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


Valda wiped his blade on Omerna’s tabard, then suddenly realized the old wolf still breathed, a rasping, bubbling sound. Grimacing, he bent to make an end—and a gaunt, long-fingered hand caught his arm.

“Would you be Lord Captain Commander now, my son?” Asunawa’s emaciated face belonged on a martyr, yet his dark eyes burned with a fervor to unnerve even those who did not know who he was. “You may well be, after I attest that you killed Pedron Niall’s assassin. But not if I must say that you ripped open Niall’s throat as well.”

Baring teeth in what could pass for a smile, Valda straightened. Asunawa had a love of truth, a strange love; he could tie it into knots, or hang it up and flay it while it screamed, but so far as Valda knew, he never actually lied. A look at Niall’s glazed eyes, and the pool of blood spreading beneath him, satisfied Valda. The old man was dying.

“May, Asunawa?”

The High Inquisitor’s gaze burned hotter as Asunawa stepped back, moving the snowy cloak away from Niall’s blood. Even a Lord Captain was not supposed to be that familiar. “I said may, my son. You have been oddly reluctant to agree that the witch Morgase must be given to the Hand of the Light. Unless you give that assurance—”

“Morgase is needed yet.” Breaking in gave Valda considerable pleasure. He did not like Questioners, the Hand of the Light as they called themselves. Who could like men who never met an enemy not disarmed and in chains? They held themselves apart from the Children, separate. Asunawa’s cloak bore only the scarlet shepherd’s crook of the Questioners, not the flaring golden sun of the Children that graced his own tabard. Worse, they seemed to think their work with racks and hot irons was the only true work of the Children. “Morgase gives us Andor, so you cannot have her before we have it. And we cannot take Andor until the Prophet’s mobs are crushed.” The Prophet had to be first, preaching the coming of the Dragon Reborn, his mobs burning villages too slow to proclaim for al’Thor. Niall’s chest barely moved, now. “Unless you want to trade Amadicia for Andor, instead of holding both? I mean to see al’Thor hung and the White Tower ground to dust, Asunawa, and I did not go along with your plan just to see you toss it all on the midden.”

Asunawa was not taken aback; he was no coward. Not here, with hundreds of Questioners in the Fortress and most of the Children wary of putting a foot wrong around them. He ignored the sword in Valda’s hands, and that martyr’s face took on a look of sadness. His sweat seemed to be tears of regret. “In that case, since Lord Captain Canvele believes that the law must be obeyed, I fear—”

“I fear Canvele agrees with me, Asunawa.” Since dawn he did, since he realized that Valda had brought half a legion into the Fortress. Canvele was no fool. “The question is not whether I will be Lord Captain Commander when the sun sets today, but who will guide the Hand of the Light in its digging for truth.”

No coward, Asunawa, and even less a fool than Canvele. He neither flinched nor demanded how Valda thought to bring this about. “I see,” he said after a moment, and then, mildly, “Do you mean to flout the law entirely, my son?”

Valda almost laughed. “You can examine Morgase, but she is not to be put to the question. You can have her for that when I am done with her.” Which might take a little time; finding a replacement for the Lion Throne, one who understood her proper relationship to the Children as King Ailron did here, would not happen overnight.

Perhaps Asunawa understood and perhaps not. He opened his mouth, and there was a gasp from the doorway. Niall’s pinch-faced secretary stood there, purse-mouthed and knobby, narrow eyes trying to stare at everything except the bodies stretched out on the floor.

“A sad day, Master Balwer,” Asunawa intoned, his voice sorrowful iron. “The traitor Omerna has slain our Lord Captain Commander Pedron Niall, the Light illumine his soul.” Not an advance on the truth; Niall’s chest no longer moved, and killing him had been treason. “Lord Captain Valda entered too late to save him, but he did slay Omerna in the full depth of his sin.” Balwer gave a start and began dry-washing his hands.

The birdlike fellow made Valda itch. “Since you are here, Balwer, you may as well be useful.” He disliked useless people, and the scribbler was the very form of uselessness. “Carry this message to each Lord Captain in the Fortress. Tell them the Lord Captain Commander has been murdered, and I call for a meeting of the Council of the Anointed.” His first act on being named Lord Captain Commander would be to boot the dried-up little man out of the Fortress, boot him so far he bounced twice, and choose a secretary who did not twitch. “Whether Omerna was bought by the witches or the Prophet, I mean to see Pedron Niall avenged.”

“As you say, my Lord.” Balwer’s voice was dry and narrow. “It shall be as you say.” He apparently found himself able to look on Niall’s body at last; as he bowed himself out jerkily, he hardly looked at anything else.

“So it seems you will be our next Lord Captain Commander after all,” Asunawa said once Balwer was gone.

“So it seems,” Valda answered dryly. A tiny slip of paper lay next to Niall’s outstretched hand, the sort used in sending messages by pigeon. Valda bent and picked it up, then exhaled in disgust. The paper had been sitting in a puddle of wine; whatever had been written on it was lost, the ink a blur.

“And the Hand will have Morgase when your need for her is done.” That was not in the slightest a question.

“I will hand her to you myself.” Perhaps a little something might be arranged to sate Asunawa’s appetite for a while. It might make sure Morgase remained amenable, too. Valda dropped the bit of rubbish on Niall’s corpse. The old wolf had lost his cunning and his nerve with age, and now it would be up to Eamon Valda to bring the witches and their false Dragon to heel.

Flat on his belly on a rise, Gawyn surveyed disaster beneath the afternoon sun. Dumai’s Wells lay miles to the south now, across rolling plain and low hills, but he could still see the smoke from burning wagons. What had happened there after he led what he could gather of the Younglings in breaking out, he did not know. Al’Thor had seemed well in charge, al’Thor and those black-coated men who appeared to be channeling, taking down Aes Sedai and Aiel alike. It had been the realization that sisters were fleeing that told