Winter's Heart Page 6

She motioned to a chair near her, and Dyelin sat, carefully arranging her skirts. The storm clouds had left the older woman’s face. She studied Elayne, giving no hint as to her questions or conclusions. “I know all that as well as you, Elayne, but Luan and Ellorien will bring their Houses to you, and Abelle will as well, I’m sure.” A careful voice, too, but it gathered heat as she went on. “Other Houses will see reason, then. As long as you don’t frighten them out of reason. Light, Elayne, this is not a Succession. Trakand succeeds Trakand, not another House. Even a Succession has seldom come to open fighting! Make the Guards into an army, and you risk everything.”

Elayne threw her head back, but her laughter held no amusement. It fit right in with the peals of thunder. “I risked everything the day I came home, Dyelin. You say Norwelyn and Traemane will come to me, and Pendar? Fine; then I have five to face six. I don’t think the other Houses will ‘see reason,’ as you put it. If any of them move before it’s clear as good glass the Rose Crown is mine, it will be against me, not for.” With luck, those lords and ladies would shy away from associating with cronies of Gaebril, but she did not like depending on luck. She was not Mat Cauthon. Light, most people were sure Rand had killed her mother, and few believed that “Lord Gaebril” had been one of the Forsaken. Mending the damage Rahvin had done in Andor might take her entire lifetime even if she managed to live as long as the Kinswomen! Some Houses would stand aside from supporting her because of the outrages Gaebril had perpetrated in Morgase’s name, and others because Rand had said he intended to “give” her the throne. She loved the man to her toes, but burn him for giving voice to that! Even if it was what reined in Dyelin. The meanest crofter in Andor would shoulder his scythe to pull a puppet from the Lion Throne!

“I want to avoid Andoran killing Andoran If I can, Dyelin, but Succession or no Succession, Jarid is ready to fight, even with Elenia locked away. Naean is ready to fight.” Best to bring both women to Caemlyn as soon as possible; too much chance of them slipping messages, and orders, out of Aringill. “Arymilla is ready, with Nasin’s men behind her. To them, this is a Succession, and the only way to stop them from fighting is to be so strong they don’t dare. If Birgitte can build the Guards into an army by spring, well and good, because if I don’t have an army before then, I will have need of one. And if that isn’t enough, remember the Seanchan. They won’t be satisfied with Tanchico and Ebou Dar; they want everything. I won’t let them have Andor, Dyelin, any more than I’ll let Arymilla.” Thunder roared overhead.

Twisting a little to look back at Birgitte, Dyelin moistened her lips. Her fingers plucked unconsciously at her skirts. Very little frightened her, but the tales of the Seanchan had. What she murmured, though, as if to herself, was “I had hoped to avoid outright civil war.” And that might mean nothing, or a great deal! Perhaps a little probing might show which.

“Gawyn,” Birgitte said suddenly. Her expression had lightened, and so had the emotions flowing through the bond. Relief stood out strong. “When he comes, he’ll take command. He’ll be your First Prince of the Sword.”

“Mother’s milk in a cup!” Elayne snapped, and lightning flared in the windows for emphasis. Why did the woman have to change the subject now? Dyelin gave a start, and heat flooded back into Elayne’s face. By the older woman’s gaping mouth, she knew exactly how coarse that curse was. Strangely embarrassing, that; it should not have counted for anything that Dyelin had been her mother’s friend. Unthinking, she took a deep swallow of wine — and nearly gagged at the bitterness. Quickly she suppressed images of Lini threatening to wash out her mouth and reminded herself that she was a grown woman with a throne to win. She doubted her mother had ever found herself feeling foolish so often.

“Yes, he will, Birgitte,” she went on, more calmly. “When he comes.” Three couriers were on their way to Tar Valon. Even if none managed to get past Elaida, Gawyn would learn eventually that she had made her claim, and he would come. She needed him desperately. She had no illusions of herself as a general, and Birgitte was so fearful she could not live up to the legends about her that sometimes she seemed afraid to try. Face an army, yes; lead an army, never under the sun!

Birgitte was well aware of the tangle in her own mind. Right that moment her face was frozen, but her emotions were full of self-anger and embarrassment, with the first growing stronger by the moment. With a stab of irritation, Elayne opened her mouth to pursue Dyelin’s mention of civil war before she began reflecting Birgitte’s anger.

Before she could utter a word, though, the tall red doors opened. Her hopes for Nynaeve or Vandene were dashed by the entrance of two Sea Folk women, barefoot despite the weather.

A cloud of musky perfume wafted ahead of them, and by themselves they made up a procession in brightly brocaded silk trousers and blouses, jeweled daggers and necklaces of gold and ivory. And other jewelry. Straight black hair with white at the temples nearly hid the ten small, fat golden rings in Renaile din Calon’s ears, but the arrogance in her dark eyes was as plain as the medallion-laden golden chain that connected one earring to her nose ring. Her face was set, and despite a graceful sway to her walk, she appeared ready to stride through a wall. Nearly a hand shorter than her companion and darker than charcoal, Zaida din Parede wore half again as many golden medallions dangling on her left cheek and carried an air of command rather than arrogance, a sure certainty that she would be obeyed. Gray flecked her cap of tight black curls, yet she was stunning, one of those women who grew more and more beautiful as they aged.

Dyelin flinched at sight of them, and half raised a hand to her nose before she could stop herself. A common enough reaction in people unused to the Atha’an Miere. Elayne grimaced, and not for their nose rings. She even considered another curse, something more . . . pungent. Excepting the Forsaken, she could not have named two people she wanted less to see right then. Reene was supposed to see this did not happen!

“Forgive me,” she said, rising smoothly, “but I am very busy, now. Matters of state, you understand, or I would greet you as your stations deserve.” The Sea Folk were sticklers for ceremony and propriety, at least on their own terms. Very likely they had gotten past the First Maid by simply not telling her they wanted to see Elayne, but they easily might take offense if she greeted them sitting before the crown was hers. And, the Light burn both of them, she could not afford to offend. Birgitte appeared at her side, bowing formally to take her cup; the Warder bond carried wariness. She was always ginger around the Sea Folk; she had let her tongue slip around them, too. “I will see you later in the day,” Elayne finished, adding, “The Light willing.” They also were great ones for ceremonial turns of phrase, and that one showed co

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