Winter's Heart Page 164

“Oh,” Mat said. Riselle had worked quickly once she made her mind up. Her marriage to Banner-General Yamada had been announced publicly yesterday and was to take place tomorrow, though by custom there was usually a wait of months between. Yamada might be a good general — Mat did not know — but he had never stood a chance against Riselle and that marvelous bosom. Today they were looking at a vineyard in the Rhiannon Hills that the groom was buying for her wedding gift. “I just thought you might want to — I don’t know — take her with us, or something.”

“I’m not a child, Mat,” Olver said dryly. Folding the linen cloth back around his striped turtle shell, he added that to the scrip. “You will play Snakes and Foxes with me, won’t you? Riselle enjoys playing, and you never have time any more.” Despite the clothes Mat was bundling up in a cloak that would go into a pack hamper, the boy had a spare pair of breeches and some clean shirts and stockings in the scrip, too. And the game of Snakes and Foxes his dead father had made for him. You were less likely to lose what you kept on your person, and Olver had already lost more in his ten years than most people did in a lifetime. But he still believed you could win at Snakes and Foxes without breaking the rules, too.

“I will,” Mat promised. He would if he managed to make it out of the city. He was certainly breaking enough rules to deserve to win. “You just take care of Wind till I get there.” Olver ginned widely, and for him, that was very wide indeed. The boy loved that leggy gray gelding almost as much as he did Snakes and Foxes.

Unfortunately, Beslan was another who seemed to think you could win at Snakes and Foxes.

“Tonight,” he growled, stalking up and down in front of the fireplace in Tylin’s sitting room. The slender man’s eyes were cold enough to take away the warmth of the blaze, and his hands were clasped behind his back as if to keep them from the hilt of his narrow-bladed sword. The jeweled cylinder-clock on the wave-carved marble mantel chimed four times for the second hour of the morning. “With a few days’ warning, I could have laid on something magnificent!”

“I don’t want anything magnificent,” Mat told him. He did not want anything from the man, but by chance Beslan had seen Thom slipping into the stableyard of The Wandering Woman a little earlier. Thom had gone to keep Joline amused until Egeanin brought her sul’dam that evening, to settle her nerves and jolly her along with courtly manners, but there could have been any number of reasons for him to visit the inn. Well, maybe not that many, with it full of Seanchan, but several, surely. Only, Beslan had leaped to the reason like a duck leaping on a beetle, and he refused to be left out. “It will be enough if a few of your friends fire some of the stores the Seanchan have stockpiled on the Bay Road. After midnight, mind, as near as they can reckon it; better an hour later than any time before.” With any luck, he would be out of the city before midnight. “That will draw their attention away south, and you know losing stores will hurt them.”

“I said I would do it,” Beslan said sourly, “but you can’t say setting fires is exactly a grand gesture.”

Sitting back, Mat rested his hands on the bamboo-carved arms of the chair and frowned. He wanted to rest his hands, anyway, but his signet ring made a metallic clicking on the gilded wood as he tapped his fingers. “Beslan, you will be seen at an inn when those fires are set, won’t you?” The other man grimaced. “Beslan?”

Beslan flung up his hands. “I know; I know. I mustn’t endanger Mother. I’ll be seen. By midnight, I will be as drunk as an innkeeper’s husband! You can wager I’ll be seen! It just isn’t very heroic, Mat. I’m at war with the Seanchan whether or not Mother is.”

Mat tried not to sigh. He almost succeeded.

There was no way to hide the three Redarms moving horses out of the stables, of course. Twice that morning he noticed serving women handing coins to others, and both times the woman doing the handing over glared when she saw him. Even with Vanin and Harnan apparently still solidly ensconced in the long barracks room near the stables, the Palace knew that Mat Cauthon was leaving soon, and wagers were being paid already. He just had to make sure no one found out how soon before it was too late.

The wind picked up strength as the morning wore on, but he had Pips saddled and rode his endless circles in the Palace stableyard, huddling a little in his saddle and clutching his cloak close. He rode more slowly than usual, so Pips’ steel shoes made a lazy, plodding sound on the paving stones. Now and then he grimaced at the darkening clouds in the sky and shook his head. No, Mat Cauthon did not like being out in this weather. Mat Cauthon would be staying somewhere warm and dry until the skies cleared, yes, he would.

The sul’dam walking damane in their own circle in the stableyard knew he was leaving soon, too. Maybe the serving women did not talk directly to the Seanchan women, but what one woman knew was always known to every woman inside a mile soon enough. Wildfire did not run through dry woods as fast as gossip ran through women. A tall yellow-haired sul’dam glanced in his direction and shook her head. A short stout sul’dam laughed out loud, splitting a face as dark as any of the Sea Folk. He was just Tylin’s Toy.

The sul’dam did not concern him, but Teslyn did. For several days, until this morning, he had not seen her among the damane being exercised. Today the sul’dam let their cloaks fly with the wind, but the damane all held theirs tightly around them, except Teslyn’s gray cloak flapped this way and that, forgotten, and she stumbled a little where the pavement was uneven. Her eyes were wide and worried in that Aes Sedai face. Occasionally she darted a glance at the buxom black-haired sul’dam wearing the other end of her silver leash, and when she did, she licked her lips uncertainly.

A tightness settled in Mat’s belly. Where had the determination gone? If she was ready to knuckle under . . .

“Everything all right?” Vanin said when Mat dismounted and gave him Pips’ reins. Rain had begun to fall, cold fat drops, and the sul’dam were hurrying their charges inside, laughing and running to avoid getting wet. Some of the damane were laughing, too, a sound to chill Mat’s blood. Vanin took no chances anyone might wonder why they were standing in the rain to talk. The fat man bent to lift Pips’ left foreleg and study the hoof. “You look a mite more peaked than usual.”

“Everything is just fine,” Mat told him. The ache in his leg and hip gnawed like a tooth, but he was barely aware of it or of the quickening rain. Light, if Teslyn was cracking now . . . “Just remember. If you hear shouting inside the Palace tonight, or anything that sounds like trouble, you and Harnan don’t wait. You ride out right then and go find Olver. He&r

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