The Seven-Striped Lass
Mat sat on a worn stool, his arms leaning against a dark wooden bar counter. The air smelled good—of ale, smoke, and of the washcloth that had recently wiped the counter. He liked that. There was something calming about a good, rowdy tavern that was also kept clean. Well, clean as was reasonable, anyway. Nobody liked a tavern that was too clean. That made a place feel new. Like a coat that had never been worn or a pipe that had never been smoked.
Mat flipped a folded letter between two fingers of his right hand. That letter, on thick paper, was sealed with a glob of blood-red wax. He had been carrying it only a short time, but it was already a source of as much aggravation to him as any woman. Well, maybe not an Aes Sedai, but most any other woman. That was saying a lot.
He stopped spinning the letter and tapped it on the counter. Burn Verin for doing this to him! She held him by his oath like a fish caught on a hook.
“Well, Lord Crimson?” asked the tavernkeeper. That was the name he had people calling him, these days. Best to be safe. “You want a refill or not?”
The tavernkeeper leaned down before him, crossing her arms. Melli Craeb was a pretty woman, with a round face and auburn hair that curled quite fetchingly. Mat would have given her his best smile—there was not a woman he had met who did not melt for his best smile—but he was a married man now. He could not go breaking hearts; it would not be right.
Though, leaning as she did showed some ample bosom. She was a short woman, but she kept the area behind the bar raised. Yes, a nice bosom indeed. He figured she would be good for a bit of kissing, perhaps tucked into one of the booths at the back of the tavern. Of course, Mat did not look at women anymore, not like that. He did not think about her for him to kiss. Maybe for Talmanes. He was so stiff, a good kiss and cuddle would do him good.
“Well?” Melli asked.
“What would you do if you were me, Melli?” His empty mug sat beside him, a few suds clinging to the rim.
“Order another round,” she said immediately. “For the entire bar. It would be downright charitable of you. People like a charitable fellow.”
“I meant about the letter.”
“You promised not to open it?” she said.
“Well, not exactly. I promised that if I opened it, I’d do exactly what it said inside.”
“Gave an oath, did you?”
She snatched it from his fingers, causing him to yelp. He reached to take it back but she pulled away, turning it over in her fingers. Mat suppressed an urge to reach for it again; he had played more than a few games of take-away, and had no urge to look the buffoon. A woman liked nothing more than to make a man squirm, and if you let her do it, she would only keep going.
Still, he began to sweat. “Now, Melli . . .”
“I could open it for you,” she said, leaning back against the other side of the bar, looking over the letter. Nearby, a man called for another mug of ale, but she waved him down. The red-nosed man looked as if he had had enough anyway. Melli’s tavern was popular enough that she had a half-dozen serving girls taking care of the patrons. One would get to him eventually. “I could open it,” she continued to Mat, “and could tell you what’s inside.”
Bloody ashes! If she did that, he would have to do what it said. Whatever it bloody said! All he had to do was wait a few weeks, and he would be free. He could wait that long. Really, he could.
“It wouldn’t do,” Mat said, sitting up with a jerk as she reached her thumb between two sides of the letter, as if to rip it. “I’d still have to do what it said, Melli. Don’t you do that, now. Be careful!”
She smiled at him. Her tavern, The Seven-Striped Lass, was one of the best in western Caemlyn. Ale with a robust flavor, games of dice when you wanted them, and not a rat to be seen. They probably did not want to risk running afoul of Melli. Light, but the woman could shame the whiskers off a man’s cheeks without much trying.
“You never did tell me who it was from,” Melli said, turning the letter over. “She’s a lover, isn’t she? Got you tied up in her strings?”
She had the second part right enough, but a lover? Verin? It was ridiculous enough to make Mat laugh. Kissing Verin would have been about as much fun as kissing a lion. Of the two, he would have chosen the lion. It would have been much less likely to try to bite him.
“I gave my oath, Melli,” Mat said, trying not to show his nervousness.
“Don’t you go opening that, now.”
“I didn’t give any oath,” she said. “Maybe I’ll read it, and then not tell you what it says. Just give you hints, now and then, as encouragement.”
She eyed him, full lips smiling. Yes, she was a pretty one. Not as pretty as Tuon, though, with her beautiful skin and large eyes. But Melli was still pretty, particularly those lips of hers. Being married meant he could not stare at those lips, but he did give her his best smile. It was called for, this time, though it could break her heart. He could not let her open that letter.
“It’s the same thing, Melli,” Mat said winningly. “If you open that letter and I don’t do what it says, my oath is as good as dishwater.” He sighed, realizing there was one way to get the letter back. “The woman who gave it to me was Aes Sedai, Melli. You don’t want to anger an Aes Sedai, do you?”
“Aes Sedai?” Melli suddenly looked eager. “I’ve always fancied going up to Tar Valon, to see if they’ll let me join them.” She looked at the letter, as if more curious about its contents.
Light! The woman was daft. Mat had taken her for the sensible type. He should have known better. He began to sweat more. Could he reach the letter? She was holding it close. . . .
She set it down on the bar before him. She left one finger on the letter, directly in the middle of the wax seal. “You’ll introduce me to this Aes Sedai, when you next meet her.”
“If I see her while I’m in Caemlyn,” Mat said. “I promise it.”
“Can I trust you to keep your word?”
He gave her an exasperated look. “What was this whole bloody conversation about, Melli?”
She laughed, turning and leaving the letter on the bar, going to help the gap-toothed man who was still calling for more ale. Mat snatched the letter, tucking it carefully into his coat pocket. Bloody woman. The only way for him to stay free of Aes Sedai plots was to never open this letter. Well, not exactly free. Mat had plenty of Aes Sedai plotting around him; he had them coming out of his ears. But only a man with sawdust for brains would ask for another.
Mat sighed, turning on his stool. A varied crowd clogged The Seven-Striped Lass. Caemlyn was fuller than a lionfish at a shipwreck these days, practically bursting at the seams. That kept the taverns busy. In the corner, some farmers in workcoats fraying at the collars played at dice. Mat had played a few rounds with them earlier, and had paid for his drink with their coins, but he hated gambling for coppers.
The bluff-faced man in the corner was still drinking—must be fourteen mugs sitting empty beside him now—his companions cheering him onward. A group of nobles sat off from the rest, and he would have asked them for a nice game of dice, but the expressions on their faces could have frightened away bears. They had probably been on the wrong side of the Succession war.
Mat wore a black coat with lace at the cuffs. Only a little lace, and no embroidery. Reluctantly, he had left his wide-brimmed hat back in camp, and he had grown a few days’ scrub on his chin. That itched like he had fleas, and he looked a bloody fool. But the scrub made him harder to recognize. With every footpad in the city having a picture of him, it was best to be safe. He wished being ta’veren would help him for once, but it was best not to count on that. Beingta’veren had not been good for anything he could tell.
He kept his scarf tucked low and his coat buttoned, the high collar up nearly to his chin. He had already died once, he was fairly certain, and was not eager to try again.
A pretty serving girl walked by, slender and wide-hipped, with long dark hair she let hang free. He moved to the side, allowing his empty mug to look lonely and obvious on the counter, and she walked over with a smile to refill it. He grinned at her and tipped a copper. He was a married man, and could not afford to charm her, but he could keep an eye out for his friends. Thom might like her. A girl might make him stop moping about so much, at least. Mat watched the girl’s face for a time to be certain he would recognize her again.
Mat sipped at his ale, one hand feeling at the letter in his pocket. He did not speculate at what was in it. Do that, and he would be only one step from ripping it open. He was a little like a mouse staring at a trap with moldy cheese in it. He did not want that cheese. It could rot, for all he cared.
The letter would probably instruct him to do something dangerous. And embarrassing. Aes Sedai had a fondness for making men look like fools. Light, he hoped that she had not left instructions for him to help someone in trouble. If that were the case, surely she would have seen to it herself.
He sighed and took another pull on his ale. In the corner, the drinking man finally toppled over. Sixteen mugs. Not bad. Mat set aside his own drink, left a few coins as payment, then nodded farewell to Melli. He collected his winnings on the wager regarding the drinking man from a long-fingered fellow in the corner. Mat had bet on seventeen mugs, which was close enough to win some. Then he was on his way, taking his walking stick from the stand by the door.
The bouncer, Berg, eyed him. Berg had a face ugly enough to make his own mother wince. The shoulderthumper did not like Mat, and from the way Berg looked at Melli, that was probably because he figured Mat was trying to make eyes at his woman. Never mind that Mat had explained he was married, and did not do that sort of thing any longer. Some men would be jealous no matter what they were told.
The streets of Caemlyn were busy, even at this late hour. The paving stones were damp from a recent shower, though those clouds had passed by and—remarkably—left the sky open to the air. He moved northward along the street, heading for another tavern he knew, one where men diced for silver and gold. Mat was not about any specific task to night, just listening for rumors, getting a feel for Caemlyn. A lot had changed since he had been here last.
As he walked, he could not help looking over his shoulder. Those bloody pictures had him unnerved. Many of the people on the street seemed suspicious. A few Murandians passed, looking so drunk that he could have lit their breath on fire. Mat kept his distance. After what had happened to him in Hinderstap, he figured he could not be too careful. Light, he had heard stories of paving stones attacking people. If a man could not trust the rocks under his feet, what could he trust?
He eventually reached the tavern he wanted, a cheery place called The Dead Man’s Breath. It had two toughs out front, holding cudgels they patted against enormous palms. Lots of extra tavern toughs were being hired these days. Mat would have to watch himself, not win too much. Tavernkeepers did not like a man winning too much, as it could bring a fight. Unless the man spent his winnings on food and drink. Then he could win all he liked, thank you very much.
The inside of this tavern was darker than The Seven-Striped Lass had been. The men here hunched low over drinks or games, and there was not much food being served. Just strong drinks. The wooden bar had nails whose heads jutted out a fingernail or so high and jabbed you in the arms. Mat figured they were working to pull themselves free and run for the door.
The tavernkeeper, Bernherd, was a greasy-haired Tairen with a mouth so small it looked like he had swallowed his lips by mistake. He smelled of radishes, and Mat had never seen him smile, not even when tipped. Most tavernkeepers would smile at the Dark One himself for a tip.
Mat hated gambling and drinking in a place where you had to keep one hand on your coin purse. But he had a mind to win some real money tonight, and there were dice games going and coins clinking, so he felt somewhat at home. The lace on his coat did get glances. Why had he taken to wearing that, anyway? Best have Lopin pull it off his cuffs when he got back to the camp. Well, not all of it. Some of it, maybe.
Mat found a game at the back being played by three men and a woman in breeches. She had short golden hair and nice eyes; Mat noticed those purely for Thom’s sake. She had a full bosom, anyway, and lately Mat had a mind for women who were more slender through the chest.
In minutes Mat was dicing with them, and that calmed him a measure. He kept his coin pouch in sight, though, laying it on the floor in front of him. Before long, the pile of coins beside it grew, mostly silvers.
“You hear about what happened over at Farrier’s Green?” one of the men asked his fellows as Mat tossed. “It was a terrible thing.” The speaker was a tall fellow, with a pinched-up face that looked like it had been closed in a door a few times. He called himself Chaser. Mat figured that was because the women ran away from him after they got a look at that face, and he had to run after them.
“What?” Clare asked. She was the golden-haired woman. Mat gave her a smile. He did not dice against women much, as most claimed to find dicing improper. Never mind that they never complained when a man bought them something nice with what he had won. Anyway, dicing with women was not fair, since one of his smiles could set their hearts fluttering and they would get all weak in the knees. But Mat did not smile at girls that way anymore. Besides, she had not responded to any of his smiles anyway.
“Jowdry,” Chaser said as Mat shook his dice. “They found him dead this morning. Throat ripped clean out. Body was drained of blood, like a wineskin full of holes.”
Mat was so startled that he threw the dice, but did not watch them roll. “What?” he demanded. “What did you say?”
“Here now,” Chaser said, looking toward Mat. “It’s just someone we knew. Owed me two crowns, he did.”
“Drained of blood,” Mat said. “Are you sure? Did you see the body?”
“What?” Chaser said, grimacing. “Bloody ashes, man! What’s wrong with you?”
“Chaser,” Clare said. “Will you look at that?”
The lean man glanced down, as did Mat. The dice he had tossed—all three of them—had landed still and were balanced on their corners. Light! He had tossed coins so they fell on their sides before, but he had never done anything like this.
Right there, all of a sudden, the dice started rattling inside his head. He almost jumped clear to the ceiling. Blood and bloody ashes! Those dice in his head never meant anything good. They only stopped when something changed, something that usually meant bad news for poor Matrim Cauthon.
“I ain’t never . . .” Chaser said.
“We’ll call that a loss,” Mat said, tossing a few coins down and scooping up the rest of his winnings.
“What do you know about Jowdry?” Clare demanded. She was reaching for her waist. Mat would have bet gold against coppers on her having a knife there, the way she glared at him.
“Nothing,” Mat said. Nothing and too much at the same time. “Excuse me.”
He hastily crossed the tavern. As he did, he noticed one of the thick-armed toughs from the door standing and talking to Bernherd the tavernkeeper, pointing at a piece of paper in his hands. Mat could not see what was on it, but he could guess: his own face.
He cursed and ducked out onto the street. He took the first alley he saw, breaking into a run.
The Forsaken hunting him, a picture of his face in the pocket of every footpad in the city and a corpse killed and drained of its blood. That could only mean one thing. The gholam was in Caemlyn. It seemed impossible that it could have gotten here this quickly. Of course, Mat had seen it squeeze through a hole not two handspans wide. The thing did not seem to have a right sense of what was possible and what was not possible.
Blood and bloody ashes, he thought, ducking his head. He needed to collect Thom and get back to the Band’s camp outside of the city. He hastened down the dark, rain-slicked street. Paving stones reflected the lit oil lamps ahead. Elayne kept the Queen’s Walk well illuminated at night.
He had sent word to her, but had not gotten a reply. How was that for gratitude? By his count, he had saved her life twice. Once should have been enough to reduce her to tears and kisses, but he had not seen even a peck on the cheek. Not that he wanted one; not from royalty. Best to avoid them.
You’re married to a bloody high lady of the Seanchan, he thought. Daughter of the Empress herself. There was no avoiding royalty now! Not for him. At least Tuon was pretty. And good at playing stones. And very keen of wit, good for talking to, even if she was flaming frustrating most of the . . .
No. No thinking of Tuon right now.
Anyway, he had received no reply from Elayne. He would need to be more firm. It was not just Aludra and her dragons now. The bloody gholam was in the city.
He stepped out onto a large, busy street, hands pushed into the pockets of his coat. In his haste, he had left his walking staff back in The Dead Man’s Breath. He grumbled to himself; he was supposed to be spending his days relaxing, his nights dicing in fine inns, and his mornings sleeping late while waiting for Verin’s thirty-day requirement to run out. Now this.
He had a score to settle with that gholam. The innocents it had slaughtered while lurking around Ebou Dar were bad enough, and Mat had not forgotten Nalesean and the five Redarms who had been murdered either. Bloody ashes, it had had enough to answer for already. Then it had taken Tylin.
Mat removed a hand from his pocket, feeling at the foxhead medallion, resting—as always—against his chest. He was tired of running from that monster. A plan started to form in his mind, accompanied by the rattling of dice. He tried to banish the image of the Queen lying in bonds Mat himself had tied, her head ripped free. There would have been so much blood. The gholamlived on fresh blood.
Mat shivered, shoving his hand back into his pocket as he approached the city gate. Despite the darkness, he could pick out signs of the battle that had been fought here. An arrowhead embedded into the doorway of a building to his left, a dark patch on the wall of a guard house, staining the wood beneath the window. A man had died there, perhaps while firing a crossbow out, and had slumped down over the window’s ledge, bleeding his lifeblood down the wood.
That siege was over now, and a new Queen—the right Queen—held the throne. For once, there had been a battle and he had missed it. Remembering that lightened his mood somewhat. An entire war had been fought over the Lion Throne, and not one arrow, blade or spear had entered the conflict seeking Matrim Cauthon’s heart.
He turned right, along the inside of the city wall. There were a lot of inns here. There were always inns near city gates. Not the nicest ones, but almost always the most profitable ones.
Light spilled from doorways and windows, painting the road golden in patches. Dark forms crowded the alleyways except where the inns had hired men to keep the poor away. Caemlyn was strained. The flood of refugees, the recent fighting, the . . . other matters. Stories abounded of the dead walking, of food spoiling, of whitewashed walls suddenly going grimy.
The inn where Thom had chosen to perform was a steep-roofed, brick-fronted structure with a sign that showed two apples, one eaten down to the core. That made it stark white, the other was stark red—colors of the Andoran flag. The Two Apples was one of the nicer establishments in the area.
Mat could hear the music from outside. He entered and saw Thom sitting atop a small dais on the far side of the common room, playing his flute and wearing his patchwork gleeman’s cloak. His eyes were closed as he played, his mustaches drooping long and white on either side of the instrument. It was a haunting tune, “The Marriage of Cinny Wade.” Mat had learned it as “Always Choose the Right Horse,” and still was not used to it being performed as slowly as Thom did.
A small collection of coins was scattered on the floor in front of Thom. The inn allowed him to play for tips. Mat stopped near the doorway and leaned back to listen. Nobody spoke in the common room, though it was stuffed so full Mat could have made half a company of soldiers just with the men inside. Every eye was on Thom.
Mat had been all around the world now, walking a great deal of it on his own two feet. He had nearly lost his skin in a dozen different cities, and had stayed in inns far and near. He had heard gleemen, performers and bards. Thom made the entire lot seem like children with sticks, banging on pots.
The flute was a simple instrument. A lot of nobles would rather hear the harp instead; one man in Ebou Dar had told Mat the harp was more “elevated.” Mat figured he would have gone slack-jawed and saucer-eyed if he had heard Thom play. The gleeman made the flute sound like an extension of his own soul. Soft trills, minor scales and powerfully bold long holds. Such a lamenting melody. Who was Thom sorrowing for?
The crowd watched. Caemlyn was one of the greatest cities in the world, but still the variety seemed incredible. Crusty Illianers sat beside smooth Domani, crafty Cairhienin, stout Tairens and a sprinkling of Borderlanders. Caemlyn was seen as one of the few places where one could be safe from both the Seanchan and the Dragon. There was food, too.
Thom finished the piece and moved on to another without opening his eyes. Mat sighed, hating to break up Thom’s performance. Unfortunately, it was time to be moving on back to camp. They had to talk about the gholam, and Mat needed to find a way to get through to Elayne. Maybe Thom would go talk to her for him.
Mat nodded to the innkeeper—a stately, dark-haired woman named Bromas. She nodded to Mat, hoop earrings catching the light. She was a little older than his normal taste—but then, Tylin had been her age. He would keep her in mind. For one of his men, of course. Maybe Vanin.
Mat reached the stage, then began to scoop up the coins. He would let Thom finish and—
Mat’s hand jerked. His arm was suddenly pinned by the cuff to the stage, a knife sticking through the cloth. The thin length of metal quivered. Mat glanced up to find Thom still playing, though the gleeman had cracked an eye before throwing the knife.
Thom raised his hand back up and continued playing, a smile showing on his puckered lips. Mat grumbled and yanked his cuff free, waiting as Thom finished this tune, which was not as doleful as the other. When the lanky gleeman lowered the flute, the room burst into applause.
Mat favored the gleeman with a scowl. “Burn you, Thom. This is one of my favorite coats!”
“Be glad I did not aim for the hand,” Thom noted, wiping down the flute, nodding to the cheering and applause of the inn’s patrons. They called for him to continue, but he shook a regretful head and replaced his flute in its case.
“I almost wish you would have,” Mat said, raising his cuff and sticking a finger through the holes. “Blood would not have shown that much on the black, but the stitching will be obvious. Just because you wear more patches than cloak doesn’t mean I want to imitate you.”
“And you complain that you’re not a lord,” Thom said, leaning down to collect his earnings.
“I’m not!” Mat said. “And never mind what Tuon said, burn you. I’m no bloody nobleman.”
“Ever heard of a farmer complaining that his coat stitches would show?”
“You don’t have to be a lord to want to dress with some sense,” Mat grumbled.
Thom laughed, slapping him on the back and hopping down. “I’m sorry, Mat. I moved by instinct, didn’t realize it was you until I saw the face attached to the arm. By then, the knife was already out of my fingers.”
Mat sighed. “Thom,” he said grimly, “an old friend is in town. One who leaves folks dead with their throats ripped clean out.”
Thom nodded, looking troubled. “I heard about it from some guardsmen during my break. And we’re stuck here in the city unless you decide . . .”
“I’m not opening the letter,” Mat said. “Verin could have left instructions for me to crawl all the way to Falme on my hands, and I’d bloody have to do it! I know you hate the delay, but that letter could make a much worse delay.”
Thom nodded reluctantly.
“Let’s get back to camp,” Mat said.
The Band’s camp was a league outside of Caemlyn. Thom and Mat had not ridden in—walkers were less conspicuous, and Mat would not bring horses into the city until he found a stable that he trusted. The price of good horses was getting ridiculous. He had hoped to leave that behind once he left Seanchan lands, but Elayne’s armies were buying up every good horse they could find, and most of the not-so-good ones, too. Beyond that, he had heard that horses had a way of disappearing these days. Meat was meat, and people were close to starving, even in Caemlyn. It made Mat’s skin crawl, but it was the truth.
He and Thom spent the walk back talking about the gholam, deciding very little other than to make everyone alert and have Mat start sleeping in a different tent every night.
Mat glanced over his shoulder as the two of them crested a hilltop. Caemlyn was ablaze with the light of torches and lamps. Illumination hung over the city like a fog, grand spires and towers lit by the glow. The old memories inside him remembered this city—remembered assaulting it before Andor was even a nation. Caemlyn had never made for an easy fight. He did not envy the Houses that had tried to seize it from Elayne.
Thom stepped up beside him. “It seems like forever since we left here last, doesn’t it, Mat?”
“Burn me, but it does,” Mat said. “What ever convinced us to go hunting those fool girls? Next time, they can save themselves.”
Thom eyed him. “Aren’t we about to do the same thing? When we go to the Tower of Ghenjei?”
“It’s different. We can’t leave her with them. Those snakes and foxes—”
“I’m not complaining, Mat,” Thom said. “I’m just thoughtful.”
Thom seemed thoughtful a lot, lately. Moping around, caressing that worn letter from Moiraine. It was only a letter. “Come on,” Mat said, turning back along the road. “You were telling me about getting in to see the Queen?”
Thom joined him on the dark roadway. “I’m not surprised she hasn’t replied to you, Mat. She’s probably got her hands full. Word is that Trollocs have invaded the Borderlands in force, and Andor is still fractured from the Succession. Elayne—”
“Do you have any good news, Thom?” Mat said. “Tell me some, if you do. I’ve a mind for it.”
“I wish that The Queen’s Blessing were still open. Gill always had tidbits to share.”
“Good news,” Mat prodded again.
“All right. Well, the Tower of Ghenjei is right where Domon said. I have word from three other ship’s captains. It’s past an open plain several hundred miles northwest of Whitebridge.”
Mat nodded, rubbing his chin. He felt like he could remember something of the tower. A silvery structure, unnatural, in the distance. A trip on a boat, water lapping at the sides. Bayle Domon’s thick Illianer accent . . .
Those images were vague to Mat; his memories of the time were full of more holes than one of Jori Congar’s alibis. Bayle Domon had been able to tell them where to find the tower, but Mat wanted confirmation. The way Domon bowed and scraped for Leilwin made Mat itch. Neither showed Mat much affection, for all the fact that he had saved them. Not that he had wanted any affection from Leilwin. Kissing her would be about as fun as kissing a stoneoak’s bark.
“You think Domon’s description will be enough for someone to make us one of those gateways there?” Mat asked.
“I don’t know,” Thom said. “Though that’s a secondary problem, I should think. Where are we going to find someone to make a gateway? Verin has vanished.”
“I’ll find a way.”
“If you don’t, we’ll end up spending weeks traveling to the place,” Thom said. “I don’t like—”
“I’ll find us a gateway,” Mat said firmly. “Maybe Verin will come back and release me from this bloody oath.”
“Best that one stays away,” Thom said. “I don’t trust her. There’s something off about that one.”
“She’s Aes Sedai,” Mat said. “There’s something off about them all—like dice where the pips don’t add up—but for an Aes Sedai, I kind of like Verin. And I’m a good judge of character, you know that.”
Thom raised an eyebrow. Mat scowled back. “Either way,” Thom said, “we should probably start sending guards with you when you visit the city.”
“Guards won’t help against the gholam.”
“No, but what of the thugs who jumped you on your way back to camp three nights back?”
Mat shivered. “At least those were just good, honest thieves. They only wanted my purse, nice and natural. Not a one had a picture of me in their pockets. And it’s not like they were twisted by the Dark One’s power to go crazy at sunset or anything.”
“Still,” Thom said.
Mat made no argument. Burn him, but he probably should be bringing soldiers with him. A few Redarms, anyway.
The camp was just ahead. One of Elayne’s clerks, a man named Norry, had granted the Band permission to camp in Caemlyn’s proximity. They had to agree to allow no more than a hundred men to go into the city on a given day, and had to camp at least a league from the walls, out of the way of any villages and not on anyone’s farmland.
Talking to that clerk meant Elayne knew Mat was here. She had to. But she had sent no greetings, no acknowledgment that she owed Mat her skin.
At a bend in the road, Thom’s lantern showed a group of Redarms lounging by the side. Gufrin, sergeant of a squad, stood and saluted. He was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man. Not terribly bright, but keen eyed.
“Lord Mat!” he said.
“Any news, Gufrin?” Mat asked.
The sergeant frowned to himself. “Well,” he said. “I think there’s something you might want to know.” Light! The man spoke more slowly than a drunk Seanchan. “The Aes Sedai came back to camp today. While you was away, my Lord.”
“All three of them?” Mat asked.
“Yes, my Lord.”
Mat sighed. If there had been any hope of this day turning out to be anything other than sour, that washed it away. He had hoped they would stay inside the city for a few more days.
He and Thom continued, leaving the road and heading down a path through a field of blackwasp nettles and knifegrass. The weeds crunched as they walked, Thom’s lantern lighting the brown stalks. On one hand, it was good to be back in Andor again; it almost felt like home, with those stands of leatherleaf trees and sourgum. However, coming back to find it looking so dead was disheartening.
What to do about Elayne? Women were troublesome. Aes Sedai were worse. Queens were the worst of the lot. And she was all bloody three. How was he going to get her to give him her foundries? He had taken Verin’s offer in part because he thought it would get him to Andor quicker, and therefore to start work on Aludra’s dragons!
Ahead, the Band’s camp sat on a small series of hills, entrenched around the largest of them at the center. Mat’s force had met up with Estean and the others that had gone ahead to Andor, and the Band was well and truly whole again. Fires burned; there was no trouble finding dead wood for fires these days. Smoke lingered in the air, and Mat heard men chatting and calling. It was not too late yet, and Mat did not enforce a curfew. If he could not relax, at least his men could. It might be the last chance they got before the Last Battle.
Trollocs in the Borderlands, Mat thought. We need those dragons. Soon.
Mat returned salutes from a few guard posts and parted with Thom, meaning to go find a bed and sleep on his problems for the night. As he did, he noted a few changes he could make to the camp. The way the hillsides were arranged, a light cavalry charge could come galloping through the corridor between them. Only someone very bold would try such a tactic, but he had done just that during the Battle of Marisin Valley back in old Coremanda. Well, not Mathimself, but someone in those old memories.
More and more, he simply accepted those memories as his own. He had not asked for them—no matter what those bloody foxes claimed—but he had paid for them with the scar around his neck. They had been useful on more than one occasion.
He finally reached his tent, intending to get fresh smallclothes before finding a different tent for the night, when he heard a woman’s voice calling to him. “Matrim Cauthon!”
Bloody ashes. He had almost made it. He turned reluctantly.
Teslyn Baradon was not a pretty woman, though she might have made a passable paperbark tree, with those bony fingers, those narrow shoulders and that gaunt face. She wore a red dress, and over the weeks her eyes had lost most of the nervous skittishness she had shown since spending time as a damane. She had a glare so practiced she could have won a staring contest with a post.
“Matrim Cauthon,” she said, stepping up to him. “I do be needing to speak with you.”
“Well, seems that you’re doing so already,” Mat said, dropping his hand from his tent flap. He had a slight fondness for Teslyn, against his better judgment, but he was not about to invite her in. No more than he would invite a fox into his henhouse, regardless of how kindly he thought of the fox in question.
“So I do be,” she replied. “You’ve heard the news of the White Tower?”
“News?” Mat said. “No, I’ve heard no news. Rumors though . . . I’ve a brainful of those. Some say the White Tower has been reunified, which is what you’re probably talking about. But I’ve also heard just as many claiming that it is still at war. And that the Amyrlin fought the Last Battle in Rand’s place, and that the Aes Sedai have decided to raise an army of soldiers by giving birth to them, and that flying monsters attacked the White Tower. That last one is probably just stories of raken drifting up from the south. But I think the one about Aes Sedai raising an army of babies holds some water.”
Teslyn regarded him with a flat stare. He did not look away. Good thing Mat’s father had always said he was more stubborn than a flaming tree stump.
Remarkably, Teslyn sighed, her face softening. “You be, of course, rightly skeptical. But we cannot ignore the news. Even Edesina, who foolishly sided with the rebels, does wish to return. We do plan to go in the morning. As it is your habit to sleep late, I wanted to come to you tonight in order to give you my thanks.”
“My thanks, Master Cauthon,” Teslyn said dryly. “This trip did not be easy upon any of us. There have been moments of . . . tension. I do not say that I agree with each decision you made. That do not remove the fact that without you, I would still be in Seanchan hands.” She shivered. “I pretend, during my more confident moments, that I would have resisted them and eventually escaped on my own. It do be important to maintain some illusions with yourself, would you not say?”
Mat rubbed his chin. “Maybe, Teslyn. Maybe indeed.”
Remarkably, she held out her hand to him. “Remember, should you ever come to the White Tower, you do have women there who are in your debt, Matrim Cauthon. I do not forget.”
He took the hand. It felt as bony as it looked, but it was warmer than he had expected. Some Aes Sedai had ice running in their veins, that was for certain. But others were not so bad.
She nodded to him. A respectful nod. Almost a bow. Mat released her hand, feeling as unsettled as if someone had kicked his legs out from underneath him. She turned to walk back toward her own tent.
“You’ll be needing horses,” he said. “If you wait to leave until I get up in the morning, I’ll give you some. And some provisions. Wouldn’t do for you to starve before you get to Tar Valon, and from what we’ve seen lately, the villages you’ll pass won’t have anything to spare.”
“You told Joline—”
“I counted my horses again,” Mat said. Those dice were still rattling in his head, burn them. “I did another count of the Band’s horses. Turns out, we have some to spare. You may take them.”
“I did not come to you tonight to manipulate you into giving me horses,” Teslyn said. “I do be sincere.”
“So I figured,” Mat said, turning lifting up the flap to his tent. “That’s why I made the offer.” He stepped into the tent.
There, he froze. That scent . . .