Winter's Heart Page 135

Cadsuane had dismissed him from her attention as soon as she finished giving him his orders, however. “Verin, Kumira, you two will come with me,” she announced briskly. “Merise, keep everyone together and ready until I — Alanna, come back and dismount. Alanna!” Reluctantly Alanna turned her mount away from the gates and climbed down with a sulky glower. Her slim Warder, Ihvon, watched her anxiously. Cadsuane sighed as though her patience was almost at an end. “Sit on her if you must to keep her here, Merise,” she said, handing her reins to a small, wiry groom. “I want everyone ready to leave when I’m done with Aleis.” Merise nodded, and Cadsuane turned to the groom. “A little water is all he needs,” she said, giving her horse an affectionate pat. “I haven’t exercised him much today.”

Shalon was more than happy to turn her own horse over to a groom without instructions. She would not mind if he killed the creature. She did not know how far she had ridden in a daze, but she felt as though she had been in that saddle every mile of the however many hundred leagues to Cairhien. She felt rumpled in her flesh as well as her clothes. Abruptly, she realized that Jahar’s pretty face was not with the other men. Verin’s Tomas, a stocky gray-head as hard as any of the others, was leading the spotted gray pack animal that had been Jahar’s. Where had the young man gotten to? Merise certainly did not appear concerned by his absence.

“This First Counsel,” Harine growled, letting Moad help her down. She moved as stiffly as Shalon. He had simply leapt from his horse. “She is an important woman here, Sarene?”

“You might say she is the ruler of Far Madding, though the other Counsels, they call her first among equals, whatever that is supposed to mean.” Handing over her own mount to a groom, Sarene looked quite unrumpled. Perhaps she had been upset before over this ter’angreal that stole the Source, but now she was all cool detachment, like carved ice. The groom stumbled over his own feet looking at her face. “Once, the First Counsel, she advised the queens of Maredo, but since Maredo’s . . . dissolution . . . most First Counsels have considered themselves the natural heirs of Maredo’s rulers.”

Shalon knew that her knowledge of the shorebound’s history was as uncertain as her knowledge of geography away from the shore, but she had never heard of any nation called Maredo. It was enough for Harine, though. If this First Counsel ruled here, the Wavemistress of Clan Shodein must meet her. Harine’s dignity demanded no less. She hobbled determinedly across the stableyard to Cadsuane.

“Oh, yes,” the insufferable Aes Sedai said before Harine could more than open her mouth. “You will come with me, as well. And your sister. I think not your Swordmaster, though. A man in the dome would be bad enough, but a man with a sword might make the Counsels fall over in fits. You have a question, Wavemistress?” Harine snapped her mouth shut with an audible click of teeth. “Good,” Cadsuane murmured. Shalon groaned. This was not improving her sister’s temper by a feather.

Cadsuane led them along broad, blue-tiled corridors hung with bright tapestries and lit by gilded stand lamps with glittering mirrors, where servants in blue first stared at them in surprise, then made hasty shorebound courtesies as they passed. She led them up long, swooping flights of white stone stairs that hung unsupported except where they touched a pale wall, which they did not always. Cadsuane glided like a swan, but at a speed that made the ache in Shalon’s legs begin to burn. Harine’s face set in a wooden mask, hiding the effort of trotting up stairs. Even Kumira seemed a trifle surprised, though Cadsuane’s pace caused her no apparent exertion. Round little Verin churned away at Cadsuane’s side, now and then smiling over her shoulder at Harine and Shalon. Sometimes Shalon thought she hated Verin, but there was no spite or amusement in those smiles, only encouragement.

Cadsuane took them up a final curling flight of stairs, enclosed by walls, and suddenly they were on a balcony with an intricate, gilded metal railing that ran all the way around . . . For a moment, Shalon gaped. Above her rose an overarching blue dome a hundred feet or more high at its peak. Nothing held it up but itself. Her ignorance of the shorebound extended to architecture as well as geography and history — and Aes Sedai — in fact, her ignorance of the shorebound was almost complete, excepting only Cairhien. She knew how to draw the plans for a raker and see it built, but she could not begin to imagine how to construct this.

Arched doorways edged with white stone, like the one they had come through, marked stairs at three other places around the long balcony, but they were alone, and that seemed to please Cadsuane, though all she did was nod to herself. “Kumira, show the Wavemistress and her sister Far Madding’s guardian.” Her voice echoed faintly inside the vast dome. She drew Verin a little distance away, and the pair of them put their heads together. There was no echo of what they whispered.

“You must forgive them,” Kumira told Harine and Shalon quietly. Even that produced a slight sound, if not quite an echo. “Peace, but this must be awkward, even for Cadsuane.” She ran her fingers through her short brown hair and shook her head to settle it back in place. “The Counsels are seldom happy to see Aes Sedai, especially sisters born here. I think they would like to pretend the Power doesn’t exist. Well, their history gives them reason, and for the last two thousand years they have had the means to support the pretense. In any event, Cadsuane is Cadsuane. She seldom sees a swelled head without deciding to deflate it, even when it happens to be wearing a crown. Or a Counsel’s diadem. Her last visit was over twenty years ago, during the Aiel War, but I suspect some who remember it will want to hide under their beds when they learn she is back.” Kumira gave a small, amused laugh. Shalon saw nothing to laugh at. Harine twisted her lips, but it made her look as though she suffered from a bad belly.

“You wish to see the . . . guardian?” Kumira went on. “As good a name as any, I suppose. There isn’t much to see.” She stepped cautiously closer to the gilded railing and peered over as if fearing she might fall, but those blue eyes had sharpened again. “I would give anything to study it, but that is impossible, of course. Who knows what else it might be able to do beside what we already know?” Her tone held as much awe as regret.

Shalon had no fear of heights, and she pressed herself against the elaborately worked metal beside the Aes Sedai, wanting to see this thing that had taken the Source away. After a moment, Harine joined them. To Shalon’s surprise, the drop that made Kumira uneasy was less than twenty feet, below, a smooth floor tiled in blue and white to make a convoluted maze centered on a double-pointed red oval rimmed with yellow. Beneath the balcony, three women in white sat on stools spaced equally around the edge of the floor, right against the dome’s wall, and beside each woman, a disc a full span across that looked like clouded crystal had been set into the floor and inlaid with a long thin wedge of clear crystal that pointed toward the chamber’s center. Metal collars surrounded the murky discs, marked off like a compass but with ever-smaller markings between the larger. Shalon could not be sure, but the collar nearest her appeared to be inscribed with numerals. That was all. No monstrous shapes. She had imagined something huge and black that sucked in the light. Her hands tightened on the rail to keep from trembling, and she locked her knees to hold herself still. Whatever was down there

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