“The gleeman saw us and hushed him,” Areina put in, fingering the quiver at her waist, “but we heard.” Her voice was hard as her stare.
“I know they’re both Aes Sedai now, Mother, but wouldn’t they still be in trouble if anyone found out? The sisters, I mean? Anybody who pretends to be a sister is in trouble if they find out, even years later.” Nicola’s face did not change, but her gaze suddenly seemed to be trying to fix Egwene’s. She leaned a little forward, intent. “Anybody at all. Isn’t that so?”
Emboldened by Egwene’s silence, Areina grinned. An unpleasant grin in the night. “I hear Nynaeve and Elayne were sent out of the Tower on some task by the Sanche woman back when she was Amyrlin. I hear you were sent off by her, too, at the same time. Got into all sorts of trouble when you came back.” Sly insinuation slithered into her voice. “Do you remember them playing at Aes Sedai?”
They stood there looking at her, Areina leaning insolently on her bow, Nicola so expectant the air should have crackled.
“Siuan Sanche is Aes Sedai,” Egwene said coldly, “and so are Nynaeve al’Meara and Elayne Trakand. You will show them proper respect. To you, they are Siuan Sedai, Nynaeve Sedai and Elayne Sedai.” The pair blinked in surprise. Inside, her stomach quivered. With outrage. After everything she had been through tonight, she was confronted with blackmail from these . . . ? She could not think of a word bad enough. Elayne could have; Elayne listened to stablemen and wagon drivers and every sort, memorizing the words she should have refused to hear. Unfolding the striped stole, Egwene draped it carefully across her shoulders.
“I don’t think you understand, Mother,” Nicola said hastily. Not fearfully, however; just attempting to force her point. “I merely worried that if anyone found out that you had—” Egwene gave her no chance to go further.
“Oh, I understand, child.” The fool woman was a child, however old she was. Any number of the older novices gave trouble, usually in the form of insolence toward Accepted set to teach them, but even the silliest had sense enough to avoid impertinence to the sisters. It fanned her anger to white heat, that the woman had the gall to try this on with her. They were both taller than she, if not by much, but she planted her fists on her hips and drew herself up, and they shrank away as though she loomed. “Do you have any notion how serious it is to bring charges against a sister, especially for a novice? Charges based on a conversation you claim to have heard between men now a thousand miles away! Tiana would skin you alive and put you to scrubbing pots the rest of your natural life.” Nicola kept trying to push a word in—apologies, they sounded like this time, and more protests that Egwene did not understand, frantic attempts to change everything—but Egwene ignored her and rounded on Areina. The Hunter took another step back, wetting her lips and looking remarkably uncertain. “You needn’t think you would walk away clear, either. Even a Hunter could be hauled to Tiana for a thing like this. If you’re lucky enough not to be flogged at a wagon tongue, the way they do soldiers caught stealing. Either way, you’ll be tossed out by the road with your welts for company.”
Drawing a deep breath, Egwene folded her hands at her waist. Clutched together, they would not tremble. All but cowering, the pair looked suitably chastened. She hoped those downcast eyes and slumped shoulders and shifting feet were not feigned. By rights, she should send them to Tiana right now. She had no idea what the penalty might be for trying to blackmail the Amyrlin Seat, but it seemed likely that being turned out of the camp would be the least of it. In Nicola’s case, the turning out would have to wait until her teachers were satisfied she knew enough of channeling not to hurt herself or others by accident. Nicola Treehill would never be Aes Sedai, though, once that charge was laid against her; all that potential would go for nothing.
Except. . . . Any woman caught pretending to be Aes Sedai was set down so hard she would still be whimpering years later, and an Accepted caught might very well consider the other woman fortunate, but surely Nynaeve and Elayne were safe now they really were sisters. Herself, as well. Only, it might take no more than a whisper of this to erase any chance of making the Hall acknowledge her truly the Amyrlin Seat. As well jaunt off to Rand, and then tell the Hall to their faces. She dared not allow these two to see her doubt, or even suspect.
“I will forget this,” she said sharply. “But if I hear so much as a whisper of it again, from anyone. . . .” She drew a ragged breath—if she heard shouts of it, there might be little she could do—but by the way they jumped, they read a threat that pricked deep. “Get to your beds before I change my mind.”
In an instant they became a flurry of curtsies, of “Yes, Mother” and “No, Mother” and “As you command, Mother.” They scurried away looking back over their shoulders at her, every step faster than the last, until they were running. She had to walk on sedately, but she wanted to run too.
Selame was waiting when Egwene got back to her tent, a rail-thin woman with dark Tairen coloring and a nearly impervious self-assurance. Chesa was right; she did carry her long nose raised, as though recoiling from a bad smell. Yet if her manner with the other maids was arrogant, she was in reality quite different around her patroness. As Egwene entered, Selame folded herself into a curtsy so deep her head nearly brushed the carpet, skirts spread as wide as they would go in the cramped quarters. Before Egwene had taken her second step inside, the woman leaped up, fussing over her buttons. And fussing over her, too. Selame had very little sense.
“Oh, Mother, you went out with your head uncovered again.” As if she had ever worn any of those beaded caps the woman favored, or the embroidered velvet things Meri favored, or Chesa’s plumed hats. “Why, you’re shivering. You should never go walking out-of-doors without a shawl and parasol, Mother.” How was a parasol supposed to stop shivering? With sweat trickling down her own cheeks however fast she dabbed with her handkerchief, Selame never thought to ask why she shivered, which was perhaps just as well. “And you went alone, in the night. It just isn’t proper, Mother. Besides, there are all those soldiers, rough men, with no decent respect for any woman, even Aes Sedai. Mother, you simply mustn’t. . . .”
Egwene let the foolish words wash over her in the same way she let the woman undress her, paying less than half a mind. Ordering her to be quiet would only produce so many hurt looks and abused sighs that it made little difference. Except for the brainless chatter, Selame performed her duties diligently, if with so many flourishes they became a dance of grand gestures and obsequious curtsies. It seemed impossible that anyone could be as silly as Selame, always concerned with appearances, always worrying over what people would think. To her, people were Aes Sedai and the nobility, and their upper servants. By her book, no one else mattered; perhaps no one else thought, by her book. It probably was impossible. Egwene was not about to forget who had found Selame in the first place, any more than she did who had found Meri. True, Chesa was a gift from Sheriam, but Chesa had shown her loyalties to Egwene more than once. Egwene wanted to tell herself the tremors that the other woman took for shivers were quivers of rage, yet she knew a worm of fear writhed in her belly. She had come too far, had too much to do yet, to allow Nicola and Areina to put a