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


The Royal Palace of Cairhien, the Sun Palace, the Palace of the Rising Sun in Splendor—Cairhienin were great ones for names, each more extravagant than the last—stood atop the highest hill in the city, a dark mass of square stone with stepped towers looming over everything. The street, the Way of the Crown, became a long broad ramp rising toward the palace, and Perrin drew a deep breath as they started up. Faile was up there. She had to be, and safe. Whatever else, she had to be safe. He touched the knot holding Swallow’s reins to a ring on his pommel, stroked the axe at his waist. The horses’ shod hooves rang loudly on the paving stones. The Maidens made no sound at all.

The guards on the great, open bronze gates watched their slow approach and exchanged glances. They were colorful for Cairhienin soldiers, ten men with the Rising Sun in gold on their dark breastplates and scarves in House Saighan’s colors tied below the heads of their halberds. Perrin could have written out their thoughts. Thirteen men on horseback, but in no hurry, and only two wearing armor, one in Mayener red. Any trouble would come from Caraline Damodred and Toram Riatin, and Mayeners had no place in that. And there was a woman, and an Ogier. Surely they intended no trouble. Still, three dozen or so Maidens trotting ahead of the horses hardly looked as though they were coming for tea. For an instant all hung balanced. Then a Maiden veiled herself. The guards jerked as if goosed, and one slanted his halberd and darted for the gates. Two steps he took, and stopped, rigid as a statue. Every guard stood stiff; nothing moved but their heads.

“Good,” Rand murmured. “Now tie off the flows and leave them for later.”

Perrin shrugged uncomfortably. The Asha’man had spread out behind, taking up most of the width of the ramp; they must be using the Power. Very likely the eight of them could tear the whole palace apart. Maybe Rand could have by himself. But if those towers began spewing crossbow bolts, they would die with everyone else, caught in the open on this ramp that no longer seemed so wide.

Nobody sped up. Any eyes at the tall narrow windows of the palace, on the colonnaded walks high above, must see nothing out of the ordinary. Sulin flashed Maiden hand-talk, and the one who had veiled lowered the black cloth hurriedly, face flushing. A slow walk, up the stone ramp. Some of the guards’ helmeted heads shook wildly, eyes rolling; one seemed to have fainted, slumping upright with his chin on his chest. Their mouths strained, open, but no sound came out. Perrin tried not to think about what had gagged them. A slow walk, through the open bronze gates, into the main courtyard.

There were no soldiers here. The stone balconies around the courtyard stood empty. Liveried servants rushed out with downcast eyes to take the horses’ reins and hold stirrups. Stripes of red and yellow and silver ran down the sleeves of otherwise dark coats and dresses, and each had the Rising Sun small on the left breast. That was more color than Perrin had seen on a Cairhienin servant before. They could not see the guards outside, and likely would have done little different if they had. In Cairhien, servants played their own version of Daes Dae’mar, the Game of Houses, but they pretended to ignore the doings of those above them. Taking too much notice of what happened among your betters—or at least, being seen to take notice—might mean being caught up in it. In Cairhien, maybe in most lands, ordinary folk could be crushed unnoticed where the mighty walked.

A blocky woman led Stepper and Swallow away without really looking at him. Swallow was inside the Sun Palace, and it made no difference. He still did not know whether Faile was alive or dead. A fool boy’s fool fancy.

Shifting his axe at his hip, he followed Rand up the broad gray stairs at the far end of the courtyard, and nodded when Aram reached over his shoulder again to ease his sword. Liveried men swung open the great doors at the head of the stairs, bronze like the outer gates and marked large with the Rising Sun of Cairhien.

Once, the entry hall would have stunned Perrin with its grandeur. Thick square columns of dark marble held a square-vaulted ceiling ten paces above floor tiles that alternated dark blue and deep gold. Gilded Rising Suns marched around the cornices, and friezes carved in the walls showed Cairhienin triumphs in battle. The hall was empty, save for a handful of young men clustered beneath one of the friezes who fell silent when Perrin and the rest entered.

Not all men, he realized. All wore swords, but four of the seven were women, in coats and snug breeches much like Min’s, their hair cut short as the men’s. Not that that was particularly short; men and women alike had it gathered in a kind of tail that reached their shoulders, tied with a dark ribbon. One of the women wore green a little paler than normal for Cairhienin, and another bright blue; all the rest were in dark colors, with a few bright stripes across their chests. They studied Rand’s party—with an especial view for himself, Perrin realized; his yellow eyes took people aback, although he hardly noticed it anymore unless somebody jumped, or made a commotion—studied in silence until the last of the Asha’man was in and the doors swung shut. The boom of the closing covered a moment of fierce whispering; then they came swaggering closer, the women strutting even more arrogantly than the men, which took some doing. Even the way they knelt was arrogant.

The green-clad woman glanced at the one in blue, who had her head down, and said, “My Lord Dragon, I am Camaille Nolaisen. Selande Darengil leads our society. . . .” She blinked at a fierce look from the woman in blue. Despite the glare, Selande smelled afraid to her bones, if Perrin was making out who was who properly. Clearing her throat, Camaille went on, “We did not think—We did not expect you to return—so soon.”

“Yes,” Rand said softly. “I doubt anyone thought I would return—so soon. None of you has any reason to be afraid of me. None at all. If you believe anything, believe that.” Surprisingly, he looked right at Selande when he said that. Her head whipped up, and as she stared at him, the fear smell faded. Not completely, but down to a tatter. How had Rand known it was there? “Where is Colavaere?” Rand asked.

Camaille opened her mouth, but it was Selande who answered. “In the Grand Hall of the Sun.” Her voice grew stronger as she spoke, the scent of her fear growing weaker. Oddly, a slight tinge of jealousy touched it once, just for an instant, when she glanced at Min. Sometimes his sense of smell was more confusing than enlightening. “It is the third Sunset Convocation,” she went on. “We are not important enough to attend. Besides, I think we of the societi