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


Replacing his hat, Mat raised his hand, and one of the bookers came—a hatchet-faced woman, with a nose like an awl—spreading bony hands as she bowed, murmuring the ritual “As my Lord wishes to wager, so shall I write truly.” The Ebou Dari accent managed to be soft despite clipping the ends off some words. “The book is open.” Like the saying, the open book embroidered on the breast of her red vest came from a time long past, when the wagers were written into a book, but he suspected he was the only one there who knew that. He remembered many things he had never seen, from times long gone to dust.

With a quick glance at the odds for the morning’s fifth race, chalked on the slate the poleman held up behind the red-vested woman, he nodded. Wind was only the third favorite, despite his victories. He turned to his companion. “Put it all on Wind, Nalesean.”

The Tairen hesitated, fingering the point of his oiled black beard. Sweat glistened on his face, yet he kept his coat with its fat, blue-striped sleeves fastened to the top and wore a square cap of blue velvet that did nothing to keep the sun off. “All of it, Mat?” He spoke softly, trying to keep the woman from hearing. The odds could change any time until you actually offered your wager. “Burn my soul, but that little piebald looks fast, and so does that pale dun gelding with the silvery mane.” They were the favorites today, new to the city and like all things new, of great expectation.

Mat did not bother to glance toward the ten horses entered in the next race that were parading at one end of the course. He had already taken a good look while putting Olver up on Wind. “All of it. Some idiot clubbed the piebald’s tail; he’s already half mad from the flies. The dun is showy, but he has a bad angle to his fetlocks. He may have won some in the country, but he’ll finish last today.” Horses were one thing he knew on his own; his father had taught him, and Abell Cauthon had a sharp eye for horseflesh.

“He looks more than showy to me,” Nalesean grumbled, but he was not arguing any more.

The booker blinked as Nalesean, sighing, pulled purse after fat purse from his bulging coat pockets. At one point she opened her mouth to protest, but the Illustrious and Honored Guild of Bookers always claimed it would take any wager in any amount. They even wagered with ship-owners and merchants as to whether a ship would sink or prices change; rather, the guild itself did, not individual bookers. The gold went into one of her iron-strapped chests, each carried by a pair of fellows with arms as thick as Mat’s legs. Her guards, hard-eyed and bent-nosed in leather vests that showed arms still thicker, held long brass-bound cudgels. Another of her men handed her a white token bearing a detailed blue fish—every booker had a different sigil—and she wrote the wager, the name of the horse and a symbol indicating the race on the back with a fine brush that she took from a lacquered box held by a pretty girl. Slim, with big dark eyes, the girl directed a slow smile at Mat. The hatchet-faced woman certainly did not smile. Bowing again, she slapped the girl casually and walked off whispering to her poleman, who hastily wiped his slate with a cloth. When he held it up again, Wind was listed at the shortest odds. Rubbing her cheek surreptitiously, the girl scowled back at Mat as though the slap had been his fault.

“I hope your luck is in,” Nalesean said, holding the token carefully for the ink to dry. Bookers could be touchy about paying on a token with smeared ink, and no one was touchier than an Ebou Dari. “I know you don’t lose often, but I’ve seen it happen, burn me but I have. There’s a lass I mean to step out with at the dancing tonight. Just a seamstress . . .” He was a lord, though not a bad fellow really, and such things seemed important to him. “. . . but pretty enough to dry your mouth. She likes trinkets. Golden trinkets. She likes fireworks, too—I hear some Illuminators are setting up for tonight; you’ll be interested in that—but it’s trinkets make her smile. She won’t be friendly if I cannot afford to make her smile, Mat.”

“You’ll make her smile,” Mat said absently. The horses were still walking in a circle above the starting poles. Olver sat proudly on Wind’s back, broad mouth grinning to split his more-than-plain face from jug-ear to jug-ear. In Ebou Dari races, all the riders were boys; a few miles inland, they used girls. Olver was the smallest here today, the lightest, not that the leggy gray gelding needed the advantage. “You’ll make her laugh till she can’t stand up.” Nalesean gave him a frown he barely noticed. The man should know gold was one thing Mat never had to worry about. He might not always win, but close enough. His luck had nothing to do with whether Wind won anyway. Of that he was sure.

Gold did not concern him, but Olver did. There was no rule against the boys using their switches on each other instead of their mounts. In every race so far, Wind had broken to the lead and stayed there, but if Olver took any hurt, even just a bruise, Mat would never hear the end. Not from Mistress Anan, his innkeeper, not from Nynaeve or Elayne, not from Aviendha or Birgitte. The onetime Maiden of the Spear and the peculiar woman Elayne had taken as a Warder were the last he would have expected to gush with maternal feelings, yet they had already tried to move the boy out of The Wandering Woman behind his back and into the Tarasin Palace. Anywhere with so many Aes Sedai was the last place for Olver, or for anybody, but one bump and instead of telling Birgitte and Aviendha they had no right to take the boy, Setalle Anan would likely hustle him off there herself. Olver would probably cry himself to sleep if he was not allowed to race anymore, but women never understood these things. For about the thousandth time, Mat cursed Nalesean for sneaking Olver and Wind to those first races. Of course, they had to find something to fill all the idle hours on their hands, but they could have found something else. Cutting purses could have been no worse in the women’s eyes.

“Here’s the thief-catcher,” Nalesean said, stuffing the token into his coat. He did not quite sneer. “Much good he’s done so far. We’d have done better to bring another fifty soldiers instead.”

Juilin strode though the crowd purposefully, a dark, hard man using a slender bamboo staff as tall as himself for a walking stick. With a flat-topped conical red Taraboner cap on his head and a plain coat, tight to the waist then flaring to his boot tops, well-worn and plainly not the coat of someone rich, he normally would not have been allowed below the ropes, but he made out to study the horses and ostentatiously bounced a fat coin on his palm. Several of the bookers’ guards looked at him suspiciously, but th