The Great Hunt


The Great Hunt: Page 114



The soldiers he saw, and there were few, did not seem to be watching the armed men they had supposedly conquered.
He had learned something of these people, these Seanchan, in his day and a night on Toman Head. At least, as much as the defeated folk knew. It was never hard to find someone alone, and they always answered questions properly put. Men gathered more information on the invaders, as if they actually believed they would eventually do something with what they knew, but they sometimes tried to hold back. Women, by and large, seemed interested in going on with their lives whoever their rulers were, yet they noted details men did not, and they talked more quickly once they stopped screaming. Children talked the quickest of all, but they seldom said much that was worthwhile.
He had discarded three quarters of what he had heard as nonsense and rumors growing into fables, but he took some of those conclusions back, now. Anyone at all could enter Falme, it appeared. With a start, he saw the truth of a little more "nonsense" as twenty soldiers rode out of the town. He could not make out their mounts clearly, but they were certainly not horses. They ran with a fluid grace, and their dark skins seemed to have a glint in the morning sun, as of scales. He craned his neck to watch them disappear inland, then booted his horse toward the town.
The local folk among the stables and parked wagons and fenced horse lots gave him no more than a glance or two. He had no interest in them, either; he rode on into the town, onto its cobblestone streets sloping down to the harbor. He could see the harbor clearly, and the large, oddly shaped Seanchan ships anchored there. No one bothered him as he searched streets that were neither crowded nor empty. There were more Seanchan soldiers here. The people hurried about their business with eyes down, bowing whenever soldiers passed, but the Seanchan paid them no mind. It all seemed peaceful on the surface, despite the armored Seanchan in the streets and the ships in the harbor, but Fain could sense the tension underneath. He always did well where men were tense and afraid.
He came to a large house with more than a dozen soldiers standing guard before it. Fain stopped and dismounted. Except for one obvious officer, most wore armor of unrelieved black, and their helmets made him think of locusts' heads. Two leatheryskinned beasts with three eyes and horny beaks instead of mouths flanked the front door, squatting like crouching frogs; the soldier standing by each of the creatures had three eyes painted on the breast of his armor. Fain eyed the bluebordered banner flapping above the roof, the spreadwinged hawk clutching lightning bolts, and chortled inside himself.
Women went in and out of a house across the street, women linked by silver leashes, but he ignored them. He knew about damane from the villagers. They might be of some use later, but not now.
The soldiers were looking at him, especially the officer, whose armor was all gold and red and green.
Forcing an ingratiating smile onto his face, Fain made himself bow deeply. "My lords, I have something here that will interest your Great Lord. I assure you, he will want to see it, and me, personally." He gestured to the squarish shape on his packhorse, still wrapped in the huge, striped blanket in which his people had found it.

The officer stared him up and down. "You sound a foreigner to this land. Have you taken the oaths?"
"I obey, await, and will serve," Fain replied smoothly. Everyone he had questioned spoke of the oaths, though none had understood what they meant. If these people wanted oaths, he was prepared to swear anything. He had long since lost count of the oaths he had taken.
The officer motioned two of his men to see what was under the blanket. Surprised grunts at the weight as they lifted it down from the packsaddle turned to gasps when they stripped the blanket away. The officer stared with no expression on his face at the silverworked golden chest resting on the cobblestones, then looked at Fain. "A gift fit for the Empress herself. You will come with me."
One of the soldiers searched Fain roughly, but he endured it in silence, noting that the officer and the two soldiers who took up the chest surrendered their swords and daggers before going inside. Anything he could learn of these people, however small, might help, though he was confident of his plan already. He was always confident, but never more than where lords feared an assassin's knife from their own followers.
As they went through the door, the officer frowned at him, and for a moment Fain wondered why. Of course. The beasts. Whatever they were, they were certainly no worse than Trollocs, nothing at all beside a Myrddraal, and he had not given them a second look. It was too late to pretend to be afraid of them now. But the Seanchan said nothing, only led him deeper into the house.
And so Fain found himself on his face, in a room bare of furnishings except for folding screens that hid its walls, while the officer told the High Lord Turak of him and his offering. Servants brought a table on which to set the chest so the High Lord would have no need to stoop; all Fain saw of them were scurrying slippers. He bided his time impatiently. Eventually there would come a time when he was not the one to bow.
Then the soldiers were dismissed, and Fain told to rise. He did so slowly, studying both the High Lord, with his shaven head and his long fingernails and his blue silk robe brocaded with blossoms, and the man who stood beside him with the unshaven half of his pale hair in a long braid. Fain was sure the fellow in green was only a servant, however great, but servants could be useful, especially if they stood high in their master's sight.
"A marvelous gift." Turak's eyes lifted from the chest to Fain. A scent of roses wafted from the High Lord. "Yet the question asks itself; how did one like you come by a chest many lesser lords could not afford? Are you a thief?"
Fain tugged at his worn, none too clean coat. "It is sometimes necessary for a man to appear less than he is, High Lord. My present shabbiness allowed me to bring this to you unmolested. This chest is old, High Lord - as old as the Age of Legends - and within it lies a treasure such as few eyes have ever seen. Soon - very soon, High Lord - I will be able to open it, and give you that which will enable you to take this land as far as you wish, to the Spine of the World, the Aiel Waste, the lands beyond. Nothing will stand against you, High Lord, once I - " He cut off as Turak began running his longnail

"I have seen chests such as this, chests from the Age of Legends," the High Lord said, "though none so fine. They are meant to be opened only by those who know the pattern, but I - ah!" He pressed among the ornate whorls and bosses, there was a sharp click, and he lifted back the lid. A flicker of what might have been disappointment passed across his face.
Fain bit the inside of his mouth till blood came to keep from snarling. It lessened his bargaining position that he was not the one who had opened the chest. Still, all the rest could go as he had planned if he could only make himself be patient. But he had been patient so long.
"These are treasure from the Age of Legends?" Turak said, lifting out the curled Horn in one hand and the curved dagger with the ruby in its golden hilt in the other. Fain clutched his hands in fists at his sides so he would not grab the dagger. "The Age of Legends," Turak repeated softly, tracing the silver script inlaid around the golden bell of the Horn with the tip of the dagger's blade. His brows rose in startlement, the first open expression Fain had seen from him, but in the next instant Turak's face was as smooth as ever. "Do you have any idea what this is?"
"The Horn of Valere, High Lord," Fain said smoothly, pleased to see the mouth of the man with the braid drop open. Turak only nodded as if to himself.
The High Lord turned away. Fain blinked and opened his mouth, then, at a sharp gesture from the yellowhaired man, followed without speaking.
It was another room with all the original furnishings gone, replaced by folding screens and a single chair facing a tall round cabinet. Still holding the Horn and the dagger, Turak looked at the cabinet, then away. He said nothing, but the other Seanchan snapped quick orders, and in moments men in plain woolen robes appeared through a door behind the screens bearing another small table. A young woman with hair so pale it was almost white came behind them, her arms full of small stands of polished wood in various sizes and shapes. Her garment was white silk, and so thin that Fain could see her body clearly through it, but he had eyes only for the dagger. The Horn was a means to an end, but the dagger was a part of him.
Turak briefly touched one of the wooden stands the girl held, and she placed it on the center of the table. The men turned the chair to face it under the direction of the man with the braid.

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