Winter's Heart Page 167

Slipping out of the room as quietly as he had entered, he closed the door. And almost choked on his tongue. He was staring at the back of a wide, gray-haired woman in a red-paneled dress. Beyond her stood Egeanin drawn up to her full height, and Teslyn, connected to Renna by the silver length of an a’dam. There was no sign of Domon or Seta or this Edesina he still had not seen to know her. Egeanin looked fierce as a lioness over her kill, but Teslyn was wide-eyed and trembling, terrified half out other wits, and Renna’s mouth had a twist that said she might sick up any moment now.

Not daring to breathe, he took a cautious step toward the gray-haired woman, stretching out his hands. If he overpowered her before she could cry out, they could hide her . . . Where? Seta and Renna would want to kill her. No matter what hold Egeanin had on them, the woman could name them.

Egeanin’s stern blue eyes caught his over the gray-haired sul’dam shoulder for a brief instant before focusing on the other woman’s face again. “No!” she said sharply. “There is no time to waste with changes to my plans, now. The High Lady Suroth said I could use any damane I wish, Der’sul’dam.”

“Of course, my Lady,” the gray-haired woman replied, sounding confused. “I merely pointed out that Tessi is not really trained. I actually came up to look in on her. She is coming along very nicely, now, my Lady, but . . .”

Still not breathing, Mat backed away on tiptoe. He eased down the dark narrow stairs using his hands against the walls to support as much of his weight as possible. He did not remember any creaky steps coming up, but there were chances, and then there were chances. A man took those he had to, and did not press his luck otherwise. That was the way to a long life, something he wished for very much.

At the foot of the steps, he paused to suck in air until his heart stopped pounding. Until it slowed a little, anyway. It might not stop pounding till tomorrow. He was not sure he had drawn breath since seeing the gray-haired woman. Light! If Egeanin thought she had the matter in hand, well and bloody good, but just the same, Light! She must have nooses around the two sul’dam’s necks! Her plan? Well, she had been right about no time to waste. He ran.

He ran until his hip gave a sharp twinge, and he stumbled into a turquoise-inlaid table. He caught a summer tapestry to keep from falling, and the bright-flowered length of silk tore free from the yellow marble cornice for half its length. The tall white porcelain vase sitting on the table toppled, shattering on the blue-and-red floor tiles with a crash that echoed along the hallway. After that, he hobbled. But he hobbled as fast as any man ever had. If anyone came to investigate the noise, they were not going to find Mat Cauthon standing over that mess, or within two corridors of it.

Limping the rest of the way to Tylin’s apartments, he was across the sitting room and into the bedchamber before he realized that the lamps were all lit. The blaze in the bedroom fireplace had been renewed with split billets from the gilded wood-basket. Tylin, her arms doubled behind her to work at her buttons, looked up at his entrance and frowned. Her dark green riding dress was wrinkled. The fire crackled and spat a shower of sparks up the chimney.

“I didn’t expect you back yet,” he said, trying to think. Of everything he had considered going amiss tonight, Tylin returning early had never been in it. His brain seemed frozen.

“Suroth learned that an army had vanished in Murandy,” Tylin replied slowly, straightening. She spoke absently, giving what she said a fraction of the attention she put into studying Mat Cauthon. “What army, or how any army can vanish, I don’t know, but she decided her return was urgent. We left everyone behind, came as fast as one of the beasts could carry just the two of us and the woman who handled it, and commandeered two horses to ride up from the docks alone. She even went to that inn across the square where all their officers are instead of coming here. I don’t think she intends to sleep tonight, or let any of them . . .”

Letting her words trail off, Tylin glided to him across the carpets and fingered his plain green coat. “The trouble with having a pet fox,” she murmured, “is that sooner or later it remembers it is a fox.” Those big dark eyes peered up at him. Suddenly she seized two handfuls of his hair and pulled his head down for a kiss that curled his toes in his boots. “That,” she said breathlessly when she finally let him go, “is to show you how much I will miss you.” Without the slightest change of expression, she slapped him so hard that silver flecks floated in front of his eyes. “And that is for trying to sneak away while I was gone.” Turning her back, she pulled her mane of raven hair over one shoulder. “Undo my buttons for me, my pretty little fox. We arrived so late I decided not to wake my maids, but these fingernails make buttons all but impossible. One last night together, and tomorrow I will send you on your way.”

Mat rubbed his cheek. The woman could have broken a tooth for him! At least she had jarred his thoughts loose. If Suroth was at The Wandering Woman, she was not in the Tarasin Palace to see what she should not. His luck was still good. He only had to worry about the woman in front of him. The only way was forward.

“I’m going tonight,” he said, putting his hands on Tylin’s shoulders. “And when I do, I’m taking a couple of Aes Sedai from the attic. Come with me. I’ll send Thom and Juilin to find Beslan, and — ”

“Go with you?” she said incredulously, moving away and turning to face him. Her proud face was scornful. “Pigeon, I don’t fancy becoming your pretty, and I have no intention of becoming a refugee. Or of leaving Altara to whoever the Seanchan choose to replace me. I am the Queen of Altara, the Light help me, and I will not abandon my country now. You really mean to try freeing the Aes Sedai? I wish you well in it, if you must — I wish the sisters well — but it seems a good way to have your head stuck up on a spike, sweetling. It’s too pretty a head to be cut off and covered with tar.”

He tried to take her by the shoulders again, but she stepped back with a piercing look that made his hands fall. He put every scrap of urgency he could find into his voice. “Tylin, I made sure everybody knew I was leaving, and anxious to be gone before you returned, so the Seanchan would know you didn’t have anything to do with it, but now — ”

“I returned and surprised you,” she broke in fiercely, “and you tied me up and left me under the bed. When I am discovered in the morning, I will be furious with you. Outraged!” She smiled, but her eyes glittered, not that far from outrage now, whatever she said about foxes and sending him on his way. “I will offer a bounty for you, and tell Tuon she can buy you when you’re caught, if she still wants you. I will be the perfect High Blood in my anger. They’ll believe me, duckling. I’ve already told Suroth I inten

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