Winter's Heart Page 71

Chapter 11

Ideas of Importance

Without even taking a look, Rand stepped through the gateway into a large dark room. The strain of holding the weave, of fighting saidin, made him sway; he wanted to gag, to double over and spew up everything in him. Holding himself upright was an effort. A little light crept through cracks between the shutters on a few small windows set high in one wall, just enough to see by with the Power in him. Furniture and large cloth-covered shapes nearly filled the room, interspersed with wide barrels of the sort used to store crockery, chests of all shapes and sizes, boxes and crates and knickknacks. Little more than walkways a pace or two wide remained clear. He had been sure he would not find servants hunting for something, or cleaning up. The highest floor of the Royal Palace had several such storerooms, looking like the attics of huge farmhouses and just about forgotten. Besides, he was ta’veren, after all. A good thing no one had been there when the gateway opened. One edge of it had sliced the corner off an empty chest bound in cracked, rotting leather, and the other had taken a glass-smooth shaving down the length of a long, inlaid table stacked with vases and wooden boxes. Maybe some Queen of Andor had eaten at that table, a century or two gone.

A century or two, Lews Therin laughed thickly in his head. A very long time. For the love of the Light, let go! This is the Pit of Doom! The voice dwindled as the man fled into the recesses of Rand’s mind.

For once, he had his own reasons to listen to Lews Therin’s complaints. Hastily he motioned Min to follow him from the forest clearing on the other side of the gateway, and as soon as she did, he let it close behind her in a quick vertical slash of light by releasing saidin. Blessedly, the nausea went with it. His head still spun a little, but he did not feel as if he were going to vomit or fall over or both. The feel of filth remained, though, the Dark One’s taint oozing into him from the weaves he had tied off around himself. Shifting the strap of his leather scrip from one shoulder to the other, he tried to use the motion to hide wiping sweat from his face with his sleeve. He did not have to worry about Min noticing after all, however.

Her blue, heeled boots stirred the dust on the floor at her first step, and her second made it rise. She pulled a lace-edged handkerchief from her coatsleeve just in time to catch a violent sneeze, followed by a second and third, each worse than the last. He wished she had been willing to stay in a dress. Embroidered white flowers decorated the sleeves and lapels of her blue coat, and paler blue breeches molded her legs snugly. With yellow-embroidered bright blue riding gloves tucked behind her belt, and a cloak edged with yellow scrollwork and held by a golden pin in the shape of a rose, she did look as if she had arrived by more normal means, but she would draw every eye. He was in coarse brown woolens any laborer might wear. Most places in the last few days, he had been blatant with his presence; this time he did not want just to be gone before anyone knew he had been here, he did not want anyone but a special few to ever know he had been.

“Why are you grinning at me and thumbing your ear like a loobie?” she demanded, stuffing the handkerchief back into her sleeve. Suspicion filled her big, dark eyes.

“I was just thinking how beautiful you are,” he said quietly. She was. He could not look at her without thinking so. Or without regretting that he was too weak to send her away to safety.

She drew a deep breath, and sneezed before she could even clap a hand over her mouth, then glared at him as if it were somehow his fault. “I abandoned my horse for you, Rand al’Thor. I curled my hair for you. I gave up my life for you! I will not give up my coat and breeches! Besides, no one here has ever seen me in a dress for more time than it took me to change out of it. You know this won’t work unless I’m recognized. You certainly can’t pretend you wandered in off the street with that face.”

Unthinking, he ran a hand across his jaw, feeling his own face, but that was not what Min saw. Anyone looking at him would see a man inches shorter and years older than Rand al’Thor, with lank black hair, dull brown eyes and a wart on his bulbous nose. Only someone who touched him could pierce the Mask of Mirrors. Even an Asha’man would not see it, with the weaves inverted. Though if there were Asha’man in the Palace, it might mean his plans had gone further awry than he believed. This visit could not, must not, come to killing. In any case, she was right; it was not a face that would have been allowed into the Royal Palace of Andor unescorted.

“As long as we can finish this and be gone quickly,” he said. “Before anyone has time to think that if you’re here, maybe I am, too.”

“Rand,” she said, her voice soft, and he eyed her warily. Resting a hand on his chest, she looked up at him with a serious expression. “Rand, you really need to see Elayne. And Aviendha, I suppose; you know she’s probably here, too. If you — ”

He shook his head, and wished he had not. The dizziness had still not gone completely. “No!” he said curtly. Light! No matter what Min said, he just could not believe that Elayne and Aviendha both loved him. Or that the fact they did, if it was a fact, did not upset her. Women were not that strange! Elayne and Aviendha had reason to hate him, not love him, and Elayne, at least, had made herself clear. Worse, he was in love with both of them, as well as with Min! He had to be as hard as steel, but he thought he might shatter if he had to face all three at once. “We find Nynaeve and Mat, and go, as fast as we can.” She opened her mouth, but he gave her no chance to speak. “Don’t argue with me, Min. This is no time for it!”

Tilting her head to one side, Min put on a small, amused smile. “When do I ever argue with you? Don’t I always do exactly as you tell me?” If that lie were not bad enough, she added, “I was going to say, if you want to hurry, why are we standing in this dusty storeroom all day?” For punctuation, she sneezed again.

She was the least likely to cause comment, even dressed as she was, so she put her head out of the room first. Apparently the storeroom was not entirely forgotten; the heavy door’s hinges barely creaked. A quick look both ways, and she hurried out, gesturing him to follow. Ta’veren or no, he was relieved to find the long corridor empty. The most timid servant might have wondered at seeing them emerge from a storeroom in the upper reaches of the Palace. Still, they would encounter people soon enough. The Royal Palace did not run as heavily to servants as the Sun Palace or the Stone of Tear, but there were still hundreds of them in a place this size. Walking along beside Min, he tried to shamble and gawk at bright tapestries and carved wall panels and polished highchests. None were so fine this high as they would be lower down, but a

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