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


Abruptly he realized Dashiva was watching as well. And licking his lips. Rand cleared his throat loudly enough to be heard over the sound of the door closing behind her. For some reason, the plain-faced man raised his hands defensively. It was not as though Rand glared at him; he could not go around glaring at men just because Min wore tight breeches. Surrounding himself with the emptiness of the Void, he seized saidin and forced frozen fire and molten filth into the weaves for a gateway. Dashiva leaped back as it opened. Maybe having a hand sliced off would teach the man not to lick his lips like a goat. Something crooked and red spiderwebbed across the outside of the Void.

He stepped through onto bare dirt, with Dashiva and the others right behind, releasing the Source as soon as the last stepped clear. A sense of loss rushed in as saidin left, as awareness of Alanna dwindled. The loss had not seemed so great while Lews Therin was there; not so huge.

Overhead, the golden sun was more than halfway down to the horizon. A gust of wind swept dust from under his boots without leaving any coolness behind. The gateway had opened in a cleared area, marked off by a rope strung between four wooden posts. At each corner stood a pair of guards in short coats and baggy trousers stuffed into their boots, swords that appeared slightly serpentine hanging at their sides. Some had heavy mustaches that hung to their chins or thick beards, and all had bold noses and dark eyes that seemed tilted. As soon as Rand appeared, one of them went running.

“What are we doing here?” Dashiva said, looking about incredulously.

Around them stretched hundreds of sharp-peaked tents, gray and dusty white, tents and picket-lines of already saddled horses. Caemlyn lay not many miles away, hidden behind the trees, and the Black Tower not much farther, but Taim would not know of this unless he had a spy watching. One of Fedwin Morr’s tasks had been to listen—to feel—for anyone trying to spy. In a ripple of murmurs spreading outward from the ropes, men with bold noses and serpentine swords rose from their heels and turned to stare expectantly toward Rand. Here and there women stood as well; Saldaean women often rode to the wars with their husbands, at least among the nobles and officers. There would be none of that today, though.

Ducking under the rope, Rand strode directly to a tent no different from any other except for the banner on the staff in front, three simple red blossoms on a field of blue. The kingspenny did not die back even in Saldaean winters, and when fires blackened the forests, those red flowers were always the first to reappear. A blossom nothing could kill: the sign of House Bashere.

Inside the tent, Bashere himself was already booted and spurred, and his sword on his hip. Ominously, Deira was with him, in a riding dress the same shade as her husband’s gray coat, and if she wore no sword, the long dagger at her belt of heavy silver rondels would do to go on with. The leather gauntlets tucked behind that belt spoke of someone meaning to ride hard.

“I hadn’t expected this for days yet,” Bashere said, rising from a folding camp chair. “Weeks, I hoped, in truth. I had hoped to have most of Taim’s leavings armed the way young Mat and I planned—I’ve gathered every maker of crossbows I could find into a manufactory, and they’re starting to produce them like a sow dropping piglets—but as it is, no more than fifteen thousand have crossbows and know what to do with them.” With a questioning look, he lifted a silver pitcher from atop the maps spread out on his folding table. “Do we have time for punch?”

“No punch,” Rand said impatiently. Bashere had spoken before about the men Taim found who could not learn to channel, but he had scarcely listened. If Bashere thought he had trained them well enough, that was all that mattered. “Dashiva and three more Asha’man are waiting outside; as soon as Morr joins them, we’ll be ready.” He eyed Deira ni Ghaline t’Bashere, towering over her diminutive husband with her hawk’s beak of a nose and her eyes that made a hawk’s look mild. “No punch, Lord Bashere. And no wives. Not today.”

Deira opened her mouth, her dark eyes all but glowing suddenly.

“No wives,” Bashere said, knuckling his heavy gray-streaked mustaches. “I will pass the order.” Turning to Deira, he held out his hand. “Wife,” he said mildly. Rand winced, mild tone or no, and waited for the eruption.

Deira’s mouth thinned. She scowled down at her husband, a hawk ready to stoop on a mouse. Not that Bashere looked anything like a mouse, of course; just a much smaller hawk. She drew a deep breath; Deira could make drawing a deep breath seem a thing that should cause the earth to tremble. And unhooking her sheathed dagger from her belt, she laid it in her husband’s hand. “We will talk of this later, Davram,” she said. “At length.”

One day when he had time, Rand decided, he was going to make Bashere explain how he did that. If there ever was time.

“At length,” Bashere agreed, grinning through his mustaches as he stuffed the dagger behind his own belt. Maybe the man was simply suicidal.

The rope had been taken down outside, and Rand stood waiting with Dashiva and the other Asha’man while nine thousand Saldaean light horse arrayed themselves behind Bashere in a column of threes. Somewhere behind them, fifteen thousand men who called themselves the Legion of the Dragon would be gathering afoot. Rand had glimpsed them, every one in a blue coat made to button up the side so the red-and-gold Dragon across the chest would not be broken. Most carried steel-armed crossbows; some bore heavy unwieldy shields instead, but not one carried a pike. Whatever odd notion Mat and Bashere had cooked up, Rand hoped it would not lead a lot of this legion to death.

Morr grinned eagerly while he waited, all but bouncing on his toes. Perhaps he was simply glad to be back in his black coat with the silver sword on his collar, yet Adley and Narishma wore almost identical grins, and for that matter, Flinn’s was not far off. They knew where they were going now, and what to do there. Dashiva scowled at nothing as usual, his lips moving silently. As usual. Also silent, scowling, were the Saldaean women gathered behind Deira, watching from one side. Eagles and falcons, feathers ruffled and furious. Rand did not care how they grimaced and frowned; if he could face Nandera and the rest of the Maidens after keeping them back from this, then the Saldaean men could put up with any number of lengthy discussions. Today, the Light willing, no women would die because of him.

So many men could not be lined up in a minute, even when they had been awaiting the order, but in a remarkably short time, Bashere raised his sword and called, &ld