Winter's Heart Page 49

Sareitha snorted again, but Elayne did her best to ignore the other’s obstinacy. She wished she could ignore the woman’s presence, but that was impossible. She had more reason for this ride than being seen. Halwin Norry gave her facts and figures by the ream, though the First Clerk’s droning voice almost put her to sleep, yet she wanted to see for herself. Norry could make a riot sound as lifeless as a report on the state of the city’s cisterns or the expense of cleaning the sewers.

The crowds were thick with foreigners, Kandori with forked beards and Illianers with beards that left their upper lips bare and Arafellin with silver bells in their braids, copper-skinned Domani, olive-skinned Altarans and dark Tairens, Cairhienin who stood out for their short stature and pale skins. Some were merchants, caught by the sudden onset of winter or hoping to steal a jump on their competition, smooth-faced puffed-up folk who knew that trade was the life’s blood of nations, and every one of them claiming to be a major artery even when betrayed by a poorly dyed coat or a brooch of brass and glass. Many of the people afoot had worn and ragged coats, breeches out at the knee, dresses with tattered hems, and threadbare cloaks or none at all. Those were refugees, either harried from their homes by war or sent wandering by the belief that the Dragon Reborn had broken every bond that held them. They hunched against the cold, faces haggard and defeated, and let themselves be buffeted by the flow of others around them.

Watching a dull-eyed woman stagger through the crowd clutching a small child on her shoulder, Elayne fumbled a coin from her purse and handed it to one of the Guards, an apple-cheeked woman with cold eyes. Tzigan claimed to be from Ghealdan, the daughter of a minor noble; well, she might be Ghealdanin, at least. When the Guardswoman leaned down to proffer the coin, the woman with her child staggered on by unheeding, unseeing. There were too many in the city like that. The Palace fed thousands every day, at kitchens set up throughout the city, but too many could not even summon the energy to collect their bread and soup. Elayne offered a prayer for mother and child as she dropped the coin back into her purse.

“You cannot feed everyone,” Sareitha offered quietly.

“Children are not allowed to starve in Andor,” Elayne said, as if issuing a decree. But she did not know how to stop it. Food was still plentiful in the city, but no command could force people to eat.

Some of the other foreigners had come to Caemlyn that way, too, men and women who no longer wore rags and haunted faces. Whatever had sent them flying from their homes, they had begun thinking that they had traveled far enough, thinking about the trades they had abandoned, often along with everything they possessed. In Caemlyn, though, anyone with skill in a craft and a little drive could always find a banker with ready coin. There were new trades being followed in the city these days. She had seen three clockmakers shops already this morning! Within her sight were two shops selling blown glass, and nearly thirty manufactories had been built north of the city. From now on, Caemlyn would export glass, not import it, and crystal as well. The city had lacemakers, now, producing as fine as Lugard ever had, and no wonder since nearly all of them had come from there.

That brightened her mood a little — the taxes those new crafts paid would help, though it would take time before they paid much — yet it was still others in the crowds she noticed most. Foreign or Andoran, the mercenaries were easily picked out, hard-faced men wearing swords, swaggering even when slowed to a crawl by the press. Merchants’ guards also went armed, rough fellows shouldering aside most men who got in their way, but they seemed subdued and sober compared to the sell-swords. And on the whole, they displayed fewer scars. Mercenaries dotted the crowd like raisins in a cake. With such a large pool to draw on, and with winter employment for their skills always in short supply, she did not think they would come too dear. Unless, as Dyelin feared, they cost her Andor. Somehow, she had to find enough men that foreigners were not a majority in the Guards. And the money to pay them.

Abruptly, she became aware of Birgitte. The other woman was angry — she often was, of late — and coming closer. Very angry, and coming very quickly. An ominous combination that set alarm gongs ringing in Elayne’s head.

Immediately she ordered a return to the Palace by the most direct route — that would be how Birgitte was coming; the bond would lead her straight to Elayne — and they took the next turn south, onto Needle Street. It was actually a rather wide street, though it meandered like a river, down one hill and up the next, but generations ago it had been full of needlemakers. Now a few small inns and taverns were jammed among cutlers and tailors and every short of shop except needlemakers.

Before they had even reached the Inner City, Birgitte found them climbing Pearman’s Lane, where a handful of fruit-sellers still clung to shops handed down since the days of Ishara, though there was precious little to be seen in their windows this time of year. Despite the crowd Birgitte cantered into sight, red cloak flaring behind, scattering people before her left and right, and only slowed her rangy gray when she saw them ahead.

As if to make up for her hurry, she took a moment to study the Guardswomen and return Caseille’s salute before turning her mount to walk beside Elayne’s. Unlike them, she wore neither sword nor armor. The memories of her past lives were fading — she said she could remember nothing at all clearly before the founding of the White Tower, now, though fragments still floated up — but one thing she claimed to recall absolutely. Every time she had tried to use a sword, she had nearly gotten herself killed, and had even done so more than once. Her strung bow was in a leather saddle-case, though, with a bristling quiver of arrows on the other side. Anger boiled in her, and she wore a frown that only deepened as she spoke.

“A half-frozen pigeon flew into the Palace cote a little while ago with word from Aringill. The men escorting Naean and Elenia were ambushed and killed not five miles out of the town. Luckily, one of their horses came back with blood on the saddle, or we’d have known nothing for weeks yet. I doubt our luck extends to that pair being held for ransom by brigands.”

Fireheart pranced a few steps, and Elayne reined him in sharply. Someone in the crowd shouted what might have been a cry for Trakand. Or not. Shopkeepers trying to attract custom raised enough din to muffle the words. “So we have a spy in the Palace,” she said, then compressed her lips, wishing she had held her tongue in front of Sareitha.

Birgitte did not seem to care. “Unless there’s a ta’veren trotting around we don’t know about,” she replied dryly. “Maybe now you’ll let me assign a bodyguard. Just a few Guards, well

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