Winter's Heart Page 38

When Galina saw she had been seen, she came to trudge along between Faile and Alliandre. She still did not move with any grace in the snow, but she seemed more used to walking in it than they. There was nothing of fawning about her, now. Her round face was hard within her hood, her eyes sharp. But she did keep turning her head, darting wary glances to see who else was nearby. She looked like a housecat pretending to be a leopard. “You know who I am?” she demanded, but in a voice that would have been inaudible ten feet off. “What I am?”

“You seem to be Aes Sedai,” Faile said carefully. “On the other hand, you have a very peculiar place here for an Aes Sedai.” Neither Alliandre nor Maighdin gave the slightest start of surprise. Plainly they had already seen the Great Serpent ring that Galina was thumbing nervously.

Color bloomed in Galina’s cheeks, and she tried to make it out as anger. “What I do here is of great importance to the Tower, child,” she said coldly. Her expression said she had reasons they could not begin to comprehend. Her eyes darted, trying to pierce the falling snow. “I must not fail. That is all you need to know.”

“We need to know whether we can trust you,” Alliandre said calmly. “You must have trained in the Tower or you would not know Healing, but women earn the ring without earning the shawl, and I cannot believe you are Aes Sedai.” It seemed Faile had not been the only one puzzling over the woman.

Galina’s plump mouth hardened, and she clenched a fist at Alliandre, to threaten or show her ring, or both. “You think they will treat you differently because you wear a crown? Because you used to wear one?” There was no doubt of her anger, now. She forgot to keep lockout for listeners, and her voice was acid. Spittle flew with the force of her tirade. “You will bring Sevanna wine and wash her back just like the rest. Her servants are all nobles, or rich merchants, or men and women who know how to serve nobles. Every day she has five of them strapped, to encourage the rest, so they all carry tales to her hoping to curry favor. The first time you try to escape, they will switch the soles of your feet until you cannot walk, and tie you twisted up like a blacksmith’s puzzle to carry on a cart until you can. The second time will be worse, and the third worse again. There is a fellow here who used to be a Whitecloak. He tried to escape nine times. A hard man, but the last time they brought him back, he was begging and crying before they even began stripping him for punishment.”

Alliandre did not take the harangue well. She puffed up indignantly, and Maighdin growled, “Was that what happened to you? Whether Aes Sedai or Accepted, you are a disgrace to the Tower!”

“Be silent when your betters speak, wilder!” Galina snapped.

Light, if this went any further, they would be screaming at one another next. “If you mean to help us escape, then say so,” Faile told the silk-clad Aes Sedai. She did not really doubt that about the woman. Just everything else. “If not, what do you want with us?”

Ahead of them a wagon loomed out of the snow, leaning where one of the sleds had come loose. Directed by a Shaido with the arms and shoulders of a blacksmith, gai’shain were rigging a lever to hoist the wagon enough for the sled to be lashed back in place. Faile and the others kept silent as they passed.

“Is this really your liege lady, Alliandre?” Galina demanded once they were out of earshot of the men around the wagon. Her face was still flushed with anger, her tone slicing. “Who is she that you would swear to her?”

“You can ask me,” Faile said coldly. Burn Aes Sedai and their bloody secrecy! Sometimes she thought an Aes Sedai would not tell you the sky was blue unless she saw advantage in it. “I am the Lady Faile t’Aybara, and that’s as much as you need to know. Do you mean to help us?”

Galina stumbled to one knee, peering at Faile so hard that she began to wonder whether she had made a mistake. A moment later, she knew she had.

Regaining her feet, the Aes Sedai smiled unpleasantly. She no longer seemed angry. In fact, she looked as pleased as Therava had, and worse, in much the same way. “t’Aybara,” she mused. “You are Saldaean. There is a young man, Perrin Aybara. Your husband? Yes, I see I’ve hit the target. That would explain Alliandre’s oath, certainly. Sevanna has grandiose plans for a man whose name is linked to your husband. Rand al’Thor. If she knew she had you in her hands . . . Oh, never fear she will learn from me.” Her gaze hardened, and suddenly she seemed a leopard in truth. A starving leopard. “Not if you all do as I tell you. I will even help you get away.”

“What do you want of us?” Faile said, more insistently than she felt. Light, she had been angry at Alliandre for drawing attention to them by naming herself, and now she had done the same. Or worse. And I thought I was concealing myself by hiding my father’s name, she thought bitterly.

“Nothing too trying,” Galina replied. “You marked Therava, of course? Of course, you did. Everyone notices Therava. She keeps something in her tent, a smooth white rod about a foot long. It is in a red chest with brass banding that is never locked. Bring it to me, and I will take you with me when I go.”

“A small thing to do, it seems,” Alliandre said doubtfully. “But if so, why do you not take it yourself?”

“Because I have you to fetch it for me!” Realizing she had shouted, Galina huddled in on herself, and her cowl swung as she searched for eavesdroppers among the snow-veiled throng. No one seemed to be so much as glancing their way, but her voice dropped to a feral hiss. “If you do not, I will leave you here until you are gray and wrinkled. And Sevanna will hear of Perrin Aybara.”

“It may take time,” Faile said desperately. “We won’t be free to just sneak into Therava’s tent whenever we want.” Light, the last thing in the world she wanted was to go anywhere near Therava’s tent. But Galina had said she would help them. Vile she might be, but Aes Sedai could not lie.

“You have all the time you need,” Galina replied. “The rest of your life, Lady Faile t’Aybara, if you are not careful. Do not fail me.” She gave Faile a last hard stare, then turned to labor away into the snow, holding her arms as if trying to hide her jeweled belt behind her wide sleeves.

Faile struggled onward in silence. Neither of her companions had anything to say, either. There did not seem to be anything to say. Alliandre appeared sunk in thought, hands in her sleeves, peering straight ahead as if seeing something beyond the blizzard. Maighdin had gone back to gripping her golden collar in a tight fist. They were caught in three snares, not one, and any of the three might kill. Rescue suddenly seemed very attractive. Somehow, though, Faile intended to find her way out of this trap. Pulling her hand away from her own collar, she fought throug

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