Winter's Heart Page 147

“They are not in a good way for food, Captain,” Merilille said coolly, sitting up straighter in spite of her obvious fatigue, “but neither are they starving quite yet. I should not count on starvation to defeat them, if it comes to that.” After a little time away from the Sea Folk, her big eyes were no longer perpetually startled, and despite her smooth Aes Sedai composure, it was plain she had decided to dislike Doilin Mellar no matter whose life he had saved. “As for numbers, something over two hundred thousand, I should say, and I very much doubt anyone but their own officers could be more accurate than that. Even hungry, that is a great many swords.” Mellar shrugged again, undisturbed by Aes Sedai stares.

The slim Gray sister neither looked at him again nor ignored him in any obvious way; he just seemed to become a piece of the furniture for her as she went on. “There are at least ten sisters with them, Elayne, though they made a great effort to hide the fact. Not adherents to Egwene, I should think, though they need not be Elaida’s either. A good many sisters appear to be sitting to one side until the Tower’s troubles are over, I fear.” She sighed again, perhaps not from tiredness this time.

With a grimace, Elayne set her teacup aside. The kitchens had not sent up any honey, and she really did not like it bitter. “What do they want, Merilille? The rulers, not the sisters.” Ten sisters made that army ten times as dangerous, especially to Rand. No, to anyone. “They haven’t been sitting there in the snow all this time for the joy of it.”

The Gray spread her slim hands slightly. “Over the long run, I can only make suppositions. Over the short, they want to meet you, and as soon as possible. They sent riders toward Caemlyn when they arrived at New Braem, but this time of year, it might take another week or more before they arrive here. Tenobia of Saldaea let slip, or pretended to let slip, that they know you have some connection to, or least a close acquaintance with, a certain person in whom they also apparently have an interest. Somehow, they know of your presence in Falme when certain events took place.” Mellar frowned in confusion, but no one enlightened him. “I did not disclose Traveling, because of those sisters, but I did say I could return with a reply very soon.”

Elayne exchanged a look with Birgitte, who also shrugged, though in her case neither from detachment nor from disdain. The largest hole in Elayne’s hopes to use the Borderlanders to influence her opponents for the throne had been how to approach sitting rulers while she was merely the High Seat of Trakand and Daughter-Heir of a deceased queen. Birgitte’s shrug said be thankful for the hole closing, but Elayne wondered how these people from the Borderlands had learned what very few others knew. And if they knew, how many more did, too? She would protect her unborn child.

“Would you be willing to go back right away, Merilille?” she asked. The other sister accepted with alacrity, and with a slight widening of her eyes that suggested she would put up with any amount of stench to avoid returning to the Windfinders a little longer. “Then we will go together. If they want to meet me soon, nothing can be sooner than today.” They knew too much for delay. Nothing could be allowed to threaten her child. Nothing!

Chapter 27

To Surprise Queens and Kings

It was not quite so simple as just saying she would go, of course.

“This is unwise, sister,” Aviendha said darkly as Merilille scurried off to freshen herself. Scurried in truth; the Gray seemed to be keeping a sharp eye out for Sea Folk before she reached the sitting room doors. When a sister of Elayne’s standing said go, Merilille went. Arms folded and shawl wrapped around her so she looked very much the Wise One, Aviendha stood over Elayne at her writing table. “This is very unwise.”

“Wise?” Birgitte growled, feet apart and fists planted on her hips. “Wise? The girl wouldn’t know ‘wise’ if it bit her on the nose! Why this rush? Let Merilille do what Grays do, arrange a parley in a few days, or a week. Queens hate being surprised, and kings despise it. Believe me, I know it to my cost. They find ways to make you regret it.” The Warder bond mirrored her anger and frustration.

“I want to catch them by surprise, Birgitte. It might help me to find out just how much they know about me.” Grimacing, Elayne pushed away the blotted page and took another sheet from the inlaid rosewood paper-box. Her weariness had vanished with Merilille’s news, but writing a steady, clean hand did seem difficult. The wording needed to be just right, too. This was not to be a letter from the Daughter-Heir of Andor, but from Elayne Trakand, Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. They had to see what she wanted them to see.

“Try to talk some bloody sense into her, Aviendha,” Birgitte muttered. “In case you can’t, I had best see if I can scrape together a suitable flaming escort.”

“No escort, Birgitte. Except for you. An Aes Sedai and her Warder. And Aviendha, of course.” Elayne paused in writing to smile at her sister, who did not smile back.

“I know your courage, Elayne,” Aviendha said. “I admire your courage. But even Sha’mad Conde know when to be cautious!” She spoke of caution? Aviendha would not know caution if . . . well . . . if it bit her on the nose!

“An Aes Sedai and her Warder?” Birgitte exclaimed. “I told you, you can’t go running off trying to have adventures any more!”

“No escort,” Elayne said firmly, dipping her pen for another try. “This isn’t an adventure. It is just the way it must be done.” Throwing up her hands, Birgitte growled several oaths, but nothing Elayne had not heard before.

To her surprise, Mellar made no objection to staying behind. A meeting with four rulers would hardly be as boring as meeting merchants, but he begged leave to be about his duties since she did not need him. That contented her. A Captain of the Royal Guards would make the Borderlanders think of her as Daughter-Heir sooner than she wanted. Not to mention that Mellar might decide to leer at her.

Captain Mellar’s unconcern was not shared by the rest of her bodyguard, though. One of the Guardswomen apparently went running for Caseille, because the tall Arafellin woman came striding into the sitting room while Elayne was still writing, demanding to accompany Elayne with the entire bodyguard. Birgitte finally had to order her out to stop her protests.

For once, Birgitte appeared to recognize the fact that Elayne was not going to be budged, leaving with Caseille to change her clothes. Well, she stalked off grumbling oaths, slamming the door behind her with a crash, but at least she did go. You might have thought she would be happy for a chance to take off that Captain-General’s coat, but the bond might as well have been an echo of her curses. Aviendha did not curse, but she kept up her admonitions. Everything had to be done in such a whirlwind, though, that Elayne had

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