Winter's Heart Page 82

Still not looking at her or Min or Aviendha, he walked over unsteadily and filled a silver winecup that he half-drained in one long swallow. That sweet spicy wine had been left when her breakfast was taken away. It must be cold as ice by now. She had not been expected to return to her rooms so soon, and the fire on the hearth had been banked down beneath ashes. But he made no move she could see to warm the wine by channeling. She would have seen steam, at least. And why had he walked to the wine, instead of channeling to bring it to him? That was the sort of thing he always did, floating winecups and lamps about on flows of Air.

“Are you well, Rand?” Elayne asked. “I mean, are you sick?” Her stomach tightened at the thought of what sickness it might be, with him. “Nynaeve can — ”

“I am as fine as I can be,” he said flatly. Still with his back to them. Emptying the cup, he began to fill it again. “Now what is it you don’t want Nynaeve to hear?”

Elayne’s eyebrows shot up, and she exchanged looks with Aviendha and Min. If he had seen through her subterfuge, Nynaeve certainly had. Why had she let them go? And how had he seen through it? Aviendha shook her head slightly in wonder. Min shook hers, too, but with a grin that said you just had to expect this sort of thing now and then. Elayne felt the smallest stab of — not quite jealousy; jealousy was out of the question, for them — just irritation that Min had had so much time with him and she had not. Well, if he wanted to play surprises . . .

“We want to bond you our Warder,” she said, smoothing her dress under her as she took a chair. Min sat on the edge of the table, legs dangling, and Aviendha settled onto the carpet cross-legged, carefully spreading out her heavy woolen skirts. “All three of us. It is customary to ask, first.”

He spun around, wine sloshing out of his cup, more pouring from the pitcher before he could bring it upright. With a muttered oath, he hastily stepped out of the spreading wetness on the carpet and put the pitcher back on the tray. A large damp spot decorated the front of his rough coat, and droplets of dark wine that he tried to brush away with his free hand. Very satisfactory.

“You really are mad,” he growled. “You know what’s ahead of me. You know what it means for anyone I’m bonded to. Even if I don’t go insane, she has to live through me dying! And what do you mean, all three of you? Min can’t channel. Anyway, Alanna Mosvani got there ahead of you, and she didn’t bother asking. She and Verin were taking some Two Rivers girls to the White Tower. I’ve been bonded to her for months, now.”

“And you kept it from me, you woolheaded sheepherder?” Min demanded. “If I’d known —!” She deftly produced a slim knife from her sleeve, then glared at it and glumly put it back. That cure would have been as hard on Rand as on Alanna.

“This was against custom,” Aviendha said, half questioning. She shifted on the carpet and fingered her belt knife.

“Very much so,” Elayne replied grimly. That a sister would do that to any man was disgusting. That Alanna had done it to Rand . . .! She remembered the dark, fiery Green with her quicksilver humor and her quicksilver temper. “Alanna has more toh to him than she could repay in a lifetime! And to us. Even if she doesn’t, she will wish I had just killed her after I lay hands on her!”

“After we lay hands on her,” Aviendha said, nodding for emphasis.

“So.” Rand peered into his wine. “You can see there’s no point in this. I . . . I think I’d better go back to Nynaeve, now. Are you coming, Min?” Despite what they had told him, he sounded as though he did not really believe, as if Min might abandon him now. He did not sound afraid of it, only resigned.

“There is a point,” Elayne said insistently. She leaned toward him, trying by the force of her will to make him accept what she was saying. “One bond doesn’t ward you against another. Sisters don’t bond the same man because of custom, Rand, because they don’t want to share him, not because it can’t be done. And it isn’t against Tower law, either.” Of course, some customs were strong as law, at least in the eyes of the sisters. Nynaeve seemed to go on more every day about upholding Aes Sedai customs and dignity. When she learned of this, she would probably explode right through the roof. “Well, we do want to share you! We will share you, if you agree.”

How easy it was to say that! She had been sure she could not, once. Until she came to realize that she loved Aviendha as much as she did him, just in a different way. And Min, too; another sister, even if they had not adopted one another. She would stripe Alanna from top to bottom for touching him, given the chance, but Aviendha and Min were different. They were part of her. In a way, they were her, and she them.

She softened her tone. “I am asking, Rand. We are asking. Please let us bond you.”

“Min,” he murmured, almost accusingly. His eyes on Min’s face were rilled with despair. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew if I laid eyes on them . . .” He shook his head, unable or unwilling to go on.

“I didn’t know about the bonding until they told me less than an hour ago,” she said, meeting his gaze with the most gentle look Elayne had ever seen. “But I knew, I hoped, what would happen if you saw them again. Some things have to be, Rand. They have to be.”

Rand stared into the winecup, moments seeming to stretch like hours, and at last set it back on the tray. “All right,” he said quietly. “I can’t say I do not want this, because I do. The Light burn me for it! But think of the cost. Think of the price you’ll pay.”

Elayne did not need to think of the price. She had known it from the beginning, had discussed it with Aviendha to make sure she understand, too. She had explained it to Min. Take what you want, and pay for it, the old saying went. None of them had to think about the price; they knew, and they were willing to pay. There was no time to waste, though. Even now, she did not put it past him to decide that price was too high. As if that were his decision to make!

Opening herself to saidar, she linked with Aviendha, sharing a smile with her. The increased awareness of one another, the more intimate sharing of emotions and physical feelings, was always a pleasure with her sister. It was very much like what they would soon share with Rand. She had worked this out carefully, studied it from every angle. What she had been able to learn of the Aiel adoption weaves had been a great help. That ceremony had been when t

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