Winter's Heart Page 53

“I will continue to look, my Lady,” Reene replied, inclining her head slightly. Her tone was perfectly respectful; she did not so much as raise an eyebrow, but once again Elayne found herself thinking of teaching her grandmother to knit. If only Birgitte could handle matters the way Mistress Harfor did.

“As well you returned early,” the plump woman went on. “You have a busy afternoon, I fear. To begin, Master Norry wishes to speak with you. On an urgent matter, he says.” Her mouth hardened for an instant. She always required to know why people wanted to approach Elayne, so she could winnow out the chaff rather than let Elayne be buried under it, but the First Clerk never saw fit to give her even a hint of his business. Any more than she told him hers. Both were jealous of their fiefs. With a shake of her head, she dismissed Halwin Norry. “After him, a delegation of tabac merchants has petitioned to see you, and another of weavers, both asking remission of taxes because times are hard. My Lady does not need my advice to tell them times are hard for everyone. A group of foreign merchants is waiting as well; rather a large group. Merely to wish you well in a way that doesn’t encumber them, of course — they wish to be on your good side without antagonizing anyone else — but I suggest meeting them briefly.” She laid plump fingers on the folder under her arm. “Also, the Palace accounts require your signature before they can go to Master Norry. They’ll make him sigh, I fear. I hardly expected it in winter, but much of the flour is full of weevils and moths, and half the cured hams have turned, as well as most of the smoked fish.” Quite respectful. And quite firm.

I rule Andor, Elayne’s mother had told her once, in private, but at times I think Reene Harfor rules me. Her mother had been laughing, but she sounded as if she meant it, too. Come to think on it, Mistress Harfor as a Warder would be ten times worse than Birgitte.

Elayne did not want to meet with Halwin Norry or with merchants. She wanted to sit quietly and think about spies, and who had Naean and Elenia, and how she could counter them. Except . . . Master Norry had kept Caemlyn alive since her mother died. In truth, by what she could see in the old accounts, he had done so almost from the day she had fallen into Rahvin’s clutches, though Norry was vague about that. He seemed offended by the events of those days, in a rather dusty way. She could not simply shuffle him off. Besides, he never expressed urgency over anything. And the goodwill of merchants was not to be sneered at, even foreign merchants. And the accounts did need to be signed. Weevils and moths? And hams spoiling? In winter? That was decidedly odd.

They had reached the tall, lion-carved doors of her apartments. Smaller lions than on the doors to those her mother had used, and smaller apartments, but she never considered using the Queen’s chambers. That would have been as presumptuous as sitting on the Lion Throne before her right to the Rose Crown was acknowledged.

With a sigh, she reached for the folder.

Down the hallway she caught sight of Solain Morgeillin and Keraille Surtovni, hurrying along as quickly as they could without appearing to run. Flashes of silver showed at the neck of the sullen woman squeezed between them, though the Kinswomen had draped a long green scarf around her to hide the a’dam’s leash. That would cause talk, and it would be seen sooner or later. Better if she and the others did not have to be moved, but there was no way to avoid it. Between Kinswomen and Sea Folk Windfinders, rooms in the servants’ quarters had been needed to hold the overflow even with two and three to a bed, and the Palace had basements for storage, not dungeons. How did Rand always manage to do the wrong thing? Being male just was not excuse enough. Solain and Keraille vanished around a corner with their prisoner.

“Mistress Corly asked to see you this morning, my Lady.” Reene’s voice was carefully neutral. She had been watching the Kinswomen, too, and a trace of frown remained on her broad face. The Sea Folk were odd, yet she could fit a clan Wavemistress and her entourage into her view of the world even if she did not know precisely what a clan Wavemistress was. A high-ranking foreigner was a high-ranking foreigner, and foreigners were expected to be odd. But she could not understand why Elayne had given shelter to nearly a hundred and fifty merchants and crafts-women. Neither “the Kin” nor “the Knitting Circle” would have meant anything to her had she heard them, and she did not understand the peculiar tensions between those women and the Aes Sedai. Nor did she understand the women the Asha’man had brought, prisoners in truth if not confined in cells, kept secluded and never allowed to speak to anyone but the women who escorted them through the halls. The First Maid knew when not to ask questions, yet she disliked not understanding what was going on in the Palace. Her voice did not change by a hair. “She said she had good news for you. Of a sort, she said. She did not petition for an audience, though.”

Good news of any sort was better than going over the accounts, and she had hopes of what this news might be. Relinquishing the folder in the First Maid’s hands, she said, “Leave that on my writing table, please. And tell Master Norry that I will see him shortly.”

Setting out in the direction the Kin had come from with their prisoner, she walked quickly in spite of her skirts. Good news or no good news, Norry and the merchants did have to be seen, and the merchants, not to mention the accounts gone over and signed. Ruling meant endless weeks of drudgery and rare hours of doing what you wanted. Very rare hours. Birgitte lay in the back of her head, a tight ball of the purest irritation and frustration. No doubt, she was digging through that table piled with papers. Well, her own relaxation this day would be whatever time was required to change out of riding clothes and snatch a hasty meal. So she walked very quickly, lost in thought and hardly seeing what was in front other. What did Norry find urgent? Surely not street repairs. How many spies? Small chance Mistress Harfor would catch them all.

As she rounded a corner, only the sudden awareness of other women who could channel kept her from running headlong into Vandene coming the other way. They recoiled from one another in startlement. Apparently the Green had been deep in thought, too. Her two companions raised Elayne’s eyebrows.

Kirstian and Zarya wore plain white and stayed a careful pace behind Vandene, hands folded meekly at their waists. Their hair was bound back simply, and they wore no jewelry. Jewelry was strongly discouraged among novices. They had been Kinswomen — Kirstian had actually been in the Knitting Circle it self — but they were runaways from the Tower, and there were prescribed ways of dealing with those, set in Tower law, no matter how long they had been gone. Returned runaways were required to be absolutely perfect in everything they did, the very model of an initiate striving for the shawl, and small slips that might be overlooked in others were punished swiftly and strongly. They faced a much stronger punishment when they reached the Tower, in addition, a public birching, and even then they would be held to their straight and painful path for at least a year. A returned runaway was made to know in her heart that she never, ever wanted to run away again. Not ever! Half-trained women were just too d

Prev Next