Winter's Heart Page 96

Settling the cloak around his shoulders — it was some covering, at least — he grabbed his shoulder-high walking staff from where it was leaning beside the door. His hip and leg were going to ache until he could walk the pain away. “In two or three days, then,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster.

Aludra laughed softly. Not softly enough that he could not hear, though. Light, but a woman could do more with a laugh than a dockside bullyboy with a string of curses! And just as deliberately.

Limping out of the wagon, he slammed the door behind him as soon as he was far enough down the wooden steps that were fastened to the wagon bed. The afternoon sky was just like the morning sky had been, gray and blustery, thatched with sullen clouds. A sharp wind gusted fitfully. Altara had no true winter, but what it did have was enough to be going on with. Rather than snow, there were icy rains and thunderstorms racing in off the sea, and in between it was damp enough to make the cold seem harder. The ground had a sodden feel under your boots even when it was dry. Scowling, he hobbled away from the wagon.

Women! Aludra was pretty, though. And she did know how to make fireworks. A bellfounder? Maybe he could make it a short two days. So long as Aludra did not start chasing him. A good many women seemed to be doing that, of late. Had Tylin changed something about him, to make women pursue him the way she herself did? No. That was ridiculous. The wind caught his cloak, flaring it behind him, but he was too absorbed to master it. A pair of slender women — acrobats, he thought — gave him sly smiles as they passed, and he smiled and made his best leg. Tylin had not changed him. He was still the same man he had always been.

Luca’s show was fifty times as large as what Thom had told him about, maybe more, a sprawling hodgepodge of tents and wagons the size of a large village. Despite the weather, a number of performers were practicing where he could see them. A woman in a flowing white blouse and breeches as tight as his swung back and forth on a sagging rope slung between two tall poles, then threw herself off and somehow caught her feet in the rope just before she hurtled to the ground below. Then she twisted to catch the rope with her hands, pulled herself back to her seat and began the same thing again. Not far off, a fellow was running on top of an egg-shaped wheel that must have been a good twenty feet long, mounted on a platform that put him higher above the ground when he dashed across the narrow end than the woman who was going to break her fool neck soon. Mat eyed a bare-chested man who was rolling three shiny balls along his arms and across his shoulders without ever touching them with his hands. That was interesting. He might be able to manage that himself. At least those balls would not leave you bleeding and broken. He had had enough of that to suit him a lifetime.

What really caught his eyes, however, were the horselines. Long horselines, where two dozen men bundled against the cold were shoveling dung into barrows. Hundreds of horses. Supposedly, Luca had given shelter to some Seanchan animal trainer, and his reward had been a warrant, signed by the High Lady Suroth herself, allowing him to keep all of his animals. Mat’s own Pips was secure, saved from the lottery ordered by Suroth because he was in the Tarasin Palace stables, but getting the gelding out of those stables was beyond him. Tylin as good as had a leash around his neck, and she did not intend to let him go any time soon.

Turning away, he considered having Vanin steal some of the show’s horses if the talks with Luca went badly. From what Mat knew of Vanin, it would be an evening stroll for the unlikely man. Fat as he was, Vanin could steal, and ride, any horse ever foaled. Unfortunately, Mat doubted he himself could sit a saddle for more than a mile. Still, it was something to consider. He was growing desperate.

Limping along, idly eyeing tumblers and jugglers and acrobats at their practice, he wondered how matters had come to this pass. Blood and ashes! He was ta’veren! He was supposed to shape the world around him! But here he was, stuck in Ebou Dar, Tylin’s pet and toy — the woman had not even let him heal completely before leaping on him again like a duck on a beetle! — while everyone else was having a fine time of it. With those Kinswomen fawning at her heels, likely Nynaeve was lording it over everyone in sight. Once Egwene realized those stark raving mad Aes Sedai who had named her Amyrlin did not really mean it, Talmanes and the Band of the Red Hand were ready to spirit her away. Light, Elayne might be wearing the Rose Crown by now, if he knew her! Rand and Perrin probably were lolling in front of a fire in some palace, swilling wine and telling jokes.

He grimaced and rubbed at his forehead as a faint rush of colors seemed to swirl inside his head. That happened lately whenever he thought about either man. He did not know why, and he did not want to know. He just wanted it to stop. If only he could get away from Ebou Dar. And take the secret of fireworks with him, of course, but he would take escape over the secret any day.

Thom and Beslan were still where he had left them, drinking with Luca in front of Luca’s elaborately decorated wagon, but he did not join them immediately. For some reason, Luca had taken an instant dislike to Mat Cauthon. Mat returned the favor, but with reason. Luca had a smug, self-satisfied face, and a way of smirking at any woman in sight. And he seemed to think every woman in the world enjoyed looking at him. Light, the man was married!

Sprawled in a gilded chair he must have stolen from a palace, Luca was laughing and making expansive, lordly gestures to Thom and Beslan, seated on benches to either side of him. Golden stars and comets covered Luca’s brilliant red coat and cloak. A Tinker would have blushed! His wagon would have made a Tinker weep! Much larger than Aludra’s work-wagon, the thing appeared to have been lacquered! The phases of the moon repeated themselves in silver all the way around the wagon, and golden stars and comets in every size covered the rest of the red-and-blue surface. In that setting, Beslan looked almost ordinary in a coat and cloak worked in swooping birds. Thom, knuckling wine from his long white mustaches, seemed positively drab in plain bronze-colored wool and a dark cloak.

One person who should have been there was not, but a quick glance around found a cluster of women at a nearby wagon. They were every age from his own up to graying hair, but every one of them was giggling at what they surrounded. Sighing, Mat made his way there.

“Oh, I just cannot decide,” came a boy’s piping voice from the center of the women. “When I look at you, Merici, your eyes are the prettiest I have ever seen. But when I look at you, Neilyn, yours are. Your lips are ripe cherries, Gillin, and yours make me want to kiss them, Adria. And your neck, Jameine, graceful as a

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