Winter's Heart Page 104

The room Chel Vanin and the surviving Redarms shared lay not far from the stables, a long white-plastered chamber with a low ceiling and too many beds for those who remained alive. Vanin, a balding suety heap, was lying on one in his shirtsleeves, an open book propped on his chest. Mat was surprised the man could read. Spitting through a gap in his teeth, Vanin eyed Mat’s mud-smeared clothes. “You been fighting again?” he asked. “She won’t like that, I reckon.” He did not rise. With a few startling exceptions, Vanin considered himself as good as any lord or lady.

“Trouble, Lord Mat?” Harnan growled, leaping to his feet. He was a solid man, physically and by temperament, but his heavy jaw clenched, twisting the hawk crudely tattooed on his cheek. “Begging your pardon, but you’re in no condition for it. Tell us what he looks like, and we’ll sort him out for you.”

The last three gathered behind him with eager expressions, two grabbing for their coats while still tucking in shirttails. Metwyn, a boyish-appearing Cairhienin who was ten years older than Mat, instead picked up his sword from where it was propped at the foot of his bed and eased a little of the blade out of the scabbard to check the edge. He was the best of them with a sword, very good indeed, though Gorderan came close for all he looked a blacksmith. Gorderan was not nearly as slow as his thick shoulders made him appear. A dozen Redarms had followed Mat Cauthon to Ebou Dar, eight of those were dead, and the rest were stuck here in the Palace where they could not pinch the maids, get into a fight over dice, and drink till they fell on their faces, as they could have staying at an inn and knowing the innkeeper would see them carried up to their beds, though maybe with their purses a little lighter than they had been.

“Noal here can tell you what happened better than I can,” Mat replied, pushing his hat back on his head. “He’ll be bedding in here with you. He saved my life tonight.”

That brought exclamations of shock, and cries of approbation for Noal, not to mention slaps on the back that almost toppled the old fellow. Vanin went so far as to mark his place in the book with a fat finger and sit up on the side of his thin mattress.

Setting his bundle down on a vacant bed, Noal told the tale with elaborate gestures, playing down his own role and even making himself a bit of a buffoon, slipping in the mud and gaping at the gholam while Mat fought like a champion. The man was a natural storyteller, as good as a gleeman for making you see what he described. Harnan and the Redarms laughed genially, knowing what he was about, not stealing their captain’s thunder, and approving of it, but laughter died when he came to Mat’s attacker slipping away through a tiny hole in a wall. He made you see that, too. Vanin put down his book and spat through his teeth again. The gholam had left Vanin and Harnan half-dead in the Rahad. Half-dead because it was after other prey.

“The thing wants me for some reason, it seems,” Mat said lightly when the old man finished and sank onto the bed with his belongings, seemingly exhausted. “It probably played at dice with me some time I don’t recall. None of you has to worry, as long as you don’t get between it and me.” He grinned, trying to make it all a joke, but no one so much as smiled. “In any case, I’ll parcel out gold to you in the morning. You’ll book passage on the first ship leaving for Illian, and take Olver with you. Thom and Juilin, too, if they’ll go.” He imagined the thief-catcher would, anyway. “And Nerim and Lopin, of course.” He had gotten used to having a pair of serving men look after him, but he hardly needed them here. “Talmanes must be somewhere close to Caemlyn by this time. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding him.” When they were gone, he would be alone with Tylin. Light, he would rather face the gholam again!

Harnan and the other three Redarms exchanged looks, Fergin scratching his head as it he did not quite understand. He might not. The bony man was a good soldier — not the best, mind, but good enough — yet he was not very bright when it came to other things.

“That wouldn’t be right,” Harnan allowed finally. “One thing, Lord Talmanes’d have our hides if we came back without you.” The other three nodded. Fergin could understand that.

“And you, Vanin?” Mat asked.

The fat man shrugged. “I take that boy away from Riselle, and he’ll gut me like a trout the first time I go to sleep. I would myself, in his boots. Anyway, I got time to read, here. Don’t get much chance for that working as a farrier.” That was one of the itinerant trades he claimed to follow. The other was stableman. In truth, he was a horsethief and poacher, the best in two countries and maybe more.

“You’re all mad,” Mat said with a frown. “Just because it wants me, doesn’t mean it won’t kill you if you get in the way. The offer stays open. Anyone who comes to his senses can go.”

“I have seen your like before,” Noal said suddenly. The stooped old man was the image of hard age and exhaustion, but his eyes were bright and sharp studying Mat. “Some men have an air about them that makes other men follow where they lead. Some lead to devastation, others to glory. I think your name may go into the history books.”

Harnan looked as confused as Fergin. Vanin spat and lay back down, opening his book.

“If all my luck goes away, maybe,” Mat muttered. He knew what it took to get into the histories. A man could get killed, doing that sort of thing.

“Better clean up before she sees you,” Fergin piped up suddenly. “All that mud will put a burr under her saddle for sure.”

Snatching his hat off angrily, Mat stalked out without a word. Well, he stalked as well as he could, hobbling on a walking staff. Before the door closed behind him, he heard Noal starting a story about one time he sailed on a Sea Folk ship and learned to bathe in cold salt water. At least, that was how it began.

He intended to get himself clean before Tylin saw him — he did — but as he limped through hallways hung with the flowered tapestries Ebou Dari called summer-hangings, for the season they evoked, four serving men in the Palace’s green-and-white livery and no fewer than seven maids suggested he might want to bathe and change his clothes before the Queen saw him, offering to draw him a bath and fetch clean garments without her learning of it. They did not know everything about him and Tylin, thank the Light — no one but Tylin and himself knew the worst bits — but they knew too bloody much. Worse, they approved, every last flaming servant in the whole flaming Tarasin Palace. For one thing, Tylin was Queen and could do as she pleased, so far as they were concerned. For another, her temper had been on a razor’s edge since the Seanchan captured the city, and if Mat Cauthon scrubbed and bright in lace kept her from snapping their noses off for trifles, then they would scrub behind his ears and wrap him i

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