The halls of Fal Dara keep, their smooth stone walls sparsely decorated with elegantly simple tapestries and painted screens, bustled with news of the Amyrlin Seat’s imminent arrival. Servants in black-and-gold darted about their tasks, running to prepare rooms or carry orders to the kitchens, moaning that they could not have everything ready for so great a personage when they had had no warning. Dark-eyed warriors, their heads shaven except for a topknot bound with a leather cord, did not run, but haste filled their steps and their faces shone with an excitement normally reserved for battle. Some of the men spoke as Rand hurried past.
“Ah, there you are, Rand al’Thor. Peace favor your sword. On your way to clean up? You’ll want to look your best when you are presented to the Amyrlin Seat. She’ll want to see you and your two friends as well as the women, you can count on it.”
He trotted toward the broad stairs, wide enough for twenty men abreast, that led up to the men’s apartments.
“The Amyrlin herself, come with no more warning than a pack peddler. Must be because of Moiraine Sedai and you southerners, eh? What else?”
The wide, iron-bound doors of the men’s apartments stood open, and half jammed with top-knotted men buzzing with the Amyrlin’s arrival.
“Ho, southlander! The Amyrlin’s here. Come for you and your friends, I suppose. Peace, what honor for you! She seldom leaves Tar Valon, and she’s never come to the Borderlands in my memory.”
He fended them all off with a few words. He had to wash. Find a clean shirt. No time to talk. They thought they understood, and let him go. Not a one of them knew a thing except that he and his friends traveled in company with an Aes Sedai, that two of his friends were women who were going to Tar Valon to train as Aes Sedai, but their words stabbed at him as if they knew everything. She’s come for me.
He dashed through the men’s apartments, darted into the room he shared with Mat and Perrin . . . and froze, his jaw dropping in astonishment. The room was filled with women wearing the black-and-gold, all working purposefully. It was not a big room, and its windows, a pair of tall, narrow arrowslits looking down on one of the inner courtyards, did nothing to make it seem larger. Three beds on black-and-white tiled platforms, each with a chest at the foot, three plain chairs, a washstand by the door, and a tall, wide wardrobe crowded the room. The eight women in there seemed like fish in a basket.
The women barely glanced at him, and went right on clearing his clothes—and Mat’s and Perrin’s—out of the wardrobe and replacing them with new. Anything found in the pockets was put atop the chests, and the old clothes were bundled up carelessly, like rags.
“What are you doing?” he demanded when he caught his breath. “Those are my clothes!” One of the women sniffed and poked a finger through a tear in the sleeve of his only coat, then added it to the pile on the floor.
Another, a black-haired woman with a big ring of keys at her waist, set her eyes on him. That was Elansu, shatayan of the keep. He thought of the sharp-faced woman as a housekeeper, though the house she kept was a fortress and scores of servants did her bidding. “Moiraine Sedai said all of your clothes are worn out, and the Lady Amalisa had new made to give you. Just keep out of our way,” she added firmly, “and we will be done the quicker.” There were few men the shatayan could not bully into doing as she wished—some said even Lord Agelmar—and she plainly did not expect any trouble with one man young enough to be her son.
He swallowed what he had been going to say; there was no time for arguing. The Amyrlin Seat could be sending for him at any minute. “Honor to the Lady Amalisa for her gift,” he managed, after the Shienaran way, “and honor to you,
Elansu Shatayan. Please, convey my words to the Lady Amalisa, and tell her I said, heart and soul to serve.” That ought to satisfy the Shienaran love of ceremony for both women. “But now if you’ll pardon me, I want to change.”
“That is well,” Elansu said comfortably. “Moiraine Sedai said to remove all the old. Every stitch. Smallclothes, too.” Several of the women eyed him sideways. None of them made a move toward the door.
He bit his cheek to keep from laughing hysterically. Many ways were different in Shienar from what he was used to, and there were some to which he would never become accustomed if he lived forever. He had taken to bathing in the small hours of the morning, when the big, tiled pools were empty of people, after he discovered that at any other time a woman might well climb into the water with him. It could be a scullion or the Lady Amalisa, Lord Agelmar’s sister herself—the baths were one place in Shienar where there was no rank—expecting him to scrub her back in return for the same favor, asking him why his face was so red, had he taken too much sun? They had soon learned to recognize his blushes for what they were, and not a woman in the keep but seemed fascinated by them.
I might be dead or worse in another hour, and they’re waiting to see me blush! He cleared his throat. “If you’ll wait outside, I will pass the rest out to you. On my honor.”
One of the women gave a soft chortle, and even Elansu’s lips twitched, but the shatayan nodded and directed the other women to gather up the bundles they had made. She was the last to leave, and she paused in the doorway to add, “The boots, too. Moiraine Sedai said everything.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. His boots, at least, were certainly still good, made by Alwyn al’Van, the cobbler back in Emond’s Field, and well broken in and comfortable. But if giving up his boots would make the shatayan leave him alone so he could go, he would give her the boots, and anything else she wanted. He had no time. “Yes. Yes, of course. On my honor.” He pushed on the door, forcing her out.
Alone, he dropped onto his bed to tug off his boots—they were still good, a little worn, the leather cracked here and there, but still wearable and well broken-in to fit his feet—then hastily stripped off, piling everything atop the boots, and washed at the basin just as quickly. The water was cold; the water was always cold in the men’s apartments.
The wardrobe had three wide doors carved in the simple Shienaran manner, suggesting more than showing a series of waterfalls and rocky pools. Pulling open the center door, he stared for a moment at what had replaced the few garments he had brought with him. A dozen high-collared coats of the finest wool and as well cut as any he had ever seen on a merchant’s back or a lord’s, most embroidered like feastday clothes. A dozen! Three shirts for every coat, both linen and silk, with wide sleeves and tight cuffs. Two cloaks. Two, when he had made do with one at a time all his life. One cloak was plain, stout wool and dark green, the other deep blue with a stiff-standing collar embroidered in gold with herons . . . and high on the left breast, where a lord would wear his sign. . . .
His hand drifted to the cloak of its own accord. As if uncertain what they would feel, his fingers brushed the stitching of a serpent curled almost into a circle, but a serpent with four legs and a lion’s golden mane, scaled in crimson and gold, its feet each tipped with five golden claws. His hand jerked back as if burned. Light help me! Was it Amalisa had this made, or Moiraine? How many saw it? How many know what it is, what it means? Even one is too many. Burn me, she’s trying to get me killed. Bloody Moiraine won’t even talk to me, but now she’s given me bloody fine new clothes to die in!
A rap at the door sent him leaping half out of his skin.
“Are you done?” came Elansu’s voice. “Every stitch, now. Perhaps I had better. . . .” A creak as if she were trying the knob.
With a start Rand realized he was still naked. “I’m done,” he shouted. “Peace! Don’t come in!” Hurriedly he gathered up what he had been wearing, boots and all. “I’ll bring them!” Hiding behind the door, he opened it just wide enough to shove the bundle into the arms of the shatayan. “That’s everything.”
She tried to peer through the gap. “Are you sure? Moiraine Sedai said everything. Perhaps I had better just look—”
“It’s everything,” he growled. “On my honor!” He shouldered the door shut in her face, and heard laughter from the other side.
Muttering under his breath, he dressed hurriedly. He would not put it past any of them to find some excuse to come bulling in anyway. The gray breeches were snugger than he was used to, but still comfortable, and the shirt, with its billowy sleeves, was white enough to satisfy any goodwife in Emond’s Field on laundry day. The knee-high boots fit as if he had worn them a year. He hoped it was just a good cobbler, and not more Aes Sedai work.
All of these clothes would make a pack as big as he was. Yet, he had grown used to the comfort of clean shirts again, of not wearing the same breeches day after day until sweat and dirt made them as stiff as his boots, then wearing them still. He took his saddlebags from his chest and stuffed what he could into them, then reluctantly spread the fancy cloak out on the bed and piled a few more shirts and breeches on that. Folded with the dangerous sigil inside and tied with a cord looped so it could be slung on a shoulder, it looked not much different from the packs he had seen carried by other young men on the road.
A peal of trumpets rolled through the arrowslits, trumpets calling the fanfare from outside the walls, trumpets answering from the keep towers.