Winter's Heart Page 114

Mat tensed, waiting for the explosion — Suroth would have her flogged for half that! — but Egeanin smiled. “It’s a pleasure to deal with someone who has a little nerve,” she drawled. “I think we’ll get on just fine, Mistress Anan. So long as you don’t take nerve too far. Captain gives the orders, and crew obeys, but I never made anyone crawl on my deck.” Mat frowned. Deck. A ship’s deck. Why did that tug at something in his head? Those old memories were a nuisance, sometimes.

Mistress Anan nodded, never taking her dark eyes from the Seanchan’s blue. “As you say, my Lady. But I hope you will remember that The Wandering Woman is my ship.” Luckily for her, the Seanchan woman had a sense of humor. She laughed.

“Then you be captain of your ship,” she chuckled, “and I will be Captain of the Gold.” Whatever that meant. With a sigh, Egeanin shook her head. “Light’s truth, I don’t outrank many here, I suspect, but Suroth wants me close at hand, so some move down, and somebody moves out unless they want to double up.” Suddenly she frowned, half glancing toward Mat and Joline, and her lip curled in distaste. “I trust you don’t let that sort of thing go on everywhere, Mistress Anan?”

“I assure you, you will never see the like again under my roof,” the innkeeper replied smoothly.

The so’jhin was frowning at Mat and the woman on his lap, too, and Egeanin had to tug at his coatsleeve before he gave a start and followed her back into the common room. Mat grunted contemptuously. The fellow could pretend to be outraged like his mistress all he wanted; Mat had heard about festivals in Illian, though, and they were almost as bad as festivals in Ebou Dar when it came to people running around half-clothed or less. No better than da’covale, or those shea dancers the soldiers went on about.

He tried to ease Joline from his lap when the door swung shut behind the pair, but she clung to him and buried her face on his shoulder, weeping softly. Enid heaved a great sigh and sagged against the worktable as though her bones had softened. Even Mistress Anan appeared shaken. She dropped onto the stool Mat had vacated and put her head in her hands. Only for a moment, though, and then she was back on her feet.

“Count to fifty and then get everyone in out of the rain, Enid,” she said briskly. No one would have known that she had been trembling a moment earlier. Gathering Joline’s cloak from its peg, she took a long splinter from a box on the mantelpiece and bent to light it in the fire beneath the spits. “I will be in the cellar if you need me, but if anyone asks, you don’t know where I am. Until I say otherwise, no one but you or I goes down there.” Enid nodded as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. “Bring her,” the innkeeper told Mat, “and don’t dawdle. Carry her if you must.”

He did have to carry her. Still weeping almost soundlessly, Joline would not loosen her hold on him or even lift her head from his shoulder. She was not heavy, thank the Light, yet even so, a dull ache began in his leg as he followed Mistress Anan to the cellar door with his burden. He might have enjoyed it in spite of the throbbing, if Mistress Anan had not taken her time about everything.

As though there were no Seanchan within a hundred miles she lit a lamp on a shelf beside the heavy door and carefully blew out the splinter before replacing the tall glass mantle, then laid the smoking splinter on a small tin tray. Unhurriedly producing a long key from her belt pouch, she undid the iron lock and, finally, motioned him to go through. The stairs beyond were wide enough to bring up a barrel, yet steep, vanishing into darkness. He obeyed, but waited on the second step while she drew the door shut and re-locked it, waited for her to take the lead with the lamp held high. The last thing he needed was a tumble.

“Do you do this often?” he asked, shifting Joline. She had stopped her crying, but she still held tight to him, trembling. “I mean, hiding Aes Sedai?”

“I heard whispers there was a sister still in the city,” Mistress Anan replied, “and I managed to find her before the Seanchan did. I couldn’t leave a sister to them.” She glared back over her shoulder, daring him to say different. He wanted to, but he could not make the words come. He supposed he would have helped anyone get away from the Seanchan, if he could, and he owed a debt to Joline Maza.

The Wandering Woman was a well-stocked inn, and the dark cellar was large. Aisles stretched between barrels of wine and ale stacked on their sides, high, slatted bins of potatoes and turnips that stood up off the stone floor, rows of tall shelves holding sacks of dried beans and peas and peppers, mounds of wooden crates holding the Light alone knew what. There appeared to be little dust, but the air had the dry smell common to sound storerooms.

He spotted his clothes, neatly folded on a cleared shelf — unless someone else was storing garments down there — but he had no chance to look at them. Mistress Anan led the way to the far end of the cellar, where he set Joline down on an upturned keg. He had to pry her arms free in order to leave her huddled there. Sniveling, she pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at red-rimmed eyes. With her face blotchy, she was hardly the image of an Aes Sedai, never mind her worn dress.

“Her nerve is broken,” Mistress Anan said, putting the lamp on a barrel that also stood on end, the bung in its end gone. Several other empty barrels stood about the floor where others had been removed, awaiting return to the brewer. It was as close to a clear space as he had seen in the cellar. “She’s been hiding ever since the Seanchan came. The last few days, her Warders have had to move her several times when Seanchan decided to search a building instead of just the streets. Enough to break anyone’s nerve, I suppose. I doubt they will try to search here, though.”

Thinking of all those officers upstairs, Mat had to concede she was probably right. Still, he was glad it was not him taking the risk. Squatting in front of Joline, he grunted at a stab of pain up his leg. “I will help you if I can,” he said. How, he could not have said, but there was that debt. “Just be glad you were lucky enough to dodge them all this time. Teslyn wasn’t so lucky.”

Snatching the handkerchief from her eyes, Joline glared at him. “Luck?” she spat angrily. If she had been other than Aes Sedai, he would have said she was sullen, sticking her lower lip out that way. “I could have escaped! It was all confusion the first day, as I understand. But I was unconscious. Fen and Blaeric barely managed to carry me out of the Palace before the Seanchan swarmed over it, and two men carrying a limp woman attracted too much attention for them to get anywhere near the city gates before they were secured. I am glad Teslyn was caught! Glad! She gave me something; I am sure she did! That is why Fen and Blaeric couldn’t wake me, why I have been sleeping in stables and hiding in alleys, afraid those monsters would find me. I

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