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


His attacker let out a high-pitched scream, and Mat was vaguely aware of the club bouncing off his shoulder as it fell to the floor, but the man did not let go of his throat. Stumbling, Mat drove him back, tearing at the clutching fingers with one hand, driving his knife repeatedly with the other.

Abruptly the fellow fell, sliding from Mat’s blade. The knife nearly followed him to the floor. So did Mat. Gulping breath, sweet air, he clung to something, a doorway, to hold himself on his feet. From the floor a plain-faced man stared up at him with eyes that would never see anything again, a heavyset fellow with curled Murandian mustaches, in a dark blue coat fit for a small merchant or a prosperous shopkeeper. Not the look of a thief about him at all.

Abruptly he realized they had stumbled through an open door in their fight. It was a smaller room than Mat’s, windowless, a pair of oil lamps on small tables beside the narrow bed providing a murky illumination. A lanky, pale-haired man straightened from a large open chest, staring oddly at the corpse. The chest took up most of the free space in the room.

Mat opened his mouth to apologize for intruding so roughly, and the lanky man snatched a long dagger from his belt, a cudgel from the bed, and leaped over the chest at him. That had not been the look you gave a dead stranger. Clinging unsteadily to the doorframe, Mat threw under-handed, the hilt no sooner leaving his hand than he was scrabbling under his coat for another. His knife stuck squarely in the other man’s throat, and Mat almost fell again, this time from relief, as the man clutched himself, blood spurting between his fingers, and toppled backward into the open chest.

“It’s good to be lucky,” Mat croaked.

Staggering, he retrieved his knife, wiping it clean on the fellow’s gray coat. A better coat than the other; still wool, but of a better cut. A lesser lord would not have been ashamed to wear it. Andoran, by the collar. He sank onto the bed, frowning at the man sprawled in the chest. A noise made him look up.

His manservant was in the doorway, trying unsuccessfully to hide a large black iron frying pan behind his back. Nerim kept a full set of pots, and everything else he thought a lord’s servant might need traveling, in the small room he shared with Olver next to Mat’s. He was short even for a Cairhienin, and skinny to boot. “My Lord has blood on his coat again, I fear,” he murmured in melancholy tones. The day he sounded anything else, the sun would rise in the west. “I do wish my Lord would be more careful of his clothes. It is so hard to remove blood without a stain, and the insects hardly need any encouragement to eat holes. This place has more insects than I have ever seen, my Lord.” No mention at all of two dead men, or what he had intended with the frying pan.

That scream had drawn other attention; The Wandering Woman was not the sort of inn where screams passed unremarked. Feet pounded in the hallway, and Mistress Anan pushed Nerim firmly out of her way and raised her skirts to step around the corpse on the floor. Her husband followed her in, a square-faced, gray-haired man with the double earring of the Ancient and Honorable League of the Nets dangling from his left ear. The two white stones on the lower hoop said he owned other boats besides the one he captained. Jasfer Anan was part of the reason Mat was careful not to smile too much at any of Mistress Anan’s daughters. The man wore a work knife stuffed behind his belt and a longer, curved blade too, and his long blue-and-green vest revealed arms and chest crisscrossed with dueling scars. He was alive, though, and most of the men who had given those scars were not.

The other reason for caution was Setalle Anan herself. Mat had never before let himself be turned off a girl because of her mother, even if that mother owned the inn where he was staying, but Mistress Anan had a way about her. Large gold hoops in her ears swung as she surveyed the dead men without a flinch. She was pretty despite a touch of gray in her hair, and her marriage knife nestled in roundness that normally would have drawn his eyes like moths to a candle, yet looking at her that way would have been like looking at. . . . Not his mother. At an Aes Sedai, maybe—though he had done that, of course, just to look—or at Queen Tylin, the Light help him there. Putting a finger on why was not easy. She simply had a way about her. It was just difficult to think of doing anything that would offend Setalle Anan.

“One of them jumped me in the hall.” Mat kicked the chest lightly; it made a hollow sound despite the dead man slumped inside with his arms and legs dangling out. “This is empty except for him. I think they meant to fill it with whatever they could steal.” The gold, perhaps? Not likely they could have heard of that, won only hours ago, but he would ask Mistress Anan about a safer place to keep it.

She nodded calmly, hazel eyes serene. Men knifed in her inn did not ruffle her feathers. “They insisted on carrying it up themselves. Their stock, so they claimed. They took the room just before you came in. For a few hours, they said, to sleep before traveling on toward Nor Chasen.” That was a small village on the coast to the east, but it was unlikely they would have told the truth. Her tone implied as much. She frowned at the dead men as though wishing she could shake them alive to answer questions. “They were picky about the room, though. The pale-haired man was in charge. He turned down the first three he was offered, then accepted this, that was meant for a single servant. I thought he was being stingy with a coin.”

“Even a thief can be tightfisted,” Mat said absently. This could have qualified to start those dice rolling in his head—a head that would have been cracked open for sure without the luck of that fellow stepping on the one board in the whole inn that would squeak—but the bloody things were still tumbling. He did not like it.

“You think it was chance then, my Lord?”

“What else?”

She had no answer, but she frowned at the corpses again. Maybe she was not so sanguine as he had thought. She was not native to Ebou Dar, after all.

“Too many roughs in the city of late.” Jasfer had a deep voice, and speaking normally he seemed to be barking commands on a fishing boat. “Maybe you ought to think on hiring guards.” All Mistress Anan did was lift an eyebrow at her husband, but his hands rose defensively. “Peace be on you, wife. I spoke without thinking.” Ebou Dari women were known to express displeasure with a husband in a sharp fashion. It was not beyond possibility that a few of his scars came from her. The marriage knife had several uses.

Thanking the Light he was not married to an Ebou Dari, Mat replaced his own knife in its sheath alongside the others. Thank the Light he was not married at all.