“That's crazy,” Rand protested. At the innkeeper's gesture he lowered his voice. “The Whitecloaks don't have any reason to be after me.”
“I don't know about reasons, lad, but they're after you and Mat for certain sure. What have you been up to? Elaida and the Whitecloaks.”
Rand raised his hands in protest, then let them fall. It made no sense, but he had heard the Whitecloak. “What about you? The Whitecloaks will make trouble for you even when they don't find us.”
“No worries about that, lad. The Queen's Guards still uphold the law, even if they do let traitors strut around showing white. As for the night ... well, Lamgwin and his friends might not get much sleep, but I could almost pity anybody who tries to put a mark on my door.”
Gilda appeared beside them, dropping a curtsy to Master Gill. “Sir, there's... there's a lady. In the kitchens.” She sounded scandalized at the combination. “She's asking for Master Rand, sir, and Master Mat, by name. ”
Rand exchanged a puzzled look with the innkeeper.
“Lad,” Master Gill said, “if you've actually managed to bring the Lady Elayne down from the Palace to my inn, we'll all end up facing the headsman.” Gilda squeaked at the mention of the DaughterHeir and gave Rand a roundeyed stare. “Off with you, girl,” the innkeeper said sharply. “And keep quiet about what you've heard. It's nobody's business.” Gilda bobbed again and darted down the hallway, flashing glances over her shoulder at Rand as she went. “In five minutes” — Master Gill sighed — “she will be telling the other women you're a prince in disguise. By nightfall it will be all over the New City.”
“Master Gill,” Rand said, “I never mentioned Mat to Elayne. It can't be — ” Suddenly a huge smile lit up his face, and he ran for the kitchens.
“Wait!” the innkeeper called behind him. “Wait until you know. Wait, you fool!”
Rand threw open the door to the kitchens, and there they were.
Moiraine rested her serene eyes on him, unsurprised. Nynaeve and Egwene ran laughing to throw their arms around him, with Perrin crowding in behind them, all three patting his shoulders as if they had to be convinced that he was really there. In the doorway leading to the stableyard Lan lounged with one boot up on the doorframe, dividing his attention between the kitchen and the yard outside.
Rand tried to hug the two women and shake Perrin's hand, all at the same time, and it was a tangle of arms and laughter complicated by Nynaeve trying to feel his face for fever. They looked somewhat the worse for wear — bruises on Perrin's face, and he had a way of keeping his eyes downcast that he had never had before — but they were alive, and together again. His throat was so tight he could barely talk. “I was afraid I'd never see you again,” he managed finally. “I was afraid you were all ...”
“I knew you were alive,” Egwene said against his chest. “I always knew it. Always.”
“I did not,” Nynaeve said. Her voice was sharp for just that moment, but it softened in the next, and she smiled up at him. “You look well, Rand. Not overfed by any means, but well, thank the Light.”
“Well,” Master Gill said behind him, “I guess you know these people after all. Those friends you were looking for?”
Rand nodded. “Yes, my friends.” He made introductions all around; it still felt odd to be giving Lan and Moiraine their right names. They both eyed him sharply when he did.
The innkeeper greeted everyone with an open smile, but he was properly impressed at meeting a Warder, and especially at Moiraine. At her he gaped openly — it was one thing knowing an Aes Sedai had been helping the boys, quite something else having her appear in the kitchen — then bowed deeply. “You are welcome to The Queen's Blessing, Aes Sedai, as my guest. Though I suppose you will be staying at the Palace with Elaida Sedai, and the Aes Sedai who came with the false Dragon.” Bowing again, he gave Rand a quick, worried look. It was all very well to say he did not speak ill of Aes Sedai, but that was not the same as saying he wanted one sleeping under his roof.
Rand nodded encouragingly, trying to tell him silently that it was all right. Moiraine was not like Elaida, with a threat hidden behind every glance, under every word. Are you sure? Even now, are you sure?
“I believe I will stay here,” Moiraine said, “for the short time I remain in Caemlyn. And you must allow me to pay.”
A calico cat sauntered in from the hallway to strop the innkeeper's ankles. No sooner had the calico begun than a fuzzy gray sprang from under the table, arching its back and hissing. The calico crouched with a threatening growl, and the gray streaked past Lan into the stableyard.
Master Gill began apologizing for the cats at the same time he protested that Moiraine would honor him by being his guest, and was she sure she would not prefer the Palace, which he would quite understand, but he hoped she would accept his best room as a gift. It made a jumble to which Moiraine seemed to pay no attention at all. Instead she bent down to scratch the orangeandwhite cat; it promptly left Master Gill's ankles for hers.
“I've seen four other cats here, so far,” she said. “You have a problem with mice? Rats?”
“Rats, Moiraine Sedai.” The innkeeper sighed. “A terrible problem. Not that I don't keep a clean place, you understand. It's all the people. The whole city is full of people and rats. But my cats take care of it. You'll not be troubled, I promise.”
Rand exchanged a fleeting look with Perrin, who put his eyes down again right away. There was something odd about Perrin's eyes. And he was so silent; Perrin was almost always slow to speak, but now he was saying nothing at all. “It could be all the people,” he said.
“With your permission, Master Gill,” Moiraine said, as if she took it for granted. “It is a simple matter to keep rats away from this street. With luck, the rats will not even realize they are being kept away.”
Master Gill frowned at that last, but he bowed, accepting her offer. “If you are sure you don't want to stay at the Palace, Aes Sedai. ”
“Where is Mat?” Nynaeve said suddenly. “She said he was here, too.”
“Upstairs,” Rand said. “He's ... not feeling well.”
Nynaeve's head came up. “He's sick? I'll leave the rats to her, and I'll attend to him. Take me to him now, Rand. ”
“All of you go up,” Moiraine said. “I will join you in a few minutes. We are crowding Master Gill's kitchen, and it would be best if we could all be somewhere quiet for a time.” There was an undercurrent in her voice. Stay out of sight. The hiding is not done yet.
“Come on,” Rand said. “We'll go up the back way.”
The Emond's Field folk crowded after him to the back staircase, leaving the Aes Sedai and the Warder in the kitchen with Master Gill. He could not get over being back together. It was nearly as if he were home again. He could not stop grinning.
The same relief, almost joyous, seemed to be affecting the others. They chuckled to themselves, and kept reaching out to grip his arm. Perrin's voice seemed subdued, and he still kept his head down, but he began to talk as they climbed.
“Moiraine said she could find you and Mat, and she did. When we rode into the city, the rest of us couldn't stop staring — well, all except Lan, of course — all the people, the buildings, everything.” His thick curls swung as he shook his head in disbelief. “It's all so big. And so many people. Some of them kept staring at us, too, shouting 'Red or white?' like it made some kind of sense.”
Egwene touched Rand's sword, fingering the red wrappings. “What does it mean?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing important. We're leaving for Tar Valon, remember?”
Egwene gave him a look, but she removed her hand from the sword and took up where Perrin had left off. “Moiraine didn't look at anything any more than Lan did. She led us back and forth through all those streets so many times, like a dog hunting a scent, that I thought you couldn't be here. Then, all of a sudden, she took off down a street, and the next thing I knew we were handing the horses to the stablemen and marching into the kitchen. She never even asked if you were here. Just told a woman who was mixing batter to go tell Rand al'Thor and Mat Cauthon that someone wanted to see them. And there you were” — she grinned —“like a ball popping into the gleeman's hand out of nowhere.”
“Where is the gleeman?” Perrin asked. “Is he with you?”
Rand's stomach lurched and the good feeling of having friends around him dimmed. “Thom's dead. I think he's dead. There was a Fade ...” He could not say any more. Nynaeve shook her head, muttering under her breath.
The silence thickened around them, stifling the little chuckles, flattening the joy, until they reached the head of the stairs.
“Mat's not sick, exactly,” he said then. “It's ... You'll see.” He flung open the door to the room he shared with Mat. “Look w