A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time #7)


Vanin did not look up from tying the bandages. “Haven’t seen hide, hair nor toenail. Nalesean was in for a bit, though.” There was no “my lord” nonsense from Vanin. He made no bones about not liking nobles. With the unfortunate exception of Elayne. “Left an iron-strapped chest up in your room, and went out babbling about trinkets.” He made as if to spit through the gap in his teeth, then glanced at one of the serving women and did not. Mistress Anan was death on anybody spitting on her floors, or tossing bones, or even tapping out a pipe. “The boy’s out back in the stable,” he went on before Mat could ask, “with his book and one of the innkeeper’s daughters. Another of the girls spanked his bottom for pinching hers.” Finishing the last knot, he gave Mat an accusatory look, as if it had been his fault in some way.

“Poor little mite,” Corevin muttered, twisting to see whether the bandages would stay in place. He had a leopard and a boar inked on one arm, a lion and a woman on the other. The woman did not seem to be wearing much except her hair. “Sniveling, he was. Though he did brighten when Leral let him hold her hand.” The men all looked after Olver like a gaggle of uncles, though certainly the sort no mother would want near her son.

“He’ll live,” Mat said dryly. The boy was probably picking up these habits from his “uncles.” Next, they would give him a tattoo. At least Olver had not sneaked out to run with the street children; he seemed to enjoy that almost as much as he did making himself a nuisance to grown women. “Harnan, you wait here, and if you see Thom or Juilin, collar them. Vanin, I want you to see what you can learn around the Chelsaine Palace, over near the Three Towers Gate.” Hesitating, he looked over the room. Serving women drifted in and out of the kitchens with food and, more often, drink. Most of the patrons seemed intent on their silver cups, though a pair of women in weaver’s vests argued quietly, ignoring their wine punch and leaning across the table at one another. Some of the merchants appeared to be haggling, waving hands and dipping fingers in their drinks to scribble numbers on the table. The music should mask his words from eavesdroppers, but he lowered his voice anyway.

News that Jaichim Carridin had Darkfriends coming to call screwed Vanin’s round face into a scowl, as if he might spit no matter who saw. Harnan muttered something about filthy Whitecloaks, and Corevin suggested denouncing Carridin to the Civil Guard. That got such disgusted looks from the other two that he buried his face in a cup of ale. He was one of the few men Mat knew who could drink Ebou Dari ale in this heat. Or drink it at all, for that matter.

“Be careful,” Mat warned when Vanin stood. It was not that he was worried, really. Vanin moved with surprising lightness for such a fat man. He was the best horsethief in two countries at the least, and could slip by even a Warder unseen, but. . . . “They’re a nasty lot. Whitecloaks or Darkfriends, either one.” The man only grunted and motioned for Corevin to gather his shirt and coat and come along.

“My Lord?” Harnan said as they left. “My Lord, I heard there was a fog in the Rahad yesterday.”

On the point of turning away, Mat stopped. Harnan looked worried, and nothing much worried him. “What do you mean, a fog?” In this heat, fog thick as porridge would not last a heartbeat.

The file leader shrugged uncomfortably and peered into his mug. “A fog. I heard there was . . . things . . . in it.” He looked up at Mat. “I heard people just disappeared. And some was found eaten, parts of them.” Mat managed not to shiver. “The fog’s gone, isn’t it? You weren’t in it. Worry when you are. That’s all you can do.” Harnan frowned doubtfully, but that was the pure truth. These bubbles of evil—that was what Rand called them, what Moiraine had—burst where and when they chose, and there did not seem to be anything even Rand could do to stop them. Worrying about it did as much good as worrying whether a roof tile would fall on your head in the street tomorrow. Less, since you could decide to stay indoors.

There was something that was worth worrying over, though. Nalesean had left their winnings sitting upstairs. Bloody nobles tossed gold around like water. Leaving Harnan studying his mug, Mat headed for the railless stairs at the back of the room, but before he reached them, one of the serving women accosted him.

Caira was a slender, full-lipped girl with smoky eyes. “A man came in looking for you, my Lord,” she said, twisting her skirts from side to side and looking up at him through long lashes. There was a certain smokiness in her voice, too. “Said he was an Illuminator, but he looked seedy to me. He ordered a meal, and left when Mistress Anan wouldn’t give it. He wanted you to pay.”

“Next time, pigeon, give the meal,” he told her, slipping a silver mark into the plunging neck of her dress. “I’ll speak to Mistress Anan.” He did want to find an Illuminator—a real one, not some fellow selling fireworks full of sawdust—but it hardly mattered now. Not with the gold lying unguarded. And fogs in the Rahad, and Darkfriends, and Aes Sedai, and bloody Tylin taking leave of her senses, and. . . .

Caira giggled and twisted like a stroked cat. “Would you like me to bring some punch to your room, my Lord? Or anything?” She smiled hopefully, invitingly.

“Maybe later,” he said, tapping her nose with a fingertip. She giggled again; she always did. Caira would have her skirt sewn to show petticoats to the middle of her thigh or higher had Mistress Anan allowed it, but the innkeeper looked after her serving women almost as closely as she did her daughters. Almost. “Maybe later.”

Trotting up the wide stone stairs, he put Caira out of his mind. What was he to do about Olver? The boy would find himself in real trouble one day if he thought he could treat women that way. He was going to have to keep him away from Harnan and the others as much as possible, he supposed. They were a bad influence on a boy. To have this on top of everything else! He had to get Nynaeve and Elayne out of Ebou Dar before something worse went wrong.

His room was at the front, with windows overlooking the square, and as he reached for the door, the hallway floor behind him squeaked. In a hundred inns, it would not even have registered, but the floors in The Wandering Woman did not squeak.

He looked back—and spun just in time to drop his hat and catch the descending truncheon with his left hand instead of his skull. The blow stung his hand to numbness, but he held on desperately as thick fingers dug into his throat, forcing him back against the door to his room. His head hit with a thump. Silver-rimmed black spots danced in his vision, obscuring a sweating face. All he could really see was a big nose and yellow teeth, and those seemed hazy. Suddenly he realized he was on the far edge of consciousness; those fingers were closing off blood to his brain along with air. His free hand went beneath his coat, fumbling over the hilts of his knives as though his fingers no longer remembered what they were for. The cudgel wrenched free. He could see it rising, feel it rising to smash his skull. Focusing everything, he jerked a knife fro