Winter's Heart Page 76

Alivia shrugged, a slight movement of one shoulder. A few days ago, she had been a bundle of simpers that made Talaan look bold. She did not simper for anybody, now. “There wasn’t anyone free, so I slipped out by myself. Anyway, if you always guard me, you’ll never come to trust me, and I’ll never get to kill sul’dam.” Somehow that sounded even more chilling, delivered in such a casual tone. “You ought to be learning from me. Those Asha’man say they’re weapons, and they aren’t bad, I know for a fact, but I’m better.”

“That’s as may be,” Nynaeve replied sharply, shifting her shawl. “And maybe we know more than you think we do.” She would not mind demonstrating a few of the weaves she had learned from Moghedien for this woman. Including a few they had all agreed were too nasty to do to anyone. Except . . . She was fairly certain the other woman could overpower her easily, whatever she did. Keeping her feet from shifting under that intense stare was not easy. “Until — unless! — we decide differently, you won’t let me see you without two or three Kinswomen again, if you know what’s good for you.”

“If you say so,” Alivia said, not at all abashed. “What message do you want me to take back to Mistress Corly?”

“Tell Mistress Corly I have to decline her kind invitation. And remember what I told you!”

“I’ll tell her,” the Seanchan woman drawled, completely ignoring the admonition. “But I don’t think it was exactly an invitation. An hour after first dark, she said. You might want to remember that.” With a slight, knowing smile, she walked away, not hurrying at all to return where she belonged.

Nynaeve glared at the retreating woman’s back, and not because of her lack of a curtsy. Well, not only that. A pity she had not hung on to a few of her simpers, for sisters, anyway. With a glance at the door that hid the Atha’an Miere, Nynaeve considered following Alivia to make sure she did as she had been told. Instead, she went in the opposite direction. She did not hurry. It would be unpleasant if the Sea Folk came out and decided she had been eavesdropping, but she definitely did not hurry. She merely wanted to walk briskly. That was all.

The Atha’an Miere were hardly the only ones in the Palace she wanted to avoid. Not exactly an invitation, was it? Sumeko Karistovan, Chilares Arman and Famelle Juarde had been in the Knitting Circle with Reanne Corly. Dinner was only an excuse. They would want to talk to her about the Windfinders. More specifically, about the relationship between the Aes Sedai in the Palace and the Sea Folk “wilders.” They would not quite upbraid her for failing to maintain the dignity of the White Tower. They had not gone that far; not yet, though they seemed to be coming closer. But the whole dinner would be full of pointed questions and sharper comments. Nothing she could simply order them to stop. She doubted they would for less than a command. And they were quite capable of coming to find her if she did not go to them. Trying to teach them to show backbone had been a terrible mistake. At least she was not the only one who had to put up with it, though she thought Elayne had managed to avoid the worst. Oh, how she looked forward to seeing them back in novice white or Accepted’s dresses. How she looked forward to seeing the last of the Atha’an Miere!

“Nynaeve!” came a strangely muted cry behind her. In Sea Folk accents. “Nynaeve!”

Forcing her hand away from her braid, Nynaeve spun on her heel, ready to deliver a tongue-lashing. She was not teaching now, they were not on a ship, and they could bloody well leave her alone!

Talaan skidded to a halt in front of her, bare feet sliding on the dark red floor tiles. Panting, the young woman swiveled her head as if afraid someone would sneak up on her. She flinched every time a liveried servant moved just on the edge of her sight, and only breathed again when she saw it was just a servant. “Can I go to the White Tower?” she asked breathlessly, wringing her hands and dancing from foot to foot. “I will never be chosen. A sacrifice, they call it, leaving the sea forever, but I dream of becoming a novice. I will miss my mother terribly, but . . . Please. You must take me to the Tower. You must!”

Nynaeve blinked at the onslaught. Many women dreamed of becoming Aes Sedai, but she had never before heard one say she dreamed of becoming a novice. Besides. . . . The Atha’an Miere refused passage to Aes Sedai on any ship whose Windfinder could channel, but to keep sisters from trying to look deeper, every so often an apprentice was chosen to go to the White Tower. Egwene said there were only three sisters from among the Sea Folk at present, all weak in the Power. For three thousand years that had been enough to convince the Tower that the ability was rare and small with Atha’an Miere women, not worth investigating. Talaan was right; no one as strong as she would ever be allowed to go to the Tower, even now that their subterfuge was coming to an end. In fact, it was part of the bargain with them that Atha’an Miere sisters be allowed to give up being Aes Sedai and return to the ships. The Hall of the Tower would not half howl about that!

“Well, the training is very hard, Talaan,” she said gently, “and you must be at least fifteen. Besides . . .” Something else the young woman had said struck her suddenly. “You will miss your mother?” she said incredulously, not caring how it sounded.

“I am nineteen!” Talaan replied indignantly. Looking at that boyish face and form, Nynaeve was not sure she believed. “And of course I will miss my mother. Do I look unnatural? Oh; I see. You do not understand. We are very affectionate in private, but she must avoid any sign of favor in public. That is a serious crime, with us. It could have mother stripped of her rank, and both of us hung upside down in the rigging to be flogged.”

Nynaeve grimaced at the mention of upside down. “I certainly can see where you would want to avoid that,” she said. “Even so — ”

“Everyone tries to avoid even a hint of favor, but it is worse for me, Nynaeve!” Really, the girl — woman — young woman — would have to learn not to step on what a sister was saying if she did become a novice. Not that she could, of course. Nynaeve tried to regain the initiative, but words poured out of Talaan in a torrent. “My grandmother is Windfinder to the Wavemistress of Clan Rossaine, my great-grandmother is Windfinder to Clan Dacan, and her sister to Clan Takana. My family is honored that five of us have risen so high. And everyone watches for signs that Gelyn abuses its influence. Rightly so, I know — favor cannot be allowed — but my sister was kept an apprentice five years longer than normal, and my cousin six! Just so no one can claim they were favored. When I cast the stars and give our position correctly, I am punished for being slow even when I have the answer as fast as Windfinder Ehvon! When I taste the sea and name the coast we are approaching, I am punished because the taste I name is not quite what Windfinder Ehvon tastes! I shielded you twice, but tonight I will hang by my ankles for not doing so sooner! I am punished for flaws ignored in others, for flaws I never make, because I might! Was your novice training any harder

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