Winter's Heart Page 3

Someone exhaled heavily, and Seaine realized she was not the only one who found her world turned upside down. Yukiri gave herself a shake, then fixed her eyes on Talene as though determined to hold the shield on her by willpower if need be. Doesine was licking her lips, and smoothing her dark golden skirts uncertainly. Only Saerin and Pevara appeared at ease.

“So,” Saerin said softly. Perhaps “faintly” was a better word. “So. Black Ajah.” She drew a deep breath, and her tone became brisk. “There’s no more need for that, Yukiri. Talene, you won’t try to escape, or resist in any way. You won’t so much as touch the Source without permission from one of us. Though I suppose someone else will take this forward once we hand you over. Yukiri?” The shield on Talene dissipated, but the glow remained around Yukiri, as if she did not trust the effect of the Rod on a Black sister.

Pevara frowned. “Before we give her to Elaida, Saerin, I want to dig out as much as we can. Names, places, anything. Everything she knows!” Darkfriends had killed Pevara’s entire family, and Seaine was sure she would go into exile ready to hunt down every last Black sister personally.

Still huddled on the Chair, Talene made a sound, half bitter laugh, half weeping. “when you do that, we are all dead. Dead! Elaida is Black Ajah!”

“That’s impossible!” Seaine burst out. “Elaida gave me the order herself.”

“She must be,” Doesine half whispered. “Talene’s sworn the oaths again; she just named her!” Yukiri nodded vehemently.

“Use your heads,” Pevara growled, shaking her own in disgust. “You know as well as I do if you believe a lie, you can say it for truth.”

“And that is truth,” Saerin said firmly. “What proof do you have, Talene? Have you seen Elaida at your . . . meetings?” She gripped her knife hilt so hard that her knuckles paled. Saerin had had to fight harder than most for the shawl, for the right to remain in the Tower at all. To her, the Tower was more than home, more important than her own life. If Talene gave the wrong answer, Elaida might not live to face trial.

“They don’t have meetings,” Talene muttered sullenly. “Except the Supreme Council, I suppose. But she must be. They know every report she receives, even the secret ones, every word spoken to her. They know every decision she makes before it’s announced. Days before; sometimes weeks. How else, unless she tells them?” Sitting up with an effort, she tried to fix them each in turn with an intent stare. It only made her eyes seem to dart anxiously. “We have to run; we have to find a place to hide. I’ll help you — tell you everything I know! — but they’ll kill us unless we run.”

Strange, Seaine thought, how quickly Talene had made her former cronies “they” and tried to identify herself with the rest of them. No. She was avoiding the real problem, and avoidance was witless. Had Elaida really set her to dig out the Black Ajah? She had never once actually mentioned the name. Could she have meant something else? Elaida had always jumped down the throat of anyone who even mentioned the Black. Nearly any sister would do the same, yet . . .

“Elaida’s proven herself a fool,” Saerin said, “and more than once I’ve regretted standing for her, but I’ll not believe she’s Black, not without more than that.” Tight-lipped, Pevara jerked an agreeing nod. As a Red, she would want much more.

“That’s as may be, Saerin,” Yukiri said, “but we cannot hold Talene long before the Greens start asking where she is. Not to mention the . . . the Black. We’d better decide what to do fast, or we’ll still be digging at the bottom of the well when the rains hit.” Talene gave Saerin a feeble smile that was probably meant to be ingratiating. It faded under the Brown Sitter’s frown.

“We don’t dare tell Elaida anything until we can cripple the Black at one blow,” Saerin said finally. “Don’t argue, Pevara; it’s sense.” Pevara threw up her hands and put on a stubborn expression, but she closed her mouth. “If Talene is right,” Saerin went on, “the Black knows about Seaine or soon will, so we must ensure her safety, as much as we can. That won’t be easy, with only five of us. We can’t trust anyone until we are certain of them! At least we have Talene, and who knows what we’ll learn before she’s wrung out?” Talene attempted to look willing to be wrung out, but no one was paying her any mind. Seaine’s throat had gone dry.

“We might not be entirely alone,” Pevara said reluctantly. “Seaine, tell them your little scheme with Zerah and her friends.”

“Scheme?” Saerin said. “Who’s Zerah? Seaine? Seaine!”

Seaine gave a start. “What? Oh. Pevara and I uncovered a small nest of rebels here in the Tower,” she began breathily. “Ten sisters sent to spread dissent.” Saerin was going to make sure she was safe, was she? Without so much as asking. She was a Sitter herself; she had been Aes Sedai for almost a hundred and fifty years. What right had Saerin or anyone to . . .? “Pevara and I have begun putting an end to that. We’ve already made one of them, Zerah Dacan, take the same extra oath Talene did, and told her to bring Bernaile Gelbarn to my rooms this afternoon without rousing her suspicions.” Light, any sister outside this room might be Black. Any sister. “Then we will use those two to bring another, until they have all been made to swear obedience. Of course, we’ll ask the same question we put to Zerah, the same we put to Talene.” The Black Ajah might already have her name, already know she had been set hunting them. How could Saerin keep her safe? “Those who give the wrong answer can be questioned, and those who give the right can repay for a little of their treachery by hunting the Black under our direction.” Light, how?

When she was done, the others discussed the matter at some length, which could only mean that Saerin was unsure what decision she would make. Yukiri insisted on giving Zerah and her confederates over to the law immediately — if it could be done without exposing their own situation with Talene. Pevara argued for using the rebels, though halfheartedly; the dissent they had been spreading centered around vile tales concerning the Red Ajah and false Dragons. Doesine seemed to be suggesting that they kidnap every sister in the Tower and force them all to take the added oath, but the other three paid little attention to her.

Seaine took no part in the discussion. Her reaction to their predicament was the only possible one, she thought. Tottering to the nearest co

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