They wanted safe conduct?” Elayne said incredulously. “To enter Caemlyn?” Lightning flashed outside the windows, and thunder boomed. Outside, a deluge fell on Caemlyn. a hammering downpour. The sun must have been well above the horizon, but the stand-lamps were lit against twilight darkness.
The slender young man standing in front of her low-backed chair colored with embarrassment, yet he continued to look her in the eye. He was little more than a boy. really, his smooth cheeks likely shaved as much for torm as because he needed a razor very often. Very properly, Hanselle Renshar, Arathelle’s grandson, wore neither sword nor armor, but the marks or breastplate straps remained on his green coat. imprinted by long wear. A large damp spot on his left shoulder showed where his cloak had leaked through. Odd, the things you noticed at times like this. “I was instructed to ask for it, my Lady,” he said, his voice steady.
Dyelin, arms folded beneath her breasts, grunted sourly. She was not far from scowling. Mistress Harfor, resplendent as always in her crimson tabard with the White Lion spotless on her formidable bosom. sniffed audibly. Hanselle colored again. They were in Elayne’s smaller sitting room, where a small fire on the marble hearth took away most of the morning’s chill and lamp oil scented the air with roses. She wished Birgitte was there. From the mild irritation flowing through the bond, she was dealing with reports. Her annoyance was not great enough for it to be anything more urgent.
The arrival of Luan and the others below the city two days ago with their sixty thousand armsmen had occasioned more than a little excitement, and impromptu celebrations in the streets by the citizens, once it became clear they were not going to occupy the camps abandoned when Jarid Sarand left. Taking with him men from Houses that now sided with Elayne, though they could not know it yet. The Light only knew what trouble that bloody man was going to cause. But Hanselle’s message put a new complexion on the huge encampment just a mile south of Low Caemlyn. If Arathelle, Luan and the others knew about the city being supplied from Tear and Illian through gateways, and surely everyone in Andor knew by this time, perhaps they had decided a siege would accomplish nothing. Safe conduct was a matter of battle lines. Perhaps they intended to call for Caemlyn’s surrender to avoid a grand assault. The proclamations of support, carried by Kinswomen rather than riders, had been posted from Aringill to the mining villages in the Mountains of Mist, or soon would be, but even with Sumeko and other Kinswomen wearing themselves out in Healing, the armsmen of Caeren, Anshar and Baryn who had not been carried off by Jarid did not bring her numbers anywhere near sixty thousand. Small bands of arms-men were beginning to flow into the city as word spread that it was safe to approach Caemlyn, but not enough yet. It might be a week or more before sizeable parties appeared. Those had been staying clear of the city for fear of Arymilla’s army. The outcome of a massive assault was not a foregone conclusion-men atop a wall had considerable advantage over those trying to scale it-but it would be a near run thing at best, and no hope for more help soon. Dyelin had paid another visit to Danine Candraed in the west, but the woman still dithered. Elayne had nine Houses where she needed ten. everything hung in the balance, and Danine could not bloody decide whether or not to stand for Trakand.
“’Why do they wish to speak with me?” She managed to keep Birgitte’s irritation from tinging her voice. Birgitte’s and her own.
Hanselle reddened yet again. He seemed to do that easily. Burn her, they truly had sent a boy! “I was not informed, my Lady. I was simply told to ask for safe conduct.” He hesitated. “They will not enter Caemlyn without it. my Lady.”
Rising, she went to her writing desk, removed a smooth sheet of good white paper from the rosewood paper-box and dipped a pen in the silver-mounted crystal ink jar. Precise letters flowed onto the page without her usual flourishes. She was short and to the point.
Lord Luan Norwelyn. Lady Arathelle Renshar, Lord Pelivar Coelan, Lady Aemlyn Carand, Lady Ellorien Traemane and Lord Abelle Pendar may feel safe in entering Caemlyn and be assured that they and their retinues may depart the city at any time they wish. I will receive them informally this afternoon in the Grand Hall as befits their stations. We must speak of the Borderlanders.
Elayne Trakand Daughter-Heir of Andor High Seat of House Trakand She tried to maintain calm, but the steel nib dug into the paper with the last letters. Safe conduct. She channeled a sealing candle alight, and her hand trembled as she dribbled golden yellow wax onto the page. They implied she would try to hold them by force. No, more than implied! They as good as said it! She pressed her seal, a blossoming lily, into the wax as if trying to drive it through the tabletop.
“Here.” she said, handing the sheet to the young man. Her voice was ice, and she made no effort to warm it. “If this fails to make them feel safe, perhaps they might try wrapping themselves in swaddling.” Thunder boomed for punctuation.
He colored once more, this time plainly in anger, but wisely confined himself to offering thanks as he folded the page. He was carefully tucking it inside his coat when Mistress Harfor showed him out. She would escort him to his horse personally. A messenger from nobles as powerful as Luan and the others had to be given a certain level of honor.
Suddenly Elayne’s anger turned to sadness. She could not have said what she was sad over. Her moods often seemed to change without cause. Perhaps for all those who had died and all those who would. “Are you certain you don’t want to be queen, Dyelin? Luan and that lot would stand for you in a heartbeat, and if I stand for you, those who’ve stood for me will stand with me. Burn me, Danine would probably stand for you.”
Dyelin took a chair, spreading her blue skirts carefully, before answering. “I’m absolutely certain. Running my own House is work enough for me without adding all of Andor to it. Besides, I disapprove of the throne changing Houses without good cause-the lack of a Daughter-Heir, or worse, one who’s a fool or incompetent, cruel or greedy. You’re none of those things. Continuity provides stability, and stability brings prosperity.” She nodded; she liked that turn of phrase. “Mind, had you died before returning to Caemlyn and making your claim, I would have entered my own, but the simple truth is. you’ll make a better ruler than I would. Better for Andor. In part that’s because of your connection to the Dragon Reborn.” Dyelin’s raised eyebrow invited Elayne to expound on that connection.’“But in large part,” she went on when Elayne said nothing, “it’s you yourself. I watched you grow up, and by the time you were fifteen I knew you’d be a good queen, perhaps as good as Andor has ever had.”
Elayne’s face grew hot, and tears welled in her eyes. Burn her bouncing moods! Only she knew she could not blame her pregnancy this time. Praise from Dyelin was like praise from her mother, never grudging, but never given unless she felt it was deserved.
Her morning was busy, and she had only Caemlyn and the palace to deal with rather than all of Andor. Mistress Harfor reported that the spies in the palace who could be confirmed as reporting to Arymilla or her allies had grown very quiet and still, like mice that feared a cat might be watching.
“At least it’s safe to dismiss them now, my Lady.” Reene said in tones of great satisfaction. She disliked having spies in the Royal Palace as much as Elayne did, perhaps more. Daughter-Heir or Queen might live in the palace, but in the First Maid’s eyes, it belonged to her. “All of them.” Spies for others had been left in place so that no one would suspect that Reene knew.
“Keep them all on and continue to watch them,” Elayne told her. “They’re the most likely to take coin from someone else, and we know who they are.” A spy who was known could be kept from learning anything they should not, and you could make sure they learned exactly what you wanted them to. That went for the Ajah eyes-and-ears Mistress Harfor had uncovered, too. The Ajahs had no right to spy on her, and if she occasionally spoon-fed them false information, it would be their own fault if they acted on it. She could not do that too often or they would realize she had uncovered their spies, but she could at need.
“As you say, my Lady. The world has changed, hasn’t it?”
“I’m afraid it has, Mistress Harfor.”
The round woman nodded sadly, but she quickly returned to business. “One of the windows in the Grand Hall has developed a leak, my Lady. I’d have seen to anything minor without bothering you, but this is a crack in the glass, which means calling in…” The list of problems that needed Elayne’s approval and papers that needed her signature went on.
Master Norry reported on wagonloads of grain and beans and trade goods in that dusty voice of his. and announced with some surprise that the number of arsons had not decreased. Seventeen buildings had burned in the night. He had been sure the capture of Arymilla would see an end to that, and he was rueful over being wrong. He brought death warrants in the names of Rhys a’Balaman and Aldred Gomaisen for her to sign and seal. Mercenaries who turned their colors could expect no more unless their new masters prevailed. Evard Cordwyn had died at the gate or he would have gone to the gallows, too. Hafeen Bakuvun had sent a petition asking a reward for his actions at the Far Madding Gate, yet that was easy enough to reject. The presence of the Domani mercenary and his men might well have been the difference in the gate holding until Dyelin arrived, but they had been earning their pay, no more.
“The prisoners are still being closemouthed, I fear,” Norry said, sliding the refused petition back into his leather folder. He seemed to feel that if he did that quickly enough it was the same as never having removed it. “The Darkfriend Aes Sedai, I mean, my Lady. And the other two. Very closemouthed except for… um… invective. Mellar is the worst with that, shouting about what he intends to do to the women who arrested him.” Deni had taken her instuctions literally; the Guardswomen had pummeled Mellar severely, leaving him a mass of bruises from head to foot, “but the Aes Sedai can be quite… um… vituperative, as well. I fear it may be necessary to put them to the question if we hope to learn anything useful.”
“Don’t call them Aes Sedai,” she snapped. Hearing “Aes Sedai” linked with “Darkfriend” made her stomach writhe. “Those women have given up any right to be called Aes Sedai.” She had taken their Great Serpent rings herself and had them melted down. That was Eg-wene’s prerogative, not hers, and she might well be reprimanded for it, but she could not restrain herself. “Ask the Lady Sylvase for the use of her secretary.” She had no questioners among her people, and accorddng to Aviendha, an unskilled questioner was likely to kill the one being put unsuccessfully to the question. When was her sister going to be allowed to visit? Light, she missed Aviendha. “I suspect he’s no such thing.’’ Lightning lit up the windows of the sitting room, the glassed casements rattling with the boom of its thunder.
Norry pressed his fingertips together, holding the folder against his ink-stained tabard with the heels of his hands and frowning gravely. “Few people keep a private questioner, my Lady. It suggests… um… a dark side. But then, as I understand matters, her grandfather chased away every man who showed interest in her until men stopped showing interest, and she has been virtually a prisoner since reaching her majority. That would tend to give anyone a dark view of the world. She may not… um… be as trustworthy as you could wish, my Lady.”
“Do you think you can bribe some of her servants to be my eyes-and-ears?” How easy it was to ask that. Spies had become a part of her life, as much as masons or glaziers.
“That should be possible, my Lady. I will know for certain in a day or two.” Once, he would have been horrified by the very idea of having anything to do with spying. All things changed eventually, it seemed. His hands shifted on the folder, almost but not quite opening it. “I fear the sewers in the southern part of the New City need attention urgently.”
Elayne sighed. Not everything changed. Burn her. once she did have all of Andor, she suspected she would seldom have an hour to herself. What didLuan and the others want?
Not long after midmorning, Melfane Dawlish appeared and had Essande and Neris strip Elayne to the skin so she could be weighed in a huge, wooden-armed balance scale the midwife had brought along, a daily ritual. The brass pan was padded with a blanket, thank the Light! The stout little woman listened to her heart though a hollow wooden tube pressed to her chest and back, thumbed back her eyelids to examine her eyes, and smelled her breath. She had Elayne make water, then held the glass jar up to the light of a stand-lamp to study it. She smelled that, too, and even dipped a finger in and licked it! It was another daily ritual. Elayne averted her eyes, pulling her flower-embroidered silk robe tight around her. but she still shuddered. This time, Melfane noticed.
“I can tell some sickness from changes in the taste, my Lady. Anyway,there’s worse things. My boy Jaem, the one who carried the scale for me, his first paid job of work was mucking out in a stable. He claimed everything he ate tasted like-” Her round belly shook with laughter. “Well, you can imagine, my Lady.” Elayne could, and was glad she was not prone to nausea. She shuddered again anyway. Essande seemed quite composed, hands folded at her waist and watching her niece with approval, but Neris looked about to sick up. “Pity he can’t learn my craft, but no one would buy herbs from a man. Or have a man midwife.” Melfane laughed uproariously at that ridiculous notion. “Wants to be apprenticed to an armorer, of all things. Old for it, but there it is. Now, you be sure to read to your babe.” She was more than doubtful of Elayne’s claim that she would have a boy and a girl. She would not accept it until she could hear their heartbeats, and that would be some few weeks yet. “And have musicians play for her. She’ll learn the sound of your voice. Learn to like reading and music, too. It helps in other ways besides. Makes the child brighter.”
“You say that every time, Mistress Dawlish.” Elayne said peevishly. “I can remember, you know. And I am doing it.”
Melfane laughed again, a twinkle in her dark eyes. She accepted Elayne’s bouncing moods the way she accepted rain and lightning. “You’d be surprised how many don’t believe a babe in the womb can hear, but I can see the difference in those who get read to and those who don’t. Do you mind if I have a few words with my aunt before I go. my Lady? I brought her a pie and an ointment for her joints.” Es-sande’s face reddened. Well, now that her lie was exposed, she would accept Healing or Elayne would know the reason why.
At the end of the midday meal. Elayne brought up the intentions of Luan and the others with Birgitte. It was a wonderful meal, and she ate ravenously. Melfane had lambasted the cooks and every other woman in earshot for the bland diet they had been reeding her. Today there were small pond trout grilled to perfection, cabbage rolls stuffed with ctumbly white ewe’s milk cheese, broad beans with pinenuts, and a tangy apple tart. Another reason it was marvelous was that nothing had the faintest hint of spoiling. To drink, there was good black tea with mint that made her tense for a moment until she realized it really was mint. The only thing Melfane had forbidden was wine, however well watered. Birgitte had even given up drinking herself, though it seemed impossible it could have any effect through the bond. Elayne refrained from pointing that out. Birgitte had been drinking too much to dull the pain of losing her Gaidal. Elayne understood even if she did not approve. She could not imagine what she would do if Rand died.
“I don’t know,” Birgitte said after wolfing down the last of her tart. “My best guess is they’ve come to ask you to help them move against the Borderlanders. The one bloody thing that’s sure is that they didn’t bloody come to throw their support to you.”
“That’s my best guess, too.” Elayne picked up crumbs of cheese with a damp fingertip and popped them into her mouth. She could have eaten as much again as had been on her plate, but Melfane had announced her strict intention to limit her weight gain. Just enough and not too much. Perhaps a cow being fattened for market felt like this. “Unless they’re going to demand I surrender Caemlyn.”
“There’s always that,” Birgitte said, sounding almost cheerful. The bond said she was anything but. “We still have watchers in the towers, though, and Julanya and Keraille have gotten work as laundresses in their camp, so we’ll know if they begin to move against the city before the first man sets out.”
Elayne wished she did not sigh so often. Burn her, she had Arymilla. Naean and Elenia under guard and definitely not enjoying sharing a bed-she knew the thought should not give her pleasure but it did-and she had gained three more allies, if not necessarily the most solid. At least they were tied to her inextricably, now. She should have been feeling triumphant.
That afternoon. Essande and Sephanie dressed her in dark green slashed with emerald on the skirts and embroidered with silver across the bosom, down the sleeves and around the hem. For jewelry, she wore her Great Serpent ring and a large silver pin enameled blue except for the shape of Trakand’s Keystone. The pin made her morose. Inside the House it was said that Trakand was the keystone that held Andor together. She had not done a very good job of it so far.
She and Birgitte took turns reading aloud to her babes. From histories, of course; if Melfane was right, she did not want to direct them to frivolous tales. Dry stuff, it was. A plump man in red and white played the flute while a lean woman in livery played the twelve-string bittern, producing lively, joyous tunes. At least when crashes of thunder did not drown them out. Bards did not grow on trees, and Birgitte had been uncertain about allowing anyone from outside the palace near Elayne, but Mistress Harfor had found a number of accomplished musicians who had leapt at the chance to put on livery. Their pay was considerably better in the palace than in a common room, and their clothing was provided with it. Elayne thought of trying to hire a gleeman. but that made her think of Thom. Was he dry? Was he even alive? All she could do was pray. The Light send it so. Please.
Mistress Harfor came to announce the arrival of Luan, Arathelle and the others, and Elayne donned the coronet of the Daughter-Heir, a simple gold band that held a single golden rose surrounded by thorns above her brows. Caseille, along with eight Guardswomen, fell in behind her, Birgitte and Essande as they left her apartments, boots thudding loudly on the floor tiles in step. Nine Guardswomen had been among the dead when she was rescued from the Darkfriends, and that seemed to have bonded the others together even more tightly. They got lost twice finding their way to the Grand Hall, but no one so much as murmured. What were shifting corridors when you had faced Power-wrought fire and lightning? The great arched doors of the Grand Hall, carved with tall lions on both sides, stood open, and Caseille took the Guardswomen to stand in front of them while she, Birgitte and Essande went in.
The tall windows in the walls were dark with rain except when lightning flashed, but the mirrored stand-lamps, against the walls and around the white columns that marched in rows along the sides of the chamber, were all lit. A loud, steady plunk-plunk-plunk echoed in the vast space, drops falling into a prosaic wooden bucket standing beneath one of the colored windows set in the ceiling twenty paces overhead. where one of the rearing White Lions had beads of water glistening along a crack, near scenes of battle and the faces of Andor’s earliest queens. As always in this hall, Elayne felt those women judging her as she crossed the red-and-white floor tiles. They had built Andor with the sharpness of their minds and the blood of their sons and husbands, beginning with a single city and molding a strong nation out of the rubble of Artur Hawkwing’s empire. They had a right to judge any woman who sat on the Lion Throne. She suspected their visages had been placed there so every queen would feel her actions judged by history.
The throne itself sat atop a white marble dais at the far end of the chamber, carved and gilded and sized for a woman, yet massive on its lion-pawed legs. The White Lion, formed from moonstones set in a field of glittering rubies on its tall back, would stand above the head of the tallest woman who sat on that throne. Dyelin was already standing at the foot of the dais’s steps, watching Sylvase converse with Conail and Catalyn while Branlet and Perival listened closely. Perival raked his fingers through his hair and nodded. Did Dyelin have questions about Sylvase, too? Lir and Karind stood apart from the rest, and apart from each other as well. Neither even glanced at the other. Having been allies against Elayne, they would not want her to think they were allied still. Essande went to join the serving men and women in the liveries of the eight other Houses, gathered around a table that held tall silver pitchers of wine and tea. That was what informal meant in this context. Each of them would bring a single servant in attendance. For a formal meeting, Elayne would have provided all of the servants, and the Grand Hall would have been crowded with every noble in Caemlyn, every noble from the encampment below Caemlyn.
“Ellorien may well be provocative, Elayne,” Dyelin said for about the fifth time since hearing of the safe conduct request. Her face was cool and calm, yet she must have been feeling her nerves. Her hands smoothed unnecessarily at her gold-embroidered skirts.
“I won’t let her provoke me,” Elayne replied. “Neither will anyone else. I mean you, Conail. and you, Lir.” Conail, in gold-worked blue, colored as quickly as Hanselle had. He had gotten into a fight with a mercenary he thought had spoken disparagingly of Elayne and almost killed the man. It was well for him the other man had begun drawing his sword first. Even mercenaries deserved justice, and Andor was not Tear, where nobles could kill commoners with impunity. Well, before Rand changed so many of their laws. Burn him, why is he leaping about so?
“I stood for you. Elayne, and that means I always stand up for you,” Lir said smoothly. He looked every inch the self-confident courtier in silver-embroidered green silk with House Baryn’s silver Winged Hammer on the collar, yet he was too smooth by half, Lir was. “But I’ll hold my temper whatever Ellorien says.” The bond surged with fleeting contempt. Trying to demonstrate how loyal he was to Elayne, Lir had fought with mercenaries three times. In two days. The man had to have been searching for fights to manage that.
“If she tries to goad us, why should we bite our tongues?” Catalyn demanded. Her red dress, embroidered with broad bands of gold at the hem and on the sleeves, did not suit her coloring, especially when her plump cheeks were crimson with anger. Her chin was raised. Perhaps she wore that large enameled pin bearing Haevin’s Blue Bear where she did so she would be forced to keep her chin high and look down her nose at everyone. “I’ve never allowed anyone to poke at me and walk away unscathed.”
“An ox responds to the goad and does as the ox-herd wants,” Dyelin said drily. “The same way you will be doing what Ellorien wants if you respond to her goads.” The crimson remained in Catalyn’s cheeks, no doubt from embarrassment, now.
Reene Harfor appeared in the doorway. “My Ladies,” she said loudly, her voice echoing in the nearly empty chamber. “My Lords.”
This was informality, when two sides met and there was no knowing how far apart they were. Mistress Harfor announced the newly arrived lords and ladies in strict order of precedence, though among the Houses gathered here, there was not a great deal between them. Luan Norwelyn, hard-faced and more gray-haired than when Elayne last saw him, his blue coat undecorated except for Norwelyn’s Silver Salmon on the high collar. Arathelle Renshar, her face creased and her brown hair thick with gray, in a red riding dress ornately worked with gold and a large ruby-studded pin that displayed the three Golden Hounds. Peli-var Coelan, tall and lean, his dark hair receding till he almost looked as if he had shaved the front of his head like a Cairhienin. in silver-embroidered blue with twinned red roses worked on his collar, the Roses of Coelan. Aemlyn Carand, plump in gray silk with the three Golden Arrows climbing her sleeves and so thick on her bosom she looked like a bristling quiver. Ellorien Traemane, not so plump as Elayne recalled but still pretty in green-slashed blue embroidered with golden-antlered white stags, the White Stag of Traemane, on the sleeves. Abelle Pendar. his angular face stern beneath gray hair, in dark gray with the three Golden Stars on his collar. They walked up the Grand Hall together, trailed by their servants, but not grouped as announced. Ellorien and Abelle walked with Luan, Pelivar and Aemlyn with Arathelle, two paces between the groups. So. They asked for safe conduct as one, yet they were not one. That made a demand for surrender a little less likely. Even open enemies could act in concert at times. Divided skirts and snug breeches glistened damply. The finest cloak could not protect a person completely in a downpour like this. They would not be in their best tempers.
“Be welcome,” she told them as their servants peeled away to join the others. “Will you take wine, or tea? The wine is hot and spiced. This seems a wintery day for spring.”
Luan opened his mouth, but Ellorien spoke first. “At least you’re not sitting on the throne.” Her face might have been carved from marble, and her voice was that hard and cold. “I half expected you to be.” Thunder rolled overhead.
Luan looked pained. Arathelle rolled her eyes as if she were hearing something she had heard all too often before. Lir stirred, but Elayne fixed him with a steady look, and he gave a small, apologetic bow.
“I have no right to sit on the throne, Ellorien,” she replied calmly. Light, please let her mood hold steady now. “Yet.” There was an unintended touch of bite in that. Perhaps she was not so calm as she wished to be.
Ellorien sneered. “If you’re waiting for Danine to make your ten, you’ll have a long wait. Danine spent the last Succession visiting her manors. She never declared for anyone.”
Elayne smiled, but it was difficult. A Succession was when one House succeeded another on the throne. “I will have tea.”
Ellorien blinked, but it sparked the others to announce what they would take. Only Elayne. Birgitte, Branlet and Perival took tea. Everyone sniffed at their cups, whether silver cups of wine or porcelain teacups, before taking a sip. Elayne felt no insult. Food and wine could be fine in the kitchens and tainted by the time it reached the table. There was never any telling where or when spoilage would strike. The tea had a faint tang of ginger, but not enough to overwhelm the taste of good Tremalking black.
“I see you’ve gathered most of your support among the children and Arymilla’s leavings,” Ellorien said. Catalyn turned as red as her dress, and Branlet straightened angrily, until Perival put a hand on his arm and shook his head. A level-headed boy, Perival, and bright beyond his years. Lir managed to restrain himself this time, but Conail started to say something sharp before Elayne’s firm look snapped his teeth shut. Karind merely returned Ellorien’s spiteful stare stolidly. Karind was not very intelligent, but little ruffled her.
“You must have had a reason for asking this meeting,” Elayne said. “If it was merely to offer insults…” She let that trail off. She had her own reasons for wanting this meeting. If they had asked for her to come to them, she would have. Without asking for safe conduct. Feeling a pulse of anger through the bond, she took a firm rein on hers. Birgitte wore a scowl directed ac Ellorien like a dagger. If they began feeding one another’s temper… That did not bear thinking about, not here, not now.
Ellorien opened her mouth again, and this time, Luan cut her off. “We’ve come to ask for a truce. Elayne.” A flash of lightning lit the northern windows, and those in the ceiling, but the interval to thunder said it had been some distance off.
“A truce? Are we at war, Luan? Has someone declared for the throne that I haven’t heard of?” Six sets of eyes swung to Dyelin, who grunted.
“Fools. I told you and told you, and you wouldn’t believe me. Perhaps you’ll believe this. When Sylvase, Karind and Lir sent their proclamations of support, I sent my own. Taravin stands for Trakand, and the whole of Andor will know it soon enough.”
Ellorien colored angrily and managed to make even that seem cold. Aemlyn took a long drink, looking thoughtful. Arathelle allowed a touch of disappointment to touch her face before it returned to a mask nearly as hard as Ellorien’s.
“Be that as it may,” Luan said, “we still want… if not a truce, then a temporary agreement.” He drank a small swallow from his winecup and shook his head sadly. “Even gathering everything we can, we’ll have a difficult time defeating the Borderlanders, but if we fail to act together, they’ll carve up Andor once they decide to move. Frankly, I’m surprised they’ve remained in one place this long. Their men ought to be well rested by now even after a thousand-league march.” Lightning lit the southern windows brightly, and thunder crashed so loudly it seemed the glass panes should shiver. Close, that one.
“I expected them to be into Murandy by now myself.” Elayne said. “But I believe their reason for sitting in one place is a fear of sparking a war if they come too near Caemlyn. They seem to be trying to find a way to Murandy using country roads. You know what condition those are in this time of year. They want no war with us. When I gave them permission to cross Andor, they told me they were looking for the Dragon Reborn.”
Ellorien spluttered, and chips of ice should have come from her mouth. “When you what} You prate of how you have no right to sit on the throne-yet-and then you arrogate to yourself the right of-!”
“Of an Aes Sedai. Ellorien.” Elayne held up her right hand so they could not miss the golden Great Serpent encircling the third finger. Her own voice was frosty despite all she could do. “I did not speak as Daughter-Heir or even High Seat of House Trakand. I spoke as Elayne Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. Had I not, they would have come anyway. They were very short of food and fodder. Had I tried to stop them, had anyone tried to stop them, there would have been war. They are determined to find the Dragon Reborn. It would have been a war Andor had faint chance of winning. You speak of acting together, Luan? Gather all of Andor’s strength, and we could nearly match their numbers, but two in three of ours would be men who can handle a halberd or spear but spend most of their days behind a plow. Every man of theirs is a long-serving armsman who would not be surprised to face Trollocs any day of his life. Instead of a war that would soak Andor in blood and cripple her for a generation, we have the Borderlanders crossing our nation peacefully. I have them watched. They pay for the food and fodder they need, and pay well.” Another time, with other listeners, she would have laughed over that. Andoran farmers would try to pry high prices out of the Dark One. “The worst they’ve done is flog a few horse-thieves, and if they should have been handed over to a magistrate, I can’t fault the Borderlanders for it. Now tell me, Ellorien. What would you have done differently, and how?”
Ellorien blinked, icily sullen, then sniffed dismissively and sipped at her wine.
“And what do you plan for this Black Tower?” Abelle asked quietly. “I… suspect you have a plan for them, too.” Did he suspect her other reason for letting the Borderlanders cross Andor? Let him, so long as he did not give it voice. So long as he kept silent, her motives seemed purely for Andor’s good. That was hypocritical, no bones about it, but realistic as well. She had spoken truthfully concerning her other reasons, but that one, spoken aloud, could cost her. She still needed one more House, and it looked as if Candraed had to be it, but Danine would never move if she thought Elayne was trying to force her into it.
“Nothing,” she told him. “I send Guardsmen periodically to ride around the Black Tower grounds and remind them they are in Andor and subject to Andor’s laws, but aside from that, I can do no more than I could if the White Tower were somehow transported to Caemlyn.” For a long moment they stared at her, all six of them unblinking.
“Pendar stands for Trakand,” Abelle said suddenly, and right atop him, Luan said. “Norwelyn stands for Trakand.” Lightning flashed overhead, brightening the colored windows in the ceiling.
Elayne kept herself from swaying with an effort. Birgitte’s face was smooth, but the bond carried amazement. It was done. She had eleven, and the throne was hers.
“The more who stand for her. the better for Andor.” Dyelin sounded a touch dazed herself. “Stand with me for Trakand.”
There was another pause, longer, full of exchanged glances, but then, one by one. Arathelle, Pelivar and Aemlyn announced that their Houses stood for Trakand. Doing so for Dyelin, though. Elayne would have to remember that. Perhaps she could win their loyalty in time, but for the present, they supported her for Dyelin’s sake.
“She has the throne.” Ellorien said, as cold as ever. “The rest is fluff and feathers.”
Elayne tried to make her voice warm. “Will you dine with us this evening, Ellorien? At least remain until the rain abates.”
“I have my own cooks.” Ellorien replied, turning away toward the doors. Her serving woman came running to take her cup and return it to the table. “As soon as the rain stops, I will be leaving for Sheldyn. I’ve been away too long.”
“Tarmon Gai’don is coming soon, Ellorien,” Elayne said. “You won’t be able to remain on your estates then.”
Ellorien paused, looking over her shoulder. “When Tarmon Gai’don comes, Traemane rides for the Last Battle, and we ride behind the Lion of Andor.” Thunder boomed as she strode out of the Grand Hall with her serving woman at her heels.
“Will you all join me in my apartments?’’ Elayne asked the others.
Behind the Lion of Andor, but not a word about behind Elayne Trakand. Nearly half her support was suspect one way or another, Jarid Sarand was still on the loose with a not inconsiderable force, and she would have trouble from Ellorien eventually. It was never this way in stories. In stories, everything was always wrapped up neatly by the end. Real life was much… messier. Still, she had the throne at last. There was still the coronation, but that was a formality now. As she led the procession from the Grand Hall, chatting with Luan and Pelivar, thunder rolled overhead like martial drums beating the march for Tarmon Gai’don. How long before Andor’s banners had to march to the Last Battle?