Winter's Heart Page 160

Frowning suddenly, Joline picked up the lamp by the iron base and moved it to cast light on the innkeeper’s face. “Have we met somewhere before? Sometimes, when I cannot see your face, your voice sounds familiar.”

Instead of answering, Setalle took the a’dam from Mat and fumbled at the flat segmented bracelet on one end of the round silver leash. The whole thing was made in segments, fitted together so cunningly you could not see how it had been done. “We might as well get the testing over with.”

“Testing?” he said, and those hazel eyes gave him a withering look.

“Not every woman can be a sul’dam. You should know that by now. I have hopes that I can, but better we find out before the last hour.” Scowling at the stubbornly closed bracelet, she turned it in her hands. “Do you know how to open this thing? I cannot even find where it opens.”

“Yes,” he said faintly. The only times he had talked with Seanchan about sul’dam and damane, it had been cautious questions about how they were used in battle. He had never even thought about how sul’dam were chosen. He might have to fight them — those ancient memories hardly let him stop thinking about how to fight battles — but he had certainly never meant to recruit any. “Better to test it now.” Instead of . . . Light!

The catches were a simple matter for him, the bracelet easiest. That was just a matter of squeezing the right spots, top and bottom, not quite opposite the leash. It could be done with one hand, and the bracelet popped open on one with a metallic click. The collar was a little trickier, and required both hands. Putting his fingers on the proper spots on either side of where the leash attached, he pressed, then twisted and pulled while holding the pressure. Nothing happened, that he could see, until he twisted the two sides the other way. Then they came apart right beside the leash, with a sharper click than the bracelet. Simple. Of course, figuring it out had taken him nearly an hour, back in the Palace, even with what Juilin had seen to help. Nobody here praised him, though. Nobody even looked as though he had done anything they could not!

Snapping the bracelet around her wrist, Setalle looped the leash in coils on her forearm, then held up the open collar. Joline stared it with loathing, her hands tightening into fists gripping her skirts.

“Do you want to escape?” the innkeeper asked quietly.

After a moment, Joline straightened and lifted her chin. Setalle closed the collar around the Aes Sedai’s neck with the same crisp snap it had made opening. He must have been wrong about the size; it fit her quite snugly atop the high neck of her dress. Joline’s mouth twitched, that was all, but Mat could almost feel Blaeric and Fen tensing behind him. He held his breath.

Side by side, the two women took a small step, brushing by Mat, and he began to breathe. Joline frowned uncertainly. Then they took a second step.

With a cry, the Aes Sedai fell to the floor, writhing in agony. She could not form words, only increasingly louder moans. She huddled in on herself, her arms and legs and even her fingers twitching and crooking at odd angles.

Setalle dropped to her knees as soon as Joline hit the floor, her hands going to the collar, but she was no quicker than Blaeric and Fen, though their actions did seem odd. Kneeling, Blaeric raised a wailing Joline and supported her against his chest while he began to massage her neck, of all things. Fen worked his fingers along her arms. The collar came loose, and Setalle fell back on her heels, but Joline continued to jerk and whimper, and her Warders continued to work over her as though trying to rub away cramps. They shot cold stares at Mat as though it were all his fault.

Looking down on all his fine plans lying in ruins, Mat barely saw the men. He did not know what to do next, where to begin. Tylin might be back in two more days, and he was sure he had to be gone before she returned.

Squeezing past Setalle, he patted her on the shoulder. “Tell her we’ll try something else,” he muttered. But what? Obviously it had to be a woman with a sul’dam’s abilities to handle the a’dam.

The innkeeper caught him in the dark at the foot of the stairs leading up to the kitchen while he was gathering his hat and cloak. A stout, plain wool cloak with no embroidery. A man could do without embroidery. He certainly did not miss it. And all that lace! Certainly not!

“Do you have another plan ready?” she asked. He could not make out her face in the dark, but the silver length of the a’dam gleamed even so. She was groping at the bracelet on her wrist.

“I always have another plan,” he lied, undoing the bracelet for her. “At least you can forget about risking your neck. As soon as I take Joline off your hands, you can go join your husband.”

She just grunted. He suspected she knew he had no plan.

He wanted to avoid the common room full of Seanchan, so he went out through the kitchen into the stableyard and out through the gate into the Mol Hara. He was not afraid that any of them would mark him out or wonder why he was there. In his drab clothes, they seemed to take him for someone running an errand for the innkeeper when he came in. But there had been three sul’dam among the Seanchan, two with damane. He was beginning to be afraid he would have to leave Teslyn and Edesina collared, and he just did not want to look at damane right then. Blood and bloody ashes, he had only promised to try!

The weak sun still stood high in the sky, but the sea wind was picking up, full of salt and a cold promise of rain. Except for a squad of Deathwatch Guards marching across the square, humans rather than Ogier, everyone in the Mol Hara was hurrying to be done with whatever they were about before the rain came. As he reached the base of Queen Nariene’s tall bare-breasted statue, a hand fell on his shoulder.

“I did no recognize you at first, without your fancy clothes, Mat Cauthon.”

Mat turned to find himself facing the heavyset Illianer so’jhin he had seen the day Joline reappeared in his life. It was not a pleasant association. The round-faced fellow did look odd, between that beard and half the hair on his head missing, and he was shivering in his shirtsleeves, of all things.

“You know me?” Mat said cautiously.

The heavyset man beamed a wide smile at him. “Fortune prick me, I do. You did take a memorable voyage on my ship, once, with Trollocs and Shadar Logoth at one end and a Myrddraal and Whitebridge in flames at the other. Bayle Domon, Master Cauthon. Do you remember me now?”

“I remember.” He did, after a fashion. Most of that voyage was vague in his head, tattered by the holes those other men’s memories had filled. “We’ll have to sit down over hot spiced wine some time and talk over old times.” Which would never happen if he saw Domon first. What remained in his memory of that voyage was strangely unpleasant, like remembering a deathly illness. Of course, he had been ill, in a way.

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