nearly everything. Of course, Talene and the other three would pass along whatever they knew, whatever came into their hands—the oath of obedience took care of that—but any message very much more important than “take this and put it in that place” would be in a cipher known only to the woman who sent it and the woman it was directed to. Some were protected by a weave that made the ink vanish if the wrong hand broke the seal; that could be done with so little of the Power it might go unnoticed unless you were looking for it, and there appeared to be no way to circumvent the ward. If they were not at an impasse, then their flow of success was reduced to a creeping trickle. And always there was the danger that the hunted would learn of them and become the hunters. Invisible hunters, for all practical purposes, just as they now seemed invisible prey.

Still, they had four names plus four sisters in hand who would admit they were Darkfriends, though likely Marris would be as quick as the other three to claim she now rejected the Shadow, repented of her sins, and embraced the Light once more. Enough to convince anyone. Supposedly, the Black Ajah knew everything that passed in Elaida’s study, yet it might be worth the risk. Pevara refused to believe Talene’s claim that Elaida was a Darkfriend. After all, she had initiated the hunt. The Amyrlin Seat could rouse the entire Tower. Perhaps a revelation that the Black Ajah truly existed might do what the appearance of the rebels with an army had failed to, stop the Ajahs from hissing at one another like strange cats and bind them back together. The Tower’s wounds called for desperate remedies.

The serving women passed beyond earshot, and Pevara was about to bring up the suggestion when Yukiri spoke again.

“Last night, Talene received an order to appear tonight before their ‘Supreme Council.’” Her mouth twisted around the words in distaste. “It seems that happens only if you’re being honored or given a very, very important assignment. Or if you’re to be put to the question.” Her lips almost writhed. What they had learned about the Black Ajah’s means of putting someone to the question was as nauseating as it was incredible. Forcing a woman into a circle against her will? Guiding a circle to inflict pain? Pevara felt her stomach writhing. “Talene doesn’t think she’s to be honored or given an assignment,” Yukiri went on, “so she begged to be hidden away. Saerin put her in a room in the lowest basement. Talene may be wrong, but I agree with Saerin. Risking it would be letting a dog into the chicken yard and hoping for the best.”

Pevara stared up at the tapestry stretching well above their heads. Armored men swung swords and axes, stabbed spears and halberds at huge, man-like shapes with boars’ snouts and wolves’ snouts, with goats’ horns and rams’ horns. The weaver had seen Trollocs. Or accurate drawings. Men fought alongside the Trollocs, too. Darkfriends. Sometimes, fighting the Shadow required spilling blood. And desperate remedies.

“Let Talene go to this meeting,” she said. “We’ll all go. They won’t expect us. We can kill or capture them and decapitate the Black at a stroke. This Supreme Council must know the names of all of them. We can destroy the whole Black Ajah.”

Lifting an edge of the fringe on Pevara’s shawl with a slim hand, Yukiri frowned at it ostentatiously. “Yes, red. I thought it might have turned green when I wasn’t looking. There will be thirteen of them, you know. Even if some of this ‘Council’ are out of the Tower, the rest will bring in sisters to make up the number.”

“I know,” Pevara replied impatiently. Talene had been a fount of information, most of it useless and much of it horrifying, almost more than they could take in. “We take everyone. We can order Zerah and the others to fight alongside us, and even Talene and that lot. They’ll do as they’re told.” In the beginning, she had been uneasy about that oath of obedience, but over time you could become accustomed to anything.

“So, nineteen of us against thirteen of them,” Yukiri mused, sounding much too patient. Even the way she adjusted her shawl radiated patience. “Plus whoever they have watching to make sure their meeting isn’t disturbed. Thieves are always the most careful of their purses.” That had the irritating sound of an old saying. “Best to call the numbers even at best, and probably favoring them. How many of us die in return for killing or capturing how many of them? More importantly, how many of them escape? Remember, they meet hooded. If just one escapes, then we won’t know who she is, but she’ll know us, and soon enough, the whole Black Ajah will know, too. It sounds to me less like chopping off a chicken’s head than like trying to wrestle a leopard in the dark.”

Pevara opened her mouth, then closed it without speaking. Yukiri was right. She should have tallied the numbers and reached the same conclusion herself. But she wanted to strike out, at something, at anything, and small wonder. The head of her Ajah might be insane; she was tasked with arranging for Reds, who by ancient custom bonded no one, to bond not just any men, but Asha’man; and the hunt for Darkfriends in the Tower had reached a stone wall. Strike out? She wanted to bite holes through bricks.

She thought their meeting was at an end—she had come only to learn how matters progressed with Marris, and a bitter harvest that had turned out—but Yukiri touched her arm. “Walk with me awhile. We’ve been here too long, and I want to ask you something.” Nowadays, Sitters of different Ajahs standing together too long made rumors of plots sprout like mushrooms after rain. For some reason, talking while walking seemed to cause many fewer. It made no sense, but there it was.

Yukiri took her time getting to her question. The floor tiles turned from green-and-blue to yellow-and-brown as they walked along one of the main corridors that spiraled gently through the Tower, down five floors without seeing anyone else, before she spoke. “Has the Red heard from anyone who went with Toveine?”

Pevara almost tripped over her own slippers. She should have expected it, though. Toveine would not have been the only one to write from Cairhien. “From Toveine herself,” she said, and told almost everything that had been in Toveine’s letter. Under the circumstances, there was nothing else she could do. She did hold back the accusations against Elaida, and also how long ago the letter had arrived. The one was still Ajah business, she hoped, while the other might require awkward explanations.

“We heard from Akoure Vayet.” Yukiri walked a few paces in silence, then muttered, “Blood and bloody ashes!”

Pevara’s eyebrows rose in shock. Yukiri was often earthy, but never vulgar before this. She noted that the other woman had not said when Akoure’s letter arrived, either. Had the Gray received other letters from Cairhien, from sisters who had sworn to the Dragon Reborn? She could not ask. They trusted one another with their lives in this hunt, and still, Ajah business was Ajah business. “What do you intend doing with the information?”

“We will keep silent for the good of the Tower. Only the Sitters and the head of our Ajah know. Evanellein is for pulling Elaida down because of this, but that can’t be allowed now. With the Tower to mend and the Seanchan and Asha’man to be dealt with, perhaps never.” She did not sound happy over that.

Pevara stifled her irritation. She could not like Elaida, yet you did not have to like the Amyrlin Seat. Any number of very unlikable women had worn the stole and done well for the Tower. But could sending fifty-one sisters into captivity be called doing well? Could Dumai’s Wells, with four sisters dead and more than twenty delivered into another sort of captivity, to a ta’veren? No matter. Elaida was Red—had been Red—and far too long had passed since a Red gained the stole and staff. All the rash actions and ill-considered decisions seemed things of the past since the rebels appeared, and saving the Tower from the Black Ajah would redeem her failures.

That was not how she put it, of course. “She began the hunt, Yukiri; she deserves to finish it. Light, everything we’ve uncovered so far has come by chance, and we are at a full stop. We need the authority of the Amyrlin Seat behind us if we’re to get any further.”

“I don’t know,” the other woman said, wavering. “All four of them say the Black knows everything that happens in Elaida’s study.” She bit at her lip and shrugged uncomfortably. “Perhaps if we can meet her alone, away from her study—”

“There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.”

Pevara turned calmly at the sudden voice behind them, but Yukiri gave a start and muttered something pungent almost under her breath. If she kept this up, she would be as bad as Doesine. Or Tsutama.

Seaine hurried down to them with the fringe of her shawl swinging and her thick black eyebrows rising in surprise at Yukiri’s glare. How like a White, logical in everything and often blind to the world around them. Half the time, Seaine seemed unaware they were in any danger at all.

“You were looking for us?” Yukiri almost growled, planting her fists on her hips. Despite her diminutive size, she gave a good impression of fierce looming. Doubtless part of that was for being startled, but she still believed Seaine should be guarded closely for her own protection, no matter what Saerin had decided, and here the woman was, out and about alone.

“For you, for Saerin, for anyone,” Seaine replied calmly. Her earlier fears, that the Black Ajah might know what work Elaida had assigned her, were quite gone. Her blue eyes held warmth, yet otherwise she was back to being the prototypical White, a woman of icy serenity. “I have urgent news,” she said as though it were anything but. “The lesser is this. This morning I saw a letter from Ayako Norsoni that arrived several days ago. From Cairhien. She and Toveine and all the others have been captured by the Asha’man and...” Tilting her head to one side, she studied them in turn. “You aren’t surprised in the slightest. Of course. You’ve seen letters, too. Well, there’s nothing to be done about it now, anyway.”

Pevara exchanged looks with Yukiri, then said, “This is the less urgent, Seaine?”

The White Sitter’s composure faded into worry, tightening her mouth and creasing the corners of her eyes. Her hands tightened into fists gripping her shawl. “For us, it is. I’ve just come from answering a summons to Elaida. She wanted to know how I was getting on.” Seaine took a deep breath. “With discovering proof that Alviarin entered a treasonous correspondence with the Dragon Reborn. Really, she was so circumspect in the beginning, so indirect, it’s no wonder I misunderstood what she wanted.”

“I think that fox is walking on my grave,” Yukiri murmured.

Pevara nodded. The notion of approaching Elaida had vanished like summer dew. Their one assurance that Elaida was not herself Black Ajah had been that she instigated the hunt for them, but since she had done no such thing... At least the Black Ajah remained in ignorance of them. At least they had that, still. But for how much longer?

“On mine, too,” she said softly.

Alviarin glided along the corridors of the lower Tower with an outward air of serenity that she held on to hard. Night seemed to cling to the walls despite the mirrored stand-lamps, the ghosts of shadows dancing where none should be. Imagination, surely, yet they danced on the edges of vision. The hallways were very nearly empty, though the second sitting of supper had just ended. Most sisters preferred to have food brought up to their rooms, these days, but the hardier and the more defiant ventured to the dining halls from time to time, and a handful still took many of their meals below. She would not risk sisters seeing her appear flustered or hurried; she refused to let them believe she was scuttling about furtively. In truth, she disliked anyone looking at her at all. Outwardly calm, she seethed inside.

Abruptly she realized that she was fingering the spot on her forehead where Shaidar Haran had touched her. Where the Great Lord himself had marked her as his. Hysteria bubbled almost to the surface with that thought, but she maintained a smooth face by sheer will and gathered her white silk skirts slightly. That should keep her hands occupied. The Great Lord had marked her. Best not to think on that. But how to avoid it? The Great Lord ... On the outside she displayed absolute composure, but within was a swirling tangle of mortification and hatred and very near to gibbering terror. The external calm was what mattered, though. And there was a seed of hope. That mattered, too. An odd thing to think of as hopeful, yet she would hang on to anything that might keep her alive.

Stopping in front of a tapestry that showed a woman wearing an elaborate crown kneeling to some long-ago Amyrlin, she pretended to examine it while glancing quickly to left and right. Aside from her, the corridor remained as barren of life as an abandoned tomb. Her hand darted behind the edge of the tapestry, and in an instant she was walking on again, clutching a folded message. A miracle that it had reached her so quickly. The paper seemed to burn her palm, but she could not read it here. At a measured pace, she climbed reluctantly to the White Ajah quarters. Calm and unfazed by anything, on the outside. The Great Lord had marked her. Other sisters were going to look at her.

The White was the smallest of the Ajahs, and barely more than twenty of its sisters were in the Tower at present, yet it seemed that nearly all of them were out in the main hallway. The walk along the plain white floor tiles seemed like running a gauntlet.

Seaine and Ferane were heading out despite the hour, shawls draped along their arms, and Seaine gave her a small smile of commiseration, which made her want to kill the Sitter, always thrusting her sharp nose in where it was unwanted. Ferane held no sympathy. She scowled with more open fury than any sister should have allowed herself to show. All Alviarin could do was try to ignore the copper-skinned woman without being obvious. Short and stout, with her usually mild round face and an ink smudge on her nose, Ferane was no one’s image of a Domani, but the First Reasoner possessed a fierce Domani temper. She was quite capable of handing down a penance for any slight, especially to a sister who had “disgraced” both herself and the White.

The Ajah felt keenly the shame of her having been stripped of the Keeper’s stole. Most felt anger at the loss of influence, as well. There were far too many glares, some from sisters who stood far enough below her that they should leap to obey if she gave a command. Others deliberately turned their backs.

She made her way through those frowns and snubs at a steady pace, unhurried, yet she felt her cheeks beginning to heat. She tried to immerse herself in the soothing nature of the White quarters. The plain white walls, lined with silvered stand-mirrors, held only a few simple tapestries, images of snowcapped mountains, shady forests, stands of bamboo with sunlight slanting through them. Ever since attaining the shawl she had used those images to help her find serenity in times of stress. The Great Lord had marked her. She clutched her skirts in fists to hold her hands at her sides. The message seemed to burn her hand. A steady, measured pace.

Two of the sisters she passed ignored her simply because they did not see her. Astrelle and Tesan were discussing food spoilage. Arguing, rather, faces smooth but eyes heated and voices on the brink of heat. They were arithmetists, of all things, as if logic could be reduced to numbers, and they seemed to be disagreeing on how those numbers were used.

“Calculating with Radun’s Standard of Deviation, the rate is eleven times what it should be,” Astrelle said in tight tones. “Furthermore, this must indicate the intervention of the Shadow—”

Tesan cut her off, beaded braids clicking as she shook her head. “The Shadow, yes, but Radun’s Standard, it is outdated. You must use Covanen’s First Rule of Medians, and calculate separately for rotting meat or rotten. The correct answers, as I said, are thirteen and nine. I have not yet applied it to the flour or the beans and the lentils, but it seems intuitively obvious—”

Astrelle swelled up, and since she was a plump woman with a formidable bosom, she could swell impressively. “Covanen’s First Rule?” she practically spluttered, breaking in. “That hasn’t been properly proven yet. Correct and proven methods are always preferable to slipshod...”

Alviarin very nearly smiled as she moved on. So someone had finally noticed that the Great Lord had laid his hand on the Tower. But knowing would not help them change matters. Perhaps she had smiled, but if so, she crushed it as someone spoke.

“You’d grimace too, Ramesa, if you were being strapped every morning before breakfast,” Norine said, much too loudly and plainly meaning for Alviarin to hear. Ramesa, a tall slender woman with silver bells sewn down the sleeves of her white-embroidered dress, looked startled at being addressed, and likely she was. Norine had few friends, perhaps none. She went on, cutting her eyes toward Alviarin to see whether she had noticed. “It is irrational to call a penance private and pretend nothing is happening when the Amyrlin Seat has imposed it. But then, her rationality has always been overrated, in my opinion.”

Fortunately, Alviarin had only a short way further to reach her rooms. Carefully she closed the outer door and latched the latch. Not that anyone would disturb her, but she had not survived by taking chances except where she had to. The lamps were lit, and a small fire burned on the white marble hearth against the cool of an early spring evening. At least the servants still performed their duties. But even the servants knew.

Silent tears of humiliation began to stream down her cheeks. She wanted to kill Silviana, yet that would only mean a new Mistress of Novices laying the strap across her every morning until Elaida relented. Except that Elaida would never relent. Killing her would be more to the point, yet such killings had to be carefully rationed. Too many unexpected deaths would cause questions, perhaps dangerous questions.

Still, she had done what she could against Elaida. Katerine’s news of this battle was spreading through the Black Ajah, and beyond it already. She had overheard sisters who were not Black talking of Dumai’s Wells in detail, and if the details had grown in the telling, so much the better. Soon, the news from the Black Tower would have diffused though the White Tower, too, likely expanding in the same way. A pity that neither would be sufficient to see Elaida disgraced and deposed, with those cursed rebels practically on the bridges, yet Dumai’s Wells and the disaster in Andor hanging over her head would keep her from undoing what Alviarin had done. Break the White Tower from within, she had been ordered. Plant discord and chaos in every corner of the Tower. Part of her had felt pain at that command, a part of her still did, yet her greater loyalty was to the Great Lord. Elaida herself had made the first break in the Tower, but she had shattered half of it past mending.

Abruptly she realized that she was touching her forehead again and snatched her hand down. There was no mark there, nothing to feel or see. Every time she glanced into a mirror, she checked in spite of herself. And yet, sometimes she thought people were looking at her forehead, seeing something that escaped her own eyes. That was impossible, irrational, yet the thought crept in no matter how often she chased it away. Dashing tears from her face with the hand holding the message from the tapestry, she pulled the other two she had retrieved out of her belt pouch and went to the writing table, standing against the wall.

It was a plain table, and unadorned like all of her furnishings, some of which she suspected might be of indifferent workmanship. A trivial matter; so long as furniture did what it was supposed to do, nothing more mattered. Dropping the three messages on the table beside a small, beaten copper bowl, she produced a key from her pouch, unlocked a brass-banded chest sitting on the floor beside the table, and sorted through the small leather-bound books inside until she found the three she needed, each protected so that the ink on the pages would vanish if any hand but hers touched them. There were far too many ciphers in use for her to keep them in memory. Losing these books would be a painful trial, replacing them arduous, hence the stout chest and the lock. A very good lock. Good locks were not trivialities.

Quickly she stripped off the thin strips of paper wrapping the message recovered from behind the tapestry, held them to a lamp flame and dropped them into the bowl to burn. They were only directions as to where the message was to be left, one meant for each woman in the chain, the extra strips merely a way of disguising how many links the message had to go through to reach its recipient. Too many precautions were an impossibility. Even the sisters of her own heart believed her no more than they. Only three on the Supreme Council knew who she was, and she would have avoided that had it been possible. There could never be too many precautions, especially now.

The message, once she worked it out, bending to write on another sheet, was much as she had expected since the previous night when Talene failed to appear. The woman had left the Green quarters early yesterday carrying fat saddlebags and a small chest. Not having a servant carry them, she had performed the task herself. No one seemed to know where she had gone. The question was, had she panicked on receiving her summons to the Supreme Council, or was there something more? Something more, Alviarin decided. Talene had looked to Yukiri and Doesine as though seeking ... guidance, perhaps. She was sure she had not imagined it. Could she have? A very small seed of hope. There must be something more. She needed a threat to the Black, or the Great Lord would withdraw his protection.

Angrily, she pulled her hand away from her forehead.

She never considered using the small ter’angreal she had hidden away to call Mesaana. For one thing, one very important thing, the woman surely intended to kill her, very likely despite the Great Lord’s protection. On the instant, if that protection were lost. She had seen Mesaana’s face, knew of her humiliation. No woman would let that pass, especially not one of the Chosen. Every night she dreamed of killing Mesaana, often daydreamed of how to manage it successfully, yet that must wait on finding her without the woman knowing herself found. In the meanwhile, she needed more proof. It was possible that neither Mesaana nor Shaidar Haran would see Talene as verification of anything. Sisters had panicked and run in the past, if rarely, and assuming Mesaana and the Great Lord were ignorant of that would be dangerous.

In turn she touched the ciphered message and the clear copy to the lamp flame and held each by a corner until they had burned nearly to her fingers before dropping them atop the ashes in the bowl. With a smooth black stone that she kept as a paperweight, she crushed the ashes and stirred them about. She doubted that anyone could reconstitute words from ash, but even so...

Still standing, she deciphered the other two messages and learned that Yukiri and Doesine both slept in rooms warded against intrusion. That was unsurprising—hardly a sister in the Tower slept without warding these days—but it meant kidnapping either would be difficult. That was always easiest when carried out in the depths of the night by sisters of the woman’s own Ajah. It might yet turn out those glances were happenstance, or imagination. She needed to consider the possibility.

With a sigh, she gathered more of the small books from the chest and gently eased herself onto the goose down cushion on the chair at the writing table. Not gently enough to stop a wince as her weight settled, though. She stifled a whimper. At first, she had thought the humiliation of Silviana’s strap far worse than the pain, but the pain no longer really faded. Her bottom was a mass of bruises. And tomorrow, the Mistress of Novices would add to them. And the day after that, and the day after... A bleak vision of endless days howling under Silviana’s strap, of fighting to meet the eyes of sisters who knew all about the visits to Silviana’s study.

Trying to chase those thoughts away, she dipped a good steel-nibbed pen and began to write out ciphered orders on thin sheets of paper. Talene must be found and brought back, of course. For punishment and execution, if she had simply panicked, and if she had not, if she had somehow found a way to betray her oaths... Alviarin clung to that hope while she commanded a close watch put on Yukiri and Doesine. A way had to be found to take them. And if they were caught up in chance and imagination, something could still be manufactured from whatever they said. She would guide the flows in the circle. Something could be made.

She wrote furiously, unaware that her free hand had risen to her forehead, searching for the mark.

Afternoon sunlight slanted through the tall trees on the ridge above the vast Shaido encampment, dappling the air, and songbirds trilled on the branches overhead. Redbirds and bluejays flashed by, slashes of color, and Galina smiled. Heavy rain had fallen in the morning, and the air still held a touch of coolness beneath sparse, slowly drifting white clouds. Likely her gray mare, with its arched neck and lively step, had been the property of a noblewoman, or at the least a wealthy merchant. No one else but a sister could have afforded such a fine animal. She enjoyed these rides on the horse she had named Swift, because one day it would carry her swiftly to freedom; just as she enjoyed this time alone to dwell on what she would do once she had her freedom. She had plans for repaying those who had failed her, beginning with Elaida. Thinking about those plans, about their eventual fruition, was most enjoyable.

At least, she enjoyed her rides so long as she managed to forget that the privilege was as much a mark of how thoroughly Therava owned her, as were the thick white silk robe she wore and her firedrop-studded belt and collar. Her smile faded into a grimace. Adornments for a pet that was allowed to amuse itself when not required to amuse its owner. And she could not remove those jeweled markers, even out here. Someone might see. She rode here to get away from the Aiel, yet they could be encountered in the forest, too. Therava might learn of it. Difficult as it was to admit to herself, she feared the hawk-eyed Wise One to her bones. Therava filled her dreams, and they were never pleasant. Often she woke sweat-soaked and weeping. Waking from those nightmares was always a relief, whether or not she managed to get any sleep for the rest of the night.

There was never any order against escape on these rides, an order she would have had to obey, and that lack produced its own bitterness. Therava knew she would return, no matter how she was mistreated, in the hope that some day the Wise One might remove that cursed oath of obedience. She would be able to channel again, when and as she wished. Sevanna sometimes made her channel to perform menial tasks, or just to demonstrate that she could command it, but that occurred so seldom that she hungered for even that chance to embrace saidar. Therava refused to let her so much as touch the Power unless she begged and groveled, but then refused her permission to channel a thread. And she had groveled, abased herself completely, just to be granted that scrap. She realized that she was grinding her teeth, and forced herself to stop.

Perhaps the Oath Rod in the Tower could lift that oath from her as well as the nearly identical rod in Therava’s possession, yet she could not be sure. The two were not identical. It was only a difference in marking, yet what if that indicated that an oath sworn on one was particular to that rod? She dared not leave without Therava’s rod. The Wise One often left it lying in the open in her tent, but you will never pick that up, she had said.

Oh, Galina could touch that wrist-thick white rod, stroke its smooth surface, yet however hard she strained, she could not make her hand close on it. Not unless someone handed it to her. At least, she hoped that would not count as picking the thing up. It had to be so. Just the thought that it might not be filled her with bleakness. The yearning in her eyes when she gazed at the rod brought Therava’s rare smiles.

Does my little Lina want to be free of her oath? she would say mockingly. Then Lina must be a very good pet, because the only way I will consider freeing you is for you to convince me that you will remain my pet even then.

A lifetime of being Therava’s plaything and the target for her temper? A surrogate to be beaten whenever Therava raged against Sevanna? Bleakness was not strong enough to describe her feelings on that. Horror was more like it. She feared she might go mad if that happened. And equally, she feared there might be no escape into madness.

Mood thoroughly soured, she shaded her eyes to check the height of the sun. Therava had merely said that she would like her back before dark, and a good two hours of daylight remained, but she sighed with regret and immediately turned Swift downslope through the trees toward the camp. The Wise One enjoyed finding ways to enforce obedience without direct commands. A thousand ways to make her crawl. For safety, the woman’s slightest suggestion must be taken as a command. Being a few minutes late brought punishments that made Galina cringe at the memories. Cringe and heel the mare to a faster pace through the trees. Therava accepted no excuses.

Abruptly an Aielman stepped out in front of her from behind a thick tree, a very tall man in cadin’sor with his spears thrust through the harness that held his bowcase on his back and his veil hanging on his chest. Without speaking, he seized her bridle.

For an instant, she gaped at him, then drew herself up indignantly. “Fool!” she snapped. “You must know me by now. Release my horse, or Sevanna and Therava will take turns removing your skin!”

These Aiel usually showed little on their faces, yet she thought his green eyes widened slightly. And then she screamed as he seized the front of her robe in a huge fist and jerked her from the saddle.

“Be silent, gai’shain,” he said, but as though he cared nothing for whether she obeyed.

At one time she would have had to, but once they realized that she obeyed any order from anyone, there had been too many who enjoyed sending her on foolish errands that kept her occupied when Therava or Sevanna wanted her. Now, she need obey only certain Wise Ones and Sevanna, so she kicked and flailed and screamed in desperate hope of attracting someone who knew she belonged to Therava. If only she were allowed to carry a knife. Even that would have been a help. How could this man not recognize her, or at least know what her jeweled belt and collar meant? The encampment was immense, as filled with people as many large cities, yet it seemed that everyone could point out Therava’s pet wetlander. The woman would have this fellow skinned, and Galina meant to enjoy every minute of watching.

All too quickly it became apparent that a knife would have been no use at all. Despite her struggles, the brute handled her easily, pulling her cowl down over her head, blinding her, then stuffing as much of it as he could into her mouth before binding it there. Then he flipped her face down and bound her wrists and ankles tightly. As easily as if she had been a child! She still thrashed, but it was wasted effort.

“He wanted some gai’shain that aren’t Aiel, Gaul, but a gai’shain in silk and jewels, and out riding?” a man said, and Galina stiffened. That was no Aielman. Those were the accents of Murandy! “Sure and that’s none of your ways, is it?”

“Shaido.” The word was spat out like a curse.

“Well, we still need to find a few more if he’s to learn anything useful. Maybe more than a few. There are tens of thousands of folks in white down there, and she could be anywhere among them.”

“I think maybe this one can tell Perrin Aybara what he needs to know, Fager Neald.”

If she had stiffened before, now she froze. Ice seemed to form in her stomach, and in her heart. Perrin Aybara had sent these men? If he attacked the Shaido trying to rescue his wife, he would be killed, destroying her leverage with Faile. The woman would not care what was revealed, with her man dead, and the others had no secrets they feared having known. In horror, Galina saw her hopes of obtaining the rod melting away. She had to stop him. But how?

“And why would be you thinking that, Gaul?”

“She is Aes Sedai. And a friend of Sevanna, it seems.”

“Is she, now?” the Murandian said in a thoughtful tone. “Is she that?”

Strangely, neither man sounded the least uneasy over laying hands on an Aes Sedai. And the Aielman apparently had done so fully aware of what she was. Even if he was a renegade Shaido, he had to be ignorant of the fact that she could not channel without permission. Only Sevanna and a handful of the Wise Ones knew that. This was all growing more confusing by the moment.

Suddenly she was lifted into the air and laid on her belly. Across her own saddle, she realized, and the next moment she was bouncing on the hard leather, one of the men using a hand to keep her from falling as the mare began to trot.

“Let us go to where you can make us one of your holes, Fager Neald.”

“Just the other side of the slope, Gaul. Why, I’ve been here so often, I can make a gateway nearly anywhere at all. Do you Aiel run everywhere?”

A gateway? What was the man blathering about? Dismissing his nonsense, she considered her options, and found none good. Bound like a lamb for market, gagged so she would not be heard ten paces away if she shrieked her lungs out, her chances of escape were nonexistent unless some of the Shaido sentries intercepted her captors. But did she want them to? Unless she reached Aybara, she had no way to stop him from ruining everything. On the other hand, how many days off did his camp lie? He could not be very near, or the Shaido would have found him by now. She knew scouts had been making sweeps as far as ten miles from the camp. However many days were required to reach him, it would take as many to return. Not merely minutes late, but days late.

Therava would not kill her for it. Just make her wish she were dead. She could explain. A tale of being captured by brigands. No, just a pair; it was hard enough to believe two men had gotten this near the encampment, much less a band of brigands. Unable to channel, she had needed time to escape. She could make the tale convincing. It might persuade Therava. If she said... It was useless. The first time Therava had punished her for being late, it had been because her cinch broke and she had had to walk back leading her horse. The woman had not accepted that excuse, and she would not accept being kidnapped, either. Galina wanted to weep. In fact, she realized that she was weeping, hopeless tears she was helpless to stop.

The horse halted, and before she could think, she convulsed wildly, trying to fling herself off the saddle, screaming as loudly as her gag permitted. They had to be trying to avoid sentries. Surely Therava would understand if the sentries returned with her and her captors, even if she was late. Surely she could find a way to handle Faile even with her husband dead.

A hard hand smacked her rudely. “Be silent,” the Aielman said, and they began to trot again.

Her tears began again, too, and the silk cowl covering her face grew damp. Therava was going to make her howl. But even while she wept, she began to work on what she would say to Aybara. At least she could salvage her chances of obtaining the rod. Therava was going to... No. No! She needed to concentrate on what she could do. Images of the cruel-eyed Wise One holding a switch or a strap or binding cords reared in her mind, but every time she forced them down while she went over every question Aybara might ask and what answers she would give him. On what she would say to make him leave his wife’s safety in her hands.

In none of her calculations had she expected to be lifted down and stood upright no more than an hour after being captured.

“Unsaddle her horse, Noren, and picket it with the others,” the Murandian said.

“Right away, Master Neald,” came a reply. In a Cairhienin accent.

The bonds around her ankles fell away, a knife blade slid between her wrists, severing those cords, and then whatever held her gag in place was untied. She spat out silk sodden with her own saliva and jerked the cowl back.

A short man in a dark coat was leading Swift away through a straggle of large, patched brown tents and small, crude huts that seemed made from tree branches, including pine boughs with brown needles. How long for pine to turn brown? Days, surely, perhaps weeks. The sixty or seventy men tending cook fires or sitting on wooden stools looked like farmers in their rough coats, but some were sharpening swords, and spears and halberds and other polearms stood stacked in a dozen places. Through the gaps between the tents and huts, she could see more men moving about to either side, a number of them in helmets and breastplates, mounted and carrying long, streamered lances. Soldiers, riding out on patrol. How many more lay beyond her sight? No matter. What was in front of her eyes was impossible! The Shaido had sentries farther from their camp than this. She was certain they did!

“If the face wasn’t enough,” Neald murmured, “that cool, calculating study would convince me. Like she’s examining worms under a rock she’s turned over.” A weedy fellow in a black coat, he knuckled his waxed mustaches in an amused way, careful not to spoil the points. He wore a sword, but he certainly had no look of soldier or armsman about him. “Well, come along then, Aes Sedai,” he said, clasping her upper arm. “Lord Perrin will be wanting to ask you some questions.” She jerked free, and he calmly took a firmer grip. “None of that, now.”

The huge Aielman, Gaul, took her other arm, and she could go with them or be dragged. She walked with her head high, pretending they were merely an escort, but anyone who saw how they held her arms would know differently. Staring straight ahead, she was still aware of armed farmboys—most were young—staring at her. Not gaping in astonishment, just watching, considering. How could they be so high-handed with an Aes Sedai? Some of the Wise Ones who were unaware of the oath holding her had begun expressing doubt that she was Aes Sedai because she obeyed so readily and truckled so for Therava, but these two knew what she was. And did not care. She suspected those farmers knew, too, and yet none displayed any surprise at how she was being treated. It made the back of her neck prickle.

As they approached a large red-and-white-striped tent with the door-flaps tied back, she overheard voices from inside.

“... said he was ready to come right now,” a man was saying.

“I can’t afford to feed one more mouth when I don’t know for how long,” another man replied. “Blood and ashes! How long does it take to arrange a meeting with these people?”

Gaul had to duck into the tent, but Galina strode in as though entering her own rooms in the Tower. A prisoner she might be, yet she was Aes Sedai, and that simple fact was a powerful tool. And weapon. Who was he trying to arrange a meeting with? Not Sevanna, surely. Let it be anyone but Sevanna.

In stark contrast to the ramshackle camp outside, there was a good flowered carpet for a floor here, and two silk hangings embroidered with flowers and birds in a Cairhienin fashion hung from the roof poles. She focused on a tall, broad-shouldered man in his shirtsleeves with his back to her, leaning on his fists against a slender-legged table that was decorated with lines of gilding and covered with maps and sheets of paper. She had only glimpsed Aybara at a distance in Cairhien, yet she was sure this was the farmboy from Rand al’Thor’s home village in spite of the silk shirt and well-polished boots. Even the turndowns were polished. If nothing else, everyone in the tent seemed to be looking to him.

As she walked into the tent, a tall woman in high-necked green silk with small touches of lace at her throat and wrists, black hair falling in waves to her shoulders, laid a hand on Aybara’s arm in a familiar manner. Galina recognized her. “She seems cautious, Perrin,” Berelain said.

“Wary of a trap, in my estimation, Lord Perrin,” put in a graying, hard-bitten man in an ornate breastplate worn over a scarlet coat. A Ghealdanin, Galina thought. At least he and Berelain explained the presence of soldiers, if not how they could be where they could not possibly be.

Galina was very glad she had not encountered the woman in Cairhien. That would have made matters now more than merely awkward. She wished her hands were free to wipe the residue of tears from her face, but the two men held onto her arms firmly. There was nothing to be done about it. She was Aes Sedai. That was all that mattered. That was all she would allow to matter. She opened her mouth to take command of the situation...

Aybara suddenly looked over his shoulder at her, as though he had sensed her presence in some way, and his golden eyes froze her tongue. She had dismissed tales that the man had a wolf’s eyes, but he did. A wolf’s hard eyes in a stone-hard face. He made the Ghealdanin look almost soft. A sad face behind that close-cropped beard, as well. Over his wife, no doubt. She could make use of that.

“An Aes Sedai wearing gai’shain white,” he said flatly, turning to face her. He was a large man, if not nearly so large as the Aielman, and he loomed just by standing there, those golden eyes taking in everything. “And a prisoner, it seems. She didn’t want to come?”

“She thrashed like a trout on the riverbank while Gaul was tying her up, my Lord,” Neald replied. “Myself, I had nothing to do but stand and watch.”

A strange thing to say, and in such a significant tone. What could he have ...? Abruptly she became aware of another man in a black coat, a stocky, weathered fellow with a silver pin in the shape of a sword fastened to his high collar. And she remembered where she had last seen men in black coats. Leaping out of holes in the air just before everything turned to utter disaster at Dumai’s Wells. Neald and his holes, his gateways. These men could channel.

It took everything she could summon not to try jerking free of the Murandian’s clasp, not to edge away. Just being this close to him made her stomach writhe. Being touched by him... She wanted to whimper, and that surprised her. Surely she was tougher than that! She concentrated on maintaining an appearance of calm while trying to work moisture back into her suddenly dry mouth.

“She claims friendship with Sevanna,” Gaul added.

“A friend of Sevanna,” Aybara said, frowning. “But wearing a gai’shain robe. A silk robe, and jewels, but still... You didn’t want to come, but you didn’t channel to try stopping Gaul and Neald from bringing you. And you’re terrified.” He shook his head. How did he know she was afraid? “I’m surprised to see an Aes Sedai with the Shaido after Dumai’s Wells. Or don’t you know about that? Let her go, let her go. I doubt she’ll take off running since she let you bring her this far.”

“Dumai’s Wells does not matter,” she said coldly as the men’s hands fell away. The pair remained on either side of her like guards, though, and she was proud of the steadiness of her voice. A man who could channel. Two of them, and she was alone. Alone, and unable to channel a thread. She stood straight, head erect. She was Aes Sedai, and they must see her every inch an Aes Sedai. How could he know she was afraid? Not a shred of fear tinged her words. Her face might as well have been carved of stone for all she let show. “The White Tower has purposes none but Aes Sedai can know or understand. I am about White Tower business, and you are interfering. An unwise choice for any man.” The Ghealdanin nodded ruefully, as though he had learned that lesson personally; Aybara merely looked at her, expressionless.

“Hearing your name was the only reason I didn’t do something drastic to these two,” she continued. If the Murandian or the Aielmen brought up how long that had taken, she was ready to claim that she had been stunned at first, but they held silent, and she spoke quickly and forcefully. “Your wife Faile is under my protection, as well as Queen Alliandre, and when my business with Sevanna is done, I will take them to safety with me and help them reach wherever they wish to go. In the meanwhile, however, your presence here endangers my business, White Tower business, which I cannot allow. It also endangers you, and your wife, and Alliandre. There are tens of thousands of Aiel in that camp. Many tens of thousands. If they descend on you, and their scouts will find you soon if they haven’t already, they will wipe all of you from the face of the earth. They may harm your wife and Alliandre for it, as well. I may not be able to stop Sevanna. She is a harsh woman, and many of her Wise Ones can channel, nearly four hundred of them, all willing to use the Power to do violence, while I am one Aes Sedai, and constrained by my oaths. If you wish to protect your wife and the Queen, turn away from their camp and ride as hard as you can. They may not attack you if you are obviously retreating. That is the only hope you or your wife have.” There. If only a few of the seeds she had planted took root, they should be enough to turn him back.

“If Alliandre is in danger, Lord Perrin,” the Ghealdanin began, but Aybara stopped him with a raised hand. That was all it took. The soldier’s jaw tightened till she thought she might hear it creak, yet he remained silent.

“You’ve seen Faile?” the young man said, excitement touching his voice. “She’s well? She hasn’t been harmed?” The fool seemed not to have heard a word she said beyond mention of his wife.

“Well, and under my protection, Lord Perrin.” If this jumped-up country boy wanted to call himself a lord, she would tolerate it for the moment. “She and Alliandre, both.” The soldier glowered at Aybara, but he did not take the opportunity to speak. “You must listen to me. The Shaido will kill you—”

“Come here and look at this,” Aybara broke in, turning to the table and drawing a large page toward him.

“You must forgive his lack of manners, Aes Sedai,” Berelain murmured, handing her a worked silver cup of dark wine. “He is under considerable strain, as you might understand in the circumstances. I haven’t introduced myself. I am Berelain, the First of Mayene.”

“I know. You may call me Alyse.”

The other woman smiled as though she knew that was a false name, yet accepting it. The First of Mayene was far from unsophisticated. A pity she had to deal with the boy instead; sophisticated people who thought they could dance with Aes Sedai were easily led. Country folk could prove stubborn out of ignorance. But the fellow should know something of Aes Sedai by now. Perhaps ignoring him would give him reason to think on who and what she was.

The wine tasted like flowers on her tongue. “This is very good,” she said with genuine gratitude. She had not tasted decent wine for weeks. Therava would not permit her a pleasure the Wise One denied herself. If the woman learned that she had found several barrels in Malden, she would not even have mediocre wine. And surely would be beaten as well.

“There are other sisters in the camp, Alyse Sedai. Masuri Sokawa and Seonid Traighan, and my own advisor, Annoura Larisen. Would you like to speak to them after you finish with Perrin?”

With feigned casualness, Galina drew up her cowl till her face was shadowed and took another swallow of wine for time to think. Annoura’s presence was understandable, given Berelain’s, but what were the other two doing there? They had been among those who fled the Tower after Siuan was deposed and Elaida raised. True, none of them would know of her involvement in kidnapping the al’Thor boy for Elaida, but still...

“I think not,” she murmured. “Their business is theirs, and mine is mine.” She would have given a great deal to know their business, but not at the cost of being recognized. Any friend of the Dragon Reborn might have ... notions ... about a Red. “Help me convince Aybara, Berelain. Your Winged Guards are no match for what the Shaido will send against them. Whatever Ghealdanin you have with you won’t make a difference. An army will make no difference. The Shaido are too many, and they have hundreds of Wise Ones ready to use the One Power as a weapon. I have seen them do it. You may die, too, and even if you are captured, I can’t promise I can make Sevanna release you when I leave.”

Berelain laughed as though thousands of Shaido and hundreds of Wise Ones who could channel were of no account. “Oh, have no fear they will find us. Their camp lies a good three-day ride from here, perhaps four. The terrain turns rough not far from where we are.”

Three days, perhaps four. Galina shivered. She should have put it together before this. Three or four days of ground covered in less than an hour. Through a hole in the air created with the male half of the Power. She had been near enough for saidin to touch her. She kept her voice steady, though. “Even so, you must help me convince him not to attack. It would be disastrous, for him, for his wife, for everyone involved. Beyond that, what I am doing is important to the Tower. You have always been a strong supporter of the Tower.” Flattery, for the ruler of a single city and a few hides of land, but flattery oiled the insignificant as well as it did the mighty.

“Perrin is stubborn, Alyse Sedai. I doubt you’ll change his mind. That isn’t easy to do once he has it set.” For some reason, the young woman smiled a smile mysterious enough to credit a sister.

“Berelain, could you have your talk later?” Aybara said impatiently, and it was not a suggestion. He tapped the sheet of paper with a thick finger. “Alyse, would you look at this?” That was not a suggestion, either. Who did the man think he was, ordering an Aes Sedai?

Still, moving to the table took her a little way from Neald. It brought her nearer the other one, who was studying her intently, but he was on the other side of the table. A feeble barrier, yet she could ignore him by looking at the sheet of paper under Aybara’s finger. Keeping her eyebrows from rising was difficult. The town of Malden was outlined there, complete with the aqueduct that brought water from a lake five miles away, and also a rough outline of the Shaido camp surrounding the city. The real surprise was that markings seemed to indicate the arrival of septs since the Shaido reached Malden, and the number of those meant his men had been observing the camp for some time. Another map, roughly sketched, seemed to show the city itself in some detail.

“I see you have learned how large their camp is,” she said. “You must know rescuing her is hopeless. Even if you have a hundred of those men,” speaking of them was not easy, and she could not entirely keep the contempt from her voice, “it isn’t enough. Those Wise Ones will fight back. Hundreds of them. It would be a slaughter, thousands dead, your wife perhaps among them. I have told you, she and Alliandre are under my protection. When my business is finished, I will take them to safety. You have heard me say it, so by the Three Oaths you know it is true. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your connection to Rand al’Thor will protect you if you interfere in what the White Tower is doing. Yes, I know who you are. Did you think your wife wouldn’t tell me? She trusts me, and if you want to keep her safe, you must trust me, too.”

The idiot looked at her as though her words had flown over his head without touching his ears. Those eyes were truly unsettling. “Where does she sleep? Her, and everyone else who was captured with her. Show me.”

“I cannot,” she replied levelly. “Gai’shain seldom sleep in the same place two nights running.” With that lie vanished the last chance that she could leave Faile and the others alive. Oh, she had never intended to increase the risk of her own escape by aiding them, but that could always have been explained later by some change in circumstances. She could not hazard the possibility that they might actually escape one day and uncover her direct lie, however.

“I will get her free,” he growled, almost too softly for her to hear. “Whatever it takes.”

Her thoughts raced. There seemed no way to divert him from it, but perhaps she could delay him. She had to do at least that. “Will you at least hold off your attack? I may be able to conclude my affairs in a few more days, perhaps a week.” A deadline should sharpen Faile’s efforts. Before, it would have been dangerous; a threat not carried out lost all force, and the chance had been too great that the woman might be unable to get the rod in time. Now, the chance became necessary. “If I can do that, and bring your wife and others out, there will be no reason for you to die needlessly. One week.”

Frustration painting his face, Aybara thumped his fist on the table hard enough to make it bounce. “You can have a few days,” he growled, “maybe even a week or more, if—” He bit off whatever he had been about to say. Those strange eyes centered on her face. “But I can’t promise how many days,” he went on. “If I had my druthers, I’d be attacking now. I won’t leave Faile a prisoner a day longer than I have to while I wait on Aes Sedai schemes for the Shaido to bear fruit. You say she’s under your protection, but how great a protection can you really give, wearing that robe? There are signs of drunkenness in the camp. Even some of their sentries drink. Are the Wise Ones given to it as well?”

The sudden shift nearly made her blink. “The Wise Ones drink only water, so you needn’t think you can find them all in a stupor,” she told him dryly. And quite truthfully. It always amused her when the truth served her purposes. Not that the Wise Ones’ example was bearing much fruit. Drunkenness was rife among the Shaido. Every raid brought back all the wine that could be found. Dozens and dozens of small stills produced vile brews from grains, and every time the Wise Ones destroyed a still, two sprang up in its place. Letting him know that would only encourage him, though. “As for the others, I have been with armies before this and seen more drinking than I have among the Shaido. If a hundred are drunk among tens of thousands, what gain is there for you? Really, it will be better if you promise me a week. Two would be better still.”

His eyes flashed to the map, and his right hand made a fist again, but there was no anger in his voice. “Do the Shaido go inside the town walls very often?”

She set the winecup down on the table and drew herself up. Meeting that yellow-eyed gaze required effort, yet she managed without a falter. “I think it’s past time you showed proper respect. I am an Aes Sedai, not a servant.”

“Do the Shaido go inside the town walls very often?” he repeated in exactly the same even tone. She wanted to grind her teeth.

“No,” she snapped. “They’ve looted everything worth stealing and some things that aren’t.” She regretted the words as soon as they left her tongue. They had seemed safe, until she remembered men who could leap through holes in the air. “That isn’t to say they never enter. Most days, a few go in. There might be twenty or thirty at any time, more on occasion, in groups of two or three.” Did he have the wit to see what that would mean? Best to make sure he saw. “You could not secure them all. Inevitably, some will escape to warn the camp.”

Aybara only nodded. “When you see Faile, tell her that on the day she sees fog on the ridges and hears wolves howl by daylight, she and the others must go to Lady Cairen’s fortress at the north end of the city and hide there. Tell her I love her. Tell her I’m coming for her.”

Wolves? Was the man demented? How could he ensure that wolves would ...? Suddenly, with those wolf’s eyes on her, she was not sure she wanted to know.

“I will tell her,” she lied. Perhaps he only meant to use the men in black coats to grab his wife? But why wait at all, in that case? Those yellow eyes hid secrets she wished she knew. Who was he trying to meet? Clearly not Sevanna. She would have thanked the Light for that if she had not abandoned that foolishness long since. Who was ready to come to him right away? One man had been mentioned, but that might mean a king with an army. Or al’Thor himself? Him, she prayed never to see again.

Her promise seemed to release something in the young man. He exhaled slowly, and a tension she had not noticed left his face. “The trouble with a blacksmith’s puzzle,” he said softly, tapping the outline of Malden, “is always getting the key piece into place. Well, that’s done. Or soon will be.”

“Will you stay for supper?” Berelain asked. “The hour is near.”

The light was dimming in the open doorway. A lean serving woman in dark wool, her white hair in a bun on the back of her head, entered and began lighting the lamps.

“Will you promise me at least a week?” Galina demanded, but Aybara shook his head. “In that case, every hour is important.” She had never intended staying a moment longer than necessary, but she had to force her next words out. “Will you have one of your ... men ... take me back to as near the camp as possible?”

“Do it, Neald,” Aybara commanded. “And at least try to be polite.” He said that!

She drew a deep breath and pushed her cowl back. “I want you to hit me, here.” She touched her cheek. “Hard enough to bruise.”

Finally she had said something that got through to the man. Those yellow eyes widened, and he tucked his thumbs behind his belt as though securing his hands. “I will not,” he said, sounding as though she were insane.

The Ghealdanin’s mouth hung open, and the serving woman was staring at her, the burning taper in her hand hanging dangerously near her skirts.

“I require it,” Galina said firmly. She would need every scrap of verisimilitude she could find with Therava. “Do it!”

“I don’t believe he will,” Berelain said, gliding forward with her skirts gathered. “He has very country ways. If you will permit me?”

Galina nodded impatiently. There was nothing for it, though the woman likely would not leave a very convincing... Her vision went dark, and when she could see again, she was swaying slightly. She could taste blood. Her hand went to her cheek, and she winced.

“Too hard?” Berelain inquired anxiously.

“No,” Galina mumbled, fighting to keep her face smooth. Had she been able to channel, she would have torn the woman’s head off! Of course, if she could have channeled, none of this would be necessary. “Now, the other cheek. And have someone fetch my horse.”

She rode into the forest with the Murandian, to a place where several of the huge trees lay toppled and oddly slashed, sure it would be difficult for her to use his hole in the air, but when the man produced a vertical silver-blue slash that widened into a view of steeply climbing land, she did not think of tainted saidin at all as she heeled Swift through the opening. Never a thought except of Therava.

She almost howled when she realized she was on the opposite side of the ridge from the encampment. Frantically she raced the sinking sun. And lost.

She had been right, unfortunately. Therava did not accept excuses. She was particularly upset over the bruises. She herself never marred Galina’s face. What followed easily equaled her nightmares. And it lasted much longer. At times, when she was screaming her loudest, she almost forgot her desperate need to get the rod. But she clung to that. Obtain the rod, kill Faile and her friends, and she would be free.

Egwene regained awareness slowly, and muzzy as she was, barely had the presence of mind to keep her eyes closed. Pretending still to be unconscious was all too easy. Her head lay slumped on a woman’s shoulder, and she could not have lifted it had she tried. An Aes Sedai’s shoulder; she could sense the woman’s ability. Her brain felt stuffed with wool, her thoughts were slow and veering, her limbs all but numb. Her wool riding dress and cloak were dry, she realized, despite the soaking she had received in the river. Well, that was easily managed with the Power. Small chance they had channeled the water from her garments for her comfort, though. She was seated, wedged in between two sisters, one of whom wore a flowery perfume, each using a hand to keep her more or less upright. They were in a coach by the way they all swayed and the clatter of a trotting team’s horseshoes on paving stones. Carefully, she opened her eyes to narrow slits.

The coach’s side curtains were tied back, though the stink of rotting garbage made her think it would have been better to pull them shut. Garbage, rotting! How could Tar Valon have come to that? Such neglect of the city was reason enough by itself for Elaida to be removed. The windows let in enough moonlight for her to dimly make out three Aes Sedai seated facing her, in the rear of the coach. Even had she not known they could channel, their fringed shawls would have made it certain. In Tar Valon, wearing a shawl with fringe could result in unpleasantness for a woman who was not Aes Sedai. Oddly, the sister on the left appeared to be huddling against the side of the coach, away from the other two, and if they were not exactly huddling, at least they were sitting very close together, as though avoiding contact with the third Aes Sedai. Very odd.

Abruptly it came to her that she was not shielded. Muddled she might be, but that made no sense at all. They could feel her strength, as she could theirs, and while none was weak, she thought she could overcome all five if she were quick enough. The True Source was a vast sun just beyond the edge of sight, calling to her. The first question was, did she dare try yet? In the state her head was, thought wading through knee-deep mud, whether she could actually embrace saidar was uncertain, and succeed or fail, they would know once she tried. Best to try recovering a little beforehand. The second question was, how long did she dare wait? They would not let her go unshielded forever. Experimentally, she tried wiggling her toes inside her stout leather shoes, and was delighted when they moved obediently. Life seemed to be returning slowly to her arms and legs. She thought she might be able to raise her head now, if unsteadily. Whatever they had given her was wearing off. How long?

Events were taken out of her hands by the dark-haired sister sitting in the middle of the rear seat, who leaned forward and slapped her so hard that she toppled onto the lap of the woman she had been leaning against. Her hand went to her stinging cheek on its own volition. So much for pretending unconsciousness.

“There was no need for that, Katerine,” a raspy voice said above her as its owner lifted her upright again. She could hold her head up, just, it turned out. Katerine. That would be Katerine Alruddin, a Red. It seemed important to identify her captors for some reason, though she knew nothing of Katerine beyond her name and Ajah. The sister she had fallen onto was yellow-haired, but her moon-shadowed face belonged to a stranger. “I think you gave her too much of the forkroot,” the woman went on.

A chill flashed through her. So that was what she had been fed! She racked her brain for everything Nynaeve had told her about that vile tea, but her thoughts were still slow. Better, though, it seemed. She was sure Nynaeve had said the effects took some time to go away completely.

“I gave her the exact dose, Felaana,” the sister who had slapped her replied dryly, “and as you can see, it is leaving her precisely as it should. I want her able to walk by the time we reach the Tower. I certainly don’t intend to help carry her again,” she finished with a glare for the sister seated to Egwene’s left, who gave a dismissive shake of her head. That was Pritalle Nerbaijan, a Yellow who had done her best to avoid teaching novices or Accepted and made little secret of her dislike for the task when forced to it.

“To have my Harril carry her would have been most improper,” she said coldly. In fact, icily. “Myself, I will be glad if she can walk, but if not, so be it. In any case, I look forward to handing her over to others. If you do not want to carry her again, Katerine, I do not want to stand guard over her half the night in the cells.” Katerine gave a dismissive toss of her head.

The cells. Of course; she was bound for one of those small, dark rooms on the first level of the Tower’s basement. Elaida would charge her with falsely claiming to be the Amyrlin Seat. The penalty for that was death. Strangely, that brought no fear. Perhaps it was the herb working on her. Would Romanda or Lelaine give way, agreeing to be raised Amyrlin after she was dead? Or would they continue to struggle with one another until the entire rebellion faltered and failed, and the sisters straggled back to Elaida? A sad thought, that. Bone-deep sad. But if she could feel sorrow, the forkroot was not quenching her emotions, so why was she not afraid? She thumbed her Great Serpent ring. At least, she tried to, and discovered it gone. Anger flared, white-hot. They might kill her, but they would not deny she was Aes Sedai.

“Who betrayed me?” she asked, pleased that her tone was even and cool. “It can’t hurt to tell me, since I’m your prisoner.” The sisters stared at her as though surprised she had a voice.

Katerine leaned forward casually, raising her hand. The Red’s eyes tightened when pale-haired Felaana lunged to catch the slap before it could land on Egwene.

“She will no doubt be executed,” the raspy-voiced woman said firmly, “but she is an initiate of the Tower, and none of us has the right to beat her.”

“Take your hand off me, Brown,” Katerine snarled, and shockingly, the light of saidar enveloped her.

In an instant the glow surrounded every woman in the coach except Egwene. They eyed one another like strange cats on the brink of hissing, on the brink of lashing out with claws. No, not everyone; Katerine and the taller sister seated against her flank never glanced at one another. But they had glares aplenty for the rest. What under the Light was going on? The mutual hostility was so thick in the air, she could have sliced it like bread.

After a moment, Felaana released Katerine’s wrist and leaned back, yet no one released the Source. Egwene suddenly suspected that no one was willing to be the first. Their faces were all serene in the pale moonlight, but the Brown’s hands were knotted in her shawl, and the sister leaning away from Katerine was smoothing her skirts repeatedly.

“About time for this, I think,” Katerine said, weaving a shield. “We wouldn’t want you to try anything ... futile.” Her smile was vicious. Egwene merely sighed as the weave settled on her; she doubted she could have embraced saidar yet in any case, and against five already full of the Power, success would have lasted moments at most. Her mild reaction appeared to disappoint the Red. “This may be your last night in the world,” she went on. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Elaida had you stilled and beheaded tomorrow.”

“Or even tonight,” her lanky companion added, nodding. “I think Elaida may be that eager to see the end of you.” Unlike Katerine, she was merely stating a fact, but she was surely another Red. And watching the other sisters, as though she suspected one of them might try something. This was very strange!

Egwene held on to her composure, denying them the response they wanted. The response Katerine wanted, at least. She was determined to maintain her dignity right to the headsman’s block. Whether or not she had managed to do well as Amyrlin, she would die in a manner fitting for the Amyrlin Seat.

The woman huddling away from the two Reds spoke, and her voice, full of Arafel, allowed Egwene to put a name to the hard, narrow face, dimly seen by moonlight. Berisha Terakuni, a Gray with a reputation for the strictest, and often harshest, interpretation of the law. Always to the letter, of course, but never with any sense of mercy. “Not tonight or tomorrow, Barasine, not unless Elaida is willing to summon the Sitters in the middle of the night, and they’re willing to answer. This requires a High Court, no thing of minutes or even hours, and the Hall seems less eager to please Elaida than she might wish, small wonder. The girl will be tried, but the Hall will sit in the matter when they choose, I think.”

“The Hall will come when Elaida calls or she’ll hand them all penances that will make them wish they had,” Katerine sneered. “The way Jala and Merym galloped off when we saw who we’d caught, she knows by now, and I’ll wager that for this one, Elaida will drag Sitters from their beds with her own hands if she must.” Her voice grew smug, and cutting at the same time. “Perhaps she will name you to the Chair of Pardon. Would you enjoy that?”

Berisha drew herself up indignantly, shifting her shawl on her arms. In some instances, the Chair of Pardon faced the same penalty as the one she defended. Perhaps this charge required it; despite Siuan’s best efforts to complete her education, Egwene did not know.

“What I want to hear,” the Gray said after a moment, ostentatiously ignoring the women on the seat with her, “is what did you do to the harbor chain? How can it be undone?”

“It can’t be undone,” Egwene replied. “You must know that it’s cuendillar, now. Even the Power won’t break it, only strengthen it. I suppose you could sell it if you tear down enough of the harbor wall to remove it. If anyone can afford a piece of cuendillar that big. Or would want such a thing.”

This time, no one tried to stop Katerine from slapping her, and very hard, too. “Hold your tongue!” the Red snapped.

That seemed good advice unless she wanted to be slapped silly. She could taste blood in her mouth already. So Egwene held her tongue, and silence descended on the rolling coach, the others all glowing with saidar and watching each other suspiciously. It was incredible! Why had Elaida ever chosen women who clearly detested one another for tonight’s task? As a demonstration of her power, just because she could? No matter. If Elaida allowed her to live through the night, at least she could let Siuan know what had happened to her—and likely to Leane, as well. She could let Siuan know they had been betrayed. And pray that Siuan could track down the betrayer. Pray that the rebellion would not collapse. She offered a small prayer for that on the spot. It was much more important than the other.

By the time the coachman reined in the team, she had recovered enough to follow Katerine and Pritalle from the coach unaided, though her head still felt a trifle thick. She could stand, but she doubted she had the strength to run far, not that trying would achieve anything beyond being halted after a few steps. So she stood calmly beside the dark-lacquered coach and waited as patiently as the four-horse team in their harness. After all, she was harnessed, too, in a manner of speaking. The White Tower loomed over them, a thick pale shaft rearing into the night. Few of its windows were alight, but some of those were near the very top, perhaps in the rooms Elaida occupied. It was very strange. She was a prisoner and unlikely to live much longer, yet she felt she had come home. The Tower seemed to renew her vigor.

Two Tower-liveried backriders, the Flame of Tar Valon on their chests, had dismounted from the rear of the coach to unfold the steps, and they stood offering a white-gloved hand to each woman who dismounted, but only Berisha availed herself, and only because it let her reach the paving stones quickly while eyeing the other sisters, Egwene suspected. Barasine gave the fellows such looks that one gulped audibly and the other’s face grew pale. Felaana, busy trying to watch the others, merely waved the men away irritably. All five still held saidar, even here.

They were at the main rear entrance, stone-railed marble stairs descending from the second level beneath four massive bronze lanterns that cast a wide pool of flickering light, and to her surprise, a single novice stood alone at the foot of the stairs, clutching her white cloak against a slight chill in the air. She had more than half-expected Elaida to meet them in person, to gloat over her capture with a retinue of sycophants. That the novice was Nicola Treehill was a second surprise. The last place she would have thought to find the runaway was inside the White Tower itself.

By the way Nicola’s eyes widened when Egwene emerged from the coach, the novice was more startled than herself, but she dropped a neat if hasty curtsy to the sisters. “The Amyrlin says she ... she is to be handed over to the Mistress of Novices, Katerine Sedai. She says that Silviana Sedai has her instructions.”

“So, it seems you’ll be birched tonight, at least,” Katerine murmured with a smile. Egwene wondered whether the woman hated her personally, or for what she represented, or simply hated everyone. Birched. She had never seen it done, but she had heard a description. It sounded extremely painful. She met Katerine’s gaze levelly, and after a moment the smile faded. The woman looked about to strike her again. The Aiel had a way of dealing with pain. They embraced it, gave themselves over to it without fighting or even trying to hold back screams. Perhaps that would help. The Wise Ones said that way the pain could be cast off without keeping its hold on you.

“If Elaida means to drag this out unnecessarily, I’ll have no more part in it tonight,” Felaana announced, frowning at everyone in sight including Nicola. “If the girl is to be stilled and executed, that should be sufficient.” Gathering her skirts, the yellow-haired sister darted past Nicola up the stairs. Actually running! The glow of saidar still surrounded her as she vanished inside.

“I agree,” Pritalle said coolly. “Harril, I think I’ll walk with you while you stable Bloodlance.” A dark, stocky man, who had come out of the darkness leading a tall bay, bowed to her. Stone-faced, he wore a Warder’s chameleon cloak that made most of him seem not to be there when he stood still and rippled with colors when he moved. Silently he followed Pritalle off into the night, but watching over his shoulder, guarding Pritalle’s back. The light remained around her, too. There was something here that Egwene was missing.

Suddenly, Nicola spread her skirts in another curtsy, deeper this time, and words burst out of her in a rush. “I’m sorry I ran away, Mother. I thought they’d let me go faster here. Areina and I thought—”

“Don’t call her that!” Katerine barked, and a switch of Air caught the novice across the bottom hard enough to make her squeal and jump. “If you’re attending the Amyrlin Seat tonight, child, get back to her and tell her I said her orders will be carried out. Now, run!”

With one last, frantic glance at Egwene, Nicola gathered her cloak and her skirts and went scrambling up the stairs so fast that twice she stumbled and nearly fell. Poor Nicola. Her hopes had surely been disappointed, and if the Tower discovered her age... She must have lied about that to be taken in; lying was one of her several bad habits. Egwene dismissed the girl from her mind. Nicola was no longer her concern.

“There was no need to frighten the child out of her wits,” Berisha said, surprisingly. “Novices need to be guided, not bludgeoned.” A far cry from her views on the law.

Katerine and Barasine rounded on the Gray together, staring at her intently. Only two cats, now, but rather than another cat, they saw a mouse.

“Do you mean to come with us to Silviana alone?” Katerine asked with a decidedly unpleasant smile twisting her lips.

“Aren’t you afraid, Gray?” Barasine said, a touch of mockery in her voice. For some reason, she swung one arm a little so the long fringe of her shawl swayed. “Just the one of you, and two of us?”

The two backriders stood like statues, like men who desired heartily to be anywhere else and hoped to remain unnoticed if sufficiently still.

Berisha was no taller than Egwene, but she drew herself up and clutched her shawl around her. “Threats are specifically prohibited by Tower—”

“Did Barasine threaten you?” Katerine cut in softly. Softly, yet with sharp steel wrapped in it. “She just asked whether you are afraid. Should you be?”

Berisha licked her lips uneasily. Her face was bloodless, and her eyes grew wider and wider, as though she saw things she had no wish to see. “I... I think I will take a walk in the grounds,” she said at last, in a strangled voice, and sidled away without ever taking her eyes from the two Reds. Katerine gave a small, satisfied laugh.

This was absolute madness! Even sisters who hated one another to the toenails did not behave in this fashion. No woman who gave in to fear as easily as Berisha had could ever have become Aes Sedai in the first place. Something was wrong in the Tower. Very wrong.

“Bring her,” Katerine said, starting up the stairs.

At last releasing saidar, Barasine gripped Egwene’s arm tightly and followed. There was no choice save to gather her divided skirts and go along without a struggle. Yet her spirits were oddly buoyant.

Entering the Tower truly did feel like returning home. The white walls with their friezes and tapestries, the brightly colored floor tiles, seemed as familiar as her mother’s kitchen. More so, in a way; it had been far longer since she saw her mother’s kitchen than these hallways. She took in the strength of home with every breath. But there was strangeness, too. The stand-lamps were all alight, and the hour could not be all that late, yet she saw no one. There were always a few sisters gliding along the corridors, even in the dead of night. She remembered that vividly, catching sight of some sister while running on an errand in the small hours and despairing that she would ever be so graceful, so queenly. Aes Sedai kept their own hours, and some Browns hardly liked being awake during daylight at all. Night held fewer distractions from their studies, fewer interruptions to their reading. But there was no one. Neither Katerine nor Barasine made any comment as they walked along hallways lifeless except for the three of them. Apparently this silent emptiness was a matter of course, now.

As they reached pale stone stairs set in an alcove, another sister finally appeared, climbing from below. A plump woman in a red-slashed riding dress, with a mouth that looked ready to smile, she wore her shawl, edged with long red silk fringe, draped along her arms. Katerine and the others might well have worn theirs to mark them out clearly at the docks—no one in Tar Valon would bother a woman wearing a fringed shawl, and most kept clear, if they could, particularly men—but why here?

The newcomer’s thick black eyebrows raised over bright blue eyes at the sight of Egwene, and she planted her fists on ample hips, letting her shawl slide to her elbows. Egwene did not think she had ever seen the woman before, but apparently, the reverse was not true. “Why, that’s the al’Vere girl. They sent her to Northharbor? Elaida will give you a pretty for this night’s work; yes, she will. But look at her. Look at how she stands so. You’d think the pair of you were an honor guard for escort. I’d have thought she’d be weeping and wailing for mercy.”

“I believe the herb is still dulling her senses,” Katerine muttered with a sidelong scowl for Egwene. “She doesn’t seem to realize her situation.” Barasine, still holding Egwene’s arm, gave her a vigorous shake, but after a small stagger she managed to catch her balance and kept her face smooth, ignoring the taller woman’s glares.

“In shock,” the plump Red said, nodding. She did not sound exactly sympathetic, but after Katerine, she was near enough. “I’ve seen that before.”

“How did matters go at Southharbor?” Barasine asked.

“Not so well as with you, it seems. With everyone else squealing to themselves like shoats caught under a fence over there being two of us, I was afraid we’d scare off who we were trying to catch. It’s a good thing there were two of us who would talk to one another. As it was, all we caught was a wilder, and not before she turned half the harbor chain to cuendillar. We ended up near killing the coach horses by galloping back like, well, like we’d caught your prize. Zanica insisted. Even put her Warder up in place of the coachman.”

“A wilder,” Katerine said contemptuously.

“Only half?” Relief stood out clearly in Barasine’s voice. “Then Southharbor isn’t blocked.”

Melare’s eyebrows climbed again as the implications sank in. “We’ll see how clear it is in the morning,” she said slowly, “when they let down the half that’s still iron. The rest of it stands out stiff like, well, like a bar of cuendillar. Myself, I doubt any but smaller vessels will be able to cross.” She shook her head with a puzzled expression. “There was something strange, though. More than strange. We couldn’t find the wilder, at first. We couldn’t feel her channeling. There was no glow around her, and we couldn’t see her weaves. The chain just started turning white. If Arebis’s Warder hadn’t spotted the boat, she might have finished and gotten away.”

“Clever Leane,” Egwene murmured. For an instant, she squeezed her eyes shut. Leane had prepared everything in advance, before coming in sight of the harbor, all inverted and her ability masked. If she herself had been as clever, she likely would have escaped cleanly. But then, hindsight always saw farthest.

“That’s the name she gave,” Melare said, frowning. The woman’s eyebrows, like dark caterpillars, were very expressive. “Leane Sharif. Of the Green Ajah. Two very stupid lies. Desala is striping her from top to bottom down there, but she won’t budge. I had to come up for a breath. I never liked flogging, even for one like that. Do you know this trick of hers, child? How to hide your weaves?”

Oh, Light! They thought Leane was a wilder pretending to be Aes Sedai. “She’s telling the truth. Stilling cost her the ageless look and made her appear younger. She was Healed by Nynaeve al’Meara, and since she was no longer of the Blue, she chose a new Ajah. Ask her questions only Leane Sharif could know the answers—” Speech ended for her as a ball of Air filled her mouth, forcing her jaws wide till they creaked.

“We don’t have to listen to this nonsense,” Katerine growled.

Melare stared into Egwene’s eyes, though. “It sounds senseless, to be sure,” she said after a moment, “but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions besides ‘What is your name?’ At worse, it’ll cut the tedium of the woman’s answers. Shall we take her down to the cells, Katerine? I don’t dare leave Desala alone with the other one for long. She despises wilders, and she purely hates women who claim to be Aes Sedai.”

“She’s not going to the cells, yet,” Katerine replied. “Elaida wants her taken to Silviana.”

“Well, as long as I learn that trick from this child or the other one.” Hitching her shawl up onto her shoulders, Melare took a deep breath and headed back down the stairs, a woman with labor ahead of her she was not looking forward to. She gave Egwene hope for Leane, though. Leane was “the other one,” now, no longer “the wilder.”

Katerine set off down the corridor walking quickly, and in silence, but Barasine pushed Egwene ahead of her after the other Red, muttering half under her breath about how ridiculous it was to think that a sister could learn anything from a wilder, or from a jumped-up Accepted who told outlandish lies. Maintaining some shreds of dignity was difficult, to say the least, while being shoved down a hallway by a long-legged woman with your mouth gaping open as wide as it would go and drool leaking down your chin, but she managed as best she could. In truth, she hardly thought about it. Melare had given her too much to think on. Melare added to the sisters in the coach. It could hardly mean what it seemed to, but if it did...

Soon the blue-and-white floor tiles became red-and-green, and they approached an unmarked wooden door between two tapestries of flowered trees and stout-beaked birds so colorful they seemed unlikely to be real. Unmarked, but bright with polish and known to every initiate of the Tower. Katerine rapped on the door with what might almost have been a display of diffidence, and when a strong voice inside called, “Come,” she drew a deep breath before pushing the door open. Did she have bad memories of entering here as novice or Accepted, or was it the woman who awaited them who made her hesitant?

The study of the Mistress of Novices was exactly as Egwene recalled, a small, dark-paneled room with plain, sturdy furnishings. A narrow table by the doorway was lightly carved in a peculiar pattern, and bits of gilt clung to the carved frame of the mirror on one wall, but nothing else was decorated in any way. The stand-lamps and the pair of lamps on the writing table were unadorned brass, though of six different patterns. The woman who held the office usually changed when a new Amyrlin was raised, yet Egwene was ready to wager that a woman who had come to this room as a novice two hundred years ago would recognize nearly every stick and perhaps everything.

The current Mistress of Novices—in the Tower, at least—was on her feet when they entered, a stocky woman nearly as tall as Barasine, with a dark bun on the back of her head and a square, determined chin. There was an air of brooking no nonsense about Silviana Brehon. She was a Red, and her charcoal-colored skirts had discreet red slashes, but her shawl lay draped across the back of the chair behind the writing table. Her large eyes were unsettling, however. They seemed to take in everything about Egwene in a glance, as though the woman not only knew every thought in her head, but also what she would think tomorrow.

“Leave her with me and wait outside,” Silviana said in a low, firm voice.

“Leave her?” Katerine said incredulously.

“Which words did you not understand, Katerine? Need I repeat myself?”

Apparently she did not. Katerine flushed, but she said no more. The glow of saidar surrounded Silviana, and she took over the shield smoothly, without giving any opening when Egwene might have embraced the Power herself. She was certain that she could, now. Except that Silviana was far from weak; there was no hope she could break the woman’s shield. The gag of Air disappeared at the same time, and she contented herself with digging a handkerchief from her belt pouch and calmly wiping her chin. The pouch had been searched—she always kept the handkerchief on top, not beneath everything else—but learning whether anything besides her ring had been taken would have to wait. There had not been anything of much use to a prisoner in any case. A comb, a packet of needles, some small scissors, odds and ends. The Amyrlin’s stole. What sort of dignity she could maintain while being birched was beyond her, but that was the future; this was now. Silviana studied her, arms folded beneath her breasts, until the door closed behind the other two Reds. “You aren’t hysterical, at least,” she said then. “That makes matters easier, but why aren’t you hysterical?”

“Would it do any good?” Egwene replied, returning the handkerchief to her pouch. “I can’t see how.”

Silviana strode to the writing table and stood reading from a sheet of paper there, occasionally glancing up. Her expression was a perfect mask of Aes Sedai serenity, unreadable. Egwene waited patiently, hands folded at her waist. Even upside down she could recognize Elaida’s distinctive hand on that page, if not read what it said. The woman need not think she would grow nervous at waiting. Patience was one of the few weapons left to her, at present.

“It seems the Amyrlin has been mulling over what to do about you for some time,” Silviana said finally. If she had expected Egwene to begin shifting her feet or wringing her hands, she gave no sign of disappointment. “She has a very complete plan ready. She doesn’t want the Tower to lose you. Nor do I. Elaida has decided that you have been used as a dupe by others and should not be held accountable. So you will not be charged with claiming to be Amyrlin. She has stricken your name from the roll of the Accepted and entered it in the novice book again. I agree with that decision, frankly, though it’s never been done before. Whatever your ability with the Power, you missed almost everything else you should have learned as a novice. You needn’t fear that you’ll have to take the test again, though. I wouldn’t force anyone to go through that twice.”

“I am Aes Sedai by virtue of having been raised to the Amyrlin Seat,” Egwene replied calmly. There was no incongruity in fighting for a title when claiming it might still lead to her death. Acquiescence would be as sharp a blow to the rebellion as her execution. Maybe sharper. A novice again? That was laughable! “I can cite the relevant passages in the law, if you wish.”

Silviana arched an eyebrow and sat down to open a large leather-bound book. The punishments book. Dipping her pen in the simple glass ink jar, she made a notation. “You’ve just earned your first visit to me. I’ll give you the night to think about it rather than putting you over my knee now. Let’s hope contemplation increases the salubrious effect.”

“Do you think you can make me deny who I am with a spanking?” Egwene was hard put to keep incredulity from her voice. She was not sure she succeeded.

“There are spankings and spankings,” the other woman replied. Wiping the nib clean on a scrap, she replaced the pen in its glass holder and considered Egwene. “You’re accustomed to Sheriam Bayanar as Mistress of Novices.” Silviana shook her head disparagingly. “I’ve browsed her punishments book. She let the girls get away with too much, and was far too lenient with her favorites. As a result, she was forced to deal out correction much more often than she should have had to. I record a third of the punishments in a month that Sheriam did, because I make sure that everyone I punish leaves here wishing above all things never to be sent to me again.”

“Whatever you do, you’ll never make me deny who I am,” Egwene said firmly. “How can you possibly think you can make this work? Am I to be escorted to classes, shielded all the while?”

Silviana leaned back against her shawl, resting her hands on the edge of the table. “You mean to resist as long as you can, do you?”

“I will do what I must.”

“And I will do what I must. During the day, you will not be shielded at all. But every hour you will be given a mild tincture of forkroot.” Silviana’s mouth twisted on the word. She picked up the sheet that contained Elaida’s notes as if to read, then let it drop back onto the tabletop, rubbing her fingertips as though something noxious clung to them. “I cannot like the stuff. It seems aimed directly at Aes Sedai. Someone who cannot channel can drink five times the amount that makes a sister pass out and barely grow dizzy from it. A disgusting brew. Yet useful, it seems. Perhaps it can be used on those Asha’man. The tincture won’t make you dizzy, but you won’t be able to channel enough to cause any problems. Only trickles. Refuse to drink, and it will be poured down your throat anyway. You’ll be closely watched as well, so you don’t try to slip away afoot. At night, you will be shielded, since giving you enough forkroot to make you sleep through the night would leave you doubled up with stomach cramps the next day.

“You are a novice, Egwene, and you will be a novice. Many sisters still consider you a runaway, no matter what orders Siuan Sanche gave, and others doubtless will think Elaida wrong not to have you beheaded. They’ll watch for every infraction, every fault. You may sneer at a spanking now, before you’ve received it, but when you’re being sent to me for five, six, seven every day? We’ll see how long it takes you to change your mind.”

Egwene surprised herself by giving a small laugh, and Silviana’s eyebrows shot up. Her hand twitched as though to reach for her pen.

“Did I say something funny, child?”

“Not at all,” Egwene replied truthfully. It had occurred to her that she could deal with the pain by embracing it in the Aiel manner. She hoped it worked, but there went all hope for dignity. While she was being punished, at least. For the rest, she could only do what she could.

Silviana glanced at her pen, but finally stood without touching it. “Then I am done with you. For tonight. I will see you before breakfast, however. Come with me.”

She started for the door, confident that Egwene would follow, and Egwene did. Attacking the other woman physically would achieve no more than another entry in the book. Forkroot. Well, she would find a way around that somehow. If not... She refused to think about that.

Katerine and Barasine were startled to say the least at hearing Elaida’s plans for Egwene, and not best pleased to learn that they would be watching her and shielding her while she slept, although Silviana told them she would arrange for other sisters to come after an hour or two.

“Why both of us?” Katerine wanted to know, which earned her a wry glance from Barasine. If only one were sent, it surely would not be Katerine, who stood higher.

“Firstly, because I said so.” Silviana waited until the other two Reds nodded in acceptance. They did so with obvious reluctance, but not enough to make her wait long. She had not put on her shawl to come into the hallway, and in some odd fashion, she seemed the one out of place. “And secondly, because this child is tricky, I think. I want her watched carefully awake or asleep. Which of you has her ring?”

After a moment, Barasine produced the circle of gold from her belt pouch, muttering, “I only thought to keep it as a memento. Of the rebels being brought to heel. They’re finished, now, for sure.” A memento? It was stealing was what it was!

Egwene reached for the ring, but Silviana’s hand got there first, and it was into her pouch that the ring went. “I’ll keep this until you have the right to wear it again, child. Now take her to the novices’ quarters and settle her in. A room should have been prepared by now.”

Katerine resumed the shield, and Barasine reached for Egwene’s arm again, but Egwene stretched out a hand toward Silviana. “Wait. There’s something I must tell you.” She had agonized over this. It would be all too easy to reveal far more than she wanted. But she had to do it. “I have the Talent of Dreaming. I’ve learned to tell the true dreams, and to interpret some of them. I dreamt of a glass lamp that burned with a white flame. Two ravens flew out of mist, struck the lamp, and flew on. The lamp wobbled, flinging off droplets of flaming oil. Some of those burned up in midair, others landed scattered about, and the lamp still wobbled on the edge of falling. It means the Seanchan will attack the White Tower and do great harm.”

Barasine sniffed. Katerine gave a derisive snort.

“A Dreamer,” Silviana said flatly. “Is there anyone who can back up your claim? And if there is, how can you be sure your dream means the Seanchan? Ravens would indicate the Shadow, to me.”

“I’m a Dreamer, and when a Dreamer knows, she knows. Not the Shadow. The Seanchan. As for who knows what I can do...” Egwene shrugged. “The only one you can reach is Leane Sharif, who’s being held in the cells below.” She saw no way to bring the Wise Ones into this, not without revealing entirely too much.

“That woman is a wilder, not—” Katerine began angrily, but her mouth snapped shut when Silviana raised a peremptory hand.

The Mistress of Novices studied Egwene carefully, her face still an unreadable mask of calmness. “You truly believe you are what you say,” she said finally. “I do hope your Dreaming won’t cause as many problems as young Nicola’s Foretelling. If you truly can Dream. Well, I will pass along your warning. I can’t see how the Seanchan could strike at us here in Tar Valon, but watchfulness never hurts. And I’ll question this woman being held below. Carefully. And if she fails to back up your tale, then your visit to me in the morning will be even more memorable for you.” She waved her hand at Katerine. “Take her away before she hands me another nugget and keeps me from getting any sleep at all tonight.”

This time, Katerine muttered as much as Barasine. But they both waited until they were beyond earshot of Silviana. That woman was going to be a formidable opponent. Egwene hoped embracing pain worked as well as the Wise Ones claimed. Otherwise... Otherwise did not bear thinking about.

A lean, gray-haired serving woman gave them directions to the room she had just finished making up, on the third gallery of the novices’ quarters, and hurried on after brief curtsies to the two Reds. She never so much as glanced at Egwene. What was another novice to her? It tightened Egwene’s jaw. She was going to have to make people not see her as just another novice.

“Look at her face,” Barasine said. “I think it’s finally settling in on her.”

“I am who I am,” Egwene replied calmly. Barasine pushed her toward the stairs that rose through the hollow column of railed galleries, lit by the fat, waning moon. A breeze sighed through, the only sound. It all seemed so peaceful. There was no light showing around any door. The novices would be asleep by now, except for those who had late chores or tasks. It was peaceful for them. Not for Egwene, though.

The tiny, windowless room might almost have been the one she had occupied when she first came to the Tower, with its narrow bed built against the wall and a small fire burning on the little brick hearth. The lamp on the small table was lit, but it lighted little more than the tabletop, and the oil must have gone bad, because it gave off a faint, unpleasant stink. A washstand completed the furnishings, except for a three-legged stool, onto which Katerine promptly lowered herself, adjusting her skirts as though on a throne. Realizing there was nowhere for her to sit, Barasine crossed her arms beneath her breasts and frowned at Egwene.

The room was quite crowded with three women in it, but Egwene pretended the other two did not exist as she readied herself for bed, hanging her cloak and belt and dress on three of the pegs set along one rough-plastered white wall. She did not ask for help with her buttons. By the time she laid her neatly rolled stockings atop her shoes, Barasine had settled herself cross-legged on the floor and was immersed in a small, leather-bound book that she must have carried in her belt pouch. Katerine kept her eyes on Egwene as though she expected her to make a break for the door.

Crawling beneath the light woolen blanket in her shift, Egwene settled her head on the small pillow—not a goose down pillow, that was for sure!—and went through the exercises, relaxing her body one part at a time, that would put her to sleep. She had done that so often that it seemed no sooner had she begun, than she was asleep ...

... and floating, formless, in a darkness that lay between the waking world and Tel’aran’rhiod, the narrow gap between dream and reality, a vast void filled with a myriad of twinkling specks of light that were all the dreams of all the sleepers in the world. They floated around her, in this place with no up or down, as far as the eye could see, flickering out as a dream ended, springing alight as one began. She could recognize some at sight, put a name to the dreamer, but she did not see the one she sought.

It was to Siuan she needed to speak, Siuan who likely knew by now that disaster had struck, who might be unable to sleep until exhaustion took her under. She settled herself to wait. There was no sense of time here; she would not grow bored with waiting. But she had to work out what to say. So much had changed since she wakened. She had learned so much. Then, she had been sure she would die soon, sure the sisters inside the Tower were a solid army behind Elaida. Now... Elaida thought her safely imprisoned. No matter this talk of making her a novice again; even if Elaida really believed it, Egwene al’Vere did not. She did not consider herself a prisoner, either. She was carrying the battle into the heart of the Tower itself. If she had had lips there, she would have smiled.

When Last Sounds

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 above the broken mountain named Dragonmount. 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 beneath the glow of a fat, sinking moon, at an altitude where men could not breathe, born among writhing currents heated by the fires inside the ragged peak, the wind was a zephyr in the beginning, yet it gained in strength as it rushed down the steep, rugged slope. Carrying ash and the stench of burning sulfur from the heights, the wind roared across the sudden, snowy hills that reared from the plain surrounding the impossible height of Dragonmount, roared and tossed trees in the night.

Eastward out of the hills the wind howled, across a large pasture encampment, a considerable village of tents and wooden walkways lining streets of frozen ruts. Soon enough the ruts would melt and the last of the snow vanish, replaced by spring rains and mud. If the encampment remained that long. Despite the hour, many among the Aes Sedai were awake, gathered in small groups warded against eavesdropping, discussing what had transpired this night. No few of those discussions were quite animated, little short of argument, and some held undeniable heat. Fists might have been shaken or worse had they not belonged to Aes Sedai. What to do next was the question. Every sister knew the news from the riverbank by now, if the details remained sketchy. The Amyrlin herself had gone in secret to seal Northharbor, and her boat had been found overturned and caught in the reeds. Survival in the swift, icy currents of the Erinin was unlikely, and hour by hour it had become more so, until certainty hardened. The Amyrlin Seat was dead. Every sister in the camp knew that her future and perhaps her life hung by a thread, not to mention the future of the White Tower itself. What to do now? Yet voices fell silent and heads came up as the fierce blast struck the camp, fluttering tent canvas like flags, pelting it with clods of snow. The sudden stink of burning sulphur hung heavy in the air, announcing where that wind had come from, and more than one Aes Sedai offered a silent prayer against evil. In moments, though, the wind had passed, and the sisters bent back to their deliberations on a future bleak enough to fit the sharp, fading stench left behind.

On the wind roared toward Tar Valon, gaining strength as it went, shrieking over military camps near the river where soldiers and camp followers sleeping on the ground suddenly had their blankets stripped off and those in tents awoke to canvas jerking and sometimes whipping away into the darkness as tent pegs gave way or guy ropes snapped. Laden wagons rocked and toppled, and banners stood out stiff before they were uprooted, their hurtling staffs now spears that pierced whatever lay in their path. Leaning against the gale, men struggled to the horselines to calm animals that reared and screamed in fear. None knew what the Aes Sedai knew, yet the biting, sulphurous smell that filled the chill night air seemed an ill omen, and hardened men offered their prayers aloud as fervently as the beardless boys. Camp followers added their own, and loudly, armorers and farriers and fletchers, wives and laundresses and seamstresses, all clutched by the sudden fear that something darker than blackness stalked the night.

The fierce flutter of canvas overhead, near to ripping, the babble of voices and the screams of horses, loud enough to cut through the wailing wind, helped Siuan Sanche struggle awake for the second time. The abrupt stink of burning sulphur made her eyes water, and she was grateful for it. Egwene might be able to don and doff sleep like a pair of stockings, but the same was not true for her. Sleep had been hard enough to come by after she finally made herself lie down. Once the news had reached her from the riverbank, she had been sure she never would sleep short of utter exhaustion. She had offered prayers for Leane, but all of their hopes rested on Egwene’s shoulders, and all of their hopes seemed gutted and hung up to dry. Well, she had exhausted herself with nerves and worry and pacing. Now there was hope again, and she did not dare let her leaden eyelids close for fear she would sink back into slumber and not wake till midday, if then. The ferocious wind abated, but people’s shouts and horses’ cries did not.

Wearily, she tossed aside her blankets and stood up unsteadily. Her bedding was hardly comfortable, laid out on the canvas ground-cloth in a corner of the not-very-large square tent, yet she had come here, though it meant riding. Of course, she had been near falling down by then, and likely not in her right mind from grief. She touched the twisted ring ter’angreal hanging from a leather cord around her neck. Her first waking, every bit as hard as this one, had been to fetch that from her belt pouch. Well, the grief was vanquished now, and that was adequate to keep her moving. A sudden yawn made her jaws creak like rusty oarlocks. Barely adequate. You would have thought Egwene’s message, the fact that Egwene was alive to send a message, would be enough to banish bone-weariness. Not so, it appeared.

Channeling a globe of light long enough to see the box-lantern on the main tent pole, she lit it with a thread of Fire. The single flame gave a very pale, flickering illumination. There were other lamps and lanterns, but Gareth went on so about how little lamp oil there was in stock. The brazier, she left unlit; Gareth was not so parsimonious with charcoal as oil—charcoal was easier to come by—but she was barely aware of the frigid air. She frowned at his bedding, still lying untouched on the other side of the tent. He surely was aware of the boat’s discovery and who it had carried. The sisters did their best to keep secrets from him, but somehow, they succeeded less often than most believed. More than once he had startled her with what he knew. Was he out there in the night organizing his soldiers for whatever the Hall decided? Or had he already departed, leaving a lost cause? No longer lost, yet he must be unaware of that.

“No,” she muttered, feeling an odd sense of ... treachery ... that she had cast doubt on the man, even in her own mind. He would still be there at sunrise, and for every sunrise until the Hall commanded him to leave. Maybe longer. She did not believe he would abandon Egwene whatever the Hall commanded. He was too stubborn, proud. No; it was not that. Gareth Bryne’s word was his honor. Once given, he would not take it back unless released, whatever the cost to himself. And maybe, just maybe, he had other reasons to stay. She refused to think of that.

Putting Gareth out of her mind—why had she come to his tent? It would have been so much easier to lie down in her own in the sisters’ camp, cramped as it was, or even to have kept the weeping Chesa company, though on second thought, that last might have been beyond her. She could not abide weeping, and Egwene’s maid would not stop—putting Gareth firmly out of her head, she ran a hasty brush through her hair, changed her shift for a fresh one, and dressed as quickly as she could in the dim light. Her plain blue wool riding dress was rumpled, and spotted with mud on the hem besides—she had gone down to see the boat for herself—but she did not take the time to clean and press it with the Power. She had to hurry.

The tent was far from the spacious affair you would have expected of a general, so hurrying meant bumping her hip against a corner of the writing table hard enough that one of the legs almost folded before she could catch it, nearly tripping over the camp stool, the only thing approaching a chair, and barking her shins on the brass-bound chests that lay scattered about. That brought a curse that would have singed any listener’s ears. The things served double duty, seats as well as storage, and one with a flat top did for a makeshift washstand with a white pitcher and bowl. In truth, they were arrayed in a neat enough fashion, but one peculiar to him. He could find his way through that maze in pitch dark. Anyone else would break a leg trying to reach his bedding. She supposed he must have a concern for assassins, though he had never voiced it.

Gathering her dark cloak from atop one of the chests and folding it over her arm, she paused on the point of snuffing the lantern with a flow of Air. For a moment she stared at Gareth’s second pair of boots, standing at the foot of his bedding. Channeling another small sphere of light, she moved it close to the boots. As she had thought. Freshly blacked. The bloody man insisted she work off her debt, then sneaked in behind her back—or worse, under her nose while she slept—and blacked his own bloody boots! Gareth bloody Bryne treated her like a maidservant, never so much as tried to kiss her ...!

She jerked upright, her mouth going taut as a mooring rope. Now where had that thought come from? No matter what Egwene claimed, she was not in love with Gareth bloody Bryne! She was not! She had too much work in front of her to get caught in that kind of foolishness. That’s why you stopped wearing embroidery, I suppose, a small voice whispered in the back of her head. All those pretty things, stuffed into chests because you’re afraid. Afraid? Burn her if she was afraid of him or any man!

Carefully channeling Earth, Fire and Air just so, she laid the weave on the boots. Every last bit of the blacking, and most of the dye as well, came away and formed into a neat, glistening sphere that floated in the air, leaving the leather decidedly gray. For a moment she contemplated depositing the ball among his blankets. That would be a suitable surprise for him when he finally lay down!

With a sigh, she pushed open the doorflap and took the ball outside into the darkness to let it splash onto the ground. The man had a short and extremely disrespectful way when she let her temper carry her too far, as she had discovered the first time she hit him over the head with the boots she was cleaning. And when he made her so angry she put salt in his tea. Quite a lot of salt, but it had not been her fault he was hurried enough to drain the cup in a gulp. To try to, at any rate. Oh, he never seemed to mind when she shouted, and sometimes he shouted back—sometimes he just smiled, which was purely infuriating!—yet he had his limits. She could have stopped him with a simple weave of Air, of course, but she had her honor as much as he had his, burn him! Anyway, she had to stay close to him. Min said so, and the girl seemed infallible. That was the only reason she had not stuffed a fistful of gold down Gareth Bryne’s throat and told him he was paid and be burned. The only reason! Besides her own honor, of course.

Yawning, she left the dark puddle shining in the cold moonlight. If he stepped in it before it dried and tracked the mess inside, the blame would be his own and none of hers. At least the sulphur smell had faded a little. Her eyes had stopped overflowing, though what she could see was turmoil.

This sprawling, night-shrouded camp had never had much order. The rutted streets were straight enough, true, and wide for moving soldiers, but for the rest it had always seemed a haphazard array of tents and rough shelters and stone-lined pits for cook fires. Now, it looked much as if it had been under attack. Collapsed tents lay everywhere, some tossed atop others that still stood, though a good many of those stood askew, and dozens of wagons and carts lay on their sides or upside down. Voices on every side called for help with the injured, of whom there appeared to be a fair number. Men limped along the street in front of Gareth’s tent supported by other men, while several small groups hurried by carrying blankets being used as stretchers. Farther away she could see four blanket-covered shapes on the ground, three attended by kneeling women who rocked back and forth as they keened.

She could do nothing for the dead, but she could offer her ability with Healing to the others. That was hardly her greatest skill, not very strong at all, though it seemed to have returned to her fully when Nynaeve Healed her, yet she doubted there was another sister anywhere in the camp. They did avoid the soldiers, most of them. Her ability would be better than none. She could, except for the news she carried. It was urgent that it reach the right people as soon as possible. So she closed her ears to the groans and the keens alike, ignored dangling arms and rags clutched to bleeding heads, and hurried to the horselines on the edge of the camp, where the oddly sweet smell of horse dung was beginning to win over the sulphur. A rawboned, unshaven fellow with a haggard glare on his dark face tried to rush past her, but she caught his rough coatsleeve.

“Saddle me the mildest horse you can find,” she told him, “and do it right now.” Bela would have done nicely, but she had no notion where among all those animals the stout mare was tied and no intention of waiting for her to be found.

“You want to go riding?” he said incredulously, jerking his sleeve free. “If you own a horse, then saddle it yourself, if you’re fool enough to. Me, I’ve the rest of the night ahead of me in the cold tending the ones what’s hurt themselves, and lucky if at least one don’t die.”

Siuan ground her teeth. The imbecile took her for one of the seamstresses. Or one of the wives! For some reason, that seemed worse. She stuck her right fist in front of his face so quickly that he stepped back with a curse, but she shoved her hand close enough to his nose that her Great Serpent ring had to be only thing he could see. His eyes crossed, staring at it. “The mildest mount you can find,” she said in a flat voice. “But quickly.”

The ring did the trick. He swallowed, then scratched his head and stared along the horselines, where every animal seemed be either stamping or shivering. “Mild,” he muttered. “I’ll see what I can do, Aes Sedai. Mild.” Touching a knuckle to his forehead, he hurried off down the rows of horses still muttering to himself.

Siuan did a little muttering herself as she paced, three strides this way and three that. Snow trampled to slush and frozen again crunched under her stout shoes. From what she could see, it might take him hours to find anything that would not pitch her off if it heard a grunter jump. Swinging her cloak around her shoulders, she shoved the small silver circle pin in place with an impatient jab, nearly stabbing her own thumb. Afraid, was she? She would show Gareth bloody, bloody Bryne! Back and forth, back and forth. Perhaps she should walk the whole long way. It would be unpleasant, but better than being dumped from the saddle and maybe breaking bones in the bargain. She never mounted a horse, including Bela, without thinking of broken bones. But the fellow returned with a dark mare bearing a high-cantled saddle.

“She’s mild?” Siuan demanded skeptically. The animal was stepping as though ready to dance, and looked sleek. That was supposed to indicate speed.

“Nightlily here’s meek as milk-water, Aes Sedai. Belongs to my wife, and Nemaris is on the delicate side. She don’t like a mount what gets frisky.”

“If you say so,” she replied, and sniffed. Horses were seldom meek in her experience. But there was nothing for it.

Taking the reins, she clambered awkwardly into the saddle, then had to shift so she was not sitting on her cloak and half-strangling herself every time she moved. The mare did dance, however she sawed the reins. She had been sure it would. Trying to break her bones already. A boat now—with one oar or two, a boat went where you wanted and stopped when you wanted, unless you were a complete fool about tides and currents and winds. But horses possessed brains, however small, and that meant they might take it into their minds to ignore bridle and reins and what the rider wanted. That had to be considered when you had to straddle a bloody horse.

“One thing, Aes Sedai,” the man said as she was trying to find a comfortable seat. Why did saddles always seem harder than wood? “I’d keep her to a walk tonight, was I you. That wind, you know, and all that stink, well, she might be just a touch—”

“No time,” Siuan said, and dug her heels in. Meek-as-milk-water Nightlily leaped ahead so fast that she nearly pitched backward over the cantle. Only a quick grab at the pommel kept her in the saddle. She thought the fellow shouted something after her, but she could not be certain. What in the Light did this Nemaris consider a frisky horse? The mare sped out of the camp as though trying to win a race, sped toward the falling moon and Dragonmount, a dark spike rising against the starry sky.

Cloak billowing behind, Siuan made no effort to slow her, rather digging in her heels again and slapping the mare’s neck with the reins as she had seen others do to urge speed. She had to reach the sisters before anybody did something irretrievable. All too many possibilities came to mind. The mare galloped past small thickets and tiny hamlets and sprawling farms with their stone-walled pastures and fields. Snug beneath snow-covered slate roofs, behind walls of stone or brick, the inhabitants had not been roused by that fierce wind; every building lay dark and still. Even the bloody cows and sheep were probably enjoying a good night’s sleep. Farmers always had cows and sheep. And pigs.

Bouncing around on the hard leather of the saddle, she tried leaning forward over the mare’s neck. That was how it was done; she had seen it. Almost immediately she lost the left stirrup and nearly slid off on that side, barely clawing her way back to get her foot back in place. The only thing to do was sit bolt upright, one hand clutching the pommel in a deathgrip, the other tighter still on the reins. Her flailing cloak tugged uncomfortably against her throat, and she jounced up and down so hard that her teeth clicked if she opened her mouth at the wrong time, but she hung on, and even heeled the animal once more. Ah, Light, but she was going to be bruised within an inch of her life come sunrise. On through the night, smacking the saddle with the mare’s every bounding stride. At least her clenched teeth kept her from yawning.

At last the horselines and rows of wagons that ringed the Aes Sedai camp appeared out of the darkness though a thin rim of trees, and with a sigh of relief, she hauled back on the reins as hard as she could. For a horse moving this fast, surely it required hard hauling to stop. Nightlily did stop, so abruptly that she would have hurdled over its head if the mare had not reared at the same time. Wide-eyed, she clung to the animal’s neck until it finally settled all four hooves to the ground again. And for some little time after, as well.

Nightlily was breathing hard, too, she realized. Panting, really. She felt no sympathy. The fool animal had tried to kill her, just the way horses would! Recovering herself took a moment, but then she pulled her cloak straight, gathered the reins and rode past the wagons and the long lines of horses at a sedate walk. Shadowy men moved in the darkness along the horselines, doubtless grooms and farriers seeing to the visibly unsettled animals. The mare seemed more biddable, now. Really, this was not too bad at all.

As she entered the camp proper, she hesitated only a moment before embracing saidar. Strange to think of a camp full of Aes Sedai as dangerous, yet two sisters had been murdered here. Considering the circumstances of their deaths, it seemed unlikely that holding the Power would be enough to save her if she was the next target, but saidar at least gave an illusion of safety. So long as she remembered it was only illusion. After a moment, she wove the flows of Spirit that would hide her ability and the glow of the Power. There was no need to advertise, after all.

Even at this hour, with the moon low in the west, there were a few people out on the wooden walkways, serving women and workmen scurrying about late tasks. Or perhaps early would be a better word now. Most of the tents, in nearly every size and shape imaginable, were dark, but a number of the larger ones glowed with the light of lamps or candles. Unsurprising under the circumstances. Every lit tent had men around it, or gathered in front. Warders. No one else could stand so still they seemed to fade into the night, especially not in this icy night. With the Power filling her, she could make out others, their Warders’ cloaks making them vanish in the shadows. Between the murdered sisters and what their bonds to their Aes Sedai must be carrying to them, not surprising at all. She suspected more than one sister was ready to tear her own hair, or someone else’s. They took note of her, heads swiveling to follow her passage as she rode slowly along the frozen ruts, searching.

The Hall had to be informed, of course, but others needed to hear first. In her estimation, they were much more likely to do something ... precipitate. And quite possibly disastrous. Oaths held them, but oaths given under duress, to a woman they now believed dead. For the Hall, for most of the Hall, they had nailed their flag to the mast in accepting a seat. None of them would be jumping until they were very, very sure where they would land.

Sheriam’s tent was too small for what she was sure she would find, and dark besides, she noted in passing. She very much doubted the woman was asleep inside, though. Morvrin’s, big enough to sleep four comfortably, would have done if there was room among all the books the Brown had managed to acquire on the march, but that was dark as well. Her third choice provided a catch, though, and she reined in Nightlily well short of it.

Myrelle had two peaked tents in the camp, one for herself and one for her three Warders—the three she dared acknowledge—and her own shone brightly, the shadows of women moving on the patched canvas walls. Three dissimilar men stood on the walkway in front of the tent—their stillness marked them Warders—but she ignored them for the moment. What exactly were they talking about inside? Certain that it was useless effort, she wove Air with just a hint of Fire; her weave touched the tent and struck a barrier against eavesdropping. Inverted, of course, and so invisible to her. She had only made the attempt on the chance they were being careless. Small possibility of that with the secrets they had to hide. The shadows against the canvas were still, now. So they knew someone had tried. She rode the rest of the way wondering what they had been talking about.

As she dismounted—well, at least she managed to turn half-falling off into something akin to jumping down—one of the Warders, Sheriam’s Arinvar, a lean Cairhienin little taller than she, stepped forward to reach for the reins with a small bow, but she waved him away. Releasing saidar, she tied the mare to one of the wooden slats of the walkway using a knot that would have held a sizable boat against heavy wind and a strong current. None of those casual loops that others used, not for her. She might dislike riding, but when she tied a horse, she wanted it there when she came back. Arinvar’s eyebrows climbed as he watched her finish the knot, but he would not be the one who had to pay for the bloody animal if it got loose and lost itself.

Only one of the other two Warders belonged to Myrelle, Avar Hachami, a Saldaean with a nose like an eagle’s beak and thick, gray-streaked mustaches. After sparing her one glance and a slight inclination of his head, he returned to watching the night. Morvrin’s Jori, short and bald and nearly as wide as he was tall, did not acknowledge her at all. His eyes studied the darkness, and his hand rested lightly on his long sword hilt. Supposedly he was among the best of the Warders with a blade. Where were the others? She could not ask, of course, any more than she could ask who was within. The men would have been shocked to their bones. None of them tried to stop her from entering. At least matters had not gotten that bad.

Inside, where two braziers gave off the scent of roses and made the air almost toasty compared to the night, she found almost everyone she had hoped for, and all watching to see who entered.

Myrelle herself, sitting on a sturdy straight-chair in a silk robe covered with red and yellow flowers, her arms folded beneath her breasts, wore such a perfect expression of calm on her olive face that it only pointed up the heat in her dark eyes. The light of the Power shone around her. It was her tent, after all; she would be the one to weave a ward here. Sheriam, seated on one end of Myrelle’s cot with a straight back, pretended to be adjusting her blue-slashed skirts; her expression was as fiery as her hair, and it grew hotter when she saw Siuan. She was not wearing the Keeper’s stole, a bad sign.

“I might have expected it would be you,” Carlinya said coldly, fists on her hips. She was never a warm woman, but now the ringlets that stopped well short of her shoulders framed a face that seemed carved from ice nearly as pale as her dress. “I will not have you trying to listen in on my private conversations, Siuan.” Oh, yes; they thought everything was at an end.

Round-faced Morvrin, for once not appearing at all absentminded or sleepy-eyed despite the creases in her brown wool skirt, walked around the small table where a tall silver pitcher and five silver cups sat on a lacquered tray. It seemed no one felt like tea; the cups were all dry. Dipping into her belt pouch, the graying sister thrust a carved horn comb into Siuan’s hand. “You are all windblown, woman. Fix your hair before some lout takes you for a tavern trull instead of an Aes Sedai and tries to dandle you on his knee.”

“Egwene and Leane are alive and prisoners inside the Tower,” Siuan announced, more calmly than she felt. A tavern trull? Touching her hair, she discovered that the other woman was right and began working the comb through the tangles. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you could not look as though you had been tussling in an alley. She had enough difficulty with that as it was, now, and would have until some years after she could lay hands on the Oath Rod again. “Egwene spoke to me in my dreams. They succeeded in blocking the harbors, near enough, but they were captured. Where are Beonin and Nisao? One of you go fetch them. I don’t want to scale the same fish twice.” There. If they thought themselves free of their oaths, and free of Egwene’s orders to obey her, that should disabuse them. Except that no one moved to obey.

“Beonin wanted her bed,” Morvrin said slowly, studying Siuan. A very intense study. A sharp mind hid behind that placid face. “She was too tired to talk any more. And why would we have asked Nisao to join us?” That earned a small frown from Myrelle, who was Nisao’s friend, but the other two nodded agreement. They and Beonin thought of Nisao as apart from themselves in spite of the oaths of fealty they shared. In Siuan’s opinion, these women had never stopped believing they might still guide events somehow, even after the rudder had long since been taken from their hands.

Sheriam rose from the cot as though about to rush off, even gathering her skirts, but that had nothing to do with Siuan’s command. Anger had vanished, replaced by shining eagerness. “We don’t need them for the moment in any case. ‘Prisoners’ means the deep cells until the Hall convenes for a trial. We can Travel there and free them before Elaida knows what is happening.”

Myrelle gave a sharp nod and stood, reaching to undo the sash of her robe. “Best if we leave the Warders behind, I think. They won’t be needed in this.” She drew more deeply on the Source, already anticipating.

“No!” Siuan said sharply, and winced as the comb caught in her hair. Sometimes she thought of cutting it shorter than Carlinya’s, for convenience, but Gareth had complimented her, saying how much he liked the way it brushed her shoulders. Light, could she not escape the man even here? “Egwene isn’t to be tried, and she isn’t in the deep cells. She wouldn’t tell me where she is being held except to say that she is guarded constantly. And she orders that there be no attempt to rescue her that involves sisters.”

The other women stared at her in shocked silence. In truth, she herself had argued the point with Egwene, to no avail. It had been an order, delivered by the Amyrlin Seat in full fig.

“What you’re saying is irrational,” Carlinya said finally. Her tone was still cool, her face serene, but her hands smoothed her embroidered white skirts unnecessarily. “If we capture Elaida, we will try her and very likely still her.” If. Their doubts and fears were not put to rest yet. “Since she has Egwene, surely she will do the same. I don’t need Beonin to tell me what the law says in that regard.”

“We must rescue her, whatever she wants!” Sheriam’s voice was hot as Carlinya’s was chill, and her green eyes sparkled. Her hands had turned to fists gripping her skirts. “She cannot realize the danger she is in. She must be in shock. Did she give you any hints where she’s held?”

“Don’t try to hide things from us, Siuan,” Myrelle said firmly. Her eyes seemed almost on fire, and she jerked the silk sash tighter for emphasis. “Why would she hide where she’s being held?”

“For fear of what you and Sheriam suggest.” Giving up on the wind-whipped tangles, Siuan tossed the comb down on the table. She could not stand there combing her hair and expect them to pay attention. Tousled would have to do. “She is guarded, Myrelle. By sisters. And they won’t give her up easily. If we try a rescue, Aes Sedai will die at the hands of Aes Sedai, sure as silverpike spawn in the reeds. It’s happened once, but it must not happen again, or all hope dies of reuniting the Tower peacefully. We cannot allow it to happen again. So there is to be no rescue. As to why Elaida has decided not to try her, I can’t say.” Egwene had been vague on that, as if she did not understand either. But she had been definite on the facts, and it was not a claim she would make unless she was sure.

“Peacefully,” Sheriam muttered, sinking back onto the cot. She imbued the word with a world of bitterness. “Was there ever any chance of that, from the beginning? Elaida has abolished the Blue Ajah! What chance of peace is there?”

“Elaida cannot simply do away with an Ajah,” Morvrin murmured, as though that had anything to do with anything. She patted Sheriam’s shoulder, but the fire-haired woman sullenly shrugged off her plump hand.

“There is always a chance,” Carlinya said. “The harbors are blocked, strengthening our position. The negotiators meet every morning ... ” Trailing off with a troubled look in her eyes, she poured a cup of tea and drank half of it down in one go without adding honey. Blocking the harbors likely would have put an end to the negotiations by itself, not that they had seemed to be going anywhere. Would Elaida let them continue with Egwene in her hands besides?

“I do not comprehend why Elaida would not have Egwene put on trial,” Morvrin said, “since conviction would be sure and certain, but the fact remains that she is a prisoner.” She displayed none of Sheriam or Myrelle’s heat and none of Carlinya’s coldness. She was simply presenting the facts, with only a slight tightness of her mouth. “If she is not to be tried, then without any doubt she is to be broken. She has proven to be a stronger woman than I took her for at first, but no one is strong enough to resist the White Tower when it decides to break her. We must consider the consequences if we don’t get her out before it can.”

Siuan shook her head. “She isn’t even going to be birched, Morvrin. I don’t understand why either, but she’d hardly tell us to leave her if she thought they were going to torture—”

She broke off as the tentflap was pushed open and Lelaine Akashi stepped in, blue-fringed shawl draped along her arms. Sheriam stood, though she need not have; Lelaine was a Sitter, but Sheriam was the Keeper. Then again, Lelaine was imposing in blue-slashed velvet despite her slenderness, dignity made flesh, with an air of authority that seemed greater than ever tonight. Every hair in place, she might have been entering the Hall after a sound night’s sleep.

Smoothly Siuan turned to the table and picked up the pitcher as if in anticipation. That normally would have been her role in this company, to pour tea and speak when her opinion was sought. Perhaps if she remained quiet, Lelaine would be about her business with the others and leave quickly without giving her a second glance. The woman seldom did give her that much.

“I thought that horse outside was the same I saw you ride in on, Siuan.” Lelaine’s gaze ran over the other sisters, each of them absolutely smooth-faced now. “Am I interrupting?”

“Siuan says Egwene is alive,” Sheriam said as though relating the price of delta perch on the dockhead. “And Leane. Egwene spoke to Siuan’s dreams. She refuses any attempt at a rescue.” Myrelle gave her a sidelong glance, unreadable, but Siuan could have boxed her ears! Likely Lelaine would have been the next she sought out, but to tell her in her own way, not spilled out on the wharf like this. Of late, Sheriam had become as flighty as a novice!

Pursing her lips, Lelaine directed a look like twin awls at Siuan. “Did she, now? You really should be wearing your stole, Sheriam. You are the Keeper. Will you walk with me, Siuan? It’s been far too long since we had a conversation alone.” With one hand, she drew back the doorflap, shifting that penetrating gaze to the other sisters. Sheriam blushed as only a redhead could, brilliantly, and fumbled the narrow blue stole from her belt pouch to lay it across her shoulders, but Myrelle and Carlinya met Lelaine’s study with level eyes. Morvrin had begun tapping her round chin with a fingertip as though unaware of anyone else. She might well have been. Morvrin was like that.

Had Egwene’s orders sunk in? Siuan had no chance even for a firm look while putting the pitcher down. A suggestion from a sister of Lelaine’s standing, Sitter or not, was a command to one of Siuan’s standing. Gathering her cloak and skirts, she went out, murmuring thanks to Lelaine for holding the flap for her. Light, she hoped those fools had listened to what she said.

Four Warders stood outside now, but one of them was Lelaine’s Burin, a copper-skinned stump of a Domani wrapped in a Warder cloak that made most of him seem not there, and Avar had been replaced by another of Myrelle’s, Nuhel Dromand, a tall, burly man with an Illianer beard that left his upper lip bare. The man was so still you might have thought him a statue if not for the wisps of mist in front of his nostrils. Arinvar bowed to Lelaine, a quick courtesy, though formal. Nuhel and Jori did not let their vigilance slacken. Nor did Burin, for that matter.

The knot that secured Nightlily took as long to undo as it had to tie, but Lelaine waited patiently until Siuan straightened with the reins in her hands, then set off at a slow pace along the wooden walkway past dark tents. Moonshadows masked her face. She did not embrace the Power, so Siuan could not either. Trailed by Burin, Siuan walked beside Lelaine leading the mare, holding her silence. It was the Sitter’s place to begin, and not only because she was a Sitter. Siuan fought the urge to bend her neck and so lose the extra inch she had on the other woman. She seldom thought any longer of the time when she had been Amyrlin. She had been embraced as Aes Sedai once more, and part of being Aes Sedai meant fitting into your niche among the sisters instinctively. The bloody horse nuzzled at her hand as though it thought itself a pet, and she shifted the reins to her other hand long enough to wipe her fingers on her cloak. Filthy slobbering beast. Lelaine eyed her sideways, and she felt her cheeks heating. Instinct.

“Strange friends you have, Siuan. I believe some of them were in favor of sending you away when you first appeared in Salidar. Sheriam, I might comprehend, though I’d think the fact that she stands so much higher than you now would make for awkwardness. That was the major reason I avoided you myself, to avoid awkwardness.”

Siuan nearly gaped in astonishment. That came very near to talking about what was never to be talked about, very near, a transgression she would never had expected from this woman. From herself, perhaps—she had fitted herself into her niche, yet she was who she was—but never from Lelaine!

“I hope you and I can become friends again, Siuan, though I can understand if that proves impossible. This meeting tonight confirms what Faolain told me.” Lelaine gave a small laugh and folded her hands at her waist. “Oh, don’t grimace so, Siuan. She didn’t betray you, at least not intentionally. She made one slip too many, and I decided to press her, rather hard. Not the way to treat another sister, but then, she’s really just an Accepted until she can be tested and passes. Faolain will make a fine Aes Sedai. She was very reluctant to surrender everything she gave. Just bits and pieces, really, and a few names, but put together with you in that gathering, it gives me a complete picture, I think. I suppose I can let her free of confinement now. She certainly won’t think of spying on me again. You and your friends have been very faithful to Egwene, Siuan. Can you be as faithful to me?”

So that was why Faolain had seemed to go into hiding. How many “bits and pieces” had she revealed while being “pressed hard”? Faolain did not know everything, yet it would be best to assume that Lelaine did. But assume while revealing nothing unless she herself was pressed hard.

Siuan stopped dead, drawing herself up. Lelaine halted, too, clearly waiting for her to speak. Even with her face half in shadow that was clear. Siuan had to steel herself to confront this woman. Some instincts were buried in the bone for Aes Sedai. “I’m faithful to you as a Sitter for my Ajah, but Egwene al’Vere is the Amyrlin Seat.”

“So she is.” Lelaine’s expression remained unruffled, as much as Siuan could make out. “She spoke in your dreams? Tell me what you know of her situation, Siuan.” Siuan glanced over her shoulder at the stocky Warder. “Don’t mind him,” the Sitter said. “I haven’t kept a secret from Burin in twenty years.”

“In my dreams,” Siuan agreed. She certainly did not intend to admit that had been only to summon her to Salidar in Tel’aran’rhiod. She was not supposed to have that ring in her possession. The Hall would take it away if they learned of it. Calmly—outwardly calm, at least—she related what she had told Myrelle and the others, and more. But not everything. Not the certainty of betrayal. That had to have come from the Hall itself—no one else had known of the plan to block the harbor, except the women involved—though whoever was accountable could not have known they were betraying Egwene. Only helping Elaida, which was mystery enough. Why would any among them want to help Elaida? There had been talk of Elaida’s secret adherents from the start, yet she herself had long since dismissed the notion. Most assuredly every Blue fervently wanted Elaida pulled down, but until she knew who was responsible, no Sitter, not even a Blue, would learn everything. “She’s called a sitting of the Hall for tomorrow ... no, it would be tonight, now, when Last sounds,” she finished. “Inside the Tower, in the Hall of the Tower.”

Lelaine laughed so hard that she had to brush a tear from her eye. “Oh, that is priceless. The Hall to sit right under Elaida’s nose, as it were. I almost wish I could let her know just to see her face.” Just as abruptly, she turned serious again. Lelaine had always had a ready laugh, when she chose to let it out, but the core of her was always serious. “So Egwene thinks the Ajahs may be turning on one another. That hardly seems possible. She’s only seen a handful of sisters, you say. Still, it bears looking into the next time in Tel’aran’rhiod. Perhaps someone can see what they can find in the Ajah quarters instead of concentrating on Elaida’s study.”

Siuan barely suppressed a wince. She planned to do a little searching in Tel’aran’rhiod herself. Whenever she went to the Tower in the World of Dreams, she was a different woman in a different dress every time she turned a corner, but she would have to be even more cautious than usual.

“Refusing rescue is understandable, I suppose, even laudable—no one wants any more dead sisters—but very risky,” Lelaine went on. “No trial, and not even a birching? What can Elaida be playing at? Can she think to make her take up as Accepted again? That hardly seems likely.” But she gave a small nod, as though considering it.

This was heading in a dangerous direction. If sisters convinced themselves they knew where Egwene might be, the chance increased that someone would try to bring her out, Aes Sedai guards or no. Trying at the wrong place could be as risky as at the right one, if not more so. Worse, Lelaine was ignoring something.

“Egwene has called the Hall to sit,” Siuan asked acidly. “Will you go?” Reproving silence answered her, and her cheeks grew hot again. Some things were buried in the bone.

“Of course, I will go,” Lelaine said at last. A direct statement, yet there had been a pause. “The entire Hall will go. Egwene al’Vere is the Amyrlin Seat, and we have more than sufficient dream ter’angreal. Perhaps she will explain how she believes she can hold out if Elaida orders her broken. I would very much like to hear that.”

“Then what are you asking me to be faithful to you about?”

Instead of answering, Lelaine resumed her slow walk through the moonlight, carefully adjusting her shawl. Burin followed her, a half-invisible lion in the night. Siuan hurried to catch up, tugging Nightlily after her, fending off the fool mare’s attempts to nuzzle her hand again.

“Egwene al’Vere is the lawful Amyrlin Seat,” Lelaine said finally. “Until she dies. Or is stilled. Should either happen, we would be back to Romanda trying for the staff and the stole and me forestalling her.” She snorted. “That woman would be a disaster as bad as Elaida. Unfortunately, she had enough support to forestall me, as well. We’d be back to that, except that if Egwene dies or is stilled, you and your friends will be as faithful to me as you’ve been to Egwene. And you will help me gain the Amyrlin Seat in spite of Romanda.”

Siuan felt as though her stomach had turned to ice. No Blue would have been behind the first betrayal, but one Blue, at least, had reason to betray Egwene now.

The Dark One’s Touch

Beonin woke at first light, as was her habit, though little of the dawn trickled into her tent past the closed doorflap. Habits were good when they were the right habits. She had taught herself a number over the years. The air inside the tent held a touch of the night’s chill, but she left the brazier unlit. She did not intend to remain long. Channeling briefly, she lit a brass lamp, then heated the water in the white-glazed pitcher and washed her face at the rickety washstand with its bubbled mirror. Nearly everything in the small round tent was unsteady, from the tiny table to her narrow camp cot, and the only sturdy piece, a low-backed chair, was rude enough to have come from the poorest farm kitchen. She was accustomed to making do, though. Not all of the judgments she had been called on to make had been given in palaces. The meanest hamlet also deserved justice. She had slept in barns and even hovels to make it so.

Moving deliberately, she put on the best riding dress she had with her, a plain gray silk that was very well cut, and snug boots that came to her knees, then began brushing her dark golden hair with an ivory-backed hairbrush that had belonged to her mother. Her reflection in the mirror was slightly distorted. For some reason, that irritated her this morning.

Someone scratched at the tentflap, and a man called cheerily in a Murandian accent, “Breakfast, Aes Sedai, if it pleases you.” She lowered the brush and opened herself to the Source.

She had not acquired a personal serving woman, and it often seemed a new face brought every meal, yet she remembered the stout, graying man with a permanent smile who entered at her command carrying a tray covered with a white cloth.

“Leave it on the table, please, Ehvin,” she said, releasing saidar, and was rewarded with a widening of his smile, a deep bow over the tray, and another before he left. Too many sisters forgot the small courtesies to those beneath them. Small courtesies were the lubricant of daily life.

Eyeing the tray without enthusiasm, she resumed her brushing, a twice-a-day ritual that she always found soothing. Rather than finding comfort in the brush sliding through her hair this morning, however, she had to make herself complete the full one hundred strokes before laying the brush on the washstand beside the matching comb and hand mirror. Once, she could have taught the hills patience, yet that had become harder and harder since Salidar. And nearly impossible since Murandy. So she schooled herself to it, as she had schooled herself to go to the White Tower against her mother’s stern wishes, schooled herself to accept the Tower’s discipline along with its teaching. As a girl, she had been headstrong, always aspiring to more. The Tower had taught her that you could achieve much if you could control yourself. She prided herself on that ability.

Self-control or no self-control, lingering over her breakfast of stewed prunes and bread proved as difficult as completing her ritual with the hairbrush. The prunes had been dried, and perhaps too old to begin with; they had been stewed to mush, and she was sure she had missed a few of the black flecks that decorated the crusty bread. She tried to convince herself that anything that crunched between her teeth was a barley grain or a rye seed. This was not the first time she had eaten bread containing weevils, yet it was hardly a thing to enjoy. The tea had a strange aftertaste, too, as though that also was beginning to spoil.

When she finally replaced the linen cloth over the carved wooden tray, she very nearly sighed. How long before nothing edible remained in the camp? Was the same happening inside Tar Valon? It must be so. The Dark One was touching the world, a thought as bleak as a field of jagged stones. But victory would come. She refused to entertain any other possibility. Young al’Thor had a great deal to answer for, a very great deal, yet he would—must!—achieve that somehow. Somehow. But the Dragon Reborn lay beyond her purview; all she could do was watch events unfold from afar. She had never liked sitting to one side and watching.

All this bitter musing was useless. It was time to be moving. She stood up so quickly that her chair toppled over backward, but she left it lying there on the canvas ground-cloth.

Putting her head out at the doorflap, she found Tervail on a stool on the walkway, his dark cloak thrown back, leaning on the scabbarded sword propped between his boots. The sun stood on the horizon, two-thirds of a bright golden ball, yet dark clouds in the other direction, massing around Dragonmount, suggested more snow before long. Or perhaps rain. The sun felt close to warm after the previous night. Either way, with luck she could be snug indoors soon.

Tervail gave a small nod to acknowledge her without stopping what appeared to be an idle study of everyone who moved in his sight. There were none but laborers at the moment, men in rough woolens carrying baskets on their backs, men and women just as roughly clad driving high-wheeled carts, laden with bound firewood and sacks of charcoal and water barrels, that clattered along the rutted street. At least, his scrutiny would have seemed idle to someone lacking the Warder bond with him. Her Tervail, he was focused as a drawn arrow. It was only the men he studied, and his gaze lingered on those he did not know personally. With two sisters and a Warder dead at the hands of a man who could channel—it seemed beyond possibility there could be two murderers of that sort—everyone was leery of strange men. Everyone who knew, at least. The news had hardly been shouted abroad.

How he thought he might recognize the killer was beyond her unless the man carried a banner, but she would not upbraid or belittle him for trying to perform his duty. Whipcord lean, with a strong nose and a thick scar along his jaw earned in her service, he had been little more than a boy when she found him, cat-quick and already one of the finest swordsmen in her native Tarabon, and for all the years since there had never been a moment when he did less. At least twenty times he had saved her life. Quite aside from brigands and footpads too ignorant to recognize an Aes Sedai, the law could be dangerous when one side or the other became desperate not to have the judgment go against them, and often he had spotted the peril before she herself.

“Saddle Winterfinch for me and bring your own horse,” she told him. “We are going for the little ride.”

Tervail raised one eyebrow slightly, half-glancing in her direction, then attached the scabbard to the right side of his belt and set off down the wooden walkway toward the horselines, walking very quickly. He never asked unnecessary questions. Perhaps she was more agitated within than she believed.

Ducking back inside, she carefully wrapped the hand mirror in a silk scarf woven in a black-and-white Tairen maze and tucked it into one of the two large pockets sewn inside her good gray cloak, along with the hairbrush and comb. Her neatly folded shawl and a small box of intricately carved blackwood went into the other. The box contained a few pieces of jewelry, some that had come down from her mother and the rest from her maternal grandmother. She herself seldom wore jewelry aside from her Great Serpent ring, yet she always took the box and the brush, comb and mirror with her when she journeyed, reminders of the women whose memories she loved and honored, and of what they had taught her. Her grandmother, a noted advocate in Tanchico, had infused her with a love for the intricacies of the law, while her mother had demonstrated that it was always possible to better yourself. Advocates rarely became wealthy, though Collaris certainly had been more than comfortable, yet despite her disapproval, her daughter Aeldrine had become a merchant and amassed a tidy fortune buying and selling dyes. Yes, it was always possible to better yourself, if you seized the moment when it appeared, as she had when Elaida a’Roihan deposed Siuan Sanche. Matters since had not gone anywhere near as she had foreseen, of course. Matters seldom did. That was why a wise woman always planned alternative paths.

She considered waiting inside for Tervail to return—he could not fetch two horses in mere minutes—but now that the time had actually arrived, her last stores of patience seemed to flee. Settling the cloak around her shoulders, she snuffed the lamp with an air of finality. Outside, however, she forced herself to stand in one place rather than pacing along the walkway’s rough planks. Pacing would attract eyes, and perhaps some sister who thought she was fearful of being alone. In all truth, she was afraid, a little. When a man could kill you, unseen, undetected, it was most reasonable to be afraid. She did not want company, though. She pulled up her cowl, signaling a desire for privacy, and drew the cloak around her.

A gray cat, notch-eared and lean, began stropping himself against her ankles. There were cats all over the camp; they appeared anywhere that Aes Sedai gathered, tame as house pets however feral they had been before. After a few moments without having his ears scratched, the cat strolled away, as proud as a king, in search of someone who would see to them. He had plenty of candidates.

Just moments earlier there had been only roughly garbed laborers and cart drivers in view, but now the camp began to bustle. Clusters of white-clad novices, the so-called “families,” scurried along the walkways to reach their classes, held in any tent large enough to accommodate them, or even in the open. Those who hurried by her ceased their childish prattle to offer perfect curtsies in passing. The sight never ceased to amaze her. Or to produce anger. A fair number of those “children” were well into their middle years or older—no few had at least some gray in their hair, and some were grandmothers!—yet they were bending to the ancient routines as well as any girl she had ever seen come to the Tower. And so many. A seemingly endless flood poured down the streets. How much had the Tower lost through its focus on bringing in girls born with the spark and those already on the brink of channeling through their own fumbling while leaving the rest to find their way to Tar Valon as they would or could? How much lost through insisting no girl above eighteen could submit to the discipline? Change was nothing she had ever sought—law and custom ruled an Aes Sedai’s life, a bedrock of stability—and some changes, such as these novice families, seemed too radical to go on, but how much had the Tower lost?

Sisters glided along the walkways, too, usually in pairs or even threes, usually trailed by their Warders. The flow of novices parted around them in ripples of curtsies, ripples made jagged by the stares directed at the sisters, who pretended not to notice. Very few of the Aes Sedai lacked the glow of the Power around them. Beonin came close to clicking her tongue in irritation. The novices knew that Anaiya and Kairen were dead—there had been no thought of hiding the funeral pyres—but telling them how the two sisters had died would simply have frightened them. The newest, added to the novice book in Murandy, had worn white long enough to be aware that sisters walking about filled with saidar was beyond unusual, though. Eventually that alone would frighten them, and to no purpose. The killer seemed unlikely to strike in public, with dozens of sisters about.

Five mounted sisters riding slowly eastward, none carrying the light of saidar, caught her eye. Each was followed by a small entourage, generally a secretary, a serving woman, perhaps a serving man as well in case of heavy lifting, and some Warders. All rode with their hoods up, but she had no difficulty making out who was who. Varilin, of her own Gray, would have been tall as a man, while Takima, the Brown, was a tiny thing. Saroiya’s cloak was flamboyant with white embroidery—she must use saidar to keep it so sparkling bright—and a pair of Warders trailing Faiselle marked her as clearly as her brilliant green cloak. Which made the last, wrapped in dark gray, Magla, the Yellow. What would they find when they reached Darein? Surely not negotiators from the Tower, not now. Perhaps they thought they must go through the motions anyway. People frequently continued to go on as they had been after all purpose in it had been lost. That seldom lasted long with Aes Sedai, however.

“They hardly seem to be together at all, do they, Beonin? You might think they just happened to be riding in the same direction.”

So much for the cowl providing a modicum of privacy. Luckily, she was practiced at suppressing sighs, or anything else that might give away more than she wished. The two sisters who had stopped beside her were much of a height, both small-boned, dark-haired and brown-eyed, but there resemblance ended. Ashmanaille’s narrow face, with its pointed nose, seldom displayed any emotion at all. Her silk dress, slashed with silver, might have come from a tirewoman’s hands only moments before, and silver scrollwork decorated the edges of her fur-lined cloak and cowl. Phaedrine’s dark wool bore a number of creases, not to mention several stains, her woolen cloak was unadorned and needed darning, and she frowned much too often, as she was doing right then. She might have been pretty without that. An odd pair of friends, the usually unkempt Brown and the Gray who paid as much attention to her clothes as to anything else.

Beonin glanced at the departing Sitters. They did appear to be riding in the same direction by chance more than riding together. It was a measure of her upset this morning that she had failed to note that. “Perhaps,” she said turning to face her unwanted visitors, “they are contemplating the consequences of last night, yes, Ashmanaille?” Unwelcome or not, courtesy must be observed.

“At least the Amyrlin is alive,” the other Gray replied, “and by what I’ve been told, she will remain alive and ... healthy. Her and Leane both.” Not even Nynaeve’s Healing of Siuan and Leane could make anyone speak of stilling with ease.

“Alive and a captive, it is better than being beheaded, I suppose. But not a great deal better.” When Morvrin woke her to tell her the news, it had been hard to share the Brown’s excitement. Excitement for Morvrin, at least. The woman had worn a small grin. Beonin had never considered altering her plans, though. Facts, they must be faced. Egwene was a prisoner, and that was that. “Do you not agree, Phaedrine?”

“Of course,” the Brown replied curtly. Curtly! But that was Phaedrine, always so immersed in whatever had caught her attention that she forgot how she should behave. And she was not done. “But that is not why we sought you. Ashmanaille says you have considerable acquaintance with murders.” A sudden gust of wind snatched at their cloaks, but Beonin and Ashmanaille caught theirs smoothly. Phaedrine let hers swirl behind her, eyes intent on Beonin.

“Perhaps you have had some thoughts on our murders, Beonin,” Ashmanaille said smoothly. “Will you share them with us? Phaedrine and I have been putting our heads together, but we are getting nowhere. My own experience is more with civil matters. I know that you have gotten to the bottom of a number of unnatural deaths.”

Of course she had thought on the murders. Was there a sister in the camp who had not? She herself could not have avoided it had she tried. Finding a murderer was a joy, far more satisfying than settling a boundary dispute. It was the most heinous of crimes, the theft of what could never be recovered, all the years that would never be lived, all that might have been done in them. And these were the deaths of Aes Sedai, which surely made it personal for every sister in the camp. She waited for a last covey of white-clad women, two with gray hair, to make their curtsies and hurry on. The number of novices on the walkways was finally beginning to thin out. The cats seemed to be following them. Novices were more free with petting than most sisters.

“The man who stabs from greed,” she said once the novices were beyond hearing, “the woman who poisons from jealousy, they are one thing. This is quite another altogether. There are two killings, surely by the same man, but well over a week apart. That implies both the patience and the planning. The motive is unclear, yet it seems very unlikely that he chose his victims by chance. Knowing no more of him than the fact that he can channel, you must begin by looking at what ties the victims together. In this case, Anaiya and Kairen, they were both Blue Ajah. So I ask myself, what connection has the Blue Ajah with a man who can channel? The answer comes back, Moiraine Damodred and Rand al’Thor. And Kairen, she also had contact with him, yes?”

Phaedrine’s frown deepened to near a scowl. “You cannot be suggesting he is the killer.” Really, she was getting much too far above herself.

“No,” Beonin said coolly. “I am saying you must follow the connection. Which leads to the Asha’man. Men who can channel. Men who can channel, who know how to Travel. Men who have some reason to fear Aes Sedai, perhaps particular Aes Sedai more than others. A connection is not the proof,” she admitted reluctantly, “but it is suggestive, yes?”

“Why would an Asha’man come here twice and each time kill one sister? That sounds as though the killer wanted those two and no others.” Ashmanaille shook her head. “How could he know when Anaiya and Kairen would be alone? You cannot think he is lurking about disguised as a workman. From all I hear, these Asha’man are far too arrogant for that. To me, it seems more likely we have an actual workman who can channel and bears a grudge of some sort.”

Beonin sniffed dismissively. She could feel Tervail approaching. He must have run to be back so soon. “And why would he have waited until now? The last workmen, they were taken on in Murandy, more than a month ago.”

Ashmanaille opened her mouth, but Phaedrine darted in, quick as a sparrow snatching a crumb. “He might have only just learned how. A male wilder, as it were. I’ve overheard workmen talking. As many admire the Asha’man as fear them. I’ve even heard some say they wish they had the nerve to go to the Black Tower themselves.”

The other Gray’s left eyebrow twitched, as much as both shooting to her hairline in another woman. The two were friends, yet she could not be pleased with Phaedrine plucking the words from her mouth in that way. All she said, though, was “An Asha’man could find him, I’m sure.”

Beonin let herself feel Tervail, waiting only a few paces behind her, now. The bond carried a steady flow of unwavering calm and patience as strong as the mountains. How she wished she could draw on that as she could on his physical strength. “That is most unlikely to happen, I’m sure you will agree,” she said thinly. Romanda and the others might have stood in favor of this nonsensical “alliance” with the Black Tower, but from that moment on they had fought like drunken cart drivers over how to implement it, how to word the agreement, how to present it, every single detail torn apart, put back together and torn apart again. The thing was doomed, thank the Light.

“I must go,” she told them, and turned to take Winterfinch’s reins from Tervail. His tall bay gelding was sleek and powerful and fast, a trained warhorse. Her brown mare was stocky, and not fast, yet she had always preferred endurance to speed. Winterfinch could keep going long after taller, supposedly more powerful animals gave up. Putting a foot in the stirrup, she paused with her hands on tall pommel and cantle. “Two sisters dead, Ashmanaille, and both Blues. Find sisters who knew them and learn what else they had in common. To locate the murderer, you must follow the connections.”

“I doubt very much they will lead to Asha’man, Beonin.”

“The important thing is that the killer is found,” she replied, pulling herself into the saddle, and turned Winterfinch away before the other woman could go on. An abrupt ending, and discourteous, but she had no more wisdom to offer, and time seemed to press down on her, now. The sun was clear of the horizon and climbing. After so long, time pressed very hard indeed.

The ride to the Traveling ground used for departures was short, but near a dozen Aes Sedai were waiting in a line outside the tall canvas wall, some leading horses, some cloakless as if they expected to be indoors before long, and one or two wearing their shawls for some reason. About half were accompanied by Warders, several of whom wore their color-shifting cloaks. The one thing the sisters shared was that each shone with the glow of the Power. Tervail expressed no surprise at their destination, of course, but more than that, the Warder bond continued to carry steady calm. He trusted her. A silvery flash appeared inside the walls, and after sufficient time to count slowly to thirty, a pair of Greens who could not make a gateway alone entered together with four Warders leading horses. The custom of privacy already had attached itself to Traveling. Unless someone allowed you to see her weave a gateway, trying to learn where she was going was accounted akin to asking direct questions about her business. Beonin waited patiently on Winterfinch, with Tervail towering over her on Hammer. At least the sisters here respected her raised cowl. Or perhaps they had their own reasons for silence. Either way, she did not have to talk with anyone. At this moment, that would have been insupportable.

The line in front of her dwindled quickly, and soon enough she and Tervail were dismounting at the head of a much shorter line, only three sisters. He held aside the heavy canvas flap for her to enter first. Hung between tall poles, the wall enclosed a space of nearly twenty paces by twenty where frozen slush covered the ground, an uneven surface marked by footprints and hoofprints atop one another and scored in the middle by a razor-straight line. Everyone used the middle. The ground glistened faintly, perhaps the beginning of another thaw that would turn it all to slush that might well freeze again. Spring came later here than in Tarabon, but it was on the brink.

As soon as Tervail let the canvas fall, she embraced saidar and wove Spirit almost caressingly. This weave fascinated her, a rediscovery of something thought lost forever and surely the greatest of Egwene al’Vere’s discoveries. Every time she wove it she felt a sense of wonder, so familiar as novice and even Accepted, that had not come to her since she attained the shawl. Something new and marvelous. The vertical silvery line appeared in front of her, right atop the scoring on the ground, and suddenly became a gap that widened, the view through appearing to rotate until she was faced by a square hole in the air, more than two paces by two, that showed snow-draped oaks with heavy spreading limbs. A light breeze blew through the gateway, rippling her cloak. She had often enjoyed walking in that grove, or sitting on one of the low branches for hours reading, though never in snow.

Tervail did not recognize it, and darted through, sword in hand, tugging Hammer behind him, the warhorse’s hooves kicking up puffs of snow on the other side. She followed a little more slowly and let the weave dissipate almost reluctantly. It truly was wondrous.

She found Tervail looking at what rose above the treetops in the near distance, a thick pale shaft rearing against the sky. The White Tower. His face was very still, and the bond seemed filled with stillness, too. “I think me you are planning something dangerous, Beonin.” He still held his blade bared, though lowered now.

She laid a hand on his left arm. That should be enough to reassure him; she would never have impeded his sword arm if there was any real danger. “No more dangerous than is ne...”

The words trailed off as she saw a woman some thirty paces away, walking slowly toward her through the grove of massive trees. She must have been behind a tree before. An Aes Sedai in a dress of old-fashioned cut, with straight white hair held back by a pearl-studded cap of silver wire and falling to her waist. It could not be. That strong face with its dark, tilted eyes and hooked nose was unmistakable, though. Unmistakable, but Turanine Merdagon had died when Beonin was Accepted. In midstep, the woman vanished.

“What is it?” Tervail spun, his sword coming up, to stare in the direction she had been looking. “What frightened you?”

“The Dark One, he is touching the world,” she said softly. It was impossible! Impossible, but she was not given to delusions or fancies. She had seen what she had seen. Her shiver had nothing to with standing ankle-deep in snow. Silently, she prayed. May the Light illumine me all of my days, and may I shelter in the Creator’s hand in the sure and certain hope of salvation and rebirth.

When she told him about seeing a sister more than forty years dead, he did not try to dismiss it as hallucination, merely muttered his own prayer half under his breath. She felt no fear in him, though. Plenty in herself, but none in him. The dead could not frighten a man who took each day as his last. He was not so sanguine when she revealed what she intended. Part of it, anyway. She did so looking into the hand mirror and weaving very carefully. She was not as adept with Illusion as she would have liked. The face in the mirror changed as the weave settled on her. It was not a great change, but the face was no longer an Aes Sedai’s face, no longer Beonin Marinye’s face, just that of a woman who looked vaguely like her, though with much paler hair.

“Why do you want to reach Elaida?” he demanded suspiciously. Abruptly the bond carried an edge. “You mean to get close to her then lower the Illusion, yes? She will attack you, and—No, Beonin. If it must be done, let me go. There are too many Warders in the Tower for her to know them all, and she will never expect a Warder to attack her. I can put a dagger in her heart before she knows what is happening.” He demonstrated, a short blade appearing in his right hand quick as lightning.

“What I do, I must do myself, Tervail.” Inverting the Illusion and tying it off, she prepared several other weaves just in case matters went too far awry, inverting them also, then began another, a very complex weave that she laid on herself. That would hide her ability to channel. She had always wondered why some weaves, such as Illusion, could be placed on yourself while it was impossible to make others, such as Healing, touch your own body. When she had asked that question as Accepted, Turanine had said in that memorable deep voice, “As well ask why water is wet and sand dry, child. Put your mind on what is possible rather than why some things are not.” Good advice, yet she never had been able to accept the second part. The dead were walking. May the Light illumine me all the days of... She tied off the last weave and removed her Great Serpent ring, tucking it into her belt pouch. Now she could stand beside any Aes Sedai unrecognized for what she was. “You have always trusted me to know what is best,” she went on. “Do you still?”

His face remained as smooth as a sister’s, yet the bond brought an instant of shock. “But of course, Beonin.”

“Then take Winterfinch and go into the city. Hire a room at an inn until I come for you.” He opened his mouth, but she raised an admonitory hand. “Go, Tervail.”

She watched him disappear through the trees, leading both horses, then turned to face the Tower. The dead were walking. But all that mattered was that she reach Elaida. Only that.

Gusts of wind rattled the casements set in the windows. The fire on the white marble hearth had warmed the air to the point that moisture condensed on the glass panes and trickled down like raindrops. Seated behind her gilded writing table with her hands calmly folded on the tabletop, Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, the Watcher of the Seals, the Flame of Tar Valon, the Amyrlin Seat, kept a smooth face while she listened to the man in front of her rant, shoulders hunched and shaking his fist.

“... did be kept bound and gagged for most of the voyage, confined day and night to a cabin better called a cupboard! For that, I demand the captain of that vessel be punished, Elaida. More, I do demand an apology from you and from the White Tower. Fortune stab me, the Amyrlin Seat does not have the right to kidnap kings any longer! The White Tower does not have that right! I do demand...”

He was repeating himself again. The man barely paused for breath. It was difficult to keep her attention on him. Her eyes wandered to the bright tapestries on the walls, the neatly arrayed red roses on white plinths in the corners. Tiresome, maintaining outward calm while enduring this tirade. She wanted to stand up and slap him. The audacity of the man! To speak so to the Amyrlin Seat! But enduring calmly served her purpose better. She would let him exhaust himself.

Mattin Stepaneos den Balgar was muscular, and he might have been good-looking when young, but the years had proven unkind. The white beard that left his upper lip bare was neatly trimmed, but the hair had retreated from most of his scalp, his nose had been broken more than once, and his scowl deepened creases on his flushed face that needed no deepening. His green silk coat, embroidered on the sleeves with the Golden Bees of Illian, had been brushed and cleaned well, short of a sister channeling to do the work, yet it had been his only coat for the voyage, and not all the stains had come out. The ship carrying him had been slow, arriving late the day before, but for once, she was not displeased with someone else’s slowness. The Light only knew what a mess Alviarin would have made of matters had he arrived in a timely fashion. The woman deserved to go to the headsman for the mire she had driven the Tower into, a mire Elaida now had to dig out of, much less for daring to blackmail the Amyrlin Seat.

Mattin Stepaneos cut off abruptly, taking half a step back on the patterned Taraboner carpet. Elaida wiped the frown from her face. Thinking of Alviarin always made her glare unless she was careful.

“Your rooms are comfortable enough for you?” she said into the silence. “The serving men are suitable?”

He blinked at the sudden change of direction. “The rooms do be comfortable and the serving men suitable,” he replied in a much milder tone, perhaps remembering her frown. “Even so, I—”

“You should be grateful to the Tower, Mattin Stepaneos, and to me. Rand al’Thor took Illian only days after you departed the city. He took the Laurel Crown, as well. The Crown of Swords, he named it. Can you believe he would have faltered in cutting off your head to take it? I knew you would not leave voluntarily. I saved your life.” There. He should believe it had been done with his best interests at heart, now.

The fool had the temerity to snort and fold his arms across his chest. “I am no a toothless old hound yet, Mother. I did face death defending Illian many times. Do you believe I fear dying so much I would rather be your ‘guest’ for the rest of my life?” Still, that was the first time he had given her her proper title since entering the room.

The ornate gilded case clock standing against the wall chimed, small figures of gold and silver and enamel moving on three levels. On the highest, above the clockface, a king and queen knelt to an Amyrlin Seat. Unlike the wide stole resting on Elaida’s shoulders, that Amyrlin’s stole still had seven stripes. She had not yet gotten around to bringing in an enameler. There was so much to be done that was so much more important.

Adjusting her stole on the bright red silk of her dress, she leaned back so the Flame of Tar Valon, picked out in moonstones on the tall gilded chairback, would stand directly above her head. She intended to make the man take in every symbol of who she was and what she represented. Had the Flame-topped staff been at hand, she would have held it under his crooked nose. “A dead man can reclaim nothing, my son. From here, with my help, it may be that you can reclaim your crown and your nation.”

Mattin Stepaneos’ mouth opened a crack and he inhaled deeply, like a man scenting a home he had never thought to see again. “And how would you arrange that, Mother? I understand the City do be held by these ... Asha’man,” he fumbled the cursed name slightly, “and Aiel who follow the Dragon Reborn.” Someone had been talking to him, telling him too much. His news of events was to be strictly rationed. It seemed his serving man would have to be replaced. But hope had washed the anger from his voice, and that was to the good.

“Regaining your crown will require planning, and time,” she told him, since at the moment she had no idea of how it could be accomplished. She certainly intended to find a way, however. Kidnapping the King of Illian had been meant to demonstrate her power, but restoring him to a stolen throne would demonstrate it even further. She would rebuild the full glory of the White Tower at its highest, the days when thrones trembled if the Amyrlin Seat frowned.

“I am sure you are still weary from your journey,” she said, standing. Just as if he had undertaken it of his own free will. She hoped he was intelligent enough to make that pretense, too. It would serve them both far better than the truth in the days to come. “We will dine together at midday and discuss what might be done. Cariandre, escort His Majesty to his rooms and see to fetching a tailor. He will need new clothes made. A gift from me.” The plump Ghealdanin Red who had been standing still as a mouse beside the door to the anteroom glided forward to touch his arm. He hesitated, reluctant to go, but Elaida continued as though he were already leaving. “Tell Tarna to come in to me, Cariandre. I have a great deal of work today,” she added for his benefit.

At last Mattin Stepaneos let himself be turned, and she sat down again before he reached the door. Three lacquered boxes were arranged just so on the tabletop, one her correspondence box, where she kept recently received letters and reports from the Ajahs. The Red shared whatever their eyes-and-ears learned—she thought they did—but the other Ajahs still provided only dribbles, though they had produced a number of unwelcome pieces of information in the last week or so. Unwelcome in part because they indicated contact with the rebels that must go beyond those farcical negotiations. It was the fat, gold-embossed leather folder in front of her that she opened, however. The Tower itself generated enough reports to have buried the table had she tried to read them all herself, and Tar Valon produced ten times as many. Clerks handled the vast majority, selecting only the most important for her to read. They still made a thick stack.

“You wanted me, Mother?” Tarna said coolly, shutting the door behind her. There was no disrespect in it; the yellow-haired woman was cold by nature, her blue eyes icy. Elaida did not mind that. What irritated her was that the bright red Keeper’s stole around Tarna’s neck was little more than a wide ribbon. Her pale gray dress was slashed with enough red to display her pride in her Ajah, so why was her stole so narrow? But Elaida had a great deal of trust in the woman, and of late that was a rare commodity.

“What news from the harbor, Tarna?” There was no need to say which. Southharbor alone had any hope of remaining functional without massive repairs.

“Only riverships of the shallowest draft can enter,” Tarna said, crossing the carpet to stand in front of the writing table. She might have been discussing the possibility of rain. Nothing fazed her. “But the rest are taking turns tying up to the part of the chain that’s cuendillar so they can off-load into barges. The ship captains complain, and it takes considerably longer, yet for the time being, we can make do.”

Elaida’s mouth compressed, and she drummed her fingers on the tabletop. For the time being. She could not begin to repair the harbors until the rebels finally collapsed. So far, they had not launched an assault, thank the Light. That might begin with soldiers only, yet sisters certainly would be drawn into it, something they must want to evade as much as she did. But razing the harbor towers, as repairs would require, laying the harbors open and defenseless, might lead them to desperate acts. Light! Fighting must be avoided, if at all possible. She intended to fold their army into the Tower Guard once they realized they were finished and returned to the Tower. Part of her already thought as if Gareth Bryne were commanding the Tower Guard for her. An infinitely better man for High Captain than Jimar Chubain. The world would know the White Tower’s influence then! She did not want her soldiers killing one another, any more than she wanted the Tower weakened by her Aes Sedai killing one another. The rebels were hers as much as those inside the Tower, and she meant to make them acknowledge it.

Picking up the top sheet from the stack of reports, she scanned it rapidly. “Apparently, despite my express order, the streets are still not being cleaned. Why?”

An uneasy light appeared in Tarna’s eyes, the first time Elaida had ever seen her look troubled. “People are frightened, Mother. They don’t leave their homes except at need, and with great reluctance even then. They say they have seen the dead walking in the streets.”

“This has been confirmed?” Elaida asked quietly. Her blood suddenly seemed chill. “Have any sisters seen them?”

“None in the Red, that I know of.” The others would speak with her as Keeper, yet not freely, not to share confidences. How under the Light was that to be mended? “But people in the city are adamant. They have seen what they’ve seen.”

Slowly, Elaida set the page down to one side. She wanted to shiver. So. She had read everything she could find concerning the Last Battle, even studies and Foretellings so old they had never been translated out of the Old Tongue and had lain covered in dust in the darkest corners of the library. The al’Thor boy had been a harbinger, but now it seemed that Tarmon Gai’don would come sooner than anyone had thought. Several of those ancient Foretellings, from the earliest days of the Tower, said the dead appearing was the first sign, a thinning of reality as the Dark One gathered himself. There would be worse before long.

“Have the Tower Guards drag able-bodied men out of their houses, if need be,” she said calmly. “I want those streets clean, and I want to hear that a start was made today. Today!”

The other woman’s pale eyebrows lifted in surprise—she had lost her usual frigid self-control!—but all she said, of course, was, “As you command, Mother.”

Elaida projected serenity, but it was a charade. What would come, would come. And she still had secured no hold on the al’Thor boy. To think she had once had him right under her hand! If only she had known then. Curse Alviarin and that triply cursed proclamation calling anathema on anyone who approached him save through the Tower. She would have recalled it, except that would seem weakness, and in any case, the damage had been done beyond simple mending. Still, soon she would have Elayne back in hand, and the Royal House of Andor was the key to winning Tarmon Gai’don. That, she had Foretold long ago. And news of rebellion against the Seanchan sweeping across Tarabon had been very pleasant reading. Not everything was a tangle of briars stabbing her from every side.

Scanning the second report, she grimaced. No one liked sewers, yet they were one-third of the life’s blood of a city, the other two being trade and clean water. Without the sewers, Tar Valon would become prey to a dozen diseases, overwhelming anything the sisters could do, not to mention even more malodorous than the rotting garbage must have made the streets already. Though trade was cut to a trickle for the moment, the water still came in at the upriver end of the island and was distributed to watertowers throughout the city, then to fountains, ornamental and plain, that anyone was free to use, but now it seemed the sewer outlets on the downriver end of the island were nearly clogged. Dipping her pen in the ink jar, she scrawled I WANT THESE CLEARED BY TOMORROW across the top of the page and signed her name below. If the clerks had any sense, the work was already under way, but she never accused clerks of having much sense.

The next report made her own eyebrows rise. “Rats inside the Tower?” That was beyond serious! This should have been on top! “Have someone check the Wards, Tarna.” Those Wardings had held since the Tower was built, but perhaps they could have weakened after three thousand years. How many of those rats were the Dark One’s spies?

A rap came at the door, followed an instant later by a plump Accepted named Anemara, who spread her striped skirts in a deep curtsy. “If it pleases you, Mother, Felaana Sedai and Negaine Sedai have brought a woman to you they found wandering in the Tower. They say she wants to present a petition to the Amyrlin Seat.”

“Tell her to wait and offer her tea, Anemara,” Tarna said briskly. “The Mother is busy—”

“No, no,” Elaida broke in. “Send them in, child. Send them in.” It had been too long since anyone had come to present her with a petition. She was of a mind to grant whatever it was, if it was not too ridiculous. Perhaps that would restart the flow. It was far too long since any sisters had come to her without being summoned, too. Perhaps the two Browns would end that drought, as well.

But only one woman entered the room, carefully closing the door behind her. By her silk riding dress and good cloak, she appeared to be a noblewoman or a prosperous merchant, a supposition supported by her confident manner. Elaida was sure she had never met the woman before, yet there seemed something vaguely familiar about that face framed by hair even fairer than Tarna’s.

Elaida stood and started around the table, hands outstretched and an unaccustomed smile on her face. She tried to make it seem welcoming. “I understand that you have a petition for me, my daughter. Tarna, pour her some tea.” The silver pot sitting on a silver tray atop the side table must still be at least warm.

“The petition, it was something I let them believe in order to reach you unbruised, Mother,” the woman replied in Taraboner accents, curtsying, and halfway through that, her face was suddenly that of Beonin Marinye.

Embracing saidar, Tarna wove a shield on the woman, but Elaida contented herself with planting her fists on her hips.

“To say that I’m surprised you dare show me your face would be an understatement, Beonin.”

“I managed to become part of what you might call the ruling council in Salidar,” the Gray said calmly. “I made sure they sat there and did nothing, and I put the rumors about that many among them were in truth your secret adherents. The sisters, they were looking at one another with so much suspicion, I think me most might have returned to the Tower soon at that point, but then other Sitters beside the Blues appeared. The next I knew, they had chosen their own Hall of the Tower, and the ruling council, it was done. Still, I continued to do what I could. I know that you commanded me to remain with them until they were all ready to return, but that must happen within days, now. If I may say, Mother, it was the most excellent decision not to try Egwene. For one thing, she has the genius for discovering new weaves, even better than Elayne Trakand or Nynaeve al’Meara. For another, before they raised her, Lelaine and Romanda struggled with one another to be named Amyrlin. With Egwene alive, they will struggle again, but neither can succeed, yes? Me, I think very soon now sisters will begin following behind me. In a week or two, Lelaine and Romanda will find themselves alone with the remainder of their so-called Hall.”

“How did you know the al’Vere girl wasn’t to be tried?” Elaida demanded. “How did you know she’s even alive? Unshield her, Tarna!”

Tarna complied, and Beonin gave her a nod as if in gratitude. A small gratitude. Those large blue-gray eyes might make Beonin appear constantly startled, but she was a very composed woman. Combine composure with a wholehearted dedication to the law and also ambition, which she possessed in as great a measure, and Elaida had known immediately that Beonin was the one to send off after the sisters fleeing the Tower. And the woman had failed utterly! Oh, she had apparently sowed a little dissension, but really, she had achieved nothing of what Elaida had expected from her. Nothing! She would find her rewards commensurate with her failure.

“Egwene, she can enter Tel’aran’rhiod simply by going to sleep, Mother. I myself have been there and seen her, but I must use a ter’angreal. I could not acquire any of those the rebels have to bring with me. In any event, she spoke to Siuan Sanche, in her dreams, it is claimed, though I think more likely in the World of Dreams. Apparently, she said that she is a prisoner, but she would not tell where, and she forbade any rescue attempt. May I pour myself that tea?”

Elaida was so stunned she could not speak. She motioned Beonin to the side table, and the Gray curtsied again before going over to feel the silver pitcher cautiously with the back of her hand. The girl could enter Tel’aran’rhiod? And there were ter’angreal that allowed the same thing? The World of Dreams was almost a legend. And according to those troubling scraps the Ajahs had deigned to share with her, the girl had rediscovered the weave for Traveling and made any number of other discoveries as well. They had been the determining factor in her decision to preserve the girl for the Tower, but this on top of it?

“If Egwene can do this, Mother, perhaps she really is a Dreamer,” Tarna said. “The warning she gave Silviana—”

“Is useless, Tarna. The Seanchan are still deep in Altara and barely touching Illian.” At least the Ajahs were willing to pass on everything they learned of the Seanchan. Or rather, she hoped they passed on everything. The thought roughened her voice. “Unless they learn to Travel, can you think of any precaution I need to take beyond what is already in place?” She could not, of course. The girl had forbidden a rescue. That was good on the face of it, but it indicated she still thought of herself as Amyrlin. Well, Silviana would remove that nonsense from her head soon enough if the sisters teaching her classes failed. “Can she be fed enough of that potion to keep her out of Tel’aran’rhiod?”

Tarna grimaced slightly—no one liked that vile brew, even the Browns who had brought themselves to test it—and shook her head. “We can make her sleep through the night, but she would be useless for anything the next day, and who can say whether it would affect this ability of hers.”

“May I pour for you, Mother?” Beonin said, balancing a thin white teacup on her fingertips. “Tarna? The most important news I have—”

“I don’t care for any tea,” Elaida said harshly. “Did you bring back anything to save your skin from your miserable failure? Do you know the weave for Traveling, or this Skimming, or...” There were so many. Perhaps they were all Talents and skills that had been lost, but apparently most had not been named yet.

The Gray peered at her across the teacup, her face very still. “Yes,” she said at last. “I cannot make cuendillar, but I can make the new Healing weaves work as well as most sisters, and I know them all.” An edge of excitement crept into her voice. “The most marvelous is Traveling.” Without asking permission, she embraced the Source and wove Spirit. A vertical line of silver appeared against one wall and widened into a view of snow-covered oaks. A cold breeze blew into the room, making the flames dance in the fireplace. “That is called a gateway. It’s well I have been to these rooms before, because it can only be used from places you know well. To journey from a place you do not know well, you use Skimming.” She altered the weave, and the opening dwindled into that silvery line once more then widened again. The oaks were replaced by blackness, and a gray-painted barge, railed and gated, that floated on nothing against the opening.

“Release the weave,” Elaida said. She had the feeling that if she walked over to that barge, the darkness would extend as far as she could see in any direction. That she could fall in it forever. It made her queasy. The opening—the gateway—vanished. The memory remained, however.

Resuming her seat behind the table, she opened the largest of the lacquered boxes, decorated with red roses and golden scrollwork. From the top tray, she picked up a small ivory carving, a fork-tailed swallow dark yellow with years, and stroked her thumb along the curved wings. “You will not teach these things to anyone without receiving my permission.”

“But ... why ever not, Mother?”

“Some of the Ajahs oppose the Mother almost as strongly as those sisters beyond the river,” Tarna said.

Elaida shot a dark look at her Keeper, but that cool visage absorbed it without changing a hair. “I will decide who is ... reliable enough ... to be taught, Beonin. I want your promise. No, I want your oath.”

“On my way here, I saw sisters of different Ajahs glaring at one another. Glaring. What has happened in the Tower, Mother?”

“Your oath, Beonin.”

The woman stood peering into her teacup long enough that Elaida was beginning to think she would refuse. But ambition won out. She had tied herself to Elaida’s skirts in the hope of preferment, and she would not abandon that now. “Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth, I swear that I will teach the weaves I learned among the rebels to no one without the permission of the Amyrlin Seat.” She paused, taking a sip from the cup. “Some sisters in the Tower, they are perhaps less reliable than you think. I tried to stop it, but that ‘ruling council’ sent ten sisters to return to the Tower and spread the tale of the Red Ajah and Logain.” Elaida recognized few of the names she reeled off, until the last. That one made her sit bolt upright.

“Shall I have them arrested, Mother?” Tarna asked, still as chill as ice.

“No. Have them watched. Watch whoever they associate with.” So there was a conduit between the Ajahs inside the Tower and the rebels. How deeply had the rot spread? However deep, she would clean it out!

“That may be difficult as matters stand, Mother.”

Elaida slapped the table with her free hand, a sharp crack. “I didn’t ask whether it would be difficult. I said do it! And inform Meidani that I invite her to dinner this evening.” The woman had been persistent in trying to resume a friendship that had ended many years before. Now she knew why. “Go and do that now.” A shadow crossed Tarna’s face as she curtsied. “Don’t worry,” Elaida said. “Beonin can feel free to teach you every weave she knows.” She did trust Tarna, after all, and it certainly made her expression brighter, if not warmer.

As the door closed behind her Keeper, Elaida pushed the leather folder to one side and leaned her elbows on the table, focusing on Beonin. “Now. Show me everything.”

At the Gardens

Aran’gar arrived in answer to Moridin’s summons, spoken into her furious dreams, to find him not yet there. That was hardly surprising; he liked to make an entrance. Eleven tall armchairs, carved and gilded, sat in a circle in the middle of the striped wooden floor, but they were empty. Semirhage, all in black as usual, looked around to see who had entered, then returned to her huddled conversation with Demandred and Mesaana in one corner of the room. Demandred’s hook-nosed face carried an expression of anger that only made him more striking. Not enough to attract her, of course. He was far too dangerous for that. That well-fitted coat of bronze silk, with falls of snowy lace at neck and wrists, suited him, however. Mesaana also wore the style of this Age, a darker, pattern-embroidered bronze. She appeared wan and subdued, for some reason, almost as if she had taken ill. Well, that was possible. This Age had a number of nasty diseases, and it seemed unlikely even she would trust Semirhage for Healing. Graendal, the only other human present, stood in the corner opposite cradling a delicate crystal goblet filled with dark wine, but watching the trio rather than drinking. Only idiots ignored being studied by Graendal, yet the three went on with their fierce murmurs.

The chairs jarred with the rest of their surroundings. The room appeared to have view-walls, though the stone arch of a doorway destroyed the illusion. The chairs could have been anything, here in Tel’aran’rhiod, so why not something to suit the room, and why eleven when that was surely two more than needed? Asmodean and Sammael must be as dead as Be’lal and Rahvin. Why not the usual dilating door of a view-room? The display made the floor seem to be surrounded by the Ansaline Gardens, with Cormalinde Masoon’s immense sculptures of stylized humans and animals towering over low buildings themselves like delicate sculptures in spinglass. At the Gardens only the finest wines had been served, the finest dishes, and it almost always had been possible to impress a beautiful woman with large winnings at the chinje wheels, though cheating enough to win consistently had been difficult. Difficult, but necessary for a scholar who lacked wealth. All gone, in ruins by the third year of the war.

A golden-haired, ever-smiling zomara in a flowing white blouse and tight breeches bowed fluidly and offered Aran’gar a crystal goblet of wine on a silver tray. Graceful and beautifully androgynous, apparently human despite those dead black eyes, the creatures had been one of Aginor’s less inspired creations. Still, even in their own Age, when Moridin had been called Ishamael—there was no longer any doubt in her mind of who he was—he had trusted the creatures above any human servant, despite their uselessness for every other task. Somewhere he must have found a stasis box stuffed with the things. He had dozens, although he seldom brought them out. Yet ten more stood waiting, graceful while standing still. He must consider this meeting more important than most.

Taking the goblet, she waved the zomara away, though it was already turning before she gestured. She hated the creatures’ ability to know what was in her head. At least it could not communicate what it learned to anyone. Memories of anything but commands faded in minutes. Even Aginor possessed sense enough to see the need for that. Would he appear today? Osan’gar had missed every meeting since the failure at Shadar Logoth. The true question was, was he among the dead or was he moving in secret, perhaps at the Great Lord’s direction? Either way, his absences presented delicious opportunities, but the latter presented as many dangers. Dangers had been much on her mind lately.

Casually, she strolled over to Graendal. “Who do you think arrived first, Graendal? The Shadow take me, whoever it was chose a depressing setting.” Lanfear had preferred meetings that floated in endless night, yet this was worse in its own way, like meeting in a cemetery.

Graendal smiled thinly. At least, she attempted a thin smile, but no amount of effort would make those lips thin. Lush was the word for all of Graendal, lush and ripe and beautiful, and barely concealed by the gray mist of her streith gown. Though perhaps she should not have worn quite so many rings, all but one adorned with gems. The coronet encrusted with rubies clashed with her sun-gold hair, too. The emerald necklace Delana had provided went much better with her own green satin silks. Of course, while the emeralds were real, her silks were a product of the World of Dreams. She would have attracted too much notice in the waking world with a dress cut so low, if it would even stay up, there. And there was the slit that bared her left leg to the hip. Her legs were better than Graendal’s. She had considered two slits. Her abilities here were not as large as some—she could not find Egwene’s dreams without the girl right beside her—but she could manage the clothes she wanted. She enjoyed having her body admired, and the more she flaunted it, the more the others took her for inconsequential.

“I arrived first,” Graendal said, frowning slightly into her wine. “I have fond memories of the Gardens.”

Aran’gar managed a laugh. “So do I, so do I.” The woman was a fool like the rest, living in the past among the tatters of what was lost. “We’ll never see the Gardens again, but we’ll see their like.” She herself was the only one of them suited to rule in this Age. She was the only one who understood primitive cultures. They had been her specialty before the war. Still, Graendal had useful skills, and a wider range of contacts among the Friends of the Dark than she herself had, though the other woman would certainly disapprove of how Aran’gar meant to use them should she learn. “Has it occurred to you that all of the others have alliances, while you and I stand alone?” And Osan’gar, if he was alive, but there was no need to bring him into this.

Graendal’s gown turned a darker gray, regrettably obscuring the view. It was real streith. Aran’gar had found a pair of stasis-boxes herself, but filled with the most appalling rubbish for the most part. “Has it occurred to you that this room must have ears? The zomaran were here when I arrived.”

“Graendal.” She purred the name. “If Moridin is listening, he’ll assume I’m trying to get into your bed. He knows I never made alliances with anyone.” In truth, she had made several, but her allies always seemed to suffer fatal misfortunes once their usefulness ended, and they took all knowledge of the affiliations to their graves. Those who found graves.

The streith went black as midnight in Larcheen, and spots of color appeared on Graendal’s creamy cheeks. Her eyes became blue ice. But her words were at odds with her face, and her gown faded to near transparency as she spoke, slowly, sounding thoughtful. “An intriguing notion. One I’ve never before considered. I might do so now. Perhaps. You will have to ... convince me, though.” Good. The other woman was as quick-witted as ever. It was a reminder that she must be careful. She meant to use Graendal and dispose of her, not be caught in one of her traps.

“I am very good at convincing beautiful women.” She stretched out a hand to caress Graendal’s cheek. Now was not too soon to begin convincing the others. Besides, something more than an alliance might come of it. She had always fancied Graendal. She no longer really remembered having been a man. In her memories, she wore the body she did now, which did make for a few oddities, yet that body’s influence had not changed everything. Her appetites had not altered, only broadened. She would like very much to have that streith gown. And anything else useful that Graendal might possess, of course, but she dreamed of wearing that dress sometimes. The only reason she was not wearing one now was that she would not have the other woman thinking she had imitated her.

The streith remained barely opaque, but Graendal stepped away from the caress looking past Aran’gar, who turned to find Mesaana approaching, flanked by Demandred and Semirhage. He still appeared angry, and Semirhage coolly amused. Mesaana was still pale, but no longer subdued. No, not subdued at all. She was a hissing coreer, spitting venom.

“Why did you let her go, Aran’gar? You were supposed to be controlling her! Were you so busy playing your little dream-games with her that you forgot to learn what she was thinking? The rebellion will fall apart without her for a figurehead. All my careful planning ruined because you couldn’t keep a grasp on one ignorant girl!”

Aran’gar held on to her temper firmly. She could hold it, when she was willing to make the effort. Instead of snarling, she smiled. Could Mesaana actually have based herself inside the White Tower? How wonderful it would be if she could find a way to split that threesome apart. “I listened in on a sitting of the rebels’ Hall last night. In the World of Dreams, so they could meet inside the White Tower, with Egwene leading it. She’s not the figurehead you believe. I’ve tried telling you before, but you never listened.” That came out too hard. With an effort, and it required effort, she moderated her tone. “Egwene told them all about the situation inside the Tower, the Ajahs at one another’s throats. She convinced them it’s the Tower that is about to fall apart, and that she might be able to help it along from where she is. Were I you, I’d worry whether the Tower can hold together long enough to keep this conflict going.”

“They’re determined to hold on?” Mesaana murmured, half under her breath. She nodded. “Good. Good. Then everything is proceeding according to plan. I had been thinking I would need to stage some sort of ‘rescue,’ but perhaps I can wait until Elaida has broken her. Her return should create even more confusion, then. You need to sow more dissension, Aran’gar. Before I’m done, I want these so-called Aes Sedai hating each other in their blood.”

A zomara appeared, bowing gracefully as it offered a tray with three goblets. Mesaana and her companions took the wine without a glance at the creature, and it bowed again before flowing away.

“Dissension was always something she was good at,” Semirhage said. Demandred laughed.

Aran’gar forced her anger down. Sipping her own wine—it was quite good, with a heady aroma, if nowhere near the vintages served at the Gardens—she laid her free hand on Graendal’s shoulder and toyed with one of those sun-colored curls. The other woman never flinched, and the streith remained a bare mist. Either she was enjoying this, or she had better control of herself than seemed possible. Semirhage’s smile grew more amused. She, too, took her pleasures where she found them, though Semirhage’s pleasures had never attracted Aran’gar.

“If you’re going to fondle one another,” Demandred growled, “do it in private.”

“Jealous?” Aran’gar murmured, and laughed lightly at his scowl. “Where is the girl kept, Mesaana? She didn’t say.”

Mesaana’s big blue eyes narrowed. They were her best feature, yet only ordinary when she frowned. “Why do you want to know? So you can ‘rescue’ her yourself? I won’t tell you.”

Graendal hissed, and Aran’gar realized that her hand had become a fist in that golden hair, bending Graendal’s head back. The other woman’s face remained tranquil, but her gown was a red mist and rapidly growing darker, more opaque. Aran’gar loosened her grip, holding on lightly. One of the first steps was making your quarry accustomed to your touch. She did nothing to keep the anger from her voice this time, however. Her bared teeth were an undisguised snarl. “I want the girl, Mesaana. Without her, I have much weaker tools to work with.”

Mesaana sipped wine calmly before responding. Calmly! “By your own account, you don’t need her at all. It has been my plan from the start, Aran’gar. I will adapt it according to need, but it is mine. And I will decide when and where the girl is set free.”

“No, Mesaana, I will decide when and where, or whether, she is freed,” Moridin announced, striding through the stone arch. So he had set ears in place. He was in unrelieved black this time, a black somehow darker than what Semirhage wore. As usual, Moghedien and Cyndane followed him, both attired in identical red-and-black that suited neither. What hold did he have on them? Moghedien, at least, had never willingly followed anyone. As for that beautiful, bosomy little pale-haired doll Cyndane... Aran’gar had approached her, just to see what might be learned, and the girl had coldly threatened to rip her heart out if Aran’gar touched her again. Hardly the words of someone who submitted easily.

“Sammael appears to have resurfaced,” Moridin announced, crossing the floor to take a seat. He was a big man, and he made the ornate high-backed chair seem a throne. Moghedien and Cyndane sat down to either side of him, but interestingly, not until he had. Zomaran in snowy white were there instantly with wine, yet Moridin received his first. Whatever was at work there, the zomaran sensed it.

“That hardly seems possible,” Graendal said as they all moved to take chairs. Her gown was dark gray now, concealing everything. “He must be dead.” No one moved quickly, though. Moridin was Nae’blis, yet no one except Moghedien and Cyndane was willing to display any hint of subservience. Aran’gar certainly was not.

She took a seat across from Moridin, where she could watch him without seeming to. And Moghedien and Cyndane. Moghedien was so still she would have faded into the chair except for her bright dress. Cyndane was a queen, her face chiseled from ice. Trying to pull down the Nae’blis was dangerous, yet those two might hold the key. If she could figure out how to turn it. Graendal sat down beside her, and the chair was suddenly closer. Aran’gar could have laid her hand on the other woman’s wrist but refrained from anything more than a slow smile. It was best to keep her mind centered right then.

“He could never have borne staying hidden this long,” Demandred put in, lounging into his chair between Semirhage and Mesaana, legs crossed as though perfectly at ease. That seemed doubtful. He was another who was unreconciled, she was sure. “Sammael needed to have every eye directed at him.”

“Nevertheless, Sammael, or someone disguised as him, gave orders to Myrddraal, and they obeyed, so it was one of the Chosen.” Moridin scanned around the chairs as though he could detect who it had been. Black saa trickled across his blue eyes in a continuous stream. She had no regrets that the True Power was limited to his use alone, now. The price was much too high. Ishamael had certainly been at least half insane, and he still was as Moridin. How long before she could remove him?

“Are you going to tell us what these orders were?” Semirhage’s tone was cool, and she sipped her wine calmly, watching Moridin over the goblet’s rim. She sat very erect, but she always did. She too appeared completely at ease, yet that was unlikely.

Moridin’s jaw tightened. “I don’t know,” he said at last, reluctantly. He never liked saying that. “But they sent a hundred Myrddraal and thousands of Trollocs into the Ways.”

“That sounds like Sammael,” Demandred said thoughtfully, twisting his goblet and studying the swirling wine. “Perhaps I was mistaken.” A remarkable admission, coming from him. Or an attempt to hide being the one who had worn Sammael as a disguise. She would like very much to know who had begun playing her own game. Or whether Sammael really was alive.

Moridin grunted sourly. “Pass orders to your Friends of the Dark. Any report of Trollocs or Myrddraal outside the Blight is to be handed to me as soon as you receive it. The Time of Return is coming soon. No one is allowed to go adventuring on their own any longer.” He studied them again, each in turn save for Moghedien and Cyndane. With a smile even more languorous than Graendal’s, Aran’gar met his gaze. Mesaana shrank back from it.

“As you learned to your sorrow,” he told Mesaana, and impossible as it seemed, her face went paler still. She took a long drink from her goblet, her teeth clicking on the crystal. Semirhage and Demandred avoided looking at her.

Aran’gar exchanged looks with Graendal. Something had been done to punish Mesaana’s failure to appear at Shadar Logoth, but what? Once, dereliction on that scale would have meant death. They were too few for that, now. Cyndane and Moghedien appeared as curious as she was, so they did not know either.

“We can see the signs as clearly as you, Moridin,” Demandred said irritably. “The Time is near. We need to find the rest of the seals on the Great Lord’s prison. I’ve had my followers searching everywhere, but they’ve found nothing.”

“Ah, yes. The seals. Indeed, they must be found.” Moridin’s smile was almost complacent. “Only three remain, all in al’Thor’s possession, though I doubt he has them with him. They’re too susceptible to breaking, now. He will have hidden them. Direct your people to places he has been. Search them yourselves.”

“The easiest way is to kidnap Lews Therin.” In strong contrast to her ice-maiden appearance, Cyndane’s voice was breathy and sultry, a voice made for lying on soft pillows wearing very little. There was considerable heat in those big blue eyes, now. A searing heat. “I can make him tell where the seals are.”

“No!” Moridin snapped, fixing her with a steady stare. “You would ‘accidentally’ kill him. The time and manner of al’Thor’s death will be at my choosing. No one else.” Strangely, he put his free hand to the breast of his coat, and Cyndane flinched. Moghedien shivered. “No one else,” he repeated, in a hard voice.

“No one else,” Cyndane said. When he lowered his hand, she exhaled softly then took a swallow of wine. Sweat glistened on her forehead.

Aran’gar found the exchange illuminating. It seemed that once she had disposed of Moridin, she would have Moghedien and the girl on leashes. Very good, indeed.

Moridin straightened himself in his chair, directing that stare at the rest of them. “That goes for all of you. Al’Thor is mine. You will not harm him in any way!” Cyndane bent her head over her goblet, sipping, but the hatred in her eyes was plain. Graendal had said she was not Lanfear, that she was weaker in the One Power, but she surely was fixated on al’Thor, and she called him by the same name Lanfear had always used.

“If you want to kill someone,” he went on, “kill these two!” Suddenly the semblances of two young men in rough country clothes stood in the center of the circle, turning so that everyone could get a good look at their faces. One was tall and wide, with yellow eyes, of all things, while the other was not quite slender and wore a cheeky grin. Creations of Tel’aran’rhiod, they moved stiffly and their expressions never altered. “Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon are ta’veren, easily found. Find them, and kill them.”

Graendal laughed, a mirthless sound. “Finding ta’veren was never as simple as you made out, and now it’s harder than ever. The whole Pattern is in flux, full of shifts and spikes.”

“Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon,” Semirhage murmured, inspecting the two shapes. “So that is what they look like. Who knows, Moridin. If you had shared this with us before now, they might already have been dead.”

Moridin’s fist came down hard on the arm of his chair. “Find them! Make doubly sure that your followers know their faces. Find Aybara and Cauthon and kill them! The Time is coming, and they must be dead!”

Aran’gar took a sip of her wine. She had no objections to killing these two if she happened to come across them, but Moridin was going to be terribly disappointed over Rand al’Thor.

A Deal

Perrin sat Stepper’s saddle a little back from the edge of the trees and watched the large meadow where red and blue wildflowers were beginning to poke through the winter-brown grass that the now vanished snows had flattened into a mat. This stand was mainly leatherleaf that kept its broad dark foliage through the winter, but only a few small pale leaves decorated the branches of the sweetgums among them. The dun stallion stamped a hoof with an impatience Perrin shared, though he let none of it show. The sun stood almost overhead; he had been waiting there nearly an hour. A stiff, steady breeze blew out of the west, down the meadow toward him. That was good.

Every so often his gauntleted hand stroked a nearly straight branch hacked from an oak, thicker than his forearm and more than twice as long, that lay across the saddle in front of him. For half its length he had shaved two sides flat and smooth. The meadow, ringed by huge oaks and leatherleaf, towering pine and shorter sweetgum, was less than six hundred paces wide, though longer than that. The branch should be broad enough. He had planned for every possibility he could imagine. The branch fit more than one.

“My Lady First, you should return to the camp,” Gallenne said, not for the first time, rubbing irritably at his red eyepatch. His crimson-plumed helmet hung from the pommel of his saddle, leaving his shoulder-length gray hair uncovered. He had been heard to say, in Berelain’s hearing, that most of those gray hairs were presents from her. His black warhorse tried to take a nip at Stepper, and he reined the heavy-chested gelding sharply without taking his attention from Berelain. He had counseled against her coming in the first place. “Grady can take you back and return while the rest of us wait a while longer to see whether the Seanchan are going to show up.”

“I will remain, Captain. I will remain.” Berelain’s tone was firm and calm, yet beneath her usual smell of patience lay an edge of concern. She was not so certain as she made herself sound. She had taken to wearing a light perfume that smelled of flowers. Perrin sometimes found himself trying to puzzle out which flowers, but he was too focused for idle thoughts today.

Vexation spiked in Annoura’s scent, though her ageless Aes Sedai face, framed by dozens of thin braids, remained as smooth as ever. But then, the beak-nosed Gray sister had smelled vexed ever since the rift between her and Berelain. It was her own fault, visiting Masema behind Berelain’s back. She also had counseled Berelain to stay behind. Annoura edged her brown mare closer to the First of Mayene, and Berelain moved her white mare just that far away without so much as a glance in her advisor’s direction. Vexation spiked again.

Berelain’s red silk dress, heavily embroidered in golden scrollwork, displayed more bosom than she had in some time, though a wide necklace of firedrops and opals provided a degree of modesty. A wide matching belt, supporting a jeweled dagger, cinched her waist. The narrow crown of Mayene resting on her black hair, holding a golden hawk in flight above her brows, appeared ordinary beside the belt and necklace. She was a beautiful woman, the more so, it seemed to him, since she had stopped chasing him, though still not a patch on Faile, of course.

Annoura wore an unadorned gray riding dress, but most of them were in their best. For Perrin, that was a dark green silk coat with silver embroidery covering the sleeves and shoulders. He was not much for fancy clothes—Faile had chivvied him into buying what little he had; well, she had chivvied him gently—but today he needed to impress. If the wide, plain leather belt fastened over the coat spoiled the impression a little, so be it.

“She must come,” Arganda muttered. A short stocky man, Alliandre’s First Captain had not removed his silvered helmet with its three short white plumes, and he sat his saddle, easing his sword in its scabbard, as though awaiting a charge. His breastplate was silver-plated, too. He would be visible for miles out in the sunlight. “She must!”

“The Prophet says they won’t,” Aram put in, and not softly, heeling his leggy gray up beside Stepper. The brass wolfhead pommel of his sword stuck up over the shoulder of his green-striped coat. Once, he had seemed too good looking for a man, but now his face grew grimmer every day. There was a haggardness about him, his eyes sunken and his mouth tight. “The Prophet says either that, or it’s a trap. He says we shouldn’t trust the Seanchan.”

Perrin held his silence, but felt his own spike of irritation, as much with himself as with the onetime Tinker. Balwer had informed him that Aram had begun spending time with Masema, yet it had seemed unnecessary to tell the man not to let Masema know everything Perrin was doing. There was no putting the egg back into the shell, but he would know better in the future. A workman should know his tools, and not use them to breaking. The same went for people. As for Masema, no doubt he was afraid they would meet someone who knew he himself was dealing with the Seanchan.

They were a large party, though most would remain right there among the trees. Fifty of Berelain’s Winged Guards in rimmed red helmets and red breastplates, scarlet streamers floating from their slender steel-tipped lances, were mounted behind the golden hawk on blue of Mayene, rippling on the breeze. Beside them fifty Ghealdanin in burnished breastplates and dark green conical helmets sat their horses behind Ghealdan’s three silver stars on red. The streamers on their lances were green. They made a brave show, yet all of them together were far less deadly than Jur Grady, with his weathered farmer’s face, even if they made him appear drab in his plain black coat with a silver sword pin on the high collar. He knew it, whether or not they did, and he stood beside his bay gelding with the ease of a man resting before the day’s labor.

In contrast, Leof Torfinn and Tod al’Caar, the only other Two Rivers men present, were still all but bouncing in their saddles with excitement despite the long wait. It might have taken some of their pleasure away had they known they had been chosen in large part because they came nearest fitting their borrowed coats of dark, finely woven green wool. Leof carried Perrin’s own Red Wolfhead banner, Tod the Red Eagle of Manetheren, both rippling on staffs a little longer than the lances. They had almost come to blows over who was to carry which. Perrin hoped it was not because neither wanted to carry the red-bordered Wolfhead. Leof looked happy enough. Tod looked ecstatic. Of course, he did not know why Perrin had brought the thing along. In any trade, you needed to make the other fellow think he was getting something extra, as Mat’s father often said. Colors swirled in Perrin’s head, and for a brief instant he thought he saw Mat talking to a small dark woman. He shook off the image. Here and now, today, were all that mattered. Faile was all that mattered.

“They will come,” Arganda snapped in answer to Aram, though he glared through the face-bars of his helmet as if expecting a challenge.

“What if they don’t?” Gallenne demanded, his one eye scowling as fiercely as Arganda’s pair. His red-lacquered breastplate was not much better than Arganda’s silvered one. Small chance they could be talked into painting them something dull. “What if it is a trap?” Arganda growled, almost a wolf’s guttural growl. The man was near the end of his tether.

The breeze brought the scent of horses only moments before Perrin’s ears caught the first bluetits’ trills, too distant for anyone else to hear. They came from the trees flanking the meadow. Large parties of men, perhaps unfriendly, were entering the woods. More trills sounded, closer.

“They’re here,” he said, which earned him looks from Arganda and Gallenne. He tried to avoid revealing the acuteness of his hearing, or his sense of smell, yet that pair had been on the point of coming to blows. The relayed trills grew nearer, and everyone could hear them. The two men’s looks grew odd.

“I can’t risk the Lady First if there’s any chance of a trap,” Gallenne said, buckling on his helmet. They all knew what the signal meant.

“The choice is mine, Captain,” Berelain replied before Perrin could open his mouth.

“And your safety is my responsibility, my Lady First.”

Berelain drew breath, her face darkening, but Perrin got there first. “I told you how we’re going to spring that trap, if that’s what it is. You know how suspicious the Seanchan are. Likely they’re worried about us ambushing them.” Gallenne harrumphed loudly. The patience in Berelain’s smell flickered, then settled in again rock steady.

“You should listen to him, Captain,” she said with a smile for Perrin. “He knows what he is doing.”

A party of riders appeared at the far end of the meadow and drew rein. Tallanvor was easy to pick out. In a dark coat and mounted on a good dappled gray, he was the only man not wearing armor vividly striped in red and yellow and blue. The other pair unarmored were women, one in blue with red on her skirts and breast, the other in gray. The sun reflected off something connecting them. So. A sul’dam and damane. There had been no mention of that in all the negotiations carried out through Tallanvor, but Perrin had counted on it.

“It’s time,” he said, gathering Stepper’s reins one-handed. “Before she decides we’re not coming.”

Annoura managed to get close enough to lay a hand on Berelain’s arm for a moment before the other woman could move her mare away. “You should let me come with you, Berelain. You may need my counsel, yes? This sort of negotiation, it is my specialty.”

“I suspect the Seanchan know an Aes Sedai face by now, don’t you, Annoura? I hardly think they’d negotiate with you. Besides,” Berelain added, in a too sweet voice, “you must remain here to assist Master Grady.”

Spots of color appeared briefly on the Aes Sedai’s cheeks, and her wide mouth tightened. It had taken the Wise Ones to make her agree to take orders from Grady today, though Perrin was just as glad he did not know how they had done it, and she had been trying to wiggle out ever since leaving the camp.

“You stay, too,” Perrin said when Aram made to ride forward. “You’ve been hotheaded lately, and I won’t risk you saying or doing the wrong thing out there. I won’t risk Faile on it.” That was true. No need to say he would not risk the man carrying what was said out there back to Masema. “You understand?”

Bubbles of disappointment filled Aram’s scent, but he nodded, however reluctantly, and rested his hands on the pommel of his saddle. He might come close to worshiping Masema, but he would give his life a hundred times over rather than risk Faile’s. On purpose, anyway. What he did without thinking was another matter.

Perrin rode out of the trees flanked by Arganda on one side and Berelain and Gallenne on the other. The banners followed behind, and ten Mayeners and ten Ghealdanin in a column of twos. As they walked their mounts forward, the Seanchan started toward them, also in column, with Tallanvor riding beside the leaders, one on a roan, the other a bay. The horses’ hooves made no sound on the thick mat of dead grass. The forest had gone silent, even to Perrin’s ears.

While the Mayeners and Ghealdanin spread out in a line, and most of the Seanchan in their brightly painted armor did the same, Perrin and Berelain advanced toward Tallanvor and two of the armored Seanchan, one with three thin blue plumes on that lacquered helmet that was so like an insect’s head, the other with two. The sul’dam and damane came, too. They met in the middle of the meadow, surrounded by wildflowers and silence, with six paces between them.

As Tallanvor positioned himself to one side between the two groups, the armored Seanchan removed their helmets with hands in steel-backed gauntlets that were striped like the rest of their armor. The two-plumed helmet revealed a yellow-haired man with half a dozen scars seaming his square face. He was a hard-bitten man who smelled of amusement, strangely, but it was the other who interested Perrin. Mounted on the bay, a trained warhorse if he had ever seen one, she was tall and broad-shouldered for a woman, though lean otherwise, and not young. Gray marked the temples of her close-cut, tightly curled black hair. As dark as good topsoil, she displayed only two scars, one slanting across her left cheek. The other, on her forehead, had taken part of her right eyebrow. Some people thought scars a sign of toughness. It seemed to Perrin that fewer scars meant that you knew what you were doing. Confidence filled the scent of her in the breeze.

Her gaze flickered across the fluttering banners. He thought she paused slightly on Manetheren’s Red Eagle, and again on Mayene’s Golden Hawk, yet she quickly settled to studying him. Her expression never altered a whit, but when she noticed his yellow eyes, something unidentifiable entered her scent, something sharp and hard. When she saw the heavy blacksmith’s hammer in its loop on his belt, the strange scent grew.

“I give you Perrin t’Bashere Aybara, Lord of the Two Rivers, Liege Lord to Queen Alliandre of Ghealdan,” Tallanvor announced, raising a hand toward Perrin. He claimed the Seanchan were sticklers for formality, but Perrin had no idea whether this was a Seanchan ceremony or something from Andor. Tallanvor could have made it up for all of him. “I give you Berelain sur Paendrag Paeron, First of Mayene, Blessed of the Light, Defender of the Waves, High Seat of House Paeron.” With a bow to the pair of them, he shifted his reins and raised the other hand toward the Seanchan. “I give you Banner-General Tylee Khirgan of the Ever Victorious Army, in service to the Empress of Seanchan. I give you Captain Bakayar Mishima of the Ever Victorious Army, in service to the Empress of Seanchan.” Another bow, and Tallanvor turned his gray to ride back to a place beside the banners. His face was as grim as Aram’s, but he smelled of hope.

“I’m glad he didn’t name you the Wolf King, my Lord,” the Banner-General drawled. The way she slurred her words, Perrin had to listen hard to make out what she was saying. “Otherwise, I’d think Tarmon Gai’don was on us. You know the Prophecies of the Dragon? ‘When the Wolf King carries the hammer, thus are the final days known. When the fox marries the raven, and the trumpets of battle are blown.’ I never understood that second line, myself. And you, my Lady. Sur Paendrag. That would mean from Paendrag?”

“My family is descended from Artur Paendrag Tanreall,” Berelain replied, holding her head high. An eddy in the breeze brought a whiff of pride among the patience and perfume. They had agreed that Perrin was to do all of the talking—she was there to dazzle the Seanchan with a beautiful young ruler, or at least to lend weight to Perrin with it—but he supposed she had to answer a direct question.

Tylee nodded as though that were exactly the answer she expected. “That makes you a distant cousin of the Imperial family, my Lady. No doubt the Empress, may she live forever, will honor you. So long as you make no claims to Hawkwing’s empire yourself, anyway.”

“The only claim I make is to Mayene,” Berelain said proudly. “And that I will defend to my last breath.”

“I didn’t come here to talk about the Prophecies or Hawkwing or your Empress,” Perrin said irritably. For the second time in a matter of moments those colors tried to coalesce in his head only to be dispelled. He had no time. The Wolf King? Hopper would come as near to laughing as a wolf could over that. Any wolf would. Still, he felt a chill. He had not realized that he was mentioned in the Prophecies. And his hammer was a harbinger of the Last Battle? But nothing mattered except Faile. Only her. And whatever it took to free her. “The agreement for this meeting was no more than thirty in either party, but you have men in the woods on both sides of us. A lot of men.”

“So do you,” Mishima said with grin distorted by a white scar that met the corner of his mouth, “or you wouldn’t know about ours.” His drawl was worse than hers.

Perrin kept his eyes on the Banner-General. “As long as they both remain, there’s the chance of accidents. I don’t want any accidents. I want my wife back from the Shaido.”

“And how do you propose we avoid accidents?” Mishima said, idly flipping his reins. He sounded as though the question was not urgent. It seemed Tylee was content to let him do the talking while she observed Perrin’s reactions. “Are we supposed to trust you if we send our men out first, or you to trust us if we ask you to withdraw first? ‘On the heights, the paths are paved with daggers.’ There isn’t much room for trust. I suppose we could both order our men to pull back at the same time, but one side might cheat.”

Perrin shook his head. “You’re going to have to trust me, Banner-General. I have no reason to want to attack you or capture you, and every reason not to. I can’t be sure of the same about you. You might think capturing the First of Mayene worth a little betrayal.” Berelain laughed softly. It was time for the branch. Not just to force the Seanchan out of the woods first, but to convince them that they needed what he could offer. He stood the branch upright on the saddle in front of him. “I expect your men are probably good soldiers. My men aren’t soldiers, though they’ve fought Trollocs and Shaido and done well against both.” Gripping the branch at its base, he held it high overhead, the shaved sides uppermost and facing either side. “But they’re used to hunting lions and leopards and ridgecats come down out of the mountains after our flocks, and wild boar and bear, animals that hunt back, in forests not much different from this.”

The branch tried to twist violently in his gauntleted fist as twin impacts not a heartbeat apart shivered down his arm. He lowered the branch to display two pile arrows, their chisel-shaped heads driven clear of the tough wood on either side. Three hundred paces was a long range for that target, but he had chosen Jondyn Barran and Jori Congar to make the shots. They were the best he had. “If it comes down to it, your men won’t even see who’s killing them, and that armor won’t do much good against a Two Rivers longbow. I hope it doesn’t come to that.” With all of his strength, he heaved the branch up into the air.

“My eyes!” Mishima growled, a hand going to his sword even as he tried to rein the roan back and watch Perrin and the branch all at the same time. His helmet toppled from his saddle to the grass.

The Banner-General made no move toward her sword, though she also tried watching Perrin and the branch. At first she did. Then her gaze followed only the branch as it continued to climb until it hung centered between them a hundred feet in the air. Abruptly a ball of flame enveloped the branch, so fierce that Perrin felt the heat as from an open furnace. Berelain put up a hand to shield her face. Tylee merely watched thoughtfully.

The fire lasted just moments, yet that was enough to leave only ash drifting on the breeze when it vanished. Ash and two plummeting specks that fell into the dry grass. Small flames shot up immediately and began growing, spreading. Even the warhorses snorted in fear. Berelain’s mare danced in an attempt to fight her reins and flee.

Perrin muttered a curse—he should have thought of the arrowheads—and started to dismount to stamp out the fire, but before he could swing his leg over the saddle, the flames vanished, leaving only thin tendrils of smoke rising from a patch of blackened grass.

“Good Norie,” the sul’dam murmured, patting the damane. “Norie is a wonderful damane.” The gray-clad woman smiled shyly at the praise. Despite her words, the sul’dam looked worried.

“So,” Tylee said, “you have a marath—” She paused, pursing her lips. “You have an Aes Sedai with you. More than one? No matter. I can’t say the Aes Sedai I’ve seen have impressed me very much.”

“Not marath’damane, my general,” the sul’dam said quietly.

Tylee sat very still, studying Perrin intently. “Asha’man,” she said at last, not a question. “You begin to interest me, my Lord.”

“Then maybe one last thing will convince you,” Perrin said. “Tod, roll that banner around the staff and bring it here.” Hearing nothing behind him, he looked over his shoulder. Tod was staring at him with a stricken look. “Tod.”

Giving himself a shake, Tod began winding the Red Eagle around its staff. He still looked unhappy when he rode forward and handed it to Perrin, though. He sat there with his hand still stretched out as though hoping the staff might be returned to him.

Heeling Stepper toward the Seanchan, Perrin held the banner in front of him in his fist, parallel to the ground. “The Two Rivers was the heart of Manetheren, Banner-General. The last King of Manetheren died in a battle right where Emond’s Field, the village I was born in, grew up. Manetheren is in our blood. But the Shaido have my wife prisoner. To free her, I’ll give up any claim to reviving Manetheren, sign any sort of oath on it you want. That claim would be a field of brambles for you Seanchan. You could be the one who cleared that field without a drop of blood shed.” Behind him, someone groaned miserably. He thought it was Tod.

Suddenly, the breeze was a gale howling in the opposite direction, pelting them with grit, blowing so hard that he had to cling to his saddle to keep from being knocked out of it. His coat seemed on the point of being ripped from his body. Where had the grit come from? The forest was carpeted inches deep with dead leaves. The tempest stank of burned sulphur, too, sharp enough to burn Perrin’s nose. The horses tossed their heads, mouths open, but the roar of the wind buried their frightened whinnies.

Only moments the ferocious wind lasted, and then as suddenly as it came, it was gone, leaving only the breeze blowing the other way. The horses stood shivering, snorting and tossing their heads and rolling their eyes. Perrin patted Stepper’s neck and murmured soothing sounds, yet it had little effect.

The Banner-General made a strange gesture and muttered, “Avert the Shadow. Where under the Light did that come from? I’ve heard tales of strange things happening. Or was it more ‘convincing’ on your part, my Lord?”

“No,” Perrin said truthfully. Neald possessed abilities with weather, it had turned out, but not Grady. “What does it matter where it came from?”

Tylee looked at him thoughtfully, then nodded. “What does it matter?” she said, sounding as if she did not necessarily agree with him. “We have stories about Manetheren. That would be brambles underfoot and no boots. Half of Amadicia is buzzing with talk of you and that banner, come to bring Manetheren alive again and ‘save’ Amadicia from us. Mishima, sound withdrawal.” Without hesitation, the yellow-haired man raised a small, straight horn that was hanging by a red cord around his neck. Blowing four shrill notes, he repeated the sequence twice before letting the horn fall to swing against his chest. “My part is done,” Tylee said.

Perrin put back his head and shouted as loudly and distinctly as he could. “Dannil! Tell! When the last Seanchan moves below the end of the meadow, gather everyone and join Grady!”

The Banner-General stuck her little finger into her ear and wiggled it about in spite of her gauntlet. “You have a strong voice,” she said dryly. Only then did she reach out to take the banner-staff, laying it carefully across the saddle in front of her. She did not look at it again, but one hand stroked the banner itself, perhaps unconsciously. “Now what do you have that can aid my plan, my Lord?” Mishima hooked an ankle behind the tall pommel of his saddle and lowered himself to catch up his helmet. The wind had rolled it across the beaten-down grass halfway back to the line of Seanchan soldiers. From the trees came a brief snatch of larksong, then another, another. The Seanchan were withdrawing. Had they felt the wind, too? No matter.

“Not near as many men as you already have,” Perrin admitted, “not that are trained soldiers, at least, but I have Asha’man and Aes Sedai and Wise Ones who can channel, and you’ll need every one of them.” She opened her mouth, and he raised a hand. “I’ll want your word that you won’t try putting collars on them.” He glanced pointedly at the sul’dam and damane. The sul’dam was keeping her eyes on Tylee, awaiting orders, but at the same time she was idly stroking the other woman’s hair the way you might stroke a cat to soothe it. And Norie looked to be almost purring! Light! “Your word that they’re safe from you, them and anyone in the camp wearing a white robe. Most of those aren’t Shaido anyway, and the only Aiel among them I know about are friends of mine.”

Tylee shook her head. “You have strange friends, my Lord. In any case, we’ve found people from Cairhien and Amadicia with bands of Shaido and let them go, though most of the Cairhienin seem too disoriented to know what to do with themselves. The only ones in white we keep are the Aiel. These gai’shain make marvelous da’covale, unlike the rest. Still, I’ll agree to letting your friends go free. And your Aes Sedai and Asha’man. Putting an end to this gathering is very important. Tell me where they are, and I can start incorporating you into my plans.”

Perrin rubbed the side of his nose with a finger. It seemed unlikely many of those gai’shain were Shaido, but he was not about to tell her that. Let them have their chance at freedom when their year and a day was up. “It’ll have to be my plan, I’m afraid. Sevanna will be a tough nut to crack, but I’ve worked out how. For one thing, she has maybe a hundred thousand Shaido with her, and she’s gathering in more. Not every one is algai’d’siswai, but any adult will pick up a spear if they need to.”

“Sevanna.” Tylee gave a pleased smile. “We’ve heard that name. I would dearly love to present Sevanna of the Jumai Shaido to the Captain-General.” Her smile faded. “A hundred thousand is many more than I expected, but not more than I can handle. We’ve fought these Aiel before, in Amadicia. Eh, Mishima?”

Riding back to join them, Mishima laughed, but it was a harsh sound, no amusement in it. “That we have, Banner-General. They’re fierce fighters, disciplined and crafty, but they can be handled. You surround one of their bands, their septs, with three or four damane and pound them till they give up. It’s a nasty business. They have their families with them. But they surrender the sooner for it.”

“I understand you have a dozen or so damane,” Perrin said, “but is that enough to face three or four hundred Wise Ones channeling?”

The Banner-General frowned. “You mentioned that before, Wise Ones channeling. Every band we’ve caught had its Wise Ones, but not one of them could channel.”

“That’s because all the Shaido have are with Sevanna,” Perrin replied. “At least three hundred and maybe four. The Wise Ones with me are sure of it.”

Tylee and Mishima exchanged a look, and the Banner-General sighed. Mishima looked glum. “Well,” she said, “orders or no orders, that puts an end to finishing this quietly. The Daughter of the Nine Moons will have to be disturbed if I must apologize for it to the Empress, may she live forever. Likely I will.” The Daughter of the Nine Moons? Some high-ranking Seanchan, apparently. But how was she supposed to be disturbed by any of this?

Mishima grimaced, a fearsome sight with all those scars crisscrossing his face. “I read there were four hundred damane on each side at Semalaren, and that was a slaughterhouse. Half the Imperial army on the field dead and better than three out of four among the rebels.”

“Nevertheless, Mishima, we have it to do. Or rather, someone else does. You might escape an apology, but I won’t.” What under the Light was so upsetting about an apology? The woman smelled ... resigned. “Unfortunately, it will take weeks if not months to gather enough soldiers and damane to prick this boil. I thank you for your offer of help, my Lord. It will be remembered.” Tylee held out the banner. “You’ll want this back since I can’t deliver my side of the bargain, but a piece of advice. The Ever Victorious Army may have other tasks in front of it for the nonce, but we won’t let anyone take momentary advantage of the situation to set himself up as a king. We mean to reclaim this land, not divide it into parcels.”

“And we mean to keep our lands,” Berelain said fiercely, making her mare lunge across the few paces of dead grass between her and the Seanchan. The mare was eager to lunge, eager to run, away from that wind, and she had trouble reining the animal in. Even her scent was fierce. No patience now. She smelled like a she-wolf defending her injured mate. “I’ve heard that your Ever Victorious Army is misnamed. I’ve heard the Dragon Reborn defeated you soundly to the south. Don’t you ever think that Perrin Aybara can’t do the same.” Light, and he had been worried over Aram’s hotheadedness!

“I don’t want to defeat anybody except the Shaido,” Perrin said firmly, fighting off the image that tried to form in his mind. He folded his hands on the pommel of his saddle. Stepper seemed to be settling down, at least. The stallion still gave small shivers now and then, but he had stopped rolling his eyes. “There’s a way to do that and still keep everything quiet so you don’t need to apologize.” If that was important to her, he was ready to use it. “The Daughter of the Nine Moons can rest easy. I told you I had this planned out. Tallanvor told me you have some kind of tea that makes a woman who can channel go wobbly in the knees.”

After a moment, Tylee lowered the banner back to her saddle and sat studying him. “A woman or a man,” she drawled at last. “I’ve heard of several men being caught that way. But just how do you propose feeding it to these four hundred women when they’re surrounded by a hundred thousand Aiel?”

“By feeding it to all of them without letting them know they’re drinking it. I’ll need as much as I can get, though. Wagonloads, probably. There’s no way to heat the water, you see, so it’ll be thin tea.”

Tylee laughed softly. “A bold plan, my Lord. I suppose they might have cartloads at the manufactory where the tea’s made, but that’s a long way from here, in Amadicia almost to Tarabon, and the only way I could get more than a few pounds at once would be to tell someone of higher rank why I wanted it. And there’s the end of keeping it quiet all over again.”

“The Asha’man know a thing called Traveling,” Perrin told her, “a way to cross hundreds of miles in a step. And as for getting the tea, maybe this will help.” From his left gauntlet he pulled a folded, grease-stained piece of paper.

Tylee’s eyebrows rose as she read it. Perrin had the short text by heart. 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. He had no idea who Suroth Sabelle Meldarath was, but if she signed her name to something like that, she had to be important. Maybe she was this Daughter of the Nine Moons.

Handing the paper to Mishima, the Banner-General stared at Perrin. That sharp, hard scent was back, stronger than ever. “Aes Sedai, Asha’man, Aiel, your eyes, that hammer, now this! Who are you?”

Mishima whistled through his teeth. “Suroth herself,” he murmured.

“I’m a man who wants his wife back,” Perrin said, “and I’ll deal with the Dark One to get her.” He avoided looking at the sul’dam and damane. He was not far short of making a deal with the Dark One. “Do we have a bargain?”

Tylee looked at his outstretched hand, then took it. She had a firm grip. A deal with the Dark One. But he would do whatever it took to get Faile free.

Something... Strange

The drumbeat of rain on the tent roof that had lasted through most of the night faded to something softer as Faile approached Sevanna’s chair, a heavily carved and gilded throne placed in the center of the bright, layered carpets that made up the tent’s floor, with her eyes carefully lowered, to avoid offense. Spring had arrived in a rush, but the braziers were unlit, and the morning air held a touch of chill. Curtsying deeply, she presented the ropework silver tray. The Aiel woman took the golden goblet of wine and drank without so much as a glance in her direction, but she gave another deep curtsy before backing away and setting the tray down on the brass-bound blue chest that already held a tall-necked silver wine pitcher and three more goblets, then returned to her place with the other eleven gai’shain present, standing between the mirrored stand-lamps along the red silk tent wall. It was a spacious tent, and tall. No low Aiel tent for Sevanna.

Often it was hard to see her as Aiel at all. This morning, she lounged in a red brocaded silk robe, tied so it gaped nearly to her waist and exposed half her considerable bosom, though she wore enough jeweled necklaces, emeralds and firedrops and opals, ropes of fat pearls, that she came near to being decent. The Aiel did not wear rings, yet Sevanna had at least one be-gemmed ring on every finger. The thick band of gold and firedrops worn over the folded blue silk scarf that held back her waist-long yellow hair had taken on the aspect of a coronet if not a crown. There was nothing Aiel in that.

Faile and the others, six women and five men, had been wakened in the night to stand beside Sevanna’s bed—a pair of feather mattresses laid one atop the other—in case the woman woke and wanted something. Was any ruler in the world attended by a dozen servants while she slept? She fought the urge to yawn. Many things might earn punishment, but yawning surely would. Gai’shain were supposed to be meek and eager to please, and it seemed that that meant obsequious to the point of groveling. Bain and Chiad, fierce as they were otherwise, seemed to find it easy. Faile did not. In the near month since she was stripped and tied up like a blacksmith’s puzzle for hiding a knife, she had been switched nine times for trivial offenses that were serious in Sevanna’s eyes. Her last set of welts had not faded completely yet, and she had no intention of earning another set through carelessness.

She hoped that Sevanna thought her tamed by that night trussed up in the cold. Only Rolan and his braziers had saved her life. She hoped that she was not being tamed. Pretend something too long, and it could become truth. She had been a prisoner less than two months, yet she could no longer recall exactly how many days ago she was captured. At times it seemed she had been in white robes for a year or more. Sometimes the wide belt and collar of flat golden links felt natural. That frightened her. She clung hard to hope. She would escape soon. She had to. Before Perrin caught up and tried to rescue her. Why had he not caught up yet? The Shaido had been camped at Malden for a long time, now. He would not have abandoned her. Her wolf would be coming to rescue her. She had to escape before he got himself killed in the attempt. Before she was no longer pretending.

“How long are you going to keep punishing Galina Sedai, Therava?” Sevanna demanded, frowning at the Aes Sedai. Therava was seated cross-legged in front of her on a tasseled blue cushion, straight-backed and stern. “Last night, she made my bath water too hot, and she is so welted, I had to order the soles of her feet beaten. That is not very effective when she must be left able to walk.”

Faile had been avoiding looking at Galina ever since Therava brought her into the tent, but her eyes went to the woman of their own accord at mention of her name. Galina was kneeling erect halfway between the two Aiel women and slightly to one side, mottled brown bruises on her cheeks, her skin damp and slick from the heavy rain she had been walked through to get there, her feet and ankles muddy. She wore only her firedrop-studded golden collar and belt, and seemed more naked than naked. Just a stubble remained of her hair and eyebrows. Every hair from head to toe had been singed from her with the One Power. Faile had heard it described, along with how the Aes Sedai had been hung from her ankles for her first beating. That had been half the talk among the gai’shain for days. Only the handful who recognized her ageless face for what it was still believed that she was Aes Sedai, and some of those had the same doubts that had plagued Faile on finding an Aes Sedai among the gai’shain. After all, she possessed the face, and the ring, but why would an Aes Sedai let Therava treat her so? Faile asked herself that question often without arriving at any answer. She kept telling herself that Aes Sedai often did what they did for reasons no one else could understand, but that was not very satisfying.

Whatever her reasons for tolerating such abuse, Galina’s eyes were wide and frightened, now, and fixed on Therava. She was panting so hard that her breasts heaved. She had reason for fear. Anyone passing Therava’s tent was likely to hear Galina howling for mercy inside. For more than half a week Faile had gotten glimpses of the Aes Sedai on some errand, hairless and garbed as she was now and running as hard as she could with panic painting her face, and every day Therava added to the bands of welts that striped Galina from her shoulders to the backs of her knees. Whenever one band began to heal, Therava refreshed it. Faile had heard Shaido mutter that Galina was being treated too harshly, but no one was about to interfere with a Wise One.

Therava, nearly as tall as most Aiel men, adjusted her dark shawl in a rattle of gold and ivory bracelets and regarded Galina like a blue-eyed eagle regarding a mouse. Her necklaces, also gold and ivory, seemed plain compared to Sevanna’s opulence, her dark woolen skirts and white algode blouse drab, yet of the two women, Faile feared Therava far more than she did Sevanna. Sevanna might have her punished for a stumble, but Therava could kill her or crush her for a whim. She surely would if Faile attempted escape and failed. “So long as the faintest bruise remains on her face, the rest of her will be bruised as well. I have left the front of her unmarked so she can be punished for other misdeeds.” Galina began trembling. Silent tears leaked down her cheeks.

Faile averted her gaze. It was painful to watch. Even if she managed to get the rod from Therava’s tent, could the Aes Sedai still be of help in escape? She gave every sign of being completely broken. That was a harsh thought, but a prisoner needed to be practical above all else. Would Galina betray her to try buying her way out of the beatings? She had threatened to betray her, if Faile failed to obtain the rod. It was Sevanna who would be interested in Perrin Aybara’s wife, yet Galina looked desperate enough to try anything. Faile prayed for the woman to find strength to hold out. Of course she was planning an escape on her own, in case Galina could not keep her promise to take them with her when she left, but it would be so much easier, so much safer for everyone, if she could do it. Oh, Light, why had Perrin not caught up yet? No! She had to keep her focus.

“She is not very impressive like that,” Sevanna muttered, frowning into her goblet, now. “Even that ring cannot make her look like an Aes Sedai.” She shook her head irritably. For some reason Faile did not understand, it was very important to Sevanna that everyone know that Galina was a sister. She had even taken to giving her the honorific. “Why are you here so early, Therava? I have not even eaten, yet. Will you take some wine?”

“Water,” Therava said firmly. “As for it being early, the sun is almost over the horizon. I broke fast before it rose. You grow as indolent as a wetlander, Sevanna.”

Lusara, a buxom Domani gai’shain, quickly filled a goblet from the silver water pitcher. Sevanna seemed amused by the Wise Ones’ insistence on drinking only water, yet she provided it for them. Anything else would have been an insult even she would want to avoid. The copper-skinned Domani had been a merchant, and well into her middle years, but a few white hairs among the black falling below her shoulders had not been enough to save her. She was stunningly beautiful, and Sevanna gathered the rich, the powerful and the beautiful, simply taking them if they were gai’shain to someone else. There were so many gai’shain that few complained at having one taken. Lusara curtsied gracefully and bowed to present her tray to Therava on her cushion, all very proper, but on the way back to her place against the wall, she smiled at Faile. Worse, it was a conspiratorial smile.

Faile suppressed a sigh. Her last switching had been for a sigh at the wrong moment. Lusara was one of those who had sworn fealty to her in the past two weeks. After Aravine, Faile had tried to choose carefully, but rejecting someone who asked to swear was creating a possible betrayer, so she had far too many adherents, a good number of whom she was unsure of. She was beginning to believe that Lusara was trustworthy, or at least that she would not intentionally betray her, but the woman treated their escape plans like a child’s game, without cost if they lost. It seemed she had treated merchanting in the same way, making and losing several fortunes, but Faile would have no chance to start over if they lost. Nor would Alliandre or Maighdin. Or Lusara. Among Sevanna’s gai’shain, those who actually attempted escape were kept chained when not serving her or performing tasks.

Therava took a swallow of water, then set the goblet down on the flowered carpet beside her and fixed Sevanna with a steely gaze. “The Wise Ones believe it is past time for us to move north and east. We can find easily defended valleys in the mountains there, and we can reach them in less than two weeks even slowed as we are by the gai’shain. This place is open on every side, and our raids to find food must go further and further.”

Sevanna’s green eyes met that stare without blinking, which Faile doubted she herself could have done. It nettled Sevanna when the other Wise Ones met without her, and frequently she took it out on her gai’shain, but she smiled and took a sip of wine before replying in patient tones, as though explaining to someone not quite bright enough to understand. “Here, there is good soil for planting, and we have their seed to add to our own. Who knows what the soil is like in the mountains? Our raids bring in cattle and sheep and goats, too. Here, there are good pastures. What pasturage do you know of in these mountains, Therava? Here, we have more water than any clan has ever had. Do you know where the water is in the mountains? As to defending ourselves, who will come against us? These wetlanders run from our spears.”

“Not all run,” Therava said drily. “Some are even good at dancing the spears. And what if Rand al’Thor sends one of the other clans against us? We would never know until the horns closed in on us.” Suddenly she smiled, too, a smile that never reached her eyes. “Some say your plan is to be captured and made gai’shain to Rand al’Thor so you can induce him to marry you. An amusing idea, you agree?”

Despite herself, Faile flinched. Sevanna’s mad intention to marry al’Thor—she had to be mad to think she could!—was what put Faile in danger from Galina. If the Aiel woman did not know that Perrin was linked to al’Thor, Galina could tell her. Would tell her if she could not get her hands on that cursed rod. Sevanna would take no chances on losing her then. She would be chained as certainly as if caught trying to escape.

Sevanna looked anything except amused. Eyes glittering, she leaned forward, her robe gaping to expose her bosom completely. “Who says this? Who?” Therava picked up her goblet and took another swallow of water. Realizing she would get no answer, Sevanna leaned back, and rearranged her robe. Her eyes still glittered like polished emeralds, though, and there was nothing casual in her words. They came out as hard as her eyes. “I will marry Rand al’Thor, Therava. I almost had him, until you and the other Wise Ones failed me. I will marry him, unite the clans, and conquer all of the wetlands!”

Therava sneered over her goblet. “Couladin was the Car’a’carn, Sevanna. I have not found the Wise Ones who gave him permission to go to Rhuidean, but I will. Rand al’Thor is a creature of the Aes Sedai. They told him what to say at Alcair Dal, and a black day it was when he revealed secrets few are strong enough to know. Be grateful that most believe he lied. But I forget. You have never gone to Rhuidean. You believed his secrets lies yourself.”

Gai’shain began entering past the tentflap, their white robes rain-damp, holding their hems knee-high until they were inside. Each wore the golden collar and belt. Their soft white laced boots left muddy marks on the carpets. Later, when those had dried, they would have to clean them away, but getting visible mud on your robes was a sure path to the switch. Sevanna wanted her gai’shain spotless when they were around her. Neither Aiel woman paid the slightest attention to the arrivals.

Sevanna seemed taken aback by what Therava had said. “Why do you care who gave Couladin permission? No matter,” she said, waving a hand as though brushing away a fly, when she got no reply. “Couladin is dead. Rand al’Thor has the markings, however he got them. I will marry him, and I will make use of him. If the Aes Sedai could control him, and I saw them handling him like a babe, then I can. With a little help from you. And you will help. You agree that uniting the clans is worth doing no matter how it is done? You did once.” Somehow, there was more than a hint of threat in that. “We Shaido will become the most powerful of the clans in one leap.”

Lowering their cowls, the new gai’shain filed wordlessly along the tent walls, nine men and three women, one of them Maighdin. The sun-haired woman wore a grim expression that had been on her face since the day Therava had discovered her in the Wise One’s tent. Whatever Therava had done, all Maighdin would say of it was that she wanted to kill the other woman. Sometimes she whimpered in her sleep, though.

Therava kept whatever she thought about uniting the clans to herself. “There is much feeling against staying here. Many of the sept chiefs press the red disc on their nar’baha every morning. I advise you to heed the Wise Ones.”

Nar’baha? That would mean “box of fools,” or something very near. But what could this be? Bain and Chiad were still teaching her about Aiel ways, when they could find time, and they had never mentioned any such thing. Maighdin stopped beside Lusara. A slender Cairhienin nobleman named Doirmanes stopped beside Faile. He was young and very pretty, but he bit his lip nervously. If he learned about the oaths of fealty, he would have to be killed. She was certain he would run to Sevanna in a heartbeat.

“We remain here,” Sevanna said angrily, flinging her goblet to the carpets in a spray of wine. “I speak for the clan chief, and I have spoken!”

“You have spoken,” Therava agreed calmly. “Bendhuin, sept chief of the Green Salts, has received permission to go to Rhuidean. He left five days ago with twenty of his algai’d’siswai and four Wise Ones to stand witness.”

Not until one of the new gai’shain stood beside each of those already there did Faile and the others raise their cowls and begin filing along the walls toward the doorflap, already gathering their robes to the knee. She had become quite sanguine about exposing her legs so.

“He seeks to replace me, and I was not even informed?”

“Not you, Sevanna. Couladin. As his widow, you speak for the clan chief until a new chief returns from Rhuidean, but you are not the clan chief.”

Faile stepped out into the cold, gray morning drizzle, and the tentflap cut off whatever Sevanna said to that. What was going on between the two women? Sometimes, as this morning, they seemed antagonists, but at others they seemed reluctant conspirators bound together by something that gave neither any comfort. Or perhaps it was the being bound together itself that made them uncomfortable. Well, she could not see how knowing would help her escape, so it did not really matter. But the puzzle nagged at her.

Six Maidens stood clustered in front of the tent, veils hanging down onto their chests, spears thrust up through the harness of the bow cases on their backs. Bain and Chiad were contemptuous of Sevanna for using Maidens of the Spear for her guard of honor though she herself had never been a Maiden, and for having her tent always guarded, but there were never fewer than six, night or day. Those two were contemptuous of the Shaido Maidens for allowing it, too. Neither being a clan chief nor speaking for one gave you as much power as most nobles possessed. These Maidens’ hands were flashing in a rapid conversation. She caught the sign for Car’a’carn several times, but not sufficient else to make out what they were saying, or whether about al’Thor or Couladin.

Standing there long enough to find out, if she could find out, was beyond the question. With the others already hurrying away down the muddy street, the Maidens would become suspicious, for one thing, and then they might switch her themselves, or worse, use her own bootlaces. She had had a hard dose of that from some Maidens, for having “insolent eyes,” and she did not want another. Especially when it meant baring herself in public. Being Sevanna’s gai’shain gave no protection. Any Shaido could discipline any gai’shain they thought was behaving improperly. Even a child could, if the child was set to watch you carry out a chore. For another thing, the cold rain, light as it was, was going to soak through her woolen robes soon enough. She had only a short walk back to her tent, no more than a quarter of a mile, but she would not complete it without being stopped for a time.

A yawn cracked her jaw as she turned from the large red tent. She very much wanted her blankets and a few more hours’ sleep. There would be more chores come afternoon. What they might be, she did not know. Matters would be much simpler if Sevanna settled on who she wanted to do what when, but she seemed to choose names at random, and always at the last minute. It made planning anything, much less the escape, very difficult.

All sorts of tents surrounded Sevanna’s, low, dark Aiel tents, peaked tents, walled tents, tents of every sort and size in every color imaginable, separated by a tangle of dirt streets that were now rivers of mud. Lacking enough of their own, the Shaido snatched up every tent they could find. Fourteen septs were camped in a sprawl around Malden now, a hundred thousand Shaido and as many gai’shain, and rumor said two more septs, the Morai and the White Cliff, would arrive within days. Aside from small children splashing through the mud with romping dogs, most of the people she could see as she walked wore mud-stained white and were carrying baskets or bulging sacks. Most of the women did not hurry; they ran. Except for the blacksmiths, the Shaido seldom did any work themselves, and generally only out of boredom, she suspected. With so many gai’shain, finding chores for them all was itself a chore. Sevanna was no longer the only Shaido to actually sit in a bathtub with a gai’shain scrubbing her back. None of the Wise Ones had gone that far yet, but some of the others would not stir themselves two paces to pick something up when they could tell a gai’shain to fetch it.

She was almost to the gai’shain portion of the camp, hard against the gray stone walls of Malden, when she saw a Wise One striding toward her with her dark shawl wrapped around her head against the rain. Faile did not stop, but she bent her knees a little. Meira was not so frightening as Therava, but the grim-faced woman was hard enough, and shorter than Faile. Her narrow mouth always grew even tighter when she was confronted with a woman taller than she. Faile would have thought that learning her own sept, the White Cliff, would be there soon, would brighten the woman’s mood, but the news had had no discernable effect at all.

“So you were just lagging,” Meira said as she came close. Her eyes were as hard as the sapphires they resembled. “I left Rhiale listening to the others because I feared some drunken fool had pulled you into a tent.” She glared around her as though looking for a drunken fool about to do just that.

“No one accosted me, Wise One,” Faile said quickly. Several had in the last few weeks, some drunk and some not, but Rolan always appeared in the nick of time. Twice the big Mera’din had had to fight to save her, and once he had killed the other man. She had expected nine kinds of uproar and trouble, but the Wise Ones judged it a fair fight, and Rolan said her name had never been mentioned. For all that Bain and Chiad insisted it went against all custom, assault was a constant danger for gai’shain women here. She was sure that Alliandre had been assaulted once, before she and Maighdin also acquired Mera’din shadows. Rolan denied having asked them to help her people. He said they were just bored and looking for something to do. “I’m very sorry I was slow.”

“Do not cringe. I am not Therava. I will not beat you for the pleasure of it.” Words said in tones hard enough for a headsman. Meira might not beat people for pleasure, but Faile knew for a fact that she had a strong arm swinging a switch. “Now tell me what Sevanna said and did. This water falling from the sky may be a wondrous thing, but it is miserable to walk around in.”

Obeying the command was easy. Sevanna had not wakened during the night, and once she did rise, all her talk had been of what clothes and jewels she would wear, especially the jewels. Her jewelry chest had been made to hold clothing, and it was filled to the top with more gems than most queens possessed. Before putting on any garment at all, Sevanna had spent time trying on different combinations of necklaces and rings and studying herself in the gilt-framed stand-mirror. It had been very embarrassing. For Faile.

She had just reached Therava’s arrival with Galina when everything in front of her eyes rippled. She rippled! It was not imagination. Meira’s blue eyes widened as far as they could go; she had felt it, too. Again everything rippled, including herself, harder than before. In shock, Faile stood up straight and let go of her robe. A third time the world rippled, harder still, and as it passed through her, she felt as if she might blow away in a breeze, or simply dissipate in a mist.

Breathing hard, she waited for the fourth ripple, the one she knew would destroy her and everything else. When it did not come, she expelled every bit of air in her lungs from relief. “What just happened, Wise One? What was that?”

Meira touched her own arm and looked faintly surprised that her hand did not pass through flesh and bone. “I ... do not know,” she said slowly. Giving herself a shake, she added, “Go on about your business, girl.” She gathered her skirts and strode past Faile at little short of a trot, splashing mud as she went.

The children had vanished from the street, but Faile could hear them wailing inside the tents. Abandoned dogs shivered and whined, tails tucked between their legs. People in the street were touching themselves, touching each other, Shaido and gai’shain alike. Faile clasped her hands together. Of course she was solid. She had only felt as though she were turning to mist. Of course. Hoisting her robes to avoid any more washing than she absolutely had to do, she began to walk. And then to run, careless of how much mud she splashed onto herself or anyone else. She knew there could be no running from another of those ripples. But she ran anyway, as fast as her legs could carry her.

The gai’shain tents made a broad ring around Malden’s high granite walls, and they were as varied as the tents in the outer part of the encampment, though most were small. Her own peaked tent could have slept two uncomfortably; it housed herself and three others, Alliandre, Maighdin and a former Cairhienin noblewoman named Dairaine, one of those who curried favor with Sevanna by carrying tales about the other gai’shain. That complicated matters, but there was no mending it short of killing the woman, and Faile would not countenance that. Not unless Dairaine became a real threat. They slept huddled together like puppies of necessity, glad of the shared body warmth on cold nights.

The interior of the low tent was dim when she ducked inside. Lamp oil and candles were in short supply, and not wasted on gai’shain. Only Alliandre was there, lying facedown on her blankets in her collar with a damp cloth, dipped in an herbal infusion, over her bruised bottom. At least the Wise Ones were as willing to give their healing herbs to gai’shain as to Shaido. Alliandre had done nothing wrong, but had been named as one of the five who had pleased Sevanna least yesterday. Unlike some, she had done quite well while being punished—Doirmanes had begun weeping even before he was bent over the chest—but she seemed to be among those chosen out every three or four days. Being a queen did not teach you how to serve a queen. But then, Maighdin was picked nearly as often, and she was a lady’s maid, if not a very skilled one. Faile herself had only been chosen once.

It was a measure of how Alliandre’s spirits had fallen that she made no move to cover herself, only raised up on her elbows. Still, she had combed her long hair. If she failed to do that, Faile would know the woman had reached bottom. “Did anything ... strange ... happen to you just now, my Lady?” she asked, fear strong in her unsteady voice.

“It did,” Faile said, standing crouched under the ridgepole. “I don’t know what it was. Meira doesn’t know what it was. I doubt any of the Wise Ones do. But it didn’t harm us.” Of course it had not harmed them. Of course not. “And it changes nothing in our plans.” Yawning, she unfastened the wide golden belt and dropped it on her blankets, then grasped her outer robe to pull it over her head.

Alliandre put her head down on her hands and began weeping quietly. “We’ll never escape. I’m going to be beaten again tonight. I know it. I’m going to be beaten every day for the rest of my life.”

With a sigh, Faile left her outer robe where it was and knelt to stroke her liege woman’s hair. There were as many responsibilities down as up. “I have those same fears now and then,” she admitted softly. “But I refuse to let them take control. I will escape. We will escape. You have to keep your courage, Alliandre. I know you’re brave. I know you’ve dealt with Masema and kept your nerve. You can keep it now, if you try.”

Aravine put her head in at the tentflap. She was a plain, plump woman, a noble Faile was sure, though she never claimed it, and despite the dimness Faile could see that she was beaming. She wore Sevanna’s belt and collar, too. “My Lady, Alvon and his son have something for you.”

“It will have to wait a few minutes,” Faile said. Alliandre had stopped crying, but she was just lying there, silent and still.

“My Lady, you won’t want to wait for this.”

Faile’s breath caught. Could it be possible? It seemed too much to hope for.

“I can keep my nerve,” Alliandre said, raising her head to gaze at Aravine. “If what Alvon has is what I hope it is, I’ll keep my nerve if Sevanna has me put to the question.”

Snatching up her belt—being seen outside without belt and collar both meant punishment almost as severe as for trying to run away—Faile hurried out of the tent. The drizzle had slackened to a misting rain, but she pulled up her cowl anyway. The rain was still cold.

Alvon was a stocky man, overtopped by his son Theril, a lanky boy. Both wore mud-stained, almost-white robes made of tentcloth. Theril, Alvon’s eldest, was only fourteen, but the Shaido had not believed it because of his height, as much as most men in Amadicia. Faile had been ready to trust Alvon from the start. He and his son were something of legends among the gai’shain. Three times they had run away, and each time it had taken the Shaido longer to bring them back. And despite increasingly fierce punishment, on the day they swore fealty they had been planning a fourth attempt to return to the rest of their family. Neither ever smiled that Faile had seen, but today, smiles wreathed Alvon’s weathered face and Theril’s skinny one alike.

“What do you have for me?” Faile asked, hastily fastening her belt around her waist. She thought her heart was going to pound its way out of her chest.

“It was my Theril, my Lady,” Alvon said. A woodcutter, he spoke with a coarse accent that made him barely intelligible. “He was just walking by, see, and there was nobody around, nobody at all, so he ducked in quick like, and ... Show the Lady, Theril.”

Shyly, Theril reached into his wide sleeve—the robes usually had pockets sewn in there—and drew out a smooth white rod that looked like ivory, about a foot long and as slim as her wrist.

Looking around to see if anyone was watching—the street was empty save for them, for the moment at least—Faile took it quickly and pushed it up her own sleeve to tuck into the pocket there. The pocket was just deep enough to keep it from falling out, but now that she had the thing in hand, she did not want to let go of it. It felt like glass, and was distinctly cool to the touch, cooler than the morning air. Perhaps it was an angreal or a ter’angreal. That would explain why Galina wanted it, if not why she had not taken it herself. Hand buried in her sleeve, Faile gripped the rod hard. Galina was no longer a threat. Now she was salvation.

“You understand, Alvon, that Galina may be unable to take you and your son with her when she leaves,” she said. “She has only promised that to me and those captured with me. But I promise you that I will find a way to free you and everyone who has sworn to me. All the rest, too, if I can, but those above all. Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth, I swear it.” How, she had no idea short of calling on her father for an army, but she would do it.

The woodcutter made as if to spit then glanced at her, and his face colored. He swallowed, instead. “That Galina ain’t going to help nobody, my Lady. Says she’s Aes Sedai and all, but she’s that Therava’s plaything if you ask me, and that Therava ain’t never going to let her go. Anyways, I know if we can get you free, you’ll come back for the rest of us. No need for you to swear and all that. You said you wanted the rod if anybody could lay hands on it without getting caught, and Theril got it for you, that’s all.”

“I want to be free,” Theril said suddenly, “but if we get anybody free, then we’ve beaten them.” He looked surprised that he had spoken, and blushed deep red. His father frowned at him, then nodded thoughtfully.

“Very well said,” Faile told the boy gently, “but I made my oath, and I stand by it. You and your father—” She cut off as Aravine, looking past her shoulder, laid a hand on her arm. The woman’s smile had been replaced by fright.

Turning her head, Faile saw Rolan standing beside her tent. A good two hands taller than Perrin, he wore his shoufa coiled around his neck with the black veil hanging down his broad chest. Rain slicked his face and made his short red hair cling to his scalp in curls. How long had he been there? Not long, or Aravine would have noticed him before. The tiny tent offered little concealment. Alvon and his son had their shoulders hunched, as if they were thinking about attacking the tall Mera’din. That was a very bad idea. Mice attacking a cat was not in it, as Perrin would have said.

“Go on about your duties, Alvon,” she said quickly. “You, too, Aravine. Go on, now.”

Aravine and Alvon had sense enough not to offer courtesies before leaving with final worried glances at Rolan, but Theril half raised a hand toward knuckling his forehead before catching himself. Blushing, he scurried away after his father.

Rolan came out from beside the tent to stand in front of her. Oddly, he had a small bunch of blue and yellow wildflowers in one hand. She was very conscious of the rod she was holding in her sleeve. Where was she to hide it? Once Therava discovered it missing, she likely would turn the camp upside down.

“You must be careful, Faile Bashere,” Rolan said, smiling down at her. Alliandre called him not quite pretty, but Faile had decided she was wrong. Those blue eyes and that smile made him very nearly beautiful. “What you are about is dangerous, and I may not be here to protect you much longer.”

“Dangerous?” She felt a chill in her middle. “What do you mean? Where are you going?” The thought of losing his protection made her stomach lurch. Few of the wetlander women had escaped the attentions of Shaido men. Without him...

“Some of us are thinking of returning to the Three-fold Land.” His smile faded. “We cannot follow a false Car’a’carn, and a wetlander at that, but perhaps we will be allowed to live out our lives in our own holds. We think on it. We have been a long time from home, and these Shaido sicken us.”

She would find a way to deal with it once he was gone. She would have to. Somehow. “And what am I doing that is dangerous?” She tried to make her voice light, but it was difficult. Light, what would happen to her without him?

“These Shaido are blind even when they are not drunk, Faile Bashere,” he replied calmly. Pushing her cowl back, he tucked one of the wildflowers into her hair above her left ear. “We Mera’din use our eyes.” Another wildflower went into her hair, on the other side. “You have made many new friends lately, and you are planning to escape with them. A bold plan, but dangerous.”

“And will you tell the Wise Ones, or Sevanna?” She was startled when that came out in an even tone. Her stomach was trying to tie itself into knots.

“Why would I do that?” he asked, adding another flower to her decorations. “Jhoradin thinks he will take Lacile Aldorwin back to the Three-fold Land with him even if she is a Treekiller. He believes he may convince her to make a bridal wreath to lay at his feet.” Lacile had found her own protector by climbing into the blankets of the Mera’din who had made her gai’shain, and Arrela had done the same with one of the Maidens who had captured her, but Faile doubted that Jhoradin would attain his wish. Both women were focused on escape like arrows aimed at a target. “And now that I think on it, I may take you with me if we go.”

Faile stared up at him. The rain was beginning to soak through her hair. “To the Waste? Rolan, I love my husband. I’ve told you that, and it is true.”

“I know,” he said, continuing to add flowers. “But for the moment, you still wear white, and what happens while you wear white is forgotten when you put it off. Your husband cannot hold it against you. Besides, if we go, when we come near to a wetlander town, I will let you go. I should never have made you gai’shain in the first place. That collar and belt hold enough gold to get you safely back to your husband.”

Her mouth fell open in shock. It surprised her when her fist struck his wide chest. Gai’shain were never allowed to offer violence, but the man just grinned at her. “You—!” She struck him again, harder. She beat at him. “You—! I can’t think of a word bad enough. You let me think you were going to abandon me to these Shaido while all along you were meaning to help me escape?”

Finally he caught her fist and held it easily with a hand that enveloped hers completely. “If we go, Faile Bashere,” he laughed. The man laughed! “It is not decided. Anyway, a man cannot let a woman think he is too eager.”

Again she surprised herself, this time by beginning to laugh and cry at the same time, so hard that she had to lean against him or fall down. That bloody Aiel sense of humor!

“You are very beautiful with flowers in your hair, Faile Bashere,” he murmured, tucking in another blossom. “Or without them. And for the moment, you still wear white.”

Light! She had the rod, leaning against her arm so coolly, but there was no way to give it to Galina until Therava let her walk around freely again, no way to be sure that the woman would not betray her before then out of desperation. Rolan offered her escape, if the Mera’din decided to leave, but he would continue to try to inveigle her into his blankets so long as she wore white. And if the Mera’din decided not to go, would one of them betray her escape plans? If Rolan could be believed, they all knew! Hope and danger, all tied together inextricably. What a tangle.

She turned out to have been exactly right about Therava’s reaction. Just before midday all of the gai’shain were herded into the open and made to strip to their skins. Covering herself as best she could with her hands, Faile huddled together with other women wearing Sevanna’s belt and collar—they had been made to put those on again straightaway—huddled for a scrap of decency while Shaido rummaged through the gai’shain tents, tossing everything out into the mud. All Faile could do was think about her hiding place inside the town and pray. Hope and danger, and no way to untangle them.

A Stave and a Razor

Mat had never really expected Luca to leave Jurador after only one day—the stone-walled salt town was wealthy, and Luca did like to see coin stick to his hands—so he was not exactly disappointed when the man told him that Valan Luca’s Grand Traveling Show and Magnificent Display of Marvels and Wonders would remain there at least two more days. Not exactly disappointed, yet he had hoped that his luck might hold good, or his being ta’veren. But then, being ta’veren had never brought anything other than bad that he could see.

“The lines at the entrance are already as long as they were at their best, yesterday,” Luca said, gesturing expansively. They were inside Luca’s huge gaudy wagon, early in the morning after Renna’s death, and the tall man sat in the gilded chair at the narrow table—a real table, with stools tucked under for guests; most other wagons had an affair rigged on ropes from the ceiling, and people sat on the beds to eat. Luca had not yet donned one of his flamboyant coats, but he made up for it with gestures. Latelle, his wife, was cooking the breakfast porridge on a small, iron-topped brick stove built into a corner of the windowless wagon, and the air was sharp with spices. The harsh-faced woman put so many spices into everything she prepared that it was all inedible, in Mat’s estimation, yet Luca always gobbled down whatever she set in front of him as if it were a feast. He must have a leather tongue. “I expect twice as many visitors today, maybe three times as many, and tomorrow as well. People can’t see everything in one visit, and here they can afford to come twice. Word of mouth, Cauthon. Word of mouth. That brings as many as Aludra’s nightflowers. I feel almost like a ta’veren, the way things are falling out. Large audiences and the prospect of more. A warrant of protection from the High Lady.” Luca cut off abruptly, looking faintly embarrassed, as if he had just remembered that Mat’s name was on that warrant as being excluded from protection.

“You might not like it if you really were ta’veren,” Mat muttered, which made the other man give him an odd look. He put a finger behind the black silk scarf that hid his hanging scar and tugged at it. For a moment, the thing had felt too tight. He had spent a night of bleak dreams about corpses floating downstream and woken to the dice spinning in his head, always a bad sign, and now they seemed to be bouncing off the inside of his skull harder than before. “I can pay you as much as you’ll make for every show you give between here and Lugard, no matter how many people attend. That’s on top of what I promised for carrying us to Lugard.” If the show was not stopping all the time, they could cut the time to reach Lugard by three quarters at the least. More, if he could convince Luca to spend whole days on the road instead of half days, the way they did now.

Luca seemed taken with the idea, nodding thoughtfully, but then he shook his head with a sadness that was plainly feigned and spread his hands. “And what will that look like, a traveling show that never stops to give shows? It will look suspicious, that’s what. I have the warrant, and the High Lady will speak up for me besides, but you certainly don’t want to pull the Seanchan down on us. No, it’s safer for you this way.” The man was not thinking of Mat Cauthon’s bloody safety, he was thinking that his bloody shows might earn him more than Mat paid. That, plus making himself as much the center of attention as any of the performers was nearly as important to him as gold. Some of the showfolk talked of what they would do when they retired. Not Luca. He intended to keep on until he fell over dead in the middle of a show. And he would arrange it so he had the largest audience possible when he did.

“It’s ready, Valan,” Latelle said affectionately as she lifted the iron pot from the stove with a cloth protecting her hands and set it down on a thick woven mat on the table. Two places had already been set, with white-glazed plates and silver spoons. Luca would have silver spoons when everyone else settled for tin or pot metal or even horn or wood. Stern-eyed, with a hard set to her mouth, the bear trainer looked quite odd wearing a long white apron over her spangled blue dress. Her bears probably wished they had trees to climb when she frowned at them. Strangely, though, she jumped to ensure her husband’s comforts. “Will you be eating with us, Master Cauthon?” There was no welcome in that; in fact, just the opposite, and she showed no sign of turning to the cupboard where the plates were stored.

Mat gave her a bow that soured her face further. He had never been less than civil to the woman, but she refused to like him. “I thank you for the kind invitation, Mistress Luca, but no.” She grunted. So much for being courteous. He put on his flat-brimmed hat and left, the dice rattling away.

Luca’s big wagon, glittering in red and blue and covered with golden stars and comets, not to mention the phases of the moon in silver, stood in the middle of the show, as far as possible from the animals’ smelly cages and the horselines. It was surrounded by smaller wagons, little houses on wheels, most windowless and most painted just a single color with none of Luca’s extra decorations, and by wall-tents the size of small houses in blue or green or red, sometimes striped. The sun stood nearly its own height above the horizon in a sky where a sprinkling of white clouds drifted slowly, and children ran playing with hoops and balls while the showfolk were limbering up for their morning performances, men and women twisting and stretching, many with glittering, colorful spangles on their coats or dresses. Four contortionists, in filmy trousers tied at the ankle and blouses thin enough to leave little to the imagination, made him wince. Two were sitting on their own heads atop blankets spread on the ground beside their red tent, while the others had twisted themselves into a pair of knots that looked beyond untying. Their backbones must have been made of spring-wire! Petra, the strongman, stood bare-chested beside the green wagon he shared with his wife, warming up by lifting weights with either hand that Mat was not sure he could have lifted with both. The man had arms thicker than Mat’s legs, and he was not sweating at all. Clarine’s small dogs stood in a line at the steps of the wagon wagging their tails and eagerly waiting on their trainer. Unlike Latelle’s bears, Mat figured the plump woman’s dogs performed so they could make her smile.

He was always tempted to just sit quietly somewhere when the dice were clicking in his head, some place nothing seemed likely to happen, waiting for the dice to stop, and though he would have enjoyed watching some of the female acrobats, a number of whom wore as little as the contortionists, he set out to walk the half mile to Jurador, eyeing everyone on the wide, hard-packed clay road closely. There was a purchase he hoped to make.

People were coming to join the long line waiting behind a stout rope stretched along the show’s tall canvas wall, only a handful with more than a touch of embroidery on the women’s dresses or the men’s short coats, and a few farmers’ high-wheeled carts lumbering behind a horse or an ox. Figures moved among the small forest of windmills that pumped the salt wells on the low hills behind the town, and around the long evaporation pans. A merchant’s train of canvas-covered wagons, twenty of them behind six-horse teams, rumbled out of the town gates as he approached, the merchant herself in a bright green cloak seated beside the driver of the first wagon. A flock of crows cawed past overhead, giving him a chill, but no one vanished before his eyes, and everybody cast a long shadow so far as he could make out. There were no dead people’s shades walking the road today, although he was convinced that was what he had seen the day before.

The dead walking surely could mean nothing good. Very likely it had something to with Tarmon Gai’don and Rand. Colors whirled in his brain, and for an instant, in his head, he saw Rand and Min standing beside a large bed, kissing. He stumbled and nearly tripped over his own boots. They had not been wearing any clothes! He would have to be careful thinking about Rand... The colors swirled and resolved for a moment, and he stumbled again. There were worse things to spy on than kissing. Very careful what he thought. Light!

The pair of guards leaning on their halberds at the iron-studded gates, hard-faced men in white breastplates and conical white helmets with horsetail crests, eyed him suspiciously. They probably thought he was drunk. A reassuring nod failed to change their expressions by a hair. He could have used a stiff drink right then. The guards did not try to stop him entering, though, just watched him pass. Drunks caused trouble, especially a man who was drunk this early in the day, but a drunk in a good coat—plain, but well-cut and good silk—a man with a little lace at his wrists was an altogether different matter.

The stone-paved streets of Jurador were noisy even at this hour, with hawkers carrying trays or standing behind barrows crying their wares, and shopkeepers beside narrow tables in front of their shops bellowing the fineness of their goods, and coopers hammering hoops onto barrels for shipping salt. The clatter of rugmakers’ looms nearly drowned out the ringing of the occasional blacksmith’s hammer, not to mention the music of flutes and drums and dulcimers drifting from inns and taverns. It was a jumble of a town, with shops and houses and inns cheek by jowl with taverns and stables, all of stone and roofed with reddish tiles. A solid town, Jurador. And one accustomed to thievery. Most windows on the lower floors were covered with stout screens of wrought iron. The upper windows as well on the homes of the wealthy, most of whom were no doubt salt merchants. The music of the inns and taverns pulled at him. Likely there would be dice games going on in most of them. He could almost feel those dice spinning across a table. It had been too long since he had rattled a set of dice in his hands instead of inside his head, but he was not there for gambling this morning.

He had had no breakfast yet, so he approached a wrinkled woman with a tray hung from a strap around her neck who shouted “meat pies, made from the finest beef to be found in Altara.” He took her word for it and handed over the coppers she demanded. He had seen no cattle at any farms near Jurador, only sheep and goats, but it was best not to inquire too closely what was in a pie bought in the streets of any town. There could be cows on nearby farms. There could be. In any case, the meat pie was tasty, and still hot for a wonder, and he walked on along the crowded street juggling the pie and wiping greasy juice from his chin.

He was careful not to bump into anyone in the throng. Altarans were a touchy lot, by and large. In this town, you could tell somebody’s station to within a whisker by the amount of embroidery on coat or dress or cloak, the more the higher, long before you were close enough to tell wool from silk, though the richer women covered their olive-skinned faces with transparent veils hung from ornate combs stuck into their tightly coiled braids, but men and women alike, whether salt merchants or ribbon hawkers, wore long belt knives with curved blades and sometimes fondled the hilts as though looking for a fight. He always tried to avoid fighting, though his luck seldom did him much good there. Ta’veren took over with that, it seemed. The dice had never before signaled a fight—battles, yes, but never a dust-up in the street—yet he walked very carefully indeed. Not that that would help, of course. When the dice stopped, they stopped, and that was that. But he saw no reason to take chances. He hated taking chances. Except with gambling, of course, and that was hardly taking a chance for him.

He spotted a barrel full of thick quarterstaffs and walking staffs in front of a shop displaying swords and daggers under the watchful eye of a bulky fellow with sunken knuckles, a nose that had been broken more than once, and a thick truncheon hanging at his belt beside the inevitable dagger. The man announced in a rough voice that all the blades on display were Andoran made, but anybody who did not make his own blades always claimed they were Andoran or else from the Borderlands. Or Tairen, sometimes. Tear made good steel.

To Mat’s surprise and delight, a slim stave of what appeared to be black yew, more than a foot taller than he was, stood upright in the barrel. Pulling the stave out, he checked the fine, almost braided grain. It was black yew, all right. That braided grain was what gave bows made from it such power, twice what any other wood could give. You could never be sure until you started slicing away the excess, but the stave looked perfect. How in the Light had black yew come to be in southern Altara? He was sure it only grew in the Two Rivers.

When the proprietor, a sleek woman with bright-feathered birds embroidered to below her bosom, came out and began extolling the virtues of her blades, he said, “How much for this black stick, Mistress?”

She blinked, startled that a man in silk and lace wanted a quarterstaff—slim as it was, she bloody well thought the bloody thing was a quarterstaff!—and named a price that he paid without bargaining. Which made her blink again, and frown as if she thought she should have asked for more. He would have paid more for the makings of a Two Rivers bow. With the raw bowstave over his shoulder, he walked on, wolfing down the last of the meat pie and wiping his hand on his coat. But he had not come for breakfast or a bowstave any more than for gambling. It was the stables that interested him.

Livery stables always had a horse or three for sale, and if the price was right, they would usually sell one that had not been for sale. At least, they did when the Seanchan had not snapped them up already. Luckily, the Seanchan presence in Jurador had been fleeting so far. He wandered from stable to stable examining bays and roans, blue roans and piebalds, duns, sorrels, blacks, whites, grays and dapples, all mares or geldings. A stallion would not serve his purposes. Not every animal he looked at had a shallow girth or long cannons, yet none matched what he had in mind. Until he entered a narrow stable jammed between a large stone inn called The Twelve Salt Wells and a rugmaker’s shop.

He would have thought the racketing looms would have bothered the horses, but they were all quiet, apparently accustomed to the noise. Stalls stretched farther into the block than he had expected, but lanterns hanging from the stall posts gave a fair light away from the doors. The air, speckled with dust from the loft above, smelled of hay and oats and horse dung, but not old dung. Three men with shovels were mucking out stalls. The owner kept his place clean. That meant less chance of disease. Some stables he had walked out of after getting one whiff.

The black-and-white mare was out of her stall on a rope halter while a groom put down fresh straw, and she stood squarely, and with her ears perked forward, showing alertness. About fifteen hands tall, she was long in front, with a deep girth that promised endurance, and her legs were perfectly proportioned, with short cannons and a good angle to her fetlocks. Her shoulders were well sloped, and her croup dead level with her whithers. She had lines as good as Pips’, or even better. More than that, she was a breed he had heard tell of but never thought to see, a razor, from Arad Doman. No other breed would have that distinctive coloring. In her coat, black met white in straight lines that could have been sliced by a razor, hence the name. Her presence here was as mystifying as the black yew. He had always heard no Domani would sell a razor to any outlander. He let his eyes sweep past her without lingering, studying the other animals in their stalls. Had the dice inside his skull slowed? No, it was his imagination. He was sure they were spinning as hard as they had in Luca’s wagon.

A wiry man with only a fringe of gray hair remaining came forward, ducking his head over folded hands. “Toke Fearnim, my Lord,” he introduced himself in rough accents, eyeing the bowstave on Mat’s shoulder dubiously. Men who wore silk coats and gold signet rings rarely carried such things. “How can I be of service? My Lord wishes to rent a horse? Or to buy?” Embroidery, small bright flowers, covered the shoulders of the vest he wore over a shirt that might have been white once. Mat avoided looking at the flowers at all. The fellow had one of those curved knives at his belt and two long white scars on his leathery face. Old scars. Any fighting he had done lately had not marked him where it showed.

“Buy, Master Fearnim, if you have anything for sale. If I can find one that’s halfway decent. I’ve had more spavined gluebaits offered to me as six-year-olds when they were eighteen if a day than I can shake a stick at.” He hefted the bowstave slightly with a grin. His da claimed bargaining went better if you could make the other fellow start grinning.

“I have three for sale, my Lord, none of them spavined,” the wiry man replied with another bow, and no hint of a grin. Fearnim gestured. “One is out of her stall there. Five years old and prime horseflesh, my Lord. And a steal at ten crowns. Gold,” he added blandly.

Mat let his jaw drop. “For a piebald? I know the Seanchan have driven prices up, but that’s ridiculous!”

“Oh, she’s not your common piebald, my Lord. A razor is what she is. Domani bloodborn ride razors.”

Blood and bloody ashes! So much for catching a bargain. “So you say, so you say,” Mat muttered, lowering one end of the bowstave to the stone floor so he could lean on it. His hip seldom bothered him any longer except when he did a lot of walking, but he had done so this morning, and he felt twinges. Well, bargain or no, he had to play out the game. There were rules to horse trading. Break them, and you were asking to have your purse emptied out. “I’ve never heard of any horse called a razor myself. What else do you have? Only geldings or mares, mind.”

“Geldings are all I have for sale except the razor, my Lord,” Fearnim said, emphasizing the word razor a little. Turning toward the back of the stable, he shouted, “Adela, bring out that big bay what’s for sale.”

A lanky young woman with a pimply face, in breeches and a plain dark vest, came darting out of the back of the stable to obey. Fearnim had Adela walk the bay and then a dappled gray on rope leads in the good light near the doors. Mat had to hand him that. Their conformation was not bad at all, but the bay was too big, better than seventeen hands, and the gray kept his ears half laid back and tried to bite Adela’s hand twice. She was deft with the animals, though, easily evading the bad-tempered gray’s lunges. Rejecting the pair of them would have been easy even if he had not had his mind set on the razor.

A lean, gray-striped tomcat, like a ridgecat in miniature, appeared and sat at Fearnim’s feet to lick a bloody gash on his shoulder. “Rats are worse this year than I ever recall,” the stablekeeper muttered, frowning down at the cat. “They fight back more, too. I’m going to have to get another cat, or maybe two.” He brought himself back to the business at hand. “Will my Lord take a look at my prize, since the others don’t suit?”

“I suppose I could look at the piebald, Master Fearnim,” Mat said doubtfully. “But not for any ten crowns.”

“In gold,” Fearnim said. “Hurd, walk the razor for the Lord here.” He emphasized the breed again. Working the man down would be difficult. Unless he got some help for a change from being ta’veren. His luck never helped with anything as straightforward as dickering.

Hurd was the fellow refreshing the straw in the razor’s stall, a squat man who had about three white hairs left on his head and no teeth in his mouth at all. That was evident when he grinned, which he did while he led the mare in a circle. He clearly liked the animal, and well he should.

She walked well, but Mat still inspected her closely. Her teeth said Fearnim had been honest enough about her age—only a fool lied very far about a horse’s age unless the buyer was a fool himself, though it was surprising how many sellers thought buyers were all just that—and her ears pricked toward him when he stroked her nose while checking her eyes. They were clear and bright, free of rheum. He felt along her legs without finding any heat or swelling. There was never a hint of a lesion or sore, or of ringworm, anywhere on her. He could get his fist easily between her rib cage and her elbow—she would have a long stride—and was barely able to fit his flat hand between her last rib and the point of her hip. She would be hardy, unlikely to strain a tendon if run fast.

“My Lord knows his horseflesh, I see.”

“That I do, Master Fearnim. And ten crowns gold is too much, especially for a piebald. Some say they’re bad luck, you know. Not that I believe it, not as such, or I wouldn’t offer at all.”

“Bad luck? I never heard that, my Lord. What do you offer?”

“I could get Tairen bloodstock for ten crowns gold. Not the best, true, but still Tairen. I’ll give you ten crowns. In silver.”

Fearnim threw back his head, laughing uproariously, and when he stopped, they settled down to the dickering. In the end, Mat handed over five crowns in gold along with four marks gold and three crowns silver, all stamped in Ebou Dar. There were coins from many countries in the chest under his bed, but foreign coin usually meant finding a banker or money changer to weigh them and work out what they were worth locally. Aside from attracting more notice than he wanted, he would have ended paying more for the animal, maybe even the full ten crowns gold. Money changers’ scales always seemed to work that way. He had not expected to get the man down that far, but from Fearnim’s expression, grinning at last, he had never expected to receive so much. It was the best way for horse trading to end, with both sides thinking they had come out ahead. All in all, the day had begun very well, dice or no bloody dice. He should have known it would not last.

When he got back to the show at midday, riding the razor bareback because of his aching hip and with the dice rattling in his head, the line of people was longer than when he had left, waiting to pass beneath the big blue banner, stretched between two tall poles, that carried the show’s name in big red letters. As people dropped their coins into the clear glass pitcher held by a heavy-set horse handler in a rough woolen coat, to be poured from there into an iron-bound chest under the watchful eyes of another horse handler who was even larger, more people joined the line, so it never seemed to grow shorter. The thing stretched beyond the end of the rope and around the corner. For a small wonder, no one was pushing or shoving. There were obvious farmers in the line, wearing rough woolens and with dirt ingrained in their hands, though the children’s faces and those of the farmwives at least had been scrubbed clean. Luca was getting his hoped-for crowd, unfortunately. No chance of convincing him to leave tomorrow now. The dice said something was going to happen, something fateful to Mat bloody Cauthon, but what? There had been times when the dice stopped and he still had no idea what happened.

Just inside the canvas wall, with people streaming past to enjoy the performers lining both sides of the main street, Aludra was taking delivery of two wagonloads of barrels in various sizes. Of more than the barrels, it seemed. “I will show you where to park the wagons,” the slender woman told the driver of the lead wagon, a lean man with a jutting jaw. Aludra’s waist-long beaded braids swung as her eyes followed Mat for a moment, but she quickly turned back to the wagon driver. “The horses, you will take to the horselines afterward, yes?”

Now, what had she bought in such quantity? Something for her fireworks, certainly. Every night, soon after dark so she would catch everyone before they went to bed, she launched her nightflowers, two or three for a town the size of Jurador or if there were several villages close together. He had had some thoughts on why she wanted a bellfounder, but the only one that seemed to make any sense actually made no sense at all that he could see.

He hid the mare on the horselines. Well, you could not really hide a razor, but a horse was noticed less among other horses, and the time was not right, yet. The bowstave he left in the wagon he shared with Egeanin and Domon, neither of whom was there, then headed for Tuon’s faded purple wagon. That was parked not far from Luca’s wagon, now, though Mat wished it had been left near the storage wagons. Only Luca and his wife knew that Tuon was a High Lady rather than a servant who had been about to expose Mat and Egeanin to her supposed husband as lovers, but many among the showfolk were already wondering why Mat spent more time with Tuon than with Egeanin. Wondering and disapproving. They were an oddly prim lot for the most part, even the contortionists. Running off with the wife of a cruel lord was romantic. Canoodling with the lady’s maid was sordid. Giving Tuon’s wagon this favored spot, among the people who had been with Luca for years and were his most prized performers, was going to cause more talk.

In truth, he hesitated about going to Tuon at all with the dice drumming in his head. They had stopped too often in her presence, and he still did not know the why for a single one of those times. Not for certain. Maybe the first time, it had just been meeting her. Thinking of it made the hair on the back of his neck want to stand up. Still, with women, you always had to take chances. With a woman like Tuon, ten chances a day, and never knowing the odds until it was too late. Sometimes he wondered why his luck failed to help him more with women. Women were certainly as unpredictable as any honest dice ever made.

None of the Redarms was on guard outside the wagon—they were beyond that, now—so he trotted up the short flight of steps at the back of the wagon and rapped once before pulling the door open and entering. After all, he paid the rent for the thing, and they were hardly likely to be lying around unclothed at this time of day. Anyway, the door had a latch if they needed to keep people out.

Mistress Anan was off somewhere, but the interior was still crowded. The narrow table had been let down on ropes from the ceiling, with mismatched plates of bread and olives and cheese laid out on it along with one of Luca’s tall silver wine pitchers, a squat red-striped pitcher and flower-painted cups. Tuon, a month’s growth of tightly curled black hair on her head, sat on the wagon’s sole stool at the far end of the table, with Selucia sitting on one of the beds at her side, and Noal and Olver on the other bed, elbows on the table. Today, Selucia was in the dark blue Ebou Dari dress that displayed her memorable bosom so well, with a flowered scarf tied around her head, but Tuon wore a red dress that seemed to be made entirely of tiny pleats. Light, he had only bought her the silk yesterday! How had she convinced the show’s seamstresses to complete a dress already? He was pretty certain that usually took longer than a day. With liberal promises of his gold, he suspected. Well, if you bought a woman silk, you had to expect to pay to have it sewn. He had heard that saying as a boy, when he never expected to be able to afford silk, but it was the Light’s own truth.

“... only the women are ever seen outside their villages,” Noal was saying, but the gnarled, white-haired old man cut off when Mat entered the wagon, pulling the door shut behind him. The scraps of lace at Noal’s wrists had seen better days, as had his well-cut coat of fine gray wool, but both were clean and neat, though in truth they looked odd with his crooked fingers and battered face. Those belonged on an aging tavern tough, one who had gone on fighting long past his prime. Olver, in the good blue coat Mat had had made for him, grinned as widely as an Ogier. Light, he was a good boy, but he would never be handsome with those big ears and that wide mouth. His manner with women needed vast improvement if he was ever to have any luck there at all. Mat had been trying to spend more time with Olver, to get him away from the influence of his “uncles,” Vanin and Harnan and the other Redarms, and the boy seemed to enjoy that. Just not as much as he enjoyed playing Snakes and Foxes or stones with Tuon and staring at Selucia’s bosom. It was all very well for those fellows to teach Olver how to shoot a bow and use a sword and the like, but if Mat ever learned who was teaching him to leer ...

“Manners, Toy,” Tuon drawled like honey sliding out of a dish. Hard honey. Around him, unless they were playing stones, her expression was usually severe enough for a judge handing down a death sentence, and her tone matched it. “You knock, then wait for permission to enter. Unless you are property or a servant. Then you do not knock. You also have grease on your coat. I expect you to keep yourself clean.” Olver’s grin faded at hearing Mat admonished. Noal raked bent fingers through his long hair and sighed, then began studying the green plate in front of him as if he might find an emerald among the olives.

Grim tone or no grim tone, Mat enjoyed looking at the dark little woman who was to be his wife. Who was halfway his wife already. Light, all she had to do was say three sentences and the thing was done! Burn him but she was beautiful. Once, he had mistaken her for a child, but that had been because of her size, and her face had been obscured by a transparent veil. Without that veil, it was plain that that heart-shaped face belonged to a woman. Her big eyes were dark pools a man could spend a lifetime swimming in. Her rare smiles could be mysterious or mischievous, and he prized them. He enjoyed making her laugh, too. At least, when she was not laughing at him. True, she was a little slimmer than he had always preferred, but if he could ever get an arm around her without Selucia there, he believed she would feel just right. And he might convince her to give him a few kisses with those full lips. Light, he dreamed about that sometimes! Never mind that she called him down as if they were already married. Well, almost never mind. Burn him if he could see what a little grease mattered. Lopin and Nerim, the two serving men he was saddled with, would fight over which one got to clean the coat. They had little enough to do that they really would if he did not name who received the task. He did not say that to her. Women liked nothing better than making you defend yourself, and once you started, she had won.

“I’ll try to remember that, Precious,” he said with his best smile, sliding in beside Selucia and putting his hat down on the other side from her. The blanket scrunched up between them, and they were a foot apart to boot, yet you would have thought he had pressed himself against her hip. Her eyes were blue, but the furious look she gave him was hot enough his coat should have been singed. “I hope there’s more water than wine in that cup in front of Olver.”

“It’s goat’s milk,” the boy said indignantly. Ah. Well, maybe Olver was still a little too young even for well-watered wine.

Tuon sat up very straight, though she was still shorter than Selucia, who was a short woman herself. “What did you call me?” she said, as close to crisply as her accent allowed.

“Precious. You have a pet name for me, so I thought I should have one for you, Precious.” He thought Selucia’s eyes were going to pop right out of her head.

“I see,” Tuon murmured, pursing her lips in thought. The fingers of her right hand waggled, as though idly, and Selucia immediately slid off the bed and went to one of the cupboards. She still took time to glare at him over Tuon’s head. “Very well,” Tuon said after a moment. “It will be interesting to see who wins this game. Toy.”

Mat’s smile slipped. Game? He was just trying to regain a little balance. But she saw a game, and that meant he could lose. Was likely to, since he had no idea what the game was. Why did women always make things so ... complicated?

Selucia resumed her place and slid a chipped cup in front of him, and a blue-glazed plate that held half a loaf of crusty bread, six varieties of pickled olives mounded up, and three sorts of cheese. That perked his spirits again. He had hoped for this, if not expected it. Once you got a woman feeding you, she had a hard time finding it in herself to stop you from putting your feet under her table again.

“The thing of it is,” Noal said, resuming his tale, “in those Ayyad villages, you can see woman of any age, but no men much above twenty if that. Not a one.” Olver’s eyes grew even wider. The boy practically inhaled Noal’s tales, about the countries he had seen, even the lands beyond the Aiel Waste, swallowed them whole without butter.

“Are you any relation to Jain Charin, Noal?” Mat chewed an olive and discreetly spat the pit into his palm. The thing tasted not far from spoiling. So did the next one. But he was hungry, so he gobbled them down and followed with some crumbly white goat cheese while ignoring the frowns Tuon directed at him.

The old man’s face went still as stone, and Mat had torn off a piece of bread and eaten that as well before Noal answered. “A cousin,” he said at last, grudgingly. “He was my cousin.”

“You’re related to Jain Farstrider?” Olver said excitedly. His favorite book was The Travels of Jain Farstrider, which he would have sat up reading by lamplight long past his bedtime had Juilin and Thera allowed. He said he intended to see everything Farstrider had, when he grew up, all that and more.

“Who is this man with two names?” Tuon asked. “Only great men are spoken of so, and you speak as if everyone should know him.”

“He was a fool,” Noal said grimly before Mat could open his mouth, though Olver did get his open, and left it gaping while the old man continued. “He went gallivanting about the world and left a good and loving wife to die of a fever without him there to hold her hand while she died. He let himself be made into a tool by—” Abruptly Noal’s face went blank. Staring through Mat, he rubbed at his forehead as though attempting to recall something.

“Jain Farstrider was a great man,” Olver said fiercely. His hands curled into small fists, as though he was ready to fight for his hero. “He fought Trollocs and Myrddraal, and he had more adventures than anyone else in the whole world! Even Mat! He captured Cowin Gemallan after Gemallan betrayed Malkier to the Shadow!”

Noal came to himself with a start and patted Olver’s shoulder. “He did that, boy. That much is to his credit. But what adventure is worth leaving your wife to die alone?” He sounded sad enough to die on the spot himself.

Olver had no answer to that, and his face fell. If Noal had put the boy off his favorite book, Mat was going to have words with the old man. Reading was important—he read himself; sometimes, he did—and he had made sure Olver had books he enjoyed.

Standing, Tuon leaned across the table to rest a hand on Noal’s arm. The stern look had vanished from her face, replaced by tenderness. A wide belt of dark yellow tooled leather cinched her waist, emphasizing her slim curves. More of his coin spent. Well, coin was always easy to come by for him, and if she did not spend it, likely he would throw it away on some other woman. “You have a good heart, Master Charin.” She gave everybody their bloody names except for Mat Cauthon!

“Do I, my Lady?” Noal said, sounding as though he really wanted to hear an answer. “Sometimes I think—” Whatever he thought sometimes, they were not to learn it now.

The door swung open and Juilin put his head into the wagon. The Tairen thief-catcher’s conical red cap was at its usual jaunty angle, but his dark face was worried. “Seanchan soldiers are setting up across the road. I’m going to Thera. She’ll take a fright if she hears it from anybody else.” And as quickly as that he was gone again, leaving the door swinging.

A Cold Medallion

Seanchan soldiers. Blood and bloody ashes! That was all Mat needed, with the dice spinning his head. “Noal, find Egeanin and warn her. Olver, you warn the Aes Sedai, and Bethamin and Seta.” Those five would all be together or at least close by one another. The two former sul’dam shadowed the sisters whenever they left the wagon they all shared. Light, he hoped none of them had gone into the town again. That could put a weasel in the chicken yard for sure! “I’ll go down to the entrance and try to see whether we’re in any trouble.”

“She won’t answer to that name,” Noal muttered, sliding out from the table. He moved spryly for a fellow who looked to have had half the bones in his body broken one time or another. “You know she won’t.”

“You know who I mean,” Mat told him sharply, frowning at Tuon and Selucia. This name foolishness was their fault. Selucia had told Egeanin that her name was now Leilwin Shipless, and that was the name Egeanin was using. Well, he was not about to put up with that sort of thing, not for himself and not for her. She had to come to her senses, soon or late.

“I’m just saying,” Noal said. “Come on, Olver.”

Mat slid out after them, but before he reached the door, Tuon spoke.

“No warnings for us to remain inside, Toy? No one left to guard us?”

The dice said he should find Harnan or one of the other Redarms and plant him outside just to guard against accidents, but he did not hesitate. “You gave your word,” he said, settling his hat on his head. The smile he got in reply was worth the risk. Burn him, but it lit up her face. Women were always a gamble, but sometimes a smile could be win enough.

He saw from the entrance that Jurador’s days without a Seanchan presence had come to an end. Directly across the road from the show, several hundred men were taking off armor, unloading wagons, setting up tents in ordered rows, establishing horselines. All very efficiently done. He saw Taraboners with mail veils hanging from their helmets and bars of blue, yellow and green painted across their breastplates, and men who were clearly infantry, stacking long pikes and racking bows much shorter than a Two Rivers bow, in armor painted the same. He thought those must be Amadicians. Neither Tarabon nor Altara ran much to foot, and Altarans in service to the Seanchan had their armor marked differently for some reason. There were actual Seanchan, of course, perhaps twenty or thirty that he could see. There was no mistaking that painted armor of overlapping plates or those strange, insectile helmets.

Three of the soldiers came ambling across the road, lean, hard-bitten men. Their blue coats, with the collars striped green-and-yellow, were plain enough despite the colors and showed the wear of armor use, but no signs of rank. Not officers, then, but still maybe as dangerous as red adders. Two of the fellows could have been from Andor or Murandy or even the Two Rivers, but the third had eyes tilted like a Saldaean’s, and his skin was the color of honey. Without slowing, they started into the show.

One of the horse handlers at the entrance gave a shrill three-note whistle that began to echo through the show while the other, a squint-eyed fellow named Bollin, pushed the glass pitcher in front of the three. “Price is a silver penny each, Captain,” he said with deceptive mildness. Mat had heard the big man speak in the same tone a heartbeat before he thumped another horse handler over the head with a stool. “Children is five coppers if they’s more than waist-high on me, and three if they’s shorter, but only children as has to be carried gets in free.”

The honey-skinned Seanchan raised a hand as if to push Bollin out of his way, then hesitated, his face growing harder, if that was possible. The other two squared up beside him, fists clenched, as pounding boots announced the arrival of every man in the show, it seemed, performers in their flashy garb and horse handlers in coarse wool. Every man had a club of some sort in his hand, including Luca, in a brilliant red coat embroidered with golden stars to his turned-down boot-tops, and even the bare-chested Petra, who possessed the mildest nature of any man Mat had ever met. Petra’s face was a thunderhead now, though.

Light, this had the makings of a massacre, with these fellows’ companions not a hundred paces away and all their weapons to hand. It was a good place for Mat Cauthon to take himself out of. Surreptitiously he touched the throwing knives hidden up his sleeves and shrugged just to feel the one hanging down behind the back of his neck. No way to check those under his coat or in his boots without being noticed, though. The dice seemed like continuous thunder. He began to plan how to get Tuon and the others away. He had to hang on to her a while longer, yet.

Before disaster could open the door, another Seanchan appeared, in blue-green-and-yellow striped armor but carrying her helmet on her right hip. She had the tilted eyes and honey-colored skin, and there was a scattering of white in her close-cropped black hair. She was near a foot shorter than any of the other three, and there were no plumes on her helmet, just a small crest like a bronze arrowhead at the front, but the three soldiers stood up very straight when they saw her. “Now why am I not surprised to find you here at what looks to be the fine beginnings of a riot, Murel?” Her slurred accent had a twang in it. “What’s this all about then?”

“We paid our money, Standardbearer,” the honey-skinned man replied in the same twangy accents, “then they said we had to pay more on account of us being soldiers of the Empire.”

Bollin opened his mouth, but she silenced him with a raised hand. She had that kind of presence. Running her eyes over the men gathered in a thick semicircle with their clubs, and pausing a moment to shake her head over Luca, she settled on Mat. “Did you see what happened?”

“I did,” Mat replied, “and they tried to walk in without paying.”

“That’s good for you, Murel,” she said, getting a surprised blink from the man. “Good for all three of you. Means you won’t be out your coin. Because you’re all confined to camp for ten days, and I doubt this show will be here that long. You’re all docked ten days’ pay, as well. You’re supposed to be unloading wagons so the homefolks don’t get the idea we think we’re better than they are. Or do you want a charge of causing dissension in the ranks?” The three men paled visibly. Apparently that was a serious charge. “I didn’t think so. Now get out of my sight and get to work before I make it a full month instead of a week.”

“Yes, Standardbearer,” they snapped out as one, then ran back across the road as hard as they could go while tugging off their coats. Hard men, yet the Standardbearer was harder.

She was not finished, however. Luca stepped forward, bowing with a grand flourish, but she cut off whatever thanks he was about to offer. “I don’t much like fellows threatening my men with cudgels,” she drawled, resting her free hand on her sword hilt, “not even Murel, not at these odds. Still, shows you have backbone. Any of you fine fellows want a life of glory and adventure? Step across the road with me, and I’ll sign you up. You there in that fancy red coat. You have the look of a born lancer, to me. I’ll wager I can whip you into a proper hero in no time.” A ripple of head-shaking ran through the assembled men, and some, seeing that no trouble was likely now, began slipping away. Petra was one of those. Luca looked as though he had been poleaxed. A number of others appeared almost as stunned by the offer. Performing paid better than soldiering, and you avoided the risk of people sticking swords into you. “Well, as long as you’re standing here, maybe I can convince you. Not likely you’ll get rich, but the pay is usually on time, and there’s always the chance of loot if the order is given. Happens now and then. The food varies, but it’s usually hot, and there’s usually enough to fill your belly. The days are long, but that just means you’re tired enough to get a good night’s sleep. When you don’t have to work the night, too. Anyone interested yet?”

Luca gave himself a shake. “Thank you, Captain, but no,” he said, sounding half-strangled. Some fools thought soldiers were flattered by someone thinking they had a higher rank than they did. Some fool soldiers were. “Excuse me, if you please. We have a show to put on. And people who aren’t going to be pleased if they have to wait much longer to see it.” With a last, wary look at the woman, as if he feared she might try to drag him off by his collar, he rounded on the men behind him. “All of you get back to your stands. What are you doing lounging around here? I have everything well in hand. Get back to your stands before people start demanding their money back.” That would have been a disaster in his book. Given the choice between handing back coin and having a riot, Luca would have been unable to decide which was worse.

With the showfolk dispersing and Luca hurrying away while shooting glances at her over his shoulder, the woman turned to Mat, the only man remaining aside from the two horse handlers. “And what about you? From the look of you, you might be made an officer and get to give me orders.” She sounded amused by the notion.

He knew what she was doing. The people in the line had seen three Seanchan soldiers sent running, and who could say for sure why they had run, but now they had seen her disperse a much larger crowd by herself. He would have given her a place in the Band as a Bannerman in a breath. “I’d make a terrible soldier, Standardbearer,” he said, tipping his hat, and she laughed.

As he turned away, he heard Bollin saying, mildly, “You didn’t hear what I told that man? It’s a silver penny for you and another for your goodwife.” Coins clinked into the pitcher. “Thank you.” Things were back to normal. And the dice were still racketing in his head.

Making his way through the show, where acrobats were again tumbling for the crowds on their wooden platforms and jugglers juggling and Clarine’s dogs running atop large wooden balls and Miyora’s leopards standing on their hind legs inside a cage that looked barely strong enough to hold them, he decided to check on the Aes Sedai. The leopards brought them to mind. The common soldiers might spend the day working, yet he would have laid coin on at least some of the officers coming for a look before long. He trusted Tuon, strangely enough, and Egeanin had enough sense to stay out of sight when there might be other Seanchan around, but common sense seemed in short supply among Aes Sedai. Even Teslyn and Edesina, who had spent time as damane, took foolish chances. Joline, who had not, seemed to think herself invulnerable.

Everybody in the show knew the three women were Aes Sedai now, but their large wagon, covered with rain-streaked whitewash, still stood near the canvas-topped storage wagons, not far from the horselines. Luca had been willing to rearrange his show for a High Lady who gave him a warrant of protection, but not for Aes Sedai who put him at risk with their presence and were practically penniless besides. The women among the showfolk were sympathetic to the sisters for the most part, the men wary to one degree or another—it was almost always so with Aes Sedai—but Luca likely would have turned them out to make their own way without Mat’s gold. Aes Sedai were more threat than anything else so long as they were in lands controlled by the Seanchan. Mat Cauthon got no thanks for it, not that he was looking for any. He would have settled for a touch of respect, unlikely as that was. Aes Sedai were Aes Sedai, after all.

Joline’s Warders, Blaeric and Fen, were nowhere to be seen, so there was no need to talk his way past them to get inside, but as he approached the dirt-streaked steps at the back of the wagon, the foxhead medallion hanging beneath his shirt went icy cold against his chest, then colder still. For a moment, he froze like a statue. Those fool women were channeling in there! Coming to himself, he pounded up the steps and banged the door open.

The women he expected to see were all present, Joline, a Green sister, slender and pretty and big-eyed, and Teslyn, a narrow-shouldered Red who looked as though she chewed rocks, and Edesina, a Yellow, handsome rather than pretty, with waves of black hair spilling to her waist. He had saved all three from the Seanchan, had gotten Teslyn and Edesina out of the damane kennels themselves, yet their gratitude was variable to say the best. Bethamin, as dark as Tuon but tall and nicely rounded, and yellow-haired Seta had been sul’dam before they were forced into helping rescue the three Aes Sedai. The five of them shared this wagon, the Aes Sedai to keep an eye on the former sul’dam, the former sul’dam to keep an eye on the Aes Sedai. None realized their task, but mutual distrust made them carry it out assiduously. The one woman he had not expected to see was Setalle Anan, who had kept the Wandering Woman in Ebou Dar before she decided to make herself part of that rescue for some reason. But then, Setalle had a way of pushing herself in. Of meddling, in fact. She meddled between him and Tuon incessantly. What they were doing was completely unexpected, though.

In the middle of the wagon, Bethamin and Seta were standing rigid as fence posts, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder between the two beds that could not be raised against the walls, and Joline was slapping Bethamin’s face again and again, first with one hand then the other. Silent tears trickled down the tall woman’s cheeks, and Seta looked afraid that she would be next. Edesina and Teslyn, arms folded beneath their breasts, were watching with no expression whatsoever while Mistress Anan frowned her disapproval over Teslyn’s shoulder. Whether disapproval of the slapping or of what Bethamin had done to earn it, he could not have said and did not care.

Crossing the floor in one stride, he seized Joline’s upraised arm and spun her around. “What in the Light are you—?” That was as far as he got before she used her other hand to catch him a buffet so hard that his ears rang.

“Now, that killed the goat,” he said, and, spots still floating in his vision, he dropped down onto the nearest bed and pulled a surprised Joline across his lap. His right hand landed on her bottom with a loud smack that pulled a startled squawk from her. The medallion went colder still, and Edesina gasped when nothing happened, but he tried to keep one eye on the other two sisters and one on the open door for Joline’s Warders while he held her in place and whacked as fast and as hard as he could. With no idea how many shifts or petticoats she was wearing under that worn blue wool, he wanted to make sure he left an impression. It seemed his hand was beating time for the dice spinning in his head. Struggling and kicking, Joline began cursing like a wagon driver as the medallion seemed to turn to ice, and then to grow so cold he wondered if it would give him frostbite, but he soon added wordless yelps to her pungent vocabulary. His arm might not match Petra’s, but he was far from weak. Practice with bow and quarterstaff gave you strong arms.

Edesina and Teslyn seemed as frozen in place as the two wide-eyed former sul’dam—well, Bethamin was grinning, yet she appeared as amazed as Seta—but just as he began to think Joline’s yelps were outnumbering her curses, Mistress Anan tried to push past the two Aes Sedai. Astonishingly, Teslyn made a peremptory gesture for her to remain where she was! Very few women, or men, argued with an Aes Sedai’s commands, but Mistress Anan gave the Red sister a frosty look and squeezed between the two Aes Sedai muttering something that made both of them eye her curiously. She still had to force her way between Bethamin and Seta, and he took advantage of that to land a final flurry of hard smacks, then rolled the Green sister off his lap. His hand had begun to sting anyway. Joline landed with a thump and let out a gasped “Oh!”

Planting herself in front of him, close enough that she interfered with Joline’s hasty scramble to her feet, Mistress Anan studied him with her arms folded beneath her breasts in a way that increased the generous cleavage displayed by her plunging neckline. Despite the dress, she was not Ebou Dari, not with those hazel eyes, but she had large golden hoops in her ears, a marriage knife, the hilt marked with red and white stones for her sons and daughters, dangling from a wide silver collar around her neck, and a curved dagger thrust behind her belt. Her dark green skirts were sewn up on the left side to show red petticoats. With touches of gray in her hair, she was every inch the stately Ebou Dari innkeeper, sure of herself and accustomed to giving orders. He expected her to upbraid him—she was as good as an Aes Sedai when it came to upbraiding!—so he was surprised when she spoke, sounding very thoughtful.

“Joline must have tried to stop you, and Teslyn and Edesina as well, but whatever they did failed. I think that means you possess a ter’angreal that can disrupt flows of the Power. I’ve heard of such things—Cadsuane Melaidhrin supposedly had one, or so rumor said—but I’ve never seen the like. I would very much like to. I won’t try to take it away from you, but I would appreciate seeing it.”

“How do you know Cadsuane?” Joline demanded, attempting to brush off the seat of her skirt. The first brush of her hand brought a wince, and she gave over with a glare for Mat just to show him she still had him in mind. Tears glistened in her big brown eyes and on her cheeks, but if he had to pay for them, it was worth the price.

“She said something about the test for the shawl,” Edesina said.

“She did say, ‘How could you have passed the test for the shawl if you freeze at moments like this?’ ” Teslyn added.

Mistress Anan’s mouth tightened for a moment, but if she was discomposed, she regained her poise in a breath. “You may recall that I owned an inn,” she said dryly. “Many people visited The Wandering Woman, and many of them talked, perhaps more than they should have.”

“No Aes Sedai would,” Joline began, then turned hurriedly. Blaeric and Fen were starting up the steps. Borderlanders both, they were big men, and Mat quickly got to his feet, ready to use his knives if necessary. They might drub him, but not without bleeding for it.

Surprisingly, Joline darted to the door and shut it right in Fen’s face, then fastened the latch. The Saldaean made no effort to open the door, but Mat had no doubt the pair of them would be waiting when he left. When she turned around, her eyes were blazing hot, tears and all, and she seemed to have forgotten Mistress Anan for the moment. “If you ever even think of ...” she began, shaking a finger at him.

He stepped forward and stuck a finger of his own to her nose, so fast that she jumped back and bumped into the door. From which she rebounded with a squeak, spots of red blooming in her cheeks. He cared not a whisker whether that was anger or embarrassment. She opened her mouth, but he refused to let her get a word in edgewise.

“Except for me, you’d be wearing a damane collar around your neck, and so would Edesina and Teslyn,” he said, as much heat in his voice as there was in her eyes. “In return, you all try to bully me. You go your own way and endanger all of us. You bloody well channeled when you know there are Seanchan right across the road! They could have a damane with them, or a dozen, for all you know.” He doubted there was even one, but doubt was not certainty, and in any case, he was not about to share his doubts with her, not now. “Well, I might have to put up with some of that, though you’d better know I’m getting close to my edge, but I won’t put up with you hitting me. You do that again, and I vow I’ll pepper your hide twice as hard and twice as hot. My word on it!”

“And I won’t try to stop him next time if you do,” Mistress Anan said.

“Nor I,” Teslyn added, echoed after a long moment by Edesina.

Joline looked as though she had been hit between the eyes with a hammer. Very satisfactory. As long as he could figure out how to avoid having his bones broken by Blaeric and Fen.

“Now would someone like to tell me why you bloody decided to start channeling like it was the Last Battle? Do you have to keep holding them like that, Edesina?” He nodded at Seta and Bethamin. It was only an educated guess, but Edesina’s eyes widened for a moment as if she thought his ter’angreal let him see flows of the Power as well as stop them. In any case, an instant later both women were standing normally. Bethamin calmly began drying her tears with a white linen handkerchief. Seta sat down on the nearest bed, hugging herself and shivering; she looked more shaken than Bethamin.

None of the Aes Sedai seemed to want to answer, so Mistress Anan did it for them. “There was an argument. Joline wanted to go see these Seanchan for herself, and she wouldn’t be argued out of it. Bethamin decided to discipline her, just as if she had no clue what would happen.” The innkeeper shook her head in disgust. “She tried to pull Joline across her lap, with Seta helping her, and Edesina wrapped them up in flows of air. I’m assuming,” she said when the Aes Sedai all looked at her sharply. “I may not be able to channel, but I do use my eyes.”

“That doesn’t account for what I felt,” Mat said. “There was a lot of channeling going on in here.”

Mistress Anan and the three Aes Sedai studied him speculatively, long stares that seemed to probe for the medallion. They were not going to forget about his ter’angreal, that was for sure.

Joline took up the story. “Bethamin channeled. I’ve never before seen the weave she used, but for a few moments, until she lost the Source, she had sparks dancing all over the three of us. I think she may have used as much of the Power as she could draw.”

Sobs suddenly racked Bethamin. She sagged, halfway to falling to the floor. “I didn’t mean to,” she wept, shoulders shaking, face contorted. “I thought you were going to kill me, but I didn’t mean to. I didn’t.” Seta began rocking back and forth, staring at her friend in horror. Or perhaps her former friend. They both knew a’dam could hold them, and maybe any sul’dam, but they might well have denied the full import. Any woman who could use an a’dam could learn to channel. Likely they had tried as hard as they could to deny that hard fact, to forget it. Actually channeling altered everything, however.

Burn him, this was all he needed on top of everything else. “What are you going to do about it?” Only an Aes Sedai could handle this. “Now she’s started, she can’t just stop. I know that much.”

“Let her die,” Teslyn said harshly. “We can keep her shielded until we can be rid of her, then she can die.”

“We can’t do that,” Edesina said, sounding shocked. Though not, apparently, at the thought of Bethamin dying. “Once we let her go, she’ll be a danger to everyone around her.”

“I won’t do it again,” Bethamin wept, almost pleading. “I won’t!”

Pushing past Mat as if he were a coatrack, Joline confronted Bethamin, staring up at the taller woman with her fists on her hips. “You won’t stop. You can’t, once you begin. Oh, you may be able to go months between attempts to channel, but you will try again, and again, and every time, your danger will increase.” With a sigh, she lowered her hands. “You are much too old for the novice book, but there’s nothing for it. We will have to teach you. Enough to make you safe, at least.”

“Teach her?” Teslyn screeched, planting her fists on her hips. “I do say let her die! Do you have any idea how these sul’dam did treat me when they did have me prisoner?”

“No, since you’ve never gone into detail beyond moaning over how horrible it was,” Joline replied dryly, then added in very firm tones, “but I will not leave any woman to die when I can stop it.”

That did not end things, of course. When a woman wanted to argue, she could keep it going if she was by herself, and they all wanted to argue. Edesina joined in on Joline’s side, and so did Mistress Anan, just as if she had as much right to speak as the Aes Sedai. Of all things, Bethamin and Seta took Teslyn’s part, denying any wish to learn to channel, waving their hands and arguing as loudly as anyone. Wisely, Mat took the opportunity to slip out of the wagon and pull the door shut behind him softly. No need to remind them of him. The Aes Sedai, at least, would remember soon enough. At least he could stop worrying about where the bloody a’dam were and whether the sul’dam would try using them again. That was well and truly finished, now.

He had been right about Blaeric and Fen. They were waiting at the foot of the steps, and stormclouds were not in it for their faces. Without any doubt, they knew exactly what had happened to Joline. But not who was to blame, it turned out.

“What went on in there, Cauthon?” Blaeric demanded, his blue eyes sharp enough to poke holes. Slightly the taller of the two, he had shaved his Shienaran topknot and was not best pleased by the growth of short hair covering his scalp.

“Were you involved?” Fen asked coldly.

“How could I have been?” Mat replied, trotting down the steps as if he had not a care in the world. “She’s Aes Sedai, in case you hadn’t noticed. If you want to know what happened, I suggest you ask her. I’m not woolheaded enough to talk about it, I’ll tell you that. Only, I wouldn’t ask her right now. They’re all still arguing in there. I took the chance to slip out while my hide was still intact.”

Not the best choice of words, perhaps. The two Warders’ faces grew darker still, impossible as that seemed. But they let him go on his way without having to resort to his knives. There was that. Neither seemed very eager to enter the wagon, either. Instead, they settled on the wagon’s steps to wait, more fools they. He doubted Joline would be very forthcoming with them, but she might well take out some of her temper on them because they knew. Had he been them, he would have found tasks to keep him clear of that wagon for ... oh, say, a month or two. That might help. Some. Women had long memories for some things. He was going to need to watch over his shoulder for Joline himself from now on. But it had still been worth it.

With Seanchan camped across the road and Aes Sedai arguing and women channeling as if they had never heard of the Seanchan and the dice spinning in his head, not even winning two games of stones from Tuon that night could make him feel anything but wary. He went to sleep—on the floor, since it was Domon’s turn to use the second bed; Egeanin always got the other—with the dice bouncing off the insides of his skull, but he was sure that tomorrow had to be better than today. Well, he had never claimed to always be right. He just wished he was not quite so wrong so often.

Dragons’ Eggs

Luca had the showfolk breaking camp, taking down the big canvas wall and packing everything into the wagons, while the sky was still dark the next morning. It was the clatter and banging of it, the shouting, that woke Mat, groggy and stiff from sleeping on the floor. As much as he could sleep, for the bloody dice. Those things gave a man dreams that slaughtered sleep. Luca was rushing about in his shirtsleeves with a lantern, giving orders and likely impeding matters as much as speeding them, but Petra, wide enough to seem squat though he was not all that much shorter than Mat, paused in hitching the four-horse team to his and Clarine’s wagon to explain. With the waning moon low on the horizon and half-hidden by trees, a lantern on the driver’s seat gave all the light they had, a flickering pool of yellow that was repeated a hundred times and more through the camp. Clarine was off walking the dogs, since they would be spending most of the day inside the wagon.

“Yesterday...” The strongman shook his head and patted the nearest animal, patiently waiting for the last straps to be buckled, as if the horse had showed signs of nerves. Maybe he felt edgy himself. The night was only cool, not really cold, yet he was bundled up in a dark coat and had on a knitted cap. His wife worried about him falling sick from drafts or the cold, and took care that he would not. “Well, we’re strangers everywhere, you see, and a lot of people think they can take advantage of strangers. But if we let one man get away with it, ten more will try, if not a hundred. Sometimes the local magistrate, or what passes for one, will uphold the law for us, too, but only sometimes. Because we’re strangers, and tomorrow or the next day, we’ll be gone, and anyway, everybody knows strangers are usually up to no good. So we have to stand up for ourselves, fight for what’s ours if need be. Once you do that, though, it’s time to move along. Same now as when there were only a few dozen of us with Luca, counting the horse handlers, though in those days, we’d have been gone as soon as those soldiers left. In those days, there weren’t so many coins to be lost by leaving in a hurry,” he said dryly, and shook his head, perhaps for Luca’s greed or perhaps for how large the show had grown, before going on.

“Those three Seanchan have friends, or at least companions who won’t like their own being faced down. That Standardbearer did it, but you can be sure they’ll lay it to us, because they think they can hit at us, and they can’t at her. Maybe their officers will uphold the law, or their rules or whatever, like she did, but we can’t be sure of that. What is certain sure, though, is that those fellows will cause trouble if we stay another day. No point to staying when it means fights with soldiers, and maybe people hurt so they can’t perform, and sure trouble with the law one way or another.” It was the longest speech Mat had ever heard from Petra, and the man cleared his throat as though embarrassed by saying so much. “Well,” he muttered, bending back to the harness, “Luca will want to be on the road soon. You’ll want to be seeing to your own horses.”

Mat wanted no such thing. The most wonderful thing about having coin was not what you could buy, but that you could pay others to do the work. As soon as he realized the show was preparing to move, he had rousted the four Redarms from the tent they shared with Chel Vanin to hitch the teams for his wagon and Tuon’s, do as he instructed with the razor and saddle Pips. The stout horsethief—he had not stolen a horse since Mat had known him, but that was what he was—had roused himself long enough to say that he would get up when the others returned, then rolled over in his blankets and was snoring again before Harnan and the others had their boots half on. Vanin’s skills were such that no one voiced any complaint beyond the usual grumbling about the hour, and all but Harnan would have grumbled if allowed to sleep till noon. When those skills were needed, he would repay them tenfold, and they knew it, even Fergin. The skinny Redarm was none too bright except when it came to soldiering, but he was plenty smart enough there. Well, smart enough.

The show left Jurador before the sun broke the horizon, a long snake of wagons rolling along the wide road through the darkness with Luca’s lurid monstrosity pulled by six horses at its head. Tuon’s wagon came just behind with Gorderan driving, almost wide-shouldered enough to seem a strongman himself, and Tuon and Selucia, well-cloaked and hooded, squeezed in on either side of him. The storage wagons and animal cages and spare horses brought up the tail. Sentries at the Seanchan camp watched them depart, silent armored figures in the night marching the camp’s perimeter. Not that the camp itself was quiet. Shadowy forms stood in rigid lines among the tents while loud voices bellowed the rollcall at a steady pace and others answered. Mat all but held his breath until those regular shouts faded away behind him. Discipline was a wonderful thing. For other men, anyway.

He rode Pips alongside the Aes Sedai wagon, near the middle of the long line, flinching a little every time the foxhead went cool against his chest, which it began to do before they had gone much more than a mile. It seemed that Joline was wasting no time. Fergin, handling the reins, chattered away about horses and women with Metwyn. Both were as happy as pigs in clover, but then, neither had any idea what was going on inside the wagon. At least the medallion only turned cool, and barely that. They were using small amounts of the Power. Still, he disliked being so near any channeling at all. In his experience, Aes Sedai carried trouble in their belt pouches and seldom were shy about scattering it, never mind who might be in the way. No, with the dice bouncing inside his head, he could have done without Aes Sedai within ten miles.

He would have ridden up beside Tuon, for the chance to talk with her, no matter that Selucia and Gorderan would hear every word, but you never wanted a woman thinking you were too eager. Do that, and she either took advantage or else skittered away like a water drop on a hot greased griddle. Tuon found enough ways to take advantage already, and he had too little time for very much in the way of chasing. Sooner or later she would speak the words that completed the marriage ceremony, sure as water was wet, but that only made it more urgent for him to find out what she was like, which had hardly been easy so far. That little woman made a blacksmith’s puzzle seem simple. But how could a man be married to a woman if he did not know her? Worse, he had to make her see him as something more than Toy. Marriage to a woman with no respect for him would be like wearing a shirt of blackwasp nettles day and night. Worse still, he had to make her care for him, or he would find himself forced to hide from his own wife to keep her from making him da’covale! And to cap it off, he had to do all of that in whatever time remained before he had to send her back to Ebou Dar. A fine stew, and doubtless a tasty meal for some hero out of legend, a little something to occupy his idle time before he rushed off to perform some great deed, only Mat bloody Cauthon was no bloody hero. He still had it to do, though, and no time or room for missteps.

It was the earliest start they had made yet, but his hopes that the Seanchan had frightened Luca into moving faster were soon dashed. As the sun climbed, they passed stone farm buildings clinging to hillsides and occasionally a tiny tile- or thatch-roofed village nestled beside the road in a surround of stone-walled fields carved out of the forest, where men and women stood gaping as the show streamed past and children ran alongside until their parents called them back, but in the midafternoon, the show reached something larger. Runnien Crossing, near a so-called river that could have been waded in fewer than twenty paces without going more than waist-deep despite the stone bridge across it, was never a patch on Jurador, but it possessed four inns, each three stories of stone roofed in green or blue tiles, and near half a mile of hard-packed dirt between the village and the river where merchants could park their wagons for the night. Farms with their walled fields and orchards and pastures made a quilt of the countryside for a good league along the road and maybe more beyond the hills to either side of it. They certainly covered the hillsides Mat could see. That was enough for Luca.

Ordering the canvas wall erected in the clearing, near to the river to make watering the animals easier, the man strutted into the village wearing coat and cloak red enough to make Mat’s eyes hurt and so embroidered with golden stars and comets that a Tinker would have wept for the shame of donning the garments. The huge blue-and-red banner was stretched across the entrance, each wagon in its place, the performing platforms unloaded and the wall nearly all up by the time he returned escorting three men and three women. The village was not all that far from Ebou Dar, yet their clothing might have come from another country altogether. The men wore short wool coats in bright colors embroidered with angular scrollwork along the shoulders and sleeves, and dark, baggy trousers stuffed into knee boots. The women, their hair in a sort of coiled bun atop their heads, wore dresses nearly as colorful as Luca’s garments, their narrow skirts resplendent with flowers from hem to hips. They did all carry long belt knives, though with straight blades for the most part, and caressed the hilts whenever anybody looked at them; that much was the same. Altara was Altara when it came to touchiness. These were the village Mayor, the four innkeepers, and a lean, leathery, white-haired woman in red; the others addressed her respectfully as Mother. Since the round-bellied Mayor was as white-haired as she, not to mention mostly bald, and none of the innkeepers lacked at least a little gray hair, Mat decided she must be the village Wisdom. He smiled and tipped his hat to her as she passed, and she gave him a sharp look and sniffed in near perfect imitation of Nynaeve. Oh, yes, a Wisdom all right.

Luca showed them around with wide smiles and expansive gestures, elaborate bows and flourishes of his cloak, stopping here and there to make a juggler or a team of acrobats perform a little for his guests, but his smile turned to a sour grimace once they were safely back on their way and out of sight. “Free admission for them and their husbands and wives and all the children,” he growled to Mat, “and I’m supposed to pack up if a merchant comes down the road. They weren’t that blunt, but they were clear enough, especially that Mother Darvale. As if this flyspeck ever attracted enough merchants to fill this field. Thieves and scoundrels, Cauthon. Country folk are all thieves and scoundrels, and an honest man like me is at their mercy.”

Soon enough he was toting up what he might earn there despite the complimentary admissions, but he never did give over complaining entirely, even when the line at the entrance stretched nearly as far as it had in Jurador. He just added complaining about how much he would have taken in with another three or four days at the salt town. It was three or four more days, now, and likely he would have lingered until the crowds had dwindled to nothing. Maybe those three Seanchan had been ta’veren work. Not likely, but it was a pleasant way to think of it. Now that it was all in the past, it was.

That was how they progressed. At best a mere two leagues or perhaps three at an unhurried pace, and usually Luca would find a small town or a cluster of villages that he felt called for a halt. Or better to say that he felt their silver calling to him. Even if they passed nothing but flyspecks not worth the labor of erecting the wall, they never made as much as four leagues before Luca called a halt. He was not about to risk having to camp strung out along the road. If there was not to be a show, Luca liked to find a clearing where the wagons could be parked without too much crowding, though if driven to it, he would dicker with a farmer for the right to stop in an unused pasture. And mutter over the expense the whole next day if it cost no more than a silver penny. He was tight with his purse strings, Luca was.

Trains of merchants’ wagons passed them in both directions, making good speed and managing to raise small clouds of dust from the hard-packed road. Merchants wanted to get their goods to market as quickly as possible. Now and then they saw a caravan of Tinkers, too, their boxy wagons as bright as anything in the show except for Luca’s wagon. All of them were headed toward Ebou Dar, oddly enough, but then, they moved as slowly as Luca. Not likely any coming the other way would overtake the show. Two or three leagues a day, and the dice rattled away so that Mat was always wondering what lay beyond the next bend in the road or what was catching him up from behind. It was enough to give a man hives.

The very first night, outside Runnien Crossing, he approached Aludra. Near her bright blue wagon she had set up a small canvas enclosure, eight feet tall, for launching her nightflowers, and she straightened with a glare when he pulled back a flap and ducked in. A closed lantern sitting on the ground near the wall gave enough light for him to see that she was holding a dark ball the size of a large melon. Runnien Crossing was only big enough to merit a single nightflower. She opened her mouth, all set to chivvy him out. Not even Luca was allowed in here.

“Lofting tubes,” he said quickly, gesturing to the metal-bound wooden tube, as tall as he was and near enough a foot across, sitting upright in front of her on a broad wooden base. “That’s why you want a bellfounder. To make lofting tubes from bronze. It’s the why I can’t puzzle out.” It seemed a ridiculous idea—with a little effort, two men could lift one of her wooden lofting tubes into the wagon that carried them and her other supplies; a bronze lofting tube would require a derrick—but it was the only thing that had occurred to him.

With the lantern behind her, shadows hid her expression, but she was silent for a long moment. “Such a clever young man,” she said finally. Her beaded braids clicked softly as she shook her head. Her laugh was low and throaty. “Me, I should watch my tongue. I always get into the trouble when I make promises to clever young men. Never think I will tell you the secrets that would make you blush, though, not now. You are already juggling two women, it seems, and me, I will not be juggled.”

“Then I’m right?” He was barely able to keep the incredulity from his voice.

“You are,” she said. And casually tossed the nightflower at him!

He caught it with a startled oath, and only dared to breathe when he was sure he had a good grip. The covering seemed to be stiff leather, with a tiny stub of fuse sticking out of one side. He had a little familiarity with smaller fireworks, and supposedly those only exploded from fire or if you let air touch what was inside—though he had cut one open once without it going off—yet who could say what might make a nightflower erupt? The firework he had opened had been small enough to hold in one hand. Something the size of this nightflower would likely blow him and Aludra to scraps.

Abruptly he felt foolish. She was not very likely to go throwing the thing if dropping it was dangerous. He began tossing the ball from hand to hand. Not to make up for gasping and all that. Just for something to do.

“How will casting lofting tubes from bronze make them a better weapon?” That was what she wanted, weapons to use against the Seanchan, to repay them for destroying the Guild of Illuminators. “They seem fearsome enough to me already.”

Aludra snatched the nightflower back muttering about clumsy oafs and turning the ball over in her hands to examine the leather surface. Maybe it was not so safe as he had assumed. “A proper lofting tube,” she said once she was sure he had not damaged the thing, “it will send this close to three hundred paces straight up into the sky with the right charge, and a longer distance across the ground if the tube is tilted at an angle. But not far enough for what I have in mind. A lofting charge big enough to send it further would burst the tube. With a bronze tube, I could use a charge that would send something a little smaller close to two miles. Making the slow-match slower, to let it travel that far, is easy enough. Smaller but heavier, made of iron, and there would be nothing for pretty colors, only the bursting charge.”

Mat whistled through his teeth, seeing it in his head, explosions erupting among the enemy before they were near enough to see you clearly. A nasty thing to be receiving. Now that would be as good as having Aes Sedai on your side, or some of those Asha’man. Better. Aes Sedai had to be in danger to use the Power as a weapon, and while he had heard rumors about hundreds of Asha’man, rumors grew with every telling. Besides, if Asha’man were anything like Aes Sedai, they would start deciding where they were needed and then take over the whole fight. He began envisioning how to use Aludra’s bronze tubes, and right away he spotted a glaring problem. All your advantage was gone if the enemy came from the wrong direction, or got behind you, and if you needed derricks to move these things... “These bronze lofting tubes—”

“Dragons,” she broke in. “Lofting tubes are for making the nightflowers bloom. For delighting the eye. I will call them dragons, and the Seanchan will howl when my dragons bite.” Her tone was grim as sharp stone.

“These dragons, then. Whatever you call them, they’ll be heavy and hard to move. Can you mount them on wheels? Like a wagon or cart? Would they be too heavy for horses to pull?”

She laughed again. “It’s good to see you are more than the pretty face.” Climbing a three-step folding ladder that put her waist nearly level with the top of the lofting tube, she set the nightflower into the tube with the fuse down. It slid in a little way and stopped, a dome above the top of the tube. “Hand me that,” she told him, gesturing to a pole as long and thick as a quarterstaff. When he handed it up to her, she held it upright and used a leather cap on one end to push the nightflower deeper. That appeared to take little effort. “I have already drawn plans for the dragoncarts. Four horses could draw one easily, along with a second cart to hold the eggs. Not nightflowers. Dragons’ eggs. You see, I have thought long and hard about how to use my dragons, not just how to make them.” Pulling the capped rod from the tube, she climbed down and picked up the lantern. “Come. I must make the sky bloom a little, then I want my supper and my bed.”

Just outside the canvas enclosure stood a wooden rack filled with more peculiar implements, a forked stick, tongs as long as Mat was tall, other things just as odd and all made of wood. Setting the lantern on the ground, she placed the capped pole in the rack and took a square wooden box from a shelf. “I suppose now you want to learn how to make the secret powders, yes? Well, I did promise. I am the Guild, now,” she added bitterly, removing the box’s lid. It was an odd box, a solid piece of wood drilled with holes, each of which held a thin stick. She plucked out one and replaced the lid. “I can decide what is secret.”

“Better than that, I want you to come with me. I know somebody who’ll be happy to pay for making as many of your dragons as you want. He can make every bellfounder from Andor to Tear stop casting bells and start casting dragons.” Avoiding Rand’s name did not stop the colors from whirling inside his head and resolving for an instant into Rand—fully clothed, thank the Light—talking with Loial by lamplight in a wood-paneled room. There were other people, but the image focused on Rand, and it vanished too quickly for Mat to make out who they were. He was pretty sure that what he saw was what was actually happening right that moment, impossible as that seemed. It would be good to see Loial again, but burn him, there had to be some way to keep those things out of his head! “And if he isn’t interested,” again the colors came, but he resisted, and they melted away, “I can pay to have hundreds cast myself. A lot of them, anyway.”

The Band was going to end up fighting Seanchan, and most likely Trollocs as well. And he would be there when it happened. There was no getting around the fact. Try to avoid it how he would, that bloody ta’veren twisting would put him right in the bloody middle. So he was ready to pour out gold like water if it gave him a way to kill his enemies before they got close enough to poke holes in his hide.

Aludra tilted her head to one side, pursing her rosebud lips. “Who is this man with such power?”

“It’ll have to be a secret between us. Thom and Juilin know, and Egeanin and Domon, and the Aes Sedai, Teslyn and Joline at least, and Vanin and the Redarms, but nobody else, and I want to keep it that way.” Blood and bloody ashes, far too many people knew already. He waited for her curt nod before saying, “The Dragon Reborn.” The colors swirled and despite his fighting them again became Rand and Loial for a moment. This was not going to be as easy as it had seemed.

“You know the Dragon Reborn,” she said doubtfully.

“We grew up in the same village,” he growled, already fighting the colors. This time, they nearly coalesced before vanishing. “If you don’t believe me, ask Teslyn and Joline. Ask Thom. But don’t do it around anyone else. A secret, remember.”

“The Guild has been my life since I was a girl.” She scraped one of the sticks quickly down the side of the box, and the thing sputtered into flame! It smelled of sulphur. “The dragons, they are my life now. The dragons, and revenge on the Seanchan.” Bending, she touched the flame to a dark length of fuse that ran under the canvas. As soon as the fuse caught, she shook the stick until the fire went out, then dropped it. With a crackling hiss the flame sped along the fuse. “I think me I believe you.” She held out her free hand. “When you leave, I will go with you. And you will help me make many dragons.”

For a moment, as he shook her hand, he was sure the dice had stopped, but a heartbeat later they were rattling again. It must have been imagination. After all, this agreement with Aludra might help the Band, and incidentally Mat Cauthon, stay alive, yet it could hardly be called fateful. He would still have to fight those battles, and however you planned, however well-trained your men were, luck played its part, too, bad as well as good, even for him. These dragons would not change that. But were the dice bouncing as loudly? He thought not, yet how could he be sure? Never before had they slowed without stopping. It had to be his imagination.

A hollow thump came from inside the enclosure, and acrid smoke billowed over the canvas wall. Moments later the nightflower bloomed in the darkness above Runnien Crossing, a great ball of red and green streaks. It bloomed again and again in his dreams that night and for many nights after, but there it bloomed among charging horsemen and massed pikes, rending flesh as he had once seen stone rent by fireworks. In his dreams, he tried to catch the things with his hands, tried to stop them, yet they rained down in unending streams on a hundred battlefields. In his dreams, he wept for the death and destruction. And somehow it seemed that the rattling of the dice in his head sounded like laughter. Not his laughter. The Dark One’s laughter.

The next morning, with the sun just rising toward a cloudless sky, he was sitting on the steps of his green wagon, carefully scraping at the bowstave with a sharp knife—you had to be careful, almost delicate; a careless slice could ruin all your work—when Egeanin and Domon came out. Strangely, they seemed to have dressed with special care, in their best, such as it was. He was not the only one to have bought cloth in Jurador, but without promises of Mat’s gold to speed them, the seamstresses were still sewing for Domon and Egeanin. The blue-eyed Seanchan woman wore a bright green dress heavily embroidered with tiny white and yellow flowers on the high neck and all down the sleeves. A flowered scarf held her long black wig in place. Domon, looking decidedly odd with a head of very short hair and that Illianer beard that left his upper lip bare, had brushed his worn brown coat till it actually had some semblance of neatness. They squeezed past Mat and hurried off without a word, and he thought no more of it until they returned an hour or so later to announce that they had been into the village and gotten Mother Darvale to marry them.

He could not stop himself from gaping. Egeanin’s stern face and sharp eyes gave good indications of her character. What could have brought Domon to marry the woman? As soon marry a bear. Realizing the Illianer was beginning to glare at him, he hastily got to his feet and made a presentable bow over the bowstave. “Congratulations, Master Domon. Congratulations, Mistress Domon. The Light shine on you both.” What else was he to say?

Domon kept glaring as if he had heard Mat’s thoughts, though, and Egeanin snorted. “My name is Leilwin Shipless, Cauthon,” she drawled. “That’s the name I was given and the name I’ll die with. And a good name it is, since it helped me reach a decision I should have made weeks ago.” Frowning, she looked sideways at Domon. “You do understand why I could not take your name, don’t you, Bayle?”

“No, lass,” Domon replied gently, resting a thick hand on her shoulder, “but I will take you with any name you do care to use so long as you be my wife. I told you that.” She smiled and laid her hand atop his, and he began smiling, too. Light, but the pair of them were sickening. If marriage made a man start smiling like dreamy syrup... Well, not Mat Cauthon. He might be as good as wed, but Mat Cauthon was never going to start carrying on like a loon.

And that was how he ended up in a green-striped wall-tent, not very large, that belonged to a pair of lean Domani brothers who ate fire and swallowed swords. Even Thom admitted that Balat and Abar were good, and they were popular with the other performers, so finding them places to stay was easy, but that tent cost as much as the wagon had! Everybody knew he had gold to fling about, and that pair just sighed over giving up their snug home when he tried to bargain them down. Well, a new bride and groom needed privacy, and he was more than glad to give it to them if it meant he did not have to watch them go moon-eyed at each other. Besides, he was tired of taking his turn sleeping on the floor. In the tent, at least he had his own cot every night—narrow and hard it might be, yet it was softer than floorboards—and with only him, he had more room than in the wagon even after the rest of his clothes were moved in and stowed in a pair of brass-bound chests. He had a washstand of his very own, a ladderback chair that was not too unsteady, a sturdy stool, and a table big enough to hold a plate and cup and a pair of decent brass lamps. The chest of gold he left in the green wagon. Only a blind fool would try robbing Domon. Only a madman would try robbing Egeanin. Leilwin, if she insisted, though he was still certain she would regain her senses eventually. After the first night, spent close by the Aes Sedai wagon, with the foxhead cool for half the night, he had the tent set up facing Tuon’s wagon by dint of making sure that the Redarms started raising it before anyone else could claim the space.

“Are you placing yourself as my guard now?” Tuon said coolly when she saw the tent for the first time.

“No,” he replied. “I’m just hoping for more glimpses of you.” That was the Light’s own truth—well, getting away from the Aes Sedai was part of it, but the other was true, too—yet the woman waggled her fingers at Selucia, and the pair of them launched into gales of giggles before recovering themselves and reentering the faded purple wagon with all the dignity of a royal procession. Women!

He was not often alone in the tent. He had taken on Lopin as his bodyservant after Nalesean’s death, and the stout Tairen, with his blocky face and a beard that nearly reached his chest, was always popping in to bow his balding head and ask what “my Lord” would enjoy for his next meal or inquire whether “my Lord” had any need of wine or tea or would care for a plate of candied dried figs he had vaguely acquired somewhere. Lopin was vain over his ability to find delicacies where it seemed there could be none. That, or he was rifling through the clothes chests to see whether anything needed repair or cleaning or ironing. Something always did, in his estimation, though it all looked fine to Mat. Nerim, Talmanes’ melancholy bodyservant, frequently accompanied him, largely because the skinny, gray-haired Cairhienin was bored. Mat could not understand how anyone could get bored with not having any work to do, but Nerim was full of dolorous comments on how poorly Talmanes must be faring without him, mournfully sighing about five times a day that Talmanes must have given his place to another by now, and he was ready to wrestle Lopin if need be for a share of the cleaning and mending. He even wanted his turn blacking Mat’s boots!

Noal dropped by to spin his tall tales, and Olver to play stones or Snakes and Foxes, when he was not playing with Tuon instead. Thom came to play stones, too, and to share rumors he picked up in the towns and villages, knuckling his long white mustache over the choicer bits. Juilin brought his own reports, but he always brought Amathera, as well. The former Panarch of Tarabon was pretty enough for Mat to understand why the thief-catcher was interested, with a rosebud mouth just made for kissing, and she clung to Juilin’s arm as if she might return some of his feelings, but her big eyes always gazed fearfully toward Tuon’s wagon, even when they were all inside Mat’s tent, and it was still all Juilin could do to keep her from dropping to her knees and putting her face to the ground whenever she glimpsed Tuon or Selucia. She did the same with Egeanin, and with Bethamin and Seta, besides. Considering that Amathera had been da’covale for just a matter of months, it fair made Mat’s skin crawl. Tuon could not really mean to make him da’covale when she was going to marry him. Could she?

He soon told them to stop bringing him rumors about Rand. Fighting the colors in his head was too much effort, and he lost that fight as often as he won. Sometimes it was all right, but sometimes he caught glimpses of Rand and Min, and it seemed those two were carrying on something awful. Anyway, the rumors were all the same, really. The Dragon Reborn was dead, killed by Aes Sedai, by Asha’man, by the Seanchan, by a dozen other assassins. No, he was in hiding, he was massing a secret army, he was doing some fool thing or other that varied village by village and usually inn by inn. The one thing that was clear was that Rand was no longer in Cairhien, and nobody had any idea where he was. The Dragon Reborn had vanished.

It was odd how many of these Altaran farmers and villagers and townsfolk seemed worried by that, as worried as the merchants passing through and the men and women who worked for them. Not one of those people knew any more of the Dragon Reborn than the tales they carried, yet his disappearance frightened them. Thom and Juilin were clear on that, until he made them stop. If the Dragon Reborn was dead, what was the world to do? That was the question that people asked over breakfast in the morning and ale in the evening and likely on going to bed. Mat could have told them Rand was alive—those bloody visions made him sure of that—but explaining how he knew was another matter. Even Thom and Juilin seemed uncertain about the colors. The merchants and the others would have thought him a madman. And if they believed, that would only scatter rumors about him, not to mention likely setting the Seanchan to hunting for him. All he wanted was the bloody colors out of his head.

Moving into the tent made the showfolk eye him very oddly, and small wonder. First he had been running off with Egeanin—Leilwin, if she insisted on it—and Domon supposedly was her servant, but now she was married to Domon, and Mat was out of the wagon entirely. Some of the showfolk seemed to think it no more than he deserved for trailing after Tuon, yet a surprising number offered him sympathy. Several men commiserated over the fickleness of women—at least they did when they there were no women around—and some of the unmarried women, contortionists and acrobats and seamstresses, began eyeing him much too warmly. He might have enjoyed that if they had not been so willing to give him smoky looks right in front of Tuon. The first time that happened, he was so startled that his eyes nearly popped. Tuon seemed to find it amusing, of all things! She seemed to. But only a fool thought he knew what was in a woman’s head just because she had a smile on her face.

He continued to dine with her every midday, if they were halted, and began arriving for his nightly games of stones early, so she had to feed him then, too. Light’s truth, if you got a woman to feed you on a regular basis, she was halfway won. At least, he dined with her when she would let him into the wagon. One night he found the latch down, and no amount of talking would make her or Selucia open the door. It seemed a bird had managed to get inside during the day, an extremely bad omen apparently, and the pair of them had to spend the night in prayer and contemplation to avert some evil or other. They seemed to run half their lives according to strange superstitions. Tuon or Selucia either one would make odd signs with their hands if they saw a torn spiderweb with the spider in it, and Tuon explained to him, just as serious as if she were making sense, that the sure result of clearing away a spiderweb before shooing the spider out of it was the death of someone close to you within the month. They would see a flight of birds circle more than once and predict a storm, or draw a finger through a line of marching ants, count how long it took for the ants to rejoin their line, and predict how many days of fair weather lay ahead, and never mind that it did not work out that way. Oh, there was rain three days after the birds—crows, disturbingly enough—but it was nowhere near a storm, just a gray, drizzling day.

“Obviously, Selucia miscounted with the ants,” Tuon said, placing a white stone on the board with that oddly graceful arching of her fingers. Selucia, watching over her shoulder in a white blouse and divided brown skirts, nodded. As usual, she wore a head scarf over her short golden hair even indoors, a length of red-and-gold silk that day. Tuon was all in brocaded blue silk, a coat of odd cut that covered her hips and divided skirts so narrow they seemed to be wide trousers. She spent considerable time giving the seamstresses detailed instructions on what she wanted sewn, and little of it was much like anything he had ever seen before. It was all in Seanchan styles, he suspected, though she had had a few riding dresses sewn that would not draw comment, for when she went outside. Rain pattered softly on the roof of the wagon. “Obviously, what the birds told us was modified by the ants. It is never simple, Toy. You must learn these things. I will not have you ignorant.”

Mat nodded as if that made sense and placed his black stone. And she called his uneasiness about crows and ravens superstition! Knowing when to keep your mouth shut was a useful skill around women. Around men, too, but more so around women. You could be pretty certain what would set a man’s eyes on fire.

Talking with her could be dangerous in other ways, too. “What do you know of the Dragon Reborn?” she asked him another evening.

He choked on a mouthful of wine, and the whirling colors in his brain dissipated in a fit of coughing. The wine was near enough vinegar; but even Nerim had a hard time finding good wine these days. “Well, he’s the Dragon Reborn,” he said when he could speak, wiping wine from his chin with one hand. For a moment, he saw Rand eating at a large dark table. “What else is there to know?” Selucia refilled his cup smoothly.

“A great deal, Toy. For one thing, he must kneel to the Crystal Throne before Tarmon Gai’don. The Prophecies are clear on that, but I haven’t even been able to learn where he is. It becomes still more urgent if he is the one who sounded the Horn of Valere, as I suspect.”

“The Horn of Valere?” he said weakly. The Prophecies said what? “It’s been found, then?”

“It must have been, mustn’t it, if it was sounded?” she drawled dryly. “The reports I’ve seen from the place where it was blown, a place called Falme, are very disturbing. Very disturbing. Securing whoever blew the Horn, man or woman, may be as important as securing the Dragon Reborn himself. Are you going to play a stone or not, Toy?”

He played his stone, but he was so shaken that the colors whirled and faded without forming any image. In fact, he was barely able to eke out a draw from what had seemed a clear winning position.

“You played very poorly toward the end,” Tuon murmured, frowning thoughtfully at the board, now divided evenly between the control of black stones and white. He could all but see her start trying to work out what they had been talking about when his poor play began. Talking with her was like walking a crumbling ledge across the face of a cliff. One misstep, and Mat Cauthon would be as dead as last year’s mutton. Only, he had to walk that ledge. He had no bloody choice. Oh, he enjoyed it. In a way. The longer he spent with her, the more opportunity to memorize that heart-shaped face, to get it down so he could see her just by closing his eyes. But there was always that misstep waiting ahead. He could almost see that, too.

For several days after giving her the little bunch of silk flowers, he brought her no presents, and he thought he was beginning to detect hints of disappointment when he appeared empty-handed. Then, four days out of Jurador, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon into a nearly cloudless sky, he got her and Selucia out of the purple wagon. Well, he just wanted Tuon, but Selucia might as well have been her shadow when it came to trying to separate them. He had commented on that once, making a joke, and both women went on talking as if he had not spoken. It was a good thing he knew Tuon could laugh at a joke, because sometimes she seemed to have no sense of humor at all. Selucia, wrapped in a green wool cloak with the cowl all but hiding her red headscarf, eyed him suspiciously, but then, she nearly always did. Tuon never bothered with a scarf, yet the shortness of her black hair was not so apparent with the hood of her blue cloak up.

“Cover your eyes, Precious,” he said. “I have a surprise for you.”

“I like surprises,” she replied, placing her hands over her big eyes. For an instant, she smiled in anticipation, but only for an instant. “Some surprises, Toy.” That had the sound of a warning. Selucia stood hard by her shoulder, and though the bosomy woman appeared completely at her ease, something told him she was as tense as a cat ready to leap. He suspected she did not like surprises.

“Wait right there,” he said, and ducked around the side of the purple wagon. When he returned, he was leading Pips and the razor, both saddled and bridled. The mare stepped lively, frisking at the prospect of an outing. “You can look now. I thought you might like a ride.” They had hours; the show might as well have been deserted for all the evidence of life among the wagons. Only a handful had smoke rising from their metal chimneys. “She’s yours,” he added, and stiffened as the words nearly froze in his throat.

There was no doubt this time. He had said the horse was hers, and suddenly the dice were not beating so loudly in his head. It was not that they had slowed; he was sure of that. There had been more than one set rattling away. One had stopped when he made his agreement with Aludra, and another when he told Tuon the horse was hers. That was odd in itself—how could giving her a horse be fateful for him?—but Light, it had been bad enough when he had to worry about one set of dice giving warning at a time. How many sets were still bouncing off the inside of his skull? How many more fateful moments were waiting to crash down on him?

Tuon went immediately to the razor, all smiles as she examined the animal as thoroughly as he had himself. She did train horses for fun, after all. Horses and damane, the Light help him. Selucia was studying him, he realized, her face an expressionless mask. Because of the horse, or because he had gone stiff as a post?

“She’s a razor,” he said, patting Pips’ blunt nose. The gelding had been getting plenty of exercise, but the razor’s eagerness seemed to have infected him. “Domani bloodborn favor razors, and it’s not likely you’ll ever see another one outside of Arad Doman. What will you name her?”

“It is bad luck to name a horse before riding it,” Tuon replied, taking the reins. She was still beaming. Her big eyes shone. “She’s a very fine animal, Toy. A wonderful gift. Either you have a good eye, or you were very lucky.”

“I have a good eye, Precious,” he said warily. She seemed more delighted than even the razor called for.

“If you say so. Where is Selucia’s mount?”

Oh, well. It had been worth a try. A smart man hedged his bets, though, so a sharp whistle brought Metwyn at a trot leading a saddled dapple. Mat ignored the wide grin that split the man’s pale face. The Cairhienin Redarm had been sure he would not get away with leaving Selucia behind, but there was no need to smirk over it. Mat judged the dapple gelding, ten years old, to be gentle enough for Selucia—in his memory, ladies’ maids seldom were more than tolerable riders—but the woman gave the animal a going over as complete as Tuon’s. And when she was done, she directed a look at Mat that said she would ride the horse so as not to make a bother, but she found it decidedly lacking. Women could compress a great deal into one look.

Once clear of the field where the show was camped, Tuon walked the razor along the road for a time, then took her to a trot, and then a canter. The surface was hard-packed yellow clay here, studded with edges of old paving stones. No trouble for a well-shod horse, though, and he had made sure of the razor’s shoes. Mat kept Pips even with Tuon as much for the pleasure of watching her smile as anything else. When Tuon was enjoying herself, the stern judge was forgotten and pure delight shone on her face. Not that watching her was easy, since Selucia held the dapple between them. The yellow-haired woman was a formidable chaperone, and by the sidelong glances she gave him, her small smiles, she very much enjoyed the job of frustrating him.

At the start they had the road to themselves except for a few farm carts, but after a while a Tinker caravan appeared ahead of them, a line of garishly painted and lacquered wagons rolling slowly southward down the other side of the road with massive dogs trotting alongside. Those dogs were the only real protection Tinkers had. The driver of the lead wagon, a thing as red as Luca’s coats, trimmed in yellow and with violent green-and-yellow wheels to boot, half-stood to peer toward Mat, then sat back down and said something to the woman beside him, doubtless reassured by the presence of the two women with Mat. Tinkers were a cautious lot, of necessity. That whole caravan would whip up their horses and flee a single man they thought meant harm.

Mat nodded to the fellow as the wagons began to pass. The lean, gray-haired man’s high-collared coat was as green as his wagon’s wheels, and his wife’s dress was striped in shades of blue, most bright enough to suit any of the show’s performers. The gray-haired man raised his hand in a wave ...

And Tuon suddenly turned the razor and galloped into the trees, cloak streaming out behind her. In a flash, Selucia had the dapple darting after her. Snatching his hat off so as not to lose it, Mat wheeled Pips and followed. Shouts rose from the wagons, but he paid them no mind. His attention was all on Tuon. He wished he knew what she was up to. Not escape, he was sure. Likely she was just trying to make him tear out his hair. If so, she was in a fair way for succeeding.

Pips quickly reeled in the dapple and left a scowling Selucia behind flailing her mount with the reins, but Tuon and the razor kept their lead as the rolling land climbed toward hills. Startled flights of birds sprang up from beneath both animals’ hooves, coveys of gray dove and of brown-speckled quail, sometimes ruffed brown grouse. All disaster needed was for the mare to be frightened by one of those. The best-trained mount could rear and fall when a bird burst up under hoof. Worse, Tuon rode like a madwoman, never slowing, only swerving from her line where the underbrush lay dense, leaping trees toppled by old storms as if she had a clue what lay on the other side. Well, he had to ride like a madman himself to keep up, though he winced every time he set Pips to jump a tree trunk. Some were near as thick as he was tall. He dug his bootheels into the gelding’s flanks, urging more speed though he knew Pips was running as hard as he ever had. He had chosen too well in that bloody razor. Up and up they raced through the forest.

As abruptly as she had begun her mad dash, Tuon reined in, well over a mile from the road. The trees were old here and widely spaced, black pines forty paces tall and wide-spreading oaks with branches that arched down to touch the ground before rising again and could have been sliced crosswise into tables to seat a dozen in comfort. Thick creepers shrouded half-buried boulders and stone outcrops, but aside from that only a few weeds pushed through the mulch. Oaks that size killed off any lesser undergrowth beneath them.

“Your animal is better than he looks,” the fool woman said, patting her mount’s neck, when he reached her. Oh, she was all innocence, just out for a pleasant ride. “Maybe you do have a good eye.” With the cowl of her cloak fallen down her back, her cap of short hair was visible, glistening like black silk. He suppressed a desire to stroke it.

“Burn how good my eye is,” he growled, clapping his hat on. He knew he should speak smoothly, but he could not have taken the roughness from his voice with a file. “Do you always ride like a moon-blinded idiot? You could have broken that mare’s neck before she even got a name. Worse, you could have broken your own. I promised to get you home safely, and I mean to do just that. If you’re going to risk killing yourself every time you go riding, then I won’t let you ride.” He wished he had those last words back as soon as they left his tongue. A man might laugh off a threat like that as a joke, maybe, if you were lucky, but a woman... Now all he could do was wait for the explosion. He expected Aludra’s nightflowers to pale by comparison.

She raised the hood of her cloak, settling it just so. She studied him, tilting her head first one way then the other. Finally, she nodded to herself. “I name her Akein. That means ‘swallow.’ ”

Mat blinked. That was it? No eruption? “I know. A good name. It suits her.” What was she about now? The woman almost never did or said what he expected.

“What is this place, Toy?” she said, frowning at the trees. “Or should I say, what was it? Do you know?”

What did she mean, what was this place? It was a bloody forest was what it was. But suddenly what had seemed a large boulder right in front of him, nearly obscured by thick vines, resolved into a huge stone head, slightly tilted to one side. A woman’s head, he thought; those smooth roundels were probably meant for jewels in her hair. The statue it sat on must have been immense. A full span of the thing showed, yet only her eyes and the top of her head were out of the ground. And that long white stone outcrop with an oak tree’s roots growing over it was piece of a spiral column. All around them now he could make out bits of columns and large worked stones that plainly had been part of some grand structure and what had to be a stone sword two spans long, all half buried. Still, ruins of cities and monuments could be found in many places, and few even among Aes Sedai had any idea what they had been. Opening his mouth to say that he did not know, he caught sight through the trees of three tall hills in a row, perhaps another mile on. The middle hill had a cleft top, like a wedge cut cleanly out, while the hill on the left had two. And he knew. There could hardly be three hills exactly like that anywhere else.

Those hills had been called The Dancers when this place had been Londaren Cor, the capital city of Eharon. The road behind them had been paved then and ran through the heart of the city, which had sprawled for miles. People had said that the artistry in stone that the Ogier had practiced in Tar Valon, they had perfected in Londaren Cor. Of course, the people of every Ogier-built city had claimed their own outdid Tar Valon, confirming Tar Valon as the touchstone. He had a number of memories of the city—dancing at a ball in the Palace of the Moon, carousing in soldiers’ taverns where veiled dancers writhed, watching the Procession of Flutes during the Blessing of the Swords—but oddly, he had another memory of those hills, from near enough five hundred years after the Trollocs left no stone standing in Londaren Cor and Eharon died in blood and fire. Why it had been necessary for Nerevan and Esandara to invade Shiota, as the land was then, he did not know. Those old memories were fragments however long a time any one covered, and full of gaps. He had no idea why those hills had been called The Dancers, either, or what the Blessing of the Swords was. But he remembered being an Esandaran lord in a battle fought among these ruins, and he remembered having those hills in view when he took an arrow through his throat. He must have fallen no more than half a mile from the very spot where he sat Pips, drowning in his own blood.

Light, I hate to remember dying, he thought, and the thought turned to a coal burning in his brain. A coal that burned hotter and hotter. He remembered those men’s deaths, not just one but dozens of them. He—remembered—dying.

“Toy, are you ill?” Tuon brought the mare close and peered up into his face. Concern filled her big eyes. “You’ve gone pale as the moon.”

“I’m right as spring water,” he muttered. She was close enough for him to kiss if he bent his head, but he did not move. He could not. He was thinking so furiously he had nothing left for motion. Somehow only the Light knew, the Eelfinn had gathered the memories they had planted in his head, but how could they harvest memory from a corpse? A corpse in the world of men, at that. He was certain they never came to this side of that twisted doorframe ter’angreal for longer than minutes at a time. A way occurred to him, one he did not like, not a scrap. Maybe they created some sort of link to any human who visited them, a link that allowed them to copy all of a man’s memories after that right up to the moment he died. In some of those memories from other men he was white-haired, in some only a few years older than he really was, and everything in between, but there were none of childhood or growing up. What were the odds of that, if they had just stuffed him with random bits and pieces, likely things they considered rubbish or had done with? What did they do with memories, anyway? They had to have some reason for gathering them beyond giving them away again. No, he was just trying to avoid where this led. Burn him, the bloody foxes were inside his head right then! They had to be. It was the only explanation that made sense.

“Well, you look as if you’re about to vomit,” Tuon said, backing the razor away with a grimace. “Who in the show would have herbs? I have some knowledge there.”

“I’m all right, I tell you.” In truth, he did want to sick up. Having those foxes in his head was a thousand times worse than the dice however hard the dice rattled. Could the Eelfinn see through his eyes? Light, what was he going to do? He doubted any Aes Sedai could Heal him of this, not that he would trust them to, not when it meant leaving off the foxhead. There was nothing to be done. He would just have to live with it. He groaned at the thought.

Cantering up to them, Selucia gave him and Tuon each a quick look, as if considering what they might have been up to in their time alone. But then, she had taken her time in catching up, giving them that time. That was hopeful. “Next time, you can ride this gentle creature and I will ride your gelding,” she told Mat. “High Lady, people from those wagons are following us with dogs. They’re afoot, but they will be here soon. The dogs don’t bark.”

“Trained guard dogs, then,” Tuon said, gathering her reins. “Mounted, we can avoid them easily enough.”

“No need to try, and no use,” Mat told her. He should have expected this. “Those people are Tinkers, Tuatha’an, and they’re no danger to anybody. They couldn’t be violent if their lives depended on it. That’s no exaggeration, just simple truth. But they saw you two go haring off, trying to get away from me as it must have seemed, and me chasing after. Now that those dogs have a scent trail, the Tinkers will follow us all the way back to the show if need be to make sure you two haven’t been kidnapped or harmed. We’ll go meet them to save the time and trouble.” It was not the Tinkers’ time he cared about. Luca probably would not care one way or the other if a bunch of Tinkers getting in the way delayed the show setting out, but Mat certainly would.

Selucia scowled at him indignantly, and her fingers flew, but Tuon laughed. “Toy wishes to be commanding today, Selucia. I will let him command and see how he does.” Bloody kind of her.

They trotted back the way they had come—riding around the fallen trees this time, though now and then Tuon would gather her reins as if she meant to jump one, then give Mat a mischievous grin—and it was not long before the Tinkers came into sight running through the trees behind their huge mastiffs like a flight of butterflies, fifty or so men and women in bright colors, often in jarring combinations. A man might be wearing a red-and-blue striped coat and baggy yellow trousers tucked into knee boots, or a violet-colored coat above red trousers, or worse. Some women wore dresses striped in as many colors as there were colors and even colors Mat had no name for, while others wore skirts and blouses as varied in hue and as clashing as the men’s coats and trousers. A fair number had shawls, as well, to add more colors to the eye-scrambling blend. Except for the gray-haired man who had been driving the lead wagon, they all appeared to be short of their middle years. He must be the Seeker, the leader of the caravan. Mat dismounted, and after a moment, Tuon and Selucia did, too.

The Tinkers stopped at that, calling their dogs to heel. The big animals slumped to the ground, tongues lolling out, and the people came on more slowly. None carried so much as a stick, and though Mat wore no weapons that showed, they eyed him warily. The men clustered in front of him, while the women gathered around Tuon and Selucia. There was no threat in it, but as easily as that, Tuon and Selucia were separated from him, off where the Tinker women could make inquiries. Suddenly it occurred to him that Tuon might think it a fine game to claim he was trying to bother her. She and Selucia could ride off while he was trying to contend with Tinkers crowding around him and Pips so he could not climb into the saddle. That was all they would do, but unless he was willing to fight his way clear, they might keep him here for hours, maybe, to give that pair time to “escape.”

The gray-haired man bowed with his hands pressed to his chest. “Peace be on you and yours, my Lord. Forgiveness if we intrude, but we feared our dogs had frightened the ladies’ horses.”

Mat responded with a bow in the same fashion. “Peace be on you always, Seeker, and on all the People. The ladies’ horses weren’t frightened. The ladies are ... impetuous at times.” What were the women saying? He tried to eavesdrop, but their voices were low murmurs.

“You know something of the People, my Lord?” The Seeker sounded surprised and had a right to. The Tuatha’an kept away from anywhere larger than a moderate-sized village. They would seldom encounter anyone in a silk coat.

“Only a little,” Mat replied. A very little. He had memories of meeting Tinkers, but he himself had never spoken to one before. What were those bloody women saying? “Will you answer me a question? I’ve seen a number of your caravans the past few days, more than I’d have expected to, and all heading toward Ebou Dar. Is there a reason?”

The man hesitated, darting a glance toward the women. They were still murmuring away, and he had to be wondering why their conversation was lasting so long. After all, it only needed a moment to say yes, I need help, or the opposite. “It is the people called Seanchan, my Lord,” he said finally. “Word is spreading among the People that there is safety where the Seanchan rule, and equal justice for all. Elsewhere... You understand, my Lord?”

Mat did. Like the showfolk, Tinkers were strangers wherever they went, and worse, strangers with an undeserved reputation for thievery—well, they stole no more often than anyone else—and a deserved one for trying to entice young people into joining them. And on top of it, for Tinkers there was no question of fighting back if anybody tried to rob them or chase them away. “Take a care, Seeker. Their safety comes at a price, and some of their laws are harsh. You know what they do with women who can channel?”

“Thank you for your concern, my Lord,” the man said calmly, “but few of our women ever begin channeling, and if one does, we will do as we always do and take her to Tar Valon.”

Abruptly, the women began laughing, great gales and peals. The Seeker relaxed visibly. If the women were laughing, Mat was not the kind of man who would strike them down or kill them for getting in his way. For Mat’s part, he scowled. There was nothing in that laughter that he liked.

The Tinkers made their departure with more apologies from the Seeker for having bothered them, but the women kept looking back and laughing behind cupped hands. Some of the men leaned close as they walked, plainly asking questions, but the women just shook their heads. And looked back again, laughing.

“What did you tell them?” Mat asked sourly.

“Oh, that’s none of your business, now is it, Toy?” Tuon replied, and Selucia laughed. Oh, she bloody cackled, she did. He decided he was better off not knowing. Women just purely enjoyed planting needles in a man.

A Short Path

Tuon and Selucia were not the only women who caused Mat trouble, of course. Sometimes it seemed that most of the trouble in his life came from women, which he could not understand at all since he always tried to treat them well. Even Egeanin gave her share of grief, though it was the smallest share.

“I was right. You do think you can marry her,” she drawled when he asked her for help with Tuon. She and Domon were seated on the steps of their wagon, with their arms around each other. A trickle of smoke rose from Domon’s pipe. It was midmorning on a fine day, though gathering clouds threatened rain for later, and the performers were putting on their acts for the inhabitants of four small villages that, combined, perhaps equaled Runnien Crossing in size. Mat had no desire to go watch. Oh, he still enjoyed watching the contortionists, and better still the female acrobats and tumblers, but when you saw jugglers and fire-eaters and the like every day just about, even Miyora and her leopards became, well, less interesting if not exactly ordinary.

“Never you mind what I think, Egeanin. Will you tell me what you know of her? Trying to find out from her is like fishing blindfolded and barehanded in a briar patch trying to catch a rabbit.”

“My name is Leilwin, Cauthon. Don’t forget it again,” she said in tones suitable for giving orders on a ship’s deck. Her eyes tried to drive the command home like blue hammers. “Why should I help you? You aim too high above yourself, a mole yearning for the sun. You could face execution for simply saying you want to marry her. It’s disgusting. Besides, I’ve left all that behind me. Or it’s left me,” she added bitterly. Domon gave her a one-armed hug.

“If you’ve left all that behind you, what do you care how disgusting my wanting to marry her is?” There. It was out in the open. Partly, at least.

Domon removed the pipe from his mouth long enough to blow a smoke-ring aimed at Mat’s face. “If she does no want to help you, then give over.” He gave it that same ship’s deck voice of command.

Egeanin muttered under her breath. She appeared to be arguing with herself. Finally, she shook her head. “No, Bayle. He’s right. If I’m cast adrift, then I have to find a new ship and a new course. I can never return to Seanchan, so I might as well cut the cable and be done with it.”

What she knew of Tuon was mainly rumor—it seemed the Imperial family lived their lives behind walls even when in plain sight, and only whispers of what went on behind those walls escaped—yet those were sufficient to make the hair on the back of Mat’s neck stand up. His wife-to-be had had a brother and a sister assassinated? After they tried to have her killed, true, but still! What kind of family went around killing one another? The Seanchan Blood and the Imperial family, for starters. Half of her siblings were dead, assassinated, most of them, and maybe the others, too. Some of what Egeanin—Leilwin—had to tell was generally known among Seanchan, and hardly more comforting. Tuon would have been schooled in intrigue from infancy, schooled in weapons and fighting with her bare hands, heavily guarded yet expected to be her own last line of defense. All of those born to the Blood were taught to dissemble, to disguise their intentions and ambitions. Power shifted constantly among the Blood, some climbing higher, others slipping down, and the dance was only faster and more dangerous in the Imperial family. The Empress—she started to add, “May she live forever,” and half-choked in swallowing the words, then closed her eyes for a long moment before continuing—the Empress had borne many children, as every Empress did, so that among those who survived there would be one fit to rule after her. It would not do to have someone who was stupid or a fool ascend the Crystal Throne. Tuon was accounted very far from either. Light! The woman he was to marry was as bad as Warder and Aes Sedai wrapped into one. And maybe as dangerous.

He had several conversations with Egeanin—he was careful to name her Leilwin to her face lest she go for him with her dagger, yet he thought of her as Egeanin—trying to learn more, but her knowledge of the Blood was largely from the outside looking in, and her knowledge of the Imperial Court, by her own admission, little better than that of a street urchin in Seandar. The day he gave Tuon the mare, he had ridden alongside Egeanin’s wagon having one of those fruitless conversations. He had accompanied Tuon and Selucia for a time, but they kept looking at him sideways, then exchanging glances and giggling. Over what they had told the Tinker women, without a sliver of doubt. A man could only take so much of that sort of thing.

“A clever gift, that mare,” Egeanin said, leaning out from the driver’s seat to look up the line of wagons. Domon was handling the reins. She took her turn sometimes, but handling a team was not among the skills she had learned on ships. “How did you know?”

“Know what?” he asked.

She straightened and adjusted her wig. He did not know why she continued to wear the thing. Her own black hair was short, but no shorter than Selucia’s. “About courting gifts. Among the Blood, when you are courting someone higher than you, a traditional gift is something exotic or rare. Best of all is if you can connect the gift somehow to one of the recipient’s pleasures, and it’s well known the High Lady loves horses. It’s good you’ve acknowledged that you don’t expect to be her equal, too. Not that this is going to work, you understand. I don’t have a clue why she’s still here, now you’ve stopped guarding her, but you can’t believe she’ll actually say the words. When she marries, it will be for the good of the Empire, not because some layabout like you gave her a horse or made her smile.”

Mat ground his teeth to keep from shouting a curse. He had acknowledged what? No wonder a set of bloody dice had stopped. Tuon would let him forget this when it snowed on Sunday. He was certain sure of that.

If Leilwin bloody Shipless gave him small griefs, the Aes Sedai managed larger. Aes Sedai liked nothing better. He was resigned to them traipsing about every village and town they stopped at, asking questions and doing the Light knew what else. He had no choice but resignation, with no way to stop them. They claimed to be taking care—at least, Teslyn and Edesina did; Joline snapped that he was a fool for worrying—yet an Aes Sedai taking care was still clearly a woman of consequence whether or not anybody recognized what she was. Lacking the coin for silks, they had purchased bolts of fine wool in Jurador, and the seamstresses worked as hard for Aes Sedai as they did for Mat’s gold, so they strolled about dressed like wealthy merchants and as sure of themselves as any noble ever born. Nobody saw one of them walk five strides without knowing that she expected the world to conform itself to her. Three women like that, with a traveling show at that, were sure to cause talk. At least Joline left her Great Serpent ring in her belt pouch. The other two had lost theirs to the Seanchan. If Mat had seen Joline with the thing actually on her finger, he thought he would have wept.

He got no more reports on their activities from the former sul’dam. Joline had Bethamin firmly in hand; the tall dark woman ran when Joline said run and jumped when she said toad. Edesina was giving her lessons, too, but Joline considered Bethamin a personal project for some reason. She was never harsh that Mat saw, not after the face slapping, but you might have thought she was getting Bethamin ready to go to the Tower, and Bethamin returned a sort of gratitude that made it clear her loyalties had shifted. As for Seta, the yellow-haired woman was so frightened of the sisters that she did not dare follow them any longer. She actually shivered when he suggested it. Strange as it seemed, Seta and Bethamin had been so accustomed to how Seanchan women who could channel saw themselves that they had really believed Aes Sedai could not be much different. They were dangerous when off the leash, yet dangerous dogs could be handled by someone who knew how, and they were experts with that particular sort of dangerous dog. Now they knew that Aes Sedai were not dogs of any kind. They were wolves. Seta would have found another place to sleep had that been possible, and he learned from Mistress Anan that the Seanchan woman put her hands over her eyes whenever Joline or Edesina was teaching Bethamin in the wagon.

“I’m certain she can see the weaves,” Setalle said. He would have said she sounded envious except that he doubted she envied anyone. “She’s halfway to admitting it, or she wouldn’t hide her eyes. Soon or late, she’ll come around and want to learn, too.” Maybe she did sound envious at that.

He could have wished for Seta to come around soon rather than late. Another student would have left the Aes Sedai less time to trouble him. If the show was halted, he could hardly turn around without seeing Joline or Edesina peering around the corner of a tent or wagon at him. Usually, the foxhead cooled on his chest. He could not prove they were actually channeling at him, yet he was certain of it. He was unsure which of them found the loophole in his protection that Adeleas and Vandene had, that something thrown with the Power would hit him, but after that, he could barely leave his tent without getting hit by a rock, and later, by other things, burning sparks like a shower from a forge fire, stinging sparks that made him leap and his hair try to stand on end. He was positive that Joline was behind it. If for no other reason, he never saw her without Blaeric or Fen or both nearby for protection. And she smiled at him like a cat smiling at a mouse.

He was planning how to get her alone—it was that or spend his time hiding from her—when she and Teslyn got into a shouting match that cleared Edesina out of the whitewashed wagon almost as quickly as Bethamin and Seta, and those two ran out and stood gaping at the wagon. The Yellow sister calmly went back to brushing her long black hair, lifting it up with one hand and sweeping the wooden hairbrush down it with the other. Seeing Mat, she smiled at him without ceasing the motions of her brush. The medallion went cold, and the shouting vanished as though cut off by a knife.

He never learned what was said behind that Power-woven shield. Teslyn favored him somewhat, yet when he asked her, she gave him one of those looks and silence. It was Aes Sedai business and none of his. Whatever had gone on in there, though, the rocks stopped, and the sparks. He tried thanking Teslyn, but she was having none of it.

“When something be no to be spoken of, it be no to be spoken of,” she told him firmly. “It would be well for you to learn that lesson if you are to be around sisters, and I think your life be tied to Aes Sedai, now if it was no before.” Bloody thing for her to say.

She never cracked her teeth about his ter’angreal, but the same could not be said of Joline and Edesina, even after the argument. They tried to bully him into handing it over every single day, Edesina cornering him by herself, Joline with her Warders glowering over her shoulders at him. Ter’angreal were rightfully the property of the White Tower. Ter’angreal needed proper study, particularly one with the odd properties this one possessed. Ter’angreal were potentially dangerous, too much so to be left in the hands of the uninitiated. Neither said especially a man’s hands, but Joline came close. He began to worry that the Green would have Blaeric and Fen simply take it from him. That pair still suspected he had been involved in what had happened to her, and the dark looks they gave him said they wanted any excuse to beat him like a drum.

“That would be stealing,” Mistress Anan told him in a lecturing tone, gathering her cloak around her. The sunlight was beginning to fade, and coolness already setting in. They were standing outside Tuon’s wagon, and he was hoping to get inside in time to be fed. Noal and Olver were already inside. Setalle was apparently off to visit the Aes Sedai, something she did frequently. “Tower law is quite clear on that. There might be considerable ... discussion ... over whether it had to be given back to you—I rather think it would not be, in the end—but Joline would face a fairly harsh penance for theft all the same.”

“Maybe she’d think it worth a penance,” he muttered. His stomach rumbled. The potted finches and creamed onions that Lopin had presented proudly for his midday meal had both turned out to be spoiling, to the Tairen’s extreme mortification, which meant Mat had had a heel of bread since breakfast and no more. “You know an awful lot about the White Tower.”

“What I know, Lord Mat, is that you’ve made just about every misstep a man can make with Aes Sedai, short of trying to kill one. The reason I came with you in the first place instead of going with my husband, half the reason I’m still here, is to try to keep you from making too many missteps. Truth to tell, I don’t know why I should care, but I do, and that’s that. If you had let yourself be guided by me, you’d not be in trouble with them now. I can’t say how much I can recover for you, not now, but I am still willing to try.”

Mat shook his head. There were only two ways to deal with Aes Sedai without getting burned, let them walk all over you or stay away from them. He would not do the first and could not do the second, so he had to find a third way, and he doubted it could come from following Setalle’s advice. Women’s advice about Aes Sedai generally was to follow the first path, though they never worded it that way. They talked of accommodation, but it was never the Aes Sedai who was expected to do any accommodating. “Half the reason? What’s the other ...?” He grunted as though he had been punched in the stomach. “Tuon? You think I can’t be trusted with Tuon?”

Mistress Anan laughed at him, a fine rich laugh. “You are a rogue, my Lord. Now, some rogues make fine husbands, once they’ve been tamed a little around the edges—my Jasfer was a rogue when I met him—but you still think you can nibble a pastry here, nibble a pastry there, then dance off to the next.”

“There’s no dancing away from this one,” Mat said frowning up at the wagon door. The dice clicked away in his head. “Not for me.” He was not sure he really wanted to dance away anymore, but want and wish as he might, he was well and truly caught.

“Like that, is it?” she murmured. “Oh, you’ve chosen a fine one to break your heart.”

“That’s as may be, Mistress Anan, but I have my reasons. I’d better get inside before they eat everything.” He turned toward the steps at the back of the wagon, and she laid a hand on his arm.

“Could I see it? Just to see?”

There was no doubt what she meant. He hesitated, then fished in the neck of his shirt for the leather cord that held the medallion. He could not have said why. He had refused Joline and Edesina even a glimpse. It was a fine piece of work, a silver foxhead nearly as big as his palm. Only one eye showed, and enough daylight remained to see, if you looked close, that the pupil was half shaded to form the ancient symbol of Aes Sedai. Her hand trembled slightly as she traced a finger around that eye. She had said she only wanted to see it, but he allowed the touching. She breathed out a long sigh.

“You were Aes Sedai, once,” he said quietly, and her hand froze.

She recovered herself so quickly that he might have imagined it. She was stately Setalle Anan, the innkeeper from Ebou Dar with the big golden hoops in her ears and the marriage knife dangling hilt-down into her round cleavage, about as far from an Aes Sedai as could be. “The sisters think I’m lying about never having been to the Tower. They think I was a servant there as a young woman and listened where I shouldn’t have.”

“They haven’t seen you looking at this.” He bounced the foxhead once on his hand before tucking it safely back under his shirt. She pretended not to care, and he pretended not to know she was pretending.

Her lips twitched into a brief, rueful smile, as if she knew what he was thinking. “The sisters would see it if they could let themselves,” she said, as simply as if she were discussing the chances of rain, “but Aes Sedai expect that when ... certain things ... happen, the woman will go away decently and die soon after. I went away, but Jasfer found me half starved and sick on the streets of Ebou Dar and took me to his mother.” She chuckled, just a woman telling how she met her husband. “He used to take in stray kittens, too. Now, you know some of my secrets, and I know some of yours. Shall we keep them to ourselves?”

“What secrets of mine do you know?” he demanded, instantly wary. Some of his secrets were dangerous to have known, and if too many knew of them, they were not really secrets anymore.

Mistress Anan glanced at the wagon, frowning. “That girl is playing a game with you as surely as you are playing one with her. Not the same game that you are. She’s more like a general plotting a battle than a woman being courted. If she learns you’re moonstruck with her, though, she’ll still gain the advantage. I am willing to let you have an even chance. Or as near to one as any man has with a woman of any brains. Do we have an agreement?”

“We do,” he replied fervently. “That we do.” He would not have been surprised if the dice stopped then, but they went on bouncing.

Had the sisters’ fixation on his medallion been the only problem they gave him, had they contented themselves with creating rumors everywhere the show stopped, he could have said those days were no more than tolerably bad for traveling with Aes Sedai. Unfortunately, by the time the show departed Jurador they had learned who Tuon was. Not that she was the Daughter of the Nine Moons, but that she was a Seanchan High Lady, someone of rank and influence.

“Do you take me for a fool?” Luca protested when Mat accused him of telling them. He squared up beside his wagon, fists on his hips, a tall man full of indignation and ready to fight over it by his glare. “That’s a secret I want buried deep until ... well ... until she says I can use that warrant of protection. That won’t be much use if she revokes it because I told something she wants hidden.” But his voice was a shade too earnest, and his eyes shifted a hair from meeting Mat’s directly. The truth of it was, Luca liked to boast nearly as much as he liked gold. He must have thought it was safe—safe!—to tell the sisters and only realized the snarl he had created after the words were out of his mouth.

A snarl it was, as tangled as a pit full of snakes. The High Lady Tuon, readily at hand, presented an opportunity no Aes Sedai could have resisted. Teslyn was every bit as bad as Joline and Edesina. The three of them visited Tuon in her wagon daily, and descended on her when she went out for a walk. They talked of truces and treaties and negotiations, tried to learn what connection she had to the leaders of the invasion, attempted to convince her to help arrange talks to end the fighting. They even offered to help her leave the show and return home!

Unfortunately for them, Tuon did not see three Aes Sedai, representatives of the White Tower, perhaps the greatest power on earth, not even after the seamstresses began delivering their riding dresses and they could change out of the ragbag leavings Mat had been able to find for them. She saw two escaped damane and a marath’damane, and she had no use for either until they were decently collared. Her phrase, that. When they came to her wagon, she latched the door, and if they managed to get inside before she could, she left. When they cornered her, or tried to, she walked around them the same as walking around a stump. They all but talked themselves hoarse. And she refused to listen.

Any Aes Sedai could teach a stone patience if she had reason, yet they were unaccustomed to flat being ignored. Mat could see the frustration growing, the tight eyes and tighter mouths that took longer and longer to relax, the hands gripping skirts in fists to keep them from grabbing Tuon and shaking her. It all came to a head sooner than he expected, and not at all in the way he had imagined.

The night after he gave Tuon the mare, he ate his supper with her and Selucia. And with Noal and Olver, of course. That pair managed as much time with Tuon as he did. Lopin and Nerim, as formal as if they were in a palace instead of squeezed for room to move, served a typical early-spring meal, stringy mutton with peas that had been dried and turnips that had sat too long in somebody’s cellar. It was too early yet for anything to be near harvesting. Still, Lopin had made a pepper sauce for the mutton, Nerim had found pine nuts for the peas, there was plenty to go around, and nothing tasted off, so it was as fine a meal as could be managed. Olver left once supper was done, having already had his games with Tuon, and Mat changed places with Selucia to play stones. Noal remained too, despite any number of telling looks, rambling on about the Seven Towers in dead Malkier, which apparently had overtopped anything in Cairhien, and Shol Arbela, the City of Ten Thousand Bells, in Arafel, and all manner of Borderland wonders, strange spires made of crystal harder than steel and a metal bowl a hundred paces across set into a hillside and the like. Sometimes he interjected comments on Mat’s play, that he was exposing himself on the left, that he was setting a fine trap on the right, and just when Tuon looked ready to fall into it. That sort of thing. Mat kept his mouth shut except for chatting with Tuon, though it took gritting his teeth more than once to accomplish. Tuon found Noal’s natter entertaining.

He was studying the board, wondering whether he might have a small chance of gaining a draw, when Joline led Teslyn and Edesina into the wagon like haughty on a pedestal, smooth-faced Aes Sedai to their toenails. Joline was wearing her Great Serpent ring. Squeezing by Selucia, giving her very cold looks when she was slow to move aside, they arrayed themselves at the foot of the narrow table. Noal went very still, eyeing the sisters sideways, one hand beneath his coat as if the fool thought his knives would do any good here.

“There must be an end to this, High Lady,” Joline said, very pointedly ignoring Mat. She was telling, not pleading, announcing what would be because it had to be. “Your people have brought a war to these lands such as we have not seen since the War of the Hundred Years, perhaps not since the Trolloc Wars. Tarmon Gai’don is approaching, and this war must end before it comes lest it bring disaster to the whole world. It threatens no less than that. So there will be an end to your petulance. You will carry our offer to whoever commands among you. There can be peace until you return to your own lands across the sea, or you can face the full might of the White Tower followed by every throne from the Borderlands to the Sea of Storms. The Amyrlin Seat has likely summoned them against you already. I have heard of vast Borderland armies already in the south, and other armies moving. Better to end this without more bloodshed, though. So avert your people’s destruction and help bring peace.”

Mat could not see Edesina’s reaction, but Teslyn simply blinked. For an Aes Sedai, that was as good as a gasp. Maybe this was not exactly what she had expected Joline to say. For his part, he groaned under his breath. Joline was no Gray, as deft as a skilled juggler in negotiations, that was for sure, but neither was he, and he still figured she had found a short path to putting Tuon’s back up.

But Tuon folded her hands in her lap beneath the table and sat very straight, looking right through the Aes Sedai. Her face was as stern as it had ever been for him. “Selucia,” she said quietly.

Moving up behind Teslyn, the yellow-haired woman bent long enough to take something from beneath the blanket Mat was sitting on. As she straightened, everything seemed to happen all at once. There was a click, and Teslyn screamed, clapping her hands to her throat. The foxhead turned to ice against Mat’s chest, and Joline’s head whipped around with an incredulous stare for the Red. Edesina turned and ran for the door, which swung half open, then slammed shut. Slammed against Blaeric or Fen, by the sound of men falling down the wagon’s steps. Edesina jerked to a halt and stood very stiffly, arms at her sides and divided skirts pressed against her legs by invisible cords. All that in moments, and Selucia had not stayed still. She bent briefly to the bed Noal was sitting on, then snapped the silver collar of another a’dam around Joline’s neck. Mat could see that was what Teslyn was gripping with both hands. She was not trying to take it off, just holding on to it, but her knuckles were white. The Red’s narrow face was an image of despair, her eyes staring and haunted. Joline had regained the utter calm of an Aes Sedai, but she did touch the segmented collar encircling her neck.

“If you think that you can,” she began, then cut off abruptly, her mouth going tight. An angry light shone in her eyes.

“You see, the a’dam can be used to punish, though that is seldom done.” Tuon stood, and she had the bracelet of an a’dam on each wrist, the gleaming leashes snaking away under the blankets on the beds. How in the Light had she managed to get her hands on those?

“No,” Mat said. “You promised not to harm my followers, Precious.” Maybe not the wisest thing to use that name now, but it was too late to call it back. “You’ve kept your promises so far. Don’t go back on one now.”

“I promised not to cause dissension among your followers, Toy,” she said snippily, “and in any case, it is very clear that these three are not your followers.” The small sliding door used to talk to whoever was driving or pass out food slid open with a loud bang. She glanced over her shoulder, and it slid shut with a louder. A man cursed outside and began beating at the door.

“The a’dam can also be used to give pleasure, as a great reward,” Tuon told Joline, ignoring the hammering fist behind her.

Joline’s lips parted, and her eyes grew very wide. She swayed, and the rope-suspended table swung as she caught herself with both hands to keep from falling. If she was impressed, though, she hid it well. She did smooth her dark gray skirts once after she was upright again, but that might have meant nothing. Her face was all Aes Sedai composure. Edesina, looking over her shoulder, matched that calm gaze, although she now wore the third a’dam around her neck—and come to it, her face was paler than usual—but Teslyn had begun weeping silently, shoulders shaking, tears leaking down her cheeks.

Noal was tensed, a man ready to do something stupid. Mat kicked him under the table and, when the man glared at him, shook his head. Noal’s scowl deepened, but he took his hand out of his coat and leaned back against the wall. Still glaring. Well, let him. Knives were no use here, but maybe words could be. Much better if this could be ended with words.

“Listen,” Mat said to Tuon. “If you think, you’ll see a hundred reasons this won’t work. Light, you can learn to channel yourself. Doesn’t knowing that change anything? You’re not far different from them.” He might as well have turned to smoke and blown away for all the attention she paid.

“Try to embrace saidar,” she drawled, stern eyes steady on Joline. Her voice was quite mild in comparison to her gaze, yet plainly she expected obedience. Obedience? She looked a bloody leopard staring at three tethered goats. And strangely, more beautiful than ever. A beautiful leopard who might rake him with her claws as soon as the goats. Well, he had faced a leopard a few times before this, and those were his own memories. There was an odd sort of exhilaration that came with confronting a leopard. “Go ahead,” she went on. “You know the shield is gone.” Joline gave a small grunt of surprise, and Tuon nodded. “Good. You’ve obeyed for the first time. And learned that you cannot touch the Power while you wear the a’dam unless I wish it. But now, I wish you to hold the Power, and you do, though you didn’t try to embrace it.” Joline’s eyes widened slightly, a small crack in her calm. “And now,” Tuon went on, “I wish you not to be holding the Power, and it is gone from you. Your first lessons.” Joline drew a deep breath. She was beginning to look ... not afraid, but uneasy.

“Blood and bloody ashes, woman,” Mat growled, “do you think you can parade them around on those leashes without anyone noticing?” A heavy thump came from the door. A second produced the sound of cracking wood. Whoever was beating at the wooden window was still at it, too. Somehow, that caused no sense of urgency. If the Warders got in, what could they do?

“I will house them in the wagon they are using and exercise them at night,” she snapped irritably. “I am nothing like these women, Toy. Nothing like them. Perhaps I could learn, but I choose not to, just as I choose not to steal or commit murder. That makes all the difference.” Recovering herself with visible effort, she sat down with her hands on the table, focused on the Aes Sedai once again. “I’ve had considerable success with one woman like you.” Edesina gasped, murmured a name too low to be caught. “Yes,” Tuon said. “You must have met my Mylen in the kennels or at exercise. I will train you all as well as she is. You have been cursed with a dark taint, but I will teach you to have pride in the service you give the Empire.”

“I didn’t bring these three out of Ebou Dar so you could take them back,” Mat said firmly, sliding himself along the bed. The foxhead grew colder still, and Tuon made a startled sound.

“How did you ... do that, Toy? The weave ... melted ... when it touched you.”

“It’s a gift, Precious.”

As he stood up, Selucia started toward him, crouching, her hands outstretched in pleading. Fear painted her face. “You must not,” she began.

“No!” Tuon said sharply.

Selucia straightened and backed away, though she kept her eyes on him. Strangely, the fear vanished from her expression. He shook his head in wonder. He knew the bosomy woman obeyed Tuon instantly—she was so’jhin, after all, as much owned as Tuon’s horse, and she actually thought that right and good—but how obedient did you need to be to lose your fear at an order?

“They have annoyed me, Toy,” Tuon said as he put his hands on Teslyn’s collar. Still trembling, tears still streaming down her cheeks, the Red looked as though she could not believe he would actually remove the thing.

“They annoy me, too.” Placing his fingers just so, he pressed, and the collar clicked open.

Teslyn seized his hands and began kissing them. “Thank you,” she wept over and over. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Mat cleared his throat. “You’re welcome, but there’s no need for... Would you stop that? Teslyn?” Reclaiming his hands took some effort.

“I want them to stop annoying me, Toy,” Tuon said as he turned to Joline. From anyone else, that might have been petulant. The dark little woman made it a demand.

“I think they’ll agree to that after this,” he said dryly. But Joline was looking up at him with a stubborn set to her jaw. “You will agree, won’t you?” The Green said nothing.

“I do agree,” Teslyn said quickly. “We do all agree.”

“Yes, we all agree,” Edesina added.

Joline stared at him silently, stubbornly, and Mat sighed.

“I could let Precious keep you for a few days, until you change your mind.” Joline’s collar clicked open in his hands. “But I won’t.”

Still staring into his eyes, she touched her throat as though to confirm the collar was gone. “Would you like to be one of my Warders?” she asked, then laughed softly. “No need to look like that. Even if I would bond you against your will, I couldn’t so long as you have that ter’angreal. I agree, Master Cauthon. It may cost our best chance to stop the Seanchan, but I will no longer bother ... Precious.”

Tuon hissed like a doused cat, and he sighed again. What you gained on the swings, you lost on the roundabouts.

He spent part of that night doing what he liked least in the world. Working. Digging a deep hole to bury the three a’dam. He did the job himself because, surprisingly, Joline wanted them. They were ter’angreal, after all, and the White Tower needed to study them. That might well have been so, but the Tower would just have to find their a’dam elsewhere. He was fairly certain that none of the Redarms would have handed them over if he told them to bury the things, yet he was taking no chances that they would reappear to cause more trouble. It started raining before the hole was knee-deep, a cold driving rain, and by the time he was done, he was soaked to the skin and mud to his waist. A fine end to a fine night, with the dice bouncing around his skull.

A Village in Shiota

The following day brought a respite, or so it seemed. Tuon, in a blue silk riding dress and her wide tooled-leather belt, not only rode beside him as the show rolled slowly north, she waggled her fingers at Selucia when the woman tried to put her dun between them. Selucia had acquired her own mount, somehow, a compact gelding that could not match Pips or Akein but still surpassed the dapple by a fair margin. The blue-eyed woman, with a green head scarf beneath her cowl today, fell in on Tuon’s other side, and her face would have done an Aes Sedai proud when it came to giving nothing away. Mat could not help grinning. Let her hide frustration for a change. Lacking horses, the real Aes Sedai were confined to their wagon; Metwyn was too far away, on the driver’s seat of the purple wagon, to overhear what he said to Tuon; only a few thin clouds remained in the sky from the night’s rain; and all seemed right in the world. Even the dice bouncing in his head could steal nothing from that. Well, there were bad moments, but only moments.

Early on, a flight of ravens winged overhead, a dozen or more big black birds. They flew swiftly, never deviating from their line, but he eyed them anyway until they dwindled to specks and vanished. Nothing to spoil the day there. Not for him, at least. Maybe for someone farther north.

“Did you see some omen in them, Toy?” Tuon asked. She was as graceful in the saddle as she was in everything else she did. He could not recall seeing her be awkward about anything. “Most omens I know concerning ravens specifically have to do with them perching on someone’s rooftop or cawing at dawn or dusk.”

“They can be spies for the Dark One,” he told her. “Sometimes. Crows, too. And rats. But they didn’t stop to look at us, so we don’t need to worry.”

Running a green-gloved hand across the top of her head, she sighed. “Toy, Toy,” she murmured, resettling the cowl of her cloak. “How many children’s tales do you believe? Do you believe that if you sleep on Old Hob’s Hill under a full moon, the snakes will give you true answers to three questions, or that foxes steal people’s skins and take the nourishment from food so you can starve to death while eating your fill?”

Putting on a smile took effort. “I don’t think I ever heard either one of those.” Making his voice amused required effort, too. What were the odds of her mentioning snakes giving true answers, which the Aelfinn did after a fashion, in the same breath with foxes stealing skins? He was pretty sure that the Eelfinn did, and made leather from it. But it was Old Hob that nearly made him flinch. The other was likely just ta’veren twisting at the world. She certainly knew nothing about him and the snakes or the foxes. In Shandalle, the land where Artur Hawkwing had been born, though, Old Hob, Caisen Hob, had been another name for the Dark One. The Aelfinn and the Eelfinn both surely deserved to be connected to the Dark One, yet that was hardly anything he wanted to think on when he had his own connection to the bloody foxes. And to the snakes, too? That possibility was enough to sour his stomach.

Still, it was a pleasant ride, with the day warming as the sun rose, though it never could be called warm. He juggled six colored wooden balls, and Tuon laughed and clapped her hands, as well she should. That feat had impressed the juggler he bought the balls from, and it was harder while riding. He told several jokes that made her laugh, and one that made her roll her eyes and exchange finger-twitchings with Selucia. Maybe she did not like jokes about common room serving maids. It had not been the least off-color. He was no fool. He did wish she had laughed, though. She had a marvelous laugh, rich and warm and free. They talked of horses and argued over training methods with stubborn animals. That pretty head held a few odd notions, such as that you could calm a fractious horse by biting its ear! That sounded more likely to send it up like a haystack fire. And she had never heard of humming under your breath to soothe a horse, and would not believe his father had taught him such a skill shy of demonstration.

“Well, I can hardly do that without a horse that needs soothing, can I?” he said. She rolled her eyes again. Selucia rolled hers, too.

There was no heat in the argument, though, no anger, just spirit. Tuon had so much spirit it seemed impossible it could fit into such a tiny woman. It was her silences that put a small damper on the day, more so than snakes or foxes. They were far away, and there was nothing to be done. She was right there beside him, and he had a great deal to do concerning her. She never alluded to what had happened with the three Aes Sedai, or to the sisters themselves either. She never mentioned his ter’angreal, or the fact that whatever she had made Teslyn or Joline weave against him had failed. The night before might as well have been a dream.

She was like a general planning a battle, Setalle had said. Trained at intrigue and dissembling from infancy, according to Egeanin. And it was all aimed straight at him. But to what end? Surely it could not be some Seanchan Blood form of courting. Egeanin knew little of that, but surely not. He had known Tuon a matter of weeks and kidnapped her, she called him Toy, had tried to buy him, and only a vain fool could twist that into a woman falling in love. Which left anything from some elaborate scheme for revenge to ... to the Light alone knew what. She had threatened to make him a cupbearer. That meant da’covale, according to Egeanin, though she had scoffed at the notion. Cupbearers were chosen for their beauty, and in Egeanin’s estimation, he fell far short. Well, in his own as well, truth to tell, not that he was likely to admit it to anybody. Any number of women had admired his face. Nothing said Tuon could not complete the marriage ceremony just to make him think himself home free and safe, then have him executed. Women were never simple, but Tuon made the rest look like children’s games.

For a long while they saw not so much as a farm, but perhaps two hours after the sun passed its zenith, they came on a sizable village. The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil sounded dimly. The buildings, some of three stories, were all heavy timber framing with whitish plaster between and had high-peaked roofs of thatch and tall stone chimneys. Something about them tugged at Mat’s memory, but he could not say what. There was not a farm to be seen anywhere in the unbroken forest. But villages were always tied to farms, supporting them and living off them. They must all be further in from the road, back in the trees.

Oddly, the people he could see ignored the approaching train of show wagons. A fellow in his shirtsleeves, right beside the road, glanced up from the hatchet he was sharpening on a grindstone worked by a footpedal, then bent to his work again as though he had seen nothing. A cluster of children came hurtling around a corner and darted into another street without more than a glance in the show’s direction. Very odd. Most village children would stop to stare at a passing merchant’s train, speculating on the strange places the merchant had been, and the show had more wagons than any number of merchants’ trains. A peddler was coming from the north behind six horses, his wagon’s high canvas cover almost hidden by clusters of pots and pans and kettles. That should have caused interest, too. Even a large village on a well-traveled road depended on peddlers for most things the people bought. But no one pointed or shouted that a peddler had come. They just went on about their business.

Perhaps three hundred paces short of the village, Luca stood up on his driver’s seat and looked back over the roof of his wagon. “We’ll turn in here,” he bellowed, gesturing toward a large meadow where wildflowers, cat daisies and jumpups and something that might have been loversknots dotted spring grasses already a foot high. Sitting back down, he suited his own words, and the other wagons began following, their wheels rutting the rain-sodden ground.

As Mat turned Pips toward the meadow, he heard the shoes of the peddler’s horses ringing on paving stones. The sound jerked him upright. That road had not been paved since ... He pulled the gelding back around. The canvas-topped wagon was rolling over level gray paving stones that stretched just the width of the village. The peddler himself, a rotund fellow in a wide hat, was peering at the pavement and shaking his head, peering at the village and shaking his head. Peddlers followed fixed routes. He must have been this way a hundred times. He had to know. The peddler halted his team and tied the reins to the brake handle.

Mat cupped both hands around his mouth. “Keep going, man!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “As fast as you can! Keep going!”

The peddler glanced in his direction, then hopped up on his seat quite spryly for such a stout man. Gesturing as grandly as Luca, he began to declaim. Mat could not make out the words, but he knew what they would be. News of the world that he had picked up along the way interspersed with lists of his goods and claims for their vast superiority. Nobody in the village stopped to listen or even paused.

“Keep going!” Mat bellowed. “They’re dead! Keep going!” Behind him, somebody gasped, Tuon or Selucia. Maybe both.

Suddenly the peddler’s horses screamed, tossing their heads madly. They screamed like animals beyond the ragged edge of terror and kept screaming.

Pips jerked in fear, and Mat had his hands full; the gelding danced in circles, wanting to run, in any direction so long as it was away from here. Every horse belonging to the show heard those screams and began whinnying fearfully. The lions and bears began roaring, and the leopards joined in. That set some of the show’s horses to screaming, too, and rearing in their harnesses. The tumult built on itself in moments. As Mat swung round, struggling to control Pips, everyone he could see handling reins was fighting to keep a wild-eyed team from racing off or injuring themselves. Tuon’s mare was dancing, too, and Selucia’s dun. He had a moment of fear for Tuon, but she seemed to be handling Akein as well as she had in her race into the forest. Even Selucia seemed sure of her seat, if not of her mount. He caught glimpses of the peddler, as well, pulling off his hat, peering toward the show. At last, Mat got Pips under control. Blowing hard, as if he had been run too hard for too long, but no longer trying to race away. It was too late. Likely, it had always been too late. Hat in hand, the round peddler leaped down to see what was the matter with his horses.

Landing, he lurched awkwardly and looked down toward his feet. His hat fell from his hand, landing on the hardpacked road. That was when he began screaming. The paving stones were gone, and he was ankle-deep in the road, just like his shrieking horses. Ankle-deep and sinking into rock-hard clay as if into a bog, just like his horses and his wagon. And the village, houses and people melting slowly into the ground. The people never stopped what they were doing. Women walked along carrying baskets, a line of men carried a large timber on their shoulders, children darted about, the fellow at the grindstone continued sharpening his hatchet, all of them nearly knee-deep in the ground by this time.

Tuon caught Mat’s coat from one side, Selucia from the other. That was the first he realized he had moved Pips. Toward the peddler. Light!

“What do you think you can do?” Tuon demanded fiercely.

“Nothing,” he replied. His bow was done, the horn nocks fitted, the linen bowstrings braided and waxed, but he had not fitted one arrowhead to its ash shaft yet, and with all the rain they had been having, the glue holding the goose-feather fletchings was still tacky. That was all he could think of, the mercy of an arrow in the peddler’s heart before he was pulled under completely. Would the man die, or was he being carried to wherever those dead Shiotans were going? That was what had caught him about those buildings. That was how country people had built in Shiota for near enough three hundred years.

He could not tear his eyes away. The sinking peddler shrieked loudly enough to be heard over the screaming of his team.

“Help meeee!” he cried, waving his arms. He seemed to be looking straight at Mat. “Help meeee!” Over and over.

Mat kept waiting for him to die, hoping for him to die—surely that was better than the other—but the man kept on screaming as he sank to his waist, to his chest. Desperately, he tipped back his head like a man being pulled under water, sucking for one last breath. Then his head vanished, and just his arms remained, frantically waving until they, too, were gone. Only his hat lying on the road said there had ever been a man there.

When the last of the thatched rooftops and tall chimneys melted away, Mat let out a long breath. Where the village had been was another meadow decked out in cat daisies and jumpups where red and yellow butterflies fluttered from blossom to blossom. So peaceful. He wished he could believe the peddler was dead.

Except for the few that had followed Luca into the meadow, the show’s wagons stood strung out along the road, and everybody was down on the ground, women comforting crying children, men trying to quiet trembling horses, everyone talking fearfully, and loudly, to be heard over the bears and the lions and the leopards. Well, everyone except the three Aes Sedai. They glided hurriedly up the road, Joline heeled by Blaeric and Fen. By their expressions, Aes Sedai and Warders alike, you might have thought villages sinking into the ground were as common as house cats. Pausing beside the peddler’s wide hat, the three of them stared down at it. Teslyn picked it up and turned it over in her hands, then let it drop. Moving into the meadow where the village had stood, the sisters walked about talking, peering at this and that as if they could learn something from wildflowers and grasses. None had taken the time to don a cloak, but for once Mat could not find it in him to upbraid them. They might have channeled, but if so they did not use enough of the Power to make the foxhead turn chilly. He would not have taken them to task if they had. Not today, not after what he had just seen.

The arguing started right away. No one wanted to cross that patch of hard-packed clay that seemingly had been paved with stone. They shouted over one another, including the horse handlers and the seamstresses, all telling Luca what had to be done, and right now. Some wanted to turn back far enough to find a country road and use those narrower ways to find their way to Lugard. Others were for forgetting Lugard altogether, for striking out for Illian by those country roads, or even going all the way back to Ebou Dar and beyond. There was always Amadicia, and Tarabon. Ghealdan, too, for that matter. Plenty of towns and cities there, and far from this Shadow-cursed spot.

Mat sat Pips’ saddle, idly playing with his reins, and held his peace through all the shouting and arm-waving. The gelding gave a shiver now and then, but he was no longer attempting to bolt. Thom came striding through the crowd and laid a hand on Pips’ neck. Juilin and Amathera were close behind, she clinging to him and eyeing the showfolk fearfully, and then Noal and Olver. The boy looked as though he would have liked to cling to someone for comfort, to anyone, but he was old enough not to want it seen if he did. Noal appeared troubled, too, shaking his head and muttering under his breath. He kept peering up the road toward the Aes Sedai. Doubtless by that night he would be claiming to have seen something very like this before, only on a much grander scale.

“I think we’ll be going on alone from here,” Thom said quietly. Juilin nodded grimly.

“If we must,” Mat replied. Small parties would stand out for those who were hunting for Tuon, for the kidnapped heir to the Seanchan Empire, else he would have left the show long since. Making their way to safety without the show to hide in would be much more dangerous, but it could be done. What he could not do was turn these people’s minds. One glance into any of those frightened faces told him he did not have enough gold for that. There might not have been enough gold in the world.

Luca listened in silence, a bright red cloak wrapped around him, until most of the showfolk’s energy was spent. When their shouts began to trickle away, he flung back the cloak and walked among them. There were no grand gestures, now. Here he clapped a man on the shoulder, there peered earnestly into a woman’s eyes. The country roads? They would be half mud, more streams than roads, from the spring rains. It would take twice as long to reach Lugard that way, three times, maybe longer. Mat almost choked to hear Luca invoke speed, but the man was hardly warming up. He talked of the labor of freeing wagons that bogged down, made his listeners all but see themselves straining to help the teams pull them through mud nearly hub-deep on the wagon wheels. Not even a country road would get that bad, but he made them see it. At least, he made Mat see it. Towns of any size would be few and far between along those back roads, the villages tiny for the most part. Few places to perform, and food for so many hard to come by. He said that while smiling sadly at a little girl of six or so who was peering up at him from the shelter of her mother’s skirts, and you just knew he was envisioning her hungry and crying for food. More than one woman pulled her children close around her.

As for Amadicia and Tarabon, and yes, Ghealdan, they would be fine places to perform. Valan Luca’s Grand Traveling Show and Magnificent Display of Marvels and Wonders would visit those lands and draw immense crowds. One day. To reach any of them now, they must first return to Ebou Dar, covering the same ground they had crossed these past weeks, passing the same towns, where people were unlikely to lay out coin to see again what they had seen so short a time before. A long way, with everyone’s purses growing lighter and their bellies tighter by the day. Or, they could press on to Lugard.

Here his voice began to take on energy. He gestured, but simply. He still moved among them, but stepping more quickly. Lugard was a grand city. Ebou Dar was a shadow beside Lugard. Lugard truly was one of the great cities, so populous they might perform there all spring and always have new crowds. Mat had never been to Lugard, but he had heard it was half a ruin, with a king who could not afford to keep the streets clean, yet Luca made it sound akin to Caemlyn. Surely some of these people had seen the place, but they listened with rapt faces as he described palaces that made the Tarasin Palace in Ebou Dar seem a hovel, talked of the silk-clad nobles by the score who would come to see them perform or even commission private performances. Surely King Roedran would want such. Had any of them ever performed before a king before? They would. They would. From Lugard, to Caemlyn, a city that made Lugard look an imitation of a city. Caemlyn, one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, where they might perform the whole summer to never-ending throngs.

“I should like to see these cities,” Tuon said, moving Akein nearer to Pips. “Will you show them to me, Toy?” Selucia kept the dun at Tuon’s hip. The woman looked composed enough, but doubtless she was shaken by what she had seen.

“Lugard, maybe. From there I can find a way to send you back to Ebou Dar.” With a well-guarded merchant’s train and as many reliable bodyguards as he could hire. Tuon might be as capable and dangerous as Egeanin made out, but two women alone would be seen as easy prey by too many, and not just brigands. “Maybe Caemlyn.” He might need more time than from here to Lugard, after all.

“We shall see what we shall see,” Tuon replied cryptically, then began exchanging finger-wriggles with Selucia.

Talking about me behind my back, only doing it right under my nose. He hated it when they did that. “Luca’s as good as a gleeman, Thom, but I don’t think he’s going to sway them.”

Thom snorted derisively and knuckled his long white mustaches. “He’s not bad, I’ll grant him that, but he’s no gleeman. Still, he’s caught them, I’d say. A wager on it, my boy? Say one gold crown?”

Mat surprised himself by laughing. He had been sure he would not be able to laugh again until he could rid his head of the image of that peddler sinking into the road. And the horses. He could almost hear them screaming still, loudly enough that it came near to drowning out the dice. “You want to wager with me? Very well. Done.”

“I wouldn’t play at dice with you,” Thom said dryly, “but I know a man turning a crowd’s head with words when I see it. I’ve done as much myself.”

Finishing with Caemlyn, Luca gathered himself with a spark of his usual grandiosity. The man strutted. “And from there,” he announced, “to Tar Valon itself. I will hire ships to carry us all.” Mat did choke at that. Luca would hire ships? Luca, who was tight enough to render mice for tallow? “Such crowds will come in Tar Valon that we could spend the rest of our lives in that vast city’s splendor, where Ogier-built shops seem like palaces and palaces are beyond description. Rulers seeing Tar Valon for the first time weep that their cities are villages and their own palaces no more than peasant’s huts. The White Tower itself is in Tar Valon, remember, the greatest structure in the world. The Amyrlin Seat herself will ask us to perform before her. We have given shelter to three Aes Sedai in need. Who can believe they will do other than speak for us with the Amyrlin Seat?”

Mat looked over his shoulder, and found the three sisters no longer wandering about the meadow where the village had vanished. Instead, they stood side by side in the road watching him, perfect images of Aes Sedai serenity. No, they were not watching him, he realized. They were studying Tuon. The three had agreed not to bother her anymore, and being Aes Sedai, were bound by that, but how far did an Aes Sedai’s word ever go? They found ways around the Oath against lying all the time. So Tuon would not get to see Caemlyn, and perhaps not Lugard. Chances were, there would be Aes Sedai in both cities. What easier for Joline and the others than to inform those Aes Sedai that Tuon was a Seanchan High Lady? In all likelihood, Tuon would be on her way to Tar Valon before he could blink. As a “guest,” of course, to help stop the fighting. No doubt many would say that would be for the good, that he should hand her over himself and tell them who she really was, but he had given his word. He began to calculate how near to Lugard he dared wait before finding her passage back to Ebou Dar.

Luca had had a difficult time making Tar Valon sound greater than Caemlyn after his spiel on that city, and if they ever reached Tar Valon, some might actually be disappointed comparing his mad descriptions—the White Tower a thousand paces high? Ogier-built palaces the size of small mountains? he claimed there was an Ogier stedding actually inside the city!—but finally he called for a show of hands in favor of pressing on. Every hand shot up, even the children’s hands, and they had no vote.

Mat pulled a purse from his coat pocket and handed over an Ebou Dari crown. “I never enjoyed losing more, Thom.” Well, he never enjoyed losing, but in this instance it was better than winning.

Thom accepted with a small bow. “I think I’ll keep this as a memento,” he said, rolling the fat gold coin across the back of his fingers. “To remind me that even the luckiest man in the world can lose.”

For all of the show of hands, there was a shadow of reluctance to cross that patch of road ahead. After Luca got his wagon back onto the road, he sat staring, with Latelle clinging to his arm as hard as Amathera ever clung to Juilin. Finally, he muttered something that might have been an oath and whipped his team up with the reins. By the time they reached the fatal stretch, they were at a gallop, and Luca kept them there until well beyond where the paving stones had been. It was the same with every wagon. A pause, waiting until the wagon ahead was clear, then a flailing of reins and a hard gallop. Mat himself drew a deep breath before heeling Pips forward. At a walk, not a gallop, but it was hard not to dig his heels in, especially when passing the peddler’s hat. Tuon’s dark face and Selucia’s pale displayed no more emotion than Aes Sedai’s faces did.

“I will see Tar Valon one day,” Tuon said calmly in the middle of that. “I shall probably make it my capital. I shall have you show me the city, Toy. You have been there?”

Light! She was a tough little woman. Gorgeous, but definitely tough as nails.

After slowing from his gallop, Luca set the pace at a fast walk rather than the show’s usual amble. The sun slid lower, and they passed several roadside meadows sufficiently large to hold the show, but Luca pressed on until their shadows stretched long ahead of them and the sun was a fat red ball on the horizon. Even then he sat holding the reins and peering at a grassy expanse beside the road.

“It’s just a field,” he said at last, too loudly, and turned his team toward it.

Mat accompanied Tuon and Selucia to the purple wagon once the horses had been handed over to Metwyn, but there was to be no meal or games of stones with her that night.

“This is a night for prayer,” she told him before going in with her maid. “Do you know nothing, Toy? The dead walking is a sign that Tarmon Gai’don is near.” He did not take this for one of her superstitions; after all, he had thought something very like that himself. He was not much for praying, yet he offered a small one then and there. Sometimes there was nothing else to do.

No one wanted to sleep, so lamps burned late throughout the camp. No one wanted to be alone, either. Mat ate by himself in his tent, with little appetite and the dice in his head sounding louder than ever, but Thom came to play stones just as he finished, and Noal soon after. Lopin and Nerim popped in every few minutes, bowing and inquiring whether Mat or the others wanted anything, but once they fetched wine and cups—Lopin carried the tall pottery jar and broke the wax seal; Nerim carried the cups on a wooden tray—Mat told them to find Harnan and the other soldiers.

“I don’t doubt they’re getting drunk, which seems a good notion to me,” he said. “That’s an order. You tell them I said to share.”

Lopin bowed gravely over his round belly. “I have assisted the file leader now and again by procuring a few items for him, my Lord. I expect he will be generous with the brandy. Come along, Nerim. Lord Mat wants us to get drunk, and you are getting drunk with me if I have to sit on you and pour brandy down your throat.” The abstemious Cairhienin’s narrow face grew pinched with disapproval, but he bowed and followed the Tairen out with alacrity. Mat did not think Lopin would need to sit on the man, not tonight.

Juilin came with Amathera and Olver, so games of Snakes and Foxes, played sprawled on the ground-cloth, were added to stones played at the small table. Amathera proved an adequate player at stones, unsurprising given that she had been a ruler once, but her mouth became even more pouty when she and Olver lost at Snakes and Foxes, although nobody ever won that game. Then again, Mat suspected she had not been a very good ruler. Whoever was not playing sat on the cot. Mat watched the games when it was his turn there, as did Juilin if Amathera was playing. He seldom took his eyes from her except when it was his turn at a game. Noal nattered on with his stories—but then, he spun those tales even while playing, and talking seemed to have no effect on his skill at stones—and Thom sat reading the letter Mat had brought him what seemed a very long time ago. The page was heavily creased from being carried in Thom’s coat pocket and much smudged from being read and re-read. He had said it was from a dead woman.

It was a surprise when Domon and Egeanin ducked through the entry flaps. They had not precisely been avoiding Mat since he moved out of the green wagon, but neither had they gone out of their way to seek him out. Like everyone else, they were in better clothes than they had worn for disguises in the beginning. Egeanin’s divided skirts and high-collared coat, both of blue wool and embroidered in a yellow near to gold on the hem and cuffs, had something of a uniform about them, while Domon, in a well-cut brown coat and baggy trousers stuffed into turned-down boots just below his knees, looked every inch the prosperous, if not exactly wealthy, Illianer merchant.

As soon as Egeanin entered, Amathera, who was on the ground-cloth with Olver, curled herself into a ball on her knees. Juilin sighed and got up from the stool across the table from Mat, but Egeanin reached the other woman first.

“There’s no need for that, with me or anyone else,” she drawled, bending to take Amathera by the shoulders and draw her to her feet. Amathera rose slowly, hesitantly, and kept her eyes down until Egeanin put a hand beneath her chin and raised her head gently. “You look me in the eyes. You look everyone in the eyes.” The Taraboner woman touched her tongue to her lips nervously, but she did keep looking straight at Egeanin’s face when the hand was removed from her chin. On the other hand, her eyes were very wide.

“This is a change,” Juilin said suspiciously. And with a touch of anger. He stood stiff as a statue carved from dark wood. He disliked any Seanchan, for what they had done to Amathera. “You’ve called me a thief for freeing her.” There was more than a touch of anger in that. He hated thieves. And smugglers, which Domon was.

“All things change given time,” Domon said jovially, smiling to head off more heated words. “Why, you do be looking at an honest man, Master Thief-catcher. Leilwin did make me promise to give up smuggling before she would agree to marry me. Fortune prick me, who did ever hear of a woman refusing to marry a man unless he did give up a lucrative trade?” He laughed as though that were the funniest joke in the world.

Egeanin fisted him in the ribs hard enough to change his laughter to a grunt. Married to her, his ribs must be a mass of bruises. “I expect you to keep that promise, Bayle. I am changing, and so must you.” Eyeing Amathera briefly—perhaps to make sure she was still obeying; Egeanin was big on others doing as she told them—she stuck out a hand toward Juilin. “I am changing, Master Sandar. Will you?”

Juilin hesitated, then clasped her hand. “I’ll make a try at it.” He sounded doubtful.

“An honest try is all I ask.” Frowning around the tent, she shook her head. “I’ve seen orlop decks less crowded than this. We have some decent wine in our wagon, Master Sandar. Will you and your lady join us in a cup or two?”

Again Juilin hesitated. “He has this game all but won,” he said finally. “No point in playing it out.” Clapping his conical red hat on his head, he adjusted his dark, flaring Tairen coat unnecessarily, and offered his arm to Amathera formally. She clasped it tightly, and though her eyes were still on Egeanin’s face, she trembled visibly. “I expect Olver will want to stay here and play his game, but my lady and I will be pleased to share wine with you and your husband, Mistress Shipless.” There was a hint of challenge in his gaze. It was clear that to him, Egeanin had further to go to prove she no longer saw Amathera as stolen property.

Egeanin nodded as if she understood perfectly. “The Light shine on you tonight, and for as many days and nights as we have remaining,” she said by way of farewell to those staying. Cheerful of her.

No sooner had the four departed than thunder boomed overhead. Another loud peal, and rain began pattering on the tent roof, quickly growing to a downpour that drummed the green-striped canvas. Unless Juilin and the others had run, they would do their drinking wet.

Noal settled on the other side of the red cloth from Olver and took up Amathera’s part of the game, rolling the dice for the snakes and the foxes. The black discs that now represented Olver and him were nearly to the edge of the web-marked cloth, but it was evident to any eye that they would not make it. To any eye but Olver’s, at least. He groaned loudly when a pale disc inked with a wavy line, a snake, touched his piece, and again when a disc marked with a triangle touched Noal’s.

Noal took up the tale he had left off when Egeanin and Domon appeared, as well, a story of some supposed voyage on a Sea Folk raker. “Atha’an Miere women are the most graceful in the world,” he said, moving the black discs back to the circle in the center of the board, “even more so than Domani, and you know that’s saying something. And when they’re out of sight of land—” He cut off abruptly and cleared his throat, eyeing Olver, who was stacking the snakes and foxes on the board’s corners.

“What do they do then?” Olver asked.

“Why...” Noal rubbed his nose with a gnarled finger. “Why, they scramble about the rigging so nimbly you’d think they had hands where their feet should be. That’s what they do.” Olver oohed, and Noal gave a soft sigh of relief.

Mat began removing the black and white stones from the board on the table, placing them in two carved wooden boxes. The dice in his head bounced and rattled even when the thunder was loudest. “Another game, Thom?”

The white-haired man looked up from his letter. “I think not, Mat. My mind’s in a maze, tonight.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, Thom, why do you read that letter the way you do? I mean, sometimes your face looks like you’re trying to puzzle out what it means.” Olver yelped with glee at a good toss of the dice.

“That’s because I am. In a way. Here.” He held out the letter, but Mat shook his head.

“It’s no business of mine, Thom. It’s your letter, and I’m no good with puzzles.”

“Oh, it’s your business, too. Moiraine wrote it just before... Well, anyway, she wrote it.”

Mat stared at him for a long moment before taking the creased page, and when his eyes fell on the smudged ink, he blinked. Small, precise writing covered the sheet, but it began, “My dearest Thom.” Who would have thought Moiraine, of all people, would address old Thom Merrilin so? “Thom, this is personal. I don’t think I should—”

“Read,” Thom cut in. “You’ll see.”

Mat drew a deep breath. A letter from a dead Aes Sedai that was a puzzle and concerned him in some way? Suddenly, he wanted nothing less than to read the thing. But he began anyway. It was near enough to make his hair stand on end.

My dearest Thom,There are many words I would like to write to you, words from my heart, but I have put this off because I knew that I must, and now there is little time. There are many things I cannot tell you lest I bring disaster, but what I can, I will. Heed carefully what I say. In a short while I will go down to the docks, and there I will confront Lanfear. How can I know that? That secret belongs to others. Suffice it that I know, and let that foreknowledge stand as proof for the rest of what I say.When you receive this, you will be told that I am dead. All will believe that. I am not dead, and it may be that I shall live to my appointed years. It also may be that you and Mat Cauthon and another, a man I do not know, will try to rescue me. May, I say because it may be that you will not or cannot, or because Mat may refuse. He does not hold me in the affection you seem to, and he has his reasons which he no doubt thinks are good. If you try, it must be only you and Mat and one other. More will mean death for all. Fewer will mean death for all. Even if you come only with Mat and one other, death also may come. I have seen you try and die, one or two or all three. I have seen myself die in the attempt. I have seen all of us live and die as captives.Should you decide to make the attempt anyway, young Mat knows the way to find me, yet you must not show him this letter until he asks about it. That is of the utmost importance. He must know nothing that is in this letter until he asks. Events must play out in certain ways, whatever the costs.If you see Lan again, tell him that all of this is for the best. His destiny follows a different path from mine. I wish him all happiness with Nynaeve.A final point. Remember what you know about the game of Snakes and Foxes. Remember, and heed.It is time, and I must do what must be done.May the Light illumine you and give you joy, my dearest Thom, whether or not we ever see one another again.Moiraine

Thunder boomed as he finished. Fitting, that. Shaking his head, he handed the letter back. “Thom,” he said gently, “Lan’s bond to her was broken. It takes death to do that. He said she was dead.”

“And her letter says everyone would believe that. She knew, Mat. She knew it all in advance.”

“That’s as may be, but Moiraine and Lanfear went into that doorframe ter’angreal, and it melted. The thing was redstone, or looked to be, stone, Thom, yet it melted like wax. I saw it. She went to wherever the Eelfinn are, and even if she is alive, there’s no way for us to get there anymore.”

“The Tower of Ghenjei,” Olver piped up, and all three adults turned their heads to stare at him. “Birgitte told me,” he said defensively. “The Tower of Ghenjei is the way to the lands of the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn.” He made the gesture that began a game of Snakes and Foxes, a triangle drawn in the air and then a wavy line through it. “She knows even more stories than you, Master Charin.”

“That wouldn’t be Birgitte Silverbow, would it?” Noal said wryly.

The boy gave him a level look. “I’m not an infant, Master Charin. But she is very good with a bow, so maybe she is. Birgitte born again, I mean.”

“I don’t think there’s any chance of that,” Mat said. “I’ve talked with her, too, you know, and the last thing she wants is to be any kind of hero.” He kept his promises, and Birgitte’s secrets were safe with him. “In any case, knowing about this tower doesn’t help much unless she told you where it is.” Olver shook his head sadly, and Mat bent to ruffle his hair. “Not your fault, boy. Without you, we wouldn’t even know it exists.” That did not seem to help much. Olver stared at the red cloth game board dejectedly.

“The Tower of Ghenjei,” Noal said, sitting up cross-legged and tugging his coat straight. “Not many know that tale anymore. Jain always said he’d go looking for it one day. Somewhere along the Shadow Coast, he said.”

“That’s still a lot of ground to search.” Mat fitted the lid on one of the boxes. “It could take years.” Years they did not have if Tuon was right, and he was sure that she was.

Thom shook his head. “She says you know, Mat. ‘Mat knows the way to find me.’ I doubt very much she’d have written that on a whim.”

“Well, I can’t help what she says, now can I? I never heard of any Tower of Ghenjei until tonight.”

“A pity,” Noal sighed. “I’d like to have seen it, something Jain bloody Farstrider never did. You might as well give over,” he added when Thom opened his mouth. “He wouldn’t forget seeing it, and even if he never heard the name, he’d have to think of it when he heard of a strange tower that lets people into other lands. The thing gleams like burnished steel, I’m told, two hundred feet high and forty thick, and there’s not an opening to be found in it. Who could forget seeing that?”

Mat went very still. His black scarf felt too tight against his hanging scar. The scar itself suddenly felt fresh and hot. It was hard for him to draw breath.

“If there’s no opening, how do we get in?” Thom wanted to know.

Noal shrugged, but Olver spoke up once more. “Birgitte says you make the sign on the side of it anywhere with a bronze knife.” He made the sign that started the game. “She says it has to be a bronze knife. Make the sign, and a door opens.”

“What else did she tell you about—” Thom began, then cut off with a frown. “What ails you, Mat? You look about to sick up.”

What ailed him was his memory, and not the other men’s memories for once. Those had been stuffed into him to fill holes in his own memories, which they did and more, or so it seemed. He certainly remembered many more days than he had lived. But whole stretches of his own life were lost to him, and others were like moth-riddled blankets or shadowy and dim. He had only spotty memories of fleeing Shadar Logoth, and very vague recollections of escaping on Domon’s rivership, but one thing seen on that voyage stood out. A tower shining like burnished steel. Sick up? His stomach wanted to empty itself.

“I think I know where that tower is, Thom. Rather, Domon knows. But I can’t go with you. The Eelfinn will know I’m coming, maybe the Aelfinn, too. Burn me, they might already know about this letter, because I read it. They might know every word we’ve said. You can’t trust them. They’ll take advantage if they can, and if they know you’re coming, they’ll be planning to do just that. They’ll skin you and make harnesses for themselves from your hide.” His memories of them were all his own, but they were more than enough to support the judgment.

They stared at him as if he were mad, even Olver. There was nothing for it but to tell them about his encounters with the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn. As much as was needful, at least. Not about his answers from the Aelfinn, certainly, or his two gifts from the Eelfinn. But the other men’s memories were necessary to explain what he had reasoned out about the Eelfinn and Aelfinn having links to him, now. And the pale leather harnesses the Eelfinn wore; those seemed important. And how they had tried to kill him. That was very important. He had said he wanted to leave and failed to say alive, so they took him outside and hanged him. He even removed the scarf to show his scar for extra weight, and he seldom let anybody see that. The three of them listened in silence, Thom and Noal intently, Olver’s mouth slowly dropping open in wonder. The rain beating on the tent roof was the only sound aside from his voice.

“That all has to stay inside this tent,” he finished. “Aes Sedai have enough reasons already to want to put their hands on me. If they find out about those memories, I’ll never be free of them.” Would he ever be entirely free of them? He was beginning to think not, yet there was no reason to give them fresh reasons to meddle in his life.

“Are you any relation to Jain?” Noal raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Peace, man. I believe you. It’s just, that tops anything I ever did. Anything Jain ever did, too. Would you mind if I made the third? I can be handy in tight spots, you know.”

“Burn me, did everything I said pass in one ear and out the other? They’ll know I’m coming. They may already know everything!”

“And it doesn’t matter,” Thom put in, “not to me. I’ll go by myself, if necessary. But if I read this correctly,” he began folding the letter up, almost tenderly, “the only hope of success is if you are one of the three.” He sat there on the cot, silent now, looking Mat in the eye.

Mat wanted to look away, and could not. Bloody Aes Sedai! The woman almost certainly was dead, and yet she still tried coercing him into being a hero. Well, heroes got patted on the head and pushed out of the way until the next time a hero was needed, if they survived being a hero in the first place. Very often heroes did not. He had never really trusted Moiraine, or liked her either. Only fools trusted Aes Sedai. But then, if not for her, he would be back in the Two Rivers mucking out the barn and tending his da’s cows. Or he would be dead. And there old Thom sat, saying nothing, just staring at him. That was the rub. He liked Thom. Oh, blood and bloody ashes.

“Burn me for a fool,” he muttered. “I’ll go.”

Thunder crashed deafeningly right atop a flash of lightning so bright it shone through the tent canvas. When the rumbling booms faded, there was dead silence in his head. The last set of dice had stopped. He could have wept.

A Hell in Maderin

Despite the late hours kept by everyone that night, the show made a very early start the next morning. Grainy-eyed and groggy, Mat trudged out of his tent while the sky was still dark to find men and women with lanterns trotting to get ready when they were not running, and nearly everyone shouting for somebody or other to move faster. Many had the unsteady step of people who had not slept. Everyone seemed to feel that the farther they could get from where that village had vanished in front of their eyes, the better. Luca’s great gaudy wagon took to the road before the sun had cleared the horizon, and once again he set a goodly pace. Two merchants’ trains of twenty or so wagons each passed them heading south, and a slow caravan of Tinkers, but nothing going the other way. The farther, the better.

Mat rode with Tuon, and Selucia made no attempt to put the dun between them, yet there was no conversation however much he tried to start one. Save for an occasional unreadable glance when he made a sally or told a joke, Tuon rode looking straight ahead, the cowl of her blue cloak hiding her face. Even juggling failed to catch her attention. There was something broody about her silence, and it worried him. When a woman went silent on you, there usually was trouble in the offing. When she brooded, you could forget about usually. He doubted it was the village of the dead that had her fretting. She was too tough for that. No, there was trouble ahead.

Little more than an hour after they set out, a farm on rolling ground hove into sight, with dozens of black-faced goats cropping grass in a wide pasture and a large olive grove. Boys weeding among the rows of dark-leaved olive trees dropped their hoes and rushed down to the stone fences to watch the show pass, shouting with excitement to know who they were and where they were going and where coming from. Men and women came out of the sprawling tile-roofed farmhouse and two big thatch-roofed barns, shading their eyes to watch. Mat was relieved to see it. The dead paid no mind to the living.

As the show rolled onward, farms and olive groves grew thicker on the ground until they ran side by side, pushing the forest back a mile or more on either side of the road, and well short of midmorning they reached a prosperous town somewhat larger than Jurador. A merchant’s long train of canvas-topped wagons was turning in at the main gates, where half a dozen men in polished conical helmets and leather coats sewn with steel discs stood guard with halberds. More men, cradling crossbows, kept watch atop the two gate towers. But if the Lord of Maderin, one Nathin Sarmain Vendare, expected trouble, the guards were the only sign of it. Farms and olive groves reached right to the stone walls of Maderin, an unsound practice, and right costly should the town ever need to be defended. Luca had to bargain with a farmer for the right to set up the show in an unused pasture and came back muttering that he had just bought the scoundrel a new flock of goats or maybe two. But the canvas wall was soon rising, with Luca chivvying everyone for speed. They were to perform today and leave early in the morning. Very early. Nobody complained, or much said an unneeded word. The farther, the better.

“And tell no one what you saw,” Luca cautioned more than once. “We saw nothing out of the ordinary. We wouldn’t want to frighten the patrons away.” People looked at him as if he were insane. No one wanted to think of that melting village or the peddler, much less speak of them.

Mat was sitting in his tent in his shirtsleeves, waiting for Thom and Juilin to return from their trip into the town to learn whether there was a Seanchan presence. He was idly tossing a set of dice on his small table. After an early run of mostly high numbers, five single pips stared up at him ten times in a row; most men thought the Dark One’s eyes an unlucky toss.

Selucia pulled back the entry flap and strode in. Despite her plain brown divided skirts and white blouse, she managed to seem a queen entering a stable. A filthy stable, by the expression on her face, though Lopin and Nerim could have satisfied his mother when it came to cleaning.

“She wants you,” she drawled peremptorily, touching her flowered scarf to make sure her short yellow hair was covered. “Come.”

“What’s she want with me, then?” he said, and leaned his elbows on the table. He even stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. Once you let a woman think you would jump whenever she called, you never got out from under again.

“She’ll tell you. You are wasting time, Toy. She won’t be pleased.”

“If Precious expects me to come running when she crooks a finger, she better learn to like being displeased.”

Grimacing—if her mistress tolerated the name, Selucia took it for a personal affront—she folded her arms beneath that impressive bosom.

It was clear as good glass that she intended to wait there until he went with her, and he was of a mind to make it a long wait. He tossed the dice. The Dark One’s Eyes. Expecting him to jump when Tuon said toad. Hah! Another toss, spinning across the table, one die nearly going over the edge. The Dark One’s Eyes. Still, he had nothing else to do at the moment.

Even so, he took his time donning his coat, a good bronze-colored silk. By the time he picked up his hat, he could hear her foot tapping impatiently. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he asked. She hissed at him. She held the entry flap open, but she purely hissed like a cat.

Setalle and Tuon were sitting on one of the beds talking when he entered the purple wagon, but they cut off the instant he stepped through the door and gave him brief but appraising looks. Which told him the subject of their talk had been Mat Cauthon. It made his hackles rise. Plainly, whatever Tuon wanted was something they thought he would disapprove of. And just as plainly, she meant to have it anyway. The table was snug against the ceiling, and Selucia brushed past him to take a place behind Tuon as the tiny woman sat down on the stool, her face stern and those beautiful big eyes steady. Hang all the prisoners immediately.

“I wish to visit the common room of an inn,” she announced. “Or a tavern. I have never seen the inside of either. You will take me to one in this town, Toy.”

He let himself breathe again. “That’s easy enough. Just as soon as Thom or Juilin lets me know it’s safe.”

“It must be a low place. What is called a hell.”

His mouth fell open. Low? Hells were the lowest of the low, dirty and dimly lit, where the ale and wine were cheap and still not worth half what you paid, the food was worse, and any woman who sat on your lap was trying to pick your pocket or cut your purse or else had two men waiting upstairs to crack you over the head as soon as you walked into her room. At any hour of the day or night you would find dice rolling in a dozen games, sometimes for surprising stakes given the surroundings. Not gold—only a stone fool displayed gold in a hell—but silver often crossed the tables. Few of the gamblers would have come by their coin by any means even halfway honest, and those few would be as hard-eyed as the headcrackers and knife-men who preyed on drunks in the night. Hells always had two or three strongarms with cudgels about to break up fights, and most days they worked hard for their pay. They usually stopped the patrons from killing one another, but when they failed, the corpse was dragged out the back and left in an alley somewhere or on a rubbish heap. And while they were dragging, the drinking never slowed, or the gambling either. That was a hell. How had she even heard of such places?

“Did you plant this fool notion in her head?” he demanded of Setalle.

“Why, what in the Light makes you think that?” she replied, going all wide-eyed the way women did when pretending to be innocent. Or when they wanted you to think they were pretending, just to confuse you. He could not see why they bothered. Women confused him all the time without trying.

“It’s out of the question, Precious. I walk into a hell with a woman like you, and I’ll be in six knife fights inside the hour, if I survive that long.”

Tuon gave a pleased smile. Just a flicker, but definitely pleased. “Do you really think so?”

“I know so for a fact.” Which produced another brief smile of delight. Delight! The bloody woman wanted to see him in a knife fight!

“Even so, Toy, you promised.”

They were arguing over whether he had made a promise—well, he was calmly presenting the logic that saying something was easy was no promise; Tuon just stubbornly insisted he had promised, while Setalle took up her embroidery hoop and Selucia watched him with the amused air of someone watching a man try to defend the indefensible; and he did not shout, no matter what Tuon said—when a knock came at the door.

Tuon paused. “You see, Toy,” she said after a moment, “that is how it is done. You knock and then wait.” She made a simple gesture over one shoulder at her maid.

“You may enter the presence,” Selucia called, drawing herself up regally. She probably expected whoever came in to prostrate themselves!

It was Thom, in a dark blue coat and dark gray cloak that would make him unremarked in any common room or tavern, neither well-to-do nor poor. A man who could afford to pay for his own drink while listening to the gossip, or buy another man a cup of wine to pay for hearing his news and the latest rumors. He did not prostrate himself, but he did make an elegant bow despite his bad right leg. “My Lady,” he murmured to Tuon before turning his attention to Mat. “Harnan said he saw you strolling this way. I trust I’m not interrupting? I heard ... voices.”

Mat scowled. He had not been shouting. “You’re not interrupting. What did you find out?”

“That there may be Seanchan in the town from time to time. No soldiers, but it seems they’re building two farm villages a few miles to the north of the road and three more a few miles south. The villagers come to town to buy things now and then.”

Mat managed to keep from smiling as he spoke over his shoulder. He even got a smattering of regret into his voice. “I’m afraid there’s no jaunt into Maderin for you, Precious. Too dangerous.”

Tuon folded her arms, emphasizing her bosom. There were more curves to her than he once had thought. Not like Selucia, certainly, but nice curves. “Farmers, Toy,” she drawled dismissively. “No farmer has ever seen my face. You promised me a tavern or a common room, and you won’t escape on this puny excuse.”

“A common room should present no difficulties,” Thom said. “It’s a pair of scissors or a new pot these farmers are after, not drink. They make their own ale, it seems, and don’t much like the local brew.”

“Thank you, Thom,” Mat said through gritted teeth. “She wants to see a hell.”

The white-haired man gave a wheezing cough and knuckled his mustache vigorously. “A hell,” he muttered.

“A hell. Do you know a hell in this town where I might take her without starting a riot?” He intended the question for sarcasm, but Thom surprised him by nodding.

“I might just know a place at that,” the man said slowly. “The White Ring. I intend to go there anyway, to see what news I can pick up.”

Mat blinked. However unremarked Thom might be elsewhere, he would be looked at askance in a hell wearing that coat. More than askance. The usual garb there was coarse dirty wool and stained linen. Besides, asking questions in a hell was a good way to have a knife planted in your back. But maybe Thom meant that this White Ring was not a hell at all. Tuon might not know the difference if the place were only a little rougher than the usual. “Should I get Harnan and the others?” he asked, testing.

“Oh, I think you and I should be protection enough for the lady,” Thom said with what might have been the ghost of a smile, and knots loosened in Mat’s shoulders.

He still cautioned the two women—there was no question of Selucia staying behind, of course; Mistress Anan refused Tuon’s invitation to accompany them, saying she had already seen as many hells as she had any wish to—about keeping their hoods well up. Tuon might believe no farmer had ever seen her face, but if a cat could gaze on a king, as the old saying said, then a farmer might have gazed on Tuon some time or other, and it would be just their luck to have one or two of them turn up in Maderin. Being ta’veren usually seemed to twist the Pattern for the worst in his experience.

“Toy,” Tuon said gently as Selucia settled the blue cloak on her slim shoulders, “I have met many farmers while visiting the country, but they very properly kept their eyes on the ground even if I allowed them to stand. Believe me, they never saw my face.”

Oh. He went to fetch his own cloak. White clouds nearly obscured the sun, still short of its midday peak, and it was a brisk day for spring, with a strong breeze to boot.

People from the town crowded the main street of the show, men in rough woolens or sober coats of finer stuff with just a touch of embroidery on the cuffs; women, many wearing lace caps, in somber, collared dresses beneath long white aprons or dark, high-necked dresses with embroidery curling across the bosom; children darting everywhere, escaping their parents and being chased down, all of them oohing and aahing at Miyora’s leopards or Latelle’s bears, at the jugglers or Balat and Abar eating fire, the lean brothers moving in unison. Not pausing for so much as a glimpse of the female acrobats, Mat threaded through the throng with Tuon on his arm, which he assured by placing her hand on his left wrist. She hesitated a moment, then nodded slightly, a queen giving assent to a peasant. Thom had offered his arm to Selucia, but she stayed at her mistress’s left shoulder. At least she did not try to crowd between.

Luca, in scarlet coat and cloak, was beneath the big banner at the entrance watching coins clink into the glass pitcher, clink again as they were dropped into the strongbox. He wore a smile on his face. The line waiting to get in stretched near a hundred paces along the canvas wall, and more people were trickling out of the town and heading toward the show. “I could take in a fine bit here over two or three days,” he told Mat. “After all, this place is solid, and we’re far enough from...” His smile flickered out like a snuffed candle. “You think we’re far enough, don’t you?”

Mat sighed. Gold would defeat fear every time in Valan Luca.

He could not hold his cloak closed with Tuon on his arm, so it flared behind him in the stiff breeze, yet that was to the good. The gate guards, slouching in a ragged line, eyed them curiously, and one made a sketchy bow. Silk and lace had that effect, with country armsmen, at least, and that was what these men were no matter how brightly they had burnished their helmets and coin-armor coats. Most leaned on their halberds like farmers leaning on shovels. But Thom stopped, and Mat was forced to halt too, a few paces into the town. After all, he had no idea where The White Ring lay.

“A heavy guard, Captain,” Thom said, worry touching his voice. “Are there brigands in the area?”

“No outlaws around here,” a grizzled guard said gruffly. A puckered white scar slanting across his square face combined with a squint to give him a villainous appearance. He was not one of the leaners, and he held his halberd as if he might know how to use it. “The Seanchan cleaned out the few we hadn’t caught. Move along, now, old fellow. You’re blocking the way.” There was not a wagon or cart in sight, and the few people leaving the town afoot had plenty of room. The gate arch was wide enough for two wagons abreast, though it might be a squeeze.

“The Seanchan said we didn’t set enough guards,” a stocky fellow about Mat’s age put in cheerfully, “and Lord Nathin listens close when the Seanchan talk.”

The grizzled man clouted him with a gauntleted hand on the back of his helmet hard enough to stagger him. “You watch your mouth with people from off, Keilar,” the older man growled, “else you’ll be back behind a plow before you can blink. My Lord,” he added to Mat, raising his voice, “you want to call your servant before he gets himself in trouble.”

“My apologies, Captain,” Thom said humbly, ducking his white head, the very image of a chastened serving man. “No offense meant. My apologies.”

“He would have thumped you, too, if I hadn’t been here,” Mat told him when he caught up. Thom was limping noticeably. He must have been tired for it to show that much. “He almost did anyway. And what did you learn that was worth risking that?”

“I wouldn’t have asked without you, in that coat.” Thom chuckled as they walked deeper into the town. “The first lesson is what questions to ask. The second, and just as important, is when and how to ask. I learned there aren’t any brigands, which is always good to know, though I’ve heard of very few bands big enough to attack something as large as the show. I learned Nathin is under the Seanchan thumb. Either he’s obeying a command with those extra guards, or he takes their suggestions as commands. And most important, I learned that Nathin’s armsmen don’t resent the Seanchan.”

Mat quirked an eyebrow at him.

“They didn’t spit when they said the name, Mat. They didn’t grimace or growl. They won’t fight the Seanchan, not unless Nathin tells them to, and he won’t.” Thom exhaled heavily. “It’s very strange. I’ve found the same everywhere from Ebou Dar to here. These outlanders come, take charge, impose their laws, snatch up women who can channel, and if the nobles resent them, very few among the common people seem to. Unless they’ve had wife or relation collared, anyway. Very strange, and it bodes ill for getting them out again. But then, Altara is Altara. I’ll wager they’re finding a colder reception in Amadicia and Tarabon.” He shook his head. “We had best hope they are, else...” He did not say what else, but it was easy to imagine.

Mat glanced at Tuon. How did she feel hearing Thom talk about her people so? She said nothing, only walked at his side peering curiously at everything from the shelter of her cowl.

Tile-roofed buildings three and four stories tall, most of brick, lined the wide, stone-paved main street of Maderin, shops and inns with signs that swung in the stiff breeze crowded in beside stables and rich people’s homes with large lamps above the arched doorways and humbler structures that housed poorer folk, by the laundry hanging from nearly every window. Horse carts and hand-barrows laden with bales or crates or barrels slowly made their way through a moderately thick throng, men and women with brisk strides, full of that storied southern industry, children dashing about in games of catch. Tuon studied it all with equal interest. A fellow pushing a wheeled grindstone and crying that he sharpened scissors or knives till they could cut wishes caught her attention as much as a lean, hard-faced woman in leather trousers with two swords strapped to her back. Doubtless a merchant’s guard or perhaps a Hunter for the Horn, but a rarity either way. A buxom Domani in a clinging red dress that fell just short of transparent with a pair of bulky bodyguards in scale-armor jerkins at her back got neither more nor less study than a lanky one-eyed fellow in frayed wool hawking pins, needles and ribbons from a tray. He had not noticed this sort of curiosity from her in Jurador, but she had been intent on finding silk in Jurador. Here, she seemed to be trying to memorize all she saw.

Thom soon led them off into a maze of twisting streets, most of which deserved the name only because they were paved with rough stone blocks the size of a man’s two fists. Buildings as big as those on the main street, some housing shops on the ground floor, loomed over them, almost shutting out the sky. Many of those ways were too narrow for horse carts—in some Mat would not have had to extend his arms fully to touch the walls on either side—and more than once he had to press Tuon against the front of a building to let a heavy-loaded hand-barrow rumble past over the uneven paving stones, the barrow-man calling apologies for the inconvenience without slowing. Porters trudged through that cramped warren, too, men walking bent nearly parallel to the ground, each with a bale or crate on his back held level by a padded leather roll strapped to his hips. Just the sight of them made Mat’s own back ache. They reminded him how much he hated work.

He was on the point of asking Thom how far they had to go—Maderin was not that big a town—when they reached The White Ring, on one of those winding streets where his arms could more than compass the width of the pavement, a brick building of three floors across from a cutler’s shop. The painted sign hanging over the inn’s red door, a frilly white circle of lace, made the knots return to his shoulders. Ring, it might be called, but that was a woman’s garter if ever he had seen one. It might not be a hell, but inns with signs like that usually were rowdy enough in their own right. He eased the knives up his coatsleeves, and those in his boot tops, as well, felt the blades under his coat, shrugged just to get the feel of the one hanging behind his neck. Though if it went that far... Tuon nodded approvingly. The bloody woman was dying to see him get into a knife fight! Selucia had the sense to frown.

“Ah, yes,” Thom said. “A wise precaution.” And he checked his own knives, tightening those knots in Mat’s shoulders a little more. Thom carried almost as many blades as he did, up his sleeves, beneath his coat.

Selucia writhed her fingers at Tuon, and suddenly they were in a silent argument, fingers flashing. Of course, it could not be that—Tuon bloody well owned Selucia the same as owning a dog, and you did not argue with your dog—but an argument it seemed, both women with their jaws set stubbornly. Finally, Selucia folded her hands and bowed her head in acquiescence. A reluctant submission.

“It will be well,” Tuon told her in a jollying tone. “You will see. It will be well.”

Mat wished he was sure of that. Taking a deep breath, he extended his wrist for her hand again and followed Thom.

The spacious, wood-paneled common room of The White Ring held better than two dozen men and women, nearly half obvious outlanders, at square tables beneath a thick-beamed ceiling. All neatly dressed in finely woven wool with little by way of ornamentation, most were talking quietly over their wine in pairs, cloaks draped over their low-backed chairs, though three men and a woman with long beaded braids were tossing bright red dice from a winecup at one table. Pleasant smells drifted from the kitchen, including meat roasting. Goat, most likely. Beside the wide stone fireplace, where a parsimonious fire burned and a polished brass barrel-clock sat on the mantel, a saucy-eyed young woman who rivaled Selucia—and with her blouse unlaced nearly to her waist to prove it—swayed her hips and sang, accompanied by a hammered dulcimer and a flute, a song about a woman juggling all of her lovers. She sang in a suitably bawdy voice. None of the patrons appeared to be listening.

“As I walked out one fine spring day,I met young Jac who was pitching hay,his hair so fair, and his eyes were, too.Well, I gave him a kiss; oh, what could I do?We snuggled and we tickled while the sun rose high,and I won’t say how often he made me sigh.”Lowering her hood, Tuon stopped just inside the door and frowned around the room. “Are you certain this is a hell, Master Merrilin?” she asked. In a low voice, thank the Light. Some places, a question of that sort could get you thrown out and roughly, silk coat or no. In others, the prices just doubled.

“I assure you, you won’t find a bigger collection of thieves and rascals anywhere in Maderin at this hour,” Thom murmured, stroking his mustaches.

“Now Jac gets an hour when the sky is clear,and Willi gets an hour when my father’s not near.It’s the hayloft with Moril, for he shows no fear,and Keilin comes at midday; he’s oh so bold!Lord Brelan gets an evening when the night is cold.Master Andril gets a morning, but he’s very old.Oh, what, oh, what is a poor girl to do?My loves are so many and the hours so few.”Tuon looked doubtful, but with Selucia at her shoulder, she walked over to stand in front of the singer, who faltered a moment at Tuon’s intense scrutiny before catching the song up again. She sang over the top of Tuon’s head, plainly attempting to ignore her. It seemed that with every other verse, the woman in the song added a new lover to her list. The male musician, playing the dulcimer, smiled at Selucia and got a frosty stare back. The two women got other looks as well, the one so small and with very short black hair, the other rivaling the singer and with her head wrapped in a scarf, but no more than glances. The patrons were intent on their own business.

“It isn’t a hell,” Mat said softly, “but what is it? Why would so many people be here in the middle of the day?” It was mornings and evenings when common rooms filled up like this.

“The locals are selling olive oil, lacquerware or lace,” Thom replied just as quietly, “and the outlanders are buying. It seems local custom is to begin with a few hours of drink and conversation. And if you have no head for it,” he added dryly, “you sober up to find you’ve made much less of a bargain than you thought in your wine.”

“Light, Thom, she’ll never believe this place is a hell. I thought you were taking us somewhere merchants’ guards drink, or apprentices. At least she might believe that.”

“Trust me, Mat. I think you’ll find she has lived a very sheltered life in some ways.”

Sheltered? When her own brothers and sisters tried to kill her? “You wouldn’t care to wager a crown on it, would you?”

Thom chuckled. “Always glad to take your coin.”

Tuon and Selucia came gliding back, faces expressionless. “I expected rougher garb on the patrons,” Tuon said quietly, “and perhaps a fight or two, but the song is too salacious for a respectable inn. Though she is much too covered to sing it properly, in my opinion. What is that for?” she added in tones of suspicion as Mat handed Thom a coin.

“Oh,” Thom said, slipping the crown into his coat pocket, “I thought you might be disappointed that only the more successful blackguards were present—they aren’t always so colorful as the poorer sort—but Mat said you’d never notice.”

She leveled a look at Mat, who opened his mouth indignantly. And closed it again. What was there to say? He was already in the pickling kettle. No need to stoke the fire.

As the innkeeper approached, a round woman with suspiciously black hair beneath a white lace cap and stuffed into a gray dress embroidered in red and green across her more than ample bosom, Thom slipped away with a bow and a murmured, “By your leave, my Lord, my Lady.” Murmured, but loud enough for Mistress Heilin to hear.

The innkeeper had a flinty smile, yet she exercised it for a lord and lady, curtsying so deeply that she grunted straightening back up, and she seemed only a little disappointed that Mat wanted wine and perhaps food, not rooms. Her best wine. Even so, when he paid, he let her see that he had gold in his purse as well as silver. A silk coat was all very well, but gold wearing rags got better service than copper wearing silk.

“Ale,” Tuon drawled. “I’ve never tasted ale. Tell me, good mistress, is it likely any of these people will start a fight any time soon?” Mat nearly swallowed his tongue.

Mistress Heilin blinked and gave her head a small shake, as if uncertain she really had heard what she thought she had. “No need to worry, my Lady,” she said. “It happens time to time, if they get too far in their cups, but I’ll settle them down hard if it does.”

“Not on my account,” Tuon told her. “They should have their sport.”

The innkeeper’s smile went crooked and barely held, but she managed another curtsy then scurried away clutching Mat’s coin and calling, “Jera, wine for the lord and lady, a pitcher of the Kiranaille. And a mug of ale.”

“You mustn’t ask questions like that, Precious,” Mat said quietly as he escorted Tuon and Selucia to an empty table. Selucia refused a chair, taking Tuon’s cloak and draping it over the chair she held for Tuon, then standing behind it. “It isn’t polite. Besides, it lowers your eyes.” Thank the Light for those talks with Egeanin, whatever name she wanted to go by. Seanchan would do any fool thing or refuse to do what was sensible to avoid having their eyes lowered.

Tuon nodded thoughtfully. “Your customs are often very peculiar, Toy. You will have to teach me about them. I have learned some, but I must know the customs of the people I will rule in the name of the Empress, may she live forever.”

“I’ll be glad to teach you what I can,” Mat said, unpinning his cloak and letting it fall carelessly over the low back of his chair. “It will be good for you to know our ways even if you end up ruling a sight less than you expect to.” He set his hat on the table.

Tuon and Selucia gasped as one, hands darting for the hat. Tuon’s reached it first, and she quickly put it on the chair next to her. “That is very bad luck, Toy. Never put a hat on a table.” She made one of those odd gestures for warding off evil, folding under the middle two fingers and extending the other two stiffly. Selucia did the same.

“I’ll remember that,” he said dryly. Perhaps too dryly. Tuon gave him a level look. Very level.

“I have decided you will not do for a cupbearer, Toy. Not until you learn meekness, which I almost despair of teaching you. Perhaps I will make you a running groom, instead. You are good with horses. Would you like trotting at my stirrup when I ride? The robes are much the same as for a cupbearer, but I will have yours decorated with ribbons. Pink ribbons.”

He managed to maintain a smooth face, but he felt his cheeks growing hot. There was only one way she could know pink ribbons had any special significance to him. Tylin had told her. It had to be. Burn him, women would talk about anything!

The arrival of the serving maid with their drink saved him from having to make any response. Jera was a smiling young woman with nearly as many curves as the singer, not so well displayed yet not really concealed by the white apron she wore tied snugly. Her dark woolen dress fit quite snugly, too. Not that he gave her more than a glance, of course. He was with his wife-to-be. Anyway, only a complete woolhead looked at a woman while with another.

Jera placed a tall pewter wine pitcher and two polished pewter cups on the table and handed a thick mug of ale to Selucia, then blinked in confusion when Selucia transferred the mug to Tuon and took a cup of wine in return. He handed her a silver penny to settle her discomposure, and she gave him a beaming smile with her curtsy before darting off to another call from the innkeeper. It was unlikely she received much in the way of silver.

“You could have smiled back at her, Toy,” Tuon said, holding the mug up for a sniff and wrinkling her nose. “She is very pretty. You were so stone-faced, you probably frightened her.” She took a sip, and her eyes widened in surprise. “This actually is quite good.”

Mat sighed and took a long swallow of dark wine that smelled faintly of flowers. In none of his memories, his own or those other men’s, could he recall having understood women. Oh, one or two things here and there, but never anywhere near completely.

Sipping her ale steadily—he was not about to tell her ale was taken in swallows, not sips; she might get herself drunk deliberately, just to experience a hell fully; he was not ready to put anything past her today. Or any day—taking sips between every sentence, the maddening little woman questioned him on customs. Telling her how to behave in a hell was easy enough. Keep to yourself, ask no questions, and sit with your back to a wall if you could and near to a door in case of a need to leave suddenly. Better not to go at all, but if you had to... Yet she quickly passed on to courts and palaces, and got few answers there. He could have told her more of customs in the courts of Eharon or Shiota or a dozen other dead nations than in those of any nation that still lived. Scraps of how things were done in Caemlyn and Tear were all he really knew, and bits from Fal Dara, in Shienar. Well, that and Ebou Dar, but she already knew those ways.

“So you have traveled widely and been in other palaces than the Tarasin,” she said finally, and took the last bit of ale in her mug. He had not finished half his wine yet; he thought Selucia had not taken above two small swallows of hers. “But you are not nobly born, it seems. I thought you must not be.”

“That I am not,” he told her firmly. “Nobles...” He trailed off, clearing his throat. He could hardly tell her nobles were fools with their noses so high in the air they could not see where they were stepping. She was who and what she was, after all.

Expressionless, Tuon studied him while pushing her empty mug to one side. Still studying, she flickered the fingers of her left hand over her shoulder, and Selucia clapped her own hands together loudly. Several of the other patrons looked at them in surprise. “You called yourself a gambler,” Tuon said, “and Master Merrilin named you the luckiest man in the world.”

Jera came running, and Selucia handed her the mug. “Another, quickly,” she commanded, though not in an unkindly way. Still, she had a regal manner to her. Jera dropped a hasty curtsy and scurried off again as though she had been shouted at.

“I have luck sometimes,” Mat said cautiously.

“Let’s see whether you have any today, Toy.” Tuon looked toward the table where the dice were rattling on the tabletop.

He could see no harm in it. It was a certainty he would win more than he lost, yet he thought it unlikely one of the merchants would pull a knife however much his luck was in. He had not noticed anyone carrying one of those long belt knives that everybody wore farther south. Standing, he offered Tuon his arm, and she rested her hand lightly on his wrist. Selucia left her wine on the table and stayed close to her mistress.

Two of the Altaran men, one lean and bald except for a dark fringe, the other round-faced above three chins, scowled when he asked whether a stranger might join the game, and the third, a graying, stocky fellow with a pendulous lower lip, went stiff as a fence post. The Taraboner woman was not so unfriendly.

“Of course, of course. Why not?” she said, her speech slightly slurred. Her face was flushed, and the smile she directed at him had a slackness about it. Apparently she was one of those with no head for wine. It seemed the locals wanted to keep her happy because the scowls vanished, though the graying man remained wooden-faced. Mat fetched chairs from a nearby table for himself and Tuon. Selucia chose to remain standing behind Tuon, which was just as well. Six people crowded the table.

Jera arrived to curtsy and proffer a refilled mug to Tuon with both hands and a murmured “My Lady,” and another serving woman, graying and nearly as stout as Mistress Heilin, replaced the wine pitcher on the gambler’s table. Smiling, the bald man filled the Taraboner’s cup to the brim. They wanted her happy and drunk. She drained half the cup and with a laugh wiped her lips delicately with a lace-edged handkerchief. Getting it back up her sleeve required two tries. She would come away with no good bargains this day.

Mat watched a little play and soon recognized the game. It used four dice rather than two, but without a doubt it was a version of Piri, Match, a game that had been popular for a thousand years before Artur Hawkwing began his rise. Small piles of silver admixed with a few gold coins lay in front of each of the players, and it was a silver mark that he laid in the middle of the table to buy the dice while the stout man was gathering his winnings from the last toss. He expected no trouble from merchants, but trouble was less likely if they lost silver rather than gold.

The lean man matched the wager, and Mat rattled the crimson dice in the pewter cup, then spun them out onto the table. They came to rest showing four fives.

“Is that a winning toss?” Tuon asked.

“Not unless I match it,” Mat replied, scooping the dice back into the cup, “without tossing a fourteen or the Dark One’s eyes first.” The dice clattered in the cup, clattered across the table. Four fives. His luck was in, for sure. He slid one coin over in front of himself and left the other.

Abruptly, the graying fellow scraped back his chair and stood up. “I’ve had enough,” he muttered, and began fumbling the coins in front of him into his coat pockets. The other two Altarans stared at him incredulously.

“You’re leaving, Vane?” the lean man said. “Now?”

“I said I’ve had enough, Camrin,” the graying man growled and went stumping out into the street pursued by Camrin’s scowl at his back.

The Taraboner woman leaned over unsteadily, her beaded braids clicking on the tabletop, to pat the fat man’s wrist. “Just means I’ll buy my lacquerware from you, Master Kostelle,” she said fuzzily. “You and Master Camrin.”

Kostelle’s triple chins wobbled as he chuckled. “So it does, Mistress Alstaing. So it does. Doesn’t it, Camrin?”

“I suppose,” the bald man replied grumpily. “I suppose.” He shoved a mark out to match Mat’s.

Once again the dice spun across the table. This time, they came up totaling fourteen.

“Oh,” Tuon said, sounding disappointed. “You lost.”

“I won, Precious. That’s a winning toss if it’s your first.” He left his original bet in the middle of the table. “Another?” he said with a grin.

His luck was in, all right, as strong as it had ever been. The bright red dice rolled across the table, bounced across the table, ricocheted off the wagered coins sometimes, and toss after toss they came to rest showing fourteen white pips. He made fourteen every way it could be made. Even at one coin to a wager, the silver in front of him grew to a tidy sum. Half the people in the common room came to stand around the table and watch. He grinned at Tuon, who gave him a slight nod. He had missed this, dice in a common room or tavern, coin on the table, wondering how long his luck would hold. And a pretty woman at his side while he gambled. He wanted to laugh with pleasure.

As he was shaking the dice in the cup again, the Taraboner merchant glanced at him, and for an instant, she did not look drunk at all. Suddenly, he no longer felt like laughing. Her face slackened immediately, and her eyes became a tad unfocused once more, but for that instant they had been awls. She had a much better head for wine than he had supposed. It seemed Camrin and Kostelle would not get away with fobbing off shoddy work at top prices or whatever their scheme had been. What concerned him, though, was that the woman was suspicious of him. Come to think, she herself had not risked a coin against him. The two Altarans were frowning at him, but just the way men who were losing frowned over their bad luck. She thought he had found some way to cheat. Never mind that he was using their dice, or more likely the inn’s dice; an accusation of cheating could get a man a drubbing even in a merchants’ inn. Men seldom waited on proof of that charge.

“One last toss,” he said, “and I think I’ll call it done. Mistress Heilin?” The innkeeper was among the onlookers. He handed her a small handful of his new-won silver coins. “To celebrate my good fortune, serve everybody what they want to drink until those run out.” That brought appreciative murmurs, and someone behind him clapped him on the back. A man drinking your wine was less likely to believe you had bought it with cheated coin. Or at least they might hesitate long enough to give him a chance to get Tuon out.

“He can’t keep this run going forever,” Camrin muttered, scrubbing a hand through the hair he no longer possessed. “What say you, Kostelle? Halves?” Fingering a gold crown free of the coins piled in front of him, he slid it over beside Mat’s silver mark. “If there’s only to be one more toss, let’s make a real wager on it. Bad luck has to follow this much good.” Kostelle hesitated, rubbing his chins in thought, then nodded and added a gold crown of his own.

Mat sighed. He could refuse the bet, but walking away now might well trigger Mistress Alstaing’s charge. So could winning this toss. Reluctantly he pushed out silver marks to match their gold. That left only two in front of him. He gave the cup an extra heavy shake before spilling the dice onto the table. He did not expect that to alter anything. He was just venting his feelings.

The red dice tumbled across the tabletop, hit the piled coins and bounced back, spinning before they fell to a stop. Each showing a single pip. The Dark One’s Eyes.

Laughing just as if it were not just their own coin won back, Camrin and Kostelle began dividing their winnings. The watchers started drifting away, calling congratulations to the two merchants, murmuring words of commiseration to Mat, some lifting the cup he was paying for in his direction. Mistress Alstaing took a long pull at her winecup, studying him over the rim, to all outward appearance as drunk as a goose. He doubted she thought he had been cheating any longer, not when he was walking away with only one mark more than he sat down with. Sometimes bad luck could turn out to be good.

“So your luck is not endless, Toy,” Tuon said as he escorted her back to their table. “Or is it that you are lucky only in small things?”

“Nobody has endless luck, Precious. Myself, I think that last toss was one of the luckiest I’ve ever made.” He explained about the Taraboner woman’s suspicions, and why he had bought wine for the whole common room.

At the table, he held her chair for her, but she remained standing, looking at him. “You may do very well in Seandar,” she said finally, thrusting her nearly empty mug at him. “Guard this until I return.”

He straightened in alarm. “Where are you going?” He trusted her not to run away, but not to stay out of trouble without him there to pull her out of it.

She put on a long-suffering face. Even that was beautiful. “If you must know, I am going to the necessary, Toy.”

“Oh. The innkeeper can tell you where it is. Or one of the serving women.”

“Thank you, Toy,” she said sweetly. “I’d never have thought to ask.” She waggled her fingers at Selucia, and the two of them walked toward the back of the common room having one of their silent talks and giggling.

Sitting down, he scowled into his winecup. Women seemed to enjoy finding ways to make you feel a fool. And he was half-married to this one.

“Where are the women?” Thom asked, dropping down into the chair beside Mat and setting a nearly full winecup on the table. He grunted when Mat explained, and went on in a low voice, leaning his elbows on the table to put his head close. “We have trouble behind and ahead. Far enough ahead that it may not bother us here, but best we leave as soon as they return.”

Mat sat up straight. “What kind of trouble?”

“Some of those merchant trains that passed us the last few days brought news of a murder in Jurador about the time we left. Maybe a day or two later; it’s hard to be sure. A man was found in his own bed with his throat ripped, only there wasn’t enough blood.” He had no need to say more.

Mat took a long pull at his wine. The bloody gholam was still following him. How had it found out he was with Luca’s show? But if it was still a day or two behind at the pace the show was making, likely it would not catch up to him soon. He fingered the silver foxhead through his coat. At least he had a way to fight it if it did appear. The thing carried a scar he had given it. “And the trouble ahead?”

“There’s a Seanchan army on the border of Murandy. How they assembled it without my learning about it before this...” He puffed out his mustaches, offended by his failure. “Well, no matter. Everybody who passes through they make drink a cup of some herbal tea.”

Tea?” Mat said in disbelief. “Where’s the trouble in tea?”

“Every so often, this tea makes a woman go unsteady in her legs, and then the sul’dam come and collar her. But that’s not the worst. They’re looking very hard for a slight, dark young Seanchan woman.”

“Well, of course they are. Did you expect they wouldn’t be? This solves my biggest problem, Thom. When we get closer, we can leave the show, take to the forest. Tuon and Selucia can travel on with Luca. Luca will like being the hero who returned their Daughter of the Nine Moons to them.”

Thom shook his head gravely. “They’re looking for an impostor, Mat. Somebody claiming to be the Daughter of the Nine Moons. Except the description fits her too closely. They don’t talk about it openly, but there are always men who drink too much, and some always talk too much as well when they do. They mean to kill her when they find her. Something about blotting out the shame she caused.”

“Light!” Mat breathed. “How could that be, Thom? Whatever general commands that army must know her face, wouldn’t he? And other officers, too, I’d think. There must be nobles who know her.”

“Won’t do her much good if they do. Even the lowest soldier will slit her throat or bash in her head as soon as she’s found. I had that from three different merchants, Mat. Even if they’re all wrong, are you willing to take the chance?”

Mat was not, and over their wine they began planning. Not that they did much drinking. Thom seldom did anymore for all his visits to common rooms and taverns, and Mat wanted a clear head.

“Luca will scream over letting us have enough horses to mount everyone whatever you pay him,” Thom said at one point. “And there are packhorses for supplies if we’re taking to the forest.”

“Then I’ll start buying, Thom. By the time we have to go, we’ll have as many as we need. I’ll wager I can find a few good animals right here. Vanin has a good eye, too. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he pays for them.” Thom nodded doubtfully. He was not so certain how reformed Vanin was.

“Aludra’s coming with us?” the white-haired man said in surprise a little later. “She’ll want to take all of her paraphernalia. That’ll mean more packhorses.”

“We have time, Thom. The border of Murandy is a long way, yet. I mean to head north into Andor, or east if Vanin knows a way through the mountains. Better east.” Any way Vanin knew would be a smuggler’s path, a horsethief’s escape route. There would be much less chance of unfortunate encounters along something like that. The Seanchan could be almost anywhere in Altara, and the way north took him nearer that army than he liked.

Tuon and Selucia appeared from the back of the common room, and he stood, taking up Tuon’s cloak from her chair. Thom rose, too, lifting Selucia’s cloak. “We’re leaving,” Mat said, trying to place the cloak around Tuon. Selucia snatched it out of his hands.

“I haven’t seen even one fight yet,” Tuon protested, too loudly. Any number of people turned to stare, merchants and serving women.

“I’ll explain outside,” he told her quietly. “Away from prying ears.”

Tuon stared up at him, expressionless. He knew she was tough, but she was so tiny, like a pretty doll, that it was easy to believe she would break if handled roughly. He was going to do whatever was necessary to make sure she was not put in danger of being broken. Whatever it took. Finally she nodded and let Selucia place the blue cloak on her shoulders. Thom attempted to do the same for the yellow-haired woman, but she took it away from him and donned it herself. Mat could not recall ever seeing her let anyone help her with her cloak.

The crooked street outside was empty of human life. A slat-ribbed brown dog eyed them warily, then trotted away around the nearest bend. Mat moved nearly as quickly in the other direction, explaining as they went. If he had expected shock or dismay, he would have been disappointed.

“It could be Ravashi or Chimal,” the little woman said thoughtfully, as if having an entire Seanchan army out to kill her were no more than an idle distraction. “My two nearest sisters in age. Aurana is too young, I think, only eight. Fourteen, you would say. Chimal is quiet in her ambition, but Ravashi has always believed she should have been named just because she is older. She might well have sent someone to plant rumors should I disappear for a time. It is really quite clever of her. If she is the one.” Just as coolly as talking about whether it might rain.

“This plot could be dealt with easily if the High Lady were in the Tarasin Palace where she belongs,” Selucia said, and coolness vanished from Tuon.

Oh, her face became as chill as that of an executioner, but she rounded on her maid, fingers flashing so furiously they should have been striking sparks. Selucia’s face went pale, and she sank to her knees, head down and huddling. Her fingers gestured briefly, and Tuon let her own hands fall, stood looking down at the scarf-covered top of Selucia’s head, breathing heavily. After a moment, she bent and lifted the other woman to her feet. Standing very close, she said something very short in that finger-talk. Selucia replied silently, Tuon made the same gestures again, and they exchanged tremulous smiles. Tears glistened in their eyes. Tears!

“Will you tell me what that was all about?” Mat demanded. They turned their heads to study him.

“What are your plans, Toy?” Tuon asked at last.

“Not Ebou Dar, if that’s what you’re thinking, Precious. If one army is out to kill you, then they probably all are, and there are too many soldiers between here and Ebou Dar. But don’t worry; I’ll find some way to get you back safely.”

“So you always...” Her eyes went past him, widening, and he looked over his shoulder to see seven or eight men round the last bend in the street. Every man had an unsheathed sword in his hand. Their steps quickened at sight of him.

“Run, Tuon!” he shouted, spinning to face their attackers. “Thom, get her away from here!” A knife came into either hand from his sleeves, and he threw them almost as one. The left-hand blade took a graying man in the eye, the right-hand a skinny fellow in the throat. They dropped as if their bones had melted, but before their swords clattered on the paving stones, he had already snatched another pair of knives from his boot tops and was sprinting toward them.

It took them by surprise, losing two of their number so quickly, and him closing the distance instead of trying to flee. But with him so close so quickly, and them jamming against one another on that narrow street, they lost most of the advantage that swords gave them over his knives. Not all, unfortunately. His blades could deflect a sword, but he only bothered when someone drew back for a thrust. In short order he had a fine collection of gashes, across his ribs, on his left thigh, along the right side of his jaw, a cut that would have laid open his throat had he not jerked aside in time. But had he tried to flee, they would have run him through from behind. Alive and bleeding was better than dead.

His hands moved as fast as ever they had, short moves, almost delicate. Flamboyance would have killed him. One knife slipped into a fat man’s heart and out again before the fellow’s knees began to crumple. He sliced inside the elbow of a man built like a blacksmith, who dropped his sword and awkwardly drew his belt knife with his left hand. Mat ignored him; the fellow was already staggering from blood loss before his blade cleared the scabbard. A square-faced man gasped as Mat sliced open the side of his neck. He clapped a hand to the wound, but he only managed to totter back two steps before he fell. As men died, the others gained room, but Mat moved faster still, dancing so that a falling man shielded him from another’s sword while he closed inside the sword-arc of a third. To him, the world consisted of his two knives and the men crowding each other to get at him, and his knives sought the places where men bleed most heavily. Some of those ancient memories came from men who had not been very nice at all.

And then, miracle of miracles, bleeding profusely, but his blood too hot to let him feel the full pain yet, he was facing the last, one he had not noticed before. She was young and slim in a ragged dress, and she might have been pretty had her face been clean, had her teeth not been showing in a rictus snarl. The dagger she was tossing from hand to hand had a double-edged blade twice the length of his hand.

“You can’t hope to finish alone what the others failed in together,” he told her. “Run. I’ll let you go unharmed.”

With a cry like a feral cat, she rushed at him slashing and stabbing wildly. All he could do was dance backwards awkwardly, trying to fend her off. His boot slid in a patch of blood, and as he staggered, he knew he was about to die.

Abruptly Tuon was there, left hand seizing the young woman’s wrist—not the wrist of her knife hand, worse luck—twisting so the arm went stiff and the girl was forced to double over. And then it mattered not at all which hand held her knife, because Tuon’s right hand swept across, bladed like an axe, and struck her throat so hard that he heard the cartilage cracking. Choking, she clutched her ruined throat and sagged to her knees, then fell over still sucking hoarsely for breath.

“I told you to run,” Mat said, not sure which of the two he was addressing.

“You very nearly let her kill you, Toy,” Tuon said severely. “Why?”

“I promised myself I’d never kill another woman,” he said wearily. His blood was beginning to cool, and Light, he hurt! “Looks like I’ve ruined this coat,” he muttered, fingering one of the blood-soaked slashes. The motion brought a wince. When had he been gashed on the left arm?

Her gaze seemed to bore into his skull, and she nodded as if she had come to some conclusion.

Thom and Selucia were standing a little down the street, in front of the reason Tuon was still there, better than half a dozen bodies sprawled on the paving stones. Thom had a knife in either hand and was allowing Selucia to examine a wound on his ribs through the rent in his coat. Oddly, by evidence of the dark glistening patches on his coat, he seemed to have fewer injuries than Mat. Mat wondered whether Tuon had taken part there, too, but he could not see a spot of blood on her anywhere. Selucia had a bloody gash down her left arm, though it appeared not to hinder her.

“I’m an old man,” Thom said suddenly, “and sometimes I imagine I see things that can’t be, but luckily, I always forget them.”

Selucia paused to look up at him coolly. Lady’s maid she might be, but blood seemed not to faze her at all. “And what might you be trying to forget?”

“I can’t recall,” Thom replied. Selucia nodded and went back to examining his wounds.

Mat shook his head. Sometimes he was not entirely sure Thom still had all his wits. For that matter, Selucia seemed a shovel shy of a full load now and then, too.

“This one can’t live to be put to the question,” Tuon drawled, frowning at the woman choking and twitching at her feet, “and she can’t talk if she somehow managed to.” Bending fluidly, she scooped up the woman’s knife and drove it hard beneath the woman’s breastbone. That rasping fight for air went silent; glazing eyes stared up at the narrow strip of sky overhead. “A mercy she did not deserve, but I see no point to needless suffering. I won, Toy.”

“You won? What are you talking about?”

“You used my name before I used yours, so I won.”

Mat whistled faintly through his teeth. Whenever he thought he knew how tough she was, she found a way to show him he did not know the half. If anybody happened to be looking out a window, that stabbing might raise questions with the local magistrate, probably Lord Nathin himself. But there were no faces at any window he could see. People avoided getting embroiled in this sort of thing if they could. For all he knew, any number of porters or barrow-men might have come along during the fight. For a certainty, they would have turned right around again as quickly as they could. Whether any might have gone for Lord Nathin’s guards was another question. Still, he had no fear of Nathin or his magistrate. A pair of men escorting two women did not decide to attack more than a dozen carrying swords. Likely these fellows, and the unfortunate young woman, were well known to the guards.

Limping to retrieve his thrown knives, he paused in the act of pulling the blade from the graying man’s eye. He had not really taken in that face, before. Everything had happened too quickly for more than general impressions. Carefully wiping the knife on the man’s coat, he tucked it away up his sleeve as he straightened. “Our plans have changed, Thom. We’re leaving Maderin as fast as we can, and we’re leaving the show as fast as we can. Luca will want to be rid of us so much that he’ll let us have all the horses we need.”

“This must be reported, Toy,” Tuon said severely. “Failure to do so is as lawless as what they did.”

“You know that fellow?” Thom said.

Mat nodded. “His name is Vane, and I don’t think anybody in this town will believe a respectable merchant attacked us in the street. Luca will give us horses to be rid of this.” It was very strange. The man had not lost a coin to him, had not wagered a coin. So, why? Very strange indeed. And reason enough to be gone quickly.

A Manufactory

The midday Amadician sun was warm on Perrin’s head as he rode Stayer toward the roofs of Almizar beneath high, scudding white clouds, a hundred miles southwest of Amador. Impatient, he kept the bay at a trot. Farms stretched as far as he could see in any direction on both sides of the road, thatch-roofed stone houses with gray smoke rising from the chimneys and chickens scratching in front of the barns. Fat-tailed sheep and spotted black cattle grazed in stone-walled pastures, and men and boys were plowing the fields or sowing those already plowed. It seemed to be laundry day; he could see large kettles sitting over fires behind houses, and women and girls hanging shirts and blouses and bed linens on long lines to dry. There was little of wildness, only scattered thickets, and most of those neatly coppiced to provide firewood.

He reached out with his mind to find wolves, and found nothing. Unsurprising. Wolves stayed clear of this many people, this much tameness. The breeze stiffened, and he gathered his cloak around him. Despite the need to make a show, it was plain brown wool. The only silk cloak he had was lined with fur, and too hot for the day. His green silk coat worked in silver would have to do. That and his cloak pin, two wolves’ heads in silver-and-gold. A gift from Faile, it had always seemed too ornate to wear, but he had dug it out of the bottom of a chest that morning. A little something to make up for the plain cloak.

What was surprising were the Tinker caravans camped in fields scattered around the town, five of them within his sight. According to Elyas, there was always feasting when two caravans encountered one another, and a meeting of three caused days of celebration, but larger gatherings seldom occurred except in the summer, at Sunday, when they had their meeting places. He almost wished he had brought Aram, despite the risk of Masema learning too much. Maybe if the man could spend a little time among his own people, he might decide to put down his sword. That was the best solution Perrin could think of to a thorny problem, although not likely to work. Aram liked the sword, perhaps too well. But he could not send the man away. He had as good as put that sword in Aram’s hand, and now Aram and the sword were his responsibility. The Light only knew what would become of the man if he truly went over to Masema.

“You study the Tuatha’an and frown, my Lord,” General Khirgan drawled. He could understand her speech a little better, now that they had spent time together. “You’ve had problems with them in your lands? We have nothing like them at home, but the only trouble connected to them I know of has been locals trying to drive them away. Apparently, they’re supposed to be great thieves.”

She and Mishima were ornate today in blue cloaks trimmed with red and yellow, and red coats with blue cuffs and lapels edged in yellow. Three small vertical blue bars, shaped like the thin plumes of a Seanchan helmet, on the left breast of her coat indicated her rank, as two did for Mishima. The dozen soldiers riding behind wore their striped armor and painted helmets, however, and carried steel-tipped lances held at precisely the same angle. The cluster of Faile’s hangers-on following the Seanchan, also twelve in number, made a brave display in Tairen coats with puffy satin-striped sleeves and dark Cairhienin coats with stripes of House colors across the chests, yet in spite of their swords they looked much less dangerous than the soldiers and seemed to know it. Whenever the breeze gusted from behind, it carried traces of irritation that Perrin doubted came from the Seanchan. The soldiers’ scent was of stillness, waiting, like wolves who knew teeth might be needed soon, but not now. Not yet.

“Ah, they steal a chicken now and then, General,” Neald said with a laugh, giving one of his thin waxed mustaches a twist, “but I’d not be calling them great thieves.” He had enjoyed the Seanchan astonishment at the gateway that had brought them all here, and he was still posing over it, somehow managing to strut while sitting his saddle. It was difficult to remember that had he not earned that black coat, he would still be working his father’s farm and perhaps wondering about marriage to a neighbor girl in a year or two. “Great theft requires courage, and Tinkers have not a bit of it.”

Huddled in his dark cloak, Balwer grimaced, or perhaps smiled. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference with the desiccated little man unless Perrin could catch his scent. The pair of them accompanied Perrin in much the same way as a gray-haired sul’dam linked to a cool-eyed damane with touches of gray in her own dark hair accompanied Khirgan and Mishima, supposedly to balance the numbers. To the Seanchan, sul’dam and damane counted as one when connected by the segmented metal leash. He would have been satisfied to come with Neald alone, or Neald and Balwer at least, but Tallanvor had been right about Seanchan and protocol. The talks had dragged on for three days, and while some time had been spent on whether to follow Perrin’s plan or make it a part of something Tylee would come up with—with her yielding at the end only because she could find nothing better—a good part had been wasted on how many each side was to bring here. It had to be the same number for each, and the Banner-General had wanted to bring a hundred of her soldiers and a pair of damane. For honor’s sake. She had been astounded that he was willing to come with less, and was only willing to accept it after he pointed out that everyone among Faile’s people was noble in his or her own lands. He had the feeling she thought she had been cheated because she could not match his escorts’ rank with her own. Strange folk, these Seanchan. Oh, there were sides, to be sure. This alliance was purely temporary, not to mention delicate, and the Banner-General was just as aware of that as he.

“Twice they offered me shelter when I needed it, me and my friends, and asked nothing in return,” Perrin said quietly. “Yet what I remember best about them was when Trollocs surrounded Emond’s Field. The Tuatha’an stood on the green with children strapped to their backs, the few of their own that survived and ours. They would not fight—it isn’t their way—but if the Trollocs overran us, they were ready to try to carry the children to safety. Carrying our children would have hampered them, made escape even less likely than it already was, but they asked for the task.” Neald gave an embarrassed cough and looked away. A flush tinged his cheek. For all he had seen and done, he was young yet, just seventeen. This time, there was no doubt about Balwer’s thin smile.

“I think your life might make a story,” the general said, her expression inviting him to tell as much of it as he would.

“I’d rather my life were ordinary,” he told her. Stories were no place for a man who wanted peace.

“One day, I’d very much like to see some of these Trollocs I keep hearing about,” Mishima said when the silence began to stretch. Amusement tinged his smell, yet he stroked his sword hilt, perhaps without knowing it.

“No you wouldn’t,” Perrin told him. “You’ll get your chance soon or late, but you won’t like it.” After a moment, the scarred man nodded solemnly in understanding, amusement melting. At last he must be beginning to believe that Trollocs and Myrddraal were more than travelers’ fanciful tales. If any doubts remained to him, the time was coming that would erase doubt forever.

Heading into Almizar, as they turned their horses toward the north end of the town along a narrow cart lane, Balwer slipped away. Medore went with him, a tall woman nearly as dark as Tylee but with deep blue eyes, in dark breeches and a man’s coat with puffy red-striped sleeves, a sword at her hip. Balwer rode with his shoulders hunched, a bird perched precariously on his saddle, Medore straight-backed and proud, every inch a High Lord’s daughter and leader of Faile’s people, though she followed Balwer rather than riding beside. Surprisingly, Faile’s hangers-on seemed to have accepted taking direction from the fussy little man. It made them much less bother than they once had been; it actually made them useful in some ways, which Perrin would have thought impossible. The Banner-General offered no objection to them leaving, though she gazed after them thoughtfully.

“Kind of the Lady to visit a servant’s friend,” she mused. That was the tale Balwer had given, that he used to know a woman who lived in Almizar and Medore wanted to meet her if she was still alive.

“Medore’s a kind woman,” Perrin replied. “It’s our way, being kind to servants.” Tylee gave him one glance, only that, yet he reminded himself not to take her for a fool. It was too bad he knew nothing of Seanchan ways to speak of, or they might have come up with a better story. But then, Balwer had been in a frenzy—a dry, dusty frenzy, yet still a frenzy—to seize this chance to gather information on what was happening in Amadicia under the Seanchan. For himself, Perrin could barely make himself care. Only Faile mattered, now. Later he could worry about other matters.

Just north of Almizar, the stone walls dividing seven or eight fields had been removed to make a long stretch of bare earth that appeared thoroughly turned by the harrow, the dirt all scored and scuffed. A large odd creature with a pair of hooded people crouched on its back was running awkwardly along that stretch on two legs that seemed spindly for its size. In fact, “odd” barely began to encompass it. Leathery and gray, the thing was larger than a horse without counting a long, snake-like neck and a thin, even longer tail that it held stretched out stiffly behind. As it ran, it beat wings ribbed like those of a bat, stretching as long as most riverships. He had seen animals like this before, but in the air, and at a distance. Tylee had told him they were called raken. Slowly the creature lumbered into the air, barely clearing the treetops of a coppiced thicket at the end of the field. His head swiveled to follow as the raken climbed slowly toward the sky, awkwardness vanishing in flight. Now, that would be a thing, to fly on one of those. He crushed the thought, ashamed and angered that he could let himself be diverted.

The Banner-General slowed her bay and frowned at the field. At the far end, men were feeding four more of the peculiar animals, holding up large baskets for them to eat from, horned snouts darting and horny mouths gulping. Perrin hated to think what a creature that looked like that might eat. “They should have more raken than this here,” she muttered. “If this is all there are...”

“We take what we can get and go on,” he said. “None, if it comes to that. We already know where the Shaido are.”

“I like to know if anything is coming up behind me,” she told him dryly, picking up the pace again.

At a nearby farm that appeared to have been taken over by the Seanchan, a dozen or so soldiers were dicing at tables set up haphazardly in front of the thatch-roofed house. More were passing in and out of the stone barn, though he saw no sign of horses except for a team hitched to a wagon that was being unloaded of its crates and barrels and jute sacks by a pair of men in rough woolens. At least, Perrin assumed the others were soldiers. Nearly half were women, the men as short as the women for the most part and thin if taller, and none carried a sword, but they all wore close-fitting coats of sky-blue and each had a pair of knives in scabbards sewn to their snug boots. Uniforms implied soldiers.

Mat would be right at home with this lot, he thought, watching them laugh over good tosses and groan over bad. Those colors spun in his head, and for an instant he glimpsed Mat riding off a road into forest followed by a line of mounted folk and packhorses. An instant only, because he dashed the image aside without so much as a thought to why Mat was going into the woods or who was with him. Only Faile mattered. That morning he had tied a fifty-first knot in the leather cord he carried in his pocket. Fifty-one days she had been a prisoner. He hoped she had been a prisoner that long. It would mean she was still alive to be rescued. If she was dead... His hand tightened on the head of the hammer hanging at his belt, tightened until his knuckles hurt.

The Banner-General and Mishima were watching him, he realized, Mishima warily, with a hand hovering near his sword hilt, Tylee thoughtfully. A delicate alliance, and little trust on either side. “For a moment, I thought you might be ready to kill the fliers,” she said quietly. “You have my word. We will free your wife. Or avenge her.”

Perrin drew a shuddering breath and released his hold on the hammer. Faile had to be alive. Alyse had said she was under her protection. But how much protection could the Aes Sedai give when she wore gai’shain white herself? “Let’s be done here. Time is wasting.” How many more knots would he need to tie in that cord? The Light send not many.

Dismounting, he handed Stayer’s reins to Carlon Belcelona, a clean-shaven Tairen with a long nose and an unfortunately narrow chin. Carlon had a habit of fingering that chin as if wondering where his beard had gone, or running a hand over his hair as though wondering why it was tied with a ribbon at the nape of his neck, making a tail that just reached his shoulders. But he gave no more sign of giving up his fool pretense that he was following Aiel ways than the others did. Balwer had given them their instructions, and at least they obeyed those. Most of them were already drifting over to the tables, leaving their mounts in the care of the rest, some producing coin, others offering leather flasks of wine. Which the soldiers were rejecting, strangely, though it seemed anyone with silver was welcome in their games.

Without more than glancing in their direction, Perrin tucked his gauntlets behind his thick belt and followed the two Seanchan inside, tossing back his cloak so his silk coat showed. By the time he came out, Faile’s people—his people, he supposed—would have learned a great deal of what those men and women knew. One thing he had learned from Balwer. Knowledge could be very useful, and you never knew which scrap would turn out worth more than gold. For the moment, though, the only knowledge he was interested in would not come from this place.

The front room of the farmhouse was filled with tables facing the door, where clerks sat poring over papers or writing. The only sound was the scritching of pen on paper and a man’s dry persistent cough. The men wore coats and breeches of dark brown, the women dresses in the exact same shade. Some wore pins, in silver or brass, in the shape of a quill pen. The Seanchan had uniforms for everything, it seemed. A round-cheeked fellow at the back of the room who wore two silver pens on his chest stood and bowed deeply, belly straining his coat, as soon as Tylee entered. Their boots were loud on the wooden floor as they walked back to him between the tables. He did not straighten until they reached his table.

“Tylee Khirgan,” she said curtly. “I would speak with whoever is in command here.”

“As the Banner-General commands,” the fellow replied obsequiously, made another deep bow, and hurried through a door behind him.

The clerk who was coughing, a smooth-faced fellow younger than Perrin who, by his face, might have come from the Two Rivers, began hacking more roughly, and covered his mouth with a hand. He cleared his throat loudly, but the harsh cough returned.

Mishima frowned at him. “Fellow shouldn’t be here if he’s ill,” he muttered. “What if it’s catching? You hear about all sorts of strange sicknesses these days. Man’s hale at sunrise, and by sunfall, he’s a corpse and swollen to half again his size, with no one knowing what he died of. I heard of a woman who went mad in the space of an hour, and everybody who touched her went mad, too. In three days, she and her whole village were dead, those who hadn’t fled.” He made a peculiar gesture, forming an arc with thumb and forefinger, the others curled tightly.

“You know better than to believe rumors, or repeat them,” the Banner-General said sharply, making the same gesture. She seemed unaware she had done so.

The stout clerk reappeared, holding the door for a graying, lean-faced man with a black leather patch hiding the spot where his right eye had been. A puckered white scar ran down his forehead, behind the patch and onto his cheek. As short as the men outside, he wore a coat of darker blue, with two small white bars on his chest, though he had the same sheaths sewn to his boots. “Blasic Faloun, Banner-General,” he said with a bow as the clerk hurried back to his table. “How may I serve you?”

“Captain Faloun, we need to speak in—” Tylee cut off when the man who was coughing surged to his feet, his stool toppling with a clatter.

Clutching his middle, the young man doubled over and vomited a dark stream that hit the floor and broke up into tiny black beetles that went scurrying in every direction. Someone cursed, shockingly loud in what was otherwise dead silence. The young man stared at the beetles in horror, shaking his head to deny them. Wild-eyed, he looked around the room still shaking his head and opened his mouth as if to speak. Instead, he bent over and spewed another black stream, longer, that broke into beetles darting across the floor. The skin of his face began writhing, as though more beetles were crawling on the outside of his skull. A woman screamed, a long shriek of dread, and suddenly clerks were shouting and leaping up, knocking over stools and even tables in their haste, frantically dodging the flitting black shapes. Again and again the man vomited, sinking to his knees, then falling over, twitching disjointedly as he spewed out more and more beetles in a steady stream. He seemed somehow to be getting ... flatter. Deflating. His jerking ceased, but black beetles continued to pour from his gaping mouth and spread across the floor. At last—it seemed to have gone on for an hour, but could not have been more than a minute or two—at last, the torrent of insects dwindled and died. What remained of the fellow was a pale flat thing inside his clothes, like a wineskin that had been emptied. The shouting went on, of course. Half the clerks were up on the tables that remained upright, men as well as women, cursing or praying or sometimes alternating both at the tops of their lungs. The other half had fled outside. Small black beetles scuttled all across the floor. The room stank of terror.

“I heard a rumor,” Faloun said hoarsely. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He smelled of fear. Not terror, but definitely fear. “From east of here. Only that was centipedes. Little black centipedes.” Some of the beetles scurried toward him, and he backed away with a curse, making the same odd gesture that Tylee and Mishima had.

Perrin crushed the beetles under his boot. They made the hair on the back of his neck want to stand, but nothing mattered except Faile. Nothing! “They’re just borer beetles. You can find them almost anywhere there’s old fallen timber.”

The man jerked, lifted his gaze and jerked again when he saw Perrin’s eyes. Catching sight of the hammer at Perrin’s belt, he darted a quick, startled glance at the Banner-General. “These beetles came from no log. They’re Soulblinder’s work!”

“That’s as may be,” Perrin replied calmly. He supposed Soulblinder was a name for the Dark One. “It makes no difference.” He moved his foot, revealing the crushed carcasses of seven or eight of the insects. “They can be killed. And I have no time to waste on beetles I can crush underfoot.”

“We do need to talk in private, Captain,” Tylee added. Her scent was full of fear, too, yet tightly controlled. Mishima’s hand was locked in that same strange gesture. His fear was almost as well controlled as hers.

Faloun gathered himself visibly, the fear smell fading. It did not go away, yet he had mastery of himself, now. He avoided looking at the beetles, however. “As you say, Banner-General. Atal, get down off that table and have these ... these things swept out of here. And see that Mehtan is laid out properly for the rites. However he died, he died in service.” The stout clerk bowed before climbing down, gingerly, and again when he was on the floor, but the captain was already turning away. “Will you follow me, Banner-General?”

His study might have been a bedroom originally, but now it held a writing table with flat boxes full of papers and another table, larger, that was covered with maps weighted down by inkwells, stones and small brass figures. A wooden rack against one wall held rolls that appeared to be more maps. The gray stone fireplace was cold. Faloun gestured them to half a dozen mismatched chairs that stood on the bare floor in front of the writing table and offered to send for wine. He seemed disappointed when Tylee refused both. Perhaps he wanted a drink to steady his nerves. A small scent of fright still clung to him.

Tylee began. “I need to replace six raken, Captain, and eighteen morat’raken. And a full company of groundlings. The one I had is somewhere in Amadicia heading west, and beyond finding.”

Faloun winced. “Banner-General, if you lost raken, you know everything has been stripped to the bone because of...” His one eye flickered to Perrin, and he cleared his throat before going on. “You ask for three-quarters of the animals I have left. If you can possibly do with fewer, perhaps only one or two?”

“Four,” Tylee said firmly, “and twelve fliers. I’ll settle for that.” She could make that slurred Seanchan accent sound crisp when she wanted to. “This region is as stable as Seandar by all I hear, but I’ll leave you four.”

“As you say, Banner-General,” Faloun sighed. “May I see the order, please? Everything has to be recorded. Since I lost the ability to fly myself, I spend all my time pushing a pen like a clerk.”

“Lord Perrin?” Tylee said, and he produced the document signed by Suroth from his coat pocket.

That made Faloun’s eyebrows climb higher and higher as he read, and he fingered the wax seal lightly, but he did not question it any more than the Banner-General had. It appeared the Seanchan were accustomed to such things. He appeared relieved to hand it back, though, and wiped his hands on his coat unconsciously. Accustomed to them, but not comfortably so. He studied Perrin, trying to be surreptitious, and Perrin could all but see on his face the question the Banner-General had asked. Who was he, to have such a thing?

“I need a map of Altara, Captain, if you have one,” Tylee said. “I can manage if you don’t, but better if you do. The northwestern quarter of the country is what I’m interested in.”

“You’re favored by the Light, Banner-General,” the man said, bending to pull a roll from the lowest level of the rack. “I have the very thing you want. By accident, it was in with the Amadician maps I was issued. I’d forgotten I had the thing until you mentioned it. Uncommon luck for you, I’d say.” Perrin shook his head slightly. Accident, not ta’veren work. Even Rand was not ta’veren enough to make this happen. The colors whirled, and he splintered them unformed.

Once Faloun had the map spread out on the map table, the corners held down by brass weights in the form of raken, the Banner-General studied it until she had her landmarks fixed. It was large enough to cover the table and showed exactly what she had asked for, along with narrow strips of Amadicia and Ghealdan, the terrain rendered in great detail, with the names of towns and villages, rivers and streams, in very small letters. Perrin knew he was looking at a fine example of the mapmaker’s art, far better than most maps. Could it be ta’veren work? No. No, that was impossible.

“They’ll find my soldiers here,” she drawled, marking a point with her finger. “They’re to leave immediately. One flier to a raken, and no personal items. They fly light, and as fast as possible. I want them there before tomorrow night. The other morat’raken will travel with the groundlings. I hope to be leaving in a few hours. Have them assembled and ready.”

“Carts,” Perrin said. Neald could not make a gateway large enough to accommodate a wagon. “Whatever they bring has to be in carts, not wagons.” Faloun mouthed the word incredulously.

“Carts,” Tylee agreed. “See to it, Captain.”

Perrin could smell an eagerness in the man that he interpreted as a desire to ask questions, but all Faloun said, bowing, was, “As you command, Banner-General, so shall it be done.”

The outer room was in a different sort of turmoil when they left the captain. Clerks darted everywhere, sweeping frantically or beating at the remaining beetles with their brooms. Some of the women wept as they wielded their brooms, some of the men looked as though they wanted to, and the room was still rank with terror. There was no sign of the dead man, but Perrin noticed that the clerks moved around the place where he had lain, refusing to let a foot touch it. They tried not to step on any beetles, either, which made for considerable dancing about on their toes. When Perrin crunched his way toward the outer door, they stopped to stare at him.

Outside, the mood was calmer, but not by much. Tylee’s soldiers still stood by their horses in a row, and Neald was affecting an air of casual indifference, even to yawning and patting his mouth, but the sul’dam was petting the trembling damane and murmuring soothingly, and the blue-coated soldiers, many more than had been there before, stood in a large cluster talking worriedly. The Cairhienin and Tairens rushed to surround Perrin, leading their horses and all talking at once.

“Is it true, my Lord?” Camaille asked, her pale face twisted with worry, and her brother Barmanes said uneasily, “Four men carried out something in a blanket, but they averted their eyes from whatever it was.”

All of them atop one another, all smelling of near panic. “They said he spewed beetles,” and “They said the beetles chewed their way out of him,” and “The Light help us, they’re sweeping beetles out of the door; we’ll be killed,” and “Burn my soul, it’s the Dark One breaking free,” and more that made less sense.

“Be quiet,” Perrin said, and for a wonder, they fell silent. Usually, they were very prickly with him, insisting that they served Faile, not him. Now they stood staring at him, waiting for him to put their fears to rest. “A man did spew up beetles and die, but they’re ordinary beetles you can find in dead timber anywhere. Give you a nasty pinch if you sit on one, but nothing worse. Likely it was the Dark One’s work somehow, true enough, but it has nothing to do with freeing the Lady Faile, and that means it has nothing to do with us. So calm yourselves, and let’s get on about our business.”

Strangely, it worked. More than one cheek reddened, and the smell of fear was replaced—or at least suppressed—by the scent of shame at letting themselves come so near to panic. They looked abashed. As they began mounting, their own natures reasserted themselves, though. First one then another offered boasts of the deeds they would do in rescuing Faile, each wilder than the next. They knew them for wild, because each boast brought laughter from the others, yet the next always tried to make his more outrageous still.

The Banner-General was watching him again, he realized as he took Stayer’s reins from Carlon. What did she see? What did she think she might learn? “What sent all the raken away?” he asked.

“We should have come here second or third,” she replied, swinging up into her saddle. “I still have to acquire a’dam. I wanted to keep believing I had a chance as long as I could, but we might as well get to the heart. That piece of paper faces a real test now, and if it fails, there’s no point to going after a’dam.” A frail alliance, and small trust.

“Why should it fail? It worked here.”

“Faloun’s a soldier, my Lord. Now we must talk with an Imperial functionary.” She imbued that last word with a wealth of scorn. She turned her bay, and he had no choice but to mount and follow.

Almizar was a considerable town, and prosperous, with six tall watchtowers around its edge but no wall. Elyas said Amadician law forbade walls anywhere save Amador, a law made at the behest of the Whitecloaks and enforced by them as much as by whoever held the throne. Balwer would no doubt learn who that might be now, with Ailron dead. The streets were paved with granite blocks, and lined with solid buildings of brick or stone, some gray, some black, many three or four stories high and most roofed in dark slate, the rest in thatch. People filled the streets, dodging between wagons and horse carts and handcarts, hawkers crying their wares, women in deep bonnets that hid their faces carrying shopping baskets, men in knee-length coats striding along self-importantly, apprentices in aprons or vests running errands. As many soldiers walked the streets as locals, men and women, with skin as dark as any Tairen, skin the color of honey, men as pale as Cairhienin but fair-haired and tall, all in brightly colored Seanchan uniforms. Most wore no more than a belt knife or dagger, but he saw some with swords. They walked in pairs, watchful of everyone around them, and had truncheons at their belts, too. A town Watch, he supposed, but a lot of them for a place the size of Almizar. He never had fewer than two of those pairs in his sight.

Two men and a woman came out of a tall, slate-roofed inn and mounted horses held by grooms. He knew her for a woman only by the way her long, split-tailed coat fit over her bosom because her hair was cut shorter than the men’s and she wore men’s clothing and a sword, just like the other two. Her face was certainly as hard as theirs. As the three cantered off west down the street, Mishima grunted sourly.

“Hunters for the Horn,” he muttered. “My eyes if they’re not. Those fine fellows cause trouble everywhere they go, getting in fights, sticking their noses where they don’t belong. I’ve heard the Horn of Valere has already been found. What do you think, my Lord?”

“I’ve heard it’s been found, too,” Perrin replied cautiously. “There are all sorts of rumors floating about.”

Neither one so much as glanced at him, and in the middle of a crowded street, catching their scents was well-nigh impossible, yet for some reason he thought they were mulling over his answer as if it had hidden depths. Light, could they think he was tied up with the Horn? He knew where it was. Moiraine had carried it off to the White Tower. He was not about to tell them, though. Small trust worked both ways.

The local people gave the soldiers no more heed than they did each other, nor the Banner-General and her armored followers, but Perrin was another matter. At least, when they noticed his golden eyes. He could tell instantly when someone did. The quick jerk of a woman’s head, her mouth falling open as she stared. The man who froze, gaping at him. One fellow actually tripped over his own boots and stumbled to his knees. That one stared, then scrambled to his feet and ran, pushing people from his path, as though fearful Perrin might pursue him.

“I suppose he never saw yellow eyes on a man before,” Perrin said wryly.

“Are they common where you come from?” the Banner-General asked.

“Not common, I wouldn’t say that, but I’ll introduce you to another man who has them.”

She and Mishima exchanged glances. Light, he hoped there was nothing in the Prophecies about two men with yellow eyes. Those colors whirled, and he dashed them.

The Banner-General knew exactly where she was going, a stone stable on the southern edge of the town, but when she dismounted in the empty stableyard, no groom came rushing out. A stone-fenced paddock stood next to the stable, but it held no horses. She handed her reins to one of her soldiers and stood staring at the stable doors, only one of which was open. By her scent, Perrin thought she was steeling herself.

“Follow my lead, my Lord,” she said finally, “and don’t say anything you don’t have to. It might be the wrong thing. If you must speak, speak to me. Make it clear you’re speaking to me.”

That sounded ominous, but he nodded. And began planning how to steal the forkroot if things went wrong. He would need to learn whether the place was guarded at night. Balwer might already know. The little man seemed to pick up information like that without trying. When he followed her inside, Mishima remained with the horses, and looking relieved not to accompany them. What did that mean? Or did it mean anything? Seanchan. In just a few days they had him seeing hidden meanings in everything.

The place had been a stable once, obviously, but now it was something else. The stone floor had been swept clean enough to satisfy any farmwife, there were no horses, and a thick smell like mint would have overwhelmed the remaining scent of horse and hay to any nose but his or Elyas’. The stalls at the front were filled with stacked wooden crates, and in the back, the stalls had been removed except for the uprights that supported the loft. Now men and women were working back there, some using mortars and pestles or sieves at tables, others carefully tending flat pans sitting on metal legs above charcoal braziers, using tongs to turn what appeared to be roots.

A lean young man in his shirtsleeves put a plump jute bag into one of the crates, then bowed to Tylee as deeply as the clerk had, body parallel to the floor. He did not straighten until she spoke.

“Banner-General Khirgan. I wish to speak with whoever is in charge, if I may.” Her tone was much different than it had been with the clerk, not peremptory at all.

“As you command,” the lean fellow replied in what sounded an Amadician accent. At least, if he was Seanchan, he spoke at a proper speed and without chewing his words.

Bowing again, just as deeply, he hurried to where six stalls had been walled in, halfway down the left-hand row, and tapped diffidently at a door, then awaited permission before going in. When he came out, he went to the back of the building without so much as a glance toward Perrin and Tylee. After a few minutes, Perrin opened his mouth, but Tylee grimaced and shook her head, so he closed it again and waited. A good quarter of an hour he waited, growing more impatient by the heartbeat. The Banner-General smelled solidly of patience.

At last a sleekly plump woman in a deep yellow dress of odd cut came out of the small room, but she paused to study the work going on in the back of the building, ignoring Tylee and him. Half of her scalp had been shaved bald! Her remaining hair was in a thick, graying braid that hung to her shoulder. Finally she nodded in satisfaction and made her unhurried way to them. An oval blue panel on her bosom was embroidered with three golden hands. Tylee bowed as deeply as Faloun had for her, and remembering her admonition, Perrin did the same. The sleek woman inclined her head. Slightly. She smelled of pride.

“You wish to speak with me, Banner-General?” She had a smooth voice, as sleek as she herself. And not welcoming. She was a busy woman being bothered. A busy woman well aware of her own importance.

“Yes, Honorable,” Tylee said respectfully. A spike of irritation appeared among her smell of patience, then was swallowed again. Her face remained expressionless. “Will you tell me how much prepared forkroot you have on hand?”

“An odd request,” the other woman said as though considering whether to grant it. She tilted her head in thought. “Very well,” she said after a moment. “As of the midmorning accounting, I have four thousand eight hundred seventy-three pounds nine ounces. A remarkable achievement, if I do say it myself, considering how much I have shipped off and how hard it is getting to find the plant in the wild without sending diggers unreasonable distances.” Impossible as it seemed, the pride in her scent deepened. “I’ve solved that problem, however, by inducing the local farmers to plant some of their fields in forkroot. By this summer I will need to build something bigger to house this manufactory. I’ll confide in you, I will not be surprised if I am offered a new name for this. Though of course, I may not accept.” Smiling a small, sleek smile, she touched the oval panel lightly, but it was near a caress.

“The Light will surely favor you, Honorable,” Tylee murmured. “My Lord, will you do me the favor of showing your document to the Honorable?” That with a bow to Perrin markedly lower than the one she had offered the Honorable. The sleek woman’s eyebrows twitched.

Reaching out to take the paper from his hand, she froze, staring at his face. She had finally noticed his eyes. Giving herself a small shake, she read without any outward expression of surprise, then folded the paper up again and stood tapping it against her free hand. “It seems you walk the heights, Banner-General. And with a very strange companion. What aid do you—or he—ask of me?”

“Forkroot, Honorable,” Tylee said mildly. “All that you have. Loaded into carts as soon as possible. And you must provide the carts and drivers as well, I fear.”

“Impossible!” the sleek woman snapped, drawing herself up haughtily. “I have established strict schedules as to how many pounds of prepared forkroot are shipped every week, which I have adhered to rigidly, and I’ll not see that record sullied. The harm to the Empire would be immense. The sul’dam are snapping up marath’damane on every hand.”

“Forgiveness, Honorable,” Tylee said, bowing again. “If you could see your way clear to let us have—”

“Banner-General,” Perrin cut in. Plainly this was a touchy encounter, and he tried to keep his face smooth, but he could not avoid a frown. He could not be certain that even near five tons of the stuff would be sufficient, and she was trying to negotiate some lesser weight! His mind raced, trying to find a way. Fast thought was shoddy thought, in his estimation—it led to mistakes and accidents—but he had no choice. “This may not interest the Honorable, of course, but Suroth promised death and worse if there was any hindrance to her plans. I don’t suppose her anger will go beyond you and me, but she did say to take it all.”

“Of course, the Honorable will not be touched by the High Lady’s anger.” Tylee sounded as though she was not so sure of that.

The sleek woman was breathing hard, the blue oval with the golden hands heaving. She bowed to Perrin as deeply as Tylee had. “I’ll need most of the day to gather enough carts and load them. Will that suffice, my Lord?”

“It will have to, won’t it,” Perrin said, plucking the note from her hand. She let go reluctantly and watched hungrily as he tucked it into his coat pocket.

Outside, the Banner-General shook her head as she swung into the saddle. “Dealing with the Lesser Hands is always difficult. None of them see anything lesser in themselves. I thought this would be in the charge of someone of the Fourth or Fifth Rank, and that would have been hard enough. When I saw that she was of the Third Rank—only two steps below a Hand to the Empress herself, may she live forever—I was sure we wouldn’t get away with more than a few hundred pounds if that. But you handled it beautifully. A risk taken, but still, beautifully masked.”

“Well, nobody wants to chance death,” Perrin said as they started out of the stableyard into the town with everyone strung out behind them. Now they had to wait for the carts, perhaps find an inn. Impatience burned in him. The Light send they did not need to spend the night.

“You didn’t know,” the dark woman breathed. “That woman knew she stood in the shadow of death as soon as she read Suroth’s words, but she was ready to risk it to do her duty to the Empire. A Lesser Hand of the Third Rank has standing enough that she might well escape death on the plea of duty done. But you used Suroth’s name. That’s all right most of the time, except when addressing the High Lady herself, of course, but with a Lesser Hand, using her name without her title meant you were either an ignorant local or an intimate of Suroth herself. The Light favored you, and she decided you were an intimate.”

Perrin barked a mirthless laugh. Seanchan. And maybe ta’veren, too.

“Tell me, if the question does not offend, did your Lady bring powerful connections, or perhaps great lands?”

That surprised him so much that he twisted in his saddle to stare at her. Something hit his chest hard, sliced a line of fire across his chest, punched his arm. Behind him, a horse squealed in pain. Stunned, he stared down at the arrow sticking through his left arm.

“Mishima,” the Banner-General snapped, pointing, “that four-story building with the thatched roof, between two slate roofs. I saw movement on the rooftop.”

Shouting a command to follow, Mishima galloped off down the crowded street with six of the Seanchan lancers, horseshoes ringing on the paving stones. People leapt out of their way. Others stared. No one in the street seemed to realize what had happened. Two of the other lancers were out of their saddles, tending the trembling mount of one that had an arrow jutting from its shoulder. Perrin fingered a broken button hanging by a thread. The silk of his coat was slashed from the button across his chest. Blood oozed, dampening his shirt, trickled down his arm. Had he not twisted just at that moment, that arrow would have been through his heart instead of his arm. Maybe the other would have hit him as well, but the one would have done the job. A Two Rivers shaft would not have been deflected so easily.

Cairhienin and Tairens crowded around him as he dismounted, all of them trying to help him, which he did not need. He drew his belt knife, but Camaille took it from him and deftly scored the shaft so she could break it cleanly just above his arm. That sent a jolt of pain down his arm. She did not seem to mind getting blood on her fingers, just plucking a lace-edge handkerchief from her sleeve, a paler green than usual for Cairhienin, and wiping them, then examined the end of the shaft sticking out of his arm to make sure there were no splinters.

The Banner-General was down off her bay, too, and frowning. “My eyes are lowered that you have been injured, my Lord. I’d heard that there has been an increase in crime of late, arsons, robbers killing when there was no need, murders done for no reason anyone knows. I should have protected you better.”

“Grit your teeth, my Lord,” Barmanes said, tying a length of leather cord just above the arrowhead. “Are you ready, my Lord?” Perrin tightened his jaw and nodded, and Barmanes jerked the bloodstained shaft free. Perrin stifled a groan.

“Your eyes aren’t lowered,” he said hoarsely. Whatever that meant. It did not sound good, the way she said it. “Nobody asked you to wrap me in swaddling. I certainly never did.” Neald pushed through the crowd surrounding Perrin, his hands already raised, but Perrin waved him away. “Not here, man. People can see.” Folk in the street had finally noticed and were gathering to watch, murmuring excitedly to one another. “He can Heal this so you’d never know I was hurt,” he explained, flexing his arm experimentally. He winced. That had been a bad idea.

“You’d let him use the One Power on you?” Tylee said disbelievingly.

“To be rid of a hole in my arm and a slice across my chest? As soon as we’re somewhere half the town isn’t staring at us. Wouldn’t you?”

She shivered and made that peculiar gesture again. He was going to have to ask her what that meant.

Mishima joined them, leading his horse and looking grave. “Two men fell from that roof with bows and quivers,” he said quietly, “but it wasn’t that fall that killed them. They hit the pavement hard, yet there was hardly any blood. I think they took poison when they saw they’d failed to kill you.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Perrin muttered.

“If men will kill themselves rather than report failure,” Tylee said gravely, “it means you have a powerful enemy.”

A powerful enemy? Very likely Masema would like to see him dead, but there was no way Masema’s reach could extend this far. “Any enemies I have are far away and don’t know where I am.” Tylee and Mishima agreed that he must know about that, but they looked doubtful. Then again, there were always the Forsaken. Some of them had tried to kill him before. Others had tried to use him. He did not think he was going to bring the Forsaken into the discussion. His arm was throbbing. The cut on his chest, too. “Let’s find an inn where I can hire a room.” Fifty-one knots. How many more? Light, how many more?


“Push them!” Elayne shouted. Fireheart tried to dance, impatient at being crowded in a narrow cobblestone street with other horses and women afoot, but she steadied the black gelding with a firm hand. Birgitte had insisted she remain well back. Insisted! As if she were a brainless fool! “Push them, burn you!”

None of the hundreds of men on the wide guardwalk atop the city wall, white-streaked gray stone rearing fifty feet, paid her any heed, of course. It was doubtful they heard her. Amid shouts of their own, curses and screams, the clash of steel rang over the broad street that ran alongside the wall beneath the noonday sun suspended in a rare cloudless sky as those men sweated and killed one another with sword or spear or halberd. The melee spanned two hundred paces of the wall, enveloping three of the high round towers where the White Lion of Andor flew and threatening two more, though all still seemed secure, thank the Light. Men stabbed and hacked and thrust, no one giving ground or quarter that she could see. Red-coated crossbowmen atop the towers did their share of killing, but once fired, a crossbow required time to ready for another shot, and they were too few to turn the tide in any case. They were the only Guardsmen up there. The rest were mercenaries. Save Birgitte.

This near, the bond let Elayne’s eye find her Warder easily, intricate golden braid swaying as she shouted encouragement to her soldiers, pointing her bow to where reinforcement was needed. In her short white-collared red coat and wide sky-blue trousers tucked into her boots, she alone atop the wall wore no armor of any sort. She had insisted Elayne don plain gray in the hope of avoiding notice, and any effort to capture or kill her—some of the men up there had crossbows or shortbows slung on their backs, and for those not in the forefront and engaged, fifty paces made an easy shot—but the four golden knots of rank on her own shoulder would make Birgitte the target of any of Arymilla’s men with eyes. At least she was not actually mingling in the press. At least she...

Elayne’s breath caught as a wiry fellow in breastplate and conical steel cap lunged at Birgitte with a sword, but the golden-haired woman dodged the thrust calmly—the bond said she might have been out for a hard ride, no more!—and a backhand blow with her bow caught the fellow on the side of his head, knocking him from the rampart. He had time to scream before he hit the paving stones with a sickening splat. His was not the only corpse decorating the street. Birgitte said men would not follow you unless they knew you were ready to face the same dangers and hardships they did, but if she got herself killed with this man-foolishness...

Elayne did not realize she had heeled Fireheart forward until Caseille seized her bridle. “I am not an idiot, Guardswoman Lieutenant,” she said frigidly. “I have no intention of going closer until it is ... safe.”

The Arafellin woman jerked her hand back, her face becoming very still behind the face-bars of her burnished conical helmet. Instantly, Elayne felt sorry for the outburst—Caseille was just doing her job—but she still felt coldly angry, too. She would not apologize. Shame surged as she recognized the sulkiness of her own thoughts. Blood and bloody ashes, but there were times she wanted to slap Rand for planting these babes in her. These days, she could not be certain from one moment to the next which way her emotions would leap. Leap they did, however.

“If this is what happens to you when you get with child,” Aviendha said, adjusting the dark shawl looped over her arms, “I think I will never have any.” The high-cantled saddle of her dun pushed her bulky Aiel skirts high enough to bare her stockinged legs to the knee, but she showed no discomfort at the display. With the mare standing still, she looked quite at home on a horse. But then, Mageen, Daisy in the Old Tongue, was a gentle, placid animal tending to stoutness. Luckily, Aviendha was too ignorant of horses to realize that.

Muffled laughter pulled Elayne’s head around. The women of her bodyguard, all twenty-one of them assigned this morning counting Caseille, in polished helmets and breastplates, wore smooth faces—much too smooth, in fact; without doubt they were laughing inside—but the four Kinswomen standing behind them had hands over their mouths and their heads together. Alise, a pleasant-faced woman normally, with touches of gray in her hair, saw her looking—well, glaring—and rolled her eyes ostentatiously, which set the others off in another round of laughter. Caiden, a plumply pretty Domani, laughed so hard she had to hold on to Kumiko, though the stout graying woman seemed to be having her own difficulties. Irritation stabbed at Elayne. Not at the laughter—all right, a little at the laughter—and certainly not at the Kinswomen. Not very much, at least. They were invaluable.

This fight on the wall was not Arymilla’s first assault in recent weeks by far. In truth, the frequency was increasing, with three or four attacks coming some days, now. She knew very well that Elayne had insufficient soldiers to hold six leagues of wall. Burn her, Elayne was all too aware that she could not even spare trained hands to fit hoardings to all those miles of wall and towers. Untrained hands would only bungle the work. All Arymilla needed was to get enough men across to seize a gate. Then she could bring the battle into the city, where Elayne would be badly outnumbered. The population might rise in her favor, no certain thing, yet that only meant adding to the slaughter, apprentices and grooms and shopkeepers fighting trained armsmen and mercenaries. Whoever sat on the Lion Throne then—and very likely that would not be Elayne Trakand—it would be stained red with the blood of Caemlyn. So apart from holding the gates and leaving watchmen on the towers, she had pulled all of her soldiers back into the Inner City, close to the Royal Palace, and stationed men with looking glasses in the tallest spires of the palace. Whenever a watchman signaled an attack forming, linked Kinswomen made gateways to carry soldiers to the spot. They took no part in the fighting, of course. She would not have allowed them to use the Power as a weapon even had they been willing.

So far it had worked, though often by a hair. Low Caemlyn, outside the walls, was a warren of houses, shops, inns and warehouses that allowed men to close before they were seen. Three times her soldiers had been forced to fight on the ground inside the wall and to retake at least one wall tower. Bloody work, that. She would have burned Low Caemlyn to the ground to deny Arymilla’s people cover, except that the fire might easily spread inside the walls and spawn a conflagration, spring rains or no spring rains. As it was, every night saw arsons inside the city, and containing those was difficult enough. Besides, people lived in those houses despite the siege, and she did not want to be remembered as the one who had destroyed their homes and livelihoods. No, what nettled her was that she had not thought of using the Kin that way earlier. If she had, she would not be saddled with Sea Folk still, not to mention a bargain that gave up a square mile of Andor. Light, a square mile! Her mother had never given up one inch of Andor. Burn her, this siege hardly gave her time to mourn her mother. Or Lini, her old nursemaid. Rahvin had murdered her mother, and likely Lini had died trying to protect her. White-haired and thin with age, Lini would not have backed down even for one of the Forsaken. But thinking of Lini made her hear the woman’s reedy voice. You can’t put honey back in the comb, child. What was done, was done, and she had to live with it.

“That’s it, then,” Caseille said. “They’re making for the ladders.” It was true. All along the wall Elayne’s soldiers were pushing forward, Arymilla’s falling back, climbing through the crenels where their ladders were propped. Men still died on the rampart, but the fight was ending.

Elayne surprised herself by digging her heels into Fireheart’s flanks. No one was quick enough to catch her this time. Pursued by shouts, she galloped across the street and flung herself out of the saddle at the base of the nearest tower before the gelding was fully halted. Pushing open the heavy door, she gathered her divided skirts and raced up the widdershins spiraling stairs, past large niches where clusters of armored men stared in amazement as she darted by. These towers were made to be defended against attackers trying to make their way down and into the city. At last the stairs opened into a large room where stairs on the other side spiraled upward in the opposite direction. Twenty men in mismatched helmets and breastplates were taking their ease, tossing dice, sitting against the wall, talking and laughing as if there were no dead men beyond the room’s two iron-strapped doors. Whatever they were doing, they stopped to gape when she appeared.

“Uh, my Lady, I wouldn’t do that,” a rough voice said as she laid hands on the iron bar across one of the doors. Ignoring the man, she turned the bar on its pivot pin and pushed the door open. A hand caught at her skirt, but she pulled free.

None of Arymilla’s men remained on the wall. None standing, at least. Dozens of men lay on the blood-streaked guardwalk, some still, others groaning. Any number of those might belong to Arymilla, but the ringing of steel had vanished. Most of the mercenaries were tending the wounded, or just squatting on their heels to catch their breath.

“Shake them off and pull up the bloody ladders!” Birgitte shouted. Loosing an arrow into the mass of men trying to flee down the dirt-paved Low Caemlyn street below the wall, she nocked another and fired again. “Make them build more if they want to come again!” Some of the mercenaries leaned through crenels to obey, but only a handful. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you come along today,” she went on, still loosing shafts as fast as she could nock and draw. Crossbow bolts from the towertops struck down men below as well, but tile-roofed warehouses offered shelter here for any who could get inside.

It took a moment for Elayne to realize that last comment had been directed at her, and her face heated. “And how would you have stopped me?” she demanded, drawing herself up.

Quiver empty, Birgitte lowered her bow and turned with a scowl. “By tying you up and having her sit on you,” she said, nodding toward Aviendha, who was striding out of the tower. The glow of saidar surrounded her, yet her horn-hilted belt knife was in her fist. Caseille and the rest of the Guardswomen spilled out behind her, swords in hand and faces grim. Seeing Elayne unharmed changed their expressions not a whit. Those bloody women were insufferable when it came to treating her like a blown glass vase that might break at the rap of a knuckle. They would be worse than ever after this. And she would have to suffer it.

“I would have caught you,” Aviendha muttered, rubbing her hip, “except that fool horse tossed me off.” That was highly unlikely with such a placid mare. Aviendha had simply managed to fall off. Seeing the situation, she slipped her knife back into its sheath quickly, trying to pretend she had never had it out. The light of saidar vanished, too.

“I was quite safe.” Elayne tried to remove the acerbic touch from her voice, without much success. “Min said I will bear my babes, sister. Until they’re born, no harm can come to me.”

Aviendha nodded slowly, thoughtfully, but Birgitte growled, “I’d just as soon you didn’t put her visions to the test. Take too many chances, and you might prove her wrong.” That was foolish. Min was never wrong. Surely not.

“That was Aldin Miheres’ company,” a tall mercenary said in a lilting if rough Murandian accent as he removed his helmet to reveal a lean, sweaty face with gray-streaked mustaches waxed to spikes. Rhys a’Balaman, as he called himself, had eyes like stones and a thin-lipped smile that always seemed a leer. He had been listening to their conversation, and he kept darting sideways glances at Elayne while he talked to Birgitte. “I recognized him, I did. Good man, Miheres. I fought alongside him more times than I can number, I have. He’d almost made it to that warehouse door when your arrow took him in the neck, Captain-General. A shame, that.”

Elayne frowned. “He made his choice as you did, Captain. You may regret the death of a friend, but I hope you aren’t regretting your choice.” Most of the mercenaries she had put out of the city, maybe all, had signed on with Arymilla. Her greatest fear at present was that the woman would succeed in bribing companies still inside the walls. None of the mercenary captains had reported anything, but Mistress Harfor said approaches had been made. Including an approach to a’Balaman.

The Murandian favored her with his leer and a formal bow, flourishing a cloak he was not wearing. “Oh, I fought against him as often as with, my Lady. I’d have killed him, or he’d have killed me, had we come face to face this fine day. More acquaintance than friend, you see. And I’d much rather take gold to defend a wall like this than to attack it.”

“I notice some of your men have crossbows on their backs, Captain, but I didn’t see any using them.”

“Not the mercenary way,” Birgitte said dryly. Irritation floated in the bond, though whether with a’Balaman or Elayne there was no way to know. The sensation vanished quickly. Birgitte had learned to master her emotions once they discovered how she and Elayne mirrored one another through the bond. Very likely she wished Elayne could do the same, but then, so did Elayne.

A’Balaman rested his helmet on his hip. “You see, my Lady, the way of it is, if you press a man too hard when he’s trying to get off the field, attempting to ride him down and the like, well, the next time it’s you trying to get off the field, he might return the favor. After all, if a man’s leaving the field, then he’s out of the fight, now isn’t he?”

“Until he comes back tomorrow,” Elayne snapped. “The next time, I want to see those crossbows put to work!”

“As you say, my Lady,” a’Balaman said stiffly, making an equally stiff bow. “If you’ll pardon me, I must be seeing to my men.” He stalked off without waiting on her pardon, shouting to his men to stir their lazy stumps.

“How far can he be trusted?” Elayne asked softly.

“As far as any mercenary,” Birgitte replied, just as quietly. “If someone offers him enough gold, it becomes a toss of the dice, and not even Mat Cauthon could say how they’ll land.”

That was a very odd remark. She wished she knew how Mat was. And dear Thom. And poor little Olver. Every night she offered prayers that they had escaped the Seanchan safely. There was nothing she could do to help them, though. She had enough on her plate trying to help herself at the moment. “Will he obey me? About the crossbows?”

Birgitte shook her head, and Elayne sighed. It was bad to give orders that would not be obeyed. It put people in the habit of disobeying.

Moving close, she spoke in a near whisper. “You look tired, Birgitte.” This was nothing for anyone else’s ears. Birgitte’s face was tight, her eyes haggard. Anyone could see that, but the bond said she was bone-weary, as it had for days now. But then, Elayne felt that same dragging tiredness, as though her limbs were made of lead. Their bond mirrored more than emotions. “You don’t have to lead every counterattack yourself.”

“And who else is there?” For a moment weariness larded Birgitte’s voice, too, and her shoulders actually slumped, but she straightened quickly and strengthened her tone. It was pure willpower. Elayne could feel it, stone hard in the bond, so hard she wanted to weep. “My officers are inexperienced boys,” Birgitte went on, “or else men who came out of retirement and should still be warming their bones in front of their grandchildren’s fireplace. Except for the mercenary captains, anyway, and there isn’t one I’d trust without someone looking over his shoulder. Which brings us back to: Who else but me?”

Elayne opened her mouth to argue. Not about the mercenaries. Birgitte had explained about them, bitterly and at great length. At times, mercenaries would fight as hard as any Guardsman, but other times, they pulled back rather than take too many casualties. Fewer men meant less gold for their next hire unless they could be replaced with men as good. Battles that could have been won had been lost instead because mercenaries left the field to preserve their numbers. They disliked doing it if anybody except their own kind was watching, though. That spoiled their reputation and lowered their hire price. But there had to be someone else. She could not afford Birgitte falling over from exhaustion. Light, she wished Gareth Bryne were there. Egwene needed him, but so did she. She opened her mouth, and suddenly rumbling booms crashed from the city behind her. She turned, and her mouth stayed open, gaping in astonishment, now.

Where moments before there had been clear sky over the Inner City, a huge mass of black clouds loomed like sheer-sided mountains, forked lightning slashing down through a gray wall of rain that seemed as solid as the city walls. The gilded domes of the Royal Palace that should have been glittering in the sun were invisible behind that wall. That torrent fell only over the Inner City. Everywhere else the sky remained bright and cloudless. There was nothing natural in that. Amazement lasted only moments, though. That silver-blue lightning, three-tined, five-tined, was striking inside Caemlyn, causing damage and maybe deaths. How had those clouds come to be? She reached to embrace saidar, to disperse them. The True Source slipped away from her, and then again. It was like trying to grasp a bead buried in a pot of grease. Just when she thought she had it, it squirted away. It was like this far too often, now.

“Aviendha, will you deal with that, please?”

“Of course,” Aviendha replied, embracing saidar easily. Elayne stifled a surge of jealousy. Her difficulty was Rand’s bloody fault, not her sister’s. “And thank you. I need the practice.”

That was untrue, an attempt to spare her feelings. Aviendha began weaving Air, Fire, Water and Earth in complex patterns, and doing so nearly as smoothly as she herself could have, if much more slowly. Her sister lacked her skill with weather, but then, she had not had the advantage of Sea Folk teaching. The clouds did not simply vanish, of course. First the lightnings became single bolts, dwindled in number, then ceased. That was the hardest part. Calling lightning was twirling a feather between your fingers compared to stopping it. That was more like picking up a blacksmith’s anvil in your hands. Then the clouds began to spread out, to thin and grow paler. That was slow, too. Doing too much too fast with weather could cause effects that rippled across the countryside for leagues, and you never knew what the effects might be. Raging storms and flash floods were as likely as balmy days and gentle breezes. By the time the clouds had spread far enough to reach the outer walls of Caemlyn, they were gray and dropping a steady, soaking downpour that quickly slicked Elayne’s curls to her scalp.

“Is that enough?” Smiling, Aviendha turned her face up to let the rain run down her cheeks. “I love to watch water falling from the sky.” Light, you would think she had had enough of rain. It had rained nearly every bloody day since spring came!

“It’s time to be getting back to the palace, Elayne,” Birgitte said, tucking her bowstring into her coat pocket. She had begun unstringing her bow as soon as the clouds began moving toward them. “Some of these men need a sister’s attention. And my breakfast seems two days past.”

Elayne scowled. The bond carried a wariness that told her all she needed to know. They must return to the palace to get Elayne, in her delicate condition, out of the rain. As if she might melt! Abruptly she became aware of the groans from the wounded, and her face grew hot. Those men did need a sister’s attention. Even if she could hold on to saidar, the least of their injuries were beyond her modest abilities, and Aviendha was no better at Healing.

“Yes, it is time,” she said. If only she could get her emotions back under control! Birgitte would be pleased at that, too. Spots of color decorated her cheeks, too, echoes of Elayne’s shame. They looked very odd with the frown she wore as she hurried Elayne into the tower.

Fireheart and Mageen and the other horses were all standing patiently where their reins had been dropped, as Elayne expected. Even Mageen was well trained. They had the wall street utterly to themselves until Alise and the other Kin walked out of the narrower way. There was not a cart or wagon to be seen. Every door in sight was tightly shut, every window curtained, though there might well be no one behind any of them. Most people had had sense enough to leave as soon they caught a glimmering that hundreds of men were about to start swinging swords in their vicinity. One curtain twitched; a woman’s face showed for a moment, then vanished. Some others took ghoulish delight in watching.

Talking quietly among themselves, the four Kinswomen took their places where they had opened their gateway some hours earlier. They eyed the corpses in the street and shook their heads, but these were not the first dead men they had seen. Not one would have been allowed to test for Accepted, yet they were calm, sure of themselves, as dignified as sisters despite the rain soaking their hair and dresses. Learning Egwene’s plans for the Kin, to be associated with the Tower and a place for Aes Sedai to retire, had lessened their fears over their future, especially once they found out that their Rule would remain in place and the former Aes Sedai would have to follow it, too. Not all believed—over the last month, seven of their number had run away without leaving so much as a note—yet most did, and took strength from belief. Having work to do had restored their pride. Elayne had not realized that had been dented until they stopped seeing themselves as refugees wholly dependent on her. They held themselves straighter, now. Worry had vanished from their faces. And they were not so quick to bend their necks for a sister, unfortunately. Though that part of it really had begun earlier. They once had considered Aes Sedai superior to mortal flesh, but had learned to their dismay that the shawl did not make a woman more than she was without it.

Alise eyed Elayne, compressing her lips for a moment and adjusting her brown skirts unnecessarily. She had argued against Elayne being allowed—allowed!—to come here. And Birgitte had almost given way! Alise was a forceful woman. “Are you ready for us, Captain-General?” she said.

“We are,” Elayne said, but Alise waited until Birgitte nodded before linking with the other three Kinswomen. She ignored Elayne after that one glance. Really, Nynaeve should never have begun trying to “put some backbone into them,” as she had put it. When she could lay hands on Nynaeve again, she was going to have words with the woman.

The familiar vertical slash appeared and seemed to rotate into a view of the main stableyard in the palace, a hole in the air nearly four paces by four, but the view through the opening, of the tall arched doors of one of the white marble stables, was a little off-center from what she expected. When she rode onto the rain-drenched flagstones of the stableyard, she saw why. There was another gateway, slightly smaller, open. If you tried to open a gateway where one already existed, yours was displaced just enough that the two did not touch, though the gap between was thinner than a razor’s edge. From that other gateway a twinned column of men seemed to be riding out of the stableyard’s outer wall, curving away to exit the stableyard through the open iron-strapped gates. Some wore burnished helmets and breastplates or plate-and-mail, but every man had on the white-collared red coat of the Queen’s Guard. A tall, broad-shouldered man with two golden knots on the left shoulder of his red coat stood in the rain watching them, helmet balanced on his hip.

“That’s a sight to soothe sore eyes,” Birgitte murmured. Small groups of Kinswomen were scouring the countryside for anyone trying to come to Elayne’s support, but it was a chancy business. Thus far, the Kinswomen had brought word of dozens and dozens of groups trying to find a way into the city, yet they had only managed to locate five bands totaling fewer than a thousand. Word had spread of how many men Arymilla had around the city, and men supporting Trakand were skittish about being found. About who might do the finding.

As soon as Elayne and the others appeared, red-clad grooms with the White Lion on their left shoulders came running. A scrawny, gap-toothed fellow with a fringe of white hair took Fireheart’s bridle while a lean, graying woman held Elayne’s stirrup for her to dismount. Ignoring the downpour, she strode toward the tall man, splashing water with every step. His hair hung every which way over his face, clinging wetly, but she could see he was young, well short of his middle years.

“The Light shine on you, Lieutenant,” she said. “Your name? How many did you bring? And from where?” Through that smaller opening she could see a line of horsemen extending out of sight among tall trees. Whenever a pair rode through, another appeared at the far end of the column. She would not have believed that many of the Guards remained anywhere.

“Charlz Guybon, my Queen,” he replied, sinking to one knee and pressing a gauntleted fist to the flagstones. “Captain Kindlin in Aringill gave me permission to try reaching Caemlyn. That was after we learned Lady Naean and the others had escaped.”

Elayne laughed. “Stand, man. Stand. I’m not Queen yet.” Aringill? There had never been so many of the Guards there.

“As you say, my Lady,” he said as he regained his feet and made a bow that was more proper for the Daughter-Heir.

“Can we continue this inside?” Birgitte put in irritably. Guybon took in her coat with its gold stripes on the cuffs and knots of rank, and offered a salute that she returned with a quick arm across her chest. If he was surprised to see a woman as Captain-General, he was wise enough not to show it. “I’m soaked to the skin, and so are you, Elayne.” Aviendha was right behind her, shawl wrapped around her head and not looking so pleased with rain now that her white blouse clung wetly and her dark skirts hung with water. The Guardswomen were leading their horses toward one of the stables, except for the eight who would remain with Elayne until their replacements arrived. Guybon made no comment on them, either. A very wise man.

Elayne allowed herself to be hustled as far as the simple colonnade that offered entrance to the palace itself. Even here the Guardswomen surrounded her, four ahead and four behind, so she felt a prisoner. Once out of the rain, though, she balked. She wanted to know. She tried again to embrace saidar—removing the moisture from her clothes would be a simple matter with the Power—but the Source skittered away once more. Aviendha did not know the weave, so they had to stand there dripping. The plain iron stand-lamps along the wall were still unlit, and with the rain, the space was dim. Guybon raked his hair into a semblance of order with his fingers. Light, he was little short of beautiful! His greenish hazel eyes were tired, but his face seemed suited to smiling. He looked as if he had not smiled in too long.

“Captain Kindlin said I could try to find men who’d been discharged by Gaebril, my Lady, and they started flocking in as soon as I put out the call. You’d be surprised how many tucked their uniforms into a chest against the day they might be wanted again. A good many carried off their armor, too, which they shouldn’t have done, strictly speaking, but I’m glad they did. I feared I’d waited too long when I heard of the siege. I was considering trying to fight my way to one of the city gates when Mistress Zigane and the others found me.” A puzzled look came over his face. “She became very upset when I called her Aes Sedai, but that has to be the One Power that brought us here.”

“It was, and she isn’t,” Elayne said impatiently. “How many, man?”

“Four thousand seven hundred and sixty-two of the Guards, my Lady. And I encountered a number of lords and ladies who were trying to reach Caemlyn with their armsmen. Be content. I made sure they were loyal to you before I let them join me. There are none from the great Houses, but they bring the total near to ten thousand, my Lady.” He said that as if it were of no moment at all. There are forty horses fit for riding in the stable. I have brought you ten thousand soldiers.

Elayne laughed and clapped her hands in delight. “Wonderful, Captain Guybon! Wonderful!” Arymilla still had her outnumbered, but not so badly a