Winter's Heart Page 50

“No!” The Palace was her home. She would not be guarded there. Glancing at the Brown, she sighed. Sareitha was listening very attentively. There was no point in trying to hide things now. Not this. “You let the First Maid know?”

Birgitte gave her a sidelong look that, combined with a burst of mild outrage through their shared bond, told her to go teach her grandmother to knit. “She intends to question every servant who didn’t serve your mother at least five years. I’m not sure she doesn’t mean to put them to the question. The look on her face when I told her, I was glad to get out of her study with a whole skin. I’m looking at others, myself.” She meant the Guards, but she would not say so in hearing of Caseille and the others. Elayne did not think it likely. All the recruiting gave anyone a perfect opportunity to slip in eyes-and-ears, yet without any assurance they would ever be where they could learn anything useful.

“If there are spies in the Palace,” Sareitha said quietly, “there may be worse. Perhaps you should accept the Lady Birgitte’s suggestion of a bodyguard. There is precedent.” Birgitte showed the Brown sister her teeth; as a smile, it was a miserable failure. However much she disliked being addressed by her title, however, she turned hopeful eyes on Elayne.

“I said no, and I mean no!” Elayne snapped. A beggar, approaching the slow-moving circle of horses with a wide, gap-toothed grin and his cap in his hand, flinched and scurried away into the throng before she could even think of reaching for her purse. She was not sure how much of her anger was her own and how much Birgitte’s, but it was appropriate.

“I should have gone to get them myself,” she growled bitterly. Instead, she had woven a gateway for the messenger and spent the rest of the day meeting with merchants and bankers. “At the least, I should have stripped the garrison at Aringill for escort. Ten men dead because I blundered! Worse — the Light help me, it is worse! — I’ve lost Elenia and Naean because of it!”

Birgitte’s thick golden braid, hanging outside her cloak, swung as she shook her head emphatically. “In the first place, queens don’t go running off to do everything themselves. They’re bloody queens!” Her anger was dying down, a little, but irritation flared on top of it, and her tone reflected both. She really wanted Elayne to have a bodyguard, very likely even in her bath. “Your adventuring days are done. The next thing, you’d be sneaking out of the Palace in disguise, maybe even wandering around after nightfall, when you might get your skull cracked open by some tough you never even saw.”

Elayne sat up straight in her saddle. Birgitte knew, of course — she did not know any way to get around the bond, though she was sure there must be one — but the woman had no right to bring it up now. If Birgitte offered enough hints, she would have other sisters trying to follow her with their Warders and likely squads of Guardsmen as well. Everyone was so ridiculous about keeping her safe. You would think she had never been in Ebou Dar, much less Tanchico, or Falme. Besides, she had only done it once. So far. And Aviendha went with her.

“Cold dark streets don’t compare to a warm fire and an interesting book,” Sareitha put in idly, as if talking to herself. Studying the shops they were passing, she seemed intent on them. “I very much dislike walking on icy pavement, myself, especially in the dark, without so much as a candle. Young, pretty women often think plain clothes and a dirty face make them invisible.” The shift was so sudden, with no change in tone, that at first Elayne did not realize what she was hearing. “Being knocked down and dragged into an alley by drunken rowdies is a hard way to learn differently. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a friend with you who also can channel, if she’s lucky enough that the tough fails to hit her as hard as he should . . . Well, you cannot be lucky every time. Wouldn’t you agree, Lady Birgitte?”

Elayne closed her eyes for a moment. Aviendha had said some one was following them, but she had been sure it was only a footpad. Anyway, it had not been like that. Not exactly. Birgitte’s glare promised a talking to, later. She refused to understand that a Warder just did not dress down her Aes Sedai.

“In the second place,” Birgitte went on grimly, “ten men or nearly three hundred, the bloody outcome would have been the bloody same. Burn me, it was a good plan. A few men could have brought Naean and Elenia to Caemlyn unnoticed. Emptying out the garrison would have pulled every flaming eye in the east of Andor, and whoever took them would have brought enough armsmen to be sure. Very likely, they’d hold Aringill now on top of it. Small as the garrison is, Aringill keeps anybody who wants to move against you in the east off balance, and the more Guards who come out of Cairhien, the better that gets, since they’re nearly all loyal to you.” For someone who claimed to be a simple archer, she had a good grasp of the situation. The only thing she had left out was the loss of the customs duties from the river trade.

“Who did take them, Lady Birgitte?” Sareitha asked, leaning to look past Elayne. “Surely that is a very important question.” Birgitte sighed loudly, almost a whimper.

“We will know soon enough, I fear,” Elayne said. The Brown quirked a doubting eyebrow at her, and she tried not grind her teeth. She seemed to be doing that quite a lot since coming home.

A Taraboner woman in a green silk cloak stepped out of the way of the horses and made a deep curtsy, her thin, beaded braids swinging out of her cowl. Her maid, a diminutive woman with her arms full of small packages, imitated her mistress awkwardly. The two wide men close behind, guards carrying brass-ferruled quarterstaffs, remained upright and alert. Their long heavy leather coats would turn all but the most determined thrust of a knife.

Elayne inclined her head as they rode by to acknowledge the Taraboner’s courtesy. She had not received as much from any Andoran in the streets, so far. The handsome face behind the woman’s sheer veil showed too much age to be Aes Sedai. Light, she had too much on her plate to be worrying about Elaida now!

“It is very simple, Sareitha,” she said in a carefully controlled voice. “If Jarid Sarand took them, Elenia will give Naean a choice. Declare Arawn for Elenia, with some sweetening of estates for Naean in return, or else have her throat slit in a quiet cell somewhere and her corpse buried behind a barn. Naean won’t give in easily, but her House is arguing over who is in charge until she returns, so they’ll dither, Elenia will threaten torture and maybe use it, and eventually Arawn will stand behind Sarand for Elenia. Soon to be joined by Anshar and Baryn; they will go where they see strength. If Naean’s people have them, she will offer the same choices to Elenia, but Jarid will go on a rampage against Arawn unless Elenia tells him not to, and she won’t if she thinks he has any hope of rescuing her. So we must hope to hear in the next few weeks that Arawn estates are being burned.” If not, she thought, I have four houses united to face, and I still don’t know wheth

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