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A Feast for Crows

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A Feast for Crows A Song of Ice and Fire #4 HBOs hit series A GAME OF THRONES is based on George R. R. Martins internationally bestselling series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, the greatest fantasy epic of the modern age. A FEAST FOR CROWS is the fourth volume in the series. The Lannisters are in power on the Iron Throne. The war in the Seven Kingdoms has burned itself out, but in its bitter aftermath new conflicts spark to life. The Martells of Dorne and the Starks of Winterfell seek vengeance for their dead. Euron Crows Eye, as black a pirate as ever raised a sail, returns from the smoking ruins of Valyria to claim the Iron Isles. From the icy north, where Others threaten the Wall, apprentice Maester Samwell Tarly brings a mysterious babe in arms to the Citadel. As plots, intrigue and battle threaten to engulf Westeros, victory will go to the men and women possessed of the coldest steel and the coldest hearts. GEORGE R.R. MARTIN A FEAST FOR CROWS BOOK FOUR OF A Song of Ice and Fire Copyright HarperVoyager An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpervoyagerbooks.com (http://www.harpervoyagerbooks.com/) Previously published in paperback by Voyager in 2006, 2011 First published in Great Britain by Voyager in 2005 Copyright George R.R. Martin 2005 Cover layout design HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2014. HBO and related service marks are the property of Home Box Office, Inc. Cover photographs Garry Owens / Gallery Stock; Shutterstock.com (sky) George R.R. Martin asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the authors imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780002247436 Ebook Edition April 2012 ISBN: 9780007369218 Version: 2017-09-04 Dedication for Stephen Boucher wizard of Windows, dragon of DOS without whom this book would haven been written in crayon MAPS PROLOGUE Dragons, said Mollander. He snatched a withered apple off the ground and tossed it hand to hand. Throw the apple, urged Alleras the Sphinx. He slipped an arrow from his quiver and nocked it to his bowstring. I should like to see a dragon. Roone was the youngest of them, a chunky boy still two years shy of manhood. I should like that very much. And I should like to sleep with Roseys arms around me, Pate thought. He shifted restlessly on the bench. By the morrow the girl could well be his. I will take her far from Oldtown, across the narrow sea to one of the Free Cities. There were no maesters there, no one to accuse him. He could hear Emmas laughter coming through a shuttered window overhead, mingled with the deeper voice of the man she was entertaining. She was the oldest of the serving wenches at the Quill and Tankard, forty if she was a day, but still pretty in a fleshy sort of way. Rosey was her daughter, fifteen and freshly flowered. Emma had decreed that Roseys maidenhead would cost a golden dragon. Pate had saved nine silver stags and a pot of copper stars and pennies, for all the good that would do him. He would have stood a better chance of hatching a real dragon than saving up enough coin to make a golden one. You were born too late for dragons, lad, Armen the Acolyte told Roone. Armen wore a leather thong about his neck, strung with links of pewter, tin, lead, and copper, and like most acolytes he seemed to believe that novices had turnips growing from their shoulders in place of heads. The last one perished during the reign of King Aegon the Third. The last dragon in Westeros, insisted Mollander. Throw the apple, Alleras urged again. He was a comely youth, their Sphinx. All the serving wenches doted on him. Even Rosey would sometimes touch him on the arm when she brought him wine, and Pate had to gnash his teeth and pretend not to see. The last dragon in Westeros was the last dragon, said Armen doggedly. That is well known. The apple, Alleras said. Unless you mean to eat it. Here. Dragging his clubfoot, Mollander took a short hop, whirled, and whipped the apple sidearm into the mists that hung above the Honeywine. If not for his foot, he would have been a knight like his father. He had the strength for it in those thick arms and broad shoulders. Far and fast the apple flew but not as fast as the arrow that whistled after it, a yard-long shaft of golden wood fletched with scarlet feathers. Pate did not see the arrow catch the apple, but he heard it. A soft chunk echoed back across the river, followed by a splash. Mollander whistled. You cored it. Sweet. Not half as sweet as Rosey. Pate loved her hazel eyes and budding breasts, and the way she smiled every time she saw him. He loved the dimples in her cheeks. Sometimes she went barefoot as she served, to feel the grass beneath her feet. He loved that too. He loved the clean fresh smell of her, the way her hair curled behind her ears. He even loved her toes. One night shed let him rub her feet and play with them, and hed made up a funny tale for every toe to keep her giggling. Perhaps he would do better to remain on this side of the narrow sea. He could buy a donkey with the coin hed saved, and he and Rosey could take turns riding it as they wandered Westeros. Ebrose might not think him worthy of the silver, but Pate knew how to set a bone and leech a fever. The smallfolk would be grateful for his help. If he could learn to cut hair and shave beards, he might even be a barber. That would be enough, he told himself, so long as I had Rosey. Rosey was all that he wanted in the world. That had not always been so. Once he had dreamed of being a maester in a castle, in service to some open-handed lord who would honor him for his wisdom and bestow a fine white horse on him to thank him for his service. How high hed ride, how nobly, smiling down at the smallfolk when he passed them on the road One night in the Quill and Tankards common room, after his second tankard of fearsomely strong cider, Pate had boasted that he would not always be a novice. Too true, Lazy Leo had called out. Youll be a former novice, herding swine. He drained the dregs of his tankard. The torchlit terrace of the Quill and Tankard was an island of light in a sea of mist this morning. Downriver, the distant beacon of the Hightower floated in the damp of night like a hazy orange moon, but the light did little to lift his spirits. The alchemist should have come by now. Had it all been some cruel jape, or had something happened to the man? It would not have been the first time that good fortune had turned sour on Pate. He had once counted himself lucky to be chosen to help old Archmaester Walgrave with the ravens, never dreaming that before long he would also be fetching the mans meals, sweeping out his chambers, and dressing him every morning. Everyone said that Walgrave had forgotten more of ravencraft than most maesters ever knew, so Pate assumed a black iron link was the least that he could hope for, only to find that Walgrave could not grant him one. The old man remained an archmaester only by courtesy. As great a maester as once hed been, now his robes concealed soiled smallclothes oft as not, and half a year ago some acolytes found him weeping in the Library, unable to find his way back to his chambers. Maester Gormon sat below the iron mask in Walgraves place, the same Gormon who had once accused Pate of theft. In the apple tree beside the water, a nightingale began to sing. It was a sweet sound, a welcome respite from the harsh screams and endless quorking of the ravens he had tended all day long. The white ravens knew his name, and would mutter it to each other whenever they caught sight of him, Pate, Pate, Pate, until he wanted to scream. The big white birds were Archmaester Walgraves pride. He wanted them to eat him when he died, but Pate half suspected that they meant to eat him too. Perhaps it was the fearsomely strong cider he had not come here to drink, but Alleras had been buying to celebrate his copper link, and guilt had made him thirsty but it almost sounded as if the nightingale were trilling gold for iron, gold for iron, gold for iron. Which was passing strange, because that was what the stranger had said the night Rosey brought the two of them together. Who are you? Pate had demanded of him, and the man had replied, An alchemist. I can change iron into gold. And then the coin was in his hand, dancing across his knuckles, the soft yellow gold shining in the candlelight. On one side was a three-headed dragon, on the other the head of some dead king. Gold for iron, Pate remembered, you wont do better. Do you want her? Do you love her? I am no thief, he had told the man who called himself the alchemist, I am a novice of the Citadel. The alchemist had bowed his head, and said, If you should reconsider, I shall return here three days hence, with my dragon. Three days had passed. Pate had returned to the Quill and Tankard, still uncertain what he was, but instead of the alchemist hed found Mollander and Armen and the Sphinx, with Roone in tow. It would have raised suspicions not to join them. The Quill and Tankard never closed. For six hundred years it had been standing on its island in the Honeywine, and never once had its doors been shut to trade. Though the tall, timbered building leaned toward the south the way novices sometimes leaned after a tankard, Pate expected that the inn would go on standing for another six hundred years, selling wine and ale and fearsomely strong cider to rivermen and seamen, smiths and singers, priests and princes, and the novices and acolytes of the Citadel. Oldtown is not the world, declared Mollander, too loudly. He was a knights son, and drunk as drunk could be. Since they brought him word of his fathers death upon the Blackwater, he got drunk most every night. Even in Oldtown, far from the fighting and safe behind its walls, the War of the Five Kings had touched them all although Archmaester Benedict insisted that there had never been a war of five kings, since Renly Baratheon had been slain before Balon Greyjoy had crowned himself. My father always said the world was bigger than any lords castle, Mollander went on. Dragons must be the least of the things a man might find in Qarth and Asshai and Yi Ti. These sailors stories are stories told by sailors, Armen interrupted. Sailors, my dear Mollander. Go back down to the docks, and I wager youll find sailors wholl tell you of the mermaids that they bedded, or how they spent a year in the belly of a fish. How do you know they didnt? Mollander thumped through the grass, looking for more apples. Youd need to be down the belly yourself to swear they werent. One sailor with a story, aye, a man might laugh at that, but when oarsmen off four different ships tell the same tale in four different tongues The tales are not the same, insisted Armen. Dragons in Asshai, dragons in Qarth, dragons in Meereen, Dothraki dragons, dragons freeing slaves each telling differs from the last. Only in details. Mollander grew more stubborn when he drank, and even when sober he was bullheaded. All speak of dragons, and a beautiful young queen. The only dragon Pate cared about was made of yellow gold. He wondered what had happened to the alchemist. The third day. He said hed be here. Theres another apple near your foot, Alleras called to Mollander, and I still have two arrows in my quiver. Fuck your quiver. Mollander scooped up the windfall. This ones wormy, he complained, but he threw it anyway. The arrow caught the apple as it began to fall and sliced it clean in two. One half landed on a turret roof, tumbled to a lower roof, bounced, and missed Armen by a foot. If you cut a worm in two, you make two worms, the acolyte informed them. If only it worked that way with apples, no one would ever need go hungry, said Alleras with one of his soft smiles. The Sphinx was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widows peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls. Alleras would make a maester. He had only been at the Citadel for a year, yet already he had forged three links of his maesters chain. Armen might have more, but each of his had taken him a year to earn. Still, he would make a maester too. Roone and Mollander remained pink-necked novices, but Roone was very young and Mollander preferred drinking to reading. Pate, though He had been five years at the Citadel, arriving when he was no more than three-and-ten, yet his neck remained as pink as it had been on the day he first arrived from the westerlands. Twice had he believed himself ready. The first time he had gone before Archmaester Vaellyn to demonstrate his knowledge of the heavens. Instead he learned how Vinegar Vaellyn had earned that name. It took Pate two years to summon up the courage to try again. This time he submitted himself to kindly old Archmaester Ebrose, renowned for his soft voice and gentle hands, but Ebroses sighs had somehow proved just as painful as Vaellyns barbs. One last apple, promised Alleras, and I will tell you what I suspect about these dragons. What could you know that I dont? grumbled Mollander. He spied an apple on a branch, jumped up, pulled it down, and threw. Alleras drew his bowstring back to his ear, turning gracefully to follow the target in flight. He loosed his shaft just as the apple began to fall. You always miss your last shot, said Roone. The apple splashed down into the river, untouched. See? said Roone. The day you make them all is the day you stop improving. Alleras unstrung his longbow and eased it into its leather case. The bow was carved from goldenheart, a rare and fabled wood from the Summer Isles. Pate had tried to bend it once, and failed. The Sphinx looks slight, but theres strength in those slim arms, he reflected, as Alleras threw a leg across the bench and reached for his wine cup. The dragon has three heads, he announced in his soft Dornish drawl. Is this a riddle? Roone wanted to know. Sphinxes always speak in riddles in the tales. No riddle. Alleras sipped his wine. The rest of them were quaffing tankards of the fearsomely strong cider that the Quill and Tankard was renowned for, but he preferred the strange, sweet wines of his mothers country. Even in Oldtown such wines did not come cheap. It had been Lazy Leo who dubbed Alleras the Sphinx. A sphinx is a bit of this, a bit of that: a human face, the body of a lion, the wings of a hawk. Alleras was the same: his father was a Dornishman, his mother a black-skinned Summer Islander. His own skin was dark as teak. And like the green marble sphinxes that flanked the Citadels main gate, Alleras had eyes of onyx. No dragon has ever had three heads except on shields and banners, Armen the Acolyte said firmly. That was a heraldic charge, no more. Furthermore, the Targaryens are all dead. Not all, said Alleras. The Beggar King had a sister. I thought her head was smashed against a wall, said Roone. No, said Alleras. It was Prince Rhaegars young son Aegon whose head was dashed against the wall by the Lion of Lannisters brave men. We speak of Rhaegars sister, born on Dragonstone before its fall. The one they called Daenerys. The Stormborn. I recall her now. Mollander lifted his tankard high, sloshing the cider that remained. Heres to her! He gulped, slammed his empty tankard down, belched, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Wheres Rosey? Our rightful queen deserves another round of cider, wouldnt you say? Armen the Acolyte looked alarmed. Lower your voice, fool. You should not even jape about such things. You never know who could be listening. The Spider has ears everywhere. Ah, dont piss your breeches, Armen. I was proposing a drink, not a rebellion. Pate heard a chuckle. A soft, sly voice called out from behind him. I always knew you were a traitor, Hopfrog. Lazy Leo was slouching by the foot of the old plank bridge, draped in satin striped in green and gold, with a black silk half cape pinned to his shoulder by a rose of jade. The wine hed dribbled down his front had been a robust red, judging from the color of the spots. A lock of his ash-blond hair fell down across one eye. Mollander bristled at the sight of him. Bugger that. Go away. You are not welcome here. Alleras laid a hand upon his arm to calm him, whilst Armen frowned. Leo. My lord. I had understood that you were still confined to the Citadel for three more days. Lazy Leo shrugged. Perestan says the world is forty thousand years old. Mollos says five hundred thousand. What are three days, I ask you? Though there were a dozen empty tables on the terrace, Leo sat himself at theirs. Buy me a cup of Arbor gold, Hopfrog, and perhaps I wont inform my father of your toast. The tiles turned against me at the Checkered Hazard, and I wasted my last stag on supper. Suckling pig in plum sauce, stuffed with chestnuts and white truffles. A man must eat. What did you lads have? Mutton, muttered Mollander. He sounded none too pleased about it. We shared a haunch of boiled mutton. Im certain it was filling. Leo turned to Alleras. A lords son should be open-handed, Sphinx. I understand you won your copper link. Ill drink to that. Alleras smiled back at him. I only buy for friends. And I am no lords son, Ive told you that. My mother was a trader. Leos eyes were hazel, bright with wine and malice. Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will fuck anything with a hole between its legs. Meaning no offense. You may be brown as a nut, but at least you bathe. Unlike our spotted pig boy. He waved a hand toward Pate. If I hit him in the mouth with my tankard, I could knock out half his teeth, Pate thought. Spotted Pate the pig boy was the hero of a thousand ribald stories: a good-hearted, empty-headed lout who always managed to best the fat lordlings, haughty knights, and pompous septons who beset him. Somehow his stupidity would turn out to have been a sort of uncouth cunning; the tales always ended with Spotted Pate sitting on a lords high seat or bedding some knights daughter. But those were stories. In the real world pig boys never fared so well. Pate sometimes thought his mother must have hated him to have named him as she did. Alleras was no longer smiling. You will apologize. Will I? said Leo. How can I, with my throat so dry You shame your House with every word you say, Alleras told him. You shame the Citadel by being one of us. I know. So buy me some wine, that I might drown my shame. Mollander said, I would tear your tongue out by the roots. Truly? Then how would I tell you about the dragons? Leo shrugged again. The mongrel has the right of it. The Mad Kings daughter is alive, and shes hatched herself three dragons. Three? said Roone, astonished. Leo patted his hand. More than two and less than four. I would not try for my golden link just yet if I were you. You leave him be, warned Mollander. Such a chivalrous Hopfrog. As you wish. Every man off every ship thats sailed within a hundred leagues of Qarth is speaking of these dragons. A few will even tell you that theyve seen them. The Mage is inclined to believe them. Armen pursed his lips in disapproval. Marwyn is unsound. Archmaester Perestan would be the first to tell you that. Archmaester Ryam says so too, said Roone. Leo yawned. The sea is wet, the sun is warm, and the menagerie hates the mastiff. He has a mocking name for everyone, thought Pate, but he could not deny that Marwyn looked more a mastiff than a maester. As if he wants to bite you. The Mage was not like other maesters. People said that he kept company with whores and hedge wizards, talked with hairy Ibbenese and pitch-black Summer Islanders in their own tongues, and sacrificed to queer gods at the little sailors temples down by the wharves. Men spoke of seeing him down in the undercity, in rat pits and black brothels, consorting with mummers, singers, sellswords, even beggars. Some even whispered that once he had killed a man with his fists. When Marwyn had returned to Oldtown, after spending eight years in the east mapping distant lands, searching for lost books, and studying with warlocks and shadowbinders, Vinegar Vaellyn had dubbed him Marwyn the Mage. The name was soon all over Oldtown, to Vaellyns vast annoyance. Leave spells and prayers to priests and septons and bend your wits to learning truths a man can trust in, Archmaester Ryam had once counseled Pate, but Ryams ring and rod and mask were yellow gold, and his maesters chain had no link of Valyrian steel. Armen looked down his nose at Lazy Leo. He had the perfect nose for it, long and thin and pointed. Archmaester Marwyn believes in many curious things, he said, but he has no more proof of dragons than Mollander. Just more sailors stories. Youre wrong, said Leo. There is a glass candle burning in the Mages chambers. A hush fell over the torchlit terrace. Armen sighed and shook his head. Mollander began to laugh. The Sphinx studied Leo with his big black eyes. Roone looked lost. Pate knew about the glass candles, though he had never seen one burn. They were the worst-kept secret of the Citadel. It was said that they had been brought to Oldtown from Valyria a thousand years before the Doom. He had heard there were four; one was green and three were black, and all were tall and twisted. What are these glass candles? asked Roone. Armen the Acolyte cleared his throat. The night before an acolyte says his vows, he must stand a vigil in the vault. No lantern is permitted him, no torch, no lamp, no taper only a candle of obsidian. He must spend the night in darkness, unless he can light that candle. Some will try. The foolish and the stubborn, those who have made a study of these so-called higher mysteries. Often they cut their fingers, for the ridges on the candles are said to be as sharp as razors. Then, with bloody hands, they must wait upon the dawn, brooding on their failure. Wiser men simply go to sleep, or spend their night in prayer, but every year there are always a few who must try. Yes. Pate had heard the same stories. But whats the use of a candle that casts no light? It is a lesson, Armen said, the last lesson we must learn before we don our maesters chains. The glass candle is meant to represent truth and learning, rare and beautiful and fragile things. It is made in the shape of a candle to remind us that a maester must cast light wherever he serves, and it is sharp to remind us that knowledge can be dangerous. Wise men may grow arrogant in their wisdom, but a maester must always remain humble. The glass candle reminds us of that as well. Even after he has said his vow and donned his chain and gone forth to serve, a maester will think back on the darkness of his vigil and remember how nothing that he did could make the candle burn for even with knowledge, some things are not possible. Lazy Leo burst out laughing. Not possible for you, you mean. I saw the candle burning with my own eyes. You saw some candle burning, I dont doubt, said Armen. A candle of black wax, perhaps. I know what I saw. The light was queer and bright, much brighter than any beeswax or tallow candle. It cast strange shadows and the flame never flickered, not even when a draft blew through the open door behind me. Armen crossed his arms. Obsidian does not burn. Dragonglass, Pate said. The smallfolk call it dragonglass. Somehow that seemed important. They do, mused Alleras, the Sphinx, and if there are dragons in the world again Dragons and darker things, said Leo. The grey sheep have closed their eyes, but the mastiff sees the truth. Old powers waken. Shadows stir. An age of wonder and terror will soon be upon us, an age for gods and heroes. He stretched, smiling his lazy smile. Thats worth a round, Id say. Weve drunk enough, said Armen. Morn will be upon us sooner than wed like, and Archmaester Ebrose will be speaking on the properties of urine. Those who mean to forge a silver link would do well not to miss his talk. Far be it from me to keep you from the piss tasting, said Leo. Myself, I prefer the taste of Arbor gold. If the choice is piss or you, Ill drink piss. Mollander pushed back from the table. Come, Roone. The Sphinx reached for his bowcase. Its bed for me as well. I expect Ill dream of dragons and glass candles. All of you? Leo shrugged. Well, Rosey will remain. Perhaps Ill wake our little sweetmeat and make a woman of her. Alleras saw the look on Pates face. If he does not have a copper for a cup of wine, he cannot have a dragon for the girl. Aye, said Mollander. Besides, it takes a man to make a woman. Come with us, Pate. Old Walgrave will wake when the sun comes up. Hell be needing you to help him to the privy. If he remembers who I am today. Archmaester Walgrave had no trouble telling one raven from another, but he was not so good with people. Some days he seemed to think Pate was someone named Cressen. Not just yet, he told his friends. Im going to stay awhile. Dawn had not broken, not quite. The alchemist might still be coming, and Pate meant to be here if he did. As you wish, said Armen. Alleras gave Pate a lingering look, then slung his bow over one slim shoulder and followed the others toward the bridge. Mollander was so drunk he had to walk with a hand on Roones shoulder to keep from falling. The Citadel was no great distance as the raven flies, but none of them were ravens and Oldtown was a veritable labyrinth of a city, all wynds and crisscrossing alleys and narrow crookback streets. Careful, Pate heard Armen say as the river mists swallowed up the four of them, the night is damp, and the cobbles will be slippery. When they were gone, Lazy Leo considered Pate sourly across the table. How sad. The Sphinx has stolen off with all his silver, abandoning me to Spotted Pate the pig boy. He stretched, yawning. How is our lovely little Rosey, pray? Shes sleeping, Pate said curtly. Naked, I dont doubt. Leo grinned. Do you think shes truly worth a dragon? One day I suppose I must find out. Pate knew better than to reply to that. Leo needed no reply. I expect that once Ive broken in the wench, her price will fall to where even pig boys will be able to afford her. You ought to thank me. I ought to kill you, Pate thought, but he was not near drunk enough to throw away his life. Leo had been trained to arms, and was known to be deadly with bravos blade and dagger. And if Pate should somehow kill him, it would mean his own head too. Leo had two names where Pate had only one, and his second was Tyrell. Ser Moryn Tyrell, commander of the City Watch of Oldtown, was Leos father. Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South, was Leos cousin. And Oldtowns Old Man, Lord Leyton of the Hightower, who numbered Protector of the Citadel amongst his many titles, was a sworn bannerman of House Tyrell. Let it go, Pate told himself. He says these things just to wound me. The mists were lightening to the east. Dawn, Pate realized. Dawn has come, and the alchemist has not. He did not know whether he should laugh or cry. Am I still a thief if I put it all back and no one ever knows? It was another question that he had no answer for, like those that Ebrose and Vaellyn had once asked him. When he pushed back from the bench and got to his feet, the fearsomely strong cider all went to his head at once. He had to put a hand on the table to steady himself. Leave Rosey be, he said, by way of parting. Just leave her be, or I may kill you. Leo Tyrell flicked the hair back from his eye. I do not fight duels with pig boys. Go away. Pate turned and crossed the terrace. His heels rang against the weathered planks of the old bridge. By the time he reached the other side, the eastern sky was turning pink. The world is wide, he told himself. If I bought that donkey, I could still wander the roads and byways of the Seven Kingdoms, leeching the smallfolk and picking nits out of their hair. I could sign on to some ship, pull an oar, and sail to Qarth by the Jade Gates to see these bloody dragons for myself. I do not need to go back to old Walgrave and the ravens. Yet somehow his feet turned back toward the Citadel. When the first shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds to the east, morning bells began to peal from the Sailors Sept down by the harbor. The Lords Sept joined in a moment later, then the Seven Shrines from their gardens across the Honeywine, and finally the Starry Sept that had been the seat of the High Septon for a thousand years before Aegon landed at Kings Landing. They made a mighty music. Though not so sweet as one small nightingale. He could hear singing too, beneath the pealing of the bells. Each morning at first light the red priests gathered to welcome the sun outside their modest wharfside temple. For the night is dark and full of terrors. Pate had heard them cry those words a hundred times, asking their god Rhllor to save them from the darkness. The Seven were gods enough for him, but he had heard that Stannis Baratheon worshiped at the nightfires now. He had even put the fiery heart of Rhllor on his banners in place of the crowned stag. If he should win the Iron Throne, well all need to learn the words of the red priests song, Pate thought, but that was not likely. Tywin Lannister had smashed Stannis and Rhllor upon the Blackwater, and soon enough he would finish them and mount the head of the Baratheon pretender on a spike above the gates of Kings Landing. As the nights mists burned away, Oldtown took form around him, emerging ghostlike from the predawn gloom. Pate had never seen Kings Landing, but he knew it was a daub-and-wattle city, a sprawl of mud streets, thatched roofs, and wooden hovels. Oldtown was built in stone, and all its streets were cobbled, down to the meanest alley. The city was never more beautiful than at break of day. West of the Honeywine, the Guildhalls lined the bank like a row of palaces. Upriver, the domes and towers of the Citadel rose on both sides of the river, connected by stone bridges crowded with halls and houses. Downstream, below the black marble walls and arched windows of the Starry Sept, the manses of the pious clustered like children gathered round the feet of an old dowager. And beyond, where the Honeywine widened into Whispering Sound, rose the Hightower, its beacon fires bright against the dawn. From where it stood atop the bluffs of Battle Island, its shadow cut the city like a sword. Those born and raised in Oldtown could tell the time of day by where that shadow fell. Some claimed a man could see all the way to the Wall from the top. Perhaps that was why Lord Leyton had not made the descent in more than a decade, preferring to rule his city from the clouds. A butchers cart rumbled past Pate down the river road, five piglets in the back squealing in distress. Dodging from its path, he just avoided being spattered as a townswoman emptied a pail of night soil from a window overhead. When I am a maester in a castle I will have a horse to ride, he thought. Then he tripped upon a cobble and wondered who he was fooling. There would be no chain for him, no seat at a lords high table, no tall white horse to ride. His days would be spent listening to ravens quork and scrubbing shit stains off Archmaester Walgraves smallclothes. He was on one knee, trying to wipe the mud off his robes, when a voice said, Good morrow, Pate. The alchemist was standing over him. Pate rose. The third day you said you would be at the Quill and Tankard. You were with your friends. It was not my wish to intrude upon your fellowship. The alchemist wore a hooded travelers cloak, brown and nondescript. The rising sun was peeking over the rooftops behind his shoulder, so it was hard to make out the face beneath his hood. Have you decided what you are? Must he make me say it? I suppose I am a thief. I thought you might be. The hardest part had been getting down on his hands and knees to pull the strongbox from underneath Archmaester Walgraves bed. Though the box was stoutly made and bound with iron, its lock was broken. Maester Gormon had suspected Pate of breaking it, but that wasnt true. Walgrave had broken the lock himself, after losing the key that opened it. Inside, Pate had found a bag of silver stags, a lock of yellow hair tied up in a ribbon, a painted miniature of a woman who resembled Walgrave (even to her mustache), and a knights gauntlet made of lobstered steel. The gauntlet had belonged to a prince, Walgrave claimed, though he could no longer seem to recall which one. When Pate shook it, the key fell out onto the floor. If I pick that up, I am a thief, he remembered thinking. The key was old and heavy, made of black iron; supposedly it opened every door at the Citadel. Only the archmaesters had such keys. The others carried theirs upon their person or hid them away in some safe place, but if Walgrave had hidden his, no one would ever have seen it again. Pate snatched up the key and had been halfway to the door before turning back to take the silver too. A thief was a thief, whether he stole a little or a lot. Pate, one of the white ravens had called after him, Pate, Pate, Pate. Do you have my dragon? he asked the alchemist. If you have what I require. Give it here. I want to see. Pate did not intend to let himself be cheated. The river road is not the place. Come. He had no time to think about it, to weigh his choices. The alchemist was walking away. Pate had to follow or lose Rosey and the dragon both, forever. He followed. As they walked, he slipped his hand up into his sleeve. He could feel the key, safe inside the hidden pocket he had sewn there. Maesters robes were full of pockets. He had known that since he was a boy. He had to hurry to keep pace with the alchemists longer strides. They went down an alley, around a corner, through the old Thieves Market, along Ragpickers Wynd. Finally, the man turned into another alley, narrower than the first. This is far enough, said Pate. Theres no one about. Well do it here. As you wish. I want my dragon. To be sure. The coin appeared. The alchemist made it walk across his knuckles, the way he had when Rosey brought the two of them together. In the morning light the dragon glittered as it moved, and gave the alchemists fingers a golden glow. Pate grabbed it from his hand. The gold felt warm against his palm. He brought it to his mouth and bit down on it the way hed seen men do. If truth be told, he wasnt sure what gold should taste like, but he did not want to look a fool. The key? the alchemist inquired politely. Something made Pate hesitate. Is it some book you want? Some of the old Valyrian scrolls down in the locked vaults were said to be the only surviving copies in the world. What I want is none of your concern. No. Its done, Pate told himself. Go. Run back to the Quill and Tankard, wake Rosey with a kiss, and tell her she belongs to you. Yet still he lingered. Show me your face. As you wish. The alchemist pulled his hood down. He was just a man, and his face was just a face. A young mans face, ordinary, with full cheeks and the shadow of a beard. A scar showed faintly on his right cheek. He had a hooked nose, and a mat of dense black hair that curled tightly around his ears. It was not a face Pate recognized. I do not know you. Nor I you. Who are you? A stranger. No one. Truly. Oh. Pate had run out of words. He drew out the key and put it in the strangers hand, feeling light-headed, almost giddy. Rosey, he reminded himself. Were done, then. He was halfway down the alley when the cobblestones began to move beneath his feet. The stones are slick and wet, he thought, but that was not it. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest. Whats happening? he said. His legs had turned to water. I dont understand. And never will, a voice said sadly. The cobblestones rushed up to kiss him. Pate tried to cry for help, but his voice was failing too. His last thought was of Rosey. THE PROPHET The prophet was drowning men on Great Wyk when they came to tell him that the king was dead. It was a bleak, cold morning, and the sea was as leaden as the sky. The first three men had offered their lives to the Drowned God fearlessly, but the fourth was weak in faith and began to struggle as his lungs cried out for air. Standing waist-deep in the surf, Aeron seized the naked boy by the shoulders and pushed his head back down as he tried to snatch a breath. Have courage, he said. We came from the sea, and to the sea we must return. Open your mouth and drink deep of gods blessing. Fill your lungs with water, that you may die and be reborn. It does no good to fight. Either the boy could not hear him with his head beneath the waves, or else his faith had utterly deserted him. He began to kick and thrash so wildly that Aeron had to call for help. Four of his drowned men waded out to seize the wretch and hold him underwater. Lord God who drowned for us, the priest prayed, in a voice as deep as the sea, let Emmond your servant be reborn from the sea, as you were. Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel. Finally, it was done. No more air was bubbling from his mouth, and all the strength had gone out of his limbs. Facedown in the shallow sea floated Emmond, pale and cold and peaceful. That was when the Damphair realized that three horsemen had joined his drowned men on the pebbled shore. Aeron knew the Sparr, a hatchet-faced old man with watery eyes whose quavery voice was law on this part of Great Wyk. His son Steffarion accompanied him, with another youth whose dark red fur-lined cloak was pinned at the shoulder with an ornate brooch that showed the black-and-gold warhorn of the Goodbrothers. One of Gorolds sons, the priest decided at a glance. Three tall sons had been born to Goodbrothers wife late in life, after a dozen daughters, and it was said that no man could tell one son from the others. Aeron Damphair did not deign to try. Whether this be Greydon or Gormond or Gran, the priest had no time for him. He growled a brusque command, and his drowned men seized the dead boy by his arms and legs to carry him above the tideline. The priest followed, naked but for a sealskin clout that covered his private parts. Goosefleshed and dripping, he splashed back onto land, across cold wet sand and sea-scoured pebbles. One of his drowned men handed him a robe of heavy roughspun dyed in mottled greens and blues and greys, the colors of the sea and the Drowned God. Aeron donned the robe and pulled his hair free. Black and wet, that hair; no blade had touched it since the sea had raised him up. It draped his shoulders like a ragged, ropy cloak, and fell down past his waist. Aeron wove strands of seaweed through it, and through his tangled, uncut beard. His drowned men formed a circle around the dead boy, praying. Norjen worked his arms whilst Rus knelt astride him, pumping on his chest, but all moved aside for Aeron. He pried apart the boys cold lips with his fingers and gave Emmond the kiss of life, and again, and again, until the sea came gushing from his mouth. The boy began to cough and spit, and his eyes blinked open, full of fear. Another one returned. It was a sign of the Drowned Gods favor, men said. Every other priest lost a man from time to time, even Tarle the Thrice-Drowned, who had once been thought so holy that he was picked to crown a king. But never Aeron Greyjoy. He was the Damphair, who had seen the gods own watery halls and returned to tell of it. Rise, he told the sputtering boy as he slapped him on his naked back. You have drowned and been returned to us. What is dead can never die. But rises. The boy coughed violently, bringing up more water. Rises again. Every word was bought with pain, but that was the way of the world; a man must fight to live. Rises again. Emmond staggered to his feet. Harder. And stronger. You belong to the god now, Aeron told him. The other drowned men gathered round and each gave him a punch and a kiss to welcome him to the brotherhood. One helped him don a roughspun robe of mottled blue and green and grey. Another presented him with a driftwood cudgel. You belong to the sea now, so the sea has armed you, Aeron said. We pray that you shall wield your cudgel fiercely, against all the enemies of our god. Only then did the priest turn to the three riders, watching from their saddles. Have you come to be drowned, my lords? The Sparr coughed. I was drowned as a boy, he said, and my son upon his name day. Aeron snorted. That Steffarion Sparr had been given to the Drowned God soon after birth he had no doubt. He knew the manner of it too, a quick dip into a tub of seawater that scarce wet the infants head. Small wonder the ironborn had been conquered, they who once held sway everywhere the sound of waves was heard. That is no true drowning, he told the riders. He that does not die in truth cannot hope to rise from death. Why have you come, if not to prove your faith? Lord Gorolds son came seeking you, with news. The Sparr indicated the youth in the red cloak. The boy looked to be no more than six-and-ten. Aye, and which are you? Aeron demanded. Gormond. Gormond Goodbrother, if it please my lord. It is the Drowned God we must please. Have you been drowned, Gormond Goodbrother? On my name day, Damphair. My father sent me to find you and bring you to him. He needs to see you. Here I stand. Let Lord Gorold come and feast his eyes. Aeron took a leather skin from Rus, freshly filled with water from the sea. The priest pulled out the cork and took a swallow. I am to bring you to the keep, insisted young Gormond, from atop his horse. He is afraid to dismount, lest he get his boots wet. I have the gods work to do. Aeron Greyjoy was a prophet. He did not suffer petty lords ordering him about like some thrall. Gorolds had a bird, said the Sparr. A maesters bird, from Pyke, Gormond confirmed. Dark wings, dark words. The ravens fly oer salt and stone. If there are tidings that concern me, speak them now. Such tidings as we bear are for your ears alone, Damphair, the Sparr said. These are not matters I would speak of here before these others. These others are my drowned men, gods servants, just as I am. I have no secrets from them, nor from our god, beside whose holy sea I stand. The horsemen exchanged a look. Tell him, said the Sparr, and the youth in the red cloak summoned up his courage. The king is dead, he said, as plain as that. Four small words, yet the sea itself trembled when he uttered them. Four kings there were in Westeros, yet Aeron did not need to ask which one was meant. Balon Greyjoy ruled the Iron Islands, and no other. The king is dead. How can that be? Aeron had seen his eldest brother not a moons turn past, when he had returned to the Iron Islands from harrying the Stony Shore. Balons grey hair had gone half-white whilst the priest had been away, and the stoop in his shoulders was more pronounced than when the longships sailed. Yet all in all the king had not seemed ill. Aeron Greyjoy had built his life upon two mighty pillars. Those four small words had knocked one down. Only the Drowned God remains to me. May he make me as strong and tireless as the sea. Tell me the manner of my brothers death. His Grace was crossing a bridge at Pyke when he fell and was dashed upon the rocks below. The Greyjoy stronghold stood upon a broken headland, its keeps and towers built atop massive stone stacks that thrust up from the sea. Bridges knotted Pyke together; arched bridges of carved stone and swaying spans of hempen rope and wooden planks. Was the storm raging when he fell? Aeron demanded of them. Aye, the youth said, it was. The Storm God cast him down, the priest announced. For a thousand thousand years sea and sky had been at war. From the sea had come the ironborn, and the fish that sustained them even in the depths of winter, but storms brought only woe and grief. My brother Balon made us great again, which earned the Storm Gods wrath. He feasts now in the Drowned Gods watery halls, with mermaids to attend his every want. It shall be for us who remain behind in this dry and dismal vale to finish his great work. He pushed the cork back into his waterskin. I shall speak with your lord father. How far from here to Hammerhorn? Six leagues. You may ride pillion with me. One can ride faster than two. Give me your horse, and the Drowned God will bless you. Take my horse, Damphair, offered Steffarion Sparr. No. His mount is stronger. Your horse, boy. The youth hesitated half a heartbeat, then dismounted and held the reins for the Damphair. Aeron shoved a bare black foot into a stirrup and swung himself onto the saddle. He was not fond of horses they were creatures from the green lands and helped to make men weak but necessity required that he ride. Dark wings, dark words. A storm was brewing, he could hear it in the waves, and storms brought naught but evil. Meet with me at Pebbleton beneath Lord Merlyns tower, he told his drowned men, as he turned the horses head. The way was rough, up hills and woods and stony defiles, along a narrow track that oft seemed to disappear beneath the horses hooves. Great Wyk was the largest of the Iron Islands, so vast that some of its lords had holdings that did not front upon the holy sea. Gorold Goodbrother was one such. His keep was in the Hardstone Hills, as far from the Drowned Gods realm as any place in the isles. Gorolds folk toiled down in Gorolds mines, in the stony dark beneath the earth. Some lived and died without setting eyes upon salt water. Small wonder that such folk are crabbed and queer. As Aeron rode, his thoughts turned to his brothers. Nine sons had been born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy, the Lord of the Iron Islands. Harlon, Quenton, and Donel had been born of Lord Quellons first wife, a woman of the Stonetrees. Balon, Euron, Victarion, Urrigon, and Aeron were the sons of his second, a Sunderly of Saltcliffe. For a third wife, Quellon took a girl from the green lands, who gave him a sickly idiot boy named Robin, the brother best forgotten. The priest had no memory of Quenton or Donel, who had died as infants. Harlon he recalled but dimly, sitting grey-faced and still in a windowless tower room and speaking in whispers that grew fainter every day as the greyscale turned his tongue and lips to stone. One day we shall feast on fish together in the Drowned Gods watery halls, the four of us and Urri too. Nine sons had been born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy, but only four had lived to manhood. That was the way of this cold world, where men fished the sea and dug in the ground and died, whilst women brought forth short-lived children from beds of blood and pain. Aeron had been the last and least of the four krakens, Balon the eldest and boldest, a fierce and fearless boy who lived only to restore the ironborn to their ancient glory. At ten he scaled the Flint Cliffs to the Blind Lords haunted tower. At thirteen he could run a longships oars and dance the finger dance as well as any man in the isles. At fifteen he had sailed with Dagmer Cleftjaw to the Stepstones and spent a summer reaving. He slew his first man there and took his first two salt wives. At seventeen Balon captained his own ship. He was all that an elder brother ought to be, though he had never shown Aeron aught but scorn. I was weak and full of sin, and scorn was more than I deserved. Better to be scorned by Balon the Brave than beloved of Euron Crows Eye. And if age and grief had turned Balon bitter with the years, they had also made him more determined than any man alive. He was born a lords son and died a king, murdered by a jealous god, Aeron thought, and now the storm is coming, a storm such as these isles have never known. It was long after dark by the time the priest espied the spiky iron battlements of the Hammerhorn clawing at the crescent moon. Gorolds keep was hulking and blocky, its great stones quarried from the cliff that loomed behind it. Below its walls, the entrances of caves and ancient mines yawned like toothless black mouths. The Hammerhorns iron gates had been closed and barred for the night. Aeron beat on them with a rock until the clanging woke a guard. The youth who admitted him was the image of Gormond, whose horse hed taken. Which one are you? Aeron demanded. Gran. My father awaits you within. The hall was dank and drafty, full of shadows. One of Gorolds daughters offered the priest a horn of ale. Another poked at a sullen fire that was giving off more smoke than heat. Gorold Goodbrother himself was talking quietly with a slim man in fine grey robes, who wore about his neck a chain of many metals that marked him for a maester of the Citadel. Where is Gormond? Gorold asked when he saw Aeron. He returns afoot. Send your women away, my lord. And the maester as well. He had no love of maesters. Their ravens were creatures of the Storm God, and he did not trust their healing, not since Urri. No proper man would choose a life of thralldom, nor forge a chain of servitude to wear about his throat. Gysella, Gwin, leave us, Goodbrother said curtly. You as well, Gran. Maester Murenmure will stay. He will go, insisted Aeron. This is my hall, Damphair. It is not for you to say who must go and who remains. The maester stays. The man lives too far from the sea, Aeron told himself. Then I shall go, he told Goodbrother. Dry rushes rustled underneath the cracked soles of his bare black feet as he turned and stalked away. It seemed he had ridden a long way for naught. Aeron was almost at the door when the maester cleared his throat, and said, Euron Crows Eye sits the Seastone Chair. The Damphair turned. The hall had suddenly grown colder. The Crows Eye is half a world away. Balon sent him off two years ago, and swore that it would be his life if he returned. Tell me, he said hoarsely. He sailed into Lordsport the day after the kings death, and claimed the castle and the crown as Balons eldest brother, said Gorold Goodbrother. Now he sends forth ravens, summoning the captains and the kings from every isle to Pyke, to bend their knees and do him homage as their king. No. Aeron Damphair did not weigh his words. Only a godly man may sit the Seastone Chair. The Crows Eye worships naught but his own pride. You were on Pyke not long ago, and saw the king, said Goodbrother. Did Balon say aught to you of the succession? Aye. They had spoken in the Sea Tower, as the wind howled outside the windows and the waves crashed restlessly below. Balon had shaken his head in despair when he heard what Aeron had to tell him of his last remaining son. The wolves have made a weakling of him, as I feared, the king had said. I pray god that they killed him, so he cannot stand in Ashas way. That was Balons blindness; he saw himself in his wild, headstrong daughter, and believed she could succeed him. He was wrong in that, and Aeron tried to tell him so. No woman will ever rule the ironborn, not even a woman such as Asha, he insisted, but Balon could be deaf to things he did not wish to hear. Before the priest could answer Gorold Goodbrother, the maesters mouth flapped open once again. By rights the Seastone Chair belongs to Theon, or Asha if the prince is dead. That is the law. Green land law, said Aeron with contempt. What is that to us? We are ironborn, the sons of the sea, chosen of the Drowned God. No woman may rule over us, nor any godless man. And Victarion? asked Gorold Goodbrother. He has the Iron Fleet. Will Victarion make a claim, Damphair? Euron is the elder brother began the maester. Aeron silenced him with a look. In little fishing towns and great stone keeps alike such a look from Damphair would make maids feel faint and send children shrieking to their mothers, and it was more than sufficient to quell the chain-neck thrall. Euron is elder, the priest said, but Victarion is more godly. Will it come to war between them? asked the maester. Ironborn must not spill the blood of ironborn. A pious sentiment, Damphair, said Goodbrother, but not one that your brother shares. He had Sawane Botley drowned for saying that the Seastone Chair by rights belonged to Theon. If he was drowned, no blood was shed, said Aeron. The maester and the lord exchanged a look. I must send word to Pyke, and soon, said Gorold Goodbrother. Damphair, I would have your counsel. What shall it be, homage or defiance? Aeron tugged his beard, and thought. I have seen the storm, and its name is Euron Crows Eye. For now, send only silence, he told the lord. I must pray on this. Pray all you wish, the maester said. It does not change the law. Theon is the rightful heir, and Asha next. Silence! Aeron roared. Too long have the ironborn listened to you chain-neck maesters prating of the green lands and their laws. It is time we listened to the sea again. It is time we listened to the voice of god. His own voice rang in that smoky hall, so full of power that neither Gorold Goodbrother nor his maester dared a reply. The Drowned God is with me, Aeron thought. He has shown me the way. Goodbrother offered him the comforts of the castle for the night, but the priest declined. He seldom slept beneath a castle roof, and never so far from the sea. Comforts I shall know in the Drowned Gods watery halls beneath the waves. We are born to suffer, that our sufferings might make us strong. All that I require is a fresh horse to carry me to Pebbleton. That Goodbrother was pleased to provide. He sent his son Greydon as well, to show the priest the shortest way through the hills down to the sea. Dawn was still an hour off when they set forth, but their mounts were hardy and surefooted, and they made good time despite the darkness. Aeron closed his eyes and said a silent prayer, and after a while began to drowse in the saddle. The sound came softly, the scream of a rusted hinge. Urri, he muttered, and woke, fearful. There is no hinge here, no door, no Urri. A flying axe took off half of Urris hand when he was ten-and-four, playing at the finger dance whilst his father and his elder brothers were away at war. Lord Quellons third wife had been a Piper of Pinkmaiden Castle, a girl with big soft breasts and brown does eyes. Instead of healing Urris hand the Old Way, with fire and seawater, she gave him to her green land maester, who swore that he could sew back the missing fingers. He did that, and later he used potions and poultices and herbs, but the hand mortified and Urri took a fever. By the time the maester sawed his arm off, it was too late. Lord Quellon never returned from his last voyage; the Drowned God in his goodness granted him a death at sea. It was Lord Balon who came back, with his brothers Euron and Victarion. When Balon heard what had befallen Urri, he removed three of the maesters fingers with a cooks cleaver and sent his fathers Piper wife to sew them back on. Poultices and potions worked as well for the maester as they had for Urrigon. He died raving, and Lord Quellons third wife followed soon thereafter, as the midwife drew a stillborn daughter from her womb. Aeron had been glad. It had been his axe that sheared off Urris hand, whilst they danced the finger dance together, as friends and brothers will. It shamed him still to recall the years that followed Urris death. At six-and-ten he called himself a man, but in truth he had been a sack of wine with legs. He would sing, he would dance (but not the finger dance, never again), he would jape and jabber and make mock. He played the pipes, he juggled, he rode horses, and could drink more than all the Wynches and the Botleys, and half the Harlaws too. The Drowned God gives every man a gift, even him; no man could piss longer or farther than Aeron Greyjoy, as he proved at every feast. Once he bet his new longship against a herd of goats that he could quench a hearthfire with no more than his cock. Aeron feasted on goat for a year, and named the longship Golden Storm, though Balon threatened to hang him from her mast when he heard what sort of ram his brother proposed to mount upon her prow. In the end, the Golden Storm went down off Fair Isle during Balons first rebellion, cut in half by a towering war galley called Fury when Stannis Baratheon caught Victarion in his trap and smashed the Iron Fleet. Yet the god was not done with Aeron, and carried him to shore. Some fishermen took him captive and marched him down to Lannisport in chains, and he spent the rest of the war in the bowels of Casterly Rock, proving that krakens can piss farther and longer than lions, boars, or chickens. That man is dead. Aeron had drowned and been reborn from the sea, the gods own prophet. No mortal man could frighten him, no more than the darkness could nor memories, the bones of the soul. The sound of a door opening, the scream of a rusted iron hinge. Euron has come again. It did not matter. He was the Damphair priest, beloved of the god. Will it come to war? asked Greydon Goodbrother as the sun was lightening the hills. A war of brother against brother? If the Drowned God wills it. No godless man may sit the Seastone Chair. The Crows Eye will fight, that is certain. No woman could defeat him, not even Asha; women were made to fight their battles in the birthing bed. And Theon, if he lived, was just as hopeless, a boy of sulks and smiles. At Winterfell he proved his worth, such that it was, but the Crows Eye was no crippled boy. The decks of Eurons ship were painted red, to better hide the blood that soaked them. Victarion. The king must be Victarion, or the storm will slay us all. Greydon left him when the sun was up, to take the news of Balons death to his cousins in their towers at Downdelving, Crow Spike Keep, and Corpse Lake. Aeron continued on alone, up hills and down vales along a stony track that drew wider and more traveled as he neared the sea. In every village he paused to preach, and in the yards of petty lords as well. We were born from the sea, and to the sea we all return, he told them. His voice was as deep as the ocean, and thundered like the waves. The Storm God in his wrath plucked Balon from his castle and cast him down, and now he feasts beneath the waves in the Drowned Gods watery halls. He raised his hands. Balon is dead! The king is dead! Yet a king will come again! For what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger! A king will rise! Some of those who heard him threw down their hoes and picks to follow, so by the time he heard the crash of waves a dozen men walked behind his horse, touched by god and desirous of drowning. Pebbleton was home to several thousand fisherfolk, whose hovels huddled round the base of a square towerhouse with a turret at each corner. Twoscore of Aerons drowned men there awaited him, camped along a grey sand beach in sealskin tents and shelters built of driftwood. Their hands were roughened by brine, scarred by nets and lines, callused from oars and picks and axes, but now those hands gripped driftwood cudgels hard as iron, for the god had armed them from his arsenal beneath the sea. They had built a shelter for the priest just above the tideline. Gladly, he crawled into it, after he had drowned his newest followers. My god, he prayed, speak to me in the rumble of the waves, and tell me what to do. The captains and the kings await your word. Who shall be our king in Balons place? Sing to me in the language of leviathan, that I may know his name. Tell me, O Lord beneath the waves, who has the strength to fight the storm on Pyke? Though his ride to Hammerhorn had left him weary, Aeron Damphair was restless in his driftwood shelter, roofed over with black weeds from the sea. The clouds rolled in to cloak the moon and stars, and the darkness lay as thick upon the sea as it did upon his soul. Balon favored Asha, the child of his body, but a woman cannot rule the ironborn. It must be Victarion. Nine sons had been born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy, and Victarion was the strongest of them, a bull of a man, fearless and dutiful. And therein lies our danger. A younger brother owes obedience to an elder, and Victarion was not a man to sail against tradition. He has no love for Euron, though. Not since the woman died. Outside, beneath the snoring of his drowned men and the keening of the wind, he could hear the pounding of the waves, the hammer of his god calling him to battle. Aeron crept from his little shelter into the chill of the night. Naked he stood, pale and gaunt and tall, and naked he walked into the black salt sea. The water was icy cold, yet he did not flinch from his gods caress. A wave smashed against his chest, staggering him. The next broke over his head. He could taste the salt on his lips and feel the god around him, and his ears rang with the glory of his song. Nine sons were born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy, and I was the least of them, as weak and frightened as a girl. But no longer. That man is drowned, and the god has made me strong. The cold salt sea surrounded him, embraced him, reached down through his weak mans flesh and touched his bones. Bones, he thought. The bones of the soul. Balons bones, and Urris. The truth is in our bones, for flesh decays and bone endures. And on the hill of Nagga, the bones of the Grey Kings Hall And gaunt and pale and shivering, Aeron Damphair struggled back to the shore, a wiser man than he had been when he stepped into the sea. For he had found the answer in his bones, and the way was plain before him. The night was so cold that his body seemed to steam as he stalked back toward his shelter, but there was a fire burning in his heart, and sleep came easily for once, unbroken by the scream of iron hinges. When he woke the day was bright and windy. Aeron broke his fast on a broth of clams and seaweed cooked above a driftwood fire. No sooner had he finished than the Merlyn descended from his towerhouse with half a dozen guards to seek him out. The king is dead, the Damphair told him. Aye. I had a bird. And now another. The Merlyn was a bald round fleshy man who styled himself Lord in the manner of the green lands, and dressed in furs and velvets. One raven summons me to Pyke, another to Ten Towers. You krakens have too many arms, you pull a man to pieces. What say you, priest? Where should I send my longships? Aeron scowled. Ten Towers, do you say? What kraken calls you there? Ten Towers was the seat of the Lord of Harlaw. The Princess Asha. She has set her sails for home. The Reader sends out ravens, summoning all her friends to Harlaw. He says that Balon meant for her to sit the Seastone Chair. The Drowned God shall decide who sits the Seastone Chair, the priest said. Kneel, that I might bless you. Lord Merlyn sank to his knees, and Aeron uncorked his skin and poured a stream of seawater on his bald pate. Lord God who drowned for us, let Meldred your servant be born again from the sea. Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel. Water ran down Merlyns fat cheeks to soak his beard and fox-fur mantle. What is dead may never die, Aeron finished, but rises again, harder and stronger. But when Merlyn rose, he told him, Stay and listen, that you may spread gods word. Three feet from the waters edge the waves broke around a rounded granite boulder. It was there that Aeron Damphair stood, so all his school might see him, and hear the words he had to say. We were born from the sea, and to the sea we all return, he began, as he had a hundred times before. The Storm God in his wrath plucked Balon from his castle and cast him down, and now he feasts beneath the waves. He raised his hands. The iron king is dead! Yet a king will come again! For what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger! A king shall rise! the drowned men cried. He shall. He must. But who? The Damphair listened a moment, but only the waves gave answer. Who shall be our king? The drowned men began to slam their driftwood cudgels one against the other. Damphair! they cried. Damphair King! Aeron King! Give us Damphair! Aeron shook his head. If a father has two sons and gives to one an axe and to the other a net, which does he intend should be the warrior? The axe is for the warrior, Rus shouted back, the net for a fisher of the seas. Aye, said Aeron. The god took me deep beneath the waves and drowned the worthless thing I was. When he cast me forth again he gave me eyes to see, ears to hear, and a voice to spread his word, that I might be his prophet and teach his truth to those who have forgotten. I was not made to sit upon the Seastone Chair no more than Euron Crows Eye. For I have heard the god, who says, No godless man may sit my Seastone Chair! The Merlyn crossed his arms against his chest. Is it Asha, then? Or Victarion? Tell us, priest! The Drowned God will tell you, but not here. Aeron pointed at the Merlyns fat white face. Look not to me, nor to the laws of men, but to the sea. Raise your sails and unship your oars, my lord, and take yourself to Old Wyk. You, and all the captains and the kings. Go not to Pyke, to bow before the godless, nor to Harlaw, to consort with scheming women. Point your prow toward Old Wyk, where stood the Grey Kings Hall. In the name of the Drowned God I summon you. I summon all of you! Leave your halls and hovels, your castles and your keeps, and return to Naggas hill to make a kingsmoot! The Merlyn gaped at him. A kingsmoot? There has not been a true kingsmoot in too long a time! Aeron cried in anguish. Yet in the dawn of days the ironborn chose their own kings, raising up the worthiest amongst them. It is time we returned to the Old Way, for only that shall make us great again. It was a kingsmoot that chose Urras Ironfoot for High King, and placed a driftwood crown upon his brows. Sylas Flatnose, Harrag Hoare, the Old Kraken, the kingsmoot raised them all. And from this kingsmoot shall emerge a man to finish the work King Balon has begun and win us back our freedoms. Go not to Pyke, nor to the Ten Towers of Harlaw, but to Old Wyk, I say again. Seek the hill of Nagga and the bones of the Grey Kings Hall, for in that holy place when the moon has drowned and come again we shall make ourselves a worthy king, a godly king. He raised his bony hands on high again. Listen! Listen to the waves! Listen to the god! He is speaking to us, and he says, We shall have no king but from the kingsmoot! A roar went up at that, and the drowned men beat their cudgels one against the other. A kingsmoot! they shouted. A kingsmoot, a kingsmoot. No king but from the kingsmoot! And the clamor that they made was so thunderous that surely the Crows Eye heard the shouts on Pyke, and the vile Storm God in his cloudy hall. And Aeron Damphair knew he had done well. THE CAPTAIN OF GUARDS The blood oranges are well past ripe, the prince observed in a weary voice, when the captain rolled him onto the terrace. After that he did not speak again for hours. It was true about the oranges. A few had fallen to burst open on the pale pink marble. The sharp sweet smell of them filled Hotahs nostrils each time he took a breath. No doubt the prince could smell them too, as he sat beneath the trees in the rolling chair Maester Caleotte had made for him, with its goose-down cushions and rumbling wheels of ebony and iron. For a long while the only sounds were the children splashing in the pools and fountains, and once a soft plop as another orange dropped onto the terrace to burst. Then, from the far side of the palace, the captain heard the faint drumbeat of boots on marble. Obara. He knew her stride; long-legged, hasty, angry. In the stables by the gates, her horse would be lathered, and bloody from her spurs. She always rode stallions, and had been heard to boast that she could master any horse in Dorne and any man as well. The captain could hear other footsteps as well, the quick soft scuffing of Maester Caleotte hurrying to keep up. Obara Sand always walked too fast. She is chasing after something she can never catch, the prince had told his daughter once, in the captains hearing. When she appeared beneath the triple arch, Areo Hotah swung his longaxe sideways to block the way. The head was on a shaft of mountain ash six feet long, so she could not go around. My lady, no farther. His voice was a bass grumble thick with the accents of Norvos. The prince does not wish to be disturbed. Her face had been stone before he spoke; then it hardened. You are in my way, Hotah. Obara was the eldest Sand Snake, a big-boned woman near to thirty, with the close-set eyes and rat-brown hair of the Oldtown whore whod birthed her. Beneath a mottled sandsilk cloak of dun and gold, her riding clothes were old brown leather, worn and supple. They were the softest things about her. On one hip she wore a coiled whip, across her back a round shield of steel and copper. She had left her spear outside. For that, Areo Hotah gave thanks. Quick and strong as she was, the woman was no match for him, he knew but she did not, and he had no wish to see her blood upon the pale pink marble. Maester Caleotte shifted his weight from foot to foot. Lady Obara, I tried to tell you Does he know that my father is dead? Obara asked the captain, paying the maester no more mind than she would a fly, if any fly had been foolish enough to buzz about her head. He does, the captain said. He had a bird. Death had come to Dorne on raven wings, writ small and sealed with a blob of hard red wax. Caleotte must have sensed what was in that letter, for hed given it to Hotah to deliver. The prince thanked him, but for the longest time he would not break the seal. All afternoon hed sat with the parchment in his lap, watching the children at their play. He watched until the sun went down and the evening air grew cool enough to drive them inside; then he watched the starlight on the water. It was moonrise before he sent Hotah to fetch a candle, so he might read his letter beneath the orange trees in the dark of night. Obara touched her whip. Thousands are crossing the sands afoot to climb the Boneway, so they may help Ellaria bring my father home. The septs are packed to bursting, and the red priests have lit their temple fires. In the pillow houses women are coupling with every man who comes to them, and refusing any coin. In Sunspear, on the Broken Arm, along the Greenblood, in the mountains, out in the deep sand, everywhere, everywhere, women tear their hair and men cry out in rage. The same question is heard on every tongue what will Doran do? What will his brother do to avenge our murdered prince? She moved closer to the captain. And you say, he does not wish to be disturbed! He does not wish to be disturbed, Areo Hotah said again. The captain of guards knew the prince he guarded. Once, long ago, a callow youth had come from Norvos, a big broad-shouldered boy with a mop of dark hair. That hair was white now, and his body bore the scars of many battles but his strength remained, and he kept his longaxe sharp, as the bearded priests had taught him. She shall not pass, he told himself, and said, The prince is watching the children at their play. He is never to be disturbed when he is watching the children at their play. Hotah, said Obara Sand, you will remove yourself from my path, else I shall take that longaxe and Captain, came the command, from behind. Let her pass. I will speak with her. The princes voice was hoarse. Areo Hotah jerked his longaxe upright and stepped to one side. Obara gave him a lingering last look and strode past, the maester hurrying at her heels. Caleotte was no more than five feet tall and bald as an egg. His face was so smooth and fat that it was hard to tell his age, but he had been here before the captain, had even served the princes mother. Despite his age and girth, he was still nimble enough, and clever as they came, but meek. He is no match for any Sand Snake, the captain thought. In the shade of the orange trees, the prince sat in his chair with his gouty legs propped up before him, and heavy bags beneath his eyes though whether it was grief or gout that kept him sleepless, Hotah could not say. Below, in the fountains and the pools, the children were still at their play. The youngest were no more than five, the oldest nine and ten. Half were girls and half were boys. Hotah could hear them splashing and shouting at each other in high, shrill voices. It was not so long ago that you were one of the children in those pools, Obara, the prince said, when she took one knee before his rolling chair. She snorted. It has been twenty years, or near enough to make no matter. And I was not here long. I am the whores whelp, or had you forgotten? When he did not answer, she rose again and put her hands upon her hips. My father has been murdered. He was slain in single combat during a trial by battle, Prince Doran said. By law, that is no murder. He was your brother. He was. What do you mean to do about his death? The prince turned his chair laboriously to face her. Though he was but two-and-fifty, Doran Martell seemed much older. His body was soft and shapeless beneath his linen robes, and his legs were hard to look upon. The gout had swollen and reddened his joints grotesquely; his left knee was an apple, his right a melon, and his toes had turned to dark red grapes, so ripe it seemed as though a touch would burst them. Even the weight of a coverlet could make him shudder, though he bore the pain without complaint. Silence is a princes friend, the captain had heard him tell his daughter once. Words are like arrows, Arianne. Once loosed, you cannot call them back. I have written to Lord Tywin Written? If you were half the man my father was I am not your father. That I knew. Obaras voice was thick with contempt. You would have me go to war. I know better. You need not even leave your chair. Let me avenge my father. You have a host in the Princes Pass. Lord Yronwood has another in the Boneway. Grant me the one and Nym the other. Let her ride the kingsroad, whilst I turn the marcher lords out of their castles and hook round to march on Oldtown. And how could you hope to hold Oldtown? It will be enough to sack it. The wealth of Hightower Is it gold you want? It is blood I want. Lord Tywin shall deliver us the Mountains head. And who will deliver us Lord Tywins head? The Mountain has always been his pet. The prince gestured toward the pools. Obara, look at the children, if it please you. It does not please me. Id get more pleasure from driving my spear into Lord Tywins belly. Ill make him sing The Rains of Castamere as I pull his bowels out and look for gold. Look, the prince repeated. I command you. A few of the older children lay facedown upon the smooth pink marble, browning in the sun. Others paddled in the sea beyond. Three were building a sand castle with a great spike that resembled the Spear Tower of the Old Palace. A score or more had gathered in the big pool, to watch the battles as smaller children rode through the waist-deep shallows on the shoulders of the larger and tried to shove each other into the water. Every time a pair went down, the splash was followed by a roar of laughter. They watched a nut-brown girl yank a towheaded boy off his brothers shoulders to tumble him headfirst into the pool. Your father played that same game once, as I did before him, said the prince. We had ten years between us, so I had left the pools by the time he was old enough to play, but I would watch him when I came to visit Mother. He was so fierce, even as a boy. Quick as a water snake. I oft saw him topple boys much bigger than himself. He reminded me of the day he left for Kings Landing. He swore that he would do it one more time, else I would never have let him go. Let him go? Obara laughed. As if you could have stopped him. The Red Viper of Dorne went where he would. He did. I wish I had some word of comfort to I did not come to you for comfort. Her voice was full of scorn. The day my father came to claim me, my mother did not wish for me to go. She is a girl, she said, and I do not think that she is yours. I had a thousand other men. He tossed his spear at my feet and gave my mother the back of his hand across the face, so she began to weep. Girl or boy, we fight our battles, he said, but the gods let us choose our weapons. He pointed to the spear, then to my mothers tears, and I picked up the spear. I told you she was mine, my father said, and took me. My mother drank herself to death within the year. They say that she was weeping as she died. Obara edged closer to the prince in his chair. Let me use the spear; I ask no more. It is a deal to ask, Obara. I shall sleep on it. You have slept too long already. You may be right. I will send word to you at Sunspear. So long as the word is war. Obara turned upon her heel and strode off as angrily as she had come, back to the stables for a fresh horse and another headlong gallop down the road. Maester Caleotte remained behind. My prince? the little round man asked. Do your legs hurt? The prince smiled faintly. Is the sun hot? Shall I fetch a draught for the pain? No. I need my wits about me. The maester hesitated. My prince, is it is it prudent to allow Lady Obara to return to Sunspear? She is certain to inflame the common people. They loved your brother well. So did we all. He pressed his fingers to his temples. No. You are right. I must return to Sunspear as well. The little round man hesitated. Is that wise? Not wise, but necessary. Best send a rider to Ricasso, and have him open my apartments in the Tower of the Sun. Inform my daughter Arianne that I will be there on the morrow. My little princess. The captain had missed her sorely. You will be seen, the maester warned. The captain understood. Two years ago, when they had left Sunspear for the peace and isolation of the Water Gardens, Prince Dorans gout had not been half so bad. In those days he had still walked, albeit slowly, leaning on a stick and grimacing with every step. The prince did not wish his enemies to know how feeble he had grown, and the Old Palace and its shadow city were full of eyes. Eyes, the captain thought, and steps he cannot climb. He would need to fly to sit atop the Tower of the Sun. I must be seen. Someone must pour oil on the waters. Dorne must be reminded that it still has a prince. He smiled wanly. Old and gouty though he is. If you return to Sunspear, you will need to give audience to Princess Myrcella, Caleotte said. Her white knight will be with her and you know he sends letters to his queen. I suppose he does. The white knight. The captain frowned. Ser Arys had come to Dorne to attend his own princess, as Areo Hotah had once come with his. Even their names sounded oddly alike: Areo and Arys. Yet there the likeness ended. The captain had left Norvos and its bearded priests, but Ser Arys Oakheart still served the Iron Throne. Hotah had felt a certain sadness whenever he saw the man in the long snowy cloak, the times the prince had sent him down to Sunspear. One day, he sensed, the two of them would fight; on that day Oakheart would die, with the captains longaxe crashing through his skull. He slid his hand along the smooth ashen shaft of his axe and wondered if that day was drawing nigh. The afternoon is almost done, the prince was saying. We will wait for morn. See that my litter is ready by first light. As you command. Caleotte bobbed a bow. The captain stood aside to let him pass, and listened to his footsteps dwindle. Captain? The princes voice was soft. Hotah strode forward, one hand wrapped about his longaxe. The ash felt as smooth as a womans skin against his palm. When he reached the rolling chair he thumped its butt down hard to announce his presence, but the prince had eyes only for the children. Did you have brothers, captain? he asked. Back in Norvos, when you were young? Sisters? Both, Hotah said. Two brothers, three sisters. I was the youngest. The youngest, and unwanted. Another mouth to feed, a big boy who ate too much and soon outgrew his clothes. Small wonder they had sold him to the bearded priests. I was the oldest, the prince said, and yet I am the last. After Mors and Olyvar died in their cradles, I gave up hope of brothers. I was nine when Elia came, a squire in service at Salt Shore. When the raven arrived with word that my mother had been brought to bed a month too soon, I was old enough to understand that meant the child would not live. Even when Lord Gargalen told me that I had a sister, I assured him that she must shortly die. Yet she lived, by the Mothers mercy. And a year later Oberyn arrived, squalling and kicking. I was a man grown when they were playing in these pools. Yet here I sit, and they are gone. Areo Hotah did not know what to say to that. He was only a captain of guards, and still a stranger to this land and its seven-faced god, even after all these years. Serve. Obey. Protect. He had sworn those vows at six-and-ten, the day he wed his axe. Simple vows for simple men, the bearded priests had said. He had not been trained to counsel grieving princes. He was still groping for some words to say when another orange fell with a heavy splat, no more than a foot from where the prince was seated. Doran winced at the sound, as if somehow it had hurt him. Enough, he sighed, it is enough. Leave me, Areo. Let me watch the children for a few more hours. When the sun set the air grew cool and the children went inside in search of supper, still the prince remained beneath his orange trees, looking out over the still pools and the sea beyond. A serving man brought him a bowl of purple olives, with flatbread, cheese, and chickpea paste. He ate a bit of it, and drank a cup of the sweet, heavy strongwine that he loved. When it was empty, he filled it once again. Sometimes in the deep black hours of the morning sleep found him in his chair. Only then did the captain roll him down the moonlit gallery, past a row of fluted pillars and through a graceful archway, to a great bed with crisp cool linen sheets in a chamber by the sea. Doran groaned as the captain moved him, but the gods were good and he did not wake. The captains sleeping cell adjoined his princes. He sat upon the narrow bed and found his whetstone and oilcloth in their niche, and set to work. Keep your longaxe sharp, the bearded priests had told him, the day they branded him. He always did. As he honed the axe, Hotah thought of Norvos, the high city on the hill and the low beside the river. He could still recall the sounds of the three bells, the way that Nooms deep peals set his very bones to shuddering, the proud strong voice of Narrah, sweet Nyels silvery laughter. The taste of wintercake filled his mouth again, rich with ginger and pine nuts and bits of cherry, with nahsa to wash it down, fermented goats milk served in an iron cup and laced with honey. He saw his mother in her dress with the squirrel collar, the one she wore but once each year, when they went to see the bears dance down the Sinners Steps. And he smelled the stench of burning hair as the bearded priest touched the brand to the center of his chest. The pain had been so fierce that he thought his heart might stop, yet Areo Hotah had not flinched. The hair had never grown back over the axe. Only when both edges were sharp enough to shave with did the captain lay his ash-and-iron wife down on the bed. Yawning, he pulled off his soiled clothes, tossed them on the floor, and stretched out on his straw-stuffed mattress. Thinking of the brand had made it itch, so he had to scratch himself before he closed his eyes. I should have gathered up the oranges that fell, he thought, and went to sleep dreaming of the tart sweet taste of them, and the sticky feel of the red juice on his fingers. Dawn came too soon. Outside the stables the smallest of the three horse litters stood ready, the cedarwood litter with the red silk draperies. The captain chose twenty spears to accompany it, out of the thirty who were posted at the Water Gardens; the rest would stay to guard the grounds and children, some of whom were the sons and daughters of great lords and wealthy merchants. Although the prince had spoken of departing at first light, Areo Hotah knew that he would dawdle. Whilst the maester helped Doran Martell to bathe and bandaged up his swollen joints in linen wraps soaked with soothing lotions, the captain donned a shirt of copper scales as befit his rank, and a billowing cloak of dun-and-yellow sandsilk to keep the sun off the copper. The day promised to be hot, and the captain had long ago discarded the heavy horsehair cape and studded leather tunic he had worn in Norvos, which were like to cook a man in Dorne. He had kept his iron halfhelm, with its crest of sharpened spikes, but now he wore it wrapped in orange silk, weaving the cloth in and around the spikes. Elsewise the sun beating down on the metal would have his head pounding before they saw the palace. The prince was still not ready to depart. He had decided to break his fast before he went, with a blood orange and a plate of gulls eggs diced with bits of ham and fiery peppers. Then nought would do but he must say farewell to several of the children who had become especial favorites: the Dalt boy and Lady Blackmonts brood and the round-faced orphan girl whose father had sold cloth and spices up and down the Greenblood. Doran kept a splendid Myrish blanket over his legs as he spoke with them, to spare the young ones the sight of his swollen, bandaged joints. It was midday before they got under way; the prince in his litter, Maester Caleotte riding on a donkey, the rest afoot. Five spearmen walked ahead and five behind, with five more flanking the litter to either side. Areo Hotah himself took his familiar place at the left hand of the prince, resting his longaxe on a shoulder as he walked. The road from Sunspear to the Water Gardens ran beside the sea, so they had a cool fresh breeze to soothe them as they made their way across a sparse red-brown land of stone and sand and twisted stunted trees. Halfway there, the second Sand Snake caught them. She appeared suddenly upon a dune, mounted on a golden sand steed with a mane like fine white silk. Even ahorse, the Lady Nym looked graceful, dressed all in shimmering lilac robes and a great silk cape of cream and copper that lifted at every gust of wind, and made her look as if she might take flight. Nymeria Sand was five-and-twenty, and slender as a willow. Her straight black hair, worn in a long braid bound up with red-gold wire, made a widows peak above her dark eyes, just as her fathers had. With her high cheekbones, full lips, and milk-pale skin, she had all the beauty that her elder sister lacked but Obaras mother had been an Oldtown whore, whilst Nym was born from the noblest blood of old Volantis. A dozen mounted spearmen tailed her, their round shields gleaming in the sun. They followed her down the dune. The prince had tied back the curtains on his litter, the better to enjoy the breeze blowing off the sea. Lady Nym fell in beside him, slowing her pretty golden mare to match the litters pace. Well met, Uncle, she sang out, as if it had been chance that brought her here. May I ride with you to Sunspear? The captain was on the opposite side of the litter from Lady Nym, yet he could hear every word she said. I would be glad of it, Prince Doran replied, though he did not sound glad to the captains ears. Gout and grief make poor companions on the road. By which the captain knew him to mean that every pebble drove a spike through his swollen joints. The gout I cannot help, she said, but my father had no use for grief. Vengeance was more to his taste. Is it true that Gregor Clegane admitted slaying Elia and her children? He roared out his guilt for all the court to hear, the prince admitted. Lord Tywin has promised us his head. And a Lannister always pays his debts, said Lady Nym, yet it seems to me that Lord Tywin means to pay us with our own coin. I had a bird from our sweet Ser Daemon, who swears my father tickled that monster more than once as they fought. If so, Ser Gregor is as good as dead, and no thanks to Tywin Lannister. The prince grimaced. Whether it was from the pain of gout or his nieces words, the captain could not say. It may be so. May be? I say tis. Obara would have me go to war. Nym laughed. Yes, she wants to set the torch to Oldtown. She hates that city as much as our little sister loves it. And you? Nym glanced over a shoulder, to where her companions rode a dozen lengths behind. I was abed with the Fowler twins when the word reached me, the captain heard her say. You know the Fowler words? Let Me Soar! That is all I ask of you. Let me soar, Uncle. I need no mighty host, only one sweet sister. Obara? Tyene. Obara is too loud. Tyene is so sweet and gentle that no man will suspect her. Obara would make Oldtown our fathers funeral pyre, but I am not so greedy. Four lives will suffice for me. Lord Tywins golden twins, as payment for Elias children. The old lion, for Elia herself. And last of all the little king, for my father. The boy has never wronged us. The boy is a bastard born of treason, incest, and adultery, if Lord Stannis can be believed. The playful tone had vanished from her voice, and the captain found himself watching her through narrowed eyes. Her sister Obara wore her whip upon her hip and carried a spear where any man could see it. Lady Nym was no less deadly, though she kept her knives well hidden. Only royal blood can wash out my fathers murder. Oberyn died during single combat, fighting in a matter that was none of his concern. I do not call that murder. Call it what you will. We sent them the finest man in Dorne, and they are sending back a bag of bones. He went beyond anything I asked of him. Take the measure of this boy king and his council, and make note of their strengths and weaknesses, I told him, on the terrace. We were eating oranges. Find us friends, if there are any to be found. Learn what you can of Elias end, but see that you do not provoke Lord Tywin unduly, those were my words to him. Oberyn laughed, and said, When have I provoked any man unduly? You would do better to warn the Lannisters against provoking me. He wanted justice for Elia, but he would not wait He waited ten-and-seven years, the Lady Nym broke in. Were it you theyd killed, my father would have led his banners north before your corpse was cold. Were it you, the spears would be falling thick as rain upon the marches now. I do not doubt it. No more should you doubt this, my prince my sisters and I shall not wait ten-and-seven years for our vengeance. She put her spurs into the mare and she was off, galloping toward Sunspear with her tail in hot pursuit. The prince leaned back against his pillows and closed his eyes, but Hotah knew he did not sleep. He is in pain. For a moment he considered calling Maester Caleotte up to the litter, but if Prince Doran had wanted him, he would have called himself. The shadows of the afternoon were long and dark and the sun was as red and swollen as the princes joints before they glimpsed the towers of Sunspear to the east. First, the slender Spear Tower, a hundred-and-a-half feet tall and crowned with a spear of gilded steel that added another thirty feet to its height; then the mighty Tower of the Sun, with its dome of gold and leaded glass; last the dun-colored Sandship, looking like some monstrous dromond that had washed ashore and turned to stone. Only three leagues of coast road divided Sunspear from the Water Gardens, yet they were two different worlds. There children frolicked naked in the sun, music played in tiled courtyards, and the air was sharp with the smell of lemons and blood oranges. Here the air smelled of dust, sweat, and smoke, and the nights were alive with the babble of voices. In place of the pink marble of the Water Gardens, Sunspear was built from mud and straw, and colored brown and dun. The ancient stronghold of House Martell stood at the easternmost end of a little jut of stone and sand, surrounded on three sides by the sea. To the west, in the shadows of Sunspears massive walls, mud-brick shops and windowless hovels clung to the castle like barnacles to a galleys hull. Stables and inns and winesinks and pillow houses had grown up west of those, many enclosed by walls of their own, and yet more hovels had risen beneath those walls. And so and so and so, as the bearded priests would say. Compared to Tyrosh or Myr or Great Norvos, the shadow city was no more than a town, yet it was the nearest thing to a true city that these Dornish had. Lady Nyms arrival had preceded theirs by some hours, and no doubt she had warned the guards of their coming, for the Threefold Gate was open when they reached it. Only here were the gates lined up one behind the other to allow visitors to pass beneath all three of the Winding Walls directly to the Old Palace, without first making their way through miles of narrow alleys, hidden courts, and noisy bazaars. Prince Doran had closed the draperies of his litter as soon as the Spear Tower came in sight, yet still the smallfolk shouted out to him as the litter passed. The Sand Snakes have stirred them to a boil, the captain thought uneasily. They crossed the squalor of the outer crescent and went through the second gate. Beyond, the wind stank of tar and salt water and rotting seaweed, and the crowd grew thicker with every step. Make way for Prince Doran! Areo Hotah boomed out, thumping the butt of his longaxe on the bricks. Make way for the Prince of Dorne! The prince is dead! a woman shrilled behind him. To spears! a man bellowed from a balcony. Doran! called some highborn voice. To the spears! Hotah gave up looking for the speakers; the press was too thick, and a third of them were shouting. To spears! Vengeance for the Viper! By the time they reached the third gate, the guards were shoving people aside to clear a path for the princes litter, and the crowd was throwing things. One ragged boy darted past the spearmen with a half-rotten pomegranate in one hand, but when he saw Areo Hotah in his path, with longaxe at the ready, he let the fruit fall unthrown and beat a quick retreat. Others farther back let fly with lemons, limes, and oranges, crying War! War! To the spears! One of the guards was hit in the eye with a lemon, and the captain himself had an orange splatter off his foot. No answer came from within the litter. Doran Martell stayed cloaked within his silken walls until the thicker walls of the castle swallowed all of them, and the portcullis came down behind them with a rattling crunch. The sounds of shouting dwindled away slowly. Princess Arianne was waiting in the outer ward to greet her father, with half the court about her: the old blind seneschal Ricasso, Ser Manfrey Martell the castellan, young Maester Myles with his grey robes and silky perfumed beard, twoscore of Dornish knights in flowing linen of half a hundred hues. Little Myrcella Baratheon stood with her septa and Ser Arys of the Kingsguard, sweltering in his white-enameled scales. Princess Arianne strode to the litter on snakeskin sandals laced up to her thighs. Her hair was a mane of jet-black ringlets that fell to the small of her back, and around her brow was a band of copper suns. She is still a little thing, the captain thought. Where the Sand Snakes were tall, Arianne took after her mother, who stood but five foot two. Yet beneath her jeweled girdle and loose layers of flowing purple silk and yellow samite she had a womans body, lush and roundly curved. Father, she announced as the curtains opened, Sunspear rejoices at your return. Yes, I heard the joy. The prince smiled wanly and cupped his daughters cheek with a reddened, swollen hand. You look well. Captain, be so good as to help me down from here. Hotah slid his longaxe into its sling across his back and gathered the prince into his arms, tenderly so as not to jar his swollen joints. Even so, Doran Martell bit back a gasp of pain. I have commanded the cooks to prepare a feast for this evening, Arianne said, with all your favorite dishes. I fear I could not do them justice. The prince glanced slowly around the yard. I do not see Tyene. She begs a private word. I sent her to the throne room to await your coming. The prince sighed. Very well. Captain? The sooner I am done with this, the sooner I may rest. Hotah bore him up the long stone steps of the Tower of the Sun, to the great round chamber beneath the dome, where the last light of the afternoon was slanting down through thick windows of many-colored glass to dapple the pale marble with diamonds of half a hundred colors. There the third Sand Snake awaited them. She was sitting cross-legged on a pillow beneath the raised dais where the high seats stood, but she rose as they entered, dressed in a clinging gown of pale blue samite with sleeves of Myrish lace that made her look as innocent as the Maid herself. In one hand was a piece of embroidery she had been working on, in the other a pair of golden needles. Her hair was gold as well, and her eyes were deep blue pools and yet somehow they reminded the captain of her fathers eyes, though Oberyns had been as black as night. All of Prince Oberyns daughters have his viper eyes, Hotah realized suddenly. The color does not matter. Uncle, said Tyene Sand, I have been waiting for you. Captain, help me to the high seat. There were two seats on the dais, near twin to one another, save that one had the Martell spear inlaid in gold upon its back, whilst the other bore the blazing Rhoynish sun that had flown from the masts of Nymerias ships when first they came to Dorne. The captain placed the prince beneath the spear and stepped away. Does it hurt so much? Lady Tyenes voice was gentle, and she looked as sweet as summer strawberries. Her mother had been a septa, and Tyene had an air of almost otherworldy innocence about her. Is there aught that I might do to ease your pain? Say what you would and let me rest. I am weary, Tyene. I made this for you, Uncle. Tyene unfolded the piece shed been embroidering. It showed her father, Prince Oberyn, mounted on a sand steed and armored all in red, smiling. When I finish, it is yours, to help you remember him. I am not like to forget your father. That is good to know. Many have wondered. Lord Tywin has promised us the Mountains head. He is so kind but a headsmans sword is no fit end for brave Ser Gregor. We have prayed so long for his death, it is only fair that he pray for it as well. I know the poison that my father used, and there is none slower or more agonizing. Soon we may hear the Mountain screaming, even here in Sunspear. Prince Doran sighed. Obara cries to me for war. Nym will be content with murder. And you? War, said Tyene, though not my sisters war. Dornishmen fight best at home, so I say let us hone our spears and wait. When the Lannisters and the Tyrells come down on us, we shall bleed them in the passes and bury them beneath the blowing sands, as we have a hundred times before. If they should come down on us. Oh, but they must, or see the realm riven once more, as it was before we wed the dragons. Father told me so. He said we had the Imp to thank, for sending us Princess Myrcella. She is so pretty, dont you think? I wish that I had curls like hers. She was made to be a queen, just like her mother. Dimples bloomed in Tyenes cheeks. I would be honored to arrange the wedding, and to see to the making of the crowns as well. Trystane and Myrcella are so innocent, I thought perhaps white gold with emeralds, to match Myrcellas eyes. Oh, diamonds and pearls would serve as well, so long as the children are wed and crowned. Then we need only hail Myrcella as the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and lawful heir to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and wait for the lions to come. The lawful heir? The prince snorted. She is older than her brother, explained Tyene, as if he were some fool. By law the Iron Throne should pass to her. By Dornish law. When good King Daeron wed Princess Myriah and brought us into his kingdom, it was agreed that Dornish law would always rule in Dorne. And Myrcella is in Dorne, as it happens. So she is. His tone was grudging. Let me think on it. Tyene grew cross. You think too much, Uncle. Do I? Father said so. Oberyn thought too little. Some men think because they are afraid to do. There is a difference between fear and caution. Oh, I must pray that I never see you frightened, Uncle. You might forget to breathe. She raised a hand The captain brought the butt of his longaxe down upon the marble with a thump. My lady, you presume. Step from the dais, if it please you. I meant no harm, Captain. I love my uncle, as I know he loved my father. Tyene went to one knee before the prince. I have said all I came to say, Uncle. Forgive me if I gave offense; my heart is broken all to pieces. Do I still have your love? Always. Give me your blessing, then, and I shall go. Doran hesitated half a heartbeat before placing his hand on his nieces head. Be brave, child. Oh, how not? I am his daughter. No sooner had she taken her leave than Maester Caleotte hurried to the dais. My prince, she did not here, let me see your hand. He examined the palm first, then gently turned it upside down to sniff at the back of the princes fingers. No, good. That is good. There are no scratches, so The prince withdrew his hand. Maester, could I trouble you for some milk of the poppy? A thimble cup will suffice. The poppy. Yes, to be sure. Now, I think, Doran Martell urged gently, and Caleotte scurried to the stairs. Outside the sun had set. The light within the dome was the blue of dusk, and all the diamonds on the floor were dying. The prince sat in his high seat beneath the Martell spear, his face pale with pain. After a long silence he turned to Areo Hotah. Captain, he said, how loyal are my guards? Loyal. The captain did not know what else to say. All of them? Or some? They are good men. Good Dornishmen. They will do as I command. He thumped his longaxe on the floor. I will bring the head of any man who would betray you. I want no heads. I want obedience. You have it. Serve. Obey. Protect. Simple vows for a simple man. How many men are needed? I will leave that for you to decide. It may be that a few good men will serve us better than a score. I want this done as quickly and as quietly as possible, with no blood spilled. Quick and quiet and bloodless, aye. What is your command? You will find my brothers daughters, take them into custody, and confine them in the cells atop the Spear Tower. The Sand Snakes? The captains throat was dry. All all eight, my prince? The little ones, also? The prince considered. Ellarias girls are too young to be a danger, but there are those who might seek to use them against me. It would be best to keep them safe in hand. Yes, the little ones as well but first secure Tyene, Nymeria, and Obara. As my prince commands. His heart was troubled. My little princess will mislike this. What of Sarella? She is a woman grown, almost twenty. Unless she returns to Dorne, theres naught I can do about Sarella save pray that she shows more sense than her sisters. Leave her to her game. Gather up the others. I shall not sleep until I know that they are safe and under guard. It will be done. The captain hesitated. When this is known in the streets, the common folk will howl. All Dorne will howl, said Doran Martell in a tired voice. I only pray Lord Tywin hears them in Kings Landing, so he might know what a loyal friend he has in Sunspear. CERSEI She dreamt she sat the Iron Throne, high above them all. The courtiers were brightly colored mice below. Great lords and proud ladies knelt before her. Bold young knights laid their swords at her feet and pleaded for her favors, and the queen smiled down at them. Until the dwarf appeared as if from nowhere, pointing at her and howling with laughter. The lords and ladies began to chuckle too, hiding their smiles behind their hands. Only then did the queen realize she was naked. Horrified, she tried to cover herself with her hands. The barbs and blades of the Iron Throne bit into her flesh as she crouched to hide her shame. Blood ran red down her legs, as steel teeth gnawed at her buttocks. When she tried to stand, her foot slipped through a gap in the twisted metal. The more she struggled the more the throne engulfed her, tearing chunks of flesh from her breasts and belly, slicing at her arms and legs until they were slick and red, glistening. And all the while her brother capered below, laughing. His merriment still echoed in her ears when she felt a light touch on her shoulder, and woke suddenly. For half a heartbeat the hand seemed part of the nightmare, and Cersei cried out, but it was only Senelle. The maids face was white and frightened. We are not alone, the queen realized. Shadows loomed around her bed, tall shapes with chainmail glimmering beneath their cloaks. Armed men had no business here. Where are my guards? Her bedchamber was dark, but for the lantern one of the intruders held on high. I must show no fear. Cersei pushed back sleep-tousled hair, and said, What do you want of me? A man stepped into the lantern light, and she saw his cloak was white. Jaime? I dreamt of one brother, but the other has come to wake me. Your Grace. The voice was not her brothers. The Lord Commander said come get you. His hair curled, as Jaimes did, but her brothers hair was beaten gold, like hers, where this mans was black and oily. She stared at him, confused, as he muttered about a privy and a crossbow, and said her fathers name. I am dreaming still, Cersei thought. I have not woken, nor has my nightmare ended. Tyrion will creep out from under the bed soon and begin to laugh at me. But that was folly. Her dwarf brother was down in the black cells, condemned to die this very day. She looked down at her hands, turning them over to make certain all her fingers were still there. When she ran a hand down her arm the skin was covered with gooseprickles, but unbroken. There were no cuts on her legs, no gashes on the soles of her feet. A dream, thats all it was, a dream. I drank too much last night, these fears are only humors born of wine. I will be the one laughing, come dusk. My children will be safe, Tommens throne will be secure, and my twisted little valonqar will be short a head and rotting. Jocelyn Swyft was at her elbow, pressing a cup on her. Cersei took a sip: water, mixed with lemon squeezings, so tart she spit it out. She could hear the night wind rattling the shutters, and she saw with a strange sharp clarity. Jocelyn was trembling like a leaf, as frightened as Senelle. Ser Osmund Kettleblack loomed over her. Behind him stood Ser Boros Blount, with a lantern. At the door were Lannister guardsmen with gilded lions shining on the crests of their helmets. They looked afraid as well. Can it be? the queen wondered. Can it be true? She rose, and let Senelle slip a bedrobe over her shoulders to hide her nakedness. Cersei belted it herself, her fingers stiff and clumsy. My lord father keeps guards about him, night and day, she said. Her tongue felt thick. She took another swallow of lemon water and sloshed it round her mouth to freshen her breath. A moth had gotten into the lantern Ser Boros was holding; she could hear it buzzing and see the shadow of its wings as it beat against the glass. The guards were at their posts, Your Grace, said Osmund Kettleblack. We found a hidden door behind the hearth. A secret passage. The Lord Commanders gone down to see where it goes. Jaime? Terror seized her, sudden as a storm. Jaime should be with the king The lads not been harmed. Ser Jaime sent a dozen men to look in on him. His Grace is sleeping peaceful. Let him have a sweeter dream than mine, and a kinder waking. Who is with the king? Ser Loras has that honor, if it please you. It did not please her. The Tyrells were only stewards that the dragon-kings had upjumped far above their station. Their vanity was exceeded only by their ambition. Ser Loras might be as pretty as a maidens dream, but underneath his white cloak he was Tyrell to the bone. For all she knew, this nights foul fruit had been planted and nurtured in Highgarden. But that was a suspicion she dare not speak aloud. Allow me a moment to dress. Ser Osmund, you shall accompany me to the Tower of the Hand. Ser Boros, roust the gaolers and make certain the dwarf is still in his cell. She would not say his name. He would never have found the courage to lift a hand against Father, she told herself, but she had to be certain. As Your Grace commands. Blount surrendered the lantern to Ser Osmund. Cersei was not displeased to see the back of him. Father should never have restored him to the white. The man had proved himself a craven. By the time they left Maegors Holdfast, the sky had turned a deep cobalt blue, though the stars still shone. All but one, Cersei thought. The bright star of the west has fallen, and the nights will be darker now. She paused upon the drawbridge that spanned the dry moat, gazing down at the spikes below. They would not dare lie to me about such a thing. Who found him? One of his guards, said Ser Osmund. Lum. He felt a call of nature, and found his lordship in the privy. No, that cannot be. That is not the way a lion dies. The queen felt strangely calm. She remembered the first time she had lost a tooth, when she was just a little girl. It hadnt hurt, but the hole in her mouth felt so odd she could not stop touching it with her tongue. Now there is a hole in the world where Father stood, and holes want filling. If Tywin Lannister was truly dead, no one was safe least of all her son upon his throne. When the lion falls the lesser beasts move in: the jackals and the vultures and the feral dogs. They would try to push her aside, as they always had. She would need to move quickly, as she had when Robert died. This might be the work of Stannis Baratheon, through some catspaw. It could well be the prelude to another attack upon the city. She hoped it was. Let him come. I will smash him, just as Father did, and this time he will die. Stannis did not frighten her, no more than Mace Tyrell did. No one frightened her. She was a daughter of the Rock, a lion. There will be no more talk of forcing me to wed again. Casterly Rock was hers now, and all the power of House Lannister. No one would ever disregard her again. Even when Tommen had no further need of a regent, the Lady of Casterly Rock would remain a power in the land. The rising sun had painted the tower tops a vivid red, but beneath the walls the night still huddled. The outer castle was so hushed that she could have believed all its people dead. They should be. It is not fitting for Tywin Lannister to die alone. Such a man deserves a retinue to attend his needs in hell. Four spearmen in red cloaks and lion-crested helms were posted at the door of the Tower of the Hand. No one is to enter or leave without my permission, she told them. The command came easily to her. My father had steel in his voice as well. Within the tower, the smoke from the torches irritated her eyes, but Cersei did not weep, no more than her father would have. I am the only true son he ever had. Her heels scraped against the stone as she climbed, and she could still hear the moth fluttering wildly inside Ser Osmunds lantern. Die, the queen thought at it, in irritation, fly into the flame and be done with it. Two more red-cloaked guardsmen stood atop the steps. Red Lester muttered a condolence as she passed. The queens breath was coming fast and short, and she could feel her heart fluttering in her chest. The steps, she told herself, this cursed tower has too many steps. She had half a mind to tear it down. The hall was full of fools speaking in whispers, as if Lord Tywin were asleep and they were afraid to wake him. Guards and servants alike shrank back before her, mouths flapping. She saw their pink gums and waggling tongues, but their words made no more sense than the buzzing of the moth. What are they doing here? How did they know? By rights they should have called her first. She was the Queen Regent, had they forgotten that? Before the Hands bedchamber stood Ser Meryn Trant in his white armor and cloak. The visor of his helm was open, and the bags beneath his eyes made him look still half-asleep. Clear these people away, Cersei told him. Is my father in the privy? They carried him back to his bed, mlady. Ser Meryn pushed the door open for her to enter. Morning light slashed through the shutters to paint golden bars upon the rushes strewn across the floor of the bedchamber. Her uncle Kevan was on his knees beside the bed, trying to pray, but he could scarcely get the words out. Guardsmen clustered near the hearth. The secret door that Ser Osmund had spoken of gaped open behind the ashes, no bigger than an oven. A man would need to crawl. But Tyrion is only half a man. The thought made her angry. No, the dwarf is locked in a black cell. This could not be his work. Stannis, she told herself, Stannis was behind it. He still has adherents in the city. Him, or the Tyrells There had always been talk of secret passages within the Red Keep. Maegor the Cruel was supposed to have killed the men who built the castle to keep the knowledge of them secret. How many other bedchambers have hidden doors? Cersei had a sudden vision of the dwarf crawling out from behind a tapestry in Tommens bedchamber with blade in hand. Tommen is well guarded, she told herself. But Lord Tywin had been well guarded too. For a moment, she did not recognize the dead man. He had hair like her father, yes, but this was some other man, surely, a smaller man, and much older. His bedrobe was hiked up around his chest, leaving him naked below the waist. The quarrel had taken him in his groin between his navel and his manhood, and was sunk so deep that only the fletching showed. His pubic hair was stiff with dried blood. More was congealing in his navel. The smell of him made her wrinkle her nose. Take the quarrel out of him, she commanded. This is the Kings Hand! And my father. My lord father. Should I scream and tear my hair? They said Catelyn Stark had clawed her own face to bloody ribbons when the Freys slew her precious Robb. Would you like that, Father? she wanted to ask him. Or would you want me to be strong? Did you weep for your own father? Her grandfather had died when she was only a year old, but she knew the story. Lord Tytos had grown very fat, and his heart burst one day when he was climbing the steps to his mistress. Her father was off in Kings Landing when it happened, serving as the Mad Kings Hand. Lord Tywin was often away in Kings Landing when she and Jaime were young. If he wept when they brought him word of his fathers death, he did it where no one could see the tears. The queen could feel her nails digging into her palms. How could you leave him like this? My father was Hand to three kings, as great a man as ever strode the Seven Kingdoms. The bells must ring for him, as they rang for Robert. He must be bathed and dressed as befits his stature, in ermine and cloth-of-gold and crimson silk. Where is Pycelle? Where is Pycelle? She turned to the guardsmen. Puckens, bring Grand Maester Pycelle. He must see to Lord Tywin. Hes seen him, Your Grace, said Puckens. He came and saw and went, to summon the silent sisters. They sent for me last. The realization made her almost too angry for words. And Pycelle runs off to send a message rather than soil his soft, wrinkled hands. The man is useless. Find Maester Ballabar, she commanded. Find Maester Frenken. Any of them. Puckens and Shortear ran to obey. Where is my brother? Down the tunnel. Theres a shaft, with iron rungs set in the stone. Ser Jaime went to see how deep it goes. He has only one hand, she wanted to shout at them. One of you should have gone. He has no business climbing ladders. The men who murdered Father might be down there, waiting for him. Her twin had always been too rash, and it would seem that even losing a hand had not taught him caution. She was about to command the guards to go down after him and bring him back when Puckens and Shortear returned with a grey-haired man between them. Your Grace, said Shortear, this here claims he was a maester. The man bowed low. How may I serve Your Grace? His face was vaguely familiar, though Cersei could not place him. Old, but not so old as Pycelle. This one has some strength in him still. He was tall, though slightly stooped, with crinkles around his bold blue eyes. His throat is naked. You wear no maesters chain. It was taken from me. My name is Qyburn, if it please Your Grace. I treated your brothers hand. His stump, you mean. She remembered him now. He had come with Jaime from Harrenhal. I could not save Ser Jaimes hand, it is true. My arts saved his arm, however, mayhaps his very life. The Citadel took my chain, but they could not take my knowledge. You may suffice, she decided. If you fail me you will lose more than a chain, I promise you. Remove the quarrel from my fathers belly and make him ready for the silent sisters. As my queen commands. Qyburn went to the bedside, paused, looked back. And how shall I deal with the girl, Your Grace? Girl? Cersei had overlooked the second body. She strode to the bed, flung aside the heap of bloody coverlets, and there she was, naked, cold, and pink save for her face, which had turned as black as Joffs had at his wedding feast. A chain of linked golden hands was half-buried in the flesh of her throat, twisted so tight that it had broken the skin. Cersei hissed like an angry cat. What is she doing here? We found her there, Your Grace, said Shortear. Its the Imps whore. As if that explained why she was here. My lord father had no use for whores, she thought. After our mother died he never touched a woman. She gave the guardsman a chilly look. This is not when Lord Tywins father died he returned to Casterly Rock to find a a woman of this sort bedecked in his lady mothers jewels, wearing one of her gowns. He stripped them off her, and all else as well. For a fortnight she was paraded naked through the streets of Lannisport, to confess to every man she met that she was a thief and a harlot. That was how Lord Tywin Lannister dealt with whores. He never this woman was here for some other purpose, not for Perhaps his lordship was questioning the girl about her mistress, Qyburn suggested. Sansa Stark vanished the night the king was murdered, I have heard. Thats so. Cersei seized on the suggestion eagerly. He was questioning her, to be sure. There can be no doubt. She could see Tyrion leering, his mouth twisted into a monkeys grin beneath the ruin of his nose. And what better way to question her than naked, with her legs well spread? the dwarf whispered. Thats how I like to question her too. The queen turned away. I will not look at her. Suddenly it was too much even to be in the same room as the dead woman. She pushed past Qyburn, out into the hall. Ser Osmund had been joined by his brothers Osney and Osfryd. There is a dead woman in the Hands bedchamber, Cersei told the three Kettleblacks. No one is ever to know that she was here. Aye, mlady. Ser Osney had faint scratches on his cheek where another of Tyrions whores had clawed him. And what shall we do with her? Feed her to your dogs. Keep her for a bedmate. What do I care? She was never here. Ill have the tongue of any man who dares to say she was. Do you understand me? Osney and Osfryd exchanged a look. Aye, Your Grace. She followed them back inside and watched as they bundled the girl up in her fathers bloody blankets. Shae, her name was Shae. They had last spoken the night before the dwarfs trial by combat, after that smiling Dornish snake offered to champion him. Shae had been asking about some jewels Tyrion had given her, and certain promises Cersei might have made, a manse in the city and a knight to marry her. The queen made it plain that the whore would have nothing of her until she told them where Sansa Stark had gone. You were her maid. Do you expect me to believe that you knew nothing of her plans? she had said. Shae left in tears. Ser Osfryd slung the bundled corpse up over his shoulder. I want that chain, Cersei said. See that you do not scratch the gold. Osfryd nodded and started toward the door. No, not through the yard. She gestured toward the secret passage. Theres a shaft down to the dungeons. That way. As Ser Osfryd went down on one knee before the hearth, the light brightened within, and the queen heard noises. Jaime emerged bent over like an old woman, his boots kicking up puffs of soot from Lord Tywins last fire. Get out of my way, he told the Kettleblacks. Cersei rushed toward him. Did you find them? Did you find the killers? How many were there? Surely there had been more than one. One man alone could not have killed her father. Her twins face had a haggard look. The shaft goes down to a chamber where half a dozen tunnels meet. Theyre closed off by iron gates, chained and locked. I need to find keys. He glanced around the bedchamber. Whoever did this might still be lurking in the walls. Its a maze back there, and dark. She imagined Tyrion creeping between the walls like some monstrous rat. No. You are being silly. The dwarf is in his cell. Take hammers to the walls. Knock this tower down, if you must. I want them found. Whoever did this. I want them killed. Jaime hugged her, his good hand pressing against the small of her back. He smelled of ash, but the morning sun was in his hair, giving it a golden glow. She wanted to draw his face to hers for a kiss. Later, she told herself, later he will come to me, for comfort. We are his heirs, Jaime, she whispered. It will be up to us to finish his work. You must take Fathers place as Hand. You see that now, surely. Tommen will need you He pushed away from her and raised his arm, forcing his stump into her face. A Hand without a hand? A bad jape, sister. Dont ask me to rule. Their uncle heard the rebuff. Qyburn as well, and the Kettleblacks, wrestling their bundle through the ashes. Even the guardsmen heard, Puckens and Hoke the Horseleg and Shortear. It will be all over the castle by nightfall. Cersei felt the heat rising up her cheeks. Rule? I said naught of ruling. I shall rule until my son comes of age. I dont know who I pity more, her brother said. Tommen, or the Seven Kingdoms. She slapped him. Jaimes arm rose to catch the blow, cat-quick but this cat had a cripples stump in place of a right hand. Her fingers left red marks on his cheek. The sound brought their uncle to his feet. Your father lies here dead. Have the decency to take your quarrel outside. Jaime inclined his head in apology. Forgive us, Uncle. My sister is sick with grief. She forgets herself. She wanted to slap him again for that. I must have been mad to think he could be Hand. She would sooner abolish the office. When had a Hand ever brought her anything but grief? Jon Arryn put Robert Baratheon in her bed, and before he died hed begun sniffing about her and Jaime as well. Eddard Stark took up right where Arryn had left off; his meddling had forced her to rid herself of Robert sooner than she would have liked, before she could deal with his pestilential brothers. Tyrion sold Myrcella to the Dornishmen, made one of her sons his hostage, and murdered the other. And when Lord Tywin returned to Kings Landing The next Hand will know his place, she promised herself. It would have to be Ser Kevan. Her uncle was tireless, prudent, unfailingly obedient. She could rely on him, as her father had. The hand does not argue with the head. She had a realm to rule, but she would need new men to help her rule it. Pycelle was a doddering lickspittle, Jaime had lost his courage with his sword hand, and Mace Tyrell and his cronies Redwyne and Rowan could not be trusted. For all she knew they might have had a part in this. Lord Tyrell had to know that he would never rule the Seven Kingdoms so long as Tywin Lannister lived. I will need to move carefully with that one. The city was full of his men, and hed even managed to plant one of his sons in the Kingsguard, and meant to plant his daughter in Tommens bed. It still made her furious to think that Father had agreed to betroth Tommen to Margaery Tyrell. The girl is twice his age and twice widowed. Mace Tyrell claimed his daughter was still virgin, but Cersei had her doubts. Joffrey had been murdered before he could bed the girl, but she had been wed to Renly first A man may prefer the taste of hippocras, yet if you set a tankard of ale before him, he will quaff it quick enough. She must command Lord Varys to find out what he could. That stopped her where she stood. She had forgotten about Varys. He should be here. He is always here. Whenever anything of import happened in the Red Keep, the eunuch appeared as if from nowhere. Jaime is here, and Uncle Kevan, and Pycelle has come and gone, but not Varys. A cold finger touched her spine. He was part of this. He must have feared that Father meant to have his head, so he struck first. Lord Tywin had never had any love for the simpering master of whisperers. And if any man knew the Red Keeps secrets, it was surely the master of whisperers. He must have made common cause with Lord Stannis. They served together on Roberts council, after all Cersei strode to the door of the bedchamber, to Ser Meryn Trant. Trant, bring me Lord Varys. Squealing and squirming if need be, but unharmed. As Your Grace commands. But no sooner had one Kingsguard departed than another one returned. Ser Boros Blount was red-faced and puffing from his headlong rush up the steps. Gone, he panted, when he saw the queen. He sank to one knee. The Imp his cells open, Your Grace no sign of him anywhere The dream was true. I gave orders, she said. He was to be kept under guard, night and day Blounts chest was heaving. One of the gaolers has gone missing too. Rugen, his name was. Two other men we found asleep. It was all she could do not to scream. I hope you did not wake them, Ser Boros. Let them sleep. Sleep? He looked up, jowly and confused. Aye, Your Grace. How long shall Forever. See that they sleep forever, ser. I will not suffer guards to sleep on watch. He is in the walls. He killed Father as he killed Mother, as he killed Joff. The dwarf would come for her as well, the queen knew, just as the old woman had promised her in the dimness of that tent. I laughed in her face, but she had powers. I saw my future in a drop of blood. My doom. Her legs were weak as water. Ser Boros tried to take her by the arm, but the queen recoiled from his touch. For all she knew he might be one of Tyrions creatures. Get away from me, she said. Get away! She staggered to a settle. Your Grace? said Blount. Shall I fetch a cup of water? It is blood I need, not water. Tyrions blood, the blood of the valonqar. The torches spun around her. Cersei closed her eyes, and saw the dwarf grinning at her. No, she thought, no, I was almost rid of you. But his fingers had closed around her neck, and she could feel them beginning to tighten. BRIENNE I am looking for a maid of three-and-ten, she told the grey-haired goodwife beside the village well. A highborn maid and very beautiful, with blue eyes and auburn hair. She may have been traveling with a portly knight of forty years, or perhaps with a fool. Have you seen her? Not as I recall, ser, the goodwife said, knuckling her forehead. But Ill keep my eye out, that I will. The blacksmith had not seen her either, nor the septon in the village sept, the swineherd with his pigs, the girl pulling up onions from her garden, nor any of the other simple folk that the Maid of Tarth found amongst the daub-and-wattle huts of Rosby. Still, she persisted. This is the shortest road to Duskendale, Brienne told herself. If Sansa came this way, someone must have seen her. At the castle gates she posed her question to two spearmen whose badges showed three red chevronels on ermine, the arms of House Rosby. If shes on the roads these days she wont be no maid for long, said the older man. The younger wanted to know if the girl had that auburn hair between her legs as well. I will find no help here. As Brienne mounted up again, she glimpsed a skinny boy atop a piebald horse at the far end of the village. I have not talked with that one, she thought, but he vanished behind the sept before she could seek him out. She did not trouble to chase after him. Most like he knew no more than the others had. Rosby was scarce more than a wide place in the road; Sansa would have had no reason to linger here. Returning to the road, Brienne headed north and east past apple orchards and fields of barley, and soon left the village and its castle well behind. It was at Duskendale that she would find her quarry, she told herself. If she came this way at all. I will find the girl and keep her safe, Brienne had promised Ser Jaime, back at Kings Landing. For her lady mothers sake. And for yours. Noble words, but words were easy. Deeds were hard. She had lingered too long and learned too little in the city. I should have set out earlier but to where? Sansa Stark had vanished on the night King Joffrey died, and if anyone had seen her since, or had any inkling where she might have gone, they were not talking. Not to me, at least. Brienne believed the girl had left the city. If she were still in Kings Landing, the gold cloaks would have turned her up. She had to have gone elsewhere but elsewhere is a big place. If I were a maiden newly flowered, alone and afraid, in desperate danger, what would I do? she had asked herself. Where would I go? For her, the answer came easy. She would make her way back to Tarth, to her father. Sansas father had been beheaded whilst she watched, however. Her lady mother was dead too, murdered at the Twins, and Winterfell, the great Stark stronghold, had been sacked and burned, its people put to the sword. She has no home to run to, no father, no mother, no brothers. She might be in the next town, or on a ship to Asshai; one seemed as likely as the other. Even if Sansa Stark had wanted to go home, how would she get there? The kingsroad was not safe; even a child would know that. The ironborn held Moat Cailin athwart the Neck, and at the Twins sat the Freys, who had murdered Sansas brother and lady mother. The girl could go by sea if she had the coin, but the harbor at Kings Landing was still in ruins, the river a jumble of broken quays and burned and sunken galleys. Brienne had asked along the docks, but no one could remember a ship leaving on the night King Joffrey died. A few trading ships were anchoring in the bay and off-loading by boat, one man told her, but more were continuing up the coast to Duskendale, where the port was busier than ever. Briennes mare was sweet to look upon and kept a pretty pace. There were more travelers than she would have thought. Begging brothers trundled by with their bowls dangling on thongs about their necks. A young septon galloped past upon a palfrey as fine as any lords, and later she met a band of silent sisters who shook their heads when Brienne put her question to them. A train of oxcarts lumbered south with grain and sacks of wool, and later she passed a swineherd driving pigs, and an old woman in a horse litter with an escort of mounted guards. She asked all of them if they had seen a highborn girl of three-and-ten years with blue eyes and auburn hair. None had. She asked about the road ahead as well. Twixt here and Duskendale is safe enough, one man told her, but past Duskendale theres outlaws, and broken men in the woods. Only the soldier pines and sentinels still showed green; the broad-leaf trees had donned mantles of russet and gold, or else uncloaked themselves to scratch against the sky with branches brown and bare. Every gust of wind drove swirling clouds of dead leaves across the rutted road. They made a rustling sound as they scuttled past the hooves of the big bay mare that Jaime Lannister had bestowed on her. As easy to find one leaf in the wind as one girl lost in Westeros. She found herself wondering whether Jaime had given her this task as some cruel jape. Perhaps Sansa Stark was dead, beheaded for her part in King Joffreys death, buried in some unmarked grave. How better to conceal her murder than by sending some big stupid wench from Tarth to find her? Jaime would not do that. He was sincere. He gave me the sword, and called it Oathkeeper. Anyway, it made no matter. She had promised Lady Catelyn that she would bring back her daughters, and no promise was as solemn as one sworn to the dead. The younger girl was long dead, Jaime claimed; the Arya the Lannisters sent north to marry Roose Boltons bastard was a fraud. That left only Sansa. Brienne had to find her. Near dusk she saw a campfire burning by a brook. Two men sat beside it grilling trout, their arms and armor stacked beneath a tree. One was old and one was somewhat younger, though far from young. The younger rose to greet her. He had a big belly straining at the laces of his spotted doeskin jerkin. A shaggy untrimmed beard covered his cheeks and chin, the color of old gold. We have trout enough for three, ser, he called out. It was not the first time Brienne had been mistaken for a man. She pulled off her greathelm, letting her hair spill free. It was yellow, the color of dirty straw, and near as brittle. Long and thin, it blew about her shoulders. I thank you, ser. The hedge knight squinted at her so earnestly that she realized he must be nearsighted. A lady, is it? Armed and armored? Illy, gods be good, the size of her. I took her for a knight as well, the older knight said, turning the trout. Had Brienne been a man, she would have been called big; for a woman, she was huge. Freakish was the word she had heard all her life. She was broad in the shoulder and broader in the hips. Her legs were long, her arms thick. Her chest was more muscle than bosom. Her hands were big, her feet enormous. And she was ugly besides, with a freckled, horsey face and teeth that seemed almost too big for her mouth. She did not need to be reminded of any of that. Sers, she said, have you seen a maid of three-and-ten upon the road? She has blue eyes and auburn hair, and may have been in company with a portly red-faced man of forty years. The nearsighted hedge knight scratched his head. I recall no such maid. What sort of hair is auburn? Browny red, said the older man. No, we saw her not. We saw her not, mlady, the younger told her. Come, dismount, the fish is almost done. Are you hungry? She was, as it happened, but she was wary as well. Hedge knights had an unsavory reputation. A hedge knight and a robber knight are two sides of the same sword, it was said. These two do not look too dangerous. Might I know your names, sers? I have the honor to be Ser Creighton Longbough, of whom the singers sing, said the big-bellied one. You will have heard of my deeds on the Blackwater, mayhaps. My companion is Ser Illifer the Penniless. If there was a song about Creighton Longbough, it was not one Brienne had heard. Their names meant no more to her than did their arms. Ser Creightons green shield showed only a brown chief, and a deep gouge made by some battle-axe. Ser Illifer bore gold and ermine gyronny, though everything about him suggested that painted gold and painted ermine were the only sorts hed ever known. He was sixty if he was a day, his face pinched and narrow beneath the hood of a patched roughspun mantle. Mail-clad he went, but flecks of rust spotted the iron like freckles. Brienne stood a head taller than either of them, and was better mounted and better armed in the bargain. If I fear the likes of these, I had as well swap my longsword for a pair of knitting needles. I thank you, good sers, she said. I will gladly share your trout. Swinging down, Brienne unsaddled her mare and watered her before hobbling her to graze. She stacked her arms and shield and saddlebags beneath an elm. By then the trout was crisply done. Ser Creighton brought her a fish, and she sat cross-legged on the ground to eat it. We are bound for Duskendale, mlady, Longbough told her, as he pulled apart his own trout with his fingers. You would do well to ride with us. The roads are perilous. Brienne could have told him more about the perils of the roads than he might have cared to know. I thank you, ser, but I have no need of your protection. I insist. A true knight must defend the gentler sex. She touched her sword hilt. This will defend me, ser. A sword is only as good as the man who wields it. I wield it well enough. As you will. It would not be courteous to argue with a lady. We will see you safe to Duskendale. Three together may ride more safely than one alone. We were three when we set out from Riverrun, yet Jaime lost his hand and Cleos Frey his life. Your mounts could not keep up with mine. Ser Creightons brown gelding was an old swaybacked creature with rheumy eyes, and Ser Illifers horse looked weedy and half-starved. My steed served me well enough on the Blackwater, Ser Creighton insisted. Why, I did great carnage there and won a dozen ransoms. Was mlady familiar with Ser Herbert Bolling? You shall never meet him now. I slew him where he stood. When swords clash, you shall neer find Ser Creighton Longbough to the rear. His companion gave a dry chuckle. Creigh, leave off. The likes o her has no need for the likes o us. The likes of me? Brienne was uncertain what he meant. Ser Illifer crooked a bony finger at her shield. Though its paint was cracked and peeling, the device it bore showed plain: a black bat on a field divided bendwise, silver and gold. You bear a liars shield, to which you have no right. My grandfathers grandfather helped kill the last o Lothston. None since has dared to show that bat, black as the deeds of them that bore it. The shield was the one Ser Jaime had taken from the armory at Harrenhal. Brienne had found it in the stables with her mare, along with much else; saddle and bridle, chainmail hauberk and visored greathelm, purses of gold and silver and a parchment more valuable than either. I lost mine own shield, she explained. A true knight is the only shield a maiden needs, declared Ser Creighton stoutly. Ser Illifer paid him no mind. A barefoot man looks for a boot, a chilly man a cloak. But who would cloak themselves in shame? Lord Lucas bore that bat, the Pander, and Manfryd o the Black Hood, his son. Why wear such arms, I ask myself, unless your own sin is fouler still and fresher. He unsheathed his dagger, an ugly piece of cheap iron. A woman freakish big and freakish strong who hides her own true colors. Creigh, behold the Maid o Tarth, who opened Renlys royal throat for him. That is a lie. Renly Baratheon had been more than a king to her. She had loved him since first he came to Tarth on his leisurely lords progress, to mark his coming of age. Her father welcomed him with a feast and commanded her to attend; elsewise she would have hidden in her room like some wounded beast. She had been no older than Sansa, more afraid of sniggers than of swords. They will know about the rose, she told Lord Selwyn, they will laugh at me. But the Evenstar would not relent. And Renly Baratheon had shown her every courtesy, as if she were a proper maid, and pretty. He even danced with her, and in his arms shed felt graceful, and her feet had floated across the floor. Later others begged a dance of her, because of his example. From that day forth, she wanted only to be close to Lord Renly, to serve him and protect him. But in the end she failed him. Renly died in my arms, but I did not kill him, she thought, but these hedge knights would never understand. I would have given my life for King Renly, and died happy, she said. I did no harm to him. I swear it by my sword. A knight swears by his sword, Ser Creighton said. Swear it by the Seven, urged Ser Illifer the Penniless. By the Seven, then. I did no harm to King Renly. I swear it by the Mother. May I never know her mercy if I lie. I swear it by the Father, and ask that he might judge me justly. I swear it by the Maiden and Crone, by the Smith and the Warrior. And I swear it by the Stranger, may he take me now if I am false. She swears well, for a maid, Ser Creighton allowed. Aye. Ser Illifer the Penniless gave a shrug. Well, if shes lied, the gods will sort her out. He slipped his dagger back away. The first watch is yours. As the hedge knights slept, Brienne paced restlessly around the little camp, listening to the crackle of the fire. I should ride on whilst I can. She did not know these men, yet she could not bring herself to leave them undefended. Even in the black of night, there were riders on the road, and noises in the woods that might or might not have been owls and prowling foxes. So Brienne paced, and kept her blade loose in its scabbard. Her watch was easy, all in all. It was after that was hard, when Ser Illifer woke and said he would relieve her. Brienne spread a blanket on the ground, and curled up to close her eyes. I will not sleep, she told herself, bone weary though she was. She had never slept easily in the presence of men. Even in Lord Renlys camps, the risk of rape was always there. It was a lesson she had learned beneath the walls of Highgarden, and again when she and Jaime had fallen into the hands of the Brave Companions. The cold in the earth seeped through Briennes blankets to soak into her bones. Before long every muscle felt clenched and cramped, from her jaw down to her toes. She wondered whether Sansa Stark was cold as well, wherever she might be. Lady Catelyn had said that Sansa was a gentle soul who loved lemon cakes, silken gowns, and songs of chivalry, yet the girl had seen her fathers head lopped off and been forced to marry one of his killers afterward. If half the tales were true, the dwarf was the cruelest Lannister of all. If she did poison King Joffrey, the Imp surely forced her hand. She was alone and friendless at that court. In Kings Landing, Brienne had hunted down a certain Brella, who had been one of Sansas maids. The woman told her that there was little warmth between Sansa and the dwarf. Perhaps she had been fleeing him as well as Joffreys murder. Whatever dreams Brienne dreamed were gone when dawn awoke her. Her legs were stiff as wood from the cold ground, but no one had molested her, and her goods remained untouched. The hedge knights were up and about. Ser Illifer was cutting up a squirrel for breakfast, while Ser Creighton stood facing a tree, having himself a good long piss. Hedge knights, she thought, old and vain and plump and nearsighted, yet decent men for all that. It cheered her to know that there were still decent men in the world. They broke their fast on roast squirrel, acorn paste, and pickles, whilst Ser Creighton regaled her with his exploits on the Blackwater, where he had slain a dozen fearsome knights that she had never heard of. Oh, it was a rare fight, mlady, he said, a rare and bloody fray. He allowed that Ser Illifer had fought nobly in the battle as well. Illifer himself said little. When time came to resume their journey, the knights fell in on either side of her, like guards protecting some great lady though this lady dwarfed both of her protectors and was better armed and armored in the nonce. Did anyone pass by during your watches? Brienne asked them. Such as a maid of three-and-ten, with auburn hair? said Ser Illifer the Penniless. No, my lady. No one. I had a few, Ser Creighton put in. Some farm boy on a piebald horse went by, and an hour later half a dozen men afoot with staves and scythes. They caught sight of our fire, and stopped for a long look at our horses, but I showed them a glimpse of my steel and told them to be along their way. Rough fellows, by the look o them, and desperate too, but neer so desperate as to trifle with Ser Creighton Longbough. No, Brienne thought, not so desperate as that. She turned away to hide her smile. Thankfully, Ser Creighton was too intent on the tale of his epic battle with the Knight of the Red Chicken to make note of the maidens mirth. It felt good to have companions on the road, even such companions as these two. It was midday when Brienne heard chanting drifting through the bare brown trees. What is that sound? Ser Creighton asked. Voices, raised in prayer. Brienne knew the chant. They are beseeching the Warrior for protection, asking the Crone to light their way. Ser Illifer the Penniless bared his battered blade and reined in his horse to wait their coming. They are close now. The chanting filled the woods like pious thunder. And suddenly the source of the sound appeared in the road ahead. A group of begging brothers led the way, scruffy bearded men in roughspun robes, some barefoot and some in sandals. Behind them marched threescore ragged men, women, and children, a spotted sow, and several sheep. Several of the men had axes, and more had crude wooden clubs and cudgels. In their midst there rolled a two-wheeled wayn of grey and splintered wood, piled high with skulls and broken bits of bone. When they saw the hedge knights, the begging brothers halted, and the chanting died away. Good knights, one said, the Mother loves you. And you, brother, said Ser Illifer. Who are you? Poor fellows, said a big man with an axe. Despite the chill of the autumnal wood, he was shirtless, and on his breast was carved a seven-pointed star. Andal warriors had carved such stars in their flesh when first they crossed the narrow sea to overwhelm the kingdoms of the First Men. We are marching to the city, said a tall woman in the traces of the wayn, to bring these holy bones to Blessed Baelor, and seek succor and protection from the king. Join us, friends, urged a spare small man in a threadbare septons robe, who wore a crystal on a thong about his neck. Westeros has need of every sword. We were bound for Duskendale, declared Ser Creighton, but mayhaps we could see you safely to Kings Landing. If you have the coin to pay us for this escort, added Ser Illifer, who seemed practical as well as penniless. Sparrows need no gold, the septon said. Ser Creighton was lost. Sparrows? The sparrow is the humblest and most common of birds, as we are the humblest and most common of men. The septon had a lean sharp face and a short beard, grizzled grey and brown. His thin hair was pulled back and knotted behind his head, and his feet were bare and black, gnarled and hard as tree roots. These are the bones of holy men, murdered for their faith. They served the Seven even unto death. Some starved, some were tortured. Septs have been despoiled, maidens and mothers raped by godless men and demon worshipers. Even silent sisters have been molested. Our Mother Above cries out in her anguish. It is time for all anointed knights to forsake their worldly masters and defend our Holy Faith. Come with us to the city, if you love the Seven. I love them well enough, said Illifer, yet I must eat. So must all the Mothers children. We are bound for Duskendale, Ser Illifer said flatly. One of the begging brothers spat, and a woman gave a moan. You are false knights, said the big man with the star carved on his chest. Several others brandished their cudgels. The barefoot septon calmed them with a word. Judge not, for judgment is the Fathers. Let them pass in peace. They are poor fellows too, lost upon the earth. Brienne edged her mare forward. My sister is lost as well. A girl of three-and-ten with auburn hair, fair to look upon. All the Mothers children are fair to look upon. May the Maiden watch over this poor girl and you as well, I think. The septon lifted one of the traces of the wayn upon his shoulder, and began to pull. The begging brothers took up the chant once more. Brienne and the hedge knights sat upon their horses as the procession moved slowly past, following the rutted road toward Rosby. The sound of their chanting slowly dwindled away and died. Ser Creighton lifted one cheek off the saddle to scratch his arse. What sort of man would slay a holy septon? Brienne knew what sort. Near Maidenpool, she recalled, the Brave Companions had strung a septon up by his heels from the limb of a tree and used his corpse for archery practice. She wondered if his bones were piled in that wayn with all the rest. A man would need to be a fool to rape a silent sister, Ser Creighton was saying. Even to lay hands upon one its said they are the Strangers wives, and their female parts are cold and wet as ice. He glanced at Brienne. Uh beg pardon. Brienne spurred her mare toward Duskendale. After a moment, Ser Illifer followed, and Ser Creighton came bringing up the rear. Three hours later, they came up upon another party struggling toward Duskendale; a merchant and his serving men, accompanied by yet another hedge knight. The merchant rode a dappled grey mare, whilst his servants took turns pulling his wagon. Four labored in the traces as the other two walked beside the wheels, but when they heard the sound of horses they formed up around the wagon with quarterstaffs of ash at the ready. The merchant produced a crossbow, the knight a blade. You will forgive me if I am suspicious, called the merchant, but the times are troubled, and I have only good Ser Shadrich to defend me. Who are you? Why, Ser Creighton said, affronted, I am the famous Ser Creighton Longbough, fresh from battle on the Blackwater, and this is my companion, Ser Illifer the Penniless. We mean you no harm, said Brienne. The merchant considered her doubtfully. My lady, you should be safe at home. Why do you wear such unnatural garb? I am searching for my sister. She dared not mention Sansas name, with her accused of regicide. She is a highborn maid and beautiful, with blue eyes and auburn hair. Perhaps you saw her with a portly knight of forty years, or a drunken fool. The roads are full of drunken fools and despoiled maidens. As to portly knights, it is hard for any honest man to keep his belly round when so many lack for food though your Ser Creighton has not hungered, it would seem. I have big bones, Ser Creighton insisted. Shall we ride together for a time? I do not doubt Ser Shadrichs valor, but he seems small, and three blades are better than one. Four blades, thought Brienne, but she held her tongue. The merchant looked to his escort. What say you, ser? Oh, these three are nought to fear. Ser Shadrich was a wiry, fox-faced man with a sharp nose and a shock of orange hair, mounted on a rangy chestnut courser. Though he could not have been more than five foot two, he had a cocksure manner. The one is old, tother fat, and the big one is a woman. Let them come. As you say. The merchant lowered his crossbow. As they resumed their journey, the hired knight dropped back and looked her up and down as if she were a side of good salt pork. Youre a strapping healthy wench, Id say. Ser Jaimes mockery had cut her deep; the little mans words hardly touched her. A giant, compared to some. He laughed. I am big enough where it counts, wench. The merchant called you Shadrich. Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen. Some call me the Mad Mouse. He turned his shield to show her his sigil, a large white mouse with fierce red eyes, on bendy brown and blue. The brown is for the lands Ive roamed, the blue for the rivers that Ive crossed. The mouse is me. And are you mad? Oh, quite. Your common mouse will run from blood and battle. The mad mouse seeks them out. It would seem he seldom finds them. I find enough. Tis true, I am no tourney knight. I save my valor for the battlefield, woman. Woman was marginally better than wench, she supposed. You and good Ser Creighton have much in common, then. Ser Shadrich laughed. Oh, I doubt that, but it may be that you and I share a quest. A little lost sister, is it? With blue eyes and auburn hair? He laughed again. You are not the only hunter in the woods. I seek for Sansa Stark as well. Brienne kept her face a mask, to hide her dismay. Who is this Sansa Stark, and why do you seek her? For love, why else? She furrowed her brow. Love? Aye, love of gold. Unlike your good Ser Creighton, I did fight upon the Blackwater, but on the losing side. My ransom ruined me. You know who Varys is, I trust? The eunuch has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl youve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spiders coin with her. I thought you were in this merchants hire. Only so far as Duskendale. Hibald is as niggardly as he is fearful. And he is very fearful. What say you, wench? I know no Sansa Stark, she insisted. I am searching for my sister, a highborn girl with blue eyes and auburn hair, aye. Pray, who is this knight who travels with your sister? Or did you name him fool? Ser Shadrich did not wait for her answer, which was good, since she had none. A certain fool vanished from Kings Landing the night King Joffrey died, a stout fellow with a nose full of broken veins, one Ser Dontos the Red, formerly of Duskendale. I pray your sister and her drunken fool are not mistaken for the Stark girl and Ser Dontos. That could be most unfortunate. He put his heels into his courser and trotted on ahead. Even Jaime Lannister had seldom made Brienne feel such a fool. You are not the only hunter in the woods. The woman Brella had told her how Joffrey had stripped Ser Dontos of his spurs, how Lady Sansa begged Joffrey for his life. He helped her flee, Brienne had decided, when she heard the tale. Find Ser Dontos, and I will find Sansa. She should have known there would be others who would see it too. Some may even be less savory than Ser Shadrich. She could only hope that Ser Dontos had hidden Sansa well. But if so, how will I ever find her? She hunched her shoulders down and rode on, frowning. Night was gathering by the time their party came upon the inn, a tall, timbered building that stood beside a river junction, astride an old stone bridge. That was the inns name, Ser Creighton told them: the Old Stone Bridge. The innkeep was a friend of his. Not a bad cook, and the rooms have no more fleas than most, he vouched. Whos for a warm bed tonight? Not us, unless your friend is giving them away, said Ser Illifer the Penniless. We have no coin for rooms. I can pay for the three of us. Brienne did not lack for coin; Jaime had seen to that. In her saddlebags shed found a purse fat with silver stags and copper stars, a smaller one stuffed with golden dragons, and a parchment commanding all loyal subjects of the king to assist the bearer, Brienne of House Tarth, who was about His Graces business. It was signed in a childish hand by Tommen, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. Hibald was for stopping too, and bid his men to leave the wagon near the stables. Warm yellow light shone through the diamond-shaped panes of the inns windows, and Brienne heard a stallion trumpet at the scent of her mare. She was loosening the saddle when a boy came out the stable door, and said, Let me do that, ser. I am no ser, she told him, but you may take the horse. See that she is fed and brushed and watered. The boy reddened. Beg pardons, mlady. I thought It is a common mistake. Brienne gave him the reins and followed the others into the inn, with her saddlebags across a shoulder and her bedroll tucked up beneath one arm. Sawdust covered the plank floor of the common room, and the air smelled of hops and smoke and meat. A roast was spitting and crackling over the fire, unattended for the moment. Six locals sat about a table, talking, but they broke off when the strangers entered. Brienne could feel their eyes. Despite chainmail, cloak, and jerkin, she felt naked. When one man said, Have a look at that, she knew he was not speaking of Ser Shadrich. The innkeep appeared, clutching three tankards in each hand and slopping ale at every step. Do you have rooms, good man? the merchant asked him. I might, the innkeep said, for them as has coin. Ser Creighton Longbough looked offended. Naggle, is that how you would greet an old friend? Tis me, Longbough. Tis you indeed. You owe me seven stags. Show me some silver and Ill show you a bed. The innkeep set the tankards down one by one, slopping more ale on the table in the process. I will pay for one room for myself, and a second for my two companions. Brienne indicated Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer. I shall take a room as well, said the merchant, for myself and good Ser Shadrich. My serving men will bed down in your stables, if it please you. The innkeep looked them over. It dont please me, but might be Ill allow it. Will you be wanting supper? Thats good goat on the spit, that is. I shall judge its goodness for myself, Hibald announced. My men will content themselves with bread and drippings. And so they supped. Brienne tried the goat herself, after following the innkeep up the steps, pressing some coins into his hand, and stashing her goods in the second room he showed her. She ordered goat for Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer as well, since they had shared their trout with her. The hedge knights and the septon washed down the meat with ale, but Brienne drank a cup of goats milk. She listened to the table talk, hoping against hope that she might hear something that would help her find Sansa. You come from Kings Landing, one of the locals said to Hibald. Is it true that the Kingslayers been crippled? True enough, Hibald said. Hes lost his sword hand. Aye, Ser Creighton said, chewed off by a direwolf, I hear, one of them monsters come down from the north. Nought thats good ever come from the north. Even their gods are queer. It was not a wolf, Brienne heard herself say. Ser Jaime lost his hand to a Qohorik sellsword. It is no easy thing to fight with your off hand, observed the Mad Mouse. Bah, said Ser Creighton Longbough. As it happens, I fight as well with either hand. Oh, I have no doubt of that. Ser Shadrich lifted his tankard in salute. Brienne remembered her fight with Jaime Lannister in the woods. It had been all that she could do to keep his blade at bay. He was weak from his imprisonment, and chained at the wrists. No knight in the Seven Kingdoms could have stood against him at his full strength, with no chains to hamper him. Jaime had done many wicked things, but the man could fight! His maiming had been monstrously cruel. It was one thing to slay a lion, another to hack his paw off and leave him broken and bewildered. Suddenly the common room was too loud to endure a moment longer. She muttered her good-nights and took herself up to bed. The ceiling in her room was low; entering with a taper in her hand, Brienne had to duck or crack her head. The only furnishings were a bed wide enough to sleep six, and the stub of a tallow candle on the sill. She lit it with the taper, barred the door, and hung her sword belt from a bedpost. Her scabbard was a plain thing, wood wrapped in cracked brown leather, and her sword was plainer still. She had bought it in Kings Landing, to replace the blade the Brave Companions had stolen. Renlys sword. It still hurt, knowing she had lost it. But she had another longsword hidden in her bedroll. She sat on the bed and took it out. Gold glimmered yellow in the candlelight and rubies smoldered red. When she slid Oathkeeper from the ornate scabbard, Briennes breath caught in her throat. Black and red the ripples ran, deep within the steel. Valyrian steel, spell-forged. It was a sword fit for a hero. When she was small, her nurse had filled her ears with tales of valor, regaling her with the noble exploits of Ser Galladon of Morne, Florian the Fool, Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, and other champions. Each man bore a famous sword, and surely Oathkeeper belonged in their company, even if she herself did not. Youll be defending Ned Starks daughter with Ned Starks own steel, Jaime had promised. Kneeling between the bed and wall, she held the blade and said a silent prayer to the Crone, whose golden lamp showed men the way through life. Lead me, she prayed, light the way before me, show me the path that leads to Sansa. She had failed Renly, had failed Lady Catelyn. She must not fail Jaime. He trusted me with his sword. He trusted me with his honor. Afterward she stretched out on the bed as best she could. For all its width it was not long enough, so Brienne lay across it sideways. She could hear the clatter of tankards from below, and voices drifting up the steps. The fleas that Longbough had spoken of put in their appearance. Scratching helped keep her awake. She heard Hibald mount the stairs, and sometime later the knights as well. I never knew his name, Ser Creighton was saying as he went by, but upon his shield he bore a blood-red chicken, and his blade was dripping gore His voice faded, and somewhere up above, a door opened and closed. Her candle burned out. Darkness settled over the Old Stone Bridge, and the inn grew so still that she could hear the murmur of the river. Only then did Brienne rise to gather up her things. She eased the door open, listened, made her way barefoot down the steps. Outside she donned her boots and hurried to the stables to saddle her bay mare, asking a silent pardon of Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer as she mounted. One of Hibalds serving men woke when she rode past him, but made no move to stop her. Her mares hooves rang upon the old stone bridge. Then the trees closed in around her, black as pitch and full of ghosts and memories. I am coming for you, Lady Sansa, she thought as she rode into the darkness. Be not afraid. I shall not rest until Ive found you. SAMWELL Sam was reading about the Others when he saw the mouse. His eyes were red and raw. I ought not rub them so much, he always told himself as he rubbed them. The dust made them itch and water, and the dust was everywhere down here. Little puffs of it filled the air every time a page was turned, and it rose in grey clouds whenever he shifted a stack of books to see what might be hiding on the bottom. Sam did not know how long it had been since last hed slept, but scarce an inch remained of the fat tallow candle hed lit when starting on the ragged bundle of loose pages that hed found tied up in twine. He was beastly tired, but it was hard to stop. One more book, he had told himself, then Ill stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then Ill go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. Ill just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, hed think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it. He had not eaten since that bowl of bean-and-bacon soup with Pyp and Grenn. Well, except for the bread and cheese, but that was only a nibble, he thought. That was when he took a quick glance at the empty platter, and spied the mouse feasting on the bread crumbs. The mouse was half as long as his pinky finger, with black eyes and soft grey fur. Sam knew he ought to kill it. Mice might prefer bread and cheese, but they ate paper too. He had found plenty of mouse droppings amongst the shelves and stacks, and some of the leather covers on the books showed signs of being gnawed. It is such a little thing, though. And hungry. How could he begrudge it a few crumbs? Its eating books, though After hours in the chair Sams back was stiff as a board, and his legs were half-asleep. He knew he was not quick enough to catch the mouse, but it might be he could squash it. By his elbow rested a massive leather-bound copy of Annals of the Black Centaur, Septon Jorquens exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Nights Watch. There was a page for each day of his term, every one of which seemed to begin, Lord Orbert rose at dawn and moved his bowels, except for the last, which said, Lord Orbert was found to have died during the night. No mouse is a match for Septon Jorquen. Very slowly, Sam took hold of the book with his left hand. It was thick and heavy, and when he tried to lift it one-handed, it slipped from his plump fingers and thumped back down. The mouse was gone in half a heartbeat, skittery-quick. Sam was relieved. Squishing the poor little thing would have given him nightmares. You shouldnt eat the books, though, he said aloud. Maybe he should bring more cheese the next time he came down here. He was surprised at how low the candle had burned. Had the bean-and-bacon soup been today or yesterday? Yesterday. It must have been yesterday. The realization made him yawn. Jon would be wondering what had become of him, though Maester Aemon would no doubt understand. Before he had lost his sight, the maester had loved books as much as Samwell Tarly did. He understood the way that you could sometimes fall right into them, as if each page was a hole into another world. Pushing himself to his feet, Sam grimaced at the pins and needles in his calves. The chair was very hard and cut into the back of his thighs when he bent over a book. I need to remember to bring a cushion. It would be even better if he could sleep down here, in the cell hed found half-hidden behind four chests full of loose pages that had gotten separated from the books they belonged to, but he did not want to leave Maester Aemon alone for so long. He had not been strong of late and required help, especially with the ravens. Aemon had Clydas, to be sure, but Sam was younger, and better with the birds. With a stack of books and scrolls under his left arm and the candle in his right hand, Sam made his way through the tunnels the brothers called the wormways. A pale shaft of light illuminated the steep stone steps that led up to the surface, so he knew that day had come up top. He left the candle burning in a wall niche and began the climb. By the fifth step he was puffing. At the tenth he stopped to shift the books to his right arm. He emerged beneath a sky the color of white lead. A snow sky, Sam thought, squinting up. The prospect made him uneasy. He remembered that night on the Fist of the First Men when the wights and the snows had come together. Dont be so craven, he thought. You have your Sworn Brothers all around you, not to mention Stannis Baratheon and all his knights. Castle Blacks keeps and towers rose about him, dwarfed by the icy immensity of the Wall. A small army was crawling over the ice a quarter of the way up, where a new switchback stair was creeping upward to meet the remnants of the old one. The sounds of their saws and hammers echoed off the ice. Jon had the builders working night and day on the task. Sam had heard some of them complaining about it over supper, insisting that Lord Mormont never worked them half so hard. Without the great stair there was no way to reach the top of the Wall except by the chain winch, however. And as much as Samwell Tarly hated steps, he hated the winch cage more. He always closed his eyes when he was riding it, convinced that the chain was about to break. Every time the iron cage scraped against the ice his heart stopped beating for an instant. There were dragons here two hundred years ago, Sam found himself thinking, as he watched the cage making a slow descent. They would just have flown to the top of the Wall. Queen Alysanne had visited Castle Black on her dragon, and Jaehaerys, her king, had come after her on his own. Could Silverwing have left an egg behind? Or had Stannis found one egg on Dragonstone? Even if he has an egg, how can he hope to quicken it? Baelor the Blessed had prayed over his eggs, and other Targaryens had sought to hatch theirs with sorcery. All they got for it was farce and tragedy. Samwell, said a glum voice, I was coming to fetch you. I was told to bring you to the Lord Commander. A snowflake landed on Sams nose. Jon wants to see me? As to that, I could not say, said Dolorous Edd Tollett. I never wanted to see half the things Ive seen, and Ive never seen half the things I wanted to. I dont think wanting comes into it. Youd best go all the same. Lord Snow wishes to speak with you as soon as he is done with Crasters wife. Gilly. Thats the one. If my wet nurse had looked like her, Id still be on the teat. Mine had whiskers. Most goats do, called Pyp, as he and Grenn emerged from around the corner, with longbows in hand and quivers of arrows on their backs. Where have you been, Slayer? We missed you last night at supper. A whole roast ox went uneaten. Dont call me Slayer. Sam ignored the gibe about the ox. That was just Pyp. I was reading. There was a mouse Dont mention mice to Grenn. Hes terrified of mice. I am not, Grenn declared with indignation. Youd be too scared to eat one. Id eat more mice than you would. Dolorous Edd Tollett gave a sigh. When I was a lad, we only ate mice on special feast days. I was the youngest, so I always got the tail. Theres no meat on the tail. Wheres your longbow, Sam? asked Grenn. Ser Alliser used to call him Aurochs, and every day he seemed to grow into the name a little more. He had come to the Wall big but slow, thick of neck, thick of waist, red of face, and clumsy. Though his neck still reddened when Pyp twisted him around into some folly, hours of work with sword and shield had flattened his belly, hardened his arms, broadened his chest. He was strong, and shaggy as an aurochs too. Ulmer was expecting you at the butts. Ulmer, Sam said, abashed. Almost the first thing Jon Snow had done as Lord Commander was institute daily archery drill for the entire garrison, even stewards and cooks. The Watch had been placing too much emphasis on the sword and too little on the bow, he had said, a relic of the days when one brother in every ten had been a knight, instead of one in every hundred. Sam saw the sense in the decree, but he hated longbow practice almost as much as he hated climbing steps. When he wore his gloves he could never hit anything, but when he took them off he got blisters on his fingers. Those bows were dangerous. Satin had torn off half his thumbnail on a bowstring. I forgot. You broke the heart of the wildling princess, Slayer, said Pyp. Of late, Val had taken to watching them from the window of her chamber in the Kings Tower. She was looking for you. She was not! Dont say that! Sam had only spoken to Val twice, when Maester Aemon called upon her to make sure the babes were healthy. The princess was so pretty that he oft found himself stammering and blushing in her presence. Why not? asked Pyp. She wants to have your children. Maybe we should call you Sam the Seducer. Sam reddened. King Stannis had plans for Val, he knew; she was the mortar with which he meant to seal the peace between the northmen and the free folk. I dont have time for archery today, I need to go see Jon. Jon? Jon? Do we know anyone named Jon, Grenn? He means the Lord Commander. Ohhh. The Great Lord Snow. To be sure. Why do you want to see him? He cant even wiggle his ears. Pyp wiggled his, to show he could. They were large ears, and red from cold. Hes Lord Snow for true now, too bloody highborn for the likes of us. Jon has duties, Sam said in his defense. The Wall is his, and all that goes with it. A man has duties to his friends as well. If not for us, Janos Slynt might be our lord commander. Lord Janos would have sent Snow ranging naked on a mule. Scamper on up to Crasters Keep, he would have said, and fetch me back the Old Bears cloak and boots. We saved him from that, but now he has too many duties to drink a cup of mulled wine by the fire? Grenn agreed. His duties dont keep him from the yard. More days than not, hes out there fighting someone. That was true, Sam had to admit. Once, when Jon came to consult with Maester Aemon, Sam had asked him why he spent so much time at swordplay. The Old Bear never trained much when he was Lord Commander, he had pointed out. In answer, Jon had pressed Longclaw into Sams hand. He let him feel the lightness, the balance, had him turn the blade so that ripples gleamed in the smoke-dark metal. Valyrian steel, he said, spell-forged and razor-sharp, nigh on indestructible. A swordsman should be as good as his sword, Sam. Longclaw is Valyrian steel, but Im not. The Halfhand could have killed me as easy as you swat a bug. Sam handed back the sword. When I try to swat a bug, it always flies away. All I do is slap my arm. It stings. That made Jon laugh. As you will. Qhorin could have killed me as easy as you eat a bowl of porridge. Sam was fond of porridge, especially when it was sweetened with honey. I dont have time for this. Sam left his friends and made his way toward the armory, clutching his books to his chest. I am the shield that guards the realms of men, he remembered. He wondered what those men would say if they realized their realms were being guarded by the likes of Grenn, Pyp, and Dolorous Edd. The Lord Commanders Tower had been gutted by fire, and Stannis Baratheon had claimed the Kings Tower for his own residence, so Jon Snow had established himself in Donal Noyes modest quarters behind the armory. Gilly was leaving as Sam arrived, wrapped up in the old cloak hed given her when they were fleeing Crasters Keep. She almost rushed right past him, but Sam caught her arm, spilling two books as he did. Gilly. Sam. Her voice sounded raw. Gilly was dark-haired and slim, with the big brown eyes of a doe. She was swallowed by the folds of Sams old cloak, her face half-hidden by its hood, but shivering all the same. Her face looked wan and frightened. Whats wrong? Sam asked her. How are the babes? Gilly pulled loose from him. Theyre good, Sam. Good. Between the two of them its a wonder you can sleep, Sam said pleasantly. Which one was it that I heard crying last night? I thought hed never stop. Dallas boy. He cries when he wants the teat. Mine mine hardly ever cries. Sometimes he gurgles, but Her eyes filled with tears. I have to go. Its past time that I fed them. Ill be leaking all over myself if I dont go. She rushed across the yard, leaving Sam perplexed behind her. He had to get down on his knees to gather up the books hed dropped. I should not have brought so many, he told himself as he brushed the dirt off Colloquo Votars Jade Compendium, a thick volume of tales and legends from the east that Maester Aemon had commanded him to find. The book appeared undamaged. Maester Thomaxs Dragonkin, Being a History of House Targaryen from Exile to Apotheosis, with a Consideration of the Life and Death of Dragons had not been so fortunate. It had come open as it fell, and a few pages had gotten muddy, including one with a rather nice picture of Balerion the Black Dread done in colored inks. Sam cursed himself for a clumsy oaf as he smoothed the pages down and brushed them off. Gillys presence always flustered him and gave rise to well, risings. A Sworn Brother of the Nights Watch should not be feeling the sorts of things that Gilly made him feel, especially when she would talk about her breasts and Lord Snow is waiting. Two guards in black cloaks and iron halfhelms stood by the doors of the armory, leaning on their spears. Hairy Hal was the one whod spoken. Mully helped Sam back to his feet. He blurted out thanks and hurried past them, clutching desperately at the stack of books as he made his way past the forge with its anvil and bellows. A shirt of ringmail rested on his workbench, half-completed. Ghost was stretched out beneath the anvil, gnawing on the bone of an ox to get at the marrow. The big white direwolf looked up when Sam went by, but made no sound. Jons solar was back beyond the racks of spears and shields. He was reading a parchment when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormonts raven was on his shoulder, peering down as if it were reading too, but when the bird spied Sam it spread its wings and flapped toward him crying, Corn, corn! Shifting the books, Sam thrust his arm into the sack beside the door and came out with a handful of kernels. The raven landed on his wrist and took one from his palm, pecking so hard that Sam yelped and snatched his hand back. The raven took to the air again, and yellow and red kernels went everywhere. Close the door, Sam. Faint scars still marked Jons cheek, where an eagle had once tried to rip his eye out. Did that wretch break the skin? Sam eased the books down and peeled off his glove. He did. He felt faint. Im bleeding. We all shed our blood for the Watch. Wear thicker gloves. Jon shoved a chair toward him with a foot. Sit, and have a look at this. He handed him the parchment. What is it? asked Sam. The raven began to hunt out corn kernels amongst the rushes. A paper shield. Sam sucked at the blood on his palm as he read. He knew Maester Aemons hand on sight. His writing was small and precise, but the old man could not see where the ink had blotted, and sometimes he left unsightly smears. A letter to King Tommen? At Winterfell, Tommen fought my brother Bran with wooden swords. He wore so much padding he looked like a stuffed goose. Bran knocked him to the ground. Jon went to the window. Yet Brans dead, and pudgy pink-faced Tommen is sitting on the Iron Throne, with a crown nestled amongst his golden curls. Brans not dead, Sam wanted to say. Hes gone beyond the Wall with Coldhands. The words caught in his throat. I swore I would not tell. You havent signed the letter. The Old Bear begged the Iron Throne for help a hundred times. They sent him Janos Slynt. No letter will make the Lannisters love us better. Not once they hear that weve been helping Stannis. Only to defend the Wall, not in his rebellion. Sam read the letter quickly once again. Thats what it says here. The distinction may escape Lord Tywin. Jon took the letter back. Why would he help us now? He never did before. Well, said Sam, he will not want it said that Stannis rode to the defense of the realm whilst King Tommen was playing with his toys. That would bring scorn down upon House Lannister. Its death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn. Jon lifted up the letter. The Nights Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms, he read. Our oaths are sworn to the realm, and the realm now stands in dire peril. Stannis Baratheon aids us against our foes from beyond the Wall, though we are not his men Well, said Sam, squirming, were not. Are we? I gave Stannis food, shelter, and the Nightfort, plus leave to settle some free folk in the Gift. Thats all. Lord Tywin will say it was too much. Stannis says its not enough. The more you give a king the more he wants. We are walking on a bridge of ice with an abyss on either side. Pleasing one king is difficult enough. Pleasing two is hardly possible. Yes, but if the Lannisters should prevail and Lord Tywin decides that we betrayed the king by aiding Stannis, it could mean the end of the Nights Watch. He has the Tyrells behind him, with all the strength of Highgarden. And he did defeat Lord Stannis on the Blackwater. The sight of blood might make Sam faint, but he knew how wars were won. His own father had seen to that. The Blackwater was one battle. Robb won all his battles and still lost his head. If Stannis can raise the north Hes trying to convince himself, Sam realized, but he cant. The ravens had gone forth from Castle Black in a storm of black wings, summoning the lords of the north to declare for Stannis Baratheon and join their strength to his. Sam had sent out most of them himself. Thusfar only one bird had returned, the one theyd sent to Karhold. Elsewise the silence had been thunderous. Even if he should somehow win the northmen to his side, Sam did not see how Stannis could hope to match the combined powers of Casterly Rock, Highgarden, and the Twins. Yet without the north, his cause was surely doomed. As doomed as the Nights Watch, if Lord Tywin marks us down as traitors. The Lannisters have northmen of their own. Lord Bolton and his bastard. Stannis has the Karstarks. If he can win White Harbor If, Sam stressed. If not my lord, even a paper shield is better than none. Jon rattled the letter. I suppose so. He sighed, then took up a quill and scrawled a signature across the bottom of the letter. Get the sealing wax. Sam heated a stick of black wax over a candle and dribbled some onto the parchment, then watched as Jon pressed the Lord Commanders seal down firmly on the puddle. Take this to Maester Aemon when you leave, he commanded, and tell him to dispatch a bird to Kings Landing. I will. Sam hesitated. My lord, if I might ask I saw Gilly leaving. She was almost crying. Val sent her to plead for Mance again. Oh. Val was the sister of the woman the King-beyond-the-Wall had taken for his queen. The wildling princess was what Stannis and his men were calling her. Her sister Dalla had died during the battle, though no blade had ever touched her; she had perished giving birth to Mance Rayders son. Rayder himself would soon follow her to the grave, if the whispers Sam had heard had any truth to them. What did you tell her? That I would speak to Stannis, though I doubt my words will sway him. A kings first duty is to defend the realm, and Mance attacked it. His Grace is not like to forget that. My father used to say that Stannis Baratheon was a just man. No one has ever said he was forgiving. Jon paused, frowning. I would sooner take off Mances head myself. He was a man of the Nights Watch, once. By rights, his life belongs to us. Pyp says that Lady Melisandre means to give him to the flames, to work some sorcery. Pyp should learn to hold his tongue. I have heard the same from others. Kings blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. Its nonsense. Mances blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. Hes a brigand, nothing more. Theres no power in brigands blood. The raven looked up from the floor. Blood, it screamed. Jon paid no mind. I am sending Gilly away. Oh. Sam bobbed his head. Well, thats thats good, my lord. It would be the best thing for her, to go somewhere warm and safe, well away from the Wall and the fighting. Her and the boy. We will need to find another wet nurse for his milk brother. Goats milk might serve, until you do. Its better for a babe than cows milk. Sam had read that somewhere. He shifted in his seat. My lord, when I was looking through the annals I came on another boy commander. Four hundred years before the Conquest. Osric Stark was ten when he was chosen, but he served for sixty years. Thats four, my lord. Youre not even close to being the youngest ever chosen. Youre fifth youngest, so far. The younger four all being sons, brothers, or bastards of the King in the North. Tell me something useful. Tell me of our enemy. The Others. Sam licked his lips. They are mentioned in the annals, though not as often as I would have thought. The annals Ive found and looked at, that is. Theres more I havent found, I know. Some of the older books are falling to pieces. The pages crumble when I try and turn them. And the really old books either they have crumbled all away or they are buried somewhere that I havent looked yet or well, it could be that there are no such books, and never were. The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights. You know the tales, Brandon the Builder, Symeon Star-Eyes, Nights King we say that youre the nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Nights Watch, but the oldest list Ive found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders, which suggests that it was written during Long ago, Jon broke in. What about the Others? I found mention of dragonglass. The children of the forest used to give the Nights Watch a hundred obsidian daggers every year, during the Age of Heroes. The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night or else night falls when they emerge. Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that parts plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I dont know what those are. Men who fall in battle against the Others must be burned, or else the dead will rise again as their thralls. We knew all this. The question is, how do we fight them? The armor of the Others is proof against most ordinary blades, if the tales can be believed, said Sam, and their own swords are so cold they shatter steel. Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian. He remembered the one he had faced in the haunted forest, and how it had seemed to melt away when he stabbed it with the dragonglass dagger Jon had made for him. I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it. Dragonsteel? Jon frowned. Valyrian steel? That was my first thought as well. So if I can just convince the lords of the Seven Kingdoms to give us their Valyrian blades, all is saved? That wont be hard. His laugh had no mirth in it. Did you find who the Others are, where they come from, what they want? Not yet, my lord, but it may be that Ive just been reading the wrong books. There are hundreds I have not looked at yet. Give me more time and I will find whatever there is to be found. There is no more time. Jon sounded sad. You need to get your things together, Sam. Youre going with Gilly. Going? For a moment, Sam did not understand. Im going? To Eastwatch, my lord? Or where am I Oldtown. Oldtown? It came out in a squeak. Horn Hill was close to Oldtown. Home. The notion made him light-headed. My father. Aemon as well. Aemon? Maester Aemon? But hes one hundred and two years old, my lord, he cant youre sending him and me? Who will tend the ravens? If theyre sick or wounded, who Clydas. Hes been with Aemon for years. Clydas is only a steward, and his eyes are going bad. You need a maester. Maester Aemon is so frail, a sea voyage He thought of the Arbor and the Arbor Queen, and almost choked on his tongue. It might hes old, and His life will be at risk. I am aware of that, Sam, but the risk is greater here. Stannis knows who Aemon is. If the red woman requires kings blood for her spells Oh. Sam paled. Dareon will join you at Eastwatch. My hope is that his songs will win some men for us in the south. The Blackbird will deliver you to Braavos. From there youll arrange your own passage to Oldtown. If you still mean to claim Gillys babe as your bastard, send her and the child on to Horn Hill. Elsewise, Aemon will find a servants place for her at the Citadel. My b-b-bastard. He had said that, yes, but All that water. I could drown. Ships sink all the time, and autumn is a stormy season. Gilly would be with him, though, and the babe would grow up safe. Yes, I my mother and my sisters will help Gilly with the child. I can send a letter, I wont need to go to Horn Hill myself. Dareon could see her to Oldtown just as well as me. Im Ive been working at my archery every afternoon with Ulmer, as you commanded well, except when Im in the vaults, but you told me to find out about the Others. The longbow makes my shoulders ache and raises blisters on my fingers. He showed Jon where one had burst. I still do it, though. I can hit the target more often than not now, but Im still the worst archer who ever bent a bow. I like Ulmers stories, though. Someone needs to write them down and put them in a book. You do it. They have parchment and ink at the Citadel, as well as longbows. I will expect you to continue with your practice. Sam, the Nights Watch has hundreds of men who can loose an arrow, but only a handful who can read or write. I need you to become my new maester. The word made him flinch. No, Father, please, I wont speak of it again, I swear it by the Seven. Let me out, please let me out. My lord, I my work is here, the books will be here when you return to us. Sam put a hand to his throat. He could almost feel the chain there, choking him. My lord, the Citadel they make you cut up corpses there. They make you wear a chain about your neck. If it is chains you want, come with me. For three days and three nights Sam had sobbed himself to sleep, manacled hand and foot to a wall. The chain around his throat was so tight it broke the skin, and whenever he rolled the wrong way in his sleep it would cut off his breath. I cannot wear a chain. You can. You will. Maester Aemon is old and blind. His strength is leaving him. Who will take his place when he dies? Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower is more fighter than scholar, and Maester Harmune of Eastwatch is drunk more than hes sober. If you ask the Citadel for more maesters I mean to. Well have need of every one. Aemon Targaryen is not so easily replaced, however. Jon seemed puzzled. I was certain this would please you. There are so many books at the Citadel that no man can hope to read them all. You would do well there, Sam. I know you would. No. I could read the books, but a m-maester must be a healer and b-b-blood makes me faint. He held out a shaky hand for Jon to see. Im Sam the Scared, not Sam the Slayer. Scared? Of what? The chidings of old men? Sam, you saw the wights come swarming up the Fist, a tide of living dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes. You slew an Other. It was the d-d-d-dragonglass, not me. Be quiet. You lied and schemed and plotted to make me Lord Commander. You will obey me. Youll go to the Citadel and forge a chain, and if you have to cut up corpses, so be it. At least in Oldtown the corpses wont object. He doesnt understand. My lord, Sam said, my f-f-f-father, Lord Randyll, he, he, he, he, he the life of a maester is a life of servitude. He was babbling, he knew. No son of House Tarly will ever wear a chain. The men of Horn Hill do not bow and scrape to petty lords. If it is chains you want, come with me. Jon, I cannot disobey my father. Jon, hed said, but Jon was gone. It was Lord Snow who faced him now, grey eyes as hard as ice. You have no father, said Lord Snow. Only brothers. Only us. Your life belongs to the Nights Watch, so go and stuff your smallclothes into a sack, along with anything else you care to take to Oldtown. You leave an hour before sunrise. And heres another order. From this day forth, you will not call yourself a craven. Youve faced more things this past year than most men face in a lifetime. You can face the Citadel, but youll face it as a Sworn Brother of the Nights Watch. I cant command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears. You said the words, Sam. Remember? I am the sword in the darkness. But he was wretched with a sword, and the darkness scared him. I Ill try. You wont try. You will obey. Obey. Mormonts raven flapped its great black wings. As my lord commands. Does does Maester Aemon know? It was as much his idea as mine. Jon opened the door for him. No farewells. The fewer folk who know of this, the better. An hour before first light, by the lichyard. Sam did not recall leaving the armory. The next thing he knew he was stumbling through mud and patches of old snow, toward Maester Aemons chambers. I could hide, he told himself. I could hide in the vaults amongst the books. I could live down there with the mouse and sneak up at night to steal food. Crazed thoughts, he knew, as futile as they were desperate. The vaults were the first place they would look for him. The last place they would look for him was beyond the Wall, but that was even madder. The wildlings would catch me and kill me slowly. They might burn me alive, the way the red woman means to burn Mance Rayder. When he found Maester Aemon in the rookery, he gave him Jons letter and blurted out his fears in a great green gush of words. He does not understand. Sam felt as if he might throw up. If I don a chain, my lord f-f-f-father he, he, he My own father raised the same objections when I chose a life of service, the old man said. It was his father who sent me to the Citadel. King Daeron had sired four sons, and three had sons of their own. Too many dragons are as dangerous as too few, I heard His Grace tell my lord father, the day they sent me off. Aemon raised a spotted hand to the chain of many metals that dangled loose about his thin neck. The chain is heavy, Sam, but my grandsire had the right of it. So does your Lord Snow. Snow, a raven muttered. Snow, another echoed. All of them picked it up then. Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow. Sam had taught them that word. There was no help here, he saw. Maester Aemon was as trapped as he was. He will die at sea, he thought, despairing. He is too old to survive such a voyage. Gillys little son may die as well, hes not as large and strong as Dallas boy. Does Jon mean to kill us all? The next morning, Sam found himself saddling the mare hed ridden from Horn Hill and leading her toward the lichyard beside the eastern road. Her saddlebags bulged with cheese and sausages and hard-cooked eggs, and half a salted ham that Three-Finger Hobb had given him on his name day. Youre a man who appreciates cooking, Slayer, the cook had said. We need more o your sort. The ham would help, no doubt. Eastwatch was a long cold ride away, and there were no towns nor inns in the shadow of the Wall. The hour before dawn was dark and still. Castle Black seemed strangely hushed. At the lichyard, a pair of two-wheeled wayns awaited him, along with Black Jack Bulwer and a dozen seasoned rangers, tough as the garrons they rode. Kedge Whiteye cursed loudly when his one good eye spied Sam. Dont mind him, Slayer, said Black Jack. He lost a wager, said wed need to drag you out squealing from beneath some bed. Maester Aemon was too frail to ride a horse, so a wayn had been made ready for him, its bed heaped high with furs, and a leather awning fastened overhead to keep off the rain and snow. Gilly and her child would ride with him. The second wayn would carry their clothing and possessions, along with a chest of rare old books that Aemon thought the Citadel might lack. Sam had spent half the night searching for them, though hed found only one in four. And a good thing, or wed need another wayn. When the maester appeared, he was bundled up in a bearskin three times his size. As Clydas led him toward the wayn, a gust of wind came up, and the old man staggered. Sam hurried to his side and put an arm about him. Another gust like that could blow him over the Wall. Keep hold of my arm, maester. Its not far. The blind man nodded as the wind pushed back their hoods. It is always warm in Oldtown. There is an inn on an island in the Honeywine where I used to go when I was a young novice. It will be pleasant to sit there once again, sipping cider. By the time they got the maester into the wayn, Gilly had appeared, the child bundled in her arms. Beneath her hood her eyes were red from crying. Jon turned up at the same time, with Dolorous Edd. Lord Snow, Maester Aemon called, I left a book for you in my chambers. The Jade Compendium. It was written by the Volantene adventurer Colloquo Votar, who traveled to the east and visited all the lands of the Jade Sea. There is a passage you may find of interest. Ive told Clydas to mark it for you. Ill be sure to read it, Jon Snow replied. A line of pale snot ran from Maester Aemons nose. He wiped it away with the back of his glove. Knowledge is a weapon, Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride forth to battle. I will. A light snow had begun to fall, the big soft flakes drifting down lazily from the sky. Jon turned to Black Jack Bulwer. Make as good a time as you can, but take no foolish risks. You have an old man and a suckling babe with you. See that you keep them warm and well fed. You do the same, mlord, said Gilly. You do the same for tother. Find another wet nurse, like you said. You promised me you would. The boy Dallas boy the little prince, I mean you find him some good woman, so he grows up big and strong. You have my word, Jon Snow said solemnly. Dont you name him. Dont you do that till hes past two years. Its ill luck to name them when theyre still on the breast. You crows may not know that, but its true. As you command, my lady. A spasm of anger flashed across Gillys face. Dont you call me that. Im a mother, not a lady. Im Crasters wife and Crasters daughter, and a mother. Dolorous Edd took the babe as Gilly climbed into the wayn and covered her legs with some musty pelts. By then the eastern sky was more grey than black. Left Hand Lew was anxious to be off. Edd handed the infant up and Gilly put him to her breast. This may be the last I ever see of Castle Black, thought Sam as he hoisted himself atop his mare. As much as he had once hated Castle Black, it was tearing him apart to leave it. Lets do this, Bulwer commanded. A whip snapped, and the wayns began to rumble slowly down the rutted road as the snow came down around them. Sam lingered beside Clydas and Dolorous Edd and Jon Snow. Well, he said, farewell. And to you, Sam, said Dolorous Edd. Your boats not like to sink, I dont think. Boats only sink when Im aboard. Jon was watching the wayns. The first time I saw Gilly, he said, she was pressed back against the wall of Crasters Keep, this skinny dark-haired girl with her big belly, cringing away from Ghost. He had gotten in among her rabbits, and I think she was frightened that he would tear her open and devour the babe but it was not the wolf she should have been afraid of, was it? No, Sam thought. Craster was the danger, her own father. She has more courage than she knows. So do you, Sam. Have a swift, safe voyage, and take care of her and Aemon and the child. Jon smiled a strange, sad smile. And pull your hood up. The snowflakes are melting in your hair. ARYA Faint and far away the light burned, low on the horizon, shining through the sea mists. It looks like a star, said Arya. The star of home, said Denyo. His father was shouting orders. Sailors scrambled up and down the three tall masts and moved along the rigging, reefing the heavy purple sails. Below, oarsmen heaved and strained over two great banks of oars. The decks tilted, creaking, as the galleas Titans Daughter heeled to starboard and began to come about. The star of home. Arya stood at the prow, one hand resting on the gilded figurehead, a maiden with a bowl of fruit. For half a heartbeat she let herself pretend that it was her home ahead. But that was stupid. Her home was gone, her parents dead, and all her brothers slain but Jon Snow on the Wall. That was where she had wanted to go. She told the captain as much, but even the iron coin did not sway him. Arya never seemed to find the places she set out to reach. Yoren had sworn to deliver her to Winterfell, only she had ended up in Harrenhal and Yoren in his grave. When she escaped Harrenhal for Riverrun, Lem and Anguy and Tom o Sevens took her captive and dragged her to the hollow hill instead. Then the Hound had stolen her and dragged her to the Twins. Arya had left him dying by the river and gone ahead to Saltpans, hoping to take passage for Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, only Braavos might not be so bad. Syrio was from Braavos, and Jaqen might be there as well. It was Jaqen who had given her the iron coin. He hadnt truly been her friend, the way that Syrio had, but what good had friends ever done her? I dont need any friends, so long as I have Needle. She brushed the ball of her thumb across the swords smooth pommel, wishing, wishing If truth be told, Arya did not know what to wish for, any more than she knew what awaited her beneath that distant light. The captain had given her passage but he had no time to speak with her. Some of the crew shunned her, but others gave her gifts a silver fork, fingerless gloves, a floppy woolen hat patched with leather. One man showed her how to tie sailors knots. Another poured her thimble cups of fire wine. The friendly ones would tap their chests, repeating their names over and over until Arya said them back, though none ever thought to ask her name. They called her Salty, since shed come aboard at Saltpans, near the mouth of the Trident. It was as good a name as any, she supposed. The last of the nights stars had vanished all but the pair dead ahead. Its two stars now. Two eyes, said Denyo. The Titan sees us. The Titan of Braavos. Old Nan had told them stories of the Titan back in Winterfell. He was a giant as tall as a mountain, and whenever Braavos stood in danger he would wake with fire in his eyes, his rocky limbs grinding and groaning as he waded out into the sea to smash the enemies. The Braavosi feed him on the juicy pink flesh of little highborn girls, Nan would end, and Sansa would give a stupid squeak. But Maester Luwin said the Titan was only a statue, and Old Nans stories were only stories. Winterfell is burned and fallen, Arya reminded herself. Old Nan and Maester Luwin were both dead, most like, and Sansa too. It did no good to think of them. All men must die. That was what the words meant, the words that Jaqen Hghar had taught her when he gave her the worn iron coin. She had learned more Braavosi words since they left Saltpans, the words for please and thank you and sea and star and fire wine, but she came to them knowing that all men must die. Most of the Daughters crew had a smattering of the Common Tongue from nights ashore in Oldtown and Kings Landing and Maidenpool, though only the captain and his sons spoke it well enough to talk to her. Denyo was the youngest of those sons, a plump, cheerful boy of twelve who kept his fathers cabin and helped his eldest brother do his sums. I hope your Titan isnt hungry, Arya told him. Hungry? Denyo said, confused. It takes no matter. Even if the Titan did eat juicy pink girl flesh, Arya would not fear him. She was a scrawny thing, no proper meal for a giant, and almost eleven, practically a woman grown. And Salty isnt highborn, either. Is the Titan the god of Braavos? she asked. Or do you have the Seven? All gods are honored in Braavos. The captains son loved to talk about his city almost as much as he loved to talk about his fathers ship. Your Seven have a sept here, the Sept-Beyond-the-Sea, but only Westerosi sailors worship there. They are not my Seven. They were my mothers gods, and they let the Freys murder her at the Twins. She wondered whether she would find a godswood in Braavos, with a weirwood at its heart. Denyo might know, but she could not ask him. Salty was from Saltpans, and what would a girl from Saltpans know about the old gods of the north? The old gods are dead, she told herself, with Mother and Father and Robb and Bran and Rickon, all dead. A long time ago, she remembered her father saying that when the cold winds blow the lone wolf dies and the pack survives. He had it all backwards. Arya, the lone wolf, still lived, but the wolves of the pack had been taken and slain and skinned. The Moonsingers led us to this place of refuge, where the dragons of Valyria could not find us, Denyo said. Theirs is the greatest temple. We esteem the Father of Waters as well, but his house is built anew whenever he takes his bride. The rest of the gods dwell together on an isle in the center of the city. That is where you will find the the Many-Faced God. The Titans eyes seemed brighter now, and farther apart. Arya did not know any Many-Faced God, but if he answered prayers, he might be the god she sought. Ser Gregor, she thought, Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei. Only six now. Joffrey was dead, the Hound had slain Polliver, and shed stabbed the Tickler herself, and that stupid squire with the pimple. I wouldnt have killed him if he hadnt grabbed me. The Hound had been dying when she left him on the banks of the Trident, burning up with fever from his wound. I should have given him the gift of mercy and put a knife into his heart. Salty, look! Denyo took her by the arm and turned her. Can you see? There. He pointed. The mists gave way before them, ragged grey curtains parted by their prow. The Titans Daughter cleaved through the grey-green waters on billowing purple wings. Arya could hear the cries of seabirds overhead. There, where Denyo pointed, a line of stony ridges rose sudden from the sea, their steep slopes covered with soldier pines and black spruce. But dead ahead the sea had broken through, and there above the open water the Titan towered, with his eyes blazing and his long green hair blowing in the wind. His legs bestrode the gap, one foot planted on each mountain, his shoulders looming tall above the jagged crests. His legs were carved of solid stone, the same black granite as the sea monts on which he stood, though around his hips he wore an armored skirt of greenish bronze. His breastplate was bronze as well, and his head in his crested halfhelm. His blowing hair was made of hempen ropes dyed green, and huge fires burned in the caves that were his eyes. One hand rested atop the ridge to his left, bronze fingers coiled about a knob of stone; the other thrust up into the air, clasping the hilt of a broken sword. He is only a little bigger than King Baelors statue in Kings Landing, she told herself when they were still well off to sea. As the galleas drove closer to where the breakers smashed against the ridgeline, however, the Titan grew larger still. She could hear Denyos father bellowing commands in his deep voice, and up in the rigging men were bringing in the sails. We are going to row beneath the Titans legs. Arya could see the arrow slits in the great bronze breastplate, and stains and speckles on the Titans arms and shoulders where the seabirds nested. Her neck craned upward. Baelor the Blessed would not reach his knee. He could step right over the walls of Winterfell. Then the Titan gave a mighty roar. The sound was as huge as he was, a terrible groaning and grinding, so loud it drowned out even the captains voice and the crash of the waves against those pine-clad ridges. A thousand seabirds took to the air at once, and Arya flinched until she saw that Denyo was laughing. He warns the Arsenal of our coming, that is all, he shouted. You must not be afraid. I never was, Arya shouted back. It was loud, is all. Wind and wave had the Titans Daughter hard in hand now, driving her swiftly toward the channel. Her double bank of oars stroked smoothly, lashing the sea to white foam as the Titans shadow fell upon them. For a moment it seemed as though they must surely smash up against the stones beneath his legs. Huddled by Denyo at the prow, Arya could taste salt where the spray had touched her face. She had to look straight up to see the Titans head. The Braavosi feed him on the juicy pink flesh of little highborn girls, she heard Old Nan say again, but she was not a little girl, and she would not be frightened of a stupid statue. Even so, she kept one hand on Needle as they slipped between his legs. More arrow slits dotted the insides of those great stone thighs, and when Arya craned her neck around to watch the crows nest slip through with a good ten yards to spare, she spied murder holes beneath the Titans armored skirts, and pale faces staring down at them from behind the iron bars. And then they were past. The shadow lifted, the pine-clad ridges fell away to either side, the winds dwindled, and they found themselves moving through a great lagoon. Ahead rose another sea mont, a knob of rock that pushed up from the water like a spiked fist, its stony battlements bristling with scorpions, spitfires, and trebuchets. The Arsenal of Braavos, Denyo named it, as proud as if hed built it. They can build a war galley there in a day. Arya could see dozens of galleys tied up at quays and perched on launching slips. The painted prows of others poked from innumerable wooden sheds along the stony shores, like hounds in a kennel, lean and mean and hungry, waiting for a hunters horn to call them forth. She tried to count them, but there were too many, and more docks and sheds and quays where the shoreline curved away. Two galleys had come out to meet them. They seemed to skim upon the water like dragonflies, their pale oars flashing. Arya heard the captain shouting to them and their own captains shouting back, but she did not understand the words. A great horn sounded. The galleys passed to either side of them, so close that she could hear the muffled sound of drums from within their purple hulls, bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom, like the beat of living hearts. Then the galleys were behind them, and the Arsenal as well. Ahead stretched a broad expanse of pea-green water rippled like a sheet of colored glass. From its wet heart arose the city proper, a great sprawl of domes and towers and bridges, grey and gold and red. The hundred isles of Braavos in the sea. Maester Luwin had taught them about Braavos, but Arya had forgotten much of what hed said. It was a flat city, she could see that even from afar, not like Kings Landing on its three high hills. The only hills here were the ones that men had raised of brick and granite, bronze and marble. Something else was missing as well, though it took her a few moments to realize what it was. The city has no walls. But when she said as much to Denyo, he laughed at her. Our walls are made of wood and painted purple, he told her. Our galleys are our walls. We need no other. The deck creaked behind them. Arya turned to find Denyos father looming over them in his long captains coat of purple wool. Tradesman-Captain Ternesio Terys wore no whiskers and kept his grey hair cut short and neat, framing his square, windburnt face. On the crossing she had oft seen him jesting with his crew, but when he frowned men ran from him as if before a storm. He was frowning now. Our voyage is at an end, he told Arya. We make for the Chequy Port, where the Sealords customs officers will come aboard to inspect our holds. They will be half a day at it, they always are, but there is no need for you to wait upon their pleasure. Gather your belongings. I shall lower a boat, and Yorko will put you ashore. Ashore. Arya bit her lip. She had crossed the narrow sea to get here, but if the captain had asked she would have told him she wanted to stay aboard the Titans Daughter. Salty was too small to man an oar, she knew that now, but she could learn to splice ropes and reef the sails and steer a course across the great salt seas. Denyo had taken her up to the crows nest once, and she hadnt been afraid at all, though the deck had seemed a tiny thing below her. I can do sums too, and keep a cabin neat. But the galleas had no need of a second boy. Besides, she had only to look at the captains face to know how anxious he was to be rid of her. So Arya only nodded. Ashore, she said, though ashore meant only strangers. Valar dohaeris. He touched two fingers to his brow. I beg you remember Ternesio Terys and the service he has done you. I will, Arya said in a small voice. The wind tugged at her cloak, insistent as a ghost. It was time she was away. Gather your belongings, the captain had said, but there were few enough of those. Only the clothes she was wearing, her little pouch of coins, the gifts the crew had given her, the dagger on her left hip and Needle on her right. The boat was ready before she was, and Yorko was at the oars. He was the captains son as well, but older than Denyo and less friendly. I never said farewell to Denyo, she thought as she clambered down to join him. She wondered if she would ever see the boy again. I should have said farewell. The Titans Daughter dwindled in their wake, while the city grew larger with every stroke of Yorkos oars. A harbor was visible off to her right, a tangle of piers and quays crowded with big-bellied whalers out of Ibben, swan ships from the Summer Isles, and more galleys than a girl could count. Another harbor, more distant, was off to her left, beyond a sinking point of land where the tops of half-drowned buildings thrust themselves above the water. Arya had never seen so many big buildings all together in one place. Kings Landing had the Red Keep and the Great Sept of Baelor and the Dragonpit, but Braavos seemed to boast a score of temples and towers and palaces that were as large or even larger. I will be a mouse again, she thought glumly, the way I was in Harrenhal before I ran away. The city had seemed like one big island from where the Titan stood, but as Yorko rowed them closer she saw that it was many small islands close together, linked by arched stone bridges that spanned innumerable canals. Beyond the harbor she glimpsed streets of grey stone houses, built so close they leaned one upon the other. To Aryas eyes they were queer-looking, four and five stories tall and very skinny, with sharp-peaked tile roofs like pointed hats. She saw no thatch, and only a few timbered houses of the sort she knew in Westeros. They have no trees, she realized. Braavos is all stone, a grey city in a green sea. Yorko swung them north of the docks and down the gullet of a great canal, a broad green waterway that ran straight into the heart of the city. They passed under the arches of a carved stone bridge, decorated with half a hundred kinds of fish and crabs and squids. A second bridge appeared ahead, this one carved in lacy leafy vines, and beyond that a third, gazing down on them from a thousand painted eyes. The mouths of lesser canals opened to either side, and others still smaller off of those. Some of the houses were built above the waterways, she saw, turning the canals into a sort of tunnel. Slender boats slid in and out among them, wrought in the shapes of water serpents with painted heads and upraised tails. Those were not rowed but poled, she saw, by men who stood at their sterns in cloaks of grey and brown and deep moss green. She saw huge flat-bottomed barges too, heaped high with crates and barrels and pushed along by twenty polemen to a side, and fancy floating houses with lanterns of colored glass, velvet drapes, and brazen figureheads. Off in the far distance, looming above canals and houses both, was a massive grey stone roadway of some kind, supported by three tiers of mighty arches marching away south into the haze. Whats that? Arya asked Yorko, pointing. The sweetwater river, he told her. It brings fresh water from the mainland, across the mudflats and the briny shallows. Good sweet water for the fountains. When she looked behind her, the harbor and lagoon were lost to sight. Ahead, a row of mighty statues stood along both sides of the channel, solemn stone men in long bronze robes, spattered with the droppings of the seabirds. Some held books, some daggers, some hammers. One clutched a golden star in his upraised hand. Another was upending a stone flagon to send an endless stream of water splashing down into the canal. Are they gods? asked Arya. Sealords, said Yorko. The Isle of the Gods is farther on. See? Six bridges down, on the right bank. That is the Temple of the Moonsingers. It was one of those that Arya had spied from the lagoon, a mighty mass of snow-white marble topped by a huge silvered dome whose milk glass windows showed all the phases of the moon. A pair of marble maidens flanked its gates, tall as the Sealords, supporting a crescent-shaped lintel. Beyond it stood another temple, a red stone edifice as stern as any fortress. Atop its great square tower a fire blazed in an iron brazier twenty feet across, whilst smaller fires flanked its brazen doors. The red priests love their fires, Yorko told her. The Lord of Light is their god, red Rhllor. I know. Arya remembered Thoros of Myr in his bits of old armor, worn over robes so faded that he had seemed more a pink priest than a red one. Yet his kiss had brought Lord Beric back from death. She watched the red gods house drift by, wondering whether these Braavosi priests of his could do the same. Next came a huge brick structure festooned with lichen. Arya might have taken it for a storehouse had not Yorko said, That is the Holy Refuge, where we honor the small gods the world has forgotten. You will hear it called the Warren too. A small canal ran between the Warrens looming lichen-covered walls, and there he swung them right. They passed through a tunnel and out again into the light. More shrines loomed up to either side. I never knew there were so many gods, Arya said. Yorko grunted. They went around a bend and beneath another bridge. On their left appeared a rocky knoll with a windowless temple of dark grey stone at its top. A flight of stone steps led from its doors down to a covered dock. Yorko backed the oars, and the boat bumped gently against stone pilings. He grasped an iron ring set to hold them for a moment. Here I leave you. The dock was shadowed, the steps steep. The temples black tile roof came to a sharp peak, like the houses along the canals. Arya chewed her lip. Syrio came from Braavos. He might have visited this temple. He might have climbed those steps. She grabbed a ring and pulled herself up onto the dock. You know my name, said Yorko from the boat. Yorko Terys. Valar dohaeris. He pushed off with his oar and drifted back off into the deeper water. Arya watched him row back the way theyd come, until he vanished in the shadows of the bridge. As the swish of oars faded, she could almost hear the beating of her heart. Suddenly she was somewhere else back in Harrenhal with Gendry, maybe, or with the Hound in the woods along the Trident. Salty is a stupid child, she told herself. I am a wolf, and will not be afraid. She patted Needles hilt for luck and plunged into the shadows, taking the steps two at a time so no one could ever say shed been afraid. At the top she found a set of carved wooden doors twelve feet high. The left-hand door was made of weirwood pale as bone, the right of gleaming ebony. In their center was a carved moon face; ebony on the weirwood side, weirwood on the ebony. The look of it reminded her somehow of the heart tree in the godswood at Winterfell. The doors are watching me, she thought. She pushed upon both doors at once with the flat of her gloved hands, but neither one would budge. Locked and barred. Let me in, you stupid, she said. I crossed the narrow sea. She made a fist and pounded. Jaqen told me to come. I have the iron coin. She pulled it from her pouch and held it up. See? Valar morghulis. The doors made no reply, except to open. They opened inward all in silence, with no human hand to move them. Arya took a step forward, and another. The doors closed behind her, and for a moment she was blind. Needle was in her hand, though she did not remember drawing it. A few candles burned along the walls, but gave so little light that Arya could not see her own feet. Someone was whispering, too softly for her to make out words. Someone else was weeping. She heard light footfalls, leather sliding over stone, a door opening and closing. Water, I hear water too. Slowly, her eyes adjusted. The temple seemed much larger within than it had without. The septs of Westeros were seven-sided, with seven altars for the seven gods, but here there were more gods than seven. Statues of them stood along the walls, massive and threatening. Around their feet red candles flickered, as dim as distant stars. The nearest was a marble woman twelve feet tall. Real tears were trickling from her eyes, to fill the bowl she cradled in her arms. Beyond her was a man with a lions head seated on a throne, carved of ebony. On the other side of the doors, a huge horse of bronze and iron reared up on two great legs. Farther on she could make out a great stone face, a pale infant with a sword, a shaggy black goat the size of an aurochs, a hooded man leaning on a staff. The rest were only looming shapes to her, half-seen through the gloom. Between the gods were hidden alcoves thick with shadows, with here and there a candle burning. Silent as a shadow, Arya moved between rows of long stone benches, her sword in hand. The floor was made of stone, her feet told her; not polished marble like the floor of the Great Sept of Baelor, but something rougher. She passed some women whispering together. The air was warm and heavy, so heavy that she yawned. She could smell the candles. The scent was unfamiliar, and she put it down to some queer incense, but as she got deeper into the temple, they seemed to smell of snow and pine needles and hot stew. Good smells, Arya told herself, and felt a little braver. Brave enough to slip Needle back into its sheath. In the center of the temple she found the water she had heard; a pool ten feet across, black as ink and lit by dim red candles. Beside it sat a young man in a silvery cloak, weeping softly. She watched him dip a hand in the water, sending scarlet ripples racing across the pool. When he drew his fingers back he sucked them, one by one. He must be thirsty. There were stone cups along the rim of the pool. Arya filled one and brought it to him, so he could drink. The young man stared at her for a long moment when she offered it to him. Valar morghulis, he said. Valar dohaeris, she replied. He drank deep, and dropped the cup into the pool with a soft plop. Then he pushed himself to his feet, swaying, holding his belly. For a moment, Arya thought he was going to fall. It was only then that she saw the dark stain below his belt, spreading as she watched. Youre stabbed, she blurted, but the man paid her no mind. He lurched unsteadily toward the wall and crawled into an alcove onto a hard stone bed. When Arya peered around, she saw other alcoves too. On some there were old people sleeping. No, a half-remembered voice seemed to whisper in her head. They are dead, or dying. Look with your eyes. A hand touched her arm. Arya spun away, but it was only a little girl: a pale little girl in a cowled robe that seemed to engulf her, black on the right side and white on the left. Beneath the cowl was a gaunt and bony face, hollow cheeks, and dark eyes that looked as big as saucers. Dont grab me, Arya warned the waif. I killed the boy who grabbed me last. The girl said some words that Arya did not know. She shook her head. Dont you know the Common Tongue? A voice behind her said, I do. Arya did not like the way they kept surprising her. The hooded man was tall, enveloped in a larger version of the black-and-white robe the girl was wearing. Beneath his cowl all she could see was the faint red glitter of candlelight reflecting off his eyes. What place is this? she asked him. A place of peace. His voice was gentle. You are safe here. This is the House of Black and White, my child. Though you are young to seek the favor of the Many-Faced God. Is he like the southron god, the one with seven faces? Seven? No. He has faces beyond count, little one, as many faces as there are stars in the sky. In Braavos, men worship as they will but at the end of every road stands Him of Many Faces, waiting. He will be there for you one day, do not fear. You need not rush to his embrace. I only came to find Jaqen Hghar. I do not know this name. Her heart sank. He was from Lorath. His hair was white on one side and red on the other. He said hed teach me secrets, and gave me this. The iron coin was clutched in her fist. When she opened her fingers, it clung to her sweaty palm. The priest studied the coin, though he made no move to touch it. The waif with the big eyes was looking at it too. Finally, the cowled man said, Tell me your name, child. Salty. I come from Saltpans, by the Trident. Though she could not see his face, somehow she could feel him smiling. No, he said. Tell me your name. Squab, she answered this time. Your true name, child. My mother named me Nan, but they call me Weasel Your name. She swallowed. Arry. Im Arry. Closer. And now the truth? Fear cuts deeper than swords, she told herself. Arya. She whispered the word the first time. The second time she threw it at him. I am Arya, of House Stark. You are, he said, but the House of Black and White is no place for Arya, of House Stark. Please, she said. I have no place to go. Do you fear death? She bit her lip. No. Let us see. The priest lowered his cowl. Beneath he had no face; only a yellowed skull with a few scraps of skin still clinging to the cheeks, and a white worm wriggling from one empty eye socket. Kiss me, child, he croaked, in a voice as dry and husky as a death rattle. Does he think to scare me? Arya kissed him where his nose should be and plucked the grave worm from his eye to eat it, but it melted like a shadow in her hand. The yellow skull was melting too, and the kindliest old man that she had ever seen was smiling down at her. No one has ever tried to eat my worm before, he said. Are you hungry, child? Yes, she thought, but not for food. CERSEI A cold rain was falling, turning the walls and ramparts of the Red Keep dark as blood. The queen held the kings hand and led him firmly across the muddy yard to where her litter waited with its escort. Uncle Jaime said I could ride my horse and throw pennies to the smallfolk, the boy objected. Do you want to catch a chill? She would not risk it; Tommen had never been as robust as Joffrey. Your grandfather would want you to look a proper king at his wake. We will not appear at the Great Sept wet and bedraggled. Bad enough I must wear mourning again. Black had never been a happy color on her. With her fair skin, it made her look half a corpse herself. Cersei had risen an hour before dawn to bathe and fix her hair, and she did not intend to let the rain destroy her efforts. Inside the litter, Tommen settled back against his pillows and peered out at the falling rain. The gods are weeping for grandfather. Lady Jocelyn says the raindrops are their tears. Jocelyn Swyft is a fool. If the gods could weep, they would have wept for your brother. Rain is rain. Close the curtain before you let any more in. That mantle is sable, would you have it soaked? Tommen did as he was bid. His meekness troubled her. A king had to be strong. Joffrey would have argued. He was never easy to cow. Dont slump so, she told Tommen. Sit like a king. Put your shoulders back and straighten your crown. Do you want it to tumble off your head in front of all your lords? No, Mother. The boy sat straight and reached up to fix the crown. Joffs crown was too big for him. Tommen had always inclined to plumpness, but his face seemed thinner now. Is he eating well? She must remember to ask the steward. She could not risk Tommen growing ill, not with Myrcella in the hands of the Dornishmen. He will grow into Joffs crown in time. Until he did, a smaller one might be needed, one that did not threaten to swallow his head. She would take it up with the goldsmiths. The litter made its slow way down Aegons High Hill. Two Kingsguard rode before them, white knights on white horses with white cloaks hanging sodden from their shoulders. Behind came fifty Lannister guardsmen in gold and crimson. Tommen peered through the drapes at the empty streets. I thought there would be more people. When Father died, all the people came out to watch us go by. This rain has driven them inside. Kings Landing had never loved Lord Tywin. He never wanted love, though. You cannot eat love, nor buy a horse with it, nor warm your halls on a cold night, she heard him tell Jaime once, when her brother had been no older than Tommen. At the Great Sept of Baelor, that magnificence in marble atop Visenyas Hill, the little knot of mourners were outnumbered by the gold cloaks that Ser Addam Marbrand had drawn up across the plaza. More will turn out later, the queen told herself as Ser Meryn Trant helped her from the litter. Only the highborn and their retinues were to be admitted to the morning service; there would be another in the afternoon for the commons, and the evening prayers were open to all. Cersei would need to return for that, so that the smallfolk might see her mourn. The mob must have its show. It was a nuisance. She had offices to fill, a war to win, a realm to rule. Her father would have understood that. The High Septon met them at the top of the steps. A bent old man with a wispy grey beard, he was so stooped by the weight of his ornate embroidered robes that his eyes were on a level with the queens breasts though his crown, an airy confection of cut crystal and spun gold, added a good foot and a half to his height. Lord Tywin had given him that crown to replace the one that was lost when the mob killed the previous High Septon. They had pulled the fat fool from his litter and torn him apart, the day Myrcella sailed for Dorne. That one was a great glutton, and biddable. This one This High Septon was of Tyrions making, Cersei recalled suddenly. It was a disquieting thought. The old mans spotted hand looked like a chicken claw as it poked from a sleeve encrusted with golden scrollwork and small crystals. Cersei knelt on the wet marble and kissed his fingers, and bid Tommen to do the same. What does he know of me? How much did the dwarf tell him? The High Septon smiled as he escorted her into the sept. But was it a threatening smile full of unspoken knowledge, or just some vacuous twitch of an old mans wrinkled lips? The queen could not be certain. They made their way through the Hall of Lamps beneath colored globes of leaded glass, Tommens hand in hers. Trant and Kettleblack flanked them, water dripping from their wet cloaks to puddle on the floor. The High Septon walked slowly, leaning on a weirwood staff topped by a crystal orb. Seven of the Most Devout attended him, shimmering in cloth-of-silver. Tommen wore cloth-of-gold beneath his sable mantle, the queen an old gown of black velvet lined with ermine. Thered been no time to have a new one made, and she could not wear the same dress she had worn for Joffrey, nor the one shed buried Robert in. At least I will not be expected to don mourning for Tyrion. I shall dress in crimson silk and cloth-of-gold for that, and wear rubies in my hair. The man who brought her the dwarfs head would be raised to lordship, she had proclaimed, no matter how mean and low his birth or station. Ravens were carrying her promise to every part of the Seven Kingdoms, and soon enough word would cross the narrow sea to the Nine Free Cities and the lands beyond. Let the Imp run to the ends of the earth, he will not escape me. The royal procession passed through the inner doors into the cavernous heart of the Great Sept, and down a wide aisle, one of seven that met beneath the dome. To right and left, highborn mourners sank to their knees as the king and queen went by. Many of her fathers bannermen were here, and knights who had fought beside Lord Tywin in half a hundred battles. The sight of them made her feel more confident. I am not without friends. Under the Great Septs lofty dome of glass and gold and crystal, Lord Tywin Lannisters body rested upon a stepped marble bier. At its head Jaime stood at vigil, his one good hand curled about the hilt of a tall golden greatsword whose point rested on the floor. The hooded cloak he wore was as white as freshly fallen snow, and the scales of his long hauberk were mother-of-pearl chased with gold. Lord Tywin would have wanted him in Lannister gold and crimson, she thought. It always angered him to see Jaime all in white. Her brother was growing his beard again as well. The stubble covered his jaw and cheeks, and gave his face a rough, uncouth look. He might at least have waited till Fathers bones were interred beneath the Rock. Cersei led the king up three short steps, to kneel beside the body. Tommens eyes were filled with tears. Weep quietly, she told him, leaning close. You are a king, not a squalling child. Your lords are watching you. The boy swiped the tears away with the back of his hand. He had her eyes, emerald green, as large and bright as Jaimes eyes had been when he was Tommens age. Her brother had been such a pretty boy but fierce as well, as fierce as Joffrey, a true lion cub. The queen put her arm around Tommen and kissed his golden curls. He will need me to teach him how to rule and keep him safe from his enemies. Some of them stood around them even now, pretending to be friends. The silent sisters had armored Lord Tywin as if to fight some final battle. He wore his finest plate, heavy steel enameled a deep, dark crimson, with gold inlay on his gauntlets, greaves, and breastplate. His rondels were golden sunbursts; a golden lioness crouched upon each shoulder; a maned lion crested the greathelm beside his head. Upon his chest lay a longsword in a gilded scabbard studded with rubies, his hands folded about its hilt in gloves of gilded mail. Even in death his face is noble, she thought, although the mouth The corners of her fathers lips curved upward ever so slightly, giving him a look of vague bemusement. That should not be. She blamed Pycelle; he should have told the silent sisters that Lord Tywin Lannister never smiled. The man is as useless as nipples on a breastplate. That half-smile made Lord Tywin seem less fearful, somehow. That, and the fact that his eyes were closed. Her fathers eyes had always been unsettling; pale green, almost luminous, flecked with gold. His eyes could see inside you, could see how weak and worthless and ugly you were down deep. When he looked at you, you knew. Unbidden, a memory came to her, of the feast King Aerys had thrown when Cersei first came to court, a girl as green as summer grass. Old Merryweather had been nattering about raising the duty on wine when Lord Rykker said, If we need gold, His Grace should sit Lord Tywin on his chamber pot. Aerys and his lickspittles laughed loudly, whilst Father stared at Rykker over his wine cup. Long after the merriment had died that gaze had lingered. Rykker turned away, turned back, met Fathers eyes, then ignored them, drank a tankard of ale, and stalked off red-faced, defeated by a pair of unflinching eyes. Lord Tywins eyes are closed forever now, Cersei thought. It is my look they will flinch from now, my frown that they must fear. I am a lion too. It was gloomy within the sept with the sky so grey outside. If the rain ever stopped, the sun would slant down through the hanging crystals to drape the corpse in rainbows. The Lord of Casterly Rock deserved rainbows. He had been a great man. I shall be greater, though. A thousand years from now, when the maesters write about this time, you shall be remembered only as Queen Cerseis sire. Mother. Tommen tugged her sleeve. What smells so bad? My lord father. Death. She could smell it too; a faint whisper of decay that made her want to wrinkle her nose. Cersei paid it no mind. The seven septons in the silver robes stood behind the bier, beseeching the Father Above to judge Lord Tywin justly. When they were done, seventy-seven septas gathered before the altar of the Mother and began to sing to her for mercy. Tommen was fidgeting by then, and even the queens knees had begun to ache. She glanced at Jaime. Her twin stood as if he had been carved from stone, and would not meet her eyes. On the benches, their uncle Kevan knelt with his shoulders slumped, his son beside him. Lancel looks worse than Father. Though only seventeen, he might have passed for seventy; grey-faced, gaunt, with hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and hair as white and brittle as chalk. How can Lancel be among the living when Tywin Lannister is dead? Have the gods taken leave of their wits? Lord Gyles was coughing more than usual and covering his nose with a square of red silk. He can smell it too. Grand Maester Pycelle had his eyes closed. If he has fallen asleep, I swear I will have him whipped. To the right of the bier knelt the Tyrells: the Lord of Highgarden, his hideous mother and vapid wife, his son Garlan and his daughter Margaery. Queen Margaery, she reminded herself; Joffs widow and Tommens wife-to-be. Margaery looked very like her brother, the Knight of Flowers. The queen wondered if they had other things in common. Our little rose has a good many ladies waiting attendance on her, night and day. They were with her now, almost a dozen of them. Cersei studied their faces, wondering. Who is the most fearful, the most wanton, the hungriest for favor? Who has the loosest tongue? She would need to make a point of finding out. It was a relief when the singing finally ended. The smell coming off her fathers corpse seemed to have grown stronger. Most of the mourners had the decency to pretend that nothing was amiss, but Cersei saw two of Lady Margaerys cousins wrinkling their little Tyrell noses. As she and Tommen were walking back down the aisle the queen thought she heard someone mutter privy and chortle, but when she turned her head to see who had spoken a sea of solemn faces gazed at her blankly. They would never have dared make japes about him when he was still alive. He would have turned their bowels to water with a look. Back out in the Hall of Lamps, the mourners buzzed about them thick as flies, eager to shower her with useless condolences. The Redwyne twins both kissed her hand, their father her cheeks. Hallyne the Pyromancer promised her that a flaming hand would burn in the sky above the city on the day her fathers bones went west. Between coughs, Lord Gyles told her that he had hired a master stonecarver to make a statue of Lord Tywin, to stand eternal vigil beside the Lion Gate. Ser Lambert Turnberry appeared with a patch over his right eye, swearing that he would wear it until he could bring her the head of her dwarf brother. No sooner had the queen escaped the clutches of that fool than she found herself cornered by Lady Falyse of Stokeworth and her husband, Ser Balman Byrch. My lady mother sends her regrets, Your Grace, Falyse burbled at her. Lollys has been taken to bed with the child and she felt the need to stay with her. She begs that you forgive her, and said I should ask you my mother admired your late father above all other men. Should my sister have a little boy, it is her wish that we might name him Tywin, if if it please you. Cersei stared at her, aghast. Your lackwit sister gets herself raped by half of Kings Landing, and Tanda thinks to honor the bastard with my lord fathers name? I think not. Falyse flinched back as if shed been slapped, but her husband only stroked his thick blond mustache with a thumb. I told Lady Tanda as much. We shall find a more, ah a more fitting name for Lollyss bastard, you have my word. See that you do. Cersei showed them a shoulder and moved away. Tommen had fallen into the clutches of Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother, she saw. The Queen of Thorns was so short that for an instant Cersei took her for another child. Before she could rescue her son from the roses, the press brought her face-to-face with her uncle. When the queen reminded him of their meeting later, Ser Kevan gave a weary nod and begged leave to withdraw. But Lancel lingered, the very picture of a man with one foot in the grave. But is he climbing in or climbing out? Cersei forced herself to smile. Lancel, I am happy to see you looking so much stronger. Maester Ballabar brought us such dire reports, we feared for your life. But I would have thought you on your way to Darry by now, to take up your lordship. Her father had made Lancel a lord after the Battle of the Blackwater, as a sop to his brother Kevan. Not as yet. There are outlaws in my castle. Her cousins voice was as wispy as the mustache on his upper lip. Though his hair had gone white, his mustache fuzz remained a sandy color. Cersei had often gazed up at it while the boy was inside her, pumping dutifully away. It looks like a smudge of dirt on his lip. She used to threaten to scrub it off with a little spit. The riverlands have need of a strong hand, my father says. A pity that theyre getting yours, she wanted to say. Instead she smiled. And you are to be wed as well. A gloomy look passed across the young knights ravaged face. A Frey girl, and not of my choosing. She is not even maiden. A widow, of Darry blood. My father says that will help me with the peasants, but the peasants are all dead. He reached for her hand. It is cruel, Cersei. Your Grace knows that I love House Lannister, she finished for him. No one can doubt that, Lancel. May your wife give you strong sons. Best not let her lord grandfather host the wedding, though. I know you will do many noble deeds in Darry. Lancel nodded, plainly miserable. When it seemed that I might die, my father brought the High Septon to pray for me. He is a good man. Her cousins eyes were wet and shiny, a childs eyes in an old mans face. He says the Mother spared me for some holy purpose, so I might atone for my sins. Cersei wondered how he intended to atone for her. Knighting him was a mistake, and bedding him a bigger one. Lancel was a weak reed, and she liked his newfound piety not at all; he had been much more amusing when he was trying to be Jaime. What has this mewling fool told the High Septon? And what will he tell his little Frey when they lie together in the dark? If he confessed to bedding Cersei, well, she could weather that. Men were always lying about women; she would put it down as the braggadocio of a callow boy smitten by her beauty. If he sings of Robert and the strongwine, though Atonement is best achieved through prayer, Cersei told him. Silent prayer. She left him to think about that and girded herself to face the Tyrell host. Margaery embraced her like a sister, which the queen found presumptuous, but this was not the place to reproach her. Lady Alerie and the cousins contented themselves with kissing fingers. Lady Graceford, who was large with child, asked the queens leave to name it Tywin if it were a boy, or Lanna if it were a girl. Another one? she almost groaned. The realm will drown in Tywins. She gave consent as graciously as she could, feigning delight. It was Lady Merryweather who truly pleased her. Your Grace, that one said, in her sultry Myrish tones, I have sent word to my friends across the narrow sea, asking them to seize the Imp at once should he show his ugly face in the Free Cities. Do you have many friends across the water? In Myr, many. In Lys as well, and Tyrosh. Men of power. Cersei could well believe it. The Myrish woman was too beautiful by half; long-legged and full-breasted, with smooth olive skin, ripe lips, huge dark eyes, and thick black hair that always looked as if shed just come from bed. She even smells of sin, like some exotic lotus. Lord Merryweather and I wish only to serve Your Grace and the little king, the woman purred, with a look that was as pregnant as Lady Graceford. This one is ambitious, and her lord is proud but poor. We must speak again, my lady. Taena, is it? You are most kind. I know that we shall be great friends. Then the Lord of Highgarden descended on her. Mace Tyrell was no more than ten years older than Cersei, yet she thought of him as her fathers age, not her own. He was not quite so tall as Lord Tywin had been, but elsewise he was bigger, with a thick chest and a gut grown even thicker. His hair was chestnut-colored, but there were specks of white and grey in his beard. His face was often red. Lord Tywin was a great man, an extraordinary man, he declared ponderously after he had kissed both her cheeks. We shall never see his like again, I fear. You are looking at his like, fool, Cersei thought. It is his daughter standing here before you. But she needed Tyrell and the strength of Highgarden to keep Tommen on his throne, so all she said was, He will be greatly missed. Tyrell put a hand upon her shoulder. No man alive is fit to don Lord Tywins armor, that is plain. Still, the realm goes on, and must be ruled. If there is aught that I might do to serve in this dark hour, Your Grace need only ask. If you want to be the Kings Hand, my lord, have the courage to say it plainly. The queen smiled. Let him read into that as much as he likes. Surely my lord is needed in the Reach? My son Willas is an able lad, the man replied, refusing to take her perfectly good hint. His leg may be twisted but he has no want of wits. And Garlan will soon take Brightwater. Between them the Reach will be in good hands, if it happens that I am needed elsewhere. The governance of the realm must come first, Lord Tywin often said. And I am pleased to bring Your Grace good tidings in that regard. My uncle Garth has agreed to serve as master of coin, as your lord father wished. He is making his way to Oldtown to take ship. His sons will accompany him. Lord Tywin mentioned something about finding places for the two of them as well. Perhaps in the City Watch. The queens smile had frozen so hard she feared her teeth might crack. Garth the Gross on the small council and his two bastards in the gold cloaks do the Tyrells think I will just serve the realm up to them on a gilded platter? The arrogance of it took her breath away. Garth has served me well as Lord Seneschal, as he served my father before me, Tyrell was going on. Littlefinger had a nose for gold, I grant you, but Garth My lord, Cersei broke in, I fear there has been some misunderstanding. I have asked Lord Gyles Rosby to serve as our new master of coin, and he has done me the honor of accepting. Mace gaped at her. Rosby? That cougher? But the matter was agreed, Your Grace. Garth is on his way to Oldtown. Best send a raven to Lord Hightower and ask him to make certain your uncle does not take ship. We would hate for Garth to brave an autumn sea for nought. She smiled pleasantly. A flush crept up Tyrells thick neck. This your lord father assured me He began to sputter. Then his mother appeared and slid her arm through his own. It would seem that Lord Tywin did not share his plans with our regent, I cant imagine why. Still, there tis, no use hectoring Her Grace. She is quite right, you must write Lord Leyton before Garth boards a ship. You know the sea will sicken him and make his farting worse. Lady Olenna gave Cersei a toothless smile. Your council chambers will smell sweeter with Lord Gyles, though I daresay that coughing would drive me to distraction. We all adore dear old uncle Garth, but the man is flatulent, that cannot be gainsaid. I do abhor foul smells. Her wrinkled face wrinkled up even more. I caught a whiff of something unpleasant in the holy sept, in truth. Mayhaps you smelled it too? No, Cersei said coldly. A scent, you say? More like a stink. Perhaps you miss your autumn roses. We have kept you here too long. The sooner she rid the court of Lady Olenna the better. Lord Tyrell would doubtless dispatch a goodly number of knights to see his mother safely home, and the fewer Tyrell swords in the city, the more soundly the queen would sleep. I do long for the fragrances of Highgarden, I confess it, said the old lady, but of course I cannot leave until I have seen my sweet Margaery wed to your precious little Tommen. I await that day eagerly as well, Tyrell put in. Lord Tywin and I were on the point of setting a date, as it happens. Perhaps you and I might take up that discussion, Your Grace. Soon. Soon will serve, said Lady Olenna with a sniff. Now come along, Mace, let Her Grace get on with her grief. I will see you dead, old woman, Cersei promised herself as the Queen of Thorns tottered off between her towering guardsmen, a pair of seven-footers that it amused her to call Left and Right. Well see how sweet a corpse you make. The old woman was twice as clever as her lord son, that was plain. The queen rescued her son from Margaery and her cousins, and made for the doors. Outside, the rain had finally stopped. The autumn air smelled sweet and fresh. Tommen took his crown off. Put that back on, Cersei commanded him. It makes my neck hurt, the boy said, but he did as he was bid. Will I be married soon? Margaery says that as soon as were wed we can go to Highgarden. You are not going to Highgarden, but you can ride back to the castle. Cersei beckoned to Ser Meryn Trant. Bring His Grace a mount, and ask Lord Gyles if he would do me the honor of sharing my litter. Things were moving more quickly than she had anticipated; there was no time to be squandered. Tommen was happy at the prospect of a ride, and of course Lord Gyles was honored by her invitation though when she asked him to be her master of coin, he began coughing so violently that she feared he might die right then and there. But the Mother was merciful, and Gyles eventually recovered sufficiently to accept, and even began coughing out the names of men he wanted to replace, customs officers and wool factors appointed by Littlefinger, even one of the keepers of the keys. Name the cow what you will, so long as the milk flows. And should the question arise, you joined the council yesterday. Yester A fit of coughing bent him over. Yesterday. To be sure. Lord Gyles coughed into a square of red silk, as if to hide the blood in his spittle. Cersei pretended not to notice. When he dies I will find someone else. Perhaps she would recall Littlefinger. The queen could not imagine that Petyr Baelish would be allowed to remain Lord Protector of the Vale for very long, with Lysa Arryn dead. The Vale lords were already stirring, if what Pycelle said was true. Once they take that wretched boy away from him, Lord Petyr will come crawling back. Your Grace? Lord Gyles coughed, and dabbed his mouth. Might I He coughed again. ask who Another series of coughs racked him. who will be the Kings Hand? My uncle, she replied absently. It was a relief to see the gates of the Red Keep looming large before her. She gave Tommen over to the charge of his squires and retired gratefully to her own chambers to rest. No sooner had she eased off her shoes than Jocelyn entered timidly to say that Qyburn was without and craved audience. Send him in, the queen commanded. A ruler gets no rest. Qyburn was old, but his hair still had more ash than snow in it, and the laugh lines around his mouth made him look like some little girls favorite grandfather. A rather shabby grandfather, though. The collar of his robe was frayed, and one sleeve had been torn and badly sewn. I must beg Your Graces pardon for my appearance, he said. I have been down in the dungeons making inquiries into the Imps escape, as you commanded. And what have you discovered? The night that Lord Varys and your brother disappeared, a third man also vanished. Yes, the gaoler. What of him? Rugen was the mans name. An undergaoler who had charge of the black cells. The chief undergaoler describes him as portly, unshaven, gruff of speech. He held his appointment of the old king, Aerys, and came and went as he pleased. The black cells have not oft been occupied in recent years. The other turnkeys were afraid of him, it seems, but none knew much about him. He had no friends, no kin. Nor did he drink or frequent brothels. His sleeping cell was damp and dreary, and the straw he slept upon was mildewed. His chamber pot was overflowing. I know all this. Jaime had examined Rugens cell, and Ser Addams gold cloaks had examined it again. Aye, Your Grace, said Qyburn, but did you know that under that stinking chamber pot was a loose stone, which opened on a small hollow? The sort of place where a man might hide valuables that he did not wish to be discovered? Valuables? This was new. Coin, you mean? She had suspected all along that Tyrion had somehow bought this gaoler. Beyond a doubt. To be sure, the hole was empty when I found it. No doubt Rugen took his ill-gotten treasure with him when he fled. But as I crouched over the hole with my torch, I saw something glitter, so I scratched in the dirt until I dug it out. Qyburn opened his palm. A gold coin. Gold, yes, but the moment Cersei took it she could tell that it was wrong. Too small, she thought, too thin. The coin was old and worn. On one side was a kings face in profile, on the other side the imprint of a hand. This is no dragon, she said. No, Qyburn agreed. It dates from before the Conquest, Your Grace. The king is Garth the Twelfth, and the hand is the sigil of House Gardener. Of Highgarden. Cersei closed her hand around the coin. What treachery is this? Mace Tyrell had been one of Tyrions judges, and had called loudly for his death. Was that some ploy? Could he have been plotting with the Imp all the while, conspiring at Fathers death? With Tywin Lannister in his grave, Lord Tyrell was an obvious choice to be Kings Hand, but even so You will not speak of this with anyone, she commanded. Your Grace may trust in my discretion. Any man who rides with a sellsword company learns to hold his tongue, else he does not keep it long. In my company as well. The queen put the coin away. She would think about it later. What of the other matter? Ser Gregor. Qyburn shrugged. I have examined him, as you commanded. The poison on the Vipers spear was manticore venom from the east, I would stake my life on that. Pycelle says no. He told my lord father that manticore venom kills the instant it reaches the heart. And so it does. But this venom has been thickened somehow, so as to draw out the Mountains dying. Thickened? Thickened how? With some other substance? It may be as Your Grace suggests, though in most cases adulterating a poison only lessens its potency. It may be that the cause is less natural, let us say. A spell, I think. Is this one as big a fool as Pycelle? So are you telling me that the Mountain is dying of some black sorcery? Qyburn ignored the mockery in her voice. He is dying of the venom, but slowly, and in exquisite agony. My efforts to ease his pain have proved as fruitless as Pycelles. Ser Gregor is overly accustomed to the poppy, I fear. His squire tells me that he is plagued by blinding headaches and oft quaffs the milk of the poppy as lesser men quaff ale. Be that as it may, his veins have turned black from head to heel, his water is clouded with pus, and the venom has eaten a hole in his side as large as my fist. It is a wonder that the man is still alive, if truth be told. His size, the queen suggested, frowning. Gregor is a very large man. Also a very stupid one. Too stupid to know when he should die, it seems. She held out her cup, and Senelle filled it once again. His screaming frightens Tommen. It has even been known to wake me of a night. I would say it is past time we summoned Ilyn Payne. Your Grace, said Qyburn, mayhaps I might move Ser Gregor to the dungeons? His screams will not disturb you there, and I will be able to tend to him more freely. Tend to him? She laughed. Let Ser Ilyn tend to him. If that is Your Graces wish, Qyburn said, but this poison it would be useful to know more about it, would it not? Send a knight to slay a knight and an archer to kill an archer, the smallfolk often say. To combat the black arts He did not finish the thought, but only smiled at her. He is not Pycelle, that much is plain. The queen weighed him, wondering. Why did the Citadel take your chain? The archmaesters are all craven at heart. The grey sheep, Marwyn calls them. I was as skilled a healer as Ebrose, but aspired to surpass him. For hundreds of years the men of the Citadel have opened the bodies of the dead, to study the nature of life. I wished to understand the nature of death, so I opened the bodies of the living. For that crime the grey sheep shamed me and forced me into exile but I understand the nature of life and death better than any man in Oldtown. Do you? That intrigued her. Very well. The Mountain is yours. Do what you will with him, but confine your studies to the black cells. When he dies, bring me his head. My father promised it to Dorne. Prince Doran would no doubt prefer to kill Gregor himself, but we all must suffer disappointments in this life. Very good, Your Grace. Qyburn cleared his throat. I am not so well provided as Pycelle, however. I must needs equip myself with certain I shall instruct Lord Gyles to provide you with gold sufficient for your needs. Buy yourself some new robes as well. You look as though youve wandered up from Flea Bottom. She studied his eyes, wondering how far she dared trust this one. Need I say that it will go ill for you if any word of your labors should pass beyond these walls? No, Your Grace. Qyburn gave her a reassuring smile. Your secrets are safe with me. When he was gone, Cersei poured herself a cup of strongwine and drank it by the window, watching the shadows lengthen across the yard and thinking about the coin. Gold from the Reach. Why would an undergaoler in Kings Landing have gold from the Reach, unless he were paid to help bring about Fathers death? Try as she might, she could not seem to bring Lord Tywins face to mind without seeing that silly little half smile and remembering the foul smell coming off his corpse. She wondered whether Tyrion was somehow behind that as well. It is small and cruel, like him. Could Tyrion have made Pycelle his catspaw? He sent the old man to the black cells, and this Rugen had charge of those cells, she remembered. All the strings were tangled up together in ways she did not like. This High Septon is Tyrions creature too, Cersei recalled suddenly, and Fathers poor body was in his care from dark till dawn. Her uncle arrived promptly at sunset, wearing a quilted doublet of charcoal-colored wool as somber as his face. Like all the Lannisters, Ser Kevan was fair-skinned and blond, though at five-and-fifty he had lost most of his hair. No one would ever call him comely. Thick of waist, round of shoulder, with a square jutting chin that his close-cropped yellow beard did little to conceal, he reminded her of some old mastiff but a faithful old mastiff was the very thing that she required. They ate a simple supper of beets and bread and bloody beef with a flagon of Dornish red to wash it all down. Ser Kevan said little and scarce touched his wine cup. He broods too much, she decided. He needs to be put to work to get beyond his grief. She said as much, when the last of the food had been cleared away and the servants had departed. I know how much my father relied on you, Uncle. Now I must do the same. You need a Hand, he said, and Jaime has refused you. He is blunt. Very well. Jaime I felt so lost with Father dead, I scarce knew what I was saying. Jaime is gallant, but a bit of a fool, let us be frank. Tommen needs a more seasoned man. Someone older Mace Tyrell is older. Her nostrils flared. Never. Cersei pushed a lock of hair off her brow. The Tyrells overreach themselves. You would be a fool to make Mace Tyrell your Hand, Ser Kevan admitted, but a bigger fool to make him your foe. Ive heard what happened in the Hall of Lamps. Mace should have known better than to broach such matters in public, but even so, you were unwise to shame him in front of half the court. Better that than suffer another Tyrell on the council. His reproach annoyed her. Rosby will make an adequate master of coin. Youve seen that litter of his, with its carvings and silk draperies. His horses are better dressed than most knights. A man that rich should have no problem finding gold. As for Handship who better to finish my fathers work than the brother who shared all his counsels? Every man needs someone he can trust. Tywin had me, and once your mother. He loved her very much. Cersei refused to think about the dead whore in his bed. I know they are together now. So I pray. Ser Kevan studied her face for a long moment before he replied. You ask much of me, Cersei. No more than my father did. I am tired. Her uncle reached for his wine cup and took a swallow. I have a wife I have not seen in two years, a dead son to mourn, another son about to marry and assume a lordship. Castle Darry must be made strong again, its lands protected, its burned fields plowed and planted anew. Lancel needs my help. As does Tommen. Cersei had not expected Kevan to require coaxing. He never played coy with Father. The realm needs you. The realm. Aye. And House Lannister. He sipped his wine again. Very well. I will remain and serve His Grace Very good, she started to say, but Ser Kevan raised his voice and bulled right over her. so long as you name me regent as well as Hand and take yourself back to Casterly Rock. For half a heartbeat Cersei could only stare at him. I am the regent, she reminded him. You were. Tywin did not intend that you continue in that role. He told me of his plans to send you back to the Rock and find a new husband for you. Cersei could feel her anger rising. He spoke of such, yes. And I told him it was not my wish to wed again. Her uncle was unmoved. If you are resolved against another marriage, I will not force it on you. As to the other, though you are the Lady of Casterly Rock now. Your place is there. How dare you? she wanted to scream. Instead, she said, I am also the Queen Regent. My place is with my son. Your father thought not. My father is dead. To my grief, and the woe of all the realm. Open your eyes and look about you, Cersei. The kingdom is in ruins. Tywin might have been able to set matters aright, but I shall set matters aright! Cersei softened her tone. With your help, Uncle. If you will serve me as faithfully as you served my father You are not your father. And Tywin always regarded Jaime as his rightful heir. Jaime Jaime has taken vows. Jaime never thinks, he laughs at everything and everyone and says whatever comes into his head. Jaime is a handsome fool. And yet he was your first choice to be the Kings Hand. What does that make you, Cersei? I told you, I was sick with grief, I did not think No, Ser Kevan agreed. Which is why you should return to Casterly Rock and leave the king with those who do. The king is my son! Cersei rose to her feet. Aye, her uncle said, and from what I saw of Joffrey, you are as unfit a mother as you are a ruler. She threw the contents of her wine cup full in his face. Ser Kevan rose with a ponderous dignity. Your Grace. Wine trickled down his cheeks and dripped from his close-cropped beard. With your leave, might I withdraw? By what right do you presume to give me terms? You are no more than one of my fathers household knights. I hold no lands, that is true. But I have certain incomes, and chests of coin set aside. My own father forgot none of his children when he died, and Tywin knew how to reward good service. I feed two hundred knights and can double that number if need be. There are freeriders who will follow my banner, and I have the gold to hire sellswords. You would be wise not to take me lightly, Your Grace and wiser still not to make of me a foe. Are you threatening me? I am counseling you. If you will not yield the regency to me, name me your castellan for Casterly Rock and make either Mathis Rowan or Randyll Tarly the Hand of the King. Tyrell bannermen, both of them. The suggestion left her speechless. Is he bought? she wondered. Has he taken Tyrell gold to betray House Lannister? Mathis Rowan is sensible, prudent, well liked, her uncle went on, oblivious. Randyll Tarly is the finest soldier in the realm. A poor Hand for peacetime, but with Tywin dead theres no better man to finish this war. Lord Tyrell cannot take offense if you choose one of his own bannermen as Hand. Both Tarly and Rowan are able men and loyal. Name either one, and you make him yours. You strengthen yourself and weaken Highgarden, yet Mace will likely thank you for it. He gave a shrug. That is my counsel, take it or no. You may make Moon Boy your Hand for all I care. My brother is dead, woman. I am going to take him home. Traitor, she thought. Turncloak. She wondered how much Mace Tyrell had given him. You would abandon your king when he needs you most, she told him. You would abandon Tommen. Tommen has his mother. Ser Kevans green eyes met her own, unblinking. A last drop of wine trembled wet and red beneath his chin, and finally fell. Aye, he added softly, after a pause, and his father too, I think. JAIME Ser Jaime Lannister, all in white, stood beside his fathers bier, five fingers curled about the hilt of a golden greatsword. At dusk, the interior of the Great Sept of Baelor turned dim and eerie. The last light of day slanted down through the high windows, washing the towering likenesses of the Seven in a red gloom. Around their altars, scented candles flickered whilst deep shadows gathered in the transepts and crept silently across the marble floors. The echoes of the evensongs died away as the last mourners were departing. Balon Swann and Loras Tyrell remained when the rest had gone. No man can stand a vigil for seven days and seven nights, Ser Balon said. When did you last sleep, my lord? When my lord father was alive, said Jaime. Allow me to stand tonight in your stead, Ser Loras offered. He was not your father. You did not kill him. I did. Tyrion may have loosed the crossbow bolt that slew him, but I loosed Tyrion. Leave me. As my lord commands, said Swann. Ser Loras looked as if he might have argued further, but Ser Balon took his arm and drew him off. Jaime listened to the echoes of their footfalls die away. And then he was alone again with his lord father, amongst the candles and the crystals and the sickly sweet smell of death. His back ached from the weight of his armor, and his legs felt almost numb. He shifted his stance a bit and tightened his fingers around the golden greatsword. He could not wield a sword, but he could hold one. His missing hand was throbbing. That was almost funny. He had more feeling in the hand hed lost than in the rest of the body that remained to him. My hand is hungry for a sword. I need to kill someone. Varys, for a start, but first Id need to find the rock hes hiding under. I commanded the eunuch to take him to a ship, not to your bedchamber, he told the corpse. The blood is on his hands as much as as Tyrions. The blood is on his hands as much as mine, he meant to say, but the words stuck in his throat. Whatever Varys did, I made him do. He had waited in the eunuchs chambers that night, when at last he had decided not to let his little brother die. As he waited, he had sharpened his dagger with one hand, taking a queer comfort from the scrape-scrape-scrape of steel on stone. At the sound of footsteps he stood beside the door. Varys entered in a wash of powder and lavender. Jaime stepped out behind him, kicked him in the back of the knee, knelt on his chest, and shoved the knife up under his soft white chin, forcing his head up. Why, Lord Varys, hed said pleasantly, fancy meeting you here. Ser Jaime? Varys panted. You frightened me. I meant to. When he twisted the dagger, a trickle of blood ran down the blade. I was thinking you might help me pluck my brother from his cell before Ser Ilyn lops his head off. It is an ugly head, I grant you, but he only has the one. Yes well if you would remove the blade yes, gently, as it please my lord, gently, oh, Im pricked The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood. Youll have more to abhor shortly, unless you help me. Varys struggled to a sitting position. Your brother if the Imp should vanish unaccountably from his cell, q-questions would be asked. I would f-fear for my life Your life is mine. I do not care what secrets you know. If Tyrion dies, you will not long outlive him, I promise you. Ah. The eunuch sucked the blood off his fingers. You ask a dreadful thing to loose the Imp who slew our lovely king. Or is it that you believe him innocent? Innocent or guilty, Jaime had said, like the fool he was, a Lannister pays his debts. The words had come so easy. He had not slept since. He could see his brother now, the way the dwarf had grinned beneath the stub of his nose as the torchlight licked his face. You poor stupid blind crippled fool, hed snarled, in a voice thick with malice. Cersei is a lying whore, shes been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and probably Moon Boy, for all I know. And I am the monster they all say I am. Yes, I killed your vile son. He never said he meant to kill our father. If he had, I would have stopped him. Then I would be the kinslayer, not him. Jaime wondered where Varys was hiding. Wisely, the master of whisperers had not returned to his own chambers, nor had a search of the Red Keep turned him up. It might be that the eunuch had taken ship with Tyrion, rather than remain to answer awkward questions. If so, the two of them were well out to sea by now, sharing a flagon of Arbor gold in the cabin of a galley. Unless my brother murdered Varys too, and left his corpse to rot beneath the castle. Down there, it might be years before his bones were found. Jaime had led a dozen guards below, with torches and ropes and lanterns. For hours they had groped through twisting passages, narrow crawl spaces, hidden doors, secret steps, and shafts that plunged down into utter blackness. Seldom had he felt so utterly a cripple. A man takes much for granted when he has two hands. Ladders, for an instance. Even crawling did not come easy; not for nought do they speak of hands and knees. Nor could he hold a torch and climb, as others could. And all for naught. They found only darkness, dust, and rats. And dragons, lurking down below. He remembered the sullen orange glow of the coals in the iron dragons mouth. The brazier warmed a chamber at the bottom of a shaft where half a dozen tunnels met. On the floor hed found a scuffed mosaic of the three-headed dragon of House Targaryen done in tiles of black and red. I know you, Kingslayer, the beast seemed to be saying. I have been here all the time, waiting for you to come to me. And it seemed to Jaime that he knew that voice, the iron tones that had once belonged to Rhaegar, Prince of Dragonstone. The day had been windy when he said farewell to Rhaegar, in the yard of the Red Keep. The prince had donned his night-black armor, with the three-headed dragon picked out in rubies on his breastplate. Your Grace, Jaime had pleaded, let Darry stay to guard the king this once, or Ser Barristan. Their cloaks are as white as mine. Prince Rhaegar shook his head. My royal sire fears your father more than he does our cousin Robert. He wants you close, so Lord Tywin cannot harm him. I dare not take that crutch away from him at such an hour. Jaimes anger had risen up in his throat. I am not a crutch. I am a knight of the Kingsguard. Then guard the king, Ser Jon Darry snapped at him. When you donned that cloak, you promised to obey. Rhaegar had put his hand on Jaimes shoulder. When this battles done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return. Those were the last words Rhaegar Targaryen ever spoke to him. Outside the gates an army had assembled, whilst another descended on the Trident. So the Prince of Dragonstone mounted up and donned his tall black helm, and rode forth to his doom. He was more right than he knew. When the battle was done, there were changes made. Aerys thought no harm could come to him if he kept me near, he told his fathers corpse. Isnt that amusing? Lord Tywin seemed to think so; his smile was wider than before. He seems to enjoy being dead. It was queer, but he felt no grief. Where are my tears? Where is my rage? Jaime Lannister had never lacked for rage. Father, he told the corpse, it was you who told me that tears were a mark of weakness in a man, so you cannot expect that I should cry for you. A thousand lords and ladies had come that morning to file past the bier, and several thousand smallfolk after noon. They wore somber clothes and solemn faces, but Jaime suspected that many and more were secretly delighted to see the great man brought low. Even in the west, Lord Tywin had been more respected than beloved, and Kings Landing still remembered the Sack. Of all the mourners, Grand Maester Pycelle had seemed the most distraught. I have served six kings, he told Jaime after the second service, whilst sniffing doubtfully about the corpse, but here before us lies the greatest man I ever knew. Lord Tywin wore no crown, yet he was all a king should be. Without his beard, Pycelle looked not only old, but feeble. Shaving him was the cruelest thing Tyrion could have done, thought Jaime, who knew what it was to lose a part of yourself, the part that made you who you were. Pycelles beard had been magnificent, white as snow and soft as lambswool, a luxuriant growth that covered cheeks and chin and flowed down almost to his belt. The Grand Maester had been wont to stroke it when he pontificated. It had given him an air of wisdom, and concealed all manner of unsavory things: the loose skin dangling beneath the old mans jaw, the small querulous mouth and missing teeth, warts and wrinkles and age spots too numerous to count. Though Pycelle was trying to regrow what he had lost, he was failing. Only wisps and tufts sprouted from his wrinkled cheeks and weak chin, so thin that Jaime could see the splotchy pink skin beneath. Ser Jaime, I have seen terrible things in my time, the old man said. Wars, battles, murders most foul I was a boy in Oldtown when the grey plague took half the city and three-quarters of the Citadel. Lord Hightower burned every ship in port, closed the gates, and commanded his guards to slay all those who tried to flee, be they men, women, or babes in arms. They killed him when the plague had run its course. On the very day he reopened the port, they dragged him from his horse and slit his throat, and his young sons as well. To this day the ignorant in Oldtown will spit at the sound of his name, but Quenton Hightower did what was needed. Your father was that sort of man as well. A man who did what was needed. Is that why he looks so pleased with himself? The vapors rising from the corpse were making Pycelles eyes water. The flesh as the flesh dries, the muscles grow taut and pull his lips upward. That is no smile, only a a drying, that is all. He blinked back tears. You must excuse me. I am so very tired. Leaning heavily on his cane, Pycelle tottered slowly from the sept. That one is dying too, Jaime realized. Small wonder Cersei called him useless. To be sure, his sweet sister seemed to think half the court was either useless or treasonous; Pycelle, the Kingsguard, the Tyrells, Jaime himself even Ser Ilyn Payne, the silent knight who served as headsman. As Kings Justice, the dungeons were his responsibility. Since he lacked a tongue, Payne had largely left the running of those dungeons to his underlings, but Cersei held him to blame for Tyrions escape all the same. It was my work, not his, Jaime almost told her. Instead he had promised to find what answers he could from the chief undergaoler, a bentback old man named Rennifer Longwaters. I see you wonder, what sort of name is that? the man had cackled when Jaime went to question him. It is an old name, tis true. I am not one to boast, but there is royal blood in my veins. I am descended from a princess. My father told me the tale when I was a tad of a lad. Longwaters had not been a tad of a lad for many a year, to judge from his spotted head and the white hairs growing from his chin. She was the fairest treasure of the Maidenvault. Lord Oakenfist the great admiral lost his heart to her, though he was married to another. She gave their son the bastard name of Waters in honor of his father, and he grew to be a great knight, as did his own son, who put the Long before the Waters so men might know that he was not basely born himself. So I have a little dragon in me. Yes, I almost mistook you for Aegon the Conqueror, Jaime had answered. Waters was a common bastard name about Blackwater Bay; old Longwaters was more like to be descended from some minor household knight than from a princess. As it matters, though, I have more pressing concerns than your lineage. Longwaters inclined his head. The lost prisoner. And the missing gaoler. Rugen, the old man supplied. An undergaoler. He had charge of the third level, the black cells. Tell me of him, Jaime had to say. A bloody farce. He knew who Rugen was, even if Longwaters did not. Unkempt, unshaven, coarse of speech. I misliked the man, tis true, I do confess it. Rugen was here when I first came, twelve years past. He held his appointment from King Aerys. The man was seldom here, it must be said. I made note of it in my reports, my lord. I most suredly did, I give you my word upon it, the word of a man with royal blood. Mention that royal blood once more and I may spill some of it, thought Jaime. Who saw these reports? Certain of them went to the master of coin, others to the master of whisperers. All to the chief gaoler and the Kings Justice. It has always been so in the dungeons. Longwaters scratched his nose. Rugen was here when need be, my lord. That must be said. The black cells are little used. Before your lordships little brother was sent down, we had Grand Maester Pycelle for a time, and before him Lord Stark the traitor. There were three others, common men, but Lord Stark gave them to the Nights Watch. I did not think it good to free those three, but the papers were in proper order. I made note of that in a report as well, you may be certain of it. Tell me of the two gaolers who went to sleep. Gaolers? Longwaters sniffed. Those were no gaolers. They were merely turnkeys. The crown pays wages for twenty turnkeys, my lord, a full score, but during my time we have never had more than twelve. We are supposed to have six undergaolers as well, two on each level, but there are only the three. You and two others? Longwaters sniffed again. I am the chief undergaoler, my lord. I am above the undergaolers. I am charged with keeping the counts. If my lord would like to look over my books, he will see that all the figures are exact. Longwaters had consulted the great leather-bound book spread out before him. At present, we have four prisoners on the first level and one on the second, in addition to your lordships brother. The old man frowned. Who is fled, to be sure. Tis true. I will strike him out. He took up a quill and began to sharpen it. Six prisoners, Jaime thought sourly, while we pay wages for twenty turnkeys, six undergaolers, a chief undergaoler, a gaoler, and a Kings Justice. I want to question these two turnkeys. Rennifer Longwaters let up sharpening his quill and peered doubtfully up at Jaime. Question them, my lord? You heard me. I did, my lord, I suredly did, and yet my lord may question who he pleases, tis true, it is not my place to say that he may not. But, ser, if I may be so bold, I do not think them like to answer. They are dead, my lord. Dead? By whose command? Your own, I thought, or the kings, mayhaps? I did not ask. It it is not my place to question the Kingsguard. That was salt for his wound; Cersei had used his own men to do her bloody work, them and her precious Kettleblacks. You witless fools, Jaime had snarled at Boros Blount and Osmund Kettleblack later, in a dungeon that stank of blood and death. What did you imagine you were doing? No moren we was told, my lord. Ser Boros was shorter than Jaime, but heavier. Her Grace commanded it. Your sister. Ser Osmund hooked a thumb through his swordbelt. She said they were to sleep forever. So my brothers and me, we saw to it. That you did. One corpse sprawled facedown upon the table, like a man passed out at a feast, but it was a puddle of blood beneath his head, not a puddle of wine. The second turnkey had managed to push back from the bench and draw his dagger before someone shoved a longsword through his ribs. His had been the longer, messier end. I told Varys no one was to be harmed in this escape, Jaime thought, but I should have told my brother and my sister. This was ill done, ser. Ser Osmund shrugged. They wont be missed. Ill wager they was part of it, along with the one whos gone missing. No, Jaime could have told him. Varys dosed their wine to make them sleep. If so, we might have coaxed the truth from them. shes been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy, for all I know If I had a suspicious nature I might wonder why you were in such haste to make certain these two were never put to the question. Did you need to silence them to conceal your own part in this? Us? Kettleblack choked on that. All we done was what the queen commanded. On my word as your Sworn Brother. Jaimes phantom fingers twitched as he said, Get Osney and Osfryd down here and clean up this mess youve made. And the next time my sweet sister commands you to kill a man, come to me first. Elsewise, stay out of my sight, ser. The words echoed in his head in the dimness of Baelors Sept. Above him, all the windows had gone black, and he could see the faint light of distant stars. The sun had set for good and all. The stench of death was growing stronger, despite the scented candles. The smell reminded Jaime Lannister of the pass below the Golden Tooth, where he had won a glorious victory in the first days of the war. On the morning after the battle, the crows had feasted on victors and vanquished alike, as once they had feasted on Rhaegar Targaryen after the Trident. How much can a crown be worth, when a crow can dine upon a king? There were crows circling the seven towers and great dome of Baelors Sept even now, Jaime suspected, their black wings beating against the night air as they searched for a way inside. Every crow in the Seven Kingdoms should pay homage to you, Father. From Castamere to the Blackwater, you fed them well. That notion pleased Lord Tywin; his smile widened further. Bloody hell, hes grinning like a bridegroom at his bedding. That was so grotesque it made Jaime laugh aloud. The sound echoed through the transepts and crypts and chapels, as if the dead interred within the walls were laughing too. Why not? This is more absurd than a mummers farce, me standing vigil for a father I helped to slay, sending men forth to capture the brother I helped to free He had commanded Ser Addam Marbrand to search the Street of Silk. Look under every bed, you know how fond my brother is of brothels. The gold cloaks would find more of interest beneath the whores skirts than beneath their beds. He wondered how many bastard children would be born of the pointless search. Unbidden, his thoughts went to Brienne of Tarth. Stupid stubborn ugly wench. He wondered where she was. Father, give her strength. Almost a prayer but was it the god he was invoking, the Father Above whose towering gilded likeness glimmered in the candlelight across the sept? Or was he praying to the corpse that lay before him? Does it matter? They never listened, either one. The Warrior had been Jaimes god since he was old enough to hold a sword. Other men might be fathers, sons, husbands, but never Jaime Lannister, whose sword was as golden as his hair. He was a warrior, and that was all he would ever be. I should tell Cersei the truth, admit that it was me who freed our little brother from his cell. The truth had worked so splendidly with Tyrion, after all. I killed your vile son, and now Im off to kill your father too. Jaime could hear the Imp laughing in the gloom. He turned his head to look, but the sound was only his own laughter coming back at him. He closed his eyes, and just as quickly snapped them open. I must not sleep. If he slept, he might dream. Oh, how Tyrion was sniggering a lying whore fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack At midnight, the hinges on the Fathers Doors gave a groan as several hundred septons filed in for their devotions. Some were clad in the cloth-of-silver vestments and crystal coronals that marked the Most Devout; their humbler brethren wore their crystals on thongs about their necks and cinched white robes with seven-stranded belts, each plait a different color. Through the Mothers Doors marched white septas from their cloister, seven abreast and singing softly, while the silent sisters came single file down the Strangers Steps. Deaths handmaidens were garbed in soft grey, their faces hooded and shawled so only their eyes could be seen. A host of brothers appeared as well, in robes of brown and butternut and dun and even undyed roughspun, belted with lengths of hempen rope. Some hung the iron hammer of the Smith about their necks, whilst others carried begging bowls. None of the devout paid Jaime any mind. They made a circuit of the sept, worshiping at each of the seven altars to honor the seven aspects of the deity. To each god they made sacrifice, to each they sang a hymn. Sweet and solemn rose their voices. Jaime closed his eyes to listen, but opened them again when he began to sway. I am more weary than I knew. It had been years since his last vigil. And I was younger then, a boy of fifteen years. He had worn no armor then, only a plain white tunic. The sept where hed spent the night was not a third as large as any of the Great Septs seven transepts. Jaime had laid his sword across the Warriors knees, piled his armor at his feet, and knelt upon the rough stone floor before the altar. When dawn came his knees were raw and bloody. All knights must bleed, Jaime, Ser Arthur Dayne had said, when he saw. Blood is the seal of our devotion. With dawn he tapped him on the shoulder; the pale blade was so sharp that even that light touch cut through Jaimes tunic, so he bled anew. He never felt it. A boy knelt; a knight rose. The Young Lion, not the Kingslayer. But that was long ago, and the boy was dead. He could not have said when the devotions ended. Perhaps he slept, still standing. When the devout had filed out, the Great Sept grew still once more. The candles were a wall of stars burning in the darkness, though the air was rank with death. Jaime shifted his grip upon the golden greatsword. Perhaps he should have let Ser Loras relieve him after all. Cersei would have hated that. The Knight of Flowers was still half a boy, arrogant and vain, but he had it in him to be great, to perform deeds worthy of the White Book. The White Book would be waiting when this vigil was done, his page open in dumb reproach. Ill hack the bloody book to pieces before Ill fill it full of lies. Yet if he would not lie, what could he write but truth? A woman stood before him. It is raining again, he thought when he saw how wet she was. The water was trickling down her cloak to puddle round her feet. How did she get here? I never heard her enter. She was dressed like a tavern wench in a heavy roughspun cloak, badly dyed in mottled browns and fraying at the hem. A hood concealed her face, but he could see the candles dancing in the green pools of her eyes, and when she moved he knew her. Cersei. He spoke slowly, like a man waking from a dream, still wondering where he was. What hour is it? The hour of the wolf. His sister lowered her hood, and made a face. The drowned wolf, perhaps. She smiled for him, so sweetly. Do you remember the first time I came to you like this? It was some dismal inn off Weasel Alley, and I put on servants garb to get past Fathers guards. I remember. It was Eel Alley. She wants something of me. Why are you here, at this hour? What would you have of me? His last word echoed up and down the sept, mememememememememememe, fading to a whisper. For a moment he dared to hope that all she wanted was the comfort of his arms. Speak softly. Her voice sounded strange breathless, almost frightened. Jaime, Kevan has refused me. He will not serve as Hand, he he knows about us. He said as much. Refused? That surprised him. How could he know? He will have read what Stannis wrote, but there is no Tyrion knew, she reminded him. Who can say what tales that vile dwarf may have told, or to whom? Uncle Kevan is the least of it. The High Septon Tyrion raised him to the crown, when the fat one died. He may know as well. She moved closer. You must be Tommens Hand. I do not trust Mace Tyrell. What if he had a hand in Fathers death? He may have been conspiring with Tyrion. The Imp could be on his way to Highgarden Hes not. Be my Hand, she pleaded, and well rule the Seven Kingdoms together, like a king and his queen. You were Roberts queen. And yet you wont be mine. I would, if I dared. But our son Tommen is no son of mine, no more than Joffrey was. His voice was hard. You made them Roberts too. His sister flinched. You swore that you would always love me. It is not loving to make me beg. Jaime could smell the fear on her, even through the rank stench of the corpse. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her, to bury his face in her golden curls and promise her that no one would ever hurt her not here, he thought, not here in front of the gods, and Father. No, he said. I cannot. Will not. I need you. I need my other half. He could hear the rain pattering against the windows high above. You are me, I am you. I need you with me. In me. Please, Jaime. Please. Jaime looked to make certain Lord Tywin was not rising from his bier in wrath, but his father lay still and cold, rotting. I was made for a battlefield, not a council chamber. And now it may be that I am unfit even for that. Cersei wiped her tears away on a ragged brown sleeve. Very well. If it is battlefields you want, battlefields I shall give you. She jerked her hood up angrily. I was a fool to come. I was a fool ever to love you. Her footsteps echoed loudly in the quiet, and left damp splotches on the marble floor. Dawn caught Jaime almost unawares. As the glass in the dome began to lighten, suddenly there were rainbows shimmering off the walls and floors and pillars, bathing Lord Tywins corpse in a haze of many-colored light. The Kings Hand was rotting visibly. His face had taken on a greenish tinge, and his eyes were deeply sunken, two black pits. Fissures had opened in his cheeks, and a foul white fluid was seeping through the joints of his splendid gold-and-crimson armor to pool beneath his body. The septons were the first to see, when they returned for their dawn devotions. They sang their songs and prayed their prayers and wrinkled up their noses, and one of the Most Devout grew so faint he had to be helped from the sept. Shortly after, a flock of novices came swinging censers, and the air grew so thick with incense that the bier seemed cloaked in smoke. All the rainbows vanished in that perfumed mist, yet the stench persisted, a sweet rotten smell that made Jaime want to gag. When the doors were opened the Tyrells were amongst the first to enter, as befit their rank. Margaery had brought a great bouquet of golden roses. She placed them ostentatiously at the foot of Lord Tywins bier but kept one back and held it beneath her nose as she took her seat. So the girl is as clever as she is pretty. Tommen could do a deal worse for a queen. Others have. Margaerys ladies followed her example. Cersei waited until the rest were in their places to make her entrance, with Tommen at her side. Ser Osmund Kettleblack paced beside them in his white enamel plate and white wool cloak. shes been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy, for all I know Jaime had seen Kettleblack naked in the bathhouse, had seen the black hair on his chest, and the coarser thatch between his legs. He pictured that chest pressed against his sisters, that hair scratching the soft skin of her breasts. She would not do that. The Imp lied. Spun gold and black wire tangled, sweaty. Kettleblacks narrow cheeks clenching each time he thrust. Jaime could hear his sister moan. No. A lie. Red-eyed and pale, Cersei climbed the steps to kneel above their father, drawing Tommen down beside her. The boy recoiled at the sight, but his mother seized his wrist before he could pull away. Pray, she whispered, and Tommen tried. But he was only eight and Lord Tywin was a horror. One desperate breath of air, then the king began to sob. Stop that! Cersei said. Tommen turned his head and doubled over, retching. His crown fell off and rolled across the marble floor. His mother pulled back in disgust, and all at once the king was running for the doors, as fast as his eight-year-old legs could carry him. Ser Osmund, relieve me, Jaime said sharply, as Kettleblack turned to chase the crown. He handed the man the golden sword and went after his king. In the Hall of Lamps he caught him, beneath the eyes of two dozen startled septas. Im sorry, Tommen wept. I will do better on the morrow. Mother says a king must show the way, but the smell made me sick. This will not do. Too many eager ears and watching eyes. Best we go outside, Your Grace. Jaime led the boy out to where the air was as fresh and clean as Kings Landing ever got. Twoscore gold cloaks had been posted around the plaza to guard the horses and the litters. He took the king off to the side, well away from everyone, and sat him down upon the marble steps. I wasnt scared, the boy insisted. The smell made me sick. Didnt it make you sick? How could you bear it, Uncle, ser? I have smelled my own hand rotting, when Vargo Hoat made me wear it for a pendant. A man can bear most anything, if he must, Jaime told his son. I have smelled a man roasting, as King Aerys cooked him in his own armor. The world is full of horrors, Tommen. You can fight them, or laugh at them, or look without seeing go away inside. Tommen considered that. I I used to go away inside sometimes, he confessed, when Joffy Joffrey. Cersei stood over them, the wind whipping her skirts around her legs. Your brothers name was Joffrey. He would never have shamed me so. I never meant to. I wasnt frightened, Mother. It was only that your lord father smelled so bad Do you think he smelled any sweeter to me? I have a nose too. She caught his ear and pulled him to his feet. Lord Tyrell has a nose. Did you see him retching in the holy sept? Did you see Lady Margaery bawling like a baby? Jaime got to his feet. Cersei, enough. Her nostrils flared. Ser? Why are you here? You swore to stand vigil over Father until the wake was done, as I recall. It is done. Go look at him. No. Seven days and seven nights, you said. Surely the Lord Commander remembers how to count to seven. Take the number of your fingers, then add two. Others had begun to stream out onto the plaza, fleeing the noxious odors in the sept. Cersei, keep your voice down, Jaime warned. Lord Tyrell is approaching. That reached her. The queen drew Tommen to her side. Mace Tyrell bowed before them. His Grace is not unwell, I hope? The king was overwhelmed by grief, said Cersei. As are we all. If there is aught that I can do High above, a crow screamed loudly. He was perched on the statue of King Baelor, shitting on his holy head. There is much and more you can do for Tommen, my lord, Jaime said. Perhaps you would do Her Grace the honor of supping with her, after the evening services? Cersei threw him a withering look, but for once she had the sense to bite her tongue. Sup? Tyrell seemed taken aback. I suppose of course, we should be honored. My lady wife and I. The queen forced a smile and made pleasant noises. But when Tyrell had taken his leave and Tommen had been sent off with Ser Addam Marbrand, she turned on Jaime angrily. Are you drunk or dreaming, ser? Pray tell, why am I having supper with that grasping fool and his puerile wife? A gust of wind stirred her golden hair. I will not name him Hand, if thats what You need Tyrell, Jaime broke in, but not here. Ask him to capture Storms End for Tommen. Flatter him, and tell him you need him in the field, to replace Father. Mace fancies himself a mighty warrior. Either he will deliver Storms End to you, or he will muck it up and look a fool. Either way, you win. Storms End? Cersei looked thoughtful. Yes, but Lord Tyrell has made it tediously plain that he will not leave Kings Landing till Tommen marries Margaery. Jaime sighed. Then let them wed. It will be years before Tommen is old enough to consummate the marriage. And until he does, the union can always be set aside. Give Tyrell his wedding and send him off to play at war. A wary smile crept across his sisters face. Even sieges have their dangers, she murmured. Why, our Lord of Highgarden might even lose his life in such a venture. There is that risk, conceded Jaime. Especially if his patience runs thin this time, and he elects to storm the gate. Cersei gave him a lingering look. You know, she said, for a moment, you sounded quite like Father. BRIENNE The gates of Duskendale were closed and barred. Through the predawn gloom the town walls shimmered palely. On their ramparts, wisps of fog moved like ghostly sentinels. A dozen wayns and oxcarts had drawn up outside the gates, waiting for the sun to rise. Brienne took her place behind some turnips. Her calves ached, and it felt good to dismount and stretch her legs. Before long another wayn came rumbling from the woods. By the time the sky began to lighten, the queue stretched back a quarter mile. The farm folk gave her curious glances, but no one spoke to her. It is for me to talk to them, Brienne told herself, but she had always found it hard to speak with strangers. Even as a girl she had been shy. Long years of scorn had only made her shyer. I must ask after Sansa. How else will I find her? She cleared her throat. Goodwife, she said to the woman on the turnip cart, perhaps you saw my sister on the road? A young maid, three-and-ten and fair of face, with blue eyes and auburn hair. She may be riding with a drunken knight. The woman shook her head, but her husband said, Then shes no maid, Ill wager. Does the poor girl have a name? Briennes head was empty. I should have made up some name for her. Any name would do, but none came to her. No name? Well, the roads are full of nameless girls. The lichyards even fuller, said his wife. As dawn broke, guardsmen appeared on the parapets. The farmers climbed onto their wagons and shook the reins. Brienne mounted as well and took a glance behind her. Most of the queue waiting to enter Duskendale were farm folk with loads of fruits and vegetables to sell. A pair of wealthy townsmen sat on well-bred palfreys a dozen places behind her, and farther back she spied a skinny boy on a piebald rounsey. There was no sign of the two knights, nor Ser Shadrich the Mad Mouse. The guards were waving through the wayns with scarce a look, but when Brienne reached the gate she gave them pause. Halt, you! the captain cried. A pair of men in chainmail hauberks crossed their spears to bar her way. State your purpose here. I seek the Lord of Duskendale, or his maester. The captains eyes lingered on her shield. The black bat of Lothston. Those are arms of ill repute. They are not mine. I mean to have the shield repainted. Aye? The captain rubbed his stubbled chin. My sister does such work, as it happens. Youll find her at the house with the painted doors, across from the Seven Swords. He gestured to the guards. Let her pass, lads. Its a wench. The gatehouse opened on a market square, where those who had entered before her were unloading to hawk their turnips, yellow onions, and sacks of barleycorn. Others were selling arms and armor, and very cheaply to judge from the prices they shouted out as she rode by. The looters come with the carrion crows after every battle. Brienne walked her horse past mail shirts still caked with brown blood, dinted helms, notched longswords. There was clothing to be had as well: leather boots, fur cloaks, stained surcoats with suspicious rents. She knew many of the badges. The mailed fist, the moose, the white sun, the double-bladed axe, all those were northern sigils. Tarly men had perished here as well, though, and many from the stormlands. She saw red and green apples, a shield that bore the three thunderbolts of Leygood, horse trappings patterned with the ants of Ambrose. Lord Tarlys own striding huntsman appeared on many a badge and brooch and doublet. Friend or foe, the crows care not. There were pine and linden shields to be had for pennies, but Brienne rode past them. She meant to keep the heavy oaken shield Jaime had given her, the one hed borne himself from Harrenhal to Kings Landing. A pine shield had its advantages. It was lighter, and therefore easier to bear, and the soft wood was more like to trap a foemans axe or sword. But oak gave more protection, if you were strong enough to bear its weight. Duskendale was built around its harbor. North of town the chalk cliffs rose; to the south a rocky headland shielded the ships at anchor from storms coming up the narrow sea. The castle overlooked the port, its square keep and big drum towers visible from every part of town. In the crowded cobbled streets, it was easier to walk than ride, so Brienne put her mare up in a stable and continued on afoot, with her shield slung across her back and her bedroll tucked up beneath one arm. The captains sister was not hard to find. The Seven Swords was the largest inn in town, a four-story structure that towered over its neighbors, and the double doors on the house across the way were painted gorgeously. They showed a castle in an autumn wood, the trees done up in shades of gold and russet. Ivy crawled up the trunks of ancient oaks, and even the acorns had been done with loving care. When Brienne peered more closely, she saw creatures in the foliage: a sly red fox, two sparrows on a branch, and behind those leaves the shadow of a boar. Your door is very pretty, she told the dark-haired woman who answered when she knocked. What castle is that meant to be? All castles, said the captains sister. The only one I know is the Dun Fort by the harbor. I made tother in my head, what a castle ought to look like. I never seen a dragon neither, nor a griffin, nor a unicorn. She had a cheerful manner, but when Brienne showed her the shield her face went dark. My old ma used to say that giant bats flew out from Harrenhal on moonless nights, to carry bad children to Mad Danelle for her cookpots. Sometimes Id hear them scrabbling at the shutters. She sucked her teeth a moment, thoughtful. What goes in its place? The arms of Tarth were quartered rose and azure, and bore a yellow sun and crescent moon. But so long as men believed her to be a murderess, Brienne dare not carry them. Your door reminded me of an old shield I once saw in my fathers armory. She described the arms as best she could recall them. The woman nodded. I can paint it straightaway, but the paint will need to dry. Take a room at the Seven Swords, if it please you. Ill bring the shield to you by morning. Brienne had not meant to overnight in Duskendale, but it might be for the best. She did not know if the lord of the castle was in residence, or whether he would consent to see her. She thanked the painter and crossed the cobblestones to the inn. Above its door, seven wooden swords swung beneath an iron spike. The whitewash that covered them was cracked and peeling, but Brienne knew their meaning. They stood for the seven sons of Darklyn who had worn the white cloaks of the Kingsguard. No other house in all the realm could claim as many. They were the glory of their House. And now they are a sign above an inn. She pushed into the common room and asked the innkeep for a room and a bath. He put her on the second floor, and a woman with a liver-colored birthmark on her face brought up a wooden tub, and then the water, pail by pail. Do any Darklyns remain in Duskendale? Brienne asked as she climbed into the tub. Well, theres Darkes, Im one myself. My husband says I was Darke before we wed, and darker afterward. She laughed. Cant throw a stone in Duskendale without you hit some Darke or Darkwood or Dargood, but the lordly Darklyns are all gone. Lord Denys was the last o them, the sweet young fool. Did you know the Darklyns were kings in Duskendale before the Andals come? Youd never know tlook at me, but I got me royal blood. Can you see it? Your Grace, another cup of ale, I ought to make them say. Your Grace, the chamber pot needs emptying, and fetch in some fresh faggots, Your Bloody Grace, the fires going out. She laughed again and shook the last drops from the pail. Well, there you are. Is that water hot enough for you? It will serve. The water was lukewarm. Id bring up more, but itd just slop over. A girl the size o you, you fill a tub. Only a cramped small tub like this one. At Harrenhal the tubs had been huge, and made of stone. The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god. He climbed into the tub with me, she remembered, blushing. She seized a chunk of hard lye soap and scrubbed under her arms, trying to call up Renlys face again. By the time the water had gone cold, Brienne was as clean as she was like to get. She put on the same clothes she had taken off and girded her swordbelt tight around her hips, but her mail and helm she left behind, so as not to seem so threatening at the Dun Fort. It felt good to stretch her legs. The guards at the castle gates wore leather jacks with a badge that showed crossed warhammers upon a white saltire. I would speak with your lord, Brienne told them. One laughed. Best shout out loud, then. Lord Rykker rode to Maidenpool with Randyll Tarly, the other said. He left Ser Rufus Leek as castellan, to look after Lady Rykker and the young ones. It was to Leek that they escorted her. Ser Rufus was a short, stout greybeard whose left leg ended in a stump. You will forgive me if I do not rise, he said. Brienne offered him her letter, but Leek could not read, so he sent her to the maester, a bald man with a freckled scalp and a stiff red mustache. When he heard the name Hollard, the maester frowned with irritation. How often must I sing this song? Her face must have given her away. Did you think you were the first to come seeking after Dontos? More like the twenty-first. The gold cloaks were here within days of the kings murder, with Lord Tywins warrant. And what do you have, pray? Brienne showed him the letter, with Tommens seal and childish signature. The maester hmmmmed and hrrrred, picked at the wax, and finally gave it back. It seems in order. He climbed onto a stool and gestured Brienne to another. I never knew Ser Dontos. He was a boy when he left Duskendale. The Hollards were a noble House once, tis true. You know their arms? Barry red and pink, with three golden crowns upon a blue chief. The Darklyns were petty kings during the Age of Heroes, and three took Hollard wives. Later their little realm was swallowed up by larger kingdoms, yet the Darklyns endured and the Hollards served them aye, even in defiance. You know of that? A little. Her own maester used to say that it was the Defiance of Duskendale that had driven King Aerys mad. In Duskendale they love Lord Denys still, despite the woe he brought them. Tis Lady Serala that they blame, his Myrish wife. The Lace Serpent, she is called. If Lord Darklyn had only wed a Staunton or a Stokeworth well, you know how smallfolk will go on. The Lace Serpent filled her husbands ear with Myrish poison, they say, until Lord Denys rose against his king and took him captive. In the taking, his master-at-arms Ser Symon Hollard cut down Ser Gwayne Gaunt of the Kingsguard. For half a year, Aerys was held within these very walls, whilst the Kings Hand sat outside Duskendale with a mighty host. Lord Tywin had sufficient strength to storm the town any time he wished, but Lord Denys sent word that at the first sign of assault hed kill the king. Brienne remembered what came next. The king was rescued, she said. Barristan the Bold brought him out. He did, the maester said. Once Lord Denys lost his hostage, he opened his gates and ended his defiance rather than let Lord Tywin take the town. He bent the knee and begged for mercy, but the king was not of a forgiving mind. Lord Denys lost his head, as did his brothers and his sister, uncles, cousins, all the lordly Darklyns. The Lace Serpent was burned alive, poor woman, though her tongue was torn out first, and her female parts, with which it was said that she had enslaved her lord. Half of Duskendale will still tell you that Aerys was too kind to her. And the Hollards? Attainted and destroyed, said the maester. I was forging my chain at the Citadel when this happened, but I have read the accounts of their trials and punishments. Ser Jon Hollard the Steward was wed to Lord Denyss sister and died with his wife, as did their young son, who was half-Darklyn. Robin Hollard was a squire, and when the king was seized he danced around him and pulled his beard. He died upon the rack. Ser Symon Hollard was slain by Ser Barristan during the kings escape. The Hollard lands were taken, their castle torn down, their villages put to the torch. As with the Darklyns, House Hollard was extinguished. Save for Dontos. True enough. Young Dontos was the son of Ser Steffon Hollard, the twin brother of Ser Symon, who had died of a fever some years before and had no part in the Defiance. Aerys would have taken the boys head off nonetheless, but Ser Barristan asked that his life be spared. The king could not refuse the man whod saved him, so Dontos was taken to Kings Landing as a squire. To my knowledge he never returned to Duskendale, and why should he? He held no lands here, had neither kin nor castle. If Dontos and this northern girl helped murder our sweet king, it seems to me that they would want to put as many leagues as they could betwixt themselves and justice. Look for them in Oldtown, if you must, or across the narrow sea. Look for them in Dorne, or on the Wall. Look elsewhere. He rose. I hear my ravens calling. You will forgive me if I bid you good morrow. The walk back to the inn seemed longer than the walk to the Dun Fort, though perhaps that was only her mood. She would not find Sansa Stark in Duskendale, that seemed plain. If Ser Dontos had taken her to Oldtown or across the narrow sea, as the maester seemed to think, Briennes quest was hopeless. What was there for her in Oldtown? she asked herself. The maester never knew her, no more than he knew Hollard. She would not have gone to strangers. In Kings Landing, Brienne had found one of Sansas former maids doing washing in a brothel. I served with Lord Renly before mlady Sansa, and both turned traitor, the woman Brella complained bitterly. No lord will touch me now, so I have to wash for whores. But when Brienne asked about Sansa, she said, Ill tell you what I told Lord Tywin. That girl was always praying. Shed go to sept and light her candles like a proper lady, but near every night she went off to the godswood. Shes gone back north, she has. Thats where her gods are. The north was huge, though, and Brienne had no notion which of her fathers bannermen Sansa might have been most inclined to trust. Or would she seek her own blood instead? Though all of her siblings had been slain, Brienne knew that Sansa still had an uncle and a bastard half brother on the Wall, serving in the Nights Watch. Another uncle, Edmure Tully, was a captive at the Twins, but his uncle Ser Brynden still held Riverrun. And Lady Catelyns younger sister ruled the Vale. Blood calls to blood. Sansa might well have run to one of them. Which one, though? The Wall was too far, surely, and a bleak and bitter place besides. And to reach Riverrun the girl would need to cross the war-torn riverlands and pass through the Lannister siege lines. The Eyrie would be simpler, and Lady Lysa would surely welcome her sisters daughter Ahead, the alley bent. Somehow Brienne had taken a wrong turn. She found herself in a dead end, a small muddy yard where three pigs were rooting round a low stone well. One squealed at the sight of her, and an old woman drawing water looked her up and down suspiciously. What would you be wanting? I was looking for the Seven Swords. Back the way you come. Left at the sept. I thank you. Brienne turned to retrace her steps, and walked headfirst into someone hurrying round the bend. The collision knocked him off his feet, and he landed on his arse in the mud. Pardons, she murmured. He was only a boy; a scrawny lad with straight, thin hair and a sty beneath one eye. Are you hurt? She offered a hand to help him up, but the boy squirmed back away from her on heels and elbows. He could not have been more than ten or twelve, though he wore a chainmail byrnie and had a longsword in a leather sheath slung across his back. Do I know you? Brienne asked. His face seemed vaguely familiar, though she could not think from where. No. You dont. You never He scrambled to his feet. F-f-forgive me. My lady. I wasnt looking. I mean, I was, but down. I was looking down. At my feet. The boy took to his heels, plunging headlong back the way hed come. Something about him roused all of Briennes suspicions, but she was not about to chase him through the streets of Duskendale. Outside the gates this morning, that was where I saw him, she realized. He was riding a piebald rounsey. And it seemed as if she had seen him somewhere else as well, but where? By the time Brienne found the Seven Swords again, the common room was crowded. Four septas sat closest to the fire, in robes stained and dusty from the road. Elsewhere locals filled the benches, sopping up bowls of hot crab stew with chunks of bread. The smell made her stomach rumble, but she saw no empty seats. Then a voice behind her said, Mlady, here, have my place. Not until he hopped off the bench did Brienne realize that the speaker was a dwarf. The little man was not quite five feet tall. His nose was veined and bulbous, his teeth red from sourleaf, and he was dressed in the brown roughspun robes of a holy brother, with the iron hammer of the Smith dangling down about his thick neck. Keep your seat, she said. I can stand as well as you. Aye, but my head is not so apt to knock upon the ceiling. The dwarfs speech was coarse but courteous. Brienne could see the crown of his scalp where he had shaved it. Many holy brothers wore such tonsures. Septa Roelle once told her that it was meant to show that they had nothing to hide from the Father. Cant the Father see through hair? Brienne had asked. A stupid thing to say. She had been a slow child; Septa Roelle often told her so. She felt near as stupid now, so she took the little mans place at the end of the bench, signaled for stew, and turned to thank the dwarf. Do you serve some holy house in Duskendale, brother? Twas nearer Maidenpool, mlady, but the wolves burned us out, the man replied, gnawing on a heel of bread. We rebuilt as best we could, until some sellswords come. I could not say whose men they were, but they took our pigs and killed the brothers. I squeezed inside a hollow log and hid, but tothers were too big. It took me a long time to bury them all, but the Smith, he gave me strength. When that was done I dug up a few coins the elder brother had hid by and set off by myself. I met some other brothers going to Kings Landing. Aye, theres hundreds on the roads. Not only brothers. Septons too, and smallfolk. Sparrows all. Might be Im a sparrow too. The Smith, he made me small enough. He chuckled. And whats your sad tale, mlady? I am looking for my sister. Shes highborn, only three-and-ten, a pretty maid with blue eyes and auburn hair. You may have seen her traveling with a man. A knight, perhaps a fool. Theres gold for the man who helps me find her. Gold? The brother gave her a red smile. A bowl of that crab stew would be enough reward for me, but I fear I cannot help you. Fools Ive met, and plenty, but not so many pretty maids. He cocked his head and thought a moment. There was a fool at Maidenpool, now that I think of it. He was clad in rags and dirt, as near as I could tell, but under the dirt was motley. Did Dontos Hollard wear motley? No one had told Brienne that he did but no one had ever said he didnt, either. Why would the man be in rags, though? Had some misfortune overtaken him and Sansa after they fled Kings Landing? That could well be, with the roads so dangerous. It might not have been him at all. Did this fool have a red nose, full of broken veins? I could not swear to that. I confess, I paid him little heed. Id gone to Maidenpool after burying my brothers, thinking that I might find a ship to take me to Kings Landing. I first glimpsed the fool down by the docks. He had a furtive air to him and took care to avoid Lord Tarlys soldiers. Later, I encountered him again, at the Stinking Goose. The Stinking Goose? she said, uncertain. An unsavory place, the dwarf admitted. Lord Tarlys men patrol the port at Maidenpool, but the Goose is always full of sailors, and sailors have been known to smuggle men aboard their ships, if the price is right. This fool was seeking passage for three across the narrow sea. I oft saw him there, talking with oarsmen off the galleys. Sometimes he would sing a funny song. Seeking passage for three? Not two? Three, mlady. That Id swear to, by the Seven. Three, she thought. Sansa, Ser Dontos but who would be the third? The Imp? Did the fool find his ship? That I could not say, the dwarf told her, but one night some of Lord Tarlys soldiers visited the Goose looking for him, and a few days later I heard another man boasting that hed fooled a fool and had the gold to prove it. He was drunk, and buying ale for everyone. Fooled a fool, she said. What did he mean by that? I could not tell you. His name was Nimble Dick, though, that I do recall. The dwarf spread his hands. I fear thats all that I can offer you, aside from a small mans prayers. True to her word, Brienne bought him his bowl of hot crab stew and some hot fresh bread and a cup of wine as well. As he ate it, standing by her side, she mulled what he had told her. Could the Imp have joined them? If Tyrion Lannister were behind Sansas disappearance, and not Dontos Hollard, it stood to reason that they would need to flee across the narrow sea. When the little man was done with his bowl of stew, he finished what was left of hers as well. You should eat more, he said. A woman big as you needs t keep her strength up. It is not far to Maidenpool, but the road is perilous these days. I know. It was on that very road that Ser Cleos Frey had died, and she and Ser Jaime had been taken by the Bloody Mummers. Jaime tried to kill me, she remembered, though he was gaunt and weak, and his wrists were chained. It had been a close thing, even so, but that was before Zollo hacked his hand off. Zollo and Rorge and Shagwell would have raped her half a hundred times if Ser Jaime had not told them she was worth her weight in sapphires. Mlady? You look sad. Are you thinking of your sister? The dwarf patted her on the hand. The Crone will light your way to her, never fear. The Maiden will keep her safe. I pray that you are right. I am. He bowed. But now I must be on my way. Ive a long way yet to go to reach Kings Landing. Do you have a horse? A mule? Two mules. The little man laughed. There they are, at the bottom of my legs. They get me where I want t go. He bowed, and waddled to the door, swaying with each step. She remained at the table after he had gone, lingering over a cup of watered wine. Brienne did not oft drink wine, but once in a great while she found it helped to settle her belly. And where do I want to go? she asked herself. To Maidenpool, to look for a man named Nimble Dick in a place called the Stinking Goose? When last she had seen Maidenpool, the town had been a desolation, its lord shut up inside his castle, its smallfolk dead or fled or hiding. She remembered burned houses and empty streets, smashed and broken gates. Feral dogs had skulked along behind their horses, whilst swollen corpses floated like huge pale water lilies atop the spring-fed pool that gave the town its name. Jaime sang Six Maids in a Pool, and laughed when I begged him to be quiet. And Randyll Tarly was at Maidenpool as well, another reason for her to avoid the town. She might do better to take ship for Gulltown or White Harbor. I could do both, though. Pay a call on the Stinking Goose and talk to this Nimble Dick, then find a ship at Maidenpool to take me farther north. The common room had begun to empty. Brienne tore a chunk of bread in half, listening to the talk at the other tables. Most of it concerned the death of Lord Tywin Lannister. Murdered by his own son, they say, a local man was saying, a cobbler by the look of him, that vile little dwarf. And the king is just a boy, said the oldest of the four septas. Who is to rule us till he comes of age? Lord Tywins brother, said a guardsman. Or that Lord Tyrell, might be. Or the Kingslayer. Not him, declared the innkeep. Not that oathbreaker. He spat into the fire. Brienne let the bread fall from her hands and wiped the crumbs off on her breeches. Shed heard enough. That night she dreamed herself in Renlys tent again. All the candles were guttering out, and the cold was thick around her. Something was moving through green darkness, something foul and horrible was hurtling toward her king. She wanted to protect him, but her limbs felt stiff and frozen, and it took more strength than she had just to lift her hand. And when the shadow sword sliced through the green steel gorget and the blood began to flow, she saw that the dying king was not Renly after all but Jaime Lannister, and she had failed him. The captains sister found her in the common room, drinking a cup of milk and honey with three raw eggs mixed in. You did beautifully, she said, when the woman showed her the freshly painted shield. It was more a picture than a proper coat of arms, and the sight of it took her back through the long years, to the cool dark of her fathers armory. She remembered how shed run her fingertips across the cracked and fading paint, over the green leaves of the tree, and along the path of the falling star. Brienne paid the captains sister half again the sum they had agreed, and slung the shield across one shoulder when she left the inn, after buying some hardbread, cheese, and flour from the cook. She left the town by the north gate, riding slowly through the fields and farms where the worst of the fighting had been, when the wolves came down on Duskendale. Lord Randyll Tarly had commanded Joffreys army, made up of westermen and stormlanders and knights from the Reach. Those men of his who had died here had been carried back inside the walls, to rest in heroes tombs beneath the septs of Duskendale. The northern dead, far more numerous, were buried in a common grave beside the sea. Above the cairn that marked their resting place, the victors had raised a rough-hewn wooden marker. HERE LIE THE WOLVES was all it said. Brienne stopped beside it and said a silent prayer for them, and for Catelyn Stark and her son Robb and all the men whod died with them as well. She remembered the night that Lady Catelyn had learned her sons were dead, the two young boys shed left at Winterfell to keep them safe. Brienne had known that something was terribly amiss. She had asked her if there had been news of her sons. I have no sons but Robb, Lady Catelyn had replied. She had sounded as if a knife were twisting her belly. Brienne had reached across the table to give her comfort, but she stopped before her fingers brushed the older womans, for fear that she would flinch away. Lady Catelyn had turned over her hands, to show Brienne the scars on her palms and fingers where a knife once bit deep into her flesh. Then she had begun to talk about her daughters. Sansa was a little lady, she had said, always courteous and eager to please. She loved tales of knightly valor. She will grow into a woman far more beautiful than I, you can see that. I would often brush her hair myself. She had auburn hair, thick and soft the red in it would shine like copper in the light of the torches. She had spoken of Arya too, her younger daughter, but Arya was lost, most likely dead by now. Sansa, though I will find her, my lady, Brienne swore to Lady Catelyns restless shade. I will never stop looking. I will give up my life if need be, give up my honor, give up all my dreams, but I will find her. Beyond the battleground the road ran beside the shore, between the surging grey-green sea and a line of low limestone hills. Brienne was not the only traveler on the road. There were fishing villages up along the coast for many leagues, and the fisherfolk used this road to take their fish to market. She rode past a fishwife and her daughters, walking home with empty baskets on their shoulders. In her armor, they took her for a knight until they saw her face. Then the girls whispered to one another and gave her looks. Have you seen a maid of three-and-ten along the road? she asked them. A highborn maid with blue eyes and auburn hair? Ser Shadrich had made her wary, but she had to keep on trying. She may have been traveling with a fool. But they only shook their heads and giggled at her behind their hands. In the first village she came to, barefoot boys ran along beside her horse. She had donned her helm, stung by the giggles of the fisherfolk, so they took her for a man. One boy offered to sell her clams, one offered crabs, and one offered her his sister. Brienne bought three crabs from the second boy. By the time she left the village it had begun to rain, and the wind was rising. Storm coming, she thought, glancing out to sea. The raindrops pinged against the steel of her helm, making her ears ring as she rode, but it was better than being out there in a boat. An hour farther north, the road divided at a pile of tumbled stones that marked the ruins of a small castle. The right-hand fork followed the coast, meandering up along the shore toward Crackclaw Point, a dismal land of bogs and pine barrens; the left-hand ran through hills and fields and woods to Maidenpool. The rain was falling more heavily by then. Brienne dismounted and led her mare off the road to take shelter amongst the ruins. The course of the castle walls could still be discerned amongst the brambles, weeds, and wild elms, but the stones that had made them up were strewn like a childs blocks between the roads. Part of the main keep still stood, however. Its triple towers were grey granite, like the broken walls, but their merlons were yellow sandstone. Three crowns, she realized, as she gazed at them through the rain. Three golden crowns. This had been a Hollard castle. Ser Dontos had been born here, like as not. She led her mare through the rubble to the keeps main entrance. Of the door only rusted iron hinges remained, but the roof was still sound, and it was dry within. Brienne tied her mare to a wall sconce, took off her helm, and shook out her hair. She was searching for some dry wood to light a fire when she heard the sound of another horse, coming closer. Some instinct made her step back into the shadows, where she could not be seen from the road. This was the very road where she and Ser Jaime had been captured. She did not intend to suffer that again. The rider was a small man. The Mad Mouse, she thought, at her first sight of him. Somehow hes followed me. Her hand went to her sword hilt, and she found herself wondering if Ser Shadrich would think her easy prey just because she was a woman. Lord Grandisons castellan had once made that error. Humfrey Wagstaff was his name; a proud old man of five-and-sixty, with a nose like a hawk and a spotted head. The day they were betrothed, he warned Brienne that he would expect her to be a proper woman once theyd wed. I will not have my lady wife cavorting about in mans mail. On this you shall obey me, lest I be forced to chastise you. She was sixteen and no stranger to a sword, but still shy despite her prowess in the yard. Yet somehow she had found the courage to tell Ser Humfrey that she would accept chastisement only from a man who could outfight her. The old knight purpled, but agreed to don his own armor to teach her a womans proper place. They fought with blunted tourney weapons, so Briennes mace had no spikes. She broke Ser Humfreys collarbone, two ribs, and their betrothal. He was her third prospective husband, and her last. Her father did not insist again. If it was Ser Shadrich dogging her heels, she might well have a fight on her hands. She did not intend to partner with the man or let him follow her to Sansa. He had the sort of easy arrogance that comes with skill at arms, she thought, but he was small. Ill have the reach on him, and I should be stronger too. Brienne was as strong as most knights, and her old master-at-arms used to say that she was quicker than any woman her size had any right to be. The gods had given her stamina too, which Ser Goodwin deemed a noble gift. Fighting with sword and shield was a wearisome business, and victory oft went to the man with most endurance. Ser Goodwin had taught her to fight cautiously, to conserve her strength while letting her foes spend theirs in furious attacks. Men will always underestimate you, he said, and their pride will make them want to vanquish you quickly, lest it be said that a woman tried them sorely. She had learned the truth of that once she went into the world. Even Jaime Lannister had come at her that way, in the woods by Maidenpool. If the gods were good, the Mad Mouse would make the same mistake. He may be a seasoned knight, she thought, but he is no Jaime Lannister. She slid her sword out of its scabbard. But it was not Ser Shadrichs chestnut courser that drew up where the road forked, but a broken-down old piebald rounsey with a skinny boy upon his back. When Brienne saw the horse she drew back in confusion. Only some boy, she thought, until she glimpsed the face beneath his hood. The boy in Duskendale, the one who bumped into me. Its him. The boy never gave the ruined castle a glance, but looked down one road, then the other. After a moments hesitation, he turned the rounsey toward the hills and plodded on. Brienne watched him vanish through the falling rain, and suddenly it came to her that she had seen this same boy in Rosby. He is stalking me, she realized, but thats a game that two can play. She untied her mare, climbed back into the saddle, and went after him. The boy was staring at the ground as he rode, watching the ruts in the road fill up with water. The rain muffled the sound of her approach, and no doubt his hood played a part as well. He never looked back once, until Brienne trotted up behind him and gave the rounsey a whack across the rump with the flat of her longsword. The horse reared, and the skinny boy went flying, his cloak flapping like a pair of wings. He landed in the mud and came up with dirt and dead brown grass between his teeth to find Brienne standing over him. It was the same boy, beyond a doubt. She recognized the sty. Who are you? she demanded. The boys mouth worked soundlessly. His eyes were big as eggs. Puh, was all he could manage. Puh. His chainmail byrnie made a rattling sound when he shivered. Puh. Puh. Please? said Brienne. Are you saying please? She laid the point of her sword on the apple of his throat. Please tell me who you are, and why youre following me. Not puh-puh-please. He stuck a finger in his mouth, and flicked away a clump of mud, spitting. Puh-puh-Pod. My name. Puh-puh-Podrick. Puh-Payne. Brienne lowered her sword. She felt a rush of sympathy for the boy. She remembered a day at Evenfall, and a young knight with a rose in his hand. He brought the rose to give to me. Or so her septa told her. All she had to do was welcome him to her fathers castle. He was eighteen, with long red hair that tumbled to his shoulders. She was twelve, tightly laced into a stiff new gown, its bodice bright with garnets. The two of them were of a height, but she could not look him in the eye, nor say the simple words her septa had taught her. Ser Ronnet. I welcome you to my lord fathers hall. It is good to look upon your face at last. Why are you following me? she demanded of the boy. Were you told to spy upon me? Do you belong to Varys, or the queen? No. Not neither. No one. Brienne put his age at ten, but she was terrible at judging how old a child was. She always thought they were younger than they were, perhaps because she had always been big for her age. Freakish big, Septa Roelle used to say, and mannish. This road is too dangerous for a boy alone. Not for a squire. Im his squire. The Hands squire. Lord Tywin? Brienne sheathed her blade. No. Not that Hand. The one before. His son. I fought with him in the battle. I shouted, Halfman! Halfman! The Imps squire. Brienne had not even known he had one. Tyrion Lannister was no knight. He might have been expected to have a serving boy or two to attend him, she supposed, a page and a cupbearer, someone to help dress him. But a squire? Why are you stalking after me? she said. What do you want? To find her. The boy got to his feet. His lady. Youre looking for her. Brella told me. Shes his wife. Not Brella, Lady Sansa. So I thought, if you found her His face twisted in sudden anguish. Im his squire, he repeated, as the rain ran down his face, but he left me. SANSA Once, when she was just a little girl, a wandering singer had stayed with them at Winterfell for half a year. An old man he was, with white hair and windburnt cheeks, but he sang of knights and quests and ladies fair, and Sansa had cried bitter tears when he left them, and begged her father not to let him go. The man has played us every song he knows thrice over, Lord Eddard told her gently. I cannot keep him here against his will. You need not weep, though. I promise you, other singers will come. They hadnt, though, not for a year or more. Sansa had prayed to the Seven in their sept and old gods of the heart tree, asking them to bring the old man back, or better still to send another singer, young and handsome. But the gods never answered, and the halls of Winterfell stayed silent. But that was when she was a little girl, and foolish. She was a maiden now, three-and-ten and flowered. All her nights were full of song, and by day she prayed for silence. If the Eyrie had been made like other castles, only rats and gaolers would have heard the dead man singing. Dungeon walls were thick enough to swallow songs and screams alike. But the sky cells had a wall of empty air, so every chord the dead man played flew free to echo off the stony shoulders of the Giants Lance. And the songs he chose He sang of the Dance of the Dragons, of fair Jonquil and her fool, of Jenny of Oldstones and the Prince of Dragonflies. He sang of betrayals, and murders most foul, of hanged men and bloody vengeance. He sang of grief and sadness. No matter where she went in the castle, Sansa could not escape the music. It floated up the winding tower steps, found her naked in her bath, supped with her at dusk, and stole into her bedchamber even when she latched the shutters tight. It came in on the cold thin air, and like the air, it chilled her. Though it had not snowed upon the Eyrie since the day that Lady Lysa fell, the nights had all been bitter cold. The singers voice was strong and sweet. Sansa thought he sounded better than he ever had before, his voice richer somehow, full of pain and fear and longing. She did not understand why the gods would have given such a voice to such a wicked man. He would have taken me by force on the Fingers if Petyr had not set Ser Lothor to watch over me, she had to remind herself. And he played to drown out my cries when Aunt Lysa tried to kill me. That did not make the songs any easier to hear. Please, she begged Lord Petyr, cant you make him stop? I gave the man my word, sweetling. Petyr Baelish, Lord of Harrenhal, Lord Paramount of the Trident, and Lord Protector of the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn, looked up from the letter he was writing. He had written a hundred letters since Lady Lysas fall. Sansa had seen the ravens coming and going from the rookery. Id sooner suffer his singing than listen to his sobbing. It is better that he sings, yes, but Must he play all night, my lord? Lord Robert cannot sleep. He cries for his mother. That cannot be helped, the wench is dead. Petyr shrugged. It will not be much longer. Lord Nestor is making his ascent on the morrow. Sansa had met Lord Nestor Royce once before, after Petyrs wedding to her aunt. Royce was the Keeper of the Gates of the Moon, the great castle that stood at the base of the mountain and guarded the steps up to the Eyrie. The wedding party had guested with him overnight before beginning their ascent. Lord Nestor had scarce looked at her twice, but the prospect of him coming here terrified her. He was High Steward of the Vale as well, Jon Arryns trusted liege man, and Lady Lysas. He wont you wont let Lord Nestor see Marillion, will you? Her horror must have shown on her face, since Petyr put down his quill. On the contrary. I shall insist on it. He beckoned her to take the seat beside him. We have come to an agreement, Marillion and I. Mord can be most persuasive. And if our singer disappoints us and sings a song we do not care to hear, why, you and I need only say he lies. Whom do you imagine Lord Nestor will believe? Us? Sansa wished she could be certain. Of course. Our lies will profit him. The solar was warm, the fire crackling merrily, but Sansa shivered all the same. Yes, but but what if What if Lord Nestor values honor more than profit? Petyr put his arm around her. What if it is truth he wants, and justice for his murdered lady? He smiled. I know Lord Nestor, sweetling. Do you imagine Id ever let him harm my daughter? I am not your daughter, she thought. I am Sansa Stark, Lord Eddards daughter and Lady Catelyns, the blood of Winterfell. She did not say it, though. If not for Petyr Baelish it would have been Sansa who went spinning through a cold blue sky to stony death six hundred feet below, instead of Lysa Arryn. He is so bold. Sansa wished she had his courage. She wanted to crawl back into bed and hide beneath her blanket, to sleep and sleep. She had not slept a whole night through since Lysa Arryns death. Couldnt you tell Lord Nestor that I am indisposed, or He will want to hear your account of Lysas death. My lord, if if Marillion tells what truly If he lies, you mean? Lies? Yes if he lies, if it is my tale against his, and Lord Nestor looks in my eyes and sees how scared I am A touch of fear will not be out of place, Alayne. Youve seen a fearful thing. Nestor will be moved. Petyr studied her eyes, as if seeing them for the first time. You have your mothers eyes. Honest eyes, and innocent. Blue as a sunlit sea. When you are a little older, many a man will drown in those eyes. Sansa did not know what to say to that. All you need do is tell Lord Nestor the same tale that you told Lord Robert, Petyr went on. Robert is only a sick little boy, she thought, Lord Nestor is a man grown, stern and suspicious. Robert was not strong and had to be protected, even from the truth. Some lies are love, Petyr had assured her. She reminded him of that. When we lied to Lord Robert, that was just to spare him, she said. And this lie may spare us. Else you and I must leave the Eyrie by the same door Lysa used. Petyr picked up his quill again. We shall serve him lies and Arbor gold, and hell drink them down and ask for more, I promise you. He is serving me lies as well, Sansa realized. They were comforting lies, though, and she thought them kindly meant. A lie is not so bad if it is kindly meant. If only she believed them The things her aunt had said just before she fell still troubled Sansa greatly. Ravings, Petyr called them. My wife was mad, you saw that for yourself. And so she had. All I did was build a snow castle, and she meant to push me out the Moon Door. Petyr saved me. He loved my mother well, and And her? How could she doubt it? He had saved her. He saved Alayne, his daughter, a voice within her whispered. But she was Sansa too and sometimes it seemed to her that the Lord Protector was two people as well. He was Petyr, her protector, warm and funny and gentle but he was also Littlefinger, the lord shed known at Kings Landing, smiling slyly and stroking his beard as he whispered in Queen Cerseis ear. And Littlefinger was no friend of hers. When Joff had her beaten, the Imp defended her, not Littlefinger. When the mob sought to rape her, the Hound carried her to safety, not Littlefinger. When the Lannisters wed her to Tyrion against her will, Ser Garlan the Gallant gave her comfort, not Littlefinger. Littlefinger never lifted so much as his little finger for her. Except to get me out. He did that for me. I thought it was Ser Dontos, my poor old drunken Florian, but it was Petyr all the while. Littlefinger was only a mask he had to wear. Only sometimes Sansa found it hard to tell where the man ended and the mask began. Littlefinger and Lord Petyr looked so very much alike. She would have fled them both, perhaps, but there was nowhere for her to go. Winterfell was burned and desolate, Bran and Rickon dead and cold. Robb had been betrayed and murdered at the Twins, along with their lady mother. Tyrion had been put to death for killing Joffrey, and if she ever returned to Kings Landing the queen would have her head as well. The aunt shed hoped would keep her safe had tried to murder her instead. Her uncle Edmure was a captive of the Freys, while her great-uncle the Blackfish was under siege at Riverrun. I have no place but here, Sansa thought miserably, and no true friend but Petyr. That night the dead man sang The Day They Hanged Black Robin, The Mothers Tears, and The Rains of Castamere. Then he stopped for a while, but just as Sansa began to drift off he started to play again. He sang Six Sorrows, Fallen Leaves, and Alysanne. Such sad songs, she thought. When she closed her eyes she could see him in his sky cell, huddled in a corner away from the cold black sky, crouched beneath a fur with his woodharp cradled against his chest. I must not pity him, she told herself. He was vain and cruel, and soon he will be dead. She could not save him. And why should she want to? Marillion tried to rape her, and Petyr had saved her life not once but twice. Some lies you have to tell. Lies had been all that kept her alive in Kings Landing. If she had not lied to Joffrey, his Kingsguard would have beat her bloody. After Alysanne, the singer stopped again, long enough for Sansa to snatch an hours rest. But as the first light of dawn was prying at her shutters, she heard the soft strains of On a Misty Morn, drifting up from below, and woke at once. That was more properly a womans song, a lament sung by a mother on the dawn after some terrible battle, as she searches amongst the dead for the body of her only son. The mother sings her grief for her dead son, Sansa thought, but Marillion grieves for his fingers, for his eyes. The words rose like arrows and pierced her in the darkness. Oh, have you seen my boy, good ser? His hair is chestnut brown He promised hed come back to me Our homes in Wendish Town. Sansa covered her ears with a goose down pillow to shut out the rest of it, but it was no good. Day had come and she had woken, and Lord Nestor Royce was coming up the mountain. The High Steward and his party reached the Eyrie in the late afternoon, with the valley gold and red beneath them and the wind rising. He brought his son Ser Albar, along with a dozen knights and a score of men-at-arms. So many strangers. Sansa looked at their faces anxiously, wondering if they were friends or foes. Petyr welcomed his visitors in a black velvet doublet with grey sleeves that matched his woolen breeches and lent a certain darkness to his grey-green eyes. Maester Colemon stood beside him, his chain of many metals hanging loose about his long, skinny neck. Although the maester was much the taller of the two men, it was the Lord Protector who drew the eye. He had put away his smiles for the day, it seemed. He listened solemnly as Royce introduced the knights who had accompanied him, then said, My lords are welcome here. You know our Maester Colemon, of course. Lord Nestor, you will recall Alayne, my natural daughter? To be sure. Lord Nestor Royce was a bullnecked, barrel-chested, balding man with a grey-shot beard and a stern look. He inclined his head a whole half inch in greeting. Sansa curtsied, too frightened to speak for fear she might misspeak. Petyr drew her to her feet. Sweetling, be a good girl and bring Lord Robert to the High Hall to receive his guests. Yes, Father. Her voice sounded thin and strained. A liars voice, she thought as she hurried up the steps and across the gallery to the Moon Tower. A guilty voice. Gretchel and Maddy were helping Robert Arryn squirm into his breeches when Sansa stepped into his bedchamber. The Lord of the Eyrie had been crying again. His eyes were red and raw, his lashes crusty, his nose swollen and runny. A trail of snot glistened underneath one nostril, and his lower lip was bloody where hed bitten it. Lord Nestor must not see him like this, Sansa thought, despairing. Gretchel, fetch me the washbasin. She took the boy by the hand and drew him to the bed. Did my Sweetrobin sleep well last night? No. He sniffed. I never slept one bit, Alayne. He was singing again, and my door was locked. I called for them to let me out, but no one ever came. Someone locked me in my room. That was wicked of them. Dipping a soft cloth into the warm water, she began to clean his face gently, oh so gently. If you scrubbed Robert too briskly, he might begin to shake. The boy was frail, and terribly small for his age. He was eight, but Sansa had known bigger five-year-olds. Roberts lip quivered. I was going to come sleep with you. I know you were. Sweetrobin had been accustomed to crawling in beside his mother, until she wed Lord Petyr. Since Lady Lysas death he had taken to wandering the Eyrie in quest of other beds. The one he liked best was Sansas which was why she had asked Ser Lothor Brune to lock his door last night. She would not have minded if he only slept, but he was always trying to nuzzle at her breasts, and when he had his shaking spells he often wet the bed. Lord Nestor Royce has come up from the Gates to see you. Sansa wiped beneath his nose. I dont want to see him, he said. I want a story. A story of the Winged Knight. After, Sansa said. First you must see Lord Nestor. Lord Nestor has a mole, he said, squirming. Robert was afraid of men with moles. Mommy said he was dreadful. My poor Sweetrobin. Sansa smoothed his hair back. You miss her, I know. Lord Petyr misses her too. He loved her just as you do. That was a lie, though kindly meant. The only woman Petyr ever loved was Sansas murdered mother. He had confessed as much to Lady Lysa just before he pushed her out the Moon Door. She was mad and dangerous. She murdered her own lord husband, and would have murdered me if Petyr had not come along to save me. Robert did not need to know that, though. He was only a sick little boy whod loved his mother. There, Sansa said, you look a proper lord now. Maddy, fetch his cloak. It was lambswool, soft and warm, a handsome sky-blue that set off the cream color of his tunic. She fastened it about his shoulders with a silver brooch in the shape of a crescent moon, and took him by the hand. Robert came meekly for once. The High Hall had been closed since Lady Lysas fall, and it gave Sansa a chill to enter it again. The hall was long and grand and beautiful, she supposed, but she did not like it here. It was a pale cold place at the best of times. The slender pillars looked like fingerbones, and the blue veins in the white marble brought to mind the veins in an old crones legs. Though fifty silver sconces lined the walls, less than a dozen torches had been lit, so shadows danced upon the floors and pooled in every corner. Their footsteps echoed off the marble, and Sansa could hear the wind rattling at the Moon Door. I must not look at it, she told herself, else Ill start to shake as badly as Robert. With Maddys help, she got Robert seated on his weirwood throne with a stack of pillows underneath him and sent word that his lordship would receive his guests. Two guards in sky-blue cloaks opened the doors at the lower end of the hall, and Petyr ushered them in and down the long blue carpet that ran between the rows of bone-white pillars. The boy greeted Lord Nestor with squeaky courtesy and made no mention of his mole. When the High Steward asked about his lady mother, Roberts hands began to tremble ever so slightly. Marillion hurt my mother. He threw her out the Moon Door. Did your lordship see this happen? asked Ser Marwyn Belmore, a lanky ginger-headed knight who had been Lysas captain of guards till Petyr had put Ser Lothor Brune in his place. Alayne saw it, the boy said. And my lord stepfather. Lord Nestor looked at her. Ser Albar, Ser Marwyn, Maester Colemon, all of them were looking. She was my aunt but she wanted to kill me, Sansa thought. She dragged me to the Moon Door and tried to push me out. I never wanted a kiss, I was building a castle in the snow. She hugged herself to keep from shaking. Forgive her, my lords, Petyr Baelish said softly. She still has nightmares of that day. Small wonder if she cannot bear to speak of it. He came up behind her and put his hands gently on her shoulders. I know how hard this is for you, Alayne, but our friends must hear the truth. Yes. Her throat felt so dry and tight it almost hurt to speak. I saw I was with the Lady Lysa when A tear rolled down her cheek. Thats good, a tear is good. when Marillion pushed her. And she told the tale again, hardly hearing the words as they spilled out of her. Before she was half-done Robert began to cry, the pillows shifting perilously beneath him. He killed my mother. I want him to fly! The trembling in his hands had grown worse, and his arms were shaking too. The boys head jerked and his teeth began to chatter. Fly! he shrieked. Fly, fly. His arms and legs flailed wildly. Lothor Brune strode to the dais in time to catch the boy as he slipped from his throne. Maester Colemon was just a step behind, though there was naught that he could do. Helpless as the rest, Sansa could only stand and watch as the shaking spell ran its course. One of Roberts legs kicked Ser Lothor in the face. Brune cursed, but still held on as the boy twitched and flailed and wet himself. Their visitors said not a word; Lord Nestor at least had seen these fits before. It was long moments before Roberts spasms began to subside, and seemed even longer. By the end, the little lordling was so weak he could not stand. Best take his lordship back to bed and bleed him, Lord Petyr said. Brune lifted the boy in his arms and carried him from the hall. Maester Colemon followed, grim-faced. When their footsteps died away there was no sound in the High Hall of the Eyrie. Sansa could hear the night wind moaning outside and scratching at the Moon Door. She was very cold and very tired. Must I tell the tale again? she wondered. But she must have told it well enough. Lord Nestor cleared his throat. I misliked that singer from the first, he grumbled. I urged Lady Lysa to send him away. Many a time I urged her. You always gave her good counsel, my lord, Petyr said. She took no heed of it, Royce complained. She heard me grudgingly and took no heed. My lady was too trusting for this world. Petyr spoke so tenderly that Sansa would have believed hed loved his wife. Lysa could not see the evil in men, only the good. Marillion sang sweet songs, and she mistook that for his nature. He called us pigs, Ser Albar Royce said. A blunt broad-shouldered knight who shaved his chin but cultivated thick black side-whiskers that framed his homely face like hedgerows, Ser Albar was a younger version of his father. He made a song about two pigs snuffling round a mountain, eating a falcons leavings. That was meant to be us, but when I said so he laughed at me. Why, ser, tis a song about some pigs, he said. He made mock of me as well, Ser Marwyn Belmore said. Ser Ding-Dong, he named me. When I vowed Id cut his tongue out, he ran to Lady Lysa and hid behind her skirts. As oft he did, Lord Nestor said. The man was craven, but the favor Lady Lysa showed him made him insolent. She dressed him like a lord, gave him gold rings and a moonstone belt. Even Lord Jons favorite falcon. The knights doublet showed the six white candles of Waxley. His lordship loved that bird. King Robert gave it to him. Petyr Baelish sighed. It was unseemly, he agreed, and I put an end to it. Lysa agreed to send him away. That was why she met him here, that day. I should have been with her, but I never dreamt if I had not insisted it was I who killed her. No, Sansa thought, you mustnt say that, you mustnt tell them, you mustnt. But Albar Royce was shaking his head. No, my lord, you must not blame yourself, he said. This was the singers work, his father agreed. Bring him up, Lord Petyr. Let us write an end to this sorry business. Petyr Baelish composed himself, and said, As you wish, my lord. He turned to his guardsmen and spoke a command, and the singer was fetched up from the dungeons. The gaoler Mord came with him, a monstrous man with small black eyes and a lopsided, scarred face. One ear and part of his cheek had been cleaved off in some battle, but twenty stone of pallid white flesh remained. His clothes fit poorly and had a rank, ripe smell. Marillion by contrast looked almost elegant. Someone had bathed him and dressed him in a pair of sky-blue breeches and a loose-fitting white tunic with puffed sleeves, belted with a silvery sash that had been a gift from Lady Lysa. White silk gloves covered his hands, while a white silk bandage spared the lords the sight of his eyes. Mord stood behind him with a lash. When the gaoler prodded him in the ribs, the singer went to one knee. Good lords, I beg your forgiveness. Lord Nestor scowled. You confess your crime? If I had eyes I should weep. The singers voice, so strong and sure by night, was cracked and whispery now. I loved her so, I could not bear to see her in anothers arms, to know she shared his bed. I meant no harm to my sweet lady, I swear it. I barred the door so no one could disturb us whilst I declared my passion, but Lady Lysa was so cold when she told that she was carrying Lord Petyrs child, a a madness seized me Sansa stared at his hands while he spoke. Fat Maddy claimed that Mord had taken off three of his fingers, both pinkies and a ring finger. His little fingers did appear somewhat stiffer than the others, but with those gloves it was hard to be certain. It might have been no more than a story. How would Maddy know? Lord Petyr has been kind enough to let me keep my harp, the blind singer said. My harp and my tongue so I may sing my songs. Lady Lysa dearly loved my singing Take this creature away, or Im like to kill him myself, Lord Nestor growled. It sickens me to look at him. Mord, take him back to his sky cell, said Petyr. Yes, mlord. Mord grabbed Marillion roughly by the collar. No more mouth. When he spoke, Sansa saw to her astonishment that the gaolers teeth were made of gold. They watched as he half dragged half shoved the singer toward the doors. The man must die, Ser Marywn Belmore declared when they were gone. He should have followed Lady Lysa out the Moon Door. Without his tongue, Ser Albar Royce added. Without that lying, mocking tongue. I have been too gentle with him, I know, Petyr Baelish said in an apologetic tone. If truth be told, I pity him. He killed for love. For love or hate, said Belmore, he must die. Soon enough, Lord Nestor said gruffly. No man lingers long in the sky cells. The blue will call to him. It may, said Petyr Baelish, but whether Marillion will answer, only he can say. He gestured, and his guardsmen opened the doors at the far end of the hall. Sers, I know you must be weary after your ascent. Rooms have been prepared for all of you to spend the night, and food and wine await you in the Lower Hall. Oswell, show them the way, and see that they have all they need. He turned to Nestor Royce. My lord, will you join me in the solar for a cup of wine? Alayne, sweetling, come pour for us. A low fire burned in the solar, where a flagon of wine awaited them. Arbor gold. Sansa filled Lord Nestors cup whilst Petyr prodded at the logs with an iron poker. Lord Nestor seated himself beside the fire. This will not be the end of it, he said to Petyr, as if Sansa were not there. My cousin means to question the singer himself. Bronze Yohn mistrusts me. Petyr pushed a log aside. He means to come in force. Symond Templeton will join him, do not doubt it. And Lady Waynwood too, I fear. And Lord Belmore, Young Lord Hunter, Horton Redfort. They will bring Strong Sam Stone, the Tolletts, the Shetts, the Coldwaters, some Corbrays. You are well-informed. Which Corbrays? Not Lord Lyonel? No, his brother. Ser Lyn mislikes me, for some reason. Lyn Corbray is a dangerous man, Lord Nestor said doggedly. What do you intend to do? What can I do but make them welcome if they come? Petyr gave the flames another stir and set the poker down. My cousin means to remove you as Lord Protector. If so, I cannot stop him. I keep a garrison of twenty men. Lord Royce and his friends can raise twenty thousand. Petyr went to the oaken chest that sat beneath the window. Bronze Yohn will do what he will do, he said, kneeling. He opened the chest, drew out a roll of parchment, and brought it to Lord Nestor. My lord. This is a token of the love my lady bore you. Sansa watched Royce unroll the parchment. This this is unexpected, my lord. She was startled to see tears in his eyes. Unexpected, but not undeserved. My lady valued you above all her other bannermen. You were her rock, she told me. Her rock. Lord Nestor reddened. She said that? Often. And thisPetyr gestured at the parchmentis the proof of it. That that is good to know. Jon Arryn valued my service, I know, but Lady Lysa she scorned me when I came to court her, and I feared Lord Nestor furrowed his brow. It bears the Arryn seal, I see, but the signature Lysa was murdered before the document could be presented for her signature, so I signed as Lord Protector. I knew that would have been her wish. I see. Lord Nestor rolled the parchment. You are dutiful, my lord. Aye, and not without courage. Some will call this grant unseemly, and fault you for making it. The Keepers post has never been hereditary. The Arryns raised the Gates, in the days when they still wore the Falcon Crown and ruled the Vale as kings. The Eyrie was their summer seat, but when the snows began to fall the court would make its descent. Some would say the Gates were as royal as the Eyrie. There has been no king in the Vale for three hundred years, Petyr Baelish pointed out. The dragons came, Lord Nestor agreed. But even after, the Gates remained an Arryn castle. Jon Arryn himself was Keeper of the Gates whilst his father lived. After his ascent, he named his brother Ronnel to the honor, and later his cousin Denys. Lord Robert has no brothers, and only distant cousins. True. Lord Nestor clutched the parchment tightly. I will not say I had not hoped for this. Whilst Lord Jon ruled the realm as Hand, it fell to me to rule the Vale for him. I did all that he required of me and asked nothing for myself. But by the gods, I earned this! You did, said Petyr, and Lord Robert sleeps more easily knowing that you are always there, a staunch friend at the foot of his mountain. He raised a cup. So a toast, my lord. To House Royce, Keepers of the Gates of the Moon now and forever. Now and forever, aye! The silver cups crashed together. Later, much later, after the flagon of Arbor gold was dry, Lord Nestor took his leave to rejoin his company of knights. Sansa was asleep on her feet by then, wanting only to crawl off to her bed, but Petyr caught her by the wrist. You see the wonders that can be worked with lies and Arbor gold? Why did she feel like weeping? It was good that Nestor Royce was with them. Were they all lies? Not all. Lysa often called Lord Nestor a rock, though I do not think she meant it as a compliment. She called his son a clod. She knew Lord Nestor dreamed of holding the Gates in his own right, a lord in truth as well as name, but Lysa dreamed of other sons and meant the castle to go to Roberts little brother. He stood. Do you understand what happened here, Alayne? Sansa hesitated a moment. You gave Lord Nestor the Gates of the Moon to be certain of his support. I did, Petyr admitted, but our rock is a Royce, which is to say he is overproud and prickly. Had I asked him his price, he would have swelled up like an angry toad at the slight upon his honor. But this way the man is not utterly stupid, but the lies I served him were sweeter than the truth. He wants to believe that Lysa valued him above her other bannermen. One of those others is Bronze Yohn, after all, and Nestor is very much aware that he was born of the lesser branch of House Royce. He wants more for his son. Men of honor will do things for their children that they would never consider doing for themselves. She nodded. The signature you might have had Lord Robert put his hand and seal to it, but instead I signed myself, as Lord Protector. Why? So if you are removed, or or killed Lord Nestors claim to the Gates will suddenly be called into question. I promise you, that is not lost on him. It was clever of you to see it. Though no more than Id expect of mine own daughter. Thank you. She felt absurdly proud for puzzling it out, but confused as well. Im not, though. Your daughter. Not truly. I mean, I pretend to be Alayne, but you know Littlefinger put a finger to her lips. I know what I know, and so do you. Some things are best left unsaid, sweetling. Even when we are alone? Especially when we are alone. Elsewise a day will come when a servant walks into a room unannounced, or a guardsman at the door chances to hear something he should not. Do you want more blood on your pretty little hands, my darling? Marillions face seemed to float before her, the bandage pale across his eyes. Behind him she could see Ser Dontos, the crossbow bolts still in him. No, Sansa said. Please. I am tempted to say this is no game we play, daughter, but of course it is. The game of thrones. I never asked to play. The game was too dangerous. One slip and I am dead. Oswell my lord, Oswell rowed me from Kings Landing the night that I escaped. He must know who I am. If hes half as clever as a sheep pellet, you would think so. Ser Lothor knows as well. But Oswell has been in my service a long time, and Brune is close-mouthed by nature. Kettleblack watches Brune for me, and Brune watches Kettleblack. Trust no one, I once told Eddard Stark, but he would not listen. You are Alayne, and you must be Alayne all the time. He put two fingers on her left breast. Even here. In your heart. Can you do that? Can you be my daughter in your heart? I I do not know, my lord, she almost said, but that was not what he wanted to hear. Lies and Arbor gold, she thought. I am Alayne, Father. Who else would I be? Lord Littlefinger kissed her cheek. With my wits and Cats beauty, the world will be yours, sweetling. Now off to bed. Gretchel had laid a fire in her hearth and plumped her featherbed. Sansa undressed and slipped beneath the blankets. He will not sing tonight, she prayed, not with Lord Nestor and the others in the castle. He would not dare. She closed her eyes. Sometime during the night she woke, as little Robert climbed up into her bed. I forgot to tell Lothor to lock him in again, she realized. There was nothing to be done for it, so she put her arm around him. Sweetrobin? You can stay, but try not to squirm around. Just close your eyes and sleep, little one. I will. He cuddled close and laid his head between her breasts. Alayne? Are you my mother now? I suppose I am, she said. If a lie was kindly meant, there was no harm in it. THE KRAKENS DAUGHTER The hall was loud with drunken Harlaws, distant cousins all. Each lord had hung his banner behind the benches where his men were seated. Too few, thought Asha Greyjoy, looking down from the gallery, too few by far. The benches were three-quarters empty. Qarl the Maid had said as much, when the Black Wind was approaching from the sea. He had counted the longships moored beneath her uncles castle, and his mouth had tightened. They have not come, he observed, or not enough of them. He was not wrong, but Asha could not agree with him, out where her crew might hear. She did not doubt their devotion, but even ironborn will hesitate to give their lives for a cause thats plainly lost. Do I have so few friends as this? Amongst the banners, she saw the silver fish of Botley, the stone tree of the Stonetrees, the black leviathan of Volmark, the nooses of the Myres. The rest were Harlaw scythes. Boremund placed his upon a pale blue field, Hothos was girdled within an embattled border, and the Knight had quartered his with the gaudy peacock of his mothers House. Even Sigfryd Silverhair showed two scythes counterchanged on a field divided bendwise. Only the Lord Harlaw displayed the silver scythe plain upon a night-black field, as it had flown in the dawn of days: Rodrik, called the Reader, Lord of the Ten Towers, Lord of Harlaw, Harlaw of Harlaw her favorite uncle. Lord Rodriks high seat was vacant. Two scythes of beaten silver crossed above it, so huge that even a giant would have difficulty wielding them, but beneath were only empty cushions. Asha was not surprised. The feast was long concluded. Only bones and greasy platters remained upon the trestle tables. The rest were drinking, and her uncle Rodrik had never been partial to the company of quarrelsome drunks. She turned to Three-Tooth, an old woman of fearful age who had been her uncles steward since she was known as Twelve-Tooth. My uncle is with his books? Aye, where else? The woman was so old that a septon had once said she must have nursed the Crone. That was when the Faith was still tolerated on the isles. Lord Rodrik had kept septons at Ten Towers, not for his souls sake but for his books. With the books, and Botley. He was with him too. Botleys standard hung in the hall, a shoal of silver fish upon a pale green field, though Asha had not seen his Swiftfin amongst the other longships. I had heard my nuncle Crows Eye had old Sawane Botley drowned. Lord Tristifer Botley, this one is. Tris. She wondered what had happened to Sawanes elder son, Harren. I will find out soon enough, no doubt. This should be awkward. She had not seen Tris Botley since no, she ought not dwell on it. And my lady mother? Abed, said Three-Tooth, in the Widows Tower. Aye, where else? The widow the tower was named after was her aunt. Lady Gwynesse had come home to mourn after her husband had died off Fair Isle during Balon Greyjoys first rebellion. I will only stay until my grief has passed, she had told her brother, famously, though by rights Ten Towers should be mine, for I am seven years your elder. Long years had passed since then, but still the widow lingered, grieving, and muttering from time to time that the castle should be hers. And now Lord Rodrik has a second half-mad widowed sister beneath his roof, Asha reflected. Small wonder if he seeks solace in his books. Even now, it was hard to credit that frail, sickly Lady Alannys had outlived her husband Lord Balon, who had seemed so hard and strong. When Asha had sailed away to war, she had done so with a heavy heart, fearing that her mother might well die before she could return. Not once had she thought that her father might perish instead. The Drowned God plays savage japes upon us all, but men are crueler still. A sudden storm and a broken rope had sent Balon Greyjoy to his death. Or so they claim. Asha had last seen her mother when she stopped at Ten Towers to take on fresh water, on her way north to strike at Deepwood Motte. Alannys Harlaw never had the sort of beauty the singers cherished, but her daughter had loved her fierce strong face and the laughter in her eyes. On that last visit, though, she had found Lady Alannys in a window seat huddled beneath a pile of furs, staring out across the sea. Is this my mother, or her ghost? she remembered thinking as shed kissed her cheek. Her mothers skin had been parchment thin, her long hair white. Some pride remained in the way she held her head, but her eyes were dim and cloudy, and her mouth had trembled when she asked after Theon. Did you bring my baby boy? she had asked. Theon had been ten years old when he was carried off to Winterfell a hostage, and so far as Lady Alannys was concerned he would always be ten years old, it seemed. Theon could not come, Asha had to tell her. Father sent him reaving along the Stony Shore. Lady Alannys had naught to say to that. She only nodded slowly, yet it was plain to see how deep her daughters words had cut her. And now I must tell her that Theon is dead, and drive yet another dagger through her heart. There were two knives buried there already. On the blades were writ the words Rodrik and Maron, and many a time they twisted cruelly in the night. I will see her on the morrow, Asha vowed to herself. Her journey had been long and wearisome, she could not face her mother now. I must speak with Lord Rodrik, she told Three-Tooth. See to my crew, once theyre done unloading Black Wind. Theyll bring captives. I want them to have warm beds and a hot meal. Theres cold beef in the kitchens. And mustard in a big stone jar, from Oldtown. The thought of that mustard made the old woman smile. A single long brown tooth poked from her gums. That will not serve. We had a rough crossing. I want something hot in their bellies. Asha hooked a thumb through the studded belt about her hips. Lady Glover and the children should not want for wood nor warmth. Put them in some tower, not the dungeons. The babe is sick. Babes are often sick. Most die, and folks are sorry. I shall ask my lord where to put these wolf folk. She caught the womans nose between thumb and forefinger and pinched. You will do as I say. And if this babe dies, no one will be sorrier than you. Three-Tooth squealed and promised to obey, till Asha let her loose and went to find her uncle. It was good to walk these halls again. Ten Towers had always felt like home to Asha, more so than Pyke. Not one castle, ten castles squashed together, she had thought, the first time she had seen it. She remembered breathless races up and down the steps and along wallwalks and covered bridges, fishing off the Long Stone Quay, days and nights lost amongst her uncles wealth of books. His grandfathers grandfather had raised the castle, the newest on the isles. Lord Theomore Harlaw had lost three sons in the cradle and laid the blame upon the flooded cellars, damp stones, and festering nitre of ancient Harlaw Hall. Ten Towers was airier, more comfortable, better sited but Lord Theomore was a changeable man, as any of his wives might have testified. Hed had six of those, as dissimilar as his ten towers. The Book Tower was the fattest of the ten, octagonal in shape and made with great blocks of hewn stone. The stair was built within the thickness of the walls. Asha climbed quickly, to the fifth story and the room where her uncle read. Not that there are any rooms where he does not read. Lord Rodrik was seldom seen without a book in hand, be it in the privy, on the deck of his Sea Song, or whilst holding audience. Asha had oft seen him reading on his high seat beneath the silver scythes. He would listen to each case as it was laid before him, pronounce his judgment and read a bit whilst his captain-of-guards went to bring in the next supplicant. She found him hunched over a table by a window, surrounded by parchment scrolls that might have come from Valyria before its Doom, and heavy leather-bound books with bronze-and-iron hasps. Beeswax candles as thick and tall as a mans arm burned on either side of where he sat, on ornate iron holders. Lord Rodrik Harlaw was neither fat nor slim; neither tall nor short; neither ugly nor handsome. His hair was brown, as were his eyes, though the short, neat beard he favored had gone grey. All in all, he was an ordinary man, distinguished only by his love of written words, which so many ironborn found unmanly and perverse. Nuncle. She closed the door behind her. What reading was so urgent that you leave your guests without a host? Archmaester Marwyns Book of Lost Books. He lifted his gaze from the page to study her. Hotho brought me a copy from Oldtown. He has a daughter he would have me wed. Lord Rodrik tapped the book with a long nail. See here? Marwyn claims to have found three pages of Signs and Portents, visions written down by the maiden daughter of Aenar Targaryen before the Doom came to Valyria. Does Lanny know that you are here? Not as yet. Lanny was his pet name for her mother; only the Reader called her that. Let her rest. Asha moved a stack of books off a stool and seated herself. Three-Tooth seems to have lost two more of her teeth. Do you call her One-Tooth now? I seldom call her at all. The woman frightens me. What hour is it? Lord Rodrik glanced out the window, at the moonlit sea. Dark, so soon? I had not noticed. You come late. We looked for you some days ago. The winds were against us, and I had captives to concern me. Robett Glovers wife and children. The youngest is still at the breast, and Lady Glovers milk dried up during our crossing. I had no choice but to beach Black Wind upon the Stony Shore and send my men out to find a wet nurse. They found a goat instead. The girl does not thrive. Is there a nursing mother in the village? Deepwood is important to my plans. Your plans must change. You come too late. Late and hungry. She stretched her long legs out beneath the table and turned the pages of the nearest book, a septons discourse on Maegor the Cruels war against the Poor Fellows. Oh, and thirsty too. A horn of ale would go down well, Nuncle. Lord Rodrik pursed his lips. You know I do not permit food nor drink in my library. The books might suffer harm. Asha laughed. Her uncle frowned. You do like to provoke me. Oh, dont look so aggrieved. I have never met a man I didnt provoke, you should know that well enough by now. But enough of me. You are well? He shrugged. Well enough. My eyes grow weaker. I have sent to Myr for a lens to help me read. And how fares my aunt? Lord Rodrik sighed. Still seven years my elder, and convinced Ten Towers should be hers. Gwynesse grows forgetful, but that she does not forget. She mourns for her dead husband as deeply as she did the day he died, though she cannot always recall his name. I am not certain she ever knew his name. Asha closed the septons book with a thump. Was my father murdered? So your mother believes. There were times when she would gladly have murdered him herself, she thought. And what does my nuncle believe? Balon fell to his death when a rope bridge broke beneath him. A storm was rising, and the bridge was swaying and twisting with each gust of wind. Rodrik shrugged. Or so we are told. Your mother had a bird from Maester Wendamyr. Asha slid her dirk out of its sheath and began to clean the dirt from beneath her fingernails. Three years away, and the Crows Eye returns the very day my father dies. The day after, we had heard. Silence was still out to sea when Balon died, or so it is claimed. Even so, I will agree that Eurons return was timely, shall we say? That is not how I would say it. Asha slammed the point of the dirk into the table. Where are my ships? I counted twoscore longships moored below, not near enough to throw the Crows Eye off my fathers chair. I sent the summons. In your name, for the love I bear you and your mother. House Harlaw has gathered. Stonetree as well, and Volmark. Some Myres All from the isle of Harlaw one isle out of seven. I saw one lonely Botley banner in the hall, from Pyke. Where are the ships from Saltcliffe, from Orkwood, from the Wyks? Baelor Blacktyde came from Blacktyde to consult with me, and just as soon set sail again. Lord Rodrik closed The Book of Lost Books. He is on Old Wyk by now. Old Wyk? Asha had feared he was about to say that they all had gone to Pyke, to do homage to the Crows Eye. Why Old Wyk? I thought you would have heard. Aeron Damphair has called a kingsmoot. Asha threw back her head and laughed. The Drowned God must have shoved a pricklefish up Uncle Aerons arse. A kingsmoot? Is this some jape, or does he mean it truly? The Damphair has not japed since he was drowned. And the other priests have taken up the call. Blind Beron Blacktyde, Tarle the Thrice-Drowned even the Old Grey Gull has left that rock he lives on to preach this kingsmoot all across Harlaw. The captains are gathering on Old Wyk as we speak. Asha was astonished. Has the Crows Eye agreed to attend this holy farce and abide by its decision? The Crows Eye does not confide in me. Since he summoned me to Pyke to do him homage, I have had no word from Euron. A kingsmoot. This is something new or rather, something very old. And my uncle Victarion? What does he make of the Damphairs notion? Victarion was sent word of your fathers death. And of this kingsmoot too, I do not doubt. Beyond that, I cannot say. Better a kingsmoot than a war. I believe Ill kiss the Damphairs smelly feet and pluck the seaweed from out between his toes. Asha wrenched loose her dirk and sheathed it once again. A bloody kingsmoot! On Old Wyk, confirmed Lord Rodrik. Though I pray it is not bloody. I have been consulting Haeregs History of the Ironborn. When last the salt kings and the rock kings met in kingsmoot, Urron of Orkmont let his axemen loose among them, and Naggas ribs turned red with gore. House Greyiron ruled unchosen for a thousand years from that dark day, until the Andals came. You must lend me Haeregs book, Nuncle. She would need to learn all she could of kingsmoots before she reached Old Wyk. You may read it here. It is old and fragile. He studied her, frowning. Archmaester Rigney once wrote that history is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging. What has happened before will perforce happen again, he said. I think of that whenever I contemplate the Crows Eye. Euron Greyjoy sounds queerly like Urron Greyiron to these old ears. I shall not go to Old Wyk. Nor should you. Asha smiled. And miss the first kingsmoot called in how long has it been, Nuncle? Four thousand years, if Haereg can be believed. Half that, if you accept Maester Denestans arguments in Questions. Going to Old Wyk serves no purpose. This dream of kingship is a madness in our blood. I told your father so the first time he rose, and it is more true now than it was then. Its land we need, not crowns. With Stannis Baratheon and Tywin Lannister contending for the Iron Throne, we have a rare chance to improve our lot. Let us take one side or the other, help them to victory with our fleets, and claim the lands we need from a grateful king. That might be worth some thought, once I sit the Seastone Chair, said Asha. Her uncle sighed. You will not want to hear this, Asha, but you will not be chosen. No woman has ever ruled the ironborn. Gwynesse is seven years my elder, but when our father died the Ten Towers came to me. It will be the same for you. You are Balons daughter, not his son. And you have three uncles. Four. Three kraken uncles. I do not count. You do with me. So long as I have my nuncle of Ten Towers, I have Harlaw. Harlaw was not the largest of the Iron Islands, but it was the richest and most populous, and Lord Rodriks power was not to be despised. On Harlaw, Harlaw had no rival. The Volmarks and Stonetrees had large holdings on the isle and boasted famous captains and fierce warriors of their own, but even the fiercest bent beneath the scythe. The Kennings and the Myres, once bitter foes, had long ago been beaten down to vassals. My cousins do me fealty, and in war I should command their swords and sails. In kingsmoot, though Lord Rodrik shook his head. Beneath the bones of Nagga every captain stands as equal. Some may shout your name, I do not doubt it. But not enough. And when the shouts ring out for Victarion or the Crows Eye, some of those now drinking in my hall will join the rest. I say again, do not sail into this storm. Your fight is hopeless. No fight is hopeless till it has been fought. I have the best claim. I am the heir of Balons body. You are still a willful child. Think of your poor mother. You are all that Lanny has left to her. I will put a torch to Black Wind if need be, to keep you here. What, and make me swim to Old Wyk? A long cold swim, for a crown you cannot keep. Your father had more courage than sense. The Old Way served the isles well when we were one small kingdom amongst many, but Aegons Conquest put an end to that. Balon refused to see what was plain before him. The Old Way died with Black Harren and his sons. I know that. Asha had loved her father, but she did not delude herself. Balon had been blind in some respects. A brave man but a bad lord. Does that mean we must live and die as thralls to the Iron Throne? If there are rocks to starboard and a storm to port, a wise captain steers a third course. Show me this third course. I shall at my queensmoot. Nuncle, how can you even think of not attending? This will be history, alive I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood. Do you want to die old and craven in your bed? How else? Though not till Im done reading. Lord Rodrik went to the window. You have not asked about your lady mother. I was afraid. How is she? Stronger. She may yet outlive us all. She will certainly outlive you, if you persist in this folly. She eats more than she did when she first came here, and oft sleeps through the night. Good. In her final years on Pyke, Lady Alannys could not sleep. She would wander the halls at night with a candle, looking for her sons. Maron? she would call shrilly. Rodrik, where are you? Theon, my baby, come to Mother. Many a time Asha had watched the maester draw splinters from her mothers heels of a morning, after she had crossed the swaying plank bridge to the Sea Tower on bare feet. I will see her in the morning. She will ask for word of Theon. The Prince of Winterfell. What have you told her? Little and less. There was naught to tell. He hesitated. You are certain that he is dead? I am certain of nothing. You found a body? We found parts of many bodies. The wolves were there before us the four-legged sort, but they showed scant reverence for their two-legged kin. The bones of the slain were scattered, cracked open for their marrow. I confess, it was hard to know what happened there. It seemed as though the northmen fought amongst themselves. Crows will fight over a dead mans flesh and kill each other for his eyes. Lord Rodrik stared across the sea, watching the play of moonlight on the waves. We had one king, then five. Now all I see are crows, squabbling over the corpse of Westeros. He fastened the shutters. Do not go to Old Wyk, Asha. Stay with your mother. We shall not have her long, I fear. Asha shifted in her seat. My mother raised me to be bold. If I do not go, I will spend the rest of my life wondering what might have happened if I had. If you do go, the rest of your life may be too short for wondering. Better that than fill the remainder of my days complaining that the Seastone Chair by rights was mine. I am no Gwynesse. That made him wince. Asha, my two tall sons fed the crabs of Fair Isle. I am not like to wed again. Stay, and I shall name you heir to the Ten Towers. Be content with that. Ten Towers? Would that I could. Your cousins will not like that. The Knight, old Sigfryd, Hotho Humpback They have lands and seats of their own. True enough. Damp, decaying Harlaw Hall belonged to old Sigfryd Harlaw the Silverhair; humpbacked Hotho Harlaw had his seat at the Tower of Glimmering, on a crag above the western coast. The Knight, Ser Harras Harlaw, kept court at Grey Garden; Boremund the Blue ruled atop Harridan Hill. But each was subject to Lord Rodrik. Boremund has three sons, Sigfryd Silverhair has grandsons, and Hotho has ambitions, Asha said. They all mean to follow you, even Sigfryd. That one intends to live forever. The Knight will be the Lord of Harlaw after me, her uncle said, but he can rule from Grey Garden as easily as from here. Do fealty to him for the castle and Ser Harras will protect you. I can protect myself. Nuncle, I am a kraken. Asha, of House Greyjoy. She pushed to her feet. Its my fathers seat I want, not yours. Those scythes of yours look perilous. One could fall and slice my head off. No, Ill sit the Seastone Chair. Then you are just another crow, screaming for carrion. Rodrik sat again behind his table. Go. I wish to return to Archmaester Marwyn and his search. Let me know if he should find another page. Her uncle was her uncle. He would never change. But he will come to Old Wyk, no matter what he says. By now, her crew would be eating in the hall. Asha knew she ought to join them, to speak of this gathering on Old Wyk and what it meant for them. Her own men would be solidly behind her, but she would need the rest as well, her Harlaw cousins, the Volmarks, and the Stonetrees. Those are the ones I must win. Her victory at Deepwood Motte would serve her in good stead, once her men began to boast of it, as she knew they would. The crew of her Black Wind took a perverse pride in the deeds of their woman captain. Half of them loved her like a daughter, and other half wanted to spread her legs, but either sort would die for her. And I for them, she was thinking as she shouldered through the door at the bottom of the steps, into the moonlit yard. Asha? A shadow stepped out from behind the well. Her hand went to her dirk at once until the moonlight transformed the dark shape into a man in a sealskin cloak. Another ghost. Tris. Id thought to find you in the hall. I wanted to see you. What part of me, I wonder? She grinned. Well, here I stand, all grown up. Look all you like. A woman. He moved closer. And beautiful. Tristifer Botley had filled out since last shed seen him, but he had the same unruly hair that she remembered, and eyes as large and trusting as a seals. Sweet eyes, truly. That was the trouble with poor Tristifer; he was too sweet for the Iron Islands. His face has grown comely, she thought. As a boy Tris had been much troubled by pimples. Asha had suffered the same affliction; perhaps that had been what drew them together. I was sorry to hear about your father, she told him. I grieve for yours. Why? Asha almost asked. It was Balon whod sent the boy away from Pyke, to be a ward of Baelor Blacktydes. Is it true you are Lord Botley now? In name, at least. Harren died at Moat Cailin. One of the bog devils shot him with a poisoned arrow. But I am the lord of nothing. When my father denied his claim to the Seastone Chair, the Crows Eye drowned him and made my uncles swear him fealty. Even after that he gave half my fathers lands to Iron Holt. Lord Wynch was the first man to bend his knee and call him king. House Wynch was strong on Pyke, but Asha took care not to let her dismay show. Wynch never had your fathers courage. Your uncle bought him, Tris said. The Silence returned with holds full of treasure. Plate and pearls, emeralds and rubies, sapphires big as eggs, bags of coin so heavy that no man can lift them the Crows Eye has been buying friends at every hand. My uncle Germund calls himself Lord Botley now, and rules in Lordsport as your uncles man. You are the rightful Lord Botley, she assured him. Once I hold the Seastone Chair, your fathers lands shall be restored. If you like. Its nought to me. You look so lovely in the moonlight, Asha. A woman grown now, but I remember when you were a skinny girl with a face all full of pimples. Why must they always mention the pimples? I remember that as well. Though not as fondly as you do. Of the five boys her mother had brought to Pyke to foster after Ned Stark had taken her last living son as hostage, Tris had been closest to Asha in age. He had not been the first boy she had ever kissed, but he was the first to undo the laces of her jerkin and slip a sweaty hand beneath to feel her budding breasts. I would have let him feel more than that if hed been bold enough. Her first flowering had come upon her during the war and wakened her desire, but even before that Asha had been curious. He was there, he was mine own age, and he was willing, that was all it was that, and the moon blood. Even so, shed called it love, till Tris began to go on about the children she would bear him; a dozen sons at least, and oh, some daughters too. I dont want to have a dozen sons, she had told him, appalled. I want to have adventures. Not long after, Maester Qalen found them at their play, and young Tristifer Botley was sent away to Blacktyde. I wrote you letters, he said, but Maester Joseran would not send them. Once I gave a stag to an oarsman on a trader bound for Lordsport, who promised to put my letter in your hands. Your oarsman winkled you and threw your letter in the sea. I feared as much. They never gave me your letters either. I wrote none. In truth, she had been relieved when Tris was sent away. By then his fumblings had begun to bore her. That was not something he would care to hear, however. Aeron Damphair has called a kingsmoot. Will you come and speak for me? I will go anywhere with you, but Lord Blacktyde says this kingsmoot is a dangerous folly. He thinks your uncle will descend on them and kill them all, as Urron did. Hes mad enough. He lacks the strength. You do not know his strength. Hes been gathering men on Pyke. Orkwood of Orkmont brought him twenty longships, and Pinchface Jon Myre a dozen. Left-Hand Lucas Codd is with them. And Harren Half-Hoare, the Red Oarsman, Kemmett Pyke the Bastard, Rodrik Freeborn, Torwold Browntooth Men of small account. Asha knew them, every one. The sons of salt wives, the grandsons of thralls. The Codds do you know their words? Though All Men Do Despise Us, Tris said, but if they catch you in those nets of theirs, youll be as dead as if they had been dragonlords. And theres worse. The Crows Eye brought back monsters from the east aye, and wizards too. Nuncle always had a fondness for freaks and fools, said Asha. My father used to fight with him about it. Let the wizards call upon their gods. The Damphair will call on ours, and drown them. Will I have your voice at the queensmoot, Tris? You shall have all of me. I am your man, forever. Asha, I would wed you. Your lady mother has given her consent. She stifled a groan. You might have asked me first though you might not have liked the answer half so well. I am no second son now, he went on. I am the rightful Lord Botley, as you said yourself. And you are What I am will be settled on Old Wyk. Tris, we are no longer children fumbling at each other and trying to see what fits where. You think you want to wed me, but you dont. I do. All I dream about is you. Asha, I swear upon the bones of Nagga, I have never touched another woman. Go touch one or two, or ten. I have touched more men than I can count. Some with my lips, more with my axe. She had surrendered her virtue at six-and-ten, to a beautiful blond-haired sailor on a trading galley up from Lys. He only knew six words of the Common Tongue, but fuck was one of them the very word shed hoped to hear. Afterward, Asha had the sense to find a woods witch, who showed her how to brew moon tea to keep her belly flat. Botley blinked, as if he did not quite understand what she had said. You I thought you would wait. Why He rubbed his mouth. Asha, were you forced? So forced I tore his tunic. You do not want to wed me, take my word on that. You are a sweet boy and always were, but I am no sweet girl. If we wed, soon enough youd come to hate me. Never. Asha, I have ached for you. She had heard enough of this. A sickly mother, a murdered father, and a plague of uncles were enough for any woman to contend with; she did not require a lovesick puppy too. Find a brothel, Tris. Theyll cure you of that ache. I could never Tristifer shook his head. You and I were meant to be, Asha. I have always known you would be my wife, and the mother of my sons. He seized her upper arm. In a blink her dirk was at his throat. Take your hand away or you wont live long enough to breed a son. Now. When he did, she lowered the blade. You want a woman, well and good. Ill put one in your bed tonight. Pretend shes me, if that will give you pleasure, but do not presume to grab at me again. I am your queen, not your wife. Remember that. Asha sheathed her dirk and left him standing there, with a fat drop of blood slowly creeping down his neck, black in the pale light of the moon. CERSEI Oh, I pray the Seven will not let it rain upon the kings wedding, Jocelyn Swyft said as she laced up the queens gown. No one wants rain, said Cersei. For herself, she wanted sleet and ice, howling winds, thunder to shake the very stones of the Red Keep. She wanted a storm to match her rage. To Jocelyn she said, Tighter. Cinch it tighter, you simpering little fool. It was the wedding that enraged her, though the slow-witted Swyft girl made a safer target. Tommens hold upon the Iron Throne was not secure enough for her to risk offending Highgarden. Not so long as Stannis Baratheon held Dragonstone and Storms End, so long as Riverrun continued in defiance, so long as ironmen prowled the seas like wolves. So Jocelyn must needs eat the meal Cersei would sooner have served to Margaery Tyrell and her hideous wrinkled grandmother. To break her fast the queen sent to the kitchens for two boiled eggs, a loaf of bread, and a pot of honey. But when she cracked the first egg and found a bloody half-formed chick inside, her stomach roiled. Take this away and bring me hot spiced wine, she told Senelle. The chill in the air was settling in her bones, and she had a long nasty day ahead of her. Nor did Jaime help her mood when he turned up all in white and still unshaven, to tell her how he meant to keep her son from being poisoned. I will have men in the kitchens watching as each dish is prepared, he said. Ser Addams gold cloaks will escort the servants as they bring the food to table, to make certain no tampering takes place along the way. Ser Boros will be tasting every course before Tommen puts a bite into his mouth. And if all that should fail, Maester Ballabar will be seated in the back of the hall, with purges and antidotes for twenty common poisons on his person. Tommen will be safe, I promise you. Safe. The word tasted bitter on her tongue. Jaime did not understand. No one understood. Only Melara had been in the tent to hear the old hags croaking threats, and Melara was long dead. Tyrion will not kill the same way twice. He is too cunning for that. He could be under the floor even now, listening to every word we say and making plans to open Tommens throat. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=42328484&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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