Winter's Heart Page 10

“Light of heaven!” Dyelin breathed, massaging her forehead. “I don’t know what this is about, Nadere, but it will have to wait until — ”

Elayne laid a hand on her arm. “You don’t know, Dyelin, and it can’t wait. I will send everyone away and come with you, Nadere.”

The Wise One shook her head disapprovingly. “A child waiting to be born cannot take time to send people away.” She shook out the thick cloak. “I brought this to shield your skin from the cold. Perhaps I should leave it, and tell Aviendha your modesty is greater than your desire for a sister.” Dyelin gasped in sudden realization. The Warder bond quivered with Birgitte’s outrage.

There was only one choice possible. No choice, really. Letting the link to the other two women dissolve, she released saidar herself. The glow remained around Remaile and Merilille, though. “Will you help me with my buttons, Dyelin?” Elayne was proud of how steady her voice was. She had expected this. Just not with so many witnesses! she thought faintly. Turning her back on Taim — at least she would not have to see him watching her! — she began with the tiny buttons on her sleeves. “Dyelin, if you please? Dyelin?” After a moment Dyelin moved as if sleep walking and began fumbling with the buttons down Elayne’s back, muttering to herself in shocked tones. One of the Asha’man by the doors snickered.

“About turn!” Taim snapped, and boots stamped by the doors.

Elayne did not know whether he had turned away as well — she was certain she could feel his eyes on her — but suddenly Birgitte was there, and Merilille and Reene, and Zaida, and even Renaile, crowding shoulder-to-shoulder, scowling as they formed a wall between her and the men. Not a very adequate wall. None were as tall as she, and neither Zaida nor Merilille stood higher than her shoulder.

Focus, she told herself. I am composed, I am tranquil. I am . . . I’m stripping naked in a room full of people is what I am! She undressed as hurriedly as she could, letting her dress and shift fall to the floor, tossing her slippers and stockings on top of them. Her skin pebbled in the cool air; ignoring the chill just meant she was not shivering. And she rather thought the heat in her cheeks might have something to do with that.

“Madness!” Dyelin muttered in a low voice, snatching up the clothes. “Utter madness!”

“What is this about?” Birgitte whispered. “Should I come with you?”

“I must go alone,” Elayne whispered back. “Don’t argue!” Not that Birgitte gave any outward sign of it, but the bond carried volumes. Taking the golden hoops from her ears, she handed them to Birgitte, then hesitated before adding her Great Serpent ring. The Wise Ones had said she must come as a child came to birth. They had had a great many instructions, first among them to tell no one what was coming. For that matter, she wished she knew. A child came to birth without foreknowledge of what was to happen. Birgitte’s mutterings began to sound like Dyelin’s.

Nadere came forward with the cloak, but simply held it out; Elayne had to take it and wrap it around herself hastily. She was still sure she could feel Taim’s gaze. Holding the heavy wool close, her instinct was to hurry from the room, but instead she drew herself up and turned around slowly. She would not scurry out cloaked in shame.

The men who had come with Taim stood rigidly, facing the doors, and Taim himself was peering at the fireplace, arms folded across his chest. The feel of his eyes had been imagination, then. Excepting Nadere, the other women looked at her in variations of curiosity, consternation and shock. Nadere merely seemed impatient.

Elayne tried for her most queenly voice. “Mistress Harfor, you will offer Master Taim and his men wine, before they go.” Well, at least it did not tremble. “Dyelin, please entertain the Wavemistress and the Windfinder, and see if you can allay their fears. Birgitte, I expect to hear your plan for recruiting tonight.” The women she named blinked in startlement, nodded wordlessly.

Then she walked from the room, followed by Nadere, wishing she could have done better. The last thing she heard before the door closed behind her was Zaida’s voice. “Strange customs, you shorebound have.”

In the corridor she tried to move a little faster, though it was not easy while keeping the cloak from gaping. The red-and-white floor tiles were much colder than the carpets in the sitting room. A few servants, warmly bundled in good woolen livery, stared when they saw her, then hurried on about their tasks. The flames of the stand-lamps flickered; there were always drafts in the hallways. Occasionally the air stirred enough to make a wall hanging ripple lazily.

“That was on purpose, wasn’t it?” she said to Nadere, not really asking a question. “Whenever you called me, you’d have made sure there were plenty of people to watch. To make sure adopting Aviendha was important enough to me.” It had to be more important than anything else, they had been told. “What did you do to her?” Aviendha seemed to have very little modesty sometimes, often walking around her apartments unclothed and unconcerned, not even noticing when servants entered. Making her undress in a crowd would have proved nothing.

“That is for her to tell you if she wishes,” Nadere said complacently. “You are sharp to see it; many do not.” Her large bosom heaved in a grunt that might have been a laugh. “Those men, turning their backs, and those women, guarding you. I would have put a stop to it if the man in the embroidered coat had not kept looking over his shoulder to admire your hips. And if you blushes had not said you knew.”

Elayne missed a step and stumbled. The cloak flared, losing the little body warmth it had trapped before she could snatch it closed again. “That filthy pig-kisser!” she growled. “I’ll . . . I’ll . . .!” Burn her, what could she do? Tell Rand? Let him deal with Taim? Never in life!

Nadere eyed her quizzically. “Most men enjoy looking at a woman’s bottom. Stop thinking about men, and start thinking about the woman you want for a sister.”

Flushing again, Elayne put her mind on Aviendha. It did nothing to settle her nerves. There were specific things she had been told to think on before the ceremony, and some made her uneasy.

Nadere kept her pace to Elayne’s, and Elayne took great care not to let her legs flash through the cloak’s opening — there were servants everywhere — so it took them some little time to reach the room where the Wise Ones were gathered, more than a dozen of them in their bulky skirts and white blouses and dark shawls, decked with necklaces and bracelets of gold and silver, gems and ivory, their long hair held back with folded scarves. All the furnishings and carpets had been cleared out, leaving bare white floor tiles, and there was no fire on the hearth. Here, deep in the palace, with no windows, the crash of t

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