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


“Many things can be excused,” he said, laying the pen on its ivory stand and shoving back his chair, “for those who accomplish the tasks they are given.” He was a tall man, and he loomed threateningly. He was well aware that the gilt-framed mirrors on the wall showed a figure of strength, a dangerous man. “Even dresses and baubles and gambling, paid for with coin that was to go for information.” That twitching foot froze for instant, then began again, but her smile was forced, her face pale. Her circle obeyed her instantly, but they would string her up by the heels and skin her alive if he spoke the word. “You have not accomplished very much, have you? In fact, you do not seem to have accomplished anything.”

“There are difficulties, as you well know,” she said breathily. She managed to meet his eyes squarely, though.

“Excuses. Tell me of difficulties surmounted, not those you stumble over and fall. You can fall a long way if you fail in this.” Turning his back, he strode to the nearest window. He could fall a long way, too, and he did not want to risk her seeing anything in his eyes. Sunlight slanted through the ornate stone screen. The high-ceilinged room, with its green-and-white-tiled floor and bright blue walls, stayed comparatively cool behind the thick walls of the palace, but the heat outside seeped in near the windows. He could almost feel the brandy across the room. He could not wait for her to be gone.

“My Lord Carridin, how can I have anyone ask too openly about objects of the Power? That will cause questions, and there are Aes Sedai in the city, you will recall.”

Peering down at the street through the scroll-carvings, he wrinkled his nose at the smell. Every sort was jammed together down there. An Arafellin with his hair in two long braids and a curved sword on his back tossed a coin to a one-armed beggar, who scowled at the gift before tucking it under his rags and resuming his piteous cries to the passersby. A fellow in a torn, bright red coat and even brighter yellow breeches came running from a shop clutching a bolt of cloth to his chest, pursued by a shouting pale-haired woman who had her skirts pulled above her knees and was outpacing the burly guard who lumbered behind her waving his truncheon. The driver of a red-lacquered coach with the moneylenders’ gold coins and open hand on the door shook his whip at the driver of a canvas-covered wagon whose team had become entangled with the coach’s, the pair filling the street with curses. Grimy street urchins crouched behind a dilapidated cart while they snatched puny, shriveled fruit brought in from the country. A Taraboner woman pushed her way through the crowd, veiled, her dark hair in thin braids, drawing every male eye in her dusty red dress that shaped itself to her form shamelessly.

“My Lord, I must have time. I must! I cannot do the impossible, certainly not in days.”

Trash, all of them. Grubbers for gold and Hunters for the Horn, thieves, refugees, even Tinkers. Scum. Riots would be easy to start, a purge for all this filth. Outlanders were always the first targets, always to blame for whatever was wrong, along with neighbors who had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of grudges, women who peddled herbs and cures, and folk with no friends, especially if they lived alone. Properly guided, as carefully as such things could be, a good riot might well burn the Tarasin Palace down around that useless jade Tylin and the witches as well. He glared at the swarm below. Riots did tend to get out of hand; the Civil Guard might stir itself, and inevitably a handful of true Friends would be snapped up. He could not afford the chance that some of those might be from the circles he had hunting. For that matter, even a few days of rioting would disrupt their work. Tylin was not important enough for that; she did not matter at all, in truth. No, not yet. Niall, he could afford to disappoint, but not his true master.

“My Lord Carridin. . . .” A note of defiance had entered Shiaine’s voice. He had let her stew too long. “My Lord Carridin, some of my circle question why we are looking for. . . .”

He started to turn, to put her down hard—he needed success, not excuses, not questions!—but her voice dwindled to nothing as his eyes fell on a young man standing diagonally across the street, in a blue coat with enough red-and-gold embroidery on the sleeves and lapels for two nobles. Taller than most, he was fanning himself with a broad-brimmed black hat and adjusting his neck scarf as he spoke to a stooped, white-haired man. Carridin recognized the young man.

Suddenly he felt as though a knotted rope had been fastened around his head and was being drawn ever tighter. For an instant a face hidden behind a red mask filled his vision. Night-dark eyes stared at him, and then were endless caverns of flame, and still staring. Within his head, the world exploded in fire, cascading images that battered him and swept him beyond screaming. The forms of three young men stood unsupported in air, and one of them began to glow, the form of the man in the street, brighter and brighter till it must have seared any living eyes to ash, brighter still, burning. A curled golden horn sped toward him, its cry pulling his soul, then flashed into a ring of golden light, swallowing him, chilling him until the last fragment of him that recalled his name was sure his bones must splinter. A ruby-tipped dagger hurdled straight at him, curved blade striking him between the eyes and sinking in, in, until gold-wrapped hilt and all was gone, and he knew agony that washed away all thought that what had gone before was pain. He would have prayed to a Creator he had long abandoned if he remembered how. He would have shrieked if he remembered how, if he remembered that humans shrieked, that he was human. On and on, more and more. . . .

Raising a hand to his forehead, he wondered why it trembled. His head ached, too. There had been something. . . . He gave a start at the street below. Everything was changed in the blink of an eye, the people different, wagons moved, colorful coaches and chairs replaced by others. Worse, Cauthon was gone. He wanted to swallow that whole flask of brandy in one gulp.

Suddenly he realized that Shiaine had stopped talking. He turned, ready to continue putting her in her place.

She was leaning forward in the act of rising, one hand on the arm of her chair, the other raised in a gesture. Her narrow face was fixed in petulant defiance, but not at Carridin. She did not move. She did not blink. He was not sure she breathed. He barely noticed her.

“Ruminating?” Sammael said. “Can I at least hope that it is about what you are here to find for me?” He stood only a little taller than average, a muscular, solid man in a coat of the high-collared Illianer style, so covered with gold-work it was hard to tell the cloth was green, but more than being one of the Chosen gave him stature. His blue eyes were colder than winter’s heart. A livid scar burned down his face from golden hairline to the edge of golden, square-cut beard, and it seemed a suitable decoration. Whatever got in his way was brushed aside, trampled or obliterated. Carridin knew Sammael would have turned his bowels to water if the man had been j