Winter's Heart Page 111

Luckily, Tylin began spending more and more time with Suroth and Tuon. Her accommodations seemed to have embraced friendship, with Tuon at least. No one could be friends with Suroth. Tylin seemed to have adopted the girl, or the girl had adopted her. Tylin told him little of what they talked about except in the sketchiest outlines, and often not even that, but they closeted themselves alone for hours, and swept along the Palace corridors conversing quietly, or sometimes laughing. Frequently Anath or Selucia, Tuon’s golden-haired so’jhin, trailed along behind, and now and then a pair of hard-eyed Deathwatch Guards.

He still could not figure out the relationship between Suroth, Tuon and Anath. On the surface, Suroth and Tuon behaved as equals, calling each other by name, laughing at one another’s jests. Tuon certainly never gave Suroth any order, at least not in his hearing, but Suroth seemed to take Tuon’s suggestions as orders. Anath, on the other hand, badgered the girl unmercifully with razor-sharp criticisms, calling her a fool and worse.

“This is the worst sort of stupidity, girl,” he heard her say coldly one midday in the halls. Tylin had not sent her crude summons — yet — and he was trying to sneak out before she could, slipping along the walls and peeking around corners. He had a visit to Sutoma planned, and another to Aludra. The three Seanchan women — four, counting Selucia, but he did not think they saw it that way — were clustered just around the next turning. Trying to keep an eye out for serving women wearing a smile, he waited impatiently for them to move. Whatever they were talking about, they would not appreciate him blundering by in the middle of it. “A taste of the strap will set you right, and clear your head of nonsense,” the tall woman went on in a voice like ice. “Ask for it and be done.”

Mat worked a finger in his ear, and shook his head. He must have misheard. Selucia, standing placidly with her hands folded at her waist, certainly never turned a hair.

Suroth gasped, though. “Surely you will punish her for this!” she drawled angrily, glaring holes through Anath. Or trying to. Suroth might as well have been a chair for all the notice the tall woman gave her.

“You do not understand, Suroth.” Tuon’s sigh stirred the veil covering her face. Covering but not concealing. She looked . . . resigned. He had been shocked to learn she was only a few years younger than he. He would have said more like ten. Well, six or seven. “The omens say otherwise, Anath,” the girl said calmly, and not at all in anger. She was simply stating facts. “Be assured, I will tell you if they change.”

Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he looked back into the face of a serving woman wearing a broad grin. Well, he had not really been that anxious to go out right away.

Tuon troubled him. Oh, when they passed in the hallways, he made his best leg politely, and in return she ignored him as completely as Suroth or Anath did, but it began to seem to him that they passed in the hallways a little too often.

One afternoon, he walked into Tylin’s apartments, having checked and found out that Tylin was shut up with Suroth on some business or other, and in the bedchamber, he found Tuon examining his ashandarei. He froze at the sight of her fingering the words in the Old Tongue carved into the black shaft. A raven in some still darker metal was inlaid at each end of the line of script, and a pair of them engraved on the slightly curved blade. Ravens were an Imperial sigil, to the Seanchan. Not breathing, he tried to move backwards without making a sound.

That veiled face swivelled toward him. A pretty face, really, it might even have been beautiful if she ever stopped looking as though she was about to bite off a mouthful of wood. He no longer thought she looked like a boy — those tight wide belts she always wore made sure you noticed what curves there were — but she was the next thing to it. He seldom saw a grown woman younger than his grandmother that he did not at least think idly of what it would be like dancing with her, maybe kissing her, even those snooty Seanchan Blood, but never a glimmer of that crossed his mind with Tuon. A woman had to have something to put an arm around, or what was the point?

“I don’t see Tylin owning a thing like this,” she drawled coolly, setting the long-bladed spear back next to his bow, “so it must be yours. What is it? How did you come to possess it?” Those cold demands for information set his jaw. The bloody woman could have been ordering a servant. Light, as far as he was aware, she did not even know his name! Tylin said she had never asked about him or mentioned him since the offer of purchase.

“It’s called a spear, my Lady,” he said, resisting the urge to lean against the doorframe and tuck his thumbs behind his belt. She was Seanchan Blood, after all. “I bought it.”

“I will give you ten times the price you paid,” she said. “Name it.”

He almost laughed. He wanted to, and not for pleasure, that was certain sure. No would you think of selling, just I will buy it and here is what I will pay. “The price wasn’t gold, my Lady.” Involuntarily, his hand went to the black scarf to make sure it still hid the ridged scar that encircled his neck. “Only a fool would pay it one time, let alone ten.”

She studied him for a moment, her expression unreadable no matter how sheer her veil. And then, he might as well have vanished. She glided past him as though he were no longer there and swept out of the apartments.

That was not the only time he encountered her alone. Of course, she was not always followed by Anath or Selucia, or guards, yet it seemed to him that rather too often he would decide to go back for something and turn to find her by herself, looking at him, or he might leave a room suddenly and find her outside the door. More than once he looked over his shoulder leaving the Palace and saw her veiled face peering out of a window. True, there was nothing of staring about it. She looked at him and glided away as though he had ceased to exist, peered from a window and turned back into the room as soon as he saw her. He was a stand lamp in the corridor, a paving stone in the Mol Hara. It began to make him nervous, though. After all, the woman had offered to buy him. A thing like that had a tendency to make a man nervous by its own self.

Even Tuon could not truly upset his welling sense that things were finally coming right, though. The gholam did not return, and he began to think maybe it had gone on an easier “harvest.” In any event, he was staying away from dark and lonely places where it might have a chance at him. His medallion was all very well for what it did, but a good crowd was better. On his latest visit to Aludra she had almost let something slip — he was certain of it — before coming to herself and hastily bundling him out of her wagon. There was nothing a woman would not tell you if you kissed her enough. He stayed away from The Wandering Woman, to avoid rousing Tylin’s suspicions, but Nerim and Lopin stealthily transferred his real clothing to the inn’s cellar. Bit by bit, half the contents of the iron-bound chest under Tylin’s bed traveled across the Mol Hara to the hidden hollow beneat

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