The Shadow Rising Page 153

An older Maiden, grayhaired but still hardfaced, appeared in front of him. “Remember honor,” she said, and sipped.

He had to repeat the ritual with every Maiden there, finally just touching the cup to his lips. Aiel ceremonies might be short and to the point, but when you had to repeat one with seventyodd women, even sips could fill you up. Shadows were climbing the east side of the canyon by the time he escaped.

He found Aviendha near Lian's house, vigorously beating a bluestriped carpet hung on a line, more piled beside her in a heap of colors. Brushing sweatdamp strands of hair from her forehead, she stared at him expressionlessly when he handed her the bracelet and told her it was a gift in return for her teaching.

“I have given bracelets and necklaces to friends who did not carry the spear, Rand al'Thor, but I have never worn one.” Her voice was perfectly flat. “Such things rattle and make noise to give you away when you must be silent. They catch when you must move quickly.”

“But you can wear it now that you are going to be a Wise One.”

“Yes.” She turned the ivory circle over as if unsure what to do with it, then abruptly thrust her hand through it and held her wrist up to stare at it. She could have been looking at an manacle.

“If you do not like it... Aviendha, Adelin said it would not touch your honor. She even seemed to approve.” He mentioned the teasipping ceremony, and she squeezed her eyes shut and shuddered. “What is wrong?”

“They think you are trying to attract my interest.” He would not have believed her voice could be so flat. Her eyes held no emotion at all. “They have approved of you, as if I still carried the spear.”

“Light! Simple enough to set them straight. I don't —” He cut off as her eyes blazed up.

“No! You accepted their approval, and now you would reject it? That would dishonor me! Do you think you are the first man to try to catch my eye? They must think as they think, now. It means nothing.” Grimacing, she gripped the woven carpet beater with both hands. “Go away.” With a glance at the bracelet, she added, “You truly know nothing, do you? You know nothing. It is not your fault.” She seemed to be repeating something she had been told, or trying to convince herself. “I am sorry if I ruined your meal, Rand al'Thor. Please go. Amys says I must clean all of these rugs and carpets no matter how long it takes. It will take all night, if you stand here talking.” Turning her back to him, she thwacked the striped carpet violently, the ivory bracelet jumping on her wrist.

He did not know whether the apology sprang from his gift or an order from Amys — he suspected the latter — yet she actually sounded as if she meant it. She was certainly not pleased — judging by the sharp grunt of effort that accompanied every fullarmed swing of the beater — but she had not looked hateful once. Upset, appalled, even furious, but not hateful. That was better than nothing. She might become civil eventually.

As he stepped into the browntiled entry chamber of Lian's house, the Wise Ones were talking together, all four with shawls draped loosely over their elbows. They fell silent at his appearance.

“I will have you shown to your sleeping room,” Amys said. “The others have seen theirs.”

“Thank you.” He glanced “back at the door, frowning slightly. ”Amys, did you tell Aviendha to apologize to me for dinner?"

“No. Did she?” Her blue eyes looked thoughtful for a moment; he thought Bair almost smiled. “I would not have ordered her to, Rand al'Thor. A forced apology is no apology.”

“The girl was told only to dust carpets until she had sweated out some of her temper,” Bair said. “Anything more came from her.”

“And not in hopes of escaping her labors,” Seana added. “She must learn to control her anger. A Wise One must be in control of her emotions, not they in control of her.” With a slight smile, she glanced sideways at Melaine. The sunhaired woman compressed her lips and sniffed.

They were trying to convince him Aviendha was going to be wonderful company from now on. Did they really think he was blind? “You must know that I know. About her. That you set her to spy on me.”

“You do not know as much as you think,” Amys said, for all the world like an Aes Sedai with hidden meanings she did not intend to let him see.

Melaine shifted her shawl, eyeing him up and down in a considering manner. He knew a little about Aes Sedai; if she were Aes Sedai, she would be Green Ajah. “I admit,” she said, “that at first we thought you would not see beyond a pretty young woman, and you are handsome enough that she should have found your company more amusing than ours. We did not reckon with her tongue. Or other things.”

“Then why are you so eager for her to stay with me?” There was more heat in his voice than he wanted. “You can't think I will reveal anything to her now that I don't want you to know.”

“Why do you allow her to remain?” Amys asked calmly. “If you refused to accept her, how could we force her on you?”

“At least this way I know who the spy is.” Having Aviendha under his eye had to be better than wondering which of the Aiel were watching him. Without her, he would probably suspect that every casual comment from Rhuarc was an attempt to pry. Of course, there was no way to say it was not. Rhuarc was married to one of these women. Suddenly he was glad he had not confided more in the clan chief. And sad that he had thought of it. Why had he ever believed the Aiel would be simpler than Tairen High Lords? “I'm satisfied to leave her right where she is.”

“Then we are all satisfied,” Bair said.

He eyed the leatheryfaced woman leerily. There had been a note of something in her voice, as if she knew more than he did. “She will not find out what you want.”

“What we want?” Melaine snapped; her long hair swung as she tossed her head. “The prophecy says 'a remnant of a remnant shall be saved.' What we want, Rand al'Thor, Car'a'carn, is to save as many of our people as we can. Whatever your blood, and your face, you have no feeling for us. I will make you know our blood for yours if I have to lay the —”

“I think,” Amys cut her off smoothly, “that he would like to see his sleeping room now. He looks tired.” She clapped her hands sharply, and a willowy gai'shain woman appeared. “Show this man to the room that has been prepared for him. Bring him whatever he needs.”

Leaving him standing there, the Wise Ones headed for the door, Bair and Seana looking daggers at Melaine, like members of the Women's Circle eyeing someone they meant to call to account sharply. Melaine ignored them; as the door closed behind them she was muttering something that sounded like “talk sense into that fool girl.”

What girl? Aviendha? She was already doing what they wanted. Egwene maybe? He knew she was studying something with the Wise Ones. And what was Melaine willing to “lay” in order to make him “know their blood for his”? How could laying something make him decide he was Aiel? Lay a trap, maybe? Fool! She wouldn't say right out she means to lay a trap. What sorts of things do you lay? Hens lay eggs, he thought, laughing softly. He was tired. Too tired for questions now, after twelve days in the saddle and part of a thirteenth, all of them ovenhot and dry; he did not want to think of how he would feel if he had walked that distance at the same pace. Aviendha must have steel legs. He wanted a bed.

The gai'shain was pretty, despite a thin scar slanting just above one pale blue eye into hair so light as to look almost silver. Another Maiden; only not for the moment. “If it pleases you to follow me?” she murmured, lowering her eyes.

The sleeping room was not a bedchamber, of course. Unsurprisingly, the “bed” consisted of a thick pallet unfolded atop layered, brightly colored rugs. The gai'shain — her name was Chion — looked shocked when he asked for wash water, but he was tired of sweat baths. He was willing to bet Moiraine and Egwene had not had to sit in a tent full of steam to get clean. Chion brought the water, though, hot in a large brown pitcher meant for watering the garden, and a big white bowl for a washbasin. He chased her out when she offered to wash him. Strange people, all of them!

The room was windowless, lit by silver lamps hanging from brackets on the walls, but he knew it could not yet be full dark outside when he finished washing. He did not care. Only two blankets lay on the pallet, neither particularly thick. No doubt a sign of Aiel hardiness. Remembering the cold nights in the tents, he dressed again except for his coat and boots before blowing out the lamps and crawling beneath the blankets in pitch darkness.

Tired as he was, he could not stop tossing and thinking. What did Melaine mean to lay? Why did the Wise Ones not care that he knew Aviendha was their spy? Aviendha. A pretty woman, if surlier than a mule with four stonebruised hooves. His breathing slowed, his thoughts became misty. A month.

Too long. No choice. Sooner. Isendre smiling. Kadere watching. Trap. Lay a trap. Whose trap? Which trap? Traps. If only he could trust Moiraine. Perrin. Home. Perrin was probably swimming in...

Eyes closed, Rand stroked through the water. Nicely cool. And so wet. It seemed that he had never before realized how good wet felt. Lifting his head, he looked around at the willows lining one end of the pond, the big oak at the other, stretching thick, shading limbs over the water. The Waterwood. It was good to be home. He had the feeling he had been away; where was not exactly clear, but not important, either. Up to Watch Hill. Yes. He had never been farther than that. Cool and wet. And alone.

Suddenly two bodies hurtled through the air, knees clutched to chest, landing with great splashes that blinded him. Shaking the water out of his eyes, he found Elayne and Min smiling at him from either side, just their heads showing above the pale green surface. Two strokes would take him to either woman. Away from the other. He could not love both of them. Love? Why had that popped into his head?

“You do not know who you love.”

He spun about in a swirl of water. Aviendha stood on the bank, in cadin'sor rather than skirt and blouse. Not glaring, though, just looking. “Come into the water,” he said. “I'll teach you how to swim.”

Musical laughter pulled his head around to the opposite bank. The woman who stood there, palely naked, was the most beautiful he had ever seen, with big, dark eyes that made his head whirl. He thought he knew her.

“Should I allow you to be unfaithful to me, even in your dreams?” she said. Somehow he was aware without looking that Elayne and Min and Aviendha were not there anymore., This was beginning to feel very odd.

For a long moment she considered him, completely unconscious of her nudity. Slowly she posed on toe tips, arms swept back, then dove cleanly into the pond. When her head popped above the surface, her shining black hair was not wet. That seemed surprising, for a moment. Then she had reached him — had she swum, or was she just there? — tangling arms and legs around him. The wate

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