They were waiting for him in the King’s Palace, in the throne room. Bashere, and Dashiva and the Asha’man. It was exactly like the room he had seen at the other end of the square, down to the stand-lamps and the scenes carved into the marble walls and the long white dais. Exactly the same except for being slightly larger in every dimension, and instead of nine chairs on the dais, there was only a great gilded throne with leopards for its arms and nine fist-sized golden bees that would stand above the head of whoever sat in it. Wearily Rand sat himself down on the steps at the front of the dais.
“I take it Sammael is dead,” Bashere said, looking him up and down in his ragged coat and dust.
“He’s dead,” Rand said. Dashiva sighed loudly with relief.
“The city is ours,” Bashere went on. “Or I should say, yours.” He laughed suddenly. “The fighting stopped quick enough once the right people found out it was you. Not much to it, in the end.” Dried blood made a black stain down one torn sleeve of his coat. “The Council has been waiting eagerly for you to come back. Anxiously, you might say,” he added with a wry grin.
Eight sweating men had been standing at the far end of the throne room since Rand came in. They wore dark silk coats with gold or silver embroidery on the lapels and sleeves, and falls of lace at their throats and wrists. Some wore a beard that left the upper lip shaved clean, but every one had a broad sash of green silk slanted across his chest, with nine golden bees marching up it.
At Bashere’s gesture they came forward, bowing to Rand at about every third step, for all the world as though he wore the finest garments sewn. A tall man seemed to be the leader, a round-faced fellow with one of those beards, with a natural dignity that appeared strained by worry. “My Lord Dragon,” he said, bowing again and pressing both hands to his heart. “Forgive me, but Lord Brend do be nowhere to be found, and—”
“He won’t be,” Rand said flatly.
A muscle in the man’s face jumped at Rand’s tone, and he swallowed. “As you do say, my Lord Dragon,” he murmured. “I do be Lord Gregorin den Lushenos, my Lord Dragon. In Lord Brend’s absence, I do speak for the Council of Nine. We do offer you. . . .” A hand at his side waved vigorously at a shorter, beardless man, who stepped forward bearing a cushion draped with a length of green silk. “. . . we do offer you Illian.” The shorter man whipped the cloth away, revealing a heavy gold circlet, two inches wide, of laurel leaves. “The city do be yours, of course,” Gregorin went on anxiously. “We did put an end to all resistance. We do offer you the crown, and the throne, and all of Illian.”
Rand stared at the crown on its cushion, not moving a muscle. People had thought he meant to make himself a king in Tear, feared he would in Cairhien and Andor, but no one had offered him a crown before. “Why? Is Mattin Stepaneos so willing to give up his throne?”
“King Mattin did disappear two days ago,” Gregorin said. “Some of us do fear. . . . We do fear Lord Brend may have something to with it. Brend does have. . . .” He stopped to swallow. “Brend did have a great deal of influence with the king, some might say too much, but he did be distracted in recent months, and Mattin had begun to reassert himself.”
Strips of grimy coatsleeve and pieces of shirtsleeve dangled as Rand reached to pick up the Laurel Crown. The Dragon wound around his forearm glittered in the lamplight as brightly as the golden crown. He turned it in his hands. “You still haven’t said why. Because I conquered you?” He had conquered Tear, and Cairhien too, but some turned on him in both lands still. Yet it seemed to be the only way.
“That do be part,” Gregorin said dryly. “Even so, we might have chosen one of our own; kings have come from the Council before. But the grain you did order sent from Tear has your name on every lip with the Light. Without that, many would be dead of starvation. Brend did see every stick of bread go to the army.”
Rand blinked, and snatched one hand from the crown to suck on a pricked finger. Almost buried among the laurel leaves of the crown were the sharp points of swords. How long ago had he commanded the Tairens to sell grain to their ancient enemy, sell it or die for refusing? He had not realized they kept on after he began preparations to invade Illian. Maybe they feared to bring it up, but they had feared to stop, too. Maybe he had earned some right to this crown.
Gingerly he set the circle of laurel leaves on his head. Half those swords pointed up, half down. No head would wear this crown casually or easily.
Gregorin bowed smoothly. “The Light illumine Rand al’Thor, King of Illian,” he intoned, and the seven other lords bowed with him, murmuring, “The Light illumine Rand al’Thor, King of Illian.”
Bashere contented himself with a bow of his head—he was uncle to a queen, after all—but Dashiva cried out, “All hail Rand al’Thor, King of the World!” Flinn and the other Asha’man took it up.
“All hail Rand al’Thor, King of the World!”
“All hail the King of the World!”
That had a good sound to it.
The story spread as stories will, and changed as stories change with time and distance, spreading out from Illian by coasting ships, and merchant trains of wagons, and pigeons sent in secret, spreading in ripples that danced with other ripples and made new. An army had come to Illian, the stories said, an army of Aiel, of Aes Sedai appearing from thin air, of men who could channel riding winged beasts, even an army of Saldaeans, though not many believed that one. Some tales said the Dragon Reborn had been presented the Laurel Crown of Illian by the Council of Nine, and others by Mattin Stepaneos himself on bended knee. Some said the Dragon Reborn had wrenched the crown from Mattin’s head, then stuck that head on a spike. No, the Dragon Reborn had razed Illian to the ground and buried the old king in the rubble. No, he and his army of Asha’man had burned Illian out of the earth. No, it was Ebou Dar he had destroyed, after Illian.
One fact, though, turned up again and again in those tales. The Laurel Crown of Illian had been given a new name. The Crown of Swords.
And for some reason, men and women who told the tales often found a need to add almost identical words. The storm is coming, they said, staring southward in worry. The storm is coming.
Master of the lightnings, rider on the storm,
wearer of a crown of swords, spinner-out of fate.
Who thinks h