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


He made himself turn toward her. Mad or not, alone or not, there was no one else to do what had to be done. Not even this small duty. Heavier than a mountain. “What is the matter?” he asked, making his voice as gentle as he could.

Suddenly weeping, Idrien stumbled to him and collapsed against his chest. When she was coherent enough to tell her story, he felt like weeping too.

Chapter 19

Diamonds and Stars

Merana followed closely as she dared on Cadsuane’s heels, a hundred questions bubbling on her tongue, but Cadsuane was not a woman whose sleeve you plucked. She decided who she noticed, and when. Annoura held her silence, too, the pair of them drawn along in the other’s wake down the palace corridors, down flights of stairs, polished marble at first, then plain dark stone. Merana exchanged glances with her sister Gray, and felt a moment’s pang. She did not know the woman, really, but Annoura wore the steely look of a girl on her way to the Mistress of Novices, determined to be brave. They were not novices. They were not children. She opened her mouth—and closed it, intimidated by the gray bun bobbing ahead of her with its dangling moons and stars and birds and fish. Cadsuane was . . . Cadsuane.

Merana had met her once before, or at least listened to her and been spoken to, when she was a novice. Sisters had come from every Ajah to see the woman, filled with an awe they could not hide. Once Cadsuane Melaidhrin had been the standard by which every new entry into the novice book was judged. Until Elayne Trakand, none had come to the White Tower in her lifetime who could match that standard, much less surpass it. In more ways than one, her like had not walked among Aes Sedai for a thousand years. A refusal to accept selection as a Sitter was unheard of, yet it was said she had refused, and at least twice. It was said she had spurned being raised head of the Green Ajah, too. It was said she once vanished from the Tower for ten years because the Hall intended to raise her Amyrlin. Not that she had ever spent a day more in Tar Valon than absolutely necessary. Word of Cadsuane came to the Tower, stories to make sisters gape, adventures to make those who dreamed of the shawl shiver. She would end a legend among Aes Sedai. If she was not already. The shawl had graced Merana’s shoulders for over twenty-five years when Cadsuane announced her retirement from the world, her hair already solid gray, and everyone assumed her long dead when the Aiel War erupted another twenty-five years on, but before the fighting was three months old, she reappeared, accompanied by two Warders, men long in the tooth yet still hard as iron. It was said Cadsuane had had more Warders over the years than most sisters had shoes. After the Aiel retreated from Tar Valon, she retired once more, but some said, more than half-seriously, that Cadsuane would never die so long as even a spark of adventure remained in the world.

And that is the sort of nonsense that novices babble, Merana reminded herself firmly. Even we die eventually. Yet Cadsuane was still Cadsuane. And if she was not one of those sisters who had appeared in the city after al’Thor was taken, the sun would not set tonight. Merana moved her arms to adjust her shawl and realized it was hanging on a peg in her room. Ridiculous. She needed no reminders of who she was. If only it had been someone other than Cadsuane. . . . A pair of Wise Ones standing in the mouth of a crossing corridor watched them pass, cold pale eyes in stony faces beneath their dark head scarves. Edarra and Leyn. Both could channel, and quite strongly; they might have risen high had they gone to the Tower as girls. Cadsuane went by without seeming to notice the wilders’ disapprobation. Annoura did, frowning and muttering, slender braids swaying as she shook her head. Merana kept her own eyes on the floor tiles.

Undoubtedly it would fall to her now, explaining to Cadsuane the . . . compromise . . . that had been worked out with the Wise Ones last night, before she and the others were brought to the palace. Annoura did not know—she was no part of it—and Merana had small hope that Rafela or Verin would appear, or anyone else she might somehow foist the duty onto. It was a compromise, in a way, and perhaps the best that could be expected under the circumstances, yet she strongly questioned whether Cadsuane would see it so. She wished she did not have to be the one to convince her. Better to pour tea for those cursed men for a month. She wished she had not been so free with her tongue with young al’Thor. Knowing why he had made her serve tea was no balm for being sealed off from every advantage she might have gained from it. She would rather think she had been caught in some ta’veren swirling of the Pattern than believe that a young man’s eyes, like polished blue-gray gems, had set her babbling from pure fright, but either way, she had handed all the advantage to him on a tray. She wished. . . .

Wishing was for children. She had negotiated countless treaties, many of which had actually accomplished what was intended; she had ended three wars and stopped two dozen more before they began, faced kings and queens and generals and made them see reason. Even so. . . . She found herself promising that she would not utter one word of complaint no matter how often that man made her play the maidservant if only Seonid would pop around the next corner, or Masuri, or Faeldrin, or anyone at all. Light! If only she could blink her eyes and find that everything since leaving Salidar had been a bad dream.

Surprisingly, Cadsuane led them straight to the small room that Bera and Kiruna shared, deep in the bowels of the palace. Where the servants lived. A tight window, set high in the wall yet level with the paving stones of a courtyard outside, let in a little stream of light, but the room seemed murky. Cloaks and saddlebags and a few dresses hung from pegs in the cracked, yellowing plaster walls. Gouges marred the bare wooden floor, though some effort had been made to smooth them. A tiny battered round table stood in one corner, and an equally beaten washstand in another, with a chipped basin and pitcher. Merana eyed the small bed. It did not look that much narrower than the one she was forced to share with Seonid and Masuri, two doors farther down. That room was larger by perhaps a pace each way, but not meant for three. Coiren and the others still held in the Aiel tents probably were much more comfortable as prisoners.

Neither Bera nor Kiruna was present, but Daigian was, a plump, pale woman who wore a thin silver chain in her long black hair, with a round moonstone dangling in the middle of her forehead. Her dark Cairhienin dress bore four thin stripes of color across the bodice, and she had added slashes in the skirts, white for her Ajah. A younger daughter of one of the lesser Houses, she had always minded Merana of a pouter pigeon. When Cadsuane entered, Daigian ros