The Great Hunt


The Great Hunt: Page 107



"And these are my guests. Verin Aes Sedai of the Brown Ajah. Lord Ingtar of House Shinowa, in Shienar. Loial, son of Arent son of Halan, from Stedding Shangtai." Loial had asked that his stedding be left out of it, but Verin insisted they needed every bit of formality they could offer.
The servant who had reached for the invitation with a perfunctory bow gave a little jerk at each additional name; his eyes popped at Verin's. In a strangled voice he said, "Be welcome in House Damodred, my lords. Be welcome, Aes Sedai. Be welcome, friend Ogier." He waved the other servants to open the doors wide, and bowed Rand and the others inside, where he hurriedly passed the invitation to another liveried man and whispered in his ear.
This man had the Tree and Crown large on the chest of his green coat. "Aes Sedai," he said, using his long staff to make a bow, almost bending his head to his knees, to each of them in turn. "My lords. Friend Ogier. I am called Ashin. Please to follow me."
The outer hall held only servants, but Ashin led them to a great room filled with nobles, with a juggler performing at one end and tumblers at the other. Voices and music coming from elsewhere said these were not the only guests, or the only entertainments. The nobles stood in twos, and threes and fours, sometimes men and women together, sometimes only one or the other, always with careful space between so no one could overhear what was said. The guests wore the dark Cairhienin colors, each with bright stripes at least halfway down his or her chest, and some had them all the way to their waists. The women had their hair piled high in elaborate towers of curls, every one different, and their dark skirts were so wide they would have had to turn sideways to pass through any doorway narrower than those of the manor. None of the men had the shaved heads of soldiers - they all wore dark velvet hats over long hair, some shaped like bells, others flat - and as with the women, lace ruffles like dark ivory almost hid their hands.
Ashin rapped his staff and announced them in a loud voice, Verin first.
They drew every eye. Verin wore her brownfringed shawl, embroidered in grape vines; the announcement of an Aes Sedai sent a murmur through the lords and ladies, and made the juggler drop one of his hoops, though no one was watching him any longer. Loial received almost as many looks, even before Ashin spoke his name. Despite the silver embroidery on collar and sleeves, the otherwise unrelieved black of Rand's coat made him seem almost stark beside the Cairhienin, and his and Ingtar's swords drew many glances. None of the lords appeared to be armed. Rand heard the words "heronmark blade" more than once. Some of the glances he was receiving looked like frowns; he suspected they came from men he had insulted by

A slim, handsome man approached. He had long, graying hair, and multihued stripes crossed the front of his deep gray coat from his neck almost to the hem just above his knees. He was extremely tall for a Cairhienin, no more than half a head shorter than Rand, and he had a way of standing that made him seem even taller, with his chin up so he seemed to be looking down at everyone else. His eyes were black pebbles. He looked warily at Verin, though.
"Grace honors me with your presence, Aes Sedai." Barthanes Damodred's voice was deep and sure. His gaze swept across the others. "I did not expect so distinguished a company. Lord Ingtar. Friend Ogier." His bow to each was little more than a nod of the head; Barthanes knew exactly how powerful he was. "And you, my young Lord Rand. You excite much comment in the city, and in the Houses. Perhaps we will have a chance to talk this night." His tone said that he would not miss it if the chance never came, that he had not been excited to any comment, but his eyes slid a fraction before he caught them, to Ingtar and Loial, and to Verin. "Be welcome." He let himself be drawn away by a handsome woman who laid a beringed hand buried in lace on his arm, but his gaze drifted back to Rand as he walked away.
The murmur of conversation picked up once more, and the juggler spun his hoops again in a narrow loop that almost reached the worked plaster ceiling, a good four spans up. The tumblers had never stopped; a woman leaped into the air from the cupped hands of one of her compatriots, her oiled skin shining in the light of a hundred lamps as she spun, and landed on her feet on the hands of a man who was already standing atop another's shoulders. He lifted her up on outstretched arms as the man below raised him in the same way, and she spread her arms as if for applause. None of the Cairhienin seemed to notice.
Verin and Ingtar drifted into the crowd. The Shienaran received a few wary looks; some looked at the Aes Sedai with wide eyes, others with the worried frowns of those finding a rabid wolf within arm's reach. The latter came from men more often than women, and some of the women spoke to her.
Rand realized that Mat and Hurin had already disappeared to the kitchens, where all the servants who had come with the guests would be gathering until sent for. He hoped they would not have trouble sneaking away.
Loial bent down to speak for his ear alone. "Rand, there is a Waygate nearby. I can feel it."
"You mean this was an Ogier grove?" Rand said softly, and Loial nodded.
"Stedding Tsofu had not been found again when it was planted, or the Ogier who helped build Al'cair'rahienallen would not have needed a grove to remind them of the stedding. This was all forest when I came through Cairhien before, and belonged to the King."
"Barthanes probably took it away in some plot." Rand looked around the room nervously. Everyone was still talking, but more than a few were watching the Ogier and him. He could not see Ingtar. Verin stood at the center of a knot of women. "I wish we could stay together."
"Verin says not, Rand. She says it would make them all suspicious and angry, thinking we were holding ourselves aloof. We have to allay suspicion until Mat and Hurin find whatever they find."
"I heard what she said as well as you, Loial. But I still say, if Barthanes is a Darkfriend, then he must know why we're here. Going off by ourselves is just asking to be knocked on the head."
"Verin says he won't do anything until he finds out whether he can make use of us.
Just do what she told us, Rand. Aes Sedai know what they are about." Loial walked into the crowd, gathering a circle of lords and ladies before he had gone ten steps.
Others started toward Rand, now that he was alone, but he turned in the other direction and hurried away. Aes Sedai may know what they're about, but I wish I did. I don't like this. Light, but I wish I knew if she was telling the truth. Aes Sedai never lie, but the truth you hear may not be the truth you think it is.
He kept moving to avoid talking with the nobles. There were many other rooms, all filled with lords and ladies, all with entertainers: three different gleemen in their cloaks, more jugglers and tumblers, and musicians playing flutes, bitterns, dulcimers, and lutes, plus five different sizes of fiddle, six kinds of horn, straight or curved or curled, and ten sizes of drum from tambour to kettle. He gave some of the horn players a second look, those with curled horns, but the instruments were all plain brass.
They wouldn't have the Horn of Valere out here fool, he thought. Not unless Barthanes means to have dead heroes come as part of the entertainment.
There was even a bard in silverworked Tairen boots and a yellow coat, strolling through the rooms plucking his harp and sometimes stopping to declaim in High Chant. He glared contemptuously at the gleemen and did not linger in the rooms where they were, but Rand saw little difference between him and them except for their clothes.
Suddenly Barthanes was walking by Rand's side. A liveried servant immediately offered his silver tray with a bow. Barthanes took a blownglass goblet of wine. Walking backwards ahead of them still bowing, the servant held the tray toward Rand until Rand shook his head, then melted into the crowd.
"You seem restless," Barthanes said, sipping.
"I like to walk." Rand wondered how to follow Verin's advice, and remembering what she had said about his visit to the Amyrlin, he settled into Cat Crosses the Courtyard. He knew no more arrogant way to walk than that. Barthanes's mouth tightened, and Rand thought perhaps the lord found it too arrogant, but Verin's advice was all he had to go by, so he did not stop. To take some of the edge off, he said pleasantly, "This is a fine party. You have many friends, and I've never seen so many entertainers."
"Many friends," Barthanes agreed. "You can tell Galldrian how many, and who. Some of the names might surprise him."
"I have never met the King, Lord Barthanes, and I don't expect I ever will."
"Of course. You just happened to be in that flyspeck village. You were not checking on the progress of retrieving that statue.

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