Winter's Heart Page 118

Fetching her cloak and leaving the Palace, Bethamin intended to return to the inn where she was forced to share a bed with two other sul’dam, but only long enough to take some coin from her lockbox. The inspection had been her only duty today, and the rest of the hours were her own. For a change, instead of seeking extra assignments, she would spend them buying souvenirs. Perhaps one of those knives the local women wore at their necks, if she could find one without the gems they seemed to like on the hilt. And lacquerware, of course; that was as good here as any in the Empire, and the designs were so . . . foreign. It would be soothing to shop. She needed soothing.

The paving stones of the Mol Hara still glistened damply from the morning’s rain, and a pleasant tang of salt filled the air, reminding her of the village on the Sea of L’Heye where she had been born, though the freezing cold made her clutch her cloak around herself. It had never been cold in Abunai, and she had never become accustomed to it no matter how far she had traveled. Thoughts of home were no comfort, now, though. As she made her way through the crowded streets, Renna and Seta filled her head to the extent that she bumped into people and once almost walked right in front of a merchant’s train of wagons leaving the city. A shout from a wagon driver caught her attention, and she leaped back just in time. The wagon rumbled across the paving stones where she would have been standing, and the woman wielding the whip did not even glance at her. These foreigners had no idea of the respect due a sul’dam.

Renna and Seta. Everyone who had been at Falme had memories they wanted to forget, memories they would not talk about except when they drank too much. She did, too, only hers were not about the shock of battling half-recognized ghosts out of legend, or the horror of defeat, or mad visions in the sky. How often had she wished she had not gone upstairs that day? If only she had not wondered how Tuli was doing, the damane who had the marvelous skill with metals. But she had looked into Tuli’s kennel. And she had seen Renna and Seta frantically trying to remove a’dam from each other’s necks, shrieking with the pain, wavering on their knees from the nausea, and still fumbling at the collars. Vomit stained the fronts of their dresses. In their frenzy they had not noticed her backing away, horror-stricken.

Not simply horror at seeing two sul’dam revealed as marath’damane, but her own sudden personal terror. Often she thought she could almost see damane’s weaves, and she could always sense a damane’s presence and know how strong she was. Many sul’dam could; everyone knew it came from long experience at handling the a’dam. Yet the sight of that desperate pair roused unwanted thoughts, putting a different and frightening complexion on what she had always accepted. Did she almost see the weaves, or did she really see? Sometimes she thought she felt the channeling, too. Even sul’dam had to undergo the yearly testing, until their twenty-fifth naming day, and she had passed by failing every time. Only . . . There would be a new testing after Renna and Seta were discovered, a new testing to find the marath’damane who somehow had evaded the first. The Empire itself might tremble before such a blow. And with the image of Renna and Seta burned into her brain, she had known with total certainty that after those tests, Bethamin Zeami would no longer be a respected citizen. Instead, a damane called Bethamin would serve the Empire.

The shame curdled in her still. She had placed personal fears ahead of the needs of the Empire, ahead of everything she knew to be right and true and good. Battle came to Falme, and nightmare, but she had not rushed to complete herself with a damane and join the battle line. Instead, she had used the confusion to secure a horse and flee, to run as hard and as far as she could.

She realized she had stopped, staring into a seamstress’s shop window without really seeing what was on display inside. Not that she wanted to see. The blue dress with its lightning-marked red panels was the only one she had thought of wearing in years. And she certainly would not wear something that exposed her so indecently. Skirts swirling about her ankles, she walked on, but she could not shake Renna and Seta from her thoughts, or Suroth.

Obviously Alwhin had found the collared pair of sul’dam and reported them to Suroth. And Suroth had sheltered the Empire by protecting Renna and Seta, dangerous as that was. What if they suddenly began channeling? Better perhaps for the Empire if she had arranged their deaths, though killing a sul’dam was murder even for the High Blood. Two suspicious deaths among the sul’dam would certainly have brought in Seekers. So Renna and Seta were free, if it could be called that when they were never allowed to be complete. Alwhin had done her duty, and been honored by becoming Suroth’s Voice. Suroth had done her duty as well, however distasteful. There was no new testing. Her own flight had been for nothing. And if she had remained, she would not have ended up in Tanchico, a nightmare she wanted to forget even more than she did Falme.

A squad of the Deathwatch Guards marched by, resplendent in their armor, and Bethamin paused to watch them pass. They left a wake through the crowd like a greatship under full sail. There would be joy in the city, in the land, when Tuon finally revealed herself, and celebrations as though she had just arrived. She felt a guilty pleasure at thinking of the Daughter of the Nine Moons so, as when she had done something forbidden as a child, though of course, until Tuon removed her veil, she was merely the High Lady Tuon, no higher than Suroth. The Deathwatch Guards tramped on, dedicated heart and soul to Empress and Empire, and Bethamin went in the opposite direction. Appropriately, since she was dedicated heart and soul to preserving her own freedom.

The Golden Swans of Heaven was a grand name for a tiny inn squeezed between a public stable and a lacquerware shop. The lacquerware shop was full of military officers buying everything the shop contained, the stable was full of horses purchased in the lottery and not yet assigned, and The Golden Swans was full of sul’dam. Packed with them, in fact, at least once night came. Bethamin was lucky to have only two bedmates. Ordered to accommodate as many as she could, the innkeeper pushed four and five into a bed when she thought they would fit. Still, the bedding was clean and the food quite good, if peculiar. And given that the alternative was likely a hayloft, she was glad to share.

At this hour, the round tables in the common room were empty. Some of the sul’dam living there surely had duties, and the rest simply wanted to avoid the innkeeper. Arms folded, frowning, Darnella Shoran was watching several serving women sweep the green-tiled floor industriously. A skinny woman with gray hair worn rolled on the nape of her neck and a long jaw that gave her a belligerent appearance, she might have been a der’sul’dam in spite of the ridiculous knife she wore, its hilt studded with cheap red and white gems. Supposedly the serving women were free, but they jumped like property whe

Prev Next