Winter's Heart Page 168

Mat grinned weakly. He certainly believed her. She really would sell him if he was caught. “Women are a maze through briars in the night,” the old saying went, and even they do not know the way.

Tylin insisted on supervising her own binding. She seemed to take pride in it. She had to be bound with strips cut from her skirts, as if she had come on him by surprise and been overpowered. The knots had to be tight, so she could not escape however she struggled, and she did struggle against them once they were tied, thrashing about hard enough that it seemed she really was trying to get free. Maybe she was; her mouth twisted in a snarl when she failed. Her ankles and wrists had to be tied together in the small of her back, and a leash run from her neck to one leg of the bed, so she could not wriggle her way across the floor and out into the hall. And of course, she could not be able to shout for help, either. When he gently pushed one of her silk kerchiefs into her mouth and tied another to hold it in place, she smiled, but her eyes were fierce. A maze through briars in the night.

“I am going to miss you,” he said quietly as he pushed her beneath the edge of the bed. To his surprise, he realized that he really would. Light! Hurriedly he gathered his cloak and gloves and spear, and snuffed the lamps on his way out. Women could tangle a man in that maze before he knew it.

The hallways remained empty, and silent save for the sound of his own limping bootsteps, but any relief he felt vanished when he reached the anteroom off the stableyard.

The single lit stand-lamp still cast a wavering light on those inevitable flowered tapestries, but Juilin and his woman were not there, and neither were Egeanin and the others. With the time he had taken up with Tylin, they all should have been waiting on him by now. Beyond the columned walk the rain was sheeting down in a solid black curtain that hid everything. Could they have gone on to the stables? That Egeanin seemed to change his plan whenever it suited her.

Grumbling under his breath, he hitched his cloak around him and prepared to make his way to the stables through the downpour. He had had just about all he could take of women tonight.

“So you are intending to leave. I cannot allow that, Toy.”

With an oath, he spun on his heel and found himself facing Tuon, her dark face stern behind her long transparent veil. The narrow circlet holding the veil on her shaven head was a mass of firedrops and pearls, yet another fortune taken together with the wide jeweled belt that cinched her waist and the long necklace around her neck. A fine time it was to be noticing jewels, however rich. What in the Light was she doing awake? Blood and ashes, if she went running off, shouting for guards to stop him . . .!

Desperately he reached for the skinny girl, but she writhed away from his grip and sent the ashandarei flying with a sharp blow that half numbed his wrist. He expected her to flee, but instead she rained blows at him, punching with folded knuckles, chopping her hands like axe blades. He had quick hands, the quickest Thom had ever seen according to the old gleeman, but it was all he could do to ward her off, forget about grabbing her. If he had not been trying so hard to keep her from breaking his nose — or something else, maybe; she hit very hard for such a tiny thing — except for that, he might have found the whole thing laughable. He towered over her, though he was not much above average height, yet she came at him in a concentrated fury, as though she were the taller and stronger and expected to overwhelm him. For some reason, after a few moments her full lips curved in a smile, and if he had not known better, he would have said those big liquid eyes took on a glow of delight. Burn him, thinking about how pretty a woman was at a time like this was as bad as trying to price her gems!

Abruptly, she flowed back from him, using both hands to readjust the circle of gems that secured her veil. There was certainly nothing like delight on her face now. Her expression was all concentration. Placing her feet carefully, never taking her eyes from his face, she began slowly gathering her white pleated skirts in her hands, inching them up above her knees in folds.

He could not understand why she was not already shouting for help, but he knew she was about to kick at him. Well, not if he had anything to say about it! He leaped for her, and everything happened at once. A stab of pain in his hip sent him to one knee. Tuon snatched her skirts almost to her own hips, and her slim, white-stockinged leg flashed out at him in a kick that passed over his head as she was suddenly hoisted into the air.

He thought he must be as surprised to see Noal with his arms wrapped around the girl as she was to have those arms there, but he reacted faster than she. As she opened her mouth to shout at last, Mat scrambled to his feet and began stuffing her veil between her teeth, tipping the jeweled circlet to the floor with a flip of his hand. She did not cooperate the way Tylin had, of course. A firm grip on her jaw was all that kept her from sinking her teeth into his fingers. Angry sounds came from her throat, and her eyes showed a fury they never had at the worst of her attack. She twisted in Noal’s grip and flailed her legs, but the worn old man managed to shift his burden and himself to avoid every kick other heels. Worn or not, he seemed to have no difficulty hanging on to her.

“Do you often have this sort of trouble with women?” he asked mildly around a gap-toothed smile. He was wearing his cloak, and his bundled belongings were tied over it across his back.

“Always,” Mat replied sourly, and grunted when a knee caught his aching hip. Managing to untie his neck-scarf one-handed, he used it to secure the wadded veil in Tuon’s mouth at the cost of a nipped thumb. Light, what was he going to do with her?

“I didn’t know this was what you were planning,” Noal said, not breathing hard in spite of the way the tiny woman thrashed herself about in his grip, “but as you can see, I’m leaving tonight, too. I thought that in a day or two, this might be an unpleasant place for someone you gave a bed to.”

“A wise decision,” Mat muttered. Light, he should have thought of warning Noal.

Lowering himself to his knees, he avoided Tuon’s kicks — most of them, anyway — long enough to catch her legs. A knife plucked from his sleeve started a cut in the hem of her dress, and he tore away a long strip to tie her ankles. It was a good thing he had gotten all that practice with Tylin earlier. He was not accustomed to tying women up. Tearing off a second strip of cloth from the bottom of her skirt, he picked up the circle of gems from the floor, and stood with one grunt for the effort and a deeper one for a last, two-legged kick that set fire to his hip. When he set the circlet back on her head, Tuon stared him straight in the eye. She had stopped thrashing about uselessly, but she was not afraid. Light, in her place, he would

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