Winter's Heart Page 7

Renaile did not stop until she stood right in front of Elayne, and much too close. One tattooed hand gestured curt permission for her to sit. Permission. “You have been avoiding me.” Her voice was deep for a woman, and as chill as the snow falling on the roof. “Remember that I am Windfinder to Nesta din Reas Two Moons, Mistress of the Ships to the Atha’an Miere. You still must fulfill the rest of the bargain you made for your White Tower.” The Sea Folk knew of the division in the Tower — by this time, everyone and her sister knew — but Elayne had not seen fit to add to her difficulties by making public which side she was on. Not yet. Renaile finished on an imperious, commanding note. “You will deal with me, and now!” So much for ceremony and propriety.

“She has been avoiding me, I think, not you, Windfinder.” In contrast to Renaile, Zaida sounded as though she were merely making conversation. Rather than rushing across the carpets, she moved idly about the room, pausing to touch a tall vase of thin green porcelain, then rising on her toes to peer through a four-barreled kaleidoscope atop a tall stand. When she glanced toward Elayne and Renaile, an amused glint twinkled in her black eyes. “After all, the bargain was with Nesta din Reas, speaking for the ships.” In addition to Wavemistress of Clan Catelar, Zaida was an ambassador from the Mistress of the Ships. To Rand, not Andor, but her warrant gave the authority to speak and bind for Nesta herself. Changing one gold-chased barrel for another, she went on tiptoe to look through the eyepiece again. “You promised the Atha’an Miere twenty teachers, Elayne. So far you have delivered one.”

Their entrance had been so sudden, so dramatic, that Elayne was surprised to see Merilille turn from closing the doors. Shorter still than Zaida, the Gray sister was elegant in dark blue wool trimmed with silvery fur and sewn with small moonstones across the bodice, yet barely more than two weeks teaching the Windfinders had brought changes. Most were powerful women with a thirst for knowledge, more than ready to squeeze Merilille like a grape in the winepress, demanding the last drop of juice. Once, Elayne had thought her self-possessed beyond the ability to surprise, but now Merilille was constantly wide-eyed, her lips always a little parted, as though she had just been startled half out of her wits and expected to be startled again any moment. Folding her hands at her waist, she waited by the doorway, and appeared relieved to be out of the center of attention.

Harrumphing loudly, Dyelin got to her feet and scowled at Zaida and Renaile both. “Have a care how you speak,” she growled. “You are in Andor, now, not on one of our ships, and Elayne Trakand will be Queen of Andor! Your bargain will be met in good time. For now, we have more important matters to contend with.”

“Under the Light, there are none more important,” Renaile rumbled in turn, rounding on her. “You say the bargain will be met? So you stand surety. Know there will be room to dangle you by your ankles in the rigging as well if — ”

Zaida snapped her fingers. That was all, but a tremor passed through Renaile. Snatching the golden scent-box dangling from one of her necklaces, she pressed it to her nose and breathed deeply. Windfinder to the Mistress of the Ships she might be, a woman of great authority and power among the Atha’an Miere, but to Zaida, she was . . . a Windfinder. Which grated her pride excessively. Elayne was sure there must be a way to use that to keep them out of her hair, but she had not found it, yet. Oh, yes; for good or ill, Daes Dae’mar was in her bones, now.

She glided around a silently furious Renaile as if around a column, a part of the room, though not toward Zaida. If anyone had a right be be casual here, she did. She could not afford to give Zaida a hair of advantage, or the Wavemistress would shave her scalp for wigmakers. At the fireplace, she spread her hands in front of the flames again.

“Nesta din Reas trusted we would fulfill the bargain, or she never would have agreed to it,” she said calmly. “You have regained the Bowl of the Winds, but assembling nineteen more sisters to join you requires time. I know you worry about the ships that were at Ebou Dar when the Seanchan came. Have Renaile make a gateway to Tear. There are hundreds of Atha’an Miere vessels there.” Every report said so. “You can learn what they know, and rejoin your people. They will have need of you, against the Seanchan.” And she would be rid of them. “The other sisters will be sent to you as soon as can be arranged.” Merilille did not move from the doorway, but her face took on a green tinge of panic at the possibility of being alone among the Sea Folk.

Zaida gave over looking through the kaleidoscope and eyed Elayne sideways. A smile quirked her very full lips. “I must remain here, at least until I speak to Rand al’Thor. If he ever comes.” That smile tightened for an instant before blooming once more; Rand would have a hard time with her. “And I will keep Renaile and her companions, for the time. A handful of Windfinders more or less will make no great difference against these Seanchan, and here, the Light willing, they may learn what will be useful.” Renaile snorted, just loudly enough to be heard. Zaida frowned briefly and began fiddling with the eyepiece that stood level with the top of her head. “There are five Aes Sedai here in your palace, counting yourself,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Perhaps some of you might teach.” As though the idea had just occurred to her. And if that were so, Elayne could lift both Sea folk women with one hand!

“Oh, yes, that would be wonderful,” Merilille burst out, taking a step forward. Then she glanced at Renaile and subsided, a blush suffusing her Cairhienin paleness. Folding her hands at her waist once more, she snatched meekness around herself like a second skin. Birgitte shook her head in amazement. Dyelin stared as if she had never seen the Aes Sedai before.

“Something may be worked out, if the Light pleases,” Elayne said cautiously. Not rubbing at her temples took effort. She wished she could blame the ache inside her skull on the incessant thunder. Nynaeve would erupt at the suggestion, and Vandene likely would ignore any such order, but Careane and Sareitha might be possible. “For no more than a few hours a day, you understand. When they have time.” She avoided looking at Merilille. Even Careane and Sareitha might rebel at being tossed into that winepress.

Zaida touched the fingers of her right hand to her lips. “It is agreed, under the light.”

Elayne blinked. That was ominous; in the Wavemistress’s eyes, apparently, they had just made another bargain. Her limited experience of dealing with the Atha’an Miere was that you were lucky to walk away with your shift. Well, this time things were going to be different. For instance, what were the sisters to gain in it? There had to be two sides to a bargain. Zaida smiled, as if she knew what Elayne was thinking and was amused. One of the doors opening again was almost a relief, giving her an excuse to turn awa

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