Winter's Heart Page 136

A whisper of slippers announced new arrivals on the balcony by the same doorway they had used, about a dozen smiling women with their hair on top of their heads, in flowing blue silk robes worn over their dresses like sleeveless coats, richly embroidered in gold and trailing behind them on the floor. These people knew how to mark out rank. Each woman wore a large pendant in the shape of that gold-rimmed red oval suspended from a necklace of heavy golden links, and the same shape was repeated at the front of each narrow golden diadem. On one woman, the red ovals were made of rubies, not enamel, and sapphires and moonstones almost hid the golden circlet on her brows, and she wore a heavy golden signet ring on her right forefinger. She was tall and stately, her black hair drawn up in a large ball, heavily winged with white, though her face was unlined. The others were tall, short, stout, thin, pretty and plain, none young, and every one of them had an air of authority about her, but she stood out for more than her gems. Compassion and wisdom filled her large dark eyes, and it was command that she radiated, not simple authority. Shalon did not need to be told that this was the First Counsel, but the woman announced it anyway.

“I am Aleis Barsalla, First Counsel of Far Madding.” Her mellifluous voice, deep for a woman, seemed to be making a proclamation, and expecting cheers. The sound of her voice bouncing inside the dome gave something like acclamation. “Far Madding gives welcome to Harine din Togara Two Winds, Wavemistress of Clan Shodein and Ambassador Extraordinary for the Mistress of the Ships to the Atha’an Miere. May the Light illumine you and see you prosper. Your coming gladdens every heart in Far Madding. I embrace the chance to learn more of the Atha’an Miere, but you must be weary from the rigors of your journey. I have arranged pleasant quarters for you in my palace. When you have rested and eaten, we can talk; to our mutual advantage, if it pleases the Light.” The others spread the skirts of their robes and made half bows.

Harine inclined her head slightly, a hint of satisfaction in her smile. Here, at last, were those who showed her proper respect. And very likely it helped that they did not gape at her and Shalon’s jewelry.

“The messengers from the gates are as quick as ever, it seems, Aleis,” Cadsuane said. “Is there no welcome for me?” Aleis’ smile thinned for a moment, and some of the other smiles faded altogether as Cadsuane moved to stand beside Harine. Those that remained were forced. A pretty woman with a serious cast to her face went so far as to scowl.

“We are grateful to you for bringing the Wavemistress here, Cadsuane Sedai.” The First Counsel did not sound particularly grateful. She drew herself up to her full height and looked straight ahead, over Cadsuane’s head rather than at her. “I am sure we can find some way to make the depth of our gratitude known before you leave.”

She could not have made her dismissal plainer short of a command, but the Aes Sedai smiled up at the taller woman. It was not an unpleasant smile, exactly, but neither was it in the least amused. “I may not be leaving for a while, Aleis. I thank you for the offer of accommodations, and accept. A palace on the Heights is always preferable to even the best inn.” The First Counsel’s eyes widened with startlement, then narrowed in determination.

“Cadsuane must stay with me,” Harine said, managing to sound no more than half strangled, before Aleis could speak. “Where she is unwelcome, so am I.” This had been part of the bargain forced on her, if they were to accompany Cadsuane. Among other things they must go when and where she said until they joined the Coramoor, and include her in any invitations they received. That last had seemed very small at the time, especially weighed against the rest, but plainly the woman had known exactly the reception she would receive.

“No need to be disheartened, Aleis.” Cadsuane leaned toward the First Counsel confidingly, but she did not lower her voice. The reverberations in the dome magnified her words. “I’m sure you no longer have any bad habits for me to correct.”

The First Counsel’s face flooded with crimson, and behind her back, speculative frowns passed between the other Counsels. Some contemplated her as if with fresh eyes. How did they attain rank, and how lose it? Besides Aleis, they were twelve, surely a coincidence, but the First Twelve among a clan’s Sailmistresses chose the Wavemistress, usually one of their own number, just as the First Twelve among the Wavemistresses chose the Mistress of the Ships. That was why Harine had accepted that strange girl’s words, because she was of the First Twelve. That, and the fact that two Aes Sedai said the girl saw true visions. A Wavemistress or even the Mistress of the Ships could be deposed, though only for specified causes, such as gross incompetence or losing her wits, and the First Twelve had to speak with a unanimous voice. Things seemed to be done differently among the shorebound, and often sloppily. Aleis’ eyes, fixed now on Cadsuane, were both hate-filled and hunted. Perhaps she could feel twelve sets of eyes on her back. The other Counsels had her on the scales. But if Cadsuane had chosen to meddle in the politics of this place, why? And why so bluntly?

“A man just channeled,” Verin said suddenly. She had not joined the rest and was peering over the rail, ten paces away. The dome made her voice carry. “Do you have many men channeling lately, First Counsel?”

Shalon looked down, and blinked. The formerly clear wedges were now black, and rather than pointing toward the chamber’s heart, somehow they had turned in roughly the same direction. One of the women below was on her feet, bending over to study where along the marked collar the thin black wedge was pointing, and the other two women were already racing toward a round-topped doorway. Suddenly, Shalon knew. Triangulation was a simple matter to any Windfinder. Somewhere beyond that door way was a chart, and soon the position where the man had channeled would be marked on it.

“It would be red for a woman, not black,” Kumira said in almost a whisper. She still stood a little back from the rail, but she was gripping it with both hands and leaning forward to peer at the scene below. “It warns and locates and defends. And what else? The women who made it would have wanted more, perhaps needed more. Not knowing what else could be incredibly dangerous.” She did not sound frightened, though. She sounded excited.

“An Asha’man, I expect,” Aleis said calmly, pulling her gaze from Cadsuane. “They cannot trouble us. They are free to enter the city, so long as they obey the law.” However calm she was, some of the women behind her tittered like new deckgirls their first time among the shorebound. “Forgive me, Aes Sedai. Far Madding gives you welcome. I am afraid I don’t know

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