Winter's Heart Page 97

Swallowing an oath, Mat quickened his pace as much as he could and pushed through the women muttering apologies left and right. Olver was in the middle of them, a short, pale boy posturing and grinning at one woman then another. That toothy grin alone was enough that any of them might decide to slap his ears off in a moment.

“Please forgive him,” Mat murmured, taking the boy’s hand. “Come on, Olver; we have to get back to the city. Stop waving your cloak about. He doesn’t know what he’s saying, really. I don’t know where he picks up that sort of thing.”

Luckily, the women laughed and ruffled Olver’s hair as Mat led him away. Some murmured that he was a sweet boy, of all things! One slipped her hand under Mat’s cloak and pinched his bottom. Women!

Once clear, he scowled at the boy tripping along happily at his side. Olver had grown since Mat first met him, but he was still short for his years. And with that wide mouth and ears to match, he would never be handsome. “You could get yourself in deep trouble talking to women that way,” Mat told him. “Women like a man to be quiet, and well-mannered. And reserved. Reserved, and maybe a little shy. Cultivate those qualities, and you’ll do well.”

Olver gave him a gaping, incredulous stare, and Mat sighed. The lad had a fistful of uncles looking after him, and every one except Mat himself was a bad influence.

Thom and Beslan were enough to restore Olver’s grin. Pulling his hand free, he ran ahead to them laughing. Thom was teaching him how to juggle and play the harp and the flute, and Beslan was teaching him how to use a sword. His other “uncles” gave him other lessons, in a remarkably varied set of skills. Mat intended to start teaching him to use a quarterstaff, and the Two Rivers bow, once he had his strength back. What the boy was learning from Chel Vanin, or the Redarms, Mat did not want to know.

Luca rose from his fancy chair at Mat’s approach, his fatuous smile fading to a sour grimace. Eyeing Mat up and down, he swept that ridiculous cloak around himself with a wide flourish and announced in a booming voice, “I am a busy man. I have much to do. It may be that I soon will have the honor of guesting the High Lady Suroth for a private showing.” Without another word he strode away holding the ornate cloak with just one hand, so gusts rippled it behind him like a banner.

Mat gathered his own with both hands. A cloak was for warmth. He had seen Suroth in the Palace, though never closely. As closely as he wanted, though. He could not imagine her giving a moment to Valan Luca’s Grand Traveling Show and Magnificent Display of Marvels and Wonders, as the streamer strung between two tall poles at the entrance to the show announced in red letters a pace high. If she did, likely she would eat the lions. Or frighten them to death.

“Has he agreed yet, Thom?” he asked quietly, frowning after Luca.

“We can travel with him when he leaves Ebou Dar,” the weathered man replied. “For a price.” He snorted, blowing out his mustaches, and irritably raked a hand through his white hair. “We should eat and sleep like kings for what he wants, but knowing him, I doubt we will. He doesn’t think we are criminals, since we’re still walking free, but he knows we’re running from something, or we would travel some other way. Unfortunately, he does not intend to leave until spring at the earliest.”

Mat considered several choice curses. Not until spring. The Light knew what Tylin would have done to him, would have him doing, by spring. Maybe Vanin stealing horses was not such a bad notion. “Gives me more time for dice,” he said, as if it did not matter. “If he wants as much as you say, I need to fatten my purse. One thing you can say for the Seanchan, they don’t seem to mind losing.” He tried to be careful how long he let his luck run, and he had not faced any threats of having his throat slit for cheating, at least since he had been able to leave the Palace on his own feet. At first, he had believed it was his luck spreading, or perhaps being ta’veren finally coming in for something useful.

Beslan regarded him gravely. A dark slender man a little younger than Mat, he had been blithely rakish when Mat first met him, always ready for a round of the taverns, especially if it ended with women or a fight. Since the Seanchan came, he had grown more serious, though. To him, they were very serious business. “My mother won’t be pleased if she learns I am helping her pretty leave Ebou Dar, Mat. She will marry me to someone with a squint and a mustache like a Taraboner foot soldier.”

After all this time, Mat still winced. He could never get used to Tylin’s son thinking what his mother was doing with Mat was all right. Well, Beslan did believe she had become a little too possessive — just a little, mind! — but that was the only reason he was willing to help. Beslan claimed Mat was what his mother needed to take her mind off the agreements she had been forced into by the Seanchan! Sometimes, Mat wished he was back in the Two Rivers, where at least you knew how other people thought. Sometimes he did.

“Can we return to the Palace now?” Olver said, more a demand than a question. “I have a reading lesson with the Lady Riselle. She lets me rest my head on her bosom while she reads to me.”

“A notable achievement, Olver,” Thom said, stroking his mustaches to hide a smile. Leaning closer to the other two men, he pitched his voice to escape the boy’s ears. “The woman makes me play the harp for her before she lets me rest my head on that magnificent pillow.”

“Riselle makes everyone entertain her first,” Beslan chuckled in a knowing way, and Thom stared at him in astonishment.

Mat groaned. It was not his leg, this time, or the fact that every man in Ebou Dar seemed to be choosing the bosom they rested their heads on except for Mat Cauthon. Those bloody dice had just started tumbling in his head again. Something bad was coming his way. Something very bad.

Chapter 16

An Unexpected Encounter

The walk back to the city was better than two miles, across low hills that worked the ache out of Mat’s leg and put it back again before they topped a rise and saw Ebou Dar ahead, behind its extravagantly thick, white-plastered wall that no siege catapult had ever been able to break down. The city within was white, too, though here and there pointed domes bore thin stripes of color. The white-plastered buildings, white spires and towers, white palaces, gleamed even on a gray winter day. Here and there a tower ended in a jagged top or a gap showed where a building had been destroyed, but in truth, the Seanchan conquest had occasioned little damage. They had been too fast, too strong, and in control of the city before more than scatte

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