It seems too good to be true. After centuries of bitter strife and fatal treachery, the seven powers dividing the land have decimated one another into an uneasy truce. Or so it appears… With the death of the monstrous King Joffrey, Cersei is ruling as regent in King’s Landing. Robb Stark’s demise has broken the back of the Northern rebels, and his siblings are scattered throughout the kingdom like seeds on barren soil. Few legitimate claims to the once desperately sought Iron Throne still exist — or they are held in hands too weak or too distant to wield them effectively. The war, which raged out of control for so long, has burned itself out. But as in the aftermath of any climactic struggle, it is not long before the survivors, outlaws, renegades, and carrion eaters start to gather, picking over the bones of the dead and fighting for the spoils of the soon-to-be dead. Now in the Seven Kingdoms, as the human crows assemble over a banquet of ashes, daring new plots and dangerous new alliances are formed, while surprising faces — some familiar, others only just appearing — are seen emerging from an ominous twilight of past struggles and chaos to take up the challenges ahead. It is a time when the wise and the ambitious, the deceitful and the strong will acquire the skills, the power, and the magic to survive the stark and terrible times that lie before them. It is a time for nobles and commoners, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and sages to come together and stake their fortunes… and their lives. For at a feast for crows, many are the guests — but only a few are the survivors.




for Stephen Boucher wizard of Windows, dragon of DOS without whom this book would have been written in crayon

“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 Rosey’s 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 Emma’s 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 Rosey’s 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 she’d let him rub her feet and play with them, and he’d 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 he’d 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 he’d ride, how nobly, smiling down at the smallfolk when he passed them on the road…

One night in the Quill and Tankard’s 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. “You’ll 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 man’s 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 he’d 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 Walgrave’s 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 Walgrave’s 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 won’t 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 he’d 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 knight’s son, and drunk as drunk could be. Since they brought him word of his father’s 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 lord’s 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 you’ll find sailors who’ll 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 didn’t?” Mollander thumped through the grass, looking for more apples. “You’d need to be down the belly yourself to swear they weren’t. 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 he’d be here.

“There’s 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 one’s 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, widow’s 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 maester’s 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 Ebrose’s sighs had somehow proved just as painful as Vaellyn’s barbs.

“One last apple,” promised Alleras, “and I will tell you what I suspect about these dragons.”

“What could you know that I don’t?” 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 there’s 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 mother’s 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 Citadel’s 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 Rhaegar’s young son Aegon whose head was dashed against the wall by the Lion of Lannister’s brave men. We speak of Rhaegar’s 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. “Here’s to her!” He gulped, slammed his empty tankard down, belched, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Where’s Rosey? Our rightful queen deserves another round of cider, wouldn’t 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, don’t 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 he’d 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 won’t 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.”

“I’m certain it was filling.” Leo turned to Alleras. “A lord’s son should be open-handed, Sphinx. I understand you won your copper link. I’ll drink to that.”

Alleras smiled back at him. “I only buy for friends. And I am no lord’s son, I’ve told you that. My mother was a trader.”

Leo’s 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 lord’s high seat or bedding some knight’s 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 King’s daughter is alive, and she’s 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 that’s sailed within a hundred leagues of Qarth is speaking of these dragons. A few will even tell you that they’ve 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 Vaellyn’s 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 Ryam’s ring and rod and mask were yellow gold, and his maester’s 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.”

“You’re wrong,” said Leo. “There is a glass candle burning in the Mage’s 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 what’s 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 maester’s 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 don’t 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. “That’s worth a round, I’d say.”

“We’ve drunk enough,” said Armen. “Morn will be upon us sooner than we’d 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, I’ll drink piss.” Mollander pushed back from the table. “Come, Roone.”

The Sphinx reached for his bowcase. “It’s bed for me as well. I expect I’ll dream of dragons and glass candles.”

“All of you?” Leo shrugged. “Well, Rosey will remain. Perhaps I’ll wake our little sweetmeat and make a woman of her.”

Alleras saw the look on Pate’s 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. He’ll 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. “I’m 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 Roone’s 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?”

“She’s sleeping,” Pate said curtly.

“Naked, I don’t doubt.” Leo grinned. “Do you think she’s 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 I’ve 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 bravo’s 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 Leo’s father. Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South, was Leo’s cousin. And Oldtown’s 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 Sailor’s Sept down by the harbor. The Lord’s 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 King’s 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 R’hllor 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 R’hllor on his banners in place of the crowned stag. If he should win the Iron Throne, we’ll all need to learn the words of the red priests’ song, Pate thought, but that was not likely. Tywin Lannister had smashed Stannis and R’hllor 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 King’s Landing.

As the night’s mists burned away, Oldtown took form around him, emerging ghostlike from the predawn gloom. Pate had never seen King’s 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 butcher’s 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 lord’s high table, no tall white horse to ride. His days would be spent listening to ravens quork and scrubbing shit stains off Archmaester Walgrave’s 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 traveler’s 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 Walgrave’s 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 wasn’t 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 knight’s 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. Maester’s robes were full of pockets. He had known that since he was a boy.

He had to hurry to keep pace with the alchemist’s longer strides. They went down an alley, around a corner, through the old Thieves Market, along Ragpicker’s Wynd. Finally, the man turned into another alley, narrower than the first. “This is far enough,” said Pate. “There’s no one about. We’ll 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 alchemist’s 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 he’d seen men do. If truth be told, he wasn’t 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.” It’s 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 man’s 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 stranger’s hand, feeling light-headed, almost giddy. Rosey, he reminded himself. “We’re 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. “What’s happening?” he said. His legs had turned to water. “I don’t 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 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 god’s 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 Gorold’s sons, the priest decided at a glance. Three tall sons had been born to Goodbrother’s 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 boy’s 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 God’s 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 god’s 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 infant’s 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 Gorold’s 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 god’s work to do.” Aeron Greyjoy was a prophet. He did not suffer petty lords ordering him about like some thrall.

“Gorold’s had a bird,” said the Sparr.

“A maester’s bird, from Pyke,” Gormond confirmed.

Dark wings, dark words. “The ravens fly o’er 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, god’s 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 moon’s turn past, when he had returned to the Iron Islands from harrying the Stony Shore. Balon’s 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 brother’s 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 God’s wrath. He feasts now in the Drowned God’s 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 Merlyn’s tower,” he told his drowned men, as he turned the horse’s head.

The way was rough, up hills and woods and stony defiles, along a narrow track that oft seemed to disappear beneath the horse’s 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 God’s realm as any place in the isles. Gorold’s folk toiled down in Gorold’s 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 Quellon’s 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 God’s 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 Lord’s haunted tower. At thirteen he could run a longship’s 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 Crow’s 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 lord’s 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. Gorold’s 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 Hammerhorn’s 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 he’d taken. “Which one are you?” Aeron demanded.

“Gran. My father awaits you within.”

The hall was dank and drafty, full of shadows. One of Gorold’s 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 Crow’s Eye sits the Seastone Chair.”

The Damphair turned. The hall had suddenly grown colder. The Crow’s 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 king’s death, and claimed the castle and the crown as Balon’s 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 Crow’s 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 Asha’s way.” That was Balon’s 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 maester’s 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 Crow’s 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 God’s 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 Urri’s hand when he was ten-and-four, playing at the finger dance whilst his father and his elder brothers were away at war. Lord Quellon’s third wife had been a Piper of Pinkmaiden Castle, a girl with big soft breasts and brown doe’s eyes. Instead of healing Urri’s 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 poltices 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 maester’s fingers with a cook’s cleaver and sent his father’s Piper wife to sew them back on. Poltices and potions worked as well for the maester as they had for Urrigon. He died raving, and Lord Quellon’s 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 Urri’s hand, whilst they danced the finger dance together, as friends and brothers will.

It shamed him still to recall the years that followed Urri’s 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 Balon’s 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 god’s 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 Crow’s 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 Crow’s Eye was no crippled boy. The decks of Euron’s 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 Balon’s 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 God’s 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 Aeron’s 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 Balon’s 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 god’s 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 man’s flesh and touched his bones. Bones, he thought. The bones of the soul. Balon’s bones, and Urri’s. The truth is in our bones, for flesh decays and bone endures. And on the hill of Nagga, the bones of the Grey King’s 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 Merlyn’s 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 god’s word.”

Three feet from the water’s 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 Crow’s 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 Merlyn’s 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 King’s 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 Nagga’s 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 King’s 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 Crow’s Eye heard the shouts on Pyke, and the vile Storm God in his cloudy hall. And Aeron Damphair knew he had done well.


“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 Hotah’s 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 captain’s 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 who’d 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 he’d given it Hotah to deliver. The prince thanked him, but for the longest time he would not break the seal. All afternoon he’d 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 prince’s 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 prince’s 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 whore’s 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 prince’s 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.” Obara’s 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 Prince’s 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 Mountain’s head.”

“And who will deliver us Lord Tywin’s 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. I’d get more pleasure from driving my spear into Lord Tywin’s belly. I’ll 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 brother’s 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 that the day he left for King’s 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 mother’s 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 Doran’s 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 captain’s 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 prince’s voice was soft.

Hotah strode forward, one hand wrapped about his longaxe. The ash felt as smooth as a woman’s 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 Mother’s 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 captain’s sleeping cell adjoined his prince’s. 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 Noom’s deep peals set his very bones to shuddering, the proud strong voice of Narrah, sweet Nyel’s 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 goat’s 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 Sinner’s 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 gull’s 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 Blackmont’s 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 widow’s peak above her dark eyes, just as her father’s had. With her high cheekbones, full lips, and milk-pale skin, she had all the beauty that her elder sister lacked… but Obara’s 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 litter’s 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 captain’s 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 niece’s 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.”


“Tyene. Obara is too loud. Tyene is so sweet and gentle that no man will suspect her. Obara would make Oldtown our father’s funeral pyre, but I am not so greedy. Four lives will suffice for me. Lord Tywin’s golden twins, as payment for Elia’s 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 father’s 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 Elia’s 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 they’d 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 prince’s 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 Sunspear’s massive walls, mud-brick shops and windowless hovels clung to the castle like barnacles to a galley’s 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 Nym’s 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 prince’s 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 woman’s 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 daughter’s 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 father’s eyes, though Oberyn’s had been as black as night. All of Prince Oberyn’s 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 Nymeria’s ships when first they came to Dorne. The captain placed the prince beneath the spear and stepped away.

“Does it hurt so much?” Lady Tyene’s 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 she’d 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 Mountain’s head.”

“He is so kind… but a headsman’s 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 sister’s 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, don’t you think? I wish that I had curls like hers. She was made to be a queen, just like her mother.” Dimples bloomed in Tyene’s 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 Myrcella’s 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?”


“Give me your blessing, then, and I shall go.”

Doran hesitated half a heartbeat before placing his hand on his niece’s 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 prince’s 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 brother’s daughters, take them into custody, and confine them in the cells atop the Spear Tower.”

“The Sand Snakes?” The captain’s throat was dry. “All… all eight, my prince? The little ones, also?”

The prince considered. “Ellaria’s 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, there’s 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 King’s Landing, so he might know what a loyal friend he has in Sunspear.”


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 maid’s face was white and frightened.

We are not alone, the queen realized. Shadows loomed around her bed, tall shapes with chain mail 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 brother’s. “The Lord Commander said come get you.” His hair curled, as Jaime’s did, but her brother’s hair was beaten gold, like hers, where this man’s was black and oily. She stared at him, confused, as he muttered about a privy and a crossbow, and said her father’s 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, that’s 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, Tommen’s 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 Commander’s gone down to see where it goes.”

“Jaime?” Terror seized her, sudden as a storm. “Jaime should be with the king…”

“The lad’s 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 maiden’s dream, but underneath his white cloak he was Tyrell to the bone. For all she knew, this night’s 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 Maegor’s 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 hadn’t 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 Osmund’s 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 queen’s 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 Hand’s 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, m’lady.” 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 Tommen’s 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 King’s 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 King’s Landing when it happened, serving as the Mad King’s Hand. Lord Tywin was often away in King’s Landing when she and Jaime were young. If he wept when they brought him word of his father’s 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.”

“He’s 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. There’s 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 maester’s chain.”

“It was taken from me. My name is Qyburn, if it please Your Grace. I treated your brother’s hand.”

“His stump, you mean.” She remembered him now. He had come with Jaime from Harrenhal.

“I could not save Ser Jaime’s 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 father’s 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 Joff’s 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. “It’s the Imp’s 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 Tywin’s father died he returned to Casterly Rock to find a… a woman of this sort… bedecked in his lady mother’s 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.”

“That’s 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 monkey’s grin beneath the ruin of his nose. And what better way to question her than naked, with her legs well spread? the dwarf whispered. That’s 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 Hand’s bedchamber,” Cersei told the three Kettleblacks. “No one is ever to know that she was here.”

“Aye, m’lady.” Ser Osney had faint scratches on his cheek where another of Tyrion’s 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. I’ll 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 father’s bloody blankets. Shae, her name was Shae. They had last spoken the night before the dwarf’s 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. “There’s 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 Tywin’s 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 twin’s face had a haggard look. “The shaft goes down to a chamber where half a dozen tunnels meet. They’re 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. It’s 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 Father’s 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. Don’t 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 don’t know who I pity more,” her brother said. “Tommen, or the Seven Kingdoms.”

She slapped him. Jaime’s arm rose to catch the blow, cat-quick… but this cat had a cripple’s 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 he’d 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 King’s 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 he’d even managed to plant one of his sons in the Kingsguard, and meant to plant his daughter in Tommen’s 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 Keep’s secrets, it was surely the master of whisperers. He must have made common cause with Lord Stannis. They served together on Robert’s 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 cell’s 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…”

Blount’s 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 Tyrion’s 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. Tyrion’s 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.


“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 I’ll 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 she’s on the roads these days she won’t 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 King’s Landing. “For her lady mother’s 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 King’s 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. Sansa’s 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 Sansa’s brother and lady mother. The girl could go by sea if she had the coin, but the harbor at King’s 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.

Brienne’s 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 lord’s, 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 there’s outlaws, and broken men in the woods.”

Only the soldier pines and sentinels still showed green; the broadleaf 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 Joffrey’s 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 Bolton’s 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, m’lady,” 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 Creighton’s 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 he’d 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, m’lady,” 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 Creighton’s brown gelding was an old swaybacked creature with rheumy eyes, and Ser Illifer’s 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 m’lady familiar with Ser Herbert Bolling? You shall never meet him now. I slew him where he stood. When swords clash, you shall ne’er 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 liar’s shield, to which you have no right. My grandfather’s 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, chain mail 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 Renly’s 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 lord’s 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 she’d 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 she’s 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 Renly’s 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 Brienne’s 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 father’s 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 King’s Landing, Brienne had hunted down a certain Brella, who had been one of Sansa’s maids. The woman told her that there was little warmth between Sansa and the dwarf. Perhaps she had been fleeing him as well as Joffrey’s 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, m’lady,” 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 ne’er 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 maiden’s 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 septon’s 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 King’s 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 Mother’s 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 Father’s. 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 Mother’s 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… it’s said they are the Stranger’s 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 Sansa’s 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 Shadrich’s 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, t’other 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. “You’re a strapping healthy wench, I’d say.”

Ser Jaime’s mockery had cut her deep; the little man’s 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 I’ve roamed, the blue for the rivers that I’ve 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 you’ve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spider’s coin with her.”

“I thought you were in this merchant’s 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 King’s 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 inn’s 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. “Who’s 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 she’d 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 Grace’s 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 inn’s 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, m’lady. 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 chain mail, 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 I’ll 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 don’t please me, but might be I’ll allow it. Will you be wanting supper? That’s 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 goat’s milk. She listened to the table talk, hoping against hope that she might hear something that would help her find Sansa.

“You come from King’s Landing,” one of the locals said to Hibald. “Is it true that the Kingslayer’s been crippled?”

“True enough,” Hibald said. “He’s 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 that’s 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 King’s Landing, to replace the blade the Brave Companions had stolen. Renly’s 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, Brienne’s 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. “You’ll be defending Ned Stark’s daughter with Ned Stark’s 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 Hibald’s serving men woke when she rode past him, but made no move to stop her. Her mare’s 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 I’ve found you.


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 he’d slept, but scarce an inch remained of the fat tallow candle he’d lit when starting on the ragged bundle of loose pages that he’d found tied up in twine. He was beastly tired, but it was hard to stop. One more book, he had told himself, then I’ll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I’ll 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. I’ll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he’d 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? It’s eating books, though…

After hours in the chair Sam’s 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 Jorquen’s exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Night’s 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 shouldn’t 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 he’d 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. Don’t be so craven, he thought. You have your Sworn Brothers all around you, not to mention Stannis Baratheon and all his knights. Castle Black’s 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 Sam’s 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 I’ve seen, and I’ve never seen half the things I wanted to. I don’t think wanting comes into it. You’d best go all the same. Lord Snow wishes to speak with you as soon as he is done with Craster’s wife.”


“That’s the one. If my wet nurse had looked like her, I’d 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.”

“Don’t call me Slayer.” Sam ignored the gibe about the ox. That was just Pyp. “I was reading. There was a mouse…”

“Don’t mention mice to Grenn. He’s terrified of mice.”

“I am not,” Grenn declared with indignation.

“You’d be too scared to eat one.”

“I’d 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. There’s no meat on the tail.”

“Where's 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 King’s Tower. “She was looking for you.”

“She was not! Don’t 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 don’t 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 can’t even wiggle his ears.” Pyp wiggled his, to show he could. They were large ears, and red from cold. “He’s 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 Craster’s Keep,’ he would have said, ‘and fetch me back the Old Bear’s 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 don’t keep him from the yard. More days than not, he’s 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 Sam’s 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 I’m 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 don’t 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 Commander’s Tower had been gutted by fire, and Stannis Baratheon had claimed the King’s Tower for his own residence, so Jon Snow had established himself in Donal Noye’s modest quarters behind the armory. Gilly was leaving as Sam arrived, wrapped up in the old cloak he’d given her when they were fleeing Craster’s 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 Sam’s old cloak, her face half-hidden by its hood, but shivering all the same. Her face looked wan and frightened.

“What’s wrong?” Sam asked her. “How are the babes?”

Gilly pulled loose from him. “They’re good, Sam. Good.”

“Between the two of them it’s a wonder you can sleep,” Sam said pleasantly. “Which one was it that I heard crying last night? I thought he’d never stop.”

“Dalla’s 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. It’s past time that I fed them. I’ll be leaking all over myself if I don’t go.” She rushed across the yard, leaving Sam perplexed behind her.

He had to get down on his knees to gather up the books he’d dropped. I should not have brought so many, he told himself as he brushed the dirt off Colloquo Votar’s 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 Thomax’s 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. Gilly’s presence always flustered him and gave rise to… well, risings. A Sworn Brother of the Night’s 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 who’d 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.

Jon’s solar was back beyond the racks of spears and shields. He was reading a parchment when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormont’s 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 Jon’s 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. “I’m 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 Aemon’s 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 Bran’s dead, and pudgy pink-faced Tommen is sitting on the Iron Throne, with a crown nestled amongst his golden curls.”

Bran’s not dead, Sam wanted to say. He’s gone beyond the Wall with Coldhands. The words caught in his throat. I swore I would not tell. “You haven’t 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 we’ve been helping Stannis.”

“Only to defend the Wall, not in his rebellion.” Sam read the letter quickly once again. “That’s 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.”

“It’s death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn.” Jon lifted up the letter. “The Night’s 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, “we’re not. Are we?”

“I gave Stannis food, shelter, and the Nightfort, plus leave to settle some free folk in the Gift. That’s all.”

“Lord Tywin will say it was too much.”

“Stannis says it’s 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 Night’s 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…”

He’s trying to convince himself, Sam realized, but he can’t. 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 they’d 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 Night’s 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 Commander’s seal down firmly on the puddle. “Take this to Maester Aemon when you leave,” he commanded, “and tell him to dispatch a bird to King’s 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 Rayder’s 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 king’s 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 Mance’s head myself. He was a man of the Night’s 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. King’s blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. It’s nonsense. Mance’s blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He’s a brigand, nothing more. There’s no power in brigand’s 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, that’s… that’s 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.”

“Goat’s milk might serve, until you do. It’s better for a babe than cow’s 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. That’s four, my lord. You’re not even close to being the youngest ever chosen. You’re 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 I’ve found and looked at, that is. There’s more I haven’t 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 haven’t 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, Night’s King… we say that you’re the nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but the oldest list I’ve 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 Night’s 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 part’s plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don’t 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 won’t 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 I’ve 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. You’re going with Gilly.”

“Going?” For a moment Sam did not understand. “I’m going? To Eastwatch, my lord? Or… where am I…”


“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… he’s one hundred and two years old, my lord, he can’t… you’re sending him and me? Who will tend the ravens? If they’re sick or wounded, who…”

“Clydas. He’s 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… he’s 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 king’s 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 you’ll arrange your own passage to Oldtown. If you still mean to claim Gilly’s babe as your bastard, send her and the child on to Horn Hill. Elsewise, Aemon will find a servant’s 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 won’t need to go to Horn Hill myself. “Dareon could see her to Oldtown just as well as me. I’m… I’ve been working at my archery every afternoon with Ulmer, as you commanded… well, except when I’m 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 I’m still the worst archer who ever bent a bow. I like Ulmer’s 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 Night’s 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 won’t 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 he’s sober.”

“If you ask the Citadel for more maesters…”

“I mean to. We’ll 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. “I’m 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. You’ll 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 won’t object.”

He doesn’t 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, he’d 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 Night’s 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 here’s another order. From this day forth, you will not call yourself a craven. You’ve faced more things this past year than most men face in a lifetime. You can face the Citadel, but you’ll face it as a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch. I can’t 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… I’ll try.”

“You won’t try. You will obey.”

“Obey.” Mormont’s 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 Aemon’s 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 Jon’s 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. Gilly’s little son may die as well, he’s not as large and strong as Dalla’s boy. Does Jon mean to kill us all?

The next morning, Sam found himself saddling the mare he’d 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. “You’re 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. “Don’t mind him, Slayer,” said Black Jack. “He lost a wager, said we’d 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 he’d found only one in four. And a good thing, or we’d 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. It’s 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. I’ve told Clydas to mark it for you.”

“I’ll be sure to read it,” Jon Snow replied.

A line of pale snot ran from Maester Aemon’s 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, m’lord,” said Gilly. “You do the same for t’other. Find another wet nurse, like you said. You promised me you would. The boy… Dalla’s 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.

“Don’t you name him. Don’t you do that till he’s past two years. It’s ill luck to name them when they’re still on the breast. You crows may not know that, but it’s true.”

“As you command, my lady.”

A spasm of anger flashed across Gilly’s face. “Don’t you call me that. I’m a mother, not a lady. I’m Craster’s wife and Craster’s 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.

“Let’s 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 boat’s not like to sink, I don’t think. Boats only sink when I’m aboard.”

Jon was watching the wayns. “The first time I saw Gilly,” he said, “she was pressed back against the wall of Craster’s 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.”


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 Titan’s 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 hadn’t truly been her friend, the way that Syrio had, but what good had friends ever done her? I don’t need any friends, so long as I have Needle. She brushed the ball of her thumb across the sword’s 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 sailor’s 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 she’d come aboard at Saltpans, near the mouth of the Trident. It was as good a name as any, she supposed.

The last of the night’s stars had vanished… all but the pair dead ahead. “It’s 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 Nan’s 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 H’ghar 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 Daughter’s crew had a smattering of the Common Tongue from nights ashore in Oldtown and King’s 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 father’s cabin and helped his eldest brother do his sums.

“I hope your Titan isn’t 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 isn’t highborn, either. “Is the Titan the god of Braavos?” she asked. “Or do you have the Seven?”

“All gods are honored in Braavos.” The captain’s son loved to talk about his city almost as much as he loved to talk about his father’s 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 mother’s 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 Titan’s 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 she’d stabbed the Tickler herself, and that stupid squire with the pimple. I wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t 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 Titan’s 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 Baelor’s statue in King’s 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 Denyo’s 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 Titan’s legs. Arya could see the arrow slits in the great bronze breastplate, and stains and speckles on the Titan’s 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 captain’s 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 Titan’s 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 Titan’s 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 Titan’s 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 crow’s nest slip through with a good ten yards to spare, she spied murder holes beneath the Titan’s 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 he’d 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 hunter’s 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 he’d said. It was a flat city, she could see that even from afar, not like King’s 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 Denyo’s father looming over them in his long captain’s 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 Sealord’s 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 Titan’s 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 crow’s nest once, and she hadn’t 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 captain’s 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 captain’s 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 Titan’s Daughter dwindled in their wake, while the city grew larger with every stroke of Yorko’s 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. King’s 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 Arya’s 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. “What’s 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 R’hllor.”

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 god’s 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 Warren’s 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 temple’s 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 they’d 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 Needle’s hilt for luck and plunged into the shadows, taking the steps two at a time so no one could ever say she’d 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 lion’s 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. “You’re 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. “Don’t 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. “Don’t 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 H’ghar.”

“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 he’d 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. I’m 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.


A cold rain was falling, turning the walls and ramparts of the Red Keep dark as blood. The queen held the king’s 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. “Don’t 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. Joff’s 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 Joff’s 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 Aegon’s 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.” King’s 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 Visenya’s 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 queen’s 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 Tyrion’s making, Cersei recalled suddenly. It was a disquieting thought.

The old man’s 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 man’s wrinkled lips? The queen could not be certain.

They made their way through the Hall of Lamps beneath colored globes of leaded glass, Tommen’s 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. There’d 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 she’d 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 dwarf’s 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 father’s 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 Sept’s lofty dome of glass and gold and crystal, Lord Tywin Lannister’s 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 Father’s bones were interred beneath the Rock.

Cersei led the king up three short steps, to kneel beside the body. Tommen’s 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 Jaime’s eyes had been when he was Tommen’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 Father’s eyes, then ignored them, drank a tankard of ale, and stalked off red-faced, defeated by a pair of unflinching eyes.

Lord Tywin’s 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 Cersei’s 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 queen’s 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; Joff’s widow and Tommen’s 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 father’s 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 Margaery’s 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 father’s 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 King’s Landing, and Tanda thinks to honor the bastard with my lord father’s name? I think not.”

Falyse flinched back as if she’d 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 Lollys’s 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 cousin’s 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 they’re getting yours, she wanted to say. Instead she smiled. “And you are to be wed as well.”

A gloomy look passed across the young knight’s 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 cousin’s eyes were wet and shiny, a child’s eyes in an old man’s 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 queen’s 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 she’d 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 father’s 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 Tywin’s 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 King’s 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 queen’s 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 Tyrell’s 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 can’t 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 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. We’ll 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 we’re 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 King’s 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 girl’s 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 Grace’s pardon for my appearance,” he said. “I have been down in the dungeons making inquiries into the Imp’s 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 man’s 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 Rugen’s cell, and Ser Addam’s 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 king’s 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 Tyrion’s 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 Father’s death? With Tywin Lannister in his grave, Lord Tyrell was an obvious choice to be King’s 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 Viper’s 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 Mountain’s 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 Pycelle’s. 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 Grace’s 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 you’ve 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 King’s Landing have gold from the Reach, unless he were paid to help bring about Father’s death?

Try as she might, she could not seem to bring Lord Tywin’s 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 Tyrion’s creature too, Cersei recalled suddenly, and Father’s 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. I’ve 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. You’ve 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 father’s 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 King’s 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 father’s 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 there’s 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 Kevan’s 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.”


Ser Jaime Lannister, all in white, stood beside his father’s 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 he’d 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 I’d need to find the rock he’s 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 Tyrion’s.” 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 eunuch’s 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,” he’d 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, I’m pricked…” The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. “I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood.”

“You’ll 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,” he’d snarled, in a voice thick with malice. “Cersei is a lying whore, she’s 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 dragon’s mouth. The brazier warmed a chamber at the bottom of a shaft where half a dozen tunnels met. On the floor he’d 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.”

Jaime’s 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 Jaime’s shoulder. “When this battle’s 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 father’s corpse. “Isn’t 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 King’s 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. Pycelle’s 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 man’s 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 son’s 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 Pycelle’s 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 King’s 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 Tyrion’s 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 King’s 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 lordship’s 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 Night’s 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 lordship’s 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 King’s 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 king’s, 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 more’n 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 won’t be missed. I’ll wager they was part of it, along with the one who’s 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.” … she’s 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.”

Jaime’s phantom fingers twitched as he said, “Get Osney and Osfryd down here and clean up this mess you’ve 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 Baelor’s 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 Baelor’s 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, he’s 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 mummer’s 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 Jaime’s 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 I’m 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 Father’s 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 Mother’s Doors marched white septas from their cloister, seven abreast and singing softly, while the silent sisters came single file down the Stranger’s Steps. Death’s 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 he’d spent the night was not a third as large as any of the Great Sept’s seven transepts. Jaime had laid his sword across the Warrior’s 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 Jaime’s 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. I’ll hack the bloody book to pieces before I’ll 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 servant’s garb to get past Father’s 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 Tommen’s Hand. I do not trust Mace Tyrell. What if he had a hand in Father’s death? He may have been conspiring with Tyrion. The Imp could be on his way to Highgarden…”

“He’s not.”

“Be my Hand,” she pleaded, “and we’ll rule the Seven Kingdoms together, like a king and his queen.”

“You were Robert’s queen. And yet you won’t 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 Robert’s 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 Tywin’s corpse in a haze of many-colored light. The King’s 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 Tywin’s 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. Margaery’s 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.

“…she’s 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 sister’s, that hair scratching the soft skin of her breasts. She would not do that. The Imp lied. Spun gold and black wire tangled, sweaty. Kettleblack’s 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. “I’m 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 King’s 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 wasn’t scared,” the boy insisted. “The smell made me sick. Didn’t 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 brother’s name was Joffrey. He would never have shamed me so.”

“I never meant to. I wasn’t 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 that’s what—”

“You need Tyrell,” Jaime broke in, “but not here. Ask him to capture Storm’s 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 Storm’s End to you, or he will muck it up and look a fool. Either way, you win.”

“Storm’s End?” Cersei looked thoughtful. “Yes, but… Lord Tyrell has made it tediously plain that he will not leave King’s 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 sister’s 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.”


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 she’s no maid, I’ll wager. Does the poor girl have a name?”

Brienne’s 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 lichyard’s 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 chain mail hauberks crossed their spears to bar her way. “State your purpose here.”

“I seek the Lord of Duskendale, or his maester.”

The captain’s 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. You’ll find her at the house with the painted doors, across from the Seven Swords.” He gestured to the guards. “Let her pass, lads. It’s 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 Tarly’s 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 he’d borne himself from Harrenhal to King’s 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 foeman’s 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 captain’s 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 captain’s sister. “The only one I know is the Dun Fort by the harbor. I made t’other 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 I’d 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 father’s 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. I’ll 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, there’s Darkes, I’m one myself. My husband says I was Darke before we wed, and darker afterward.” She laughed. “Can’t 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? You’d never know t’look 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 fire’s 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.

“I’d bring up more, but it’d 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 Renly’s 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 king’s murder, with Lord Tywin’s warrant. And what do you have, pray?”

Brienne showed him the letter, with Tommen’s 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 husband’s 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 King’s 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 he’d 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 Denys’s 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 king’s 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 boy’s head off nonetheless, but Ser Barristan asked that his life be spared. The king could not refuse the man who’d saved him, so Dontos was taken to King’s 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, Brienne’s 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 King’s Landing, Brienne had found one of Sansa’s former maids doing washing in a brothel. “I served with Lord Renly before m’lady 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, “I’ll tell you what I told Lord Tywin. That girl was always praying. She’d go to sept and light her candles like a proper lady, but near every night she went off to the godswood. She’s gone back north, she has. That’s where her gods are.”

The north was huge, though, and Brienne had no notion which of her father’s 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 Night’s Watch. Another uncle, Edmure Tully, was a captive at the Twins, but his uncle Ser Brynden still held Riverrun. And Lady Catelyn’s 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 sister’s 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 chain mail 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 don’t. You never…” He scrambled to his feet. “F-f-forgive me. My lady. I wasn’t 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 he’d come.

Something about him roused all of Brienne’s 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, “M’lady, 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 dwarf’s 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. “Can’t 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 man’s 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, m’lady, 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 t’others 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 King’s Landing.”

“Aye, there’s hundreds on the roads. Not only brothers. Septons too, and smallfolk. Sparrows all. Might be I’m a sparrow too. The Smith, he made me small enough.” He chuckled. “And what’s your sad tale, m’lady?”

“I am looking for my sister. She’s 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. There’s 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 I’ve 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 didn’t, either. Why would the man be in rags, though? Had some misfortune overtaken him and Sansa after they fled King’s 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. I’d gone to Maidenpool after burying my brothers, thinking that I might find a ship to take me to King’s Landing. I first glimpsed the fool down by the docks. He had a furtive air to him and took care to avoid Lord Tarly’s soldiers. Later, I encountered him again, at the Stinking Goose.”

“The Stinking Goose?” she said, uncertain.

“An unsavory place,” the dwarf admitted. “Lord Tarly’s 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, m’lady. That I’d 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 Tarly’s soldiers visited the Goose looking for him, and a few days later I heard another man boasting that he’d 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 that’s all that I can offer you, aside from a small man’s 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 Sansa’s 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.

“M’lady? 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. I’ve a long way yet to go to reach King’s 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 Tywin’s 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. She’d heard enough.

That night she dreamed herself in Renly’s 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 captain’s 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 father’s armory. She remembered how she’d 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 captain’s 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 Joffrey’s 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 who’d died with them as well.

She remembered the night that Lady Catelyn had learned her sons were dead, the two young boys she’d 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 woman’s, 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 Catelyn’s 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 child’s 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 keep’s 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 he’s 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 Grandison’s 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 they’d wed. “I will not have my lady wife cavorting about in man’s 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 woman’s proper place. They fought with blunted tourney weapons, so Brienne’s mace had no spikes. She broke Ser Humfrey’s 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. I’ll 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 Shadrich’s 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. It’s him.

The boy never gave the ruined castle a glance, but looked down one road, then the other. After a moment’s 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 that’s 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 boy’s mouth worked soundlessly. His eyes were big as eggs. “Puh,” was all he could manage. “Puh.” His chain mail 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 you’re 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 father’s 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 father’s 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. I’m his squire. The Hand’s 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 Imp’s 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. You’re looking for her. Brella told me. She’s his wife. Not Brella, Lady Sansa. So I thought, if you found her…” His face twisted in sudden anguish. “I’m his squire,” he repeated, as the rain ran down his face, “but he left me.”


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 hadn’t, 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 Giant’s 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 singer’s 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, “can’t 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 Lysa’s fall. Sansa had seen the ravens coming and going from the rookery. “I’d 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 Petyr’s 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 Arryn’s trusted liege man, and Lady Lysa’s. “He won’t… you won’t 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 I’d ever let him harm my daughter?”

I am not your daughter, she thought. I am Sansa Stark, Lord Eddard’s daughter and Lady Catelyn’s, 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 Arryn’s death. “Couldn’t you tell Lord Nestor that I am… indisposed, or…”

“He will want to hear your account of Lysa’s 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. You’ve seen a fearful thing. Nestor will be moved.” Petyr studied her eyes, as if seeing them for the first time. “You have your mother’s 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 he’ll 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 she’d known at King’s Landing, smiling slyly and stroking his beard as he whispered in Queen Cersei’s 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 King’s Landing the queen would have her head as well. The aunt she’d 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 Mother’s 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 King’s 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 hour’s 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 woman’s 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 he’d come back to me
Our home’s 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 liar’s 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 he’d 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.

Robert’s 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 Lysa’s death he had taken to wandering the Eyrie in quest of other beds. The one he liked best was Sansa’s… 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 don’t 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 Sansa’s 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 who’d 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 Lysa’s 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 crone’s 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 I’ll start to shake as badly as Robert.

With Maddy’s 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, Robert’s 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 Lysa’s 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. That’s 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 boy’s 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 Robert’s 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 Robert’s 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 he’d 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 sidewhiskers 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 falcon’s 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 I’d 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 Jon’s favorite falcon.” The knight’s 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 mustn’t say that, you mustn’t tell them, you mustn’t. But Albar Royce was shaking his head. “No, my lord, you must not blame yourself,” he said.

“This was the singer’s 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 singer’s voice, so strong and sure by night, was cracked and whispery now. “I loved her so, I could not bear to see her in another’s 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 Petyr’s 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 I’m 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, m’lord.” Mord grabbed Marillion roughly by the collar. “No more mouth.” When he spoke, Sansa saw to her astonishment that the gaoler’s 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 Nestor’s 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 this”—Petyr gestured at the parchment—“is 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 Keeper’s 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 Robert’s 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 Nestor’s 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 I’d expect of mine own daughter.”

“Thank you.” She felt absurdly proud for puzzling it out, but confused as well. “I’m 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?”

Marillion’s 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 King’s Landing the night that I escaped. He must know who I am.”

“If he’s 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 Cat’s 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 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 uncle’s 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 that’s 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, Hotho’s was girdled within an embattled border, and the Knight had quartered his with the gaudy peacock of his mother’s 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 Rodrik’s 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 was 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 uncle’s 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 soul’s sake but for his books. “With the books, and Botley. He was with him too.”

Botley’s 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 Crow’s Eye had old Sawane Botley drowned.”

“Lord Tristifer Botley, this one is.”

Tris. She wondered what had happened to Sawane’s 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 Widow’s 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 Greyjoy’s 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 she’d kissed her cheek.

Her mother’s 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 daughter’s 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 they’re done unloading Black Wind. They’ll bring captives. I want them to have warm beds and a hot meal.”

“There’s 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 woman’s 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 uncle’s wealth of books. His grandfather’s 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. He’d 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 man’s 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 Marwyn’s 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 Glover’s wife and children. The youngest is still at the breast, and Lady Glover’s 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 septon’s discourse on Maegor the Cruel’s 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, don’t look so aggrieved. I have never met a man I didn’t 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 septon’s 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 Crow’s 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 Euron’s 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 Crow’s Eye off my father’s 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 Crow’s 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 Aeron’s 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 Crow’s Eye agreed to attend this holy farce and abide by its decision?”

“The Crow’s 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 Damphair’s notion?”

“Victarion was sent word of your father’s death. And of this kingsmoot too, I do not doubt. Beyond that, I cannot say.”

Better a kingsmoot than a war. “I believe I’ll kiss the Damphair’s 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 Haereg’s 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 Nagga’s 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 Haereg’s 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 Crow’s 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 Denestan’s 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. It’s 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 Balon’s daughter, not his son. And you have three uncles.”


“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 Rodrik’s 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 Crow’s 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 Balon’s 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 Aegon’s 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 I’m 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 mother’s 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 man’s 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. “It’s my father’s seat I want, not yours. Those scythes of yours look perilous. One could fall and slice my head off. No, I’ll 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. I’d 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 she’d seen him, but he had the same unruly hair that she remembered, and eyes as large and trusting as a seal’s. 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 who’d sent the boy away from Pyke, to be a ward of Baelor Blacktyde’s. “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 Crow’s Eye drowned him and made my uncles swear him fealty. Even after that he gave half my father’s 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 father’s 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 Crow’s Eye has been buying friends at every hand. My uncle Germund calls himself Lord Botley now, and rules in Lordsport as your uncle’s man.”

“You are the rightful Lord Botley,” she assured him. “Once I hold the Seastone Chair, your father’s lands shall be restored.”

“If you like. It’s 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 he’d 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, she’d 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 don’t 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.”

He’s mad enough. “He lacks the strength.”

“You do not know his strength. He’s 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, you’ll be as dead as if they had been dragonlords. And there’s worse. The Crow’s 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 don’t.”

“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 she’d 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 you’d 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. They’ll 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 won’t live long enough to breed a son. Now.” When he did, she lowered the blade. “You want a woman, well and good. I’ll put one in your bed tonight. Pretend she’s 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.


“Oh, I pray the Seven will not let it rain upon the king’s wedding,” Jocelyn Swyft said as she laced up the queen’s 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. Tommen’s hold upon the Iron Throne was not secure enough for her to risk offending Highgarden. Not so long as Stannis Baratheon held Dragonstone and Storm’s 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 Addam’s 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 hag’s 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 Tommen’s throat.”

“Suppose he was,” said Jaime. “Whatever plans he makes, he will still be small and stunted. Tommen will be surrounded by the finest knights in Westeros. The Kingsguard will protect him.”

Cersei glanced at where the sleeve of her brother’s white silk tunic had been pinned up over his stump. “I remember how well they guarded Joffrey, these splendid knights of yours. I want you to remain with Tommen all night, is that understood?”

“I will have a guardsman outside his door.”

She seized his arm. “Not a guardsman. You. And inside his bedchamber.”

“In case Tyrion crawls out of the hearth? He won’t.”

“So you say. Will you tell me that you found all the hidden tunnels in these walls?” They both knew better. “I will not have Tommen alone with Margaery, not for so much as half a heartbeat.”

“They will not be alone. Her cousins will be with them.”

“As will you. I command it, in the king’s name.” Cersei had not wanted Tommen and his wife to share a bed at all, but the Tyrells had insisted. “Husband and wife should sleep together,” the Queen of Thorns had said, “even if they do no more than sleep. His Grace’s bed is big enough for two, surely.” Lady Alerie had echoed her good-mother. “Let the children warm each other in the night. It will bring them closer. Margaery oft shares her blankets with her cousins. They sing and play games and whisper secrets to each other when the candles are snuffed out.”

“How delightful,” Cersei had said. “Let them continue, by all means. In the Maidenvault.”

“I am sure Her Grace knows best,” Lady Olenna had said to Lady Alerie. “She is the boy’s own mother, after all, of that we are all sure. And surely we can agree about the wedding night? A man should not sleep apart from his wife on the night of their wedding. It is ill luck for their marriage if they do.”

Someday I will teach you the meaning of “ill luck,” the queen had vowed. “Margaery may share Tommen’s bedchamber for that one night,” she had been forced to say. “No longer.”

“Your Grace is so gracious,” the Queen of Thorns had replied, and everyone had exchanged smiles.

Cersei’s fingers were digging into Jaime’s arm hard enough to leave bruises. “I need eyes inside that room,” she said.

“To see what?” he said. “There can be no danger of a consummation. Tommen is much too young.”

“And Ossifer Plumm was much too dead, but that did not stop him fathering a child, did it?”

Her brother looked lost. “Who was Ossifer Plumm? Was he Lord Philip’s father, or… who?”

He is near as ignorant as Robert. All his wits were in his sword hand. “Forget Plumm, just remember what I told you. Swear to me that you will stay by Tommen’s side until the sun comes up.”

“As you command,” he said, as if her fears were groundless. “Do you still mean to go ahead and burn the Tower of the Hand?”

“After the feast.” It was the only part of the day’s festivities that Cersei thought she might enjoy. “Our lord father was murdered in that tower. I cannot bear to look at it. If the gods are good, the fire may smoke a few rats from the rubble.”

Jaime rolled his eyes. “Tyrion, you mean.”

“Him, and Lord Varys, and this gaoler.”

“If any of them were hiding in the tower, we would have found them. I’ve had a small army going at it with picks and hammers. We’ve knocked through walls and ripped up floors and uncovered half a hundred secret passages.”

“And for all you know there may be half a hundred more.” Some of the secret crawlways had turned out to be so small that Jaime had needed pages and stableboys to explore them. A passage to the black cells had been found, and a stone well that seemed to have no bottom. They had found a chamber full of skulls and yellowed bones, and four sacks of tarnished silver coins from the reign of the first King Viserys. They had found a thousand rats as well… but neither Tyrion nor Varys had been amongst them, and Jaime had finally insisted on putting an end to the search. One boy had gotten stuck in a narrow passage and had to be pulled out by his feet, shrieking. Another fell down a shaft and broke his legs. And two guardsmen vanished exploring a side tunnel. Some of the other guards swore they could hear them calling faintly through the stone, but when Jaime’s men tore down the wall they found only earth and rubble on the far side. “The Imp is small and cunning. He may still be in the walls. If he is, the fire will smoke him out.”

“Even if Tyrion were still hiding in the castle, he won’t be in the Tower of the Hand. We’ve reduced it to a shell.”

“Would that we could do the same to the rest of this foul castle,” said Cersei. “After the war I mean to build a new palace beyond the river.” She had dreamed of it the night before last, a magnificent white castle surrounded by woods and gardens, long leagues from the stinks and noise of King’s Landing. “This city is a cesspit. For half a groat I would move the court to Lannisport and rule the realm from Casterly Rock.”

“That would be an even greater folly than burning the Tower of the Hand. So long as Tommen sits the Iron Throne, the realm sees him as the true king. Hide him under the Rock and he becomes just another claimant to the throne, no different than Stannis.”

“I am aware of that,” the queen said sharply. “I said that I wanted to move the court to Lannisport, not that I would. Were you always this slow, or did losing a hand make you stupid?”

Jaime ignored that. “If these flames spread beyond the tower, you may end up burning down the castle whether you mean to or not. Wildfire is treacherous.”

“Lord Hallyne has assured me that his pyromancers can control the fire.” The Guild of Alchemists had been brewing fresh wildfire for a fortnight. “Let all of King’s Landing see the flames. It will be a lesson to our enemies.”

“Now you sound like Aerys.”

Her nostrils flared. “Guard your tongue, ser.”

“I love you too, sweet sister.”

How could I ever have loved that wretched creature? she wondered after he had gone. He was your twin, your shadow, your other half, another voice whispered. Once, perhaps, she thought. No longer. He has become a stranger to me.

Compared to the magnificence of Joffrey’s nuptials, the wedding of King Tommen was a modest affair, and small. No one wanted another lavish ceremony, least of all the queen, and no one wanted to pay for one, least of all the Tyrells. So the young king took Margaery Tyrell to wife in the Red Keep’s royal sept, with fewer than a hundred guests looking on in place of the thousands who had seen his brother joined to the same woman.

The bride was fair and gay and beautiful, the groom still baby-faced and plump. He recited his vows in a high, childish voice, promising his love and devotion to Mace Tyrell’s twice-widowed daughter. Margaery wore the same gown she had worn to marry Joffrey, an airy confection of sheer ivory silk, Myrish lace, and seed pearls. Cersei herself was still in black, as a sign of mourning for her murdered firstborn. His widow might be pleased to laugh and drink and dance and put all memory of Joff aside, but his mother would not forget him so easily.

This is wrong, she thought. It is too soon. A year, two years, that would have been time enough. Highgarden should have been content with a betrothal. Cersei stared back to where Mace Tyrell stood between his wife and mother. You forced me into this travesty of a wedding, my lord, and I shall not soon forget it.

When it was time for the changing of the cloaks, the bride sank gracefully to her knees and Tommen covered her with the heavy cloth-of-gold monstrosity that Robert had cloaked Cersei in on their own wedding day, with the crowned stag of Baratheon worked upon its back in beads of onyx. Cersei had wanted to use the fine red silk cloak Joffrey had used. “It was the cloak my lord father used when he wed my lady mother,” she explained to the Tyrells, but the Queen of Thorns had balked her in that as well. “That old thing?” the crone had said. “It looks a bit threadbare to me… and dare I say, unlucky? And wouldn’t a stag be more fitting for King Robert’s trueborn son? In my day a bride donned her husband’s colors, not his lady mother’s.”

Thanks to Stannis and his filthy letter, there were already too many rumors concerning Tommen’s parentage. Cersei dared not fan the fires by insisting that he drape his bride in Lannister crimson, so she yielded as gracefully as she could. But the sight of all that gold and onyx still filled her with resentment. The more we give these Tyrells, the more they demand of us.

When all the vows were spoken, the king and his new queen stepped outside the sept to accept congratulations. “Westeros has two queens now, and the young one is as beautiful as the old one,” boomed Lyle Crakehall, an oaf of a knight who oft reminded Cersei of her late and unlamented husband. She could have slapped him. Gyles Rosby made to kiss her hand, and only succeeded in coughing on her fingers. Lord Redwyne kissed her on one cheek and Mace Tyrell on both. Grand Maester Pycelle told Cersei that she had not lost a son, but rather gained a daughter. At least she was spared Lady Tanda’s tearful embraces. None of the Stokeworth women had appeared, and for that much the queen was grateful.

Amongst the last was Kevan Lannister. “I understand you mean to leave us for another wedding,” the queen said to him.

“Hardstone has cleared the broken men from Darry castle,” he replied. “Lancel’s bride awaits us there.”

“Will your lady wife be joining you for the nuptials?”

“The riverlands are still too dangerous. Vargo Hoat’s scum remain abroad, and Beric Dondarrion has been hanging Freys. Is it true that Sandor Clegane has joined him?”

How does he know that? “Some say. Reports are confused.” The bird had come last night, from a septry on an island hard by the mouth of the Trident. The nearby town of Saltpans had been savagely raided by a band of outlaws, and some of the survivors claimed a roaring brute in a hound’s head helm was amongst the raiders. Supposedly he’d killed a dozen men and raped a girl of twelve. “No doubt Lancel will be eager to hunt down Clegane and Lord Beric both, to restore the king’s peace to the riverlands.”

Ser Kevan stared into her eyes for a moment. “My son is not the man to deal with Sandor Clegane.”

We agree on that much, at least. “His father might be.”

Her uncle’s mouth grew hard. “If my service is not required at the Rock…”

Your service was required here. Cersei had named her cousin Damion Lannister her castellan for the Rock, and another cousin, Ser Daven Lannister, the Warden of the West. Insolence has its price, Uncle. “Bring us Sandor’s head, and I know His Grace will be most grateful. Joff may have liked the man, but Tommen was always afraid of him… with good reason, it would seem.”

“When a dog goes bad, the fault lies with his master,” Ser Kevan said. Then he turned and walked away.

Jaime escorted her to the Small Hall, where the feast was being readied. “I blame you for all this,” she whispered as they walked. “Let them wed, you said. Margaery should be mourning Joffrey, not marrying his brother. She should be as sick with grief as I am. I do not believe she is a maid. Renly had a cock, didn’t he? He was Robert’s brother, he surely had a cock. If that disgusting old crone thinks that I will allow my son to—”

“You will be rid of Lady Olenna soon enough,” Jaime broke in quietly. “She’s returning to Highgarden on the morrow.”

“So she says.” Cersei did not trust any Tyrell promise.

“She’s leaving,” he insisted. “Mace is taking half the Tyrell strength to Storm’s End, and the other half will be going back to the Reach with Ser Garlan to make good his claim on Brightwater. A few more days, and the only roses left in King’s Landing will be Margaery and her ladies and a few guardsmen.”

“And Ser Loras. Or have you forgotten your Sworn Brother?

“Ser Loras is a knight of the Kingsguard.”

“Ser Loras is so Tyrell he pisses rosewater. He should never have been given a white cloak.”

“He would not have been my choice, I’ll grant you. No one troubled to consult me. Loras will do well enough, I think. Once a man puts on that cloak, it changes him.”

“It certainly changed you, and not for the better.”

“I love you too, sweet sister.” He held the door for her, and walked her to the high table and her seat beside the king. Margaery was on the other side of Tommen, in the place of honor. When she entered, arm in arm with the little king, she made a point of stopping to kiss Cersei on the cheeks and throw her arms around her. “Your Grace,” the girl said, bold as polished brass, “I feel as though I have a second mother now. I pray that we shall be very close, united by our love for your sweet son.”

“I loved both my sons.”

“Joffrey is in my prayers as well,” said Margaery. “I loved him dearly, though I never had the chance to know him.”

Liar, the queen thought. If you had loved him even for an instant, you would not have been in such unseemly haste to wed his brother. His crown was all you ever wanted. For half a groat she would have slapped the blushing bride right there upon the dais, in view of half the court.

Like the service, the wedding feast was modest. Lady Alerie had made all the arrangements; Cersei had not had the stomach to face that daunting task again, after the way Joffrey’s wedding had ended. Only seven courses were served. Butterbumps and Moon Boy entertained the guests between dishes, and musicians played as they ate. They listened to pipers and fiddlers, a lute and a flute, a high harp. The only singer was some favorite of Lady Margaery’s, a dashing young cock-a-whoop clad all in shades of azure who called himself the Blue Bard. He sang a few love songs and retired. “What a disappointment,” Lady Olenna complained loudly. “I was hoping for ‘The Rains of Castamere.’”

Whenever Cersei looked at the old crone, the face of Maggy the Frog seemed to float before her eyes, wrinkled and terrible and wise. All old women look alike, she tried to tell herself, that’s all it is. In truth, the bent-back sorceress had looked nothing like the Queen of Thorns, yet somehow the sight of Lady Olenna’s nasty little smile was enough to put her back in Maggy’s tent again. She could still remember the smell of it, redolent with queer eastern spices, and the softness of Maggy’s gums as she sucked the blood from Cersei’s finger. Queen you shall be, the old woman had promised, with her lips still wet and red and glistening, until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.

Cersei glanced past Tommen, to where Margaery sat laughing with her father. She is pretty enough, she had to admit, but most of that is youth. Even peasant girls are pretty at a certain age, when they are still fresh and innocent and unspoiled, and most of them have the same brown hair and brown eyes as she does. Only a fool would ever claim she was more beautiful than I. The world was full of fools, however. So was her son’s court.

Her mood was not improved when Mace Tyrell arose to lead the toasts. He raised a golden goblet high, smiling at his pretty little daughter, and in a booming voice said, “To the king and queen!” The other sheep all baaaaaaed along with him. “The king and queen!” they cried, smashing their cups together. “The king and queen!” She had no choice but to drink along with them, all the time wishing that the guests had but a single face, so she could throw her wine into their eyes and remind them that she was the true queen. The only one of Tyrell’s lickspittles who seemed to remember her at all was Paxter Redwyne, who rose to make his own toast, swaying slightly. “To both our queens!” he chirruped. “To the young queen and the old!”

Cersei drank several cups of wine and pushed her food around a golden plate. Jaime ate even less, and seldom deigned to occupy his seat upon the dais. He is as anxious as I am, the queen realized as she watched him prowl the hall, twitching aside the tapestries with his good hand to assure himself that no one was hiding behind them. There were Lannister spearmen posted around the building, she knew. Ser Osmund Kettleblack guarded one door, Ser Meryn Trant the other. Balon Swann stood behind the king’s chair, Loras Tyrell behind the queen’s. No swords had been allowed inside the feast save for those the white knights bore.

My son is safe, Cersei told herself. No harm can come to him, not here, not now. Yet every time she looked at Tommen, she saw Joffrey clawing at his throat. And when the boy began to cough the queen’s heart stopped beating for a moment. She knocked aside a serving girl in her haste to reach him.

“Only a little wine that went down the wrong way,” Margaery Tyrell assured her, smiling. She took Tommen’s hand in her own and kissed his fingers. “My little love needs to take smaller sips. See, you scared your lady mother half to death.”

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Tommen said, abashed.

It was more than Cersei could stand. I cannot let them see me cry, she thought, when she felt the tears welling in her eyes. She walked past Ser Meryn Trant and out into the back passage. Alone beneath a tallow candle, she allowed herself a shuddering sob, then another. A woman may weep, but not a queen.

“Your Grace?” said a voice behind her. “Do I intrude?”

It was a woman’s voice, flavored with the accents of the east. For an instant she feared that Maggy the Frog was speaking to her from the grave. But it was only Merryweather’s wife, the sloe-eyed beauty Lord Orton had wed during his exile and fetched home with him to Longtable. “The Small Hall is so stuffy,” Cersei heard herself say. “The smoke was making my eyes water.”

“And mine, Your Grace.” Lady Merryweather was as tall as the queen, but dark instead of fair, raven-haired and olive-skinned and younger by a decade. She offered the queen a pale blue handkerchief of silk and lace. “I have a son as well. I know that I shall weep rivers on the day he weds.”

Cersei wiped her cheeks, furious that she had let her tears be seen. “My thanks,” she said stiffly.

“Your Grace, I…” The Myrish woman lowered her voice. “There is something you must know. Your maid is bought and paid for. She tells Lady Margaery everything you do.”

“Senelle?” Sudden fury twisted in the queen’s belly. Was there no one she could trust? “You are certain of this?”

“Have her followed. Margaery never meets with her directly. Her cousins are her ravens, they bring her messages. Sometimes Elinor, sometimes Alla, sometimes Megga. All of them are as close to Margaery as sisters. They meet in the sept and pretend to pray. Put your own man in the gallery on the morrow, and he will see Senelle whispering to Megga beneath the altar of the Maiden.”

“If this is true, why tell me? You are one of Margaery’s companions. Why would you betray her?” Cersei had learned suspicion at her father’s knee; this could well be some trap, a lie meant to sow discord between the lion and the rose.

“Longtable may be sworn to Highgarden,” the woman replied, with a toss of her black hair, “but I am of Myr, and my loyalty is to my husband and my son. I want all that is best for them.”

“I see.” In the closeness of the passage, the queen could smell the other woman’s perfume, a musky scent that spoke of moss and earth and wildflowers. Under it, she smelled ambition. She gave testimony at Tyrion’s trial, Cersei recalled suddenly. She saw the Imp put the poison in Joff’s cup and was not afraid to say so. “I shall look into this,” she promised. “If what you say is true, you will be rewarded.” And if you’ve lied to me, I’ll have your tongue, and your lord husband’s lands and gold as well.

“Your Grace is kind. And beautiful.” Lady Merryweather smiled. Her teeth were white, her lips full and dark.

When the queen returned to the Small Hall, she found her brother pacing restlessly. “It was only a gulp of wine that went down the wrong way. Though it startled me as well.”

“My belly is such a knot that I cannot eat,” she growled at him. “The wine tastes of bile. This wedding was a mistake.”

“This wedding was necessary. The boy is safe.”

“Fool. No one who wears a crown is ever safe.” She looked about the hall. Mace Tyrell laughed amongst his knights. Lords Redwyne and Rowan were talking furtively. Ser Kevan sat brooding over his wine at the back of the hall, whilst Lancel whispered something to a septon. Senelle was moving down the table, filling the cups of the bride’s cousins with wine as red as blood. Grand Maester Pycelle had fallen asleep. There is no one I can rely upon, not even Jaime, she realized grimly. I will need to sweep them all away and surround the king with mine own people.

Later, after sweets and nuts and cheese had been served and cleared away, Margaery and Tommen began the dancing, looking more than a bit ridiculous as they whirled about the floor. The Tyrell girl stood a good foot and a half taller than her little husband, and Tommen was a clumsy dancer at best, with none of Joffrey’s easy grace. He did his earnest best, though, and seemed oblivious to the spectacle he was making of himself. And no sooner was Maid Margaery done with him than her cousins swooped in, one after the other, insisting that His Grace must dance with them as well. They will have him stumbling and shuffling like a fool by the time they’re done, Cersei thought resentfully as she watched. Half the court will be laughing at him behind his back.

Whilst Alla, Elinor, and Megga took their turns with Tommen, Margaery took a turn around the floor with her father, then another with her brother Loras. The Knight of Flowers was in white silk, with a belt of golden roses about his waist and a jade rose fastening his cloak. They could be twins, Cersei thought as she watched them. Ser Loras was a year older than his sister, but they had the same big brown eyes, the same thick brown hair falling in lazy ringlets to their shoulders, the same smooth unblemished skin. A ripe crop of pimples would teach them some humility. Loras was taller and had a few wisps of soft brown fuzz on his face, and Margaery had a woman’s shape, but elsewise they were more alike than she and Jaime. That annoyed her too.

Her own twin interrupted her musings. “Would Your Grace honor her white knight with a dance?”

She gave him a withering look. “And have you fumbling at me with that stump? No. I will let you fill my wine cup for me, though. If you think you can manage it without spilling.”

“A cripple like me? Not likely.” He moved away and made another circuit of the hall. She had to fill her own cup.

Cersei refused Mace Tyrell as well, and later Lancel. The others took the hint, and no one else approached her. Our fast friends and loyal lords. She could not even trust the westermen, her father’s sworn swords and bannermen. Not if her own uncle was conspiring with her enemies…

Margaery was dancing with her cousin Alla, Megga with Ser Tallad the Tall. The other cousin, Elinor, was sharing a cup of wine with the handsome young Bastard of Driftmark, Aurane Waters. It was not the first time the queen had made note of Waters, a lean young man with grey-green eyes and long silver-gold hair. The first time she had seen him, for half a heartbeat she had almost thought Rhaegar Targaryen had returned from the ashes. It is his hair, she told herself. He is not half as comely as Rhaegar was. His face is too narrow, and he has that cleft in his chin. The Velaryons came from old Valyrian stock, however, and some had the same silvery hair as the dragonkings of old.

Tommen returned to his seat to nibble at an applecake. Her uncle’s place was empty. The queen finally found him in a corner, talking intently with Mace Tyrell’s son Garlan. What do they have to talk about? The Reach might call Ser Garlan gallant, but she trusted him no more than Margaery or Loras. She had not forgotten the gold coin that Qyburn had discovered beneath the gaoler’s chamber pot. A golden hand from Highgarden. And Margaery is spying on me. When Senelle appeared to fill her wine cup, the queen had to resist an urge to take her by the throat and throttle her. Do not presume to smile at me, you treacherous little bitch. You will be begging me for mercy before I’m done with you.

“I think Her Grace has had enough wine for one night,” she heard her brother Jaime say.

No, the queen thought. All the wine in the world would not be enough to see me through this wedding. She rose so fast she almost fell. Jaime caught her by the arm and steadied her. She wrenched free and clapped her hands together. The music died, the voices stilled. “Lords and ladies,” Cersei called out loudly, “if you will be so good as to come outside with me, we shall light a candle to celebrate the union of Highgarden and Casterly Rock, and a new age of peace and plenty for our Seven Kingdoms.”

Dark and forlorn stood the Tower of the Hand, with only gaping holes where oaken doors and shuttered windows had once been. Yet even ruined and slighted, it loomed above the outer ward. As the wedding guests filed out of the Small Hall, they passed beneath its shadow. When Cersei looked up she saw the tower’s crenellated battlements gnawing at a hunter’s moon, and wondered for a moment how many Hands of how many kings had made their home there over the past three centuries.

A hundred yards from the tower, she took a breath to stop her head from spinning. “Lord Hallyne! You may commence.”

Hallyne the pyromancer said “Hmmmmmm” and waved the torch he was holding, and the archers on the walls bent their bows and sent a dozen flaming arrows through the gaping windows.

The tower went up with a whoosh. In half a heartbeat its interior was alive with light, red, yellow, orange… and green, an ominous dark green, the color of bile and jade and pyromancer’s piss. “The substance,” the alchemists named it, but common folk called it wildfire. Fifty pots had been placed inside the Tower of the Hand, along with logs and casks of pitch and the greater part of the worldly possessions of a dwarf named Tyrion Lannister.

The queen could feel the heat of those green flames. The pyromancers said that only three things burned hotter than their substance: dragonflame, the fires beneath the earth, and the summer sun. Some of the ladies gasped when the first flames appeared in the windows, licking up the outer walls like long green tongues. Others cheered, and made toasts.

It is beautiful, she thought, as beautiful as Joffrey, when they laid him in my arms. No man had ever made her feel as good as she had felt when he took her nipple in his mouth to nurse.

Tommen stared wide-eyed at the fires, as fascinated as he was frightened, until Margaery whispered something in his ear that made him laugh. Some of the knights began to make wagers on how long it would be before the tower collapsed. Lord Hallyne stood humming to himself and rocking on his heels.

Cersei thought of all the King’s Hands that she had known through the years: Owen Merryweather, Jon Connington, Qarlton Chelsted, Jon Arryn, Eddard Stark, her brother Tyrion. And her father, Lord Tywin Lannister, her father most of all. All of them are burning now, she told herself, savoring the thought. They are dead and burning, every one, with all their plots and schemes and betrayals. It is my day now. It is my castle and my kingdom.

The Tower of the Hand gave out a sudden groan, so loud that all the conversation stopped abruptly. Stone cracked and split, and part of the upper battlements fell away and landed with a crash that shook the hill, sending up a cloud of dust and smoke. As fresh air rushed in through the broken masonry, the fire surged upward. Green flames leapt into the sky and whirled around each other. Tommen shied away, till Margaery took his hand and said, “Look, the flames are dancing. Just as we did, my love.”

“They are.” His voice was filled with wonder. “Mother, look, they’re dancing.”

“I see them. Lord Hallyne, how long will the fires burn?”

“All night, Your Grace.”

“It makes a pretty candle, I grant you,” said Lady Olenna Tyrell, leaning on her cane between Left and Right. “Bright enough to see us safe to sleep, I think. Old bones grow weary, and these young ones have had enough excitement for one night. It is time the king and queen were put to bed.”

“Yes.” Cersei beckoned to Jaime. “Lord Commander, escort His Grace and his little queen to their pillows, if you would.”

“As you command. And you as well?”

“No need.” Cersei felt too alive for sleep. The wildfire was cleansing her, burning away all her rage and fear, filling her with resolve. “The flames are so pretty. I want to watch them for a while.”

Jaime hesitated. “You should not stay alone.”

“I will not be alone. Ser Osmund can remain with me and keep me safe. Your Sworn Brother.”

“If it please Your Grace,” said Kettleblack.

“It does.” Cersei slid her arm through his, and side by side they watched the fire rage.


The night was unseasonably cool, even for autumn. A brisk wet wind was swirling down the alleys, stirring up the day’s dust. A north wind, and full of chill. Ser Arys Oakheart pulled up his hood to cover his face. It would not do for him to be recognized. A fortnight past, a trader had been butchered in the shadow city, a harmless man who’d come to Dorne for fruit and found death instead of dates. His only crime was being from King’s Landing.

The mob would find a sterner foe in me. He would almost have welcomed an attack. His hand drifted down to brush lightly over the hilt on the longsword that hung half-hidden amongst the folds of his layered linen robes, the outer with its turquoise stripes and rows of golden suns, and the lighter orange one beneath. The Dornish garb was comfortable, but his father would have been aghast had he lived to see his son so dressed. He was a man of the Reach, and the Dornish were his ancient foes, as the tapestries at Old Oak bore witness. Arys only had to close his eyes to see them still. Lord Edgerran the Open-Handed, seated in splendor with the heads of a hundred Dornishmen piled round his feet. The Three Leaves in the Prince’s Pass, pierced by Dornish spears, Alester sounding his warhorn with his last breath. Ser Olyvar the Green Oak all in white, dying at the side of the Young Dragon. Dorne is no fit place for any Oakheart.

Even before Prince Oberyn had died, the knight had been ill at ease whenever he left the grounds of Sunspear to walk the alleys of the shadow city. He could feel eyes upon him everywhere he went, small black Dornish eyes regarding him with thinly veiled hostility. The shopkeepers did their best to cheat him at every turn, and sometimes he wondered whether the taverners were spitting in his drinks. Once a group of ragged boys began pelting him with stones, until he drew his sword and ran them off. The Red Viper’s death had inflamed the Dornish even more, though the streets had quieted a bit since Prince Doran had confined the Sand Snakes to a tower. Even so, to wear his white cloak openly in the shadow city would be asking for attack. He had brought three with him: two of wool, one light and one heavy, the third of fine white silk. He felt naked without one hanging from his shoulders.

Better naked than dead, he told himself. I am a Kingsguard still, even uncloaked. She must respect that. I must make her understand. He should never have let himself be drawn into this, but the singer said that love can make a fool of any man.

Sunspear’s shadow city oft seemed deserted in the heat of the day, when only buzzing flies moved down the dusty streets, but once evening fell the same streets came to life. Ser Arys heard faint music drifting through louvered windows as he passed below, and somewhere finger drums were beating out the quick rhythm of a spear dance, giving the night a pulse. Where three alleys met beneath the second of the Winding Walls, a pillow girl called down from a balcony. She was dressed in jewels and oil. He took a look at her, hunched his shoulders, and pushed on, into the teeth of the wind. We men are so weak. Our bodies betray even the noblest of us. He thought of King Baelor the Blessed, who would fast to the point of fainting to tame the lusts that shamed him. Must he do the same?

A short man stood in an arched doorway grilling chunks of snake over a brazier, turning them with wooden tongs as they crisped. The pungent smell of his sauces brought tears to the knight’s eyes. The best snake sauce had a drop of venom in it, he had heard, along with mustard seeds and dragon peppers. Myrcella had taken to Dornish food as quick as she had to her Dornish prince, and from time to time Ser Arys would try a dish or two to please her. The food seared his mouth and made him gasp for wine, and burned even worse coming out than it did going in. His little princess loved it, though.

He had left her in her chambers, bent over a gaming table opposite Prince Trystane, pushing ornate pieces across squares of jade and carnelian and lapis lazuli. Myrcella’s full lips had been slightly parted, her green eyes narrowed with concentration. Cyvasse, the game was called. It had come to the Planky Town on a trading galley from Volantis, and the orphans had spread it up and down the Greenblood. The Dornish court was mad for it.

Ser Arys just found it maddening. There were ten different pieces, each with its own attributes and powers, and the board would change from game to game, depending on how the players arrayed their home squares. Prince Trystane had taken to the game at once, and Myrcella had learned it so she could play with him. She was not quite one-and-ten, her betrothed three-and-ten; even so, she had been winning more oft than not of late. Trystane did not seem to mind. The two children could not have looked more different, him with his olive skin and straight black hair, her pale as milk with a mop of golden curls; light and dark, like Queen Cersei and King Robert. He prayed Myrcella would find more joy in her Dornish boy than her mother had found with her storm lord.

It made him feel uneasy to leave her, though she should be safe enough within the castle. There were only two doors that gave access to Myrcella’s chambers in the Tower of the Sun, and Ser Arys kept two men on each; Lannister household guards, men who had come with them from King’s Landing, battle-tested, tough, and loyal to the bone. Myrcella had her maids and Septa Eglantine as well, and Prince Trystane was attended by his sworn shield, Ser Gascoyne of the Greenblood. No one will trouble her, he told himself, and in a fortnight we shall be safely away.

Prince Doran had promised as much. Though Arys had been shocked to see how aged and infirm the Dornish prince appeared, he did not doubt the prince’s word. “I am sorry I could not see you until now, or meet Princess Myrcella,” Martell had said when Arys was admitted to his solar, “but I trust that my daughter Arianne has made you welcome here in Dorne, ser.”

“She has, my prince,” he’d answered, and prayed that no blush would dare betray him.

“Ours is a harsh land, and poor, yet not without its beauties. It grieves us that you have seen no more of Dorne than Sunspear, but I fear that neither you nor your princess would be safe beyond these walls. We Dornish are a hot-blooded people, quick to anger and slow to forgive. It would gladden my heart if I could assure you that the Sand Snakes were alone in wanting war, but I will not tell you lies, ser. You have heard my smallfolk in the streets, crying out for me to call my spears. Half my lords agree with them, I fear.”

“And you, my prince?” the knight had dared to ask.

“My mother taught me long ago that only madmen fight wars they cannot win.” If the bluntness of the question had offended him, Prince Doran hid it well. “Yet this peace is fragile… as fragile as your princess.”

“Only a beast would harm a little girl.”

“My sister Elia had a little girl as well. Her name was Rhaenys. She was a princess too.” The prince sighed. “Those who would plunge a knife into Princess Myrcella do not bear her any malice, no more than Ser Amory Lorch did when he killed Rhaenys, if indeed he did. They seek only to force my hand. For if Myrcella should be slain in Dorne whilst under my protection, who would believe my denials?”

“No one shall ever harm Myrcella whilst I live.”

“A noble vow,” said Doran Martell with a faint smile, “but you are only one man, ser. I had hoped that imprisoning my headstrong nieces would help to calm the waters, but all we’ve done is drive the roaches back beneath the rushes. Every night I hear them whispering and sharpening their knives.”

He is afraid, Ser Arys realized then. Look, his hand is shaking. The Prince of Dorne is terrified. Words failed him.

“My apologies, ser,” Prince Doran said. “I am frail and failing, and sometimes… Sunspear wearies me, with its noise and dirt and smells. As soon as my duty allows, I mean to return to the Water Gardens. When I do I shall take Princess Myrcella with me.” Before the knight could protest, the prince raised a hand, its knuckles red and swollen. “You shall go as well. And her septa, her maids, her guards. Sunspear’s walls are strong, but beneath them is the shadow city. Even within the castle hundreds come and go each day. The Gardens are my haven. Prince Maron raised them as a gift for his Targaryen bride, to mark Dorne’s marriage to the Iron Throne. Autumn is a lovely season there… hot days, cool nights, the salt breeze off the sea, the fountains and the pools. And there are other children, boys and girls of high and gentle birth. Myrcella will have friends of her own age to play with. She will not be lonely.”

“As you say.” The prince’s words pounded in his head. She will be safe there. Only why had Doran Martell urged him not to write King’s Landing about the move? Myrcella will be safest if no one knows just where she is. Ser Arys had agreed, but what choice did he have? He was a knight of the Kingsguard, but only one man for all that, just as the prince had said.

The alley opened suddenly onto a moonlit courtyard. Past the candlemaker’s shop, she wrote, a gate and a short flight of exterior steps. He pushed through the gate and climbed the worn steps to an unmarked door. Should I knock? He pushed the door open instead, and found himself in a large, dim room with a low ceiling, lit by a pair of scented candles that flickered in niches cut from the thick earthen walls. He saw patterned Myrish carpets underneath his sandals, a tapestry upon one wall, a bed. “My lady?” he called. “Where are you?”

“Here.” She stepped out from the shadow behind the door.

An ornate snake coiled around her right forearm, its copper and gold scales glimmering when she moved. It was all she wore.

No, he meant to tell her, I only came to tell you I must go, but when he saw her shining in the candlelight he seemed to lose the power of speech. His throat felt as dry as the Dornish sands. Silent he stood, drinking in the glories of her body, the hollow of her throat, the round ripe breasts with their huge dark nipples, the lush curves at waist and hip. And then somehow he was holding her, and she was pulling off his robes. When she reached his undertunic she seized it by the shoulders and ripped the silk down to his navel, but Arys was past caring. Her skin was smooth beneath his fingers, as warm to the touch as sand baked by the Dornish sun. He raised her head and found her lips. Her mouth opened under his, and her breasts filled his hands. He felt her nipples stiffen as his thumbs brushed over them. Her hair was black and thick and smelled of orchids, a dark and earthy smell that made him so hard it almost hurt.

“Touch me, ser,” the woman whispered in his ear. His hand slipped down her rounded belly to find the sweet wet place beneath the thicket of black hair. “Yes, there,” she murmured as he slipped a finger up inside her. She made a whimpering sound, drew him to the bed, and pushed him down. “More, oh more, yes, sweet, my knight, my knight, my sweet white knight, yes you, you, I want you.” Her hands guided him inside her, then slipped around his back to pull him closer. “Deeper,” she whispered. “Yes, oh.” When she wrapped her legs around him, they felt as strong as steel. Her nails raked his back as he drove into her, again and again and again, until she screamed and arched her back beneath him. As she did, her fingers found his nipples, pinching till he spent his seed within her. I could die now, happy, the knight thought, and for a dozen heartbeats at least he was at peace.

He did not die.

His desire was as deep and boundless as the sea, but when the tide receded, the rocks of shame and guilt thrust up as sharp as ever. Sometimes the waves would cover them, but they remained beneath the waters, hard and black and slimy. What am I doing? he asked himself. I am a knight of the Kingsguard. He rolled off of her to sprawl staring at the ceiling. A great crack ran across it, from one wall to the other. He had not noticed that before, no more than he had noticed the picture on the tapestry, a scene of Nymeria and her ten thousand ships. I see only her. A dragon might have been peering in the window, and I would never have seen anything but her breasts, her face, her smile.

“There is wine,” she murmured against his neck. She slid a hand across his chest. “Are you thirsty?”

“No.” He rolled away, and sat on the edge of the bed. The room was hot, and yet he shivered.

“You bleed,” she said. “I scratched too hard.”

When she touched his back, he flinched as if her fingers were afire. “Don’t.” Naked, he stood. “No more.”

“I have balm. For the scratches.”

But none for my shame. “The scratches are nothing. Forgive me, my lady, I must go…”

“So soon?” She had a husky voice, a wide mouth made for whispers, full lips ripe for kissing. Her hair tumbled down across her bare shoulders to the tops of her full breasts, black and thick. It curled in big soft lazy ringlets. Even the hair upon her mound was soft and curly. “Stay with me tonight, ser. I still have much to teach you.”

“I have learned too much from you already.”

“You seemed glad enough for the lessons at the time, ser. Are you certain you are not off to some other bed, some other woman? Tell me who she is. I will fight her for you, bare-breasted, knife to knife.” She smiled. “Unless she is a Sand Snake. If so, we can share you. I love my cousins well.”

“You know I have no other woman. Only… duty.”

She rolled onto one elbow to look up at him, her big black eyes shining in the candlelight. “That poxy bitch? I know her. Dry as dust between the legs, and her kisses leave you bleeding. Let duty sleep alone for once, and stay with me tonight.”

“My place is at the palace.”

She sighed. “With your other princess. You will make me jealous. I think you love her more than me. The maid is much too young for you. You need a woman, not a little girl, but I can play the innocent if that excites you.”

“You should not say such things.” Remember, she is Dornish. In the Reach men said it was the food that made Dornishmen so hot-tempered and their women so wild and wanton. Fiery peppers and strange spices heat the blood, she cannot help herself. “I love Myrcella as a daughter.” He could never have a daughter of his own, no more than he could have a wife. He had a fine white cloak instead. “We are going to the Water Gardens.”

“Eventually,” she agreed, “though with my father, everything takes four times as long as it should. If he says he means to leave upon the morrow, you will certainly set out within a fortnight. You will be lonely in the Gardens, I promise you. And where is the brave young gallant who said he wished to spend the rest of his life in my arms?”

“I was drunk when I said that.”

“You’d had three cups of watered wine.”

“I was drunk on you. It had been ten years since… I never touched a woman until you, not since I took the white. I never knew what love could be, yet now… I am afraid.”

“What would frighten my white knight?”

“I fear for my honor,” he said, “and for yours.”

“I can tend to my own honor.” She touched a finger to her breast, drawing it slowly round her nipple. “And to my own pleasures, if need be. I am a woman grown.”

She was that, beyond a doubt. Seeing her there upon the featherbed, smiling that wicked smile, toying with her breast… was there ever a woman with nipples so large or so responsive? He could hardly look at them without wanting to grab them, to suckle them until they were hard and wet and shiny…

He looked away. His smallclothes were strewn on the carpets. The knight bent to pick them up.

“Your hands are shaking,” she pointed out. “They would sooner be caressing me, I think. Must you be in such haste to don your clothes, ser? I prefer you as you are. Abed, unclad, we are our truest selves, a man and a woman, lovers, one flesh, as close as two can be. Our clothes make us different people. I would sooner be flesh and blood than silks and jewels, and you… you are not your white cloak, ser.”

“I am,” Ser Arys said. “I am my cloak. And this must end, for your sake as well as mine. If we should be discovered…”

“Men will think you fortunate.”

“Men will think me an oathbreaker. What if someone were to go to your father and tell him how I’d dishonored you?”

“My father is many things, but no one has ever said he was a fool. The Bastard of Godsgrace had my maidenhead when we were both fourteen. Do you know what my father did when he learned of it?” She gathered the bedclothes in her fist and pulled them up under her chin, to hide her nakedness. “Nothing. My father is very good at doing nothing. He calls it thinking. Tell me true, ser, is it my dishonor that concerns you, or your own?”

“Both.” Her accusation stung. “That is why this must be our last time.”

“So you have said before.”

I did, and meant it too. But I am weak, else I would not be here now. He could not tell her that; she was the sort of woman who despised weakness, he could sense that. She has more of her uncle in her than her father. He turned away and found his striped silk undertunic on a chair. She had ripped the fabric to the navel when she pulled it down over his arms. “This is ruined,” he complained. “How can I wear it now?”

“Backwards,” she suggested. “Once you don your robes, no one will see the tear. Perhaps your little princess will sew it up for you. Or shall I send a new one to the Water Gardens?”

“Send me no gifts.” That would only draw attention. He shook out the undertunic and pulled it over his head, backwards. The silk felt cool against his skin, though it clung to his back where she’d scratched him. It would serve to get him back to the palace, at the least. “All I want is to end this… this…”

“Is that gallant, ser? You hurt me. I begin to think that all your words of love were lies.”

I could never lie to you. Ser Arys felt as if she’d slapped him. “Why else would I have forsaken all my honor, but for love? When I am with you I… I can scarcely think, you are all I ever dreamt of, but…”

“Words are wind. If you love me, do not leave me.”

“I swore a vow…”

“… not to wed or father children. Well, I have drunk my moon tea, and you know I cannot marry you.” She smiled. “Though I might be persuaded to keep you for my paramour.”

“Now you mock me.”

“Perhaps a little. Do you think you are the only Kingsguard who ever loved a woman?”

“There have always been men who found it easier to speak vows than to keep them,” he admitted. Ser Boros Blount was no stranger to the Street of Silk, and Ser Preston Greenfield used to call at a certain draper’s house whenever the draper was away, but Arys would not shame his Sworn Brothers by speaking of their failings. “Ser Terrence Toyne was found abed with his king’s mistress,” he said instead. “’Twas love, he swore, but it cost his life and hers, and brought about the downfall of his House and the death of the noblest knight who ever lived.”

“Yes, and what of Lucamore the Lusty, with his three wives and sixteen children? The song always makes me laugh.”

“The truth is not so funny. He was never called Lucamore the Lusty whilst he lived. His name was Ser Lucamore Strong, and his whole life was a lie. When his deceit was discovered, his own Sworn Brothers gelded him, and the Old King sent him to the Wall. Those sixteen children were left weeping. He was no true knight, no more than Terrence Toyne…”

“And the Dragonknight?” She flung the bedclothes aside and swung her legs to the floor. “The noblest knight who ever lived, you said, and he took his queen to bed and got her with child.”

“I will not believe that,” he said, offended. “The tale of Prince Aemon’s treason with Queen Naerys was only that, a tale, a lie his brother told when he wished to set his trueborn son aside in favor of his bastard. Aegon was not called the Unworthy without cause.” He found his swordbelt and buckled it around his waist. Though it looked queer against the silken Dornish undertunic, the familiar weight of longsword and dagger reminded him of who and what he was. “I will not be remembered as Ser Arys the Unworthy,” he declared. “I will not soil my cloak.”

“Yes,” she said, “that fine white cloak. You forget, my great-uncle wore the same cloak. He died when I was little, yet I still remember him. He was as tall as a tower and used to tickle me until I could not breathe for laughing.”

“I never had the honor to know Prince Lewyn,” Ser Arys said, “but all agree that he was a great knight.”

“A great knight with a paramour. She is an old woman now, but she was a rare beauty in her youth, men say.”

Prince Lewyn? That tale Ser Arys had not heard. It shocked him. Terrence Toyne’s treason and the deceits of Lucamore the Lusty were recorded in the White Book, but there was no hint of a woman on Prince Lewyn’s page.

“My uncle always said that it was the sword in a man’s hand that determined his worth, not the one between his legs,” she went on, “so spare me all your pious talk of soiled cloaks. It is not our love that has dishonored you, it is the monsters you have served and the brutes you’ve called your brothers.”

That cut too close to the bone. “Robert was no monster.”

“He climbed onto his throne over the corpses of children,” she said, “though I will grant you he was no Joffrey.”

Joffrey. He had been a handsome lad, tall and strong for his age, but that was all the good that could be said of him. It still shamed Ser Arys to remember all the times he’d struck that poor Stark girl at the boy’s command. When Tyrion had chosen him to go with Myrcella to Dorne, he lit a candle to the Warrior in thanks. “Joffrey is dead, poisoned by the Imp.” He would never have thought the dwarf capable of such enormity. “Tommen is king now, and he is not his brother.”

“Nor is he his sister.”

It was true. Tommen was a good-hearted little man who always tried his best, but the last time Ser Arys saw him he had been weeping on the quay. Myrcella never shed a tear, though it was she who was leaving hearth and home to seal an alliance with her maidenhood. The truth was, the princess was braver than her brother, and brighter and more confident as well. Her wits were quicker, her courtesies more polished. Nothing ever daunted her, not even Joffrey. The women are the strong ones, truly. He was thinking not only of Myrcella, but of her mother and his own, of the Queen of Thorns, of the Red Viper’s pretty, deadly Sand Snakes. And of Princess Arianne Martell, her most of all. “I will not say that you are wrong.” His voice was hoarse.

“Will not? Cannot! Myrcella is more fit for rule…”

“A son comes before a daughter.”

Why? What god has made it so? I am my father’s heir. Should I give up my rights to my brothers?”

“You twist my words. I never said… Dorne is different. The Seven Kingdoms have never had a ruling queen.”

“The first Viserys intended his daughter Rhaenyra to follow him, do you deny it? But as the king lay dying the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard decided that it should be otherwise.”

Ser Criston Cole. Criston the Kingmaker had set brother against sister and divided the Kingsguard against itself, bringing on the terrible war the singers named the Dance of the Dragons. Some claimed he acted from ambition, for Prince Aegon was more tractable than his willful older sister. Others allowed him nobler motives, and argued that he was defending ancient Andal custom. A few whispered that Ser Criston had been Princess Rhaenyra’s lover before he took the white and wanted vengeance on the woman who had spurned him. “The Kingmaker wrought grave harm,” Ser Arys said, “and gravely did he pay for it, but…”

“… but perhaps the Seven sent you here so that one white knight might make right what another set awry. You do know that when my father returns to the Water Gardens he plans to take Myrcella with him?”

“To keep her safe from those who would do her harm.”

“No. To keep her away from those who’d seek to crown her. Prince Oberyn Viper would have placed the crown upon her head himself if he had lived, but my father lacks the courage.” She got to her feet. “You say you love the girl as you would a daughter of your own blood. Would you let your daughter be despoiled of her rights and locked away in prison?”

“The Water Gardens are no prison,” he protested feebly.

“A prison does not have fountains and fig trees, is that what you think? Yet once the girl is there, she will not be allowed to leave. No more than you will. Hotah will see to that. You do not know him as I do. He is terrible when aroused.”

Ser Arys frowned. The big Norvoshi captain with the scarred face had always made him feel profoundly uneasy. They say he sleeps with that great axe beside him. “What would you have me do?”

“No more than you have sworn. Protect Myrcella with your life. Defend her… and her rights. Set a crown upon her head.”

“I swore an oath!

“To Joffrey, not to Tommen.”

“Aye, but Tommen is a good-hearted boy. He will be a better king than Joffrey.”

“But not better than Myrcella. She loves the boy as well. I know she will not let him come to any harm. Storm’s End is his by rights, since Lord Renly left no heir and Lord Stannis is attainted. In time, Casterly Rock will pass to the boy as well, through his lady mother. He will be as great a lord as any in the realm… but Myrcella by rights should sit the Iron Throne.”

“The law… I do not know…”

“I do.” When she stood, the long black tangle of her hair fell down to the small of her back. “Aegon the Dragon made the Kingsguard and its vows, but what one king does another can undo, or change. Formerly the Kingsguard served for life, yet Joffrey dismissed Ser Barristan so his dog could have a cloak. Myrcella would want you to be happy, and she is fond of me as well. She will give us leave to marry if we ask.” Arianne put her arms around him and laid her face against his chest. The top of her head came to just beneath his chin. “You can have me and your white cloak both, if that is what you want.”

She is tearing me apart. “You know I do, but…”

“I am a princess of Dorne,” she said in her husky voice, “and it is not meet that you should make me beg.”

Ser Arys could smell the perfume in her hair and feel her heart beating as she pressed against him. His body was responding to her closeness, and he did not doubt that she could feel it too. When he put his arms upon her shoulders, he realized she was trembling. “Arianne? My princess? What is it, my love?”

“Must I say it, ser? I am afraid. You call me love, yet you refuse me, when I have most desperate need of you. Is it so wrong of me to want a knight to keep me safe?”

He had never heard her sound so vulnerable. “No,” he said, “but you have your father’s guards to keep you safe, why—”

“It is my father’s guards I fear.” For a moment she sounded younger than Myrcella. “It was my father’s guards who dragged my sweet cousins off in chains.”

“Not in chains. I have heard that they have every comfort.”

She gave a bitter laugh. “Have you seen them? He will not permit me to see them, did you know that?”

“They were speaking treason, fomenting war…”

“Loreza is six, Dorea eight. What wars could they foment? Yet my father has imprisoned them with their sisters. You have seen him. Fear makes even strong men do things they might never do otherwise, and my father was never strong. Arys, my heart, hear me for the love you say you bear me. I have never been as fearless as my cousins, for I was made with weaker seed, but Tyene and I are of an age and have been close as sisters since we were little girls. We have no secrets between us. If she can be imprisoned, so can I, and for the same cause… this of Myrcella.”

“Your father would never do that.”

“You do not know my father. I have been disappointing him since I first arrived in this world without a cock. Half a dozen times he has tried to marry me to toothless greybeards, each more contemptible than the last. He never commanded me to wed them, I grant you, but the offers alone prove how little he regards me.”

“Even so, you are his heir.”

“Am I?”

“He left you to rule in Sunspear when he took himself off to his Water Gardens, did he not?”

“To rule? No. He left his cousin Ser Manfrey as castellan, old blind Ricasso as seneschal, his bailiffs to collect duties and taxes for his treasurer Alyse Ladybright to count, his shariffs to police the shadow city, his justiciars to sit in judgment, and Maester Myles to deal with any letters not requiring the prince’s own attention. Above them all he placed the Red Viper. My charge was feasts and frolics, and the entertainment of distinguished guests. Oberyn would visit the Water Gardens twice a fortnight. Me, he summoned twice a year. I am not the heir my father wants, he has made that plain. Our laws constrain him, but he would sooner have my brother follow him, I know it.”

“Your brother?” Ser Arys put his hand beneath her chin and raised her head, the better to look her in the eyes. “You cannot mean Trystane, he is just a boy.”

“Not Trys. Quentyn.” Her eyes were bold and black as sin, unflinching. “I have known the truth since I was four-and-ten, since the day that I went to my father’s solar to give him a good night kiss, and found him gone. My mother had sent for him, I learned later. He’d left a candle burning. When I went to blow it out, I found a letter lying incomplete beside it, a letter to my brother Quentyn, off at Yronwood. My father told Quentyn that he must do all that his maester and his master-at-arms required of him, because ‘one day you will sit where I sit and rule all Dorne, and a ruler must be strong of mind and body.’” A tear crept down Arianne’s soft cheek. “My father’s words, written in his own hand. They burned themselves into my memory. I cried myself to sleep that night, and many nights thereafter.”

Ser Arys had yet to meet Quentyn Martell. The prince had been fostered by Lord Yronwood from a tender age, had served him as a page, then a squire, had even taken knighthood at his hands in preference to the Red Viper’s. If I were a father, I would want my son to follow me as well, he thought, but he could hear the hurt in her voice, and he knew that if he said what he was thinking, he would lose her. “Perhaps you misunderstood,” he said. “You were only a child. Perhaps the prince was only saying that to encourage your brother to be more diligent.”

“You think so? Then tell me, where is Quentyn now?”

“The prince is with Lord Yronwood’s host in the Boneway,” Ser Arys said cautiously. That was what Sunspear’s ancient castellan had told him, when first he came to Dorne. The maester with the silky beard said the same.

Arianne demurred. “So my father wishes us to believe, but I have friends who tell me otherwise. My brother has crossed the narrow sea in secret, posing as a common merchant. Why?”

“How would I know? There could be a hundred reasons.”

“Or one. Are you aware that the Golden Company has broken its contract with Myr?”

“Sellswords break their contracts all the time.”

“Not the Golden Company. Our word is good as gold has been their boast since the days of Bittersteel. Myr is on the point of war with Lys and Tyrosh. Why break a contract that offered them the prospect of good wages and good plunder?”

“Perhaps Lys offered them better wages. Or Tyrosh.”

“No,” she said. “I would believe it of any of the other free companies, yes. Most of them would change sides for half a groat. The Golden Company is different. A brotherhood of exiles and the sons of exiles, united by the dream of Bittersteel. It’s home they want, as much as gold. Lord Yronwood knows that as well as I do. His forebears rode with Bittersteel during three of the Blackfyre Rebellions.” She took Ser Arys by the hand, and wove her fingers through his own. “Have you ever seen the arms of House Toland of Ghost Hill?”

He had to think a moment. “A dragon eating its own tail?”

“The dragon is time. It has no beginning and no ending, so all things come round again. Anders Yronwood is Criston Cole reborn. He whispers in my brother’s ear that he should rule after my father, that it is not right for men to kneel to women… that Arianne especially is unfit to rule, being the willful wanton that she is.” She tossed her hair defiantly. “So your two princesses share a common cause, ser… and they share as well a knight who claims to love them both, but will not fight for them.”

“I will.” Ser Arys sank to one knee. “Myrcella is the elder, and better suited to the crown. Who will defend her rights if not her Kingsguard? My sword, my life, my honor, all belong to her… and to you, my heart’s delight. I swear, no man will steal your birthright whilst I still have the strength to lift a sword. I am yours. What would you have of me?”

“All.” She knelt to kiss his lips. “All, my love, my true love, my sweet love, and forever. But first…”

“Ask, and it is yours.”

“… Myrcella.”


The stone wall was old and crumbling, but the sight of it across the field made the hairs on Brienne’s neck stand up.

That was where the archers hid and slew poor Cleos Frey, she thought… but half a mile farther on she passed another wall that looked much like the first and found herself uncertain. The rutted road turned and twisted, and the bare brown trees looked different from the green ones she remembered. Had she ridden past the place where Ser Jaime had snatched his cousin’s sword from its scabbard? Where were the woods they’d fought in? The stream where they’d splashed and slashed at one another until they drew the Brave Companions down upon them?

“My lady? Ser?” Podrick never seemed certain what to call her. “What are you looking for?”

Ghosts. “A wall I rode by once. It does not matter.” It was when Ser Jaime still had both his hands. How I loathed him, with all his taunts and smiles. “Stay quiet, Podrick. There may still be outlaws in these woods.”

The boy looked at the bare brown trees, the wet leaves, the muddy road ahead. “I have a longsword. I can fight.”

Not well enough. Brienne did not doubt the boy’s courage, only his training. A squire he might be, in name at least, but the men he’d squired for had served him ill.

She had gotten his story out of him in fits and starts on the road from Duskendale. His was a lesser branch of House Payne, an impoverished offshoot sprouted from the loins of a younger son. His father had spent his life squiring for richer cousins and had sired Podrick upon a chandler’s daughter he’d wed before going off to die in the Greyjoy Rebellion. His mother had abandoned him with one of those cousins when he was four, so she could run after a wandering singer who had put another baby in her belly. Podrick did not remember what she looked like. Ser Cedric Payne had been the nearest thing to a parent the boy had ever known, though from his stammered stories it seemed to Brienne that cousin Cedric had treated Podrick more like a servant than a son. When Casterly Rock called its banners, the knight had taken him along to tend his horse and clean his mail. Then Ser Cedric had been slain in the riverlands whilst fighting in Lord Tywin’s host.

Far from home, alone, and penniless, the boy had attached himself to a fat hedge knight named Ser Lorimer the Belly, who was part of Lord Lefford’s contingent, charged with protecting the baggage train. “The boys who guard the foodstuffs always eat the best,” Ser Lorimer liked to say, until he was discovered with a salted ham he’d stolen from Lord Tywin’s personal stores. Tywin Lannister chose to hang him as a lesson to other looters. Podrick had shared the ham and might have shared the rope as well, but his name had saved him. Ser Kevan Lannister took charge of him, and sometime later sent the boy to squire for his nephew Tyrion.

Ser Cedric had taught Podrick how to groom a horse and check his shoes for stones, and Ser Lorimer had taught him how to steal, but neither had given him much training with a sword. The Imp at least had dispatched him to the Red Keep’s master-at-arms when they came to court. But during the bread riots Ser Aron Santagar had been amongst those slain, and that had been the end of Podrick’s training.

Brienne cut two wooden swords from fallen branches to get a sense of Podrick’s skills. The boy was slow of speech but not of hand, she was pleased to learn. Though fearless and attentive, he was also underfed and skinny, and not near strong enough. If he had survived the Battle of the Blackwater as he claimed, it could only be because no one thought him worth the killing. “You may call yourself a squire,” she told him, “but I’ve seen pages half your age who could have beat you bloody. If you stay with me, you’ll go to sleep with blisters on your hands and bruises on your arms most every night, and you’ll be so stiff and sore you’ll hardly sleep. You don’t want that.”

“I do,” the boy insisted. “I want that. The bruises and the blisters. I mean, I don’t, but I do. Ser. My lady.”

So far he had been true to his word, and Brienne had been true to hers. Podrick had not complained. Every time he raised a new blister on his sword hand, he felt the need to show it to her proudly. He took good care of their horses too. He is still no squire, she reminded herself, but I am no knight, no matter how many times he calls me “ser.” She would have sent him on his way, but he had nowhere to go. Besides, though Podrick said he did not know where Sansa Stark had gone, it might be that he knew more than he realized. Some chance remark, half-remembered, might hold the key to Brienne’s quest.

“Ser? My lady?” Podrick pointed. “There’s a cart ahead.”

Brienne saw it: a wooden oxcart, two-wheeled and high-sided. A man and a woman were laboring in the traces, pulling the cart along the ruts toward Maidenpool. Farm folk, by the look of them. “Slowly now,” she told the boy. “They may take us for outlaws. Say no more than you must and be courteous.”

“I will, ser. Be courteous. My lady.” The boy seemed almost pleased by the prospect of being taken for an outlaw.

The farm folk watched them warily as they came trotting up, but once Brienne made it plain that she meant them no harm, they let her ride beside them. “We used to have an ox,” the old man told her as they made their way through the weed-choked fields, lakes of soft mud, and burnt and blackened trees, “but the wolves made off with him.” His face was red from the effort of pulling the cart. “They took off our daughter too and had their way with her, but she come wandering back after the battle down at Duskendale. The ox never did. The wolves ate him, I expect.”

The woman had little to add. She was younger than the man by twenty years, but never spoke a word, only looked at Brienne the same way she might have looked at a two-headed calf. The Maid of Tarth had seen such eyes before. Lady Stark had been kind to her, but most women were just as cruel as men. She could not have said which she found most hurtful, the pretty girls with their waspish tongues and brittle laughter or the cold-eyed ladies who hid their disdain behind a mask of courtesy. And common women could be worse than either. “Maidenpool was all in ruins when last I saw it,” she said. “The gates were broken and half the town was burned.”

“They rebuilt it some. This Tarly, he’s a hard man, but a braver lord than Mooton. There’s still outlaws in the woods, but not so many as there was. Tarly hunted down the worst o’ them and shortened them with that big sword o’ his.” He turned his head and spat. “You’ve seen no outlaws on the road?”

“None.” Not this time. The farther they had come from Duskendale, the emptier the road had been. The only travelers they’d glimpsed had melted away into the woods before they reached them, save for a big, bearded septon they met walking south with twoscore footsore followers. Such inns as they passed had either been sacked and abandoned or turned into armed camps. Yesterday they had encountered one of Lord Randyll’s patrols, bristling with longbows and lances. The horsemen had surrounded them while their captain questioned Brienne, but in the end he’d let them continue on their way. “Be wary, woman. The next men you meet may not be as honest as my lads. The Hound has crossed the Trident with a hundred outlaws, and it’s said they’re raping every wench they come upon and cutting off their teats for trophies.”

Brienne felt obligated to pass along that warning to the farmer and his wife. The man nodded as she told him, but when she was done he spat again and said, “Dogs and wolves and lions, may the Others take them all. These outlaws won’t dare come too near to Maidenpool. Not so long as Lord Tarly has the rule there.”

Brienne knew Lord Randyll Tarly from her time with King Renly’s host. Though she could not find it in herself to like the man, she could not forget the debt she owed him either. If the gods are good, we will pass Maidenpool before he knows that I am there. “The town will be restored to Lord Mooton once the fighting’s done,” she told the farmer. “His lordship has been pardoned by the king.”

“Pardoned?” The old man laughed. “For what? Sitting on his arse in his bloody castle? He sent men off to Riverrun to fight but never went himself. Lions sacked his town, then wolves, then sellswords, and his lordship just sat safe behind his walls. His brother ’ud never have hid like that. Ser Myles was bold as brass till that Robert killed him.”

More ghosts, Brienne thought. “I am looking for my sister, a fair maid of three-and-ten. Perhaps you’ve seen her?”

“I’ve not seen no maids, fair nor foul.”

No one has. But she had to keep asking.

“Mooton’s daughter, she’s a maid,” the man went on. “Till the bedding, anyways. These eggs, they’re for her wedding. Her and Tarly’s son. The cooks will need eggs for cakes.”

“They will.” Lord Tarly’s son. Young Dickon’s to be wed. She tried to recall how old he was; eight or ten, she thought. Brienne had been betrothed at seven, to a boy three years her senior, Lord Caron’s younger son, a shy boy with a mole above his lip. They had only met the once, on the occasion of their betrothal. Two years later he was dead, carried off by the same chill that took Lord and Lady Caron and their daughters. Had he lived, they would have been wed within a year of her first flowering, and her whole life would have been different. She would not be here now, dressed in man’s mail and carrying a sword, hunting for a dead woman’s child. More like she’d be at Nightsong, swaddling a child of her own and nursing another. It was not a new thought for Brienne. It always made her feel a little sad, but a little relieved as well.

The sun was half-hidden behind a bank of clouds when they emerged from the blackened trees to find Maidenpool before them, with the deep waters of the bay beyond. The town’s gates had been rebuilt and strengthened, Brienne saw at once, and crossbowmen walked its pink stone walls once more. Above the gatehouse floated King Tommen’s royal banner, a black stag and golden lion combatant on a field divided gold and crimson. Other banners displayed the Tarly huntsman, but the red salmon of House Mooton flew only from their castle on its hill.

At the portcullis they came upon a dozen guards armed with halberds. Their badges marked them for soldiers of Lord Tarly’s host, though none was Tarly’s own. She saw two centaurs, a thunderbolt, a blue beetle and a green arrow, but not the striding huntsman of Horn Hill. Their serjeant had a peacock on his breast, its bright tail faded by the sun. When the farmers drew their cart up he gave a whistle. “What’s this now? Eggs?” He tossed one up, caught it, and grinned. “We’ll take them.”

The old man squawked. “Our eggs is for Lord Mooton. For the wedding cakes and such.”

“Have your hens lay more. I haven’t had an egg in half a year. Here, don’t say you weren’t paid.” He flung a handful of pennies at the old man’s feet.

The farmer’s wife spoke up. “That’s not enough,” she said. “Not near enough.”

“I say it is,” said the serjeant. “For them eggs, and you as well. Bring her here, boys. She’s too young for that old man.” Two of the guards leaned their halberds against the wall and pulled the woman away from the cart, struggling. The farmer watched grey-faced, but dared not move.

Brienne spurred her mare forward. “Release her.”

Her voice made the guards hesitate long enough for the farmer’s wife to wrench free of their grasp. “This is none of your concern,” one man said. “You mind your mouth, wench.”

Brienne drew her sword instead.

“Well now,” the serjeant said, “naked steel. Seems to me I smell an outlaw. You know what Lord Tarly does with outlaws?” He still held the egg he’d taken from the cart. His hand closed, and the yolk oozed through his fingers.

“I know what Lord Randyll does with outlaws,” Brienne said. “I know what he does with rapers too.”

She had hoped the name might cow them, but the serjeant only flicked egg off his fingers and signaled to his men to spread out. Brienne found herself surrounded by steel points. “What was it you was saying, wench? What is it that Lord Tarly does to…”

“… rapers,” a deeper voice finished. “He gelds them or sends them to the Wall. Sometimes both. And he cuts fingers off thieves.” A languid young man stepped from the gatehouse, a swordbelt buckled at his waist. The surcoat he wore above his steel had once been white, and here and there still was, beneath the grass stains and dried blood. His sigil was displayed across his chest: a brown deer, dead and bound and slung beneath a pole.

Him. His voice was a punch in her stomach, his face a blade in her bowels. “Ser Hyle,” she said stiffly.

“Best let her by, lads,” warned Ser Hyle Hunt. “This is Brienne the Beauty, the Maid of Tarth, who slew King Renly and half his Rainbow Guard. She’s as mean as she is ugly, and there’s no one uglier… except perhaps for you, Pisspot, but your father was the rear end of an aurochs, so you have a good excuse. Her father is the Evenstar of Tarth.”

The guards laughed, but the halberds parted. “Shouldn’t we seize her, ser?” the serjeant asked. “For killing Renly?”

“Why? Renly was a rebel. So were we all, rebels to a man, but now we’re Tommen’s loyal lads.” The knight waved the farm folk through the gate. “His lordship’s steward will be pleased to see those eggs. You’ll find him in the market.”

The old man knuckled his forehead. “My thanks, m’lord. You’re a true knight, it’s plain to see. Come, wife.” They put their shoulders to the cart again and rumbled through the gate.

Brienne trotted after them, with Podrick at her heels. A true knight, she thought, frowning. Inside the town she reined up. The ruins of a stable could be seen off to her left, fronting on a muddy alley. Across from it three half-dressed whores stood on the balcony of a brothel, whispering to one another. One looked a bit like a camp follower who had once come up to Brienne to ask if she had a cunt or a cock inside her breeches.

“That rounsey may be the most hideous horse I’ve ever seen,” said Ser Hyle of Podrick’s mount. “I am surprised that you’re not riding it, my lady. Do you plan to thank me for my help?”

Brienne swung down off her mare. She stood a head taller than Ser Hyle. “One day I’ll thank you in a mêlée, ser.”

“The way you thanked Red Ronnet?” Hunt laughed. He had a full, rich laugh, though his face was plain. An honest face, she’d thought once, before she learned better; shaggy brown hair, hazel eyes, a little scar by his left ear. His chin had a cleft and his nose was crooked, but he did laugh well, and often.

“Shouldn’t you be watching your gate?”

He made a wry face at her. “My cousin Alyn is off hunting outlaws. Doubtless he’ll return with the Hound’s head, gloating and covered in glory. Meanwhile, I am condemned to guard this gate, thanks to you. I hope you’re pleased, my beauty. What is it that you’re looking for?”

“A stable.”

“Over by the east gate. This one burned.”

I can see that. “What you said to those men… I was with King Renly when he died, but it was some sorcery that slew him, ser. I swear it on my sword.” She put her hand upon her hilt, ready to fight if Hunt named her a liar to her face.

“Aye, and it was the Knight of Flowers who carved up the Rainbow Guard. On a good day you might have been able to defeat Ser Emmon. He was a rash fighter, and he tired easily. Royce, though? No. Ser Robar was twice the swordsman that you are… though you’re not a swordsman, are you? Is there such a word as swordswench? What quest brings the Maid to Maidenpool, I wonder?”

Searching for my sister, a maid of three-and-ten, she almost said, but Ser Hyle would know she had no sisters. “There’s a man I seek, at a place called the Stinking Goose.”

“I thought Brienne the Beauty had no use for men.” There was a cruel edge to his smile. “The Stinking Goose. An apt name, that… the stinking part, at least. It’s by the harbor. First you will come with me to see his lordship.”

Brienne did not fear Ser Hyle, but he was one of Randyll Tarly’s captains. A whistle, and a hundred men would come running to defend him. “Am I to be arrested?”

“What, for Renly? Who was he? We’ve changed kings since then, some of us twice. No one cares, no one remembers.” He laid a hand lightly on her arm. “This way, if you please.”

She wrenched away. “I would thank you not to touch me.”

“Thanks at last,” he said, with a wry smile.

When last she had seen Maidenpool, the town had been a desolation, a grim place of empty streets and burned homes. Now the streets were full of pigs and children, and most of the burned buildings had been pulled down. Vegetables had been planted in the lots where some once stood; merchant’s tents and knight’s pavilions took the place of others. Brienne saw new houses going up, a stone inn rising where a wooden inn had burned, a new slate roof on the town sept. The cool autumn air rang to the sounds of saw and hammer. Men carried timber through the streets, and quarrymen drove their wagons down muddy lanes. Many wore the striding huntsman on their breasts. “The soldiers are rebuilding the town,” she said, surprised.

“They would sooner be dicing, drinking, and fucking, I don’t doubt, but Lord Randyll believes in putting idle men to work.”

She had expected to be taken to the castle. Instead, Hunt led them toward the busy harbor. The traders had returned to Maidenpool, she was pleased to see. A galley, a galleas, and a big two-masted cog were in port, along with a score of little fishing boats. More fishermen were visible out on the bay. If the Stinking Goose yields nothing, I will take passage on a ship, she decided. Gulltown was only a short voyage away. From there she could make her way to the Eyrie easily enough.

They found Lord Tarly in the fishmarket, doing justice.

A platform had been thrown up beside the water, from which his lordship could look down upon the men accused of crimes. To his left stood a long gallows, with ropes enough for twenty men. Four corpses swung beneath it. One looked fresh, but the other three had plainly been there for some time. A crow was pulling strips of flesh from the ripe ruins of one of the dead men. The other crows had scattered, wary of the crowd of townsfolk who’d gathered in hopes of someone’s being hanged.

Lord Randyll shared the platform with Lord Mooton, a pale, soft, fleshy man in a white doublet and red breeches, his ermine cloak pinned at the shoulder by a red-gold brooch in the shape of a salmon. Tarly wore mail and boiled leather, and a breastplate of grey steel. The hilt of a greatsword poked up above his left shoulder. Heartsbane, it was named, the pride of his House.

A stripling in a roughspun cloak and soiled jerkin was being heard when they came up. “I never hurt no one, m’lord,” Brienne heard him say. “I only took what the septons left when they run off. If you got to take my finger for that, do it.”

“It is customary to take a finger from a thief,” Lord Tarly replied in a hard voice, “but a man who steals from a sept is stealing from the gods.” He turned to his captain of guards. “Seven fingers. Leave his thumbs.”

“Seven?” The thief paled. When the guards seized hold of him he tried to fight, but feebly, as if he were already maimed. Watching him, Brienne could not help think of Ser Jaime, and the way he’d screamed when Zollo’s arakh came flashing down.

The next man was a baker, accused of mixing sawdust in his flour. Lord Randyll fined him fifty silver stags. When the baker swore he did not have that much silver, his lordship declared that he could have a lash for every stag that he was short. He was followed by a haggard grey-faced whore, accused of giving the pox to four of Tarly’s soldiers. “Wash out her private parts with lye and throw her in a dungeon,” Tarly commanded. As the whore was dragged off sobbing, his lordship saw Brienne on the edge of the crowd, standing between Podrick and Ser Hyle. He frowned at her, but his eyes betrayed not a flicker of recognition.

A sailor off the galleas came next. His accuser was an archer of Lord Mooton’s garrison, with a bandaged hand and a salmon on his breast. “If it please m’lord, this bastid put his dagger through my hand. He said I was cheating him at dice.”

Lord Tarly took his gaze away from Brienne to consider the men before him. “Were you?”

“No, m’lord. I never.”

“For theft, I will take a finger. Lie to me and I will hang you. Shall I ask to see these dice?”

“The dice?” The archer looked to Mooton, but his lordship was gazing at the fishing boats. The bowman swallowed. “Might be I… them dice, they’re lucky for me, ’s true, but I…”

Tarly had heard enough. “Take his little finger. He can choose which hand. A nail through the palm for the other.” He stood. “We’re done. March the rest of them back to the dungeon, I’ll deal with them on the morrow.” He turned to beckon Ser Hyle forward. Brienne followed. “My lord,” she said, when she stood before him. She felt eight years old again.

“My lady. To what do we owe this… honor?”

“I have been sent to look for… for…” She hesitated.

“How will you find him if you do not know his name? Did you slay Lord Renly?”


Tarly weighed the word. He is judging me, as he judged those others. “No,” he said at last, “you only let him die.”

He had died in her arms, his life’s blood drenching her. Brienne flinched. “It was sorcery. I never…”

“You never?” His voice became a whip. “Aye. You never should have donned mail, nor buckled on a sword. You never should have left your father’s hall. This is a war, not a harvest ball. By all the gods, I ought to ship you back to Tarth.”

“Do that and answer to the throne.” Her voice sounded high and girlish, when she wanted to sound fearless. “Podrick. In my bag you’ll find a parchment. Bring it to his lordship.”

Tarly took the letter and unrolled it, scowling. His lips moved as he read. “The king’s business. What sort of business?”

Lie to me and I will hang you. “S-sansa Stark.”

“If the Stark girl were here, I’d know it. She’s run back north, I’ll wager. Hoping to find refuge with one of her father’s bannermen. She had best hope she chooses the right one.”

“She might have gone to the Vale instead,” Brienne heard herself blurt out, “to her mother’s sister.”

Lord Randyll gave her a contemptuous look. “Lady Lysa is dead. Some singer pushed her off a mountain. Littlefinger holds the Eyrie now… though not for long. The lords of the Vale are not the sort to bend their knees to some upjumped jackanapes whose only skill is counting coppers.” He handed her back her letter. “Go where you want and do as you will… but when you’re raped don’t look to me for justice. You will have earned it with your folly.” He glanced at Ser Hyle. “And you, ser, should be at your gate. I gave you the command there, did I not?”

“You did, my lord,” said Hyle Hunt, “but I thought—”

“You think too much.” Lord Tarly strode away.

Lysa Tully is dead. Brienne stood beneath the gallows, the precious parchment in her hand. The crowd had dispersed, and the crows had returned to resume their feast. A singer pushed her off a mountain. Had the crows dined on Lady Catelyn’s sister too?

“You spoke of the Stinking Goose, my lady,” said Ser Hyle. “If you want me to show you—”

“Go back to your gate.”

A look of annoyance flashed across his face. A plain face, not an honest one. “If that’s your wish.”

“It is.”

“It was only a game to pass the time. We meant no harm.” He hesitated. “Ben died, you know. Cut down on the Blackwater. Farrow too, and Will the Stork. And Mark Mullendore took a wound that cost him half his arm.”

Good, Brienne wanted to say. Good, he deserved it. But she remembered Mullendore sitting outside his pavilion with his monkey on his shoulder in a little suit of chain mail, the two of them making faces at each other. What was it Catelyn Stark had called them, that night at Bitterbridge? The knights of summer. And now it was autumn and they were falling like leaves…

She turned her back on Hyle Hunt. “Podrick, come.”

The boy trotted after her, leading their horses. “Are we going to find the place? The Stinking Goose?”

“I am. You are going to the stables, by the east gate. Ask the stableman if there’s an inn where we can spend the night.”

“I will, ser. My lady.” Podrick stared at the ground as they went, kicking stones from time to time. “Do you know where it is? The Goose? The Stinking Goose, I mean.”


“He said he’d show us. That knight. Ser Kyle.”


“Hyle. What did he do to you, ser? I mean, my lady.”

The boy may be a stumbletongue, but he’s not stupid. “At Highgarden, when King Renly called his banners, some men played a game with me. Ser Hyle was one of them. It was a cruel game, hurtful and unchivalrous.” She stopped. “The east gate is that way. Wait for me there.”

“As you say, my lady. Ser.”

No sign marked the Stinking Goose. It took her most of an hour to find it, down a flight of wooden steps beneath a knacker’s barn. The cellar was dim and the ceiling low, and Brienne thumped her head on a beam as she entered. No geese were in evidence. A few stools were scattered about, and a bench had been shoved up against one earthen wall. The tables were old wine casks, grey and wormholed. The promised stink pervaded everything. Mostly it was wine and damp and mildew, her nose told her, but there was a little of the privy too, and something of the lichyard.

The only drinkers were three Tyroshi seamen in a corner, growling at each other through green and purple beards. They gave her a brief inspection, and one said something that made the others laugh. The proprietor stood behind a plank that had been placed across two barrels. She was a woman, round and pale and balding, with huge soft breasts swaying beneath a soiled smock. She looked as though the gods had made her out of uncooked dough.

Brienne did not dare to ask for water here. She bought a cup of wine and said, “I am looking for a man called Nimble Dick.”

“Dick Crabb. Comes in most every night.” The woman eyed Brienne’s mail and sword. “If you’re going to cut him, do it somewheres else. We don’t want no trouble with Lord Tarly.”

“I want to talk with him. Why would I do him harm?”

The woman shrugged.

“If you would nod when he comes in I’d be thankful.”

“How thankful?”

Brienne put a copper star on the plank between them and found a place in the shadows with a good view of the steps.

She tried the wine. It was oily on the tongue and there was a hair floating in it. A hair as slender as my hopes of finding Sansa, she thought as she plucked it out. Chasing after Ser Dontos had been fruitless, and with Lady Lysa dead the Vale no longer seemed a likely refuge. Where are you, Lady Sansa? Did you run home to Winterfell, or are you with your husband, as Podrick seems to think? Brienne did not want to chase the girl across the narrow sea, where even the language would be strange to her. I will be even more a freak there, grunting and gesturing to make myself understood. They will laugh at me, as they laughed at Highgarden. A blush stole up her cheeks as she remembered.

When Renly donned his crown, the Maid of Tarth had ridden all the way across the Reach to join him. The king himself had greeted her courteously and welcomed her to his service. Not so his lords and knights. Brienne had not expected a warm welcome. She was prepared for coldness, for mockery, for hostility. She had supped upon such meat before. It was not the scorn of the many that left her confused and vulnerable, but the kindness of the few. The Maid of Tarth had been betrothed three times, but she had never been courted until she came to Highgarden.

Big Ben Bushy was the first, one of the few men in Renly’s camp who overtopped her. He sent his squire to her to clean her mail, and made her a gift of a silver drinking horn. Ser Edmund Ambrose went him one better, bringing flowers and asking her to ride with him. Ser Hyle Hunt outdid them both. He gave her a book, beautifully illuminated and filled with a hundred tales of knightly valor. He brought apples and carrots for her horses, and a blue silk plume for her helm. He told her the gossip of the camp and said clever, cutting things that made her smile. He even trained with her one day, which meant more than all the rest.

She thought it was because of him that the others started being courteous. More than courteous. At table men fought for the place beside her, offering to fill her wine cup or fetch her sweetbreads. Ser Richard Farrow played love songs on his lute outside her pavilion. Ser Hugh Beesbury brought her a pot of honey “as sweet as the maids of Tarth.” Ser Mark Mullendore made her laugh with the antics of his monkey, a curious little black-and-white creature from the Summer Islands. A hedge knight called Will the Stork offered to rub the knots from her shoulders.

Brienne refused him. She refused them all. When Ser Owen Inchfield seized her one night and pressed a kiss upon her, she knocked him arse-backwards into a cookfire. Afterward she looked at herself in a glass. Her face was as broad and bucktoothed and freckled as ever, big-lipped, thick of jaw, so ugly. All she wanted was to be a knight and serve King Renly, yet now…

It was not as if she were the only woman there. Even the camp followers were prettier than she was, and up in the castle Lord Tyrell feasted King Renly every night, whilst highborn maids and lovely ladies danced to the music of pipe and horn and harp. Why are you being kind to me? she wanted to scream, every time some strange knight paid her a compliment. What do you want?

Randyll Tarly solved the mystery the day he sent two of his men-at-arms to summon her to his pavilion. His young son Dickon had overheard four knights laughing as they saddled up their horses, and had told his lord father what they said.

They had a wager.

Three of the younger knights had started it, he told her: Ambrose, Bushy, and Hyle Hunt, of his own household. As word spread through the camp, however, others had joined the game. Each man was required to buy into the contest with a golden dragon, the whole sum to go to whoever claimed her maidenhead.

“I have put an end to their sport,” Tarly told her. “Some of these… challengers… are less honorable than others, and the stakes were growing larger every day. It was only a matter of time before one of them decided to claim the prize by force.”

“They were knights,” she said, stunned, “anointed knights.”

“And honorable men. The blame is yours.”

The accusation made her flinch. “I would never… my lord, I did nought to encourage them.”

“Your being here encouraged them. If a woman will behave like a camp follower, she cannot object to being treated like one. A war host is no place for a maiden. If you have any regard for your virtue or the honor of your House, you will take off that mail, return home, and beg your father to find a husband for you.”

“I came to fight,” she insisted. “To be a knight.”

“The gods made men to fight, and women to bear children,” said Randyll Tarly. “A woman’s war is in the birthing bed.”

Someone was coming down the cellar steps. Brienne pushed her wine aside as a ragged, scrawny, sharp-faced man with dirty brown hair stepped into the Goose. He gave the Tyroshi sailors a quick look and Brienne a longer one, then went up to the plank. “Wine,” he said, “and none o’ your horse piss in it, thank’e.”

The woman gave Brienne a look and nodded.

“I’ll buy your wine,” she called out, “for a word.”

The man looked her over, his eyes wary. “A word? I know a lot o’ words.” He sat down on the stool across from her. “Tell me which m’lady wants t’ hear, and Nimble Dick will say it.”

“I heard you fooled a fool.”

The ragged man sipped his wine, thinking. “Mighten be I did. Or not.” He wore a faded, torn doublet from which some lord’s badge had been ripped. “Who is it wants t’ know?”

“King Robert.” She put a silver stag on the barrel between them. Robert’s head was on one side, the stag on the other.

“Does he now?” The man took the coin and spun it, smiling. “I like to see a king dance, hey-nonny hey-nonny hey-nonny-ho. Mighten be I saw this fool of yours.”

“Was there a girl with him?”

“Two girls,” he said at once.

Two girls?” Could the other one be Arya?

“Well,” the man said, “I never seen the little sweets, mind you, but he was wanting passage for three.”

“Passage where?”

“T’other side o’ the sea, as I recall.”

“Do you remember what he looked like?”

“A fool.” He snatched the spinning coin off the table as it began to slow, and made it vanish. “A frightened fool.”

“Frightened why?”

He shrugged. “He never said, but old Nimble Dick knows the smell o’ fear. He come here most every night, buying drinks for sailors, making japes, singing little songs. Only one night some men come in with that hunter on their teats, and your fool went white as milk and got quiet till they left.” He edged his stool closer to hers. “That Tarly’s got soldiers crawling over the docks, watching every ship that comes or goes. Man wants a deer, he goes t’ the woods. He wants a ship, he goes t’ the docks. Your fool didn’t dare. So I offered him some help.”

“What sort of help?”

“The sort that costs more than one silver stag.”

“Tell me, and you’ll have another.”

“Let’s see it,” he said. She put another stag on the barrel. He spun it, smiled, scooped it up. “A man who can’t go t’ the ships need for the ships t’ come t’ him. I told him I knew a place where that might happen. A hidden place, like.”

Gooseprickles rose along Brienne’s arms. “A smugglers’ cove. You sent the fool to smugglers.”

“Him and them two girls.” He chuckled. “Only thing, well, the place I sent them, been no ships there for a while. Thirty years, say.” He scratched his nose. “What’s this fool to you?”

“Those two girls are my sisters.”

“Are they, now? Poor little things. Had a sister once meself. Skinny girl with knobby knees, but then she grew a pair o’ teats and a knight’s son got between her legs. Last I saw her she was off for King’s Landing t’ make a living on her back.”

“Where did you send them?”

Another shrug. “As t’ that, I can’t recall.”

“Where?” Brienne slapped another silver stag down.

He flicked the coin back at her with his forefinger. “Someplace no stag ever found… though a dragon might.”

Silver would not get the truth from him, she sensed. Gold might, or it might not. Steel would be more certain. Brienne touched her dagger, then reached into her purse instead. She found a golden dragon and put in on the barrel. “Where?”

The ragged man snatched up the coin and bit it. “Sweet. Puts me in mind o’ Crackclaw Point. Up north o’ here, ’tis a wild land o’ hills and bogs, but it happens I was born and bred there. Dick Crabb, I’m named, though most call me Nimble Dick.”

She did not offer her own name. “Where in Crackclaw Point?”

“The Whispers. You heard o’ Clarence Crabb, o’ course.”


That seemed to surprise him. “Ser Clarence Crabb, I said. I got his blood in me. He was eight foot tall, and so strong he could uproot pine trees with one hand and chuck them half a mile. No horse could bear his weight, so he rode an aurochs.”

“What does he have to do with this smugglers’ cove?”

“His wife was a woods witch. Whenever Ser Clarence killed a man, he’d fetch his head back home and his wife would kiss it on the lips and bring it back t’ life. Lords, they were, and wizards, and famous knights and pirates. One was king o’ Duskendale. They gave old Crabb good counsel. Being they was just heads, they couldn’t talk real loud, but they never shut up neither. When you’re a head, talking’s all you got to pass the day. So Crabb’s keep got named the Whispers. Still is, though it’s been a ruin for a thousand years. A lonely place, the Whispers.” The man walked the coin deftly across his knuckles. “One dragon by hisself gets lonely. Ten, now…”

“Ten dragons are a fortune. Do you take me for a fool?”

“No, but I can take you to one.” The coin danced one way, and back the other. “Take you to the Whispers, m’lady.”

Brienne did not like the way his fingers played with that gold coin. Still… “Six dragons if we find my sister. Two if we only find the fool. Nothing if nothing is what we find.”

Crabb shrugged. “Six is good. Six will serve.”

Too quick. She caught his wrist before he could tuck the gold away. “Do not play me false. You’ll not find me easy meat.”

When she let go, Crabb rubbed his wrist. “Bloody piss,” he muttered. “You hurt my hand.”

“I am sorry for that. My sister is a girl of three-and-ten. I need to find her before—”

“—before some knight gets in her slit. Aye, I hear you. She’s good as saved. Nimble Dick is with you now. Meet me by east gate at first light. I need t’ see this man about a horse.”


The sea made Samwell Tarly greensick.

It was not all his fear of drowning, though that was surely some of it. It was the motion of the ship as well, the way the decks rolled beneath his feet. “I have a queasy belly,” he confessed to Dareon the day they sailed from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. The singer slapped him on the back and said, “With a belly big as yours, Slayer, that is a lot of quease.”

Sam tried to keep a brave face on him, for Gilly’s sake if little else. She had never seen the sea before. When they were struggling through the snows after fleeing Craster’s Keep, they had come on several lakes, and even those had been a wonder to her. As Blackbird slipped away from shore the girl began to tremble, and big salt tears rolled down her cheeks. “Gods be good,” Sam heard her whisper. Eastwatch vanished first, and the Wall grew smaller and smaller in the distance, until it finally disappeared. The wind was coming up by then. The sails were the faded grey of a black cloak that had been washed too often, and Gilly’s face was white with fear. “This is a good ship,” Sam tried to tell her. “You don’t have to be afraid.” But she only looked at him, held her baby tighter, and fled below.

Sam soon found himself clutching tightly to the gunwale and watching the sweep of the oars. The way they all moved together was somehow beautiful to behold, and better than looking at the water. Looking at the water only made him think of drowning. When he was small his lord father had tried to teach him how to swim by throwing him into the pond beneath Horn Hill. The water had gotten in his nose and in his mouth and in his lungs, and he coughed and wheezed for hours after Ser Hyle pulled him out. After that he never dared go in any deeper than his waist.

The Bay of Seals was a lot deeper than his waist, and not so friendly as that little fishpond below his father’s castle. Its waters were grey and green and choppy, and the wooded shore they followed was a snarl of rocks and whirlpools. Even if he could kick and crawl that far somehow, the waves were like to smash him up against some stone and break his head to pieces.

“Looking for mermaids, Slayer?” asked Dareon when he saw Sam staring off across the bay. Fair-haired and hazel-eyed, the handsome young singer out of Eastwatch looked more like some dark prince than a black brother.

“No.” Sam did not know what he was looking for, or what he was doing on this boat. Going to the Citadel to forge a chain and be a maester, to be of better service to the Watch, he told himself, but the thought just made him weary. He did not want to be a maester, with a heavy chain wrapped around his neck, cold against his skin. He did not want to leave his brothers, the only friends he’d ever had. And he certainly did not want to face the father who had sent him to the Wall to die.

It was different for the others. For them, the voyage would have a happy ending. Gilly would be safe at Horn Hill, with all the width of Westeros between her and the horrors she had known in the haunted forest. As a serving maid in his father’s castle, she would be warm and well fed, a small part of a great world she could never have dreamed of as Craster’s wife. She would watch her son grow up big and strong, and become a huntsman or a stablehand or a smith. If the boy showed any aptitude for arms, some knight might even take him as a squire.

Maester Aemon was going to a better place as well. It was pleasant to think of him spending whatever time remained him bathed by the warm breezes of Oldtown, conversing with his fellow maesters and sharing his wisdom with acolytes and novices. He had earned his rest, a hundred times over.

Even Dareon would be happier. He had always claimed to be innocent of the rape that sent him to the Wall, insisting that he belonged at some lord’s court, singing for his supper. Now he would have that chance. Jon had named him a recruiter, to take the place of a man named Yoren, who had vanished and was presumed dead. His task would be to travel the Seven Kingdoms, singing of the valor of the Night’s Watch, and from time to time returning to the Wall with new recruits.

The voyage would be long and rough, no one could deny that, but for the others at least there would be a happy end. That was Sam’s solace. I am going for them, he told himself, for the Night’s Watch, and for the happy ending. The longer he looked at the sea, though, the colder and deeper it appeared.

But not looking at the water was even worse, Sam realized in the cramped cabin beneath the sterncastle that the passengers were sharing. He tried to take his mind off the roiling in his stomach by talking with Gilly as she nursed her son. “This ship will take us as far as Braavos,” he said. “We’ll find another ship to carry us to Oldtown. I read a book about Braavos when I was small. The whole city is built in a lagoon on a hundred little islands, and they have a titan there, a stone man hundreds of feet high. They have boats instead of horses, and their mummers play out written stories instead of just making up the usual stupid farces. The food is very good too, especially the fish. They have all kinds of clams and eels and oysters, fresh from their lagoon. We ought to have a few days between ships. If we do, we can go and see a mummer show, and have some oysters.”

He thought that would excite her. He could not have been more wrong. Gilly peered at him with flat, dull eyes, looking through some strands of unwashed hair. “If you want, m’lord.”

“What do you want?” Sam asked her.

“Nothing.” She turned away from him and moved her son from one breast to the other.

The motion of the boat was stirring up the eggs and bacon and fried bread that Sam had eaten before the ship set out. All at once he could not stand the cabin one more instant. He pushed himself back to his feet and clambered up the ladder to give his breakfast to the sea. The sickness came on Sam so strongly that he did not stop to gauge which way the wind was blowing, so he retched from the wrong rail and ended up spattering himself. Even so, he felt much better afterward… though not for long.

The ship was Blackbird, the largest of the Watch’s galleys. Storm Crow and Talon were faster, Cotter Pyke told Maester Aemon back at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, but they were fighting ships, lean, swift birds of prey where the rowers sat on open decks. Blackbird was a better choice for the rough waters of the narrow sea beyond Skagos. “There have been storms,” Pyke warned them. “Winter storms are worse, but autumn’s are more frequent.”

The first ten days were calm enough, as Blackbird crept across the Bay of Seals, never out of sight of land. It was cold when the wind was blowing, but there was something bracing about the salt smell in the air. Sam could hardly eat, and when he did force something down it did not stay down for long, but aside from that he did not do too badly. He tried to bolster Gilly’s courage and give her what cheer he could, but that proved hard. She would not come up on deck, no matter what he said, and seemed to prefer to huddle in the dark with her son. The babe liked the ship no more than his mother did, it seemed. When he was not squalling, he was retching up his mother’s milk. His bowels were loose and always moving, staining the furs that Gilly wrapped him in to keep him warm and filling the air with a brown stench. No matter how many tallow candles Sam lit, the smell of shit persisted.

It was more pleasant out in the open air, especially when Dareon was singing. The singer was known to Blackbird’s oarsmen, and would play for them as they rowed. He knew all their favorite songs: sad ones like “The Day They Hanged Black Robin,” “The Mermaid’s Lament,” and “Autumn of My Day,” rousing ones like “Iron Lances” and “Seven Swords for Seven Sons,” bawdy ones like “Milady’s Supper,” “Her Little Flower,” and “Meggett Was a Merry Maid, a Merry Maid Was She.” When he sang “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” all the oarsmen joined in, and Blackbird seemed to fly across the water. Dareon had not been much of a swordsman, Sam knew from their days training under Alliser Thorne, but he had a beautiful voice. “Honey poured over thunder,” Maester Aemon had once called it. He played woodharp and fiddle too, and even wrote his own songs… though Sam did not think them very good. Still, it was good to sit and listen, though the chest was so hard and splintery that Sam was almost grateful for his fleshy buttocks. Fat men take a cushion with them wherever they go, he thought.

Maester Aemon preferred to spend his days on deck as well, huddled beneath a pile of furs and gazing out across the water. “What is he looking at?” Dareon wondered one day. “For him it’s as dark up here as it is down in the cabin.”

The old man heard him. Though Aemon’s eyes had dimmed and gone dark, there was nothing wrong with his ears. “I was not born blind,” he reminded them. “When last I passed this way, I saw every rock and tree and whitecap, and watched the grey gulls flying in our wake. I was five-and-thirty and had been a maester of the chain for sixteen years. Egg wanted me to help him rule, but I knew my place was here. He sent me north aboard the Golden Dragon, and insisted that his friend Ser Duncan see me safe to Eastwatch. No recruit had arrived at the Wall with so much pomp since Nymeria sent the Watch six kings in golden fetters. Egg emptied out the dungeons too, so I would not need to say my vows alone. My honor guard, he called them. One was no less a man than Brynden Rivers. Later he was chosen lord commander.”

“Bloodraven?” said Dareon. “I know a song about him. ‘A Thousand Eyes, and One,’ it’s called. But I thought he lived a hundred years ago.”

“We all did. Once I was as young as you.” That seemed to make him sad. He coughed, and closed his eyes, and went to sleep, swaying in his furs whenever some wave rocked the ship.

Beneath grey skies they sailed, east and south and east again, as the Bay of Seals widened about them. The captain, a grizzled brother with a belly like a keg of ale, wore blacks so stained and faded that the crew called him Old Tattersalt. He seldom said a word. His mate made up for him, blistering the salt air with curses whenever the wind died or the oarsmen seemed to flag. They ate oaten porridge in the mornings, pease porridge in the afternoons, and salt beef, salt cod, and salt mutton at night, and washed it down with ale. Dareon sang, Sam retched, Gilly cried and nursed her babe, Maester Aemon slept and shivered, and the winds grew colder and more blustery with every passing day.

Even so, it was a better voyage than the last one Sam had taken. He had been no more than ten when he set sail on Lord Redwyne’s galleas, the Arbor Queen. Five times as large as Blackbird and magnificent to behold, she had three great burgundy sails and banks of oars that flashed gold and white in the sunlight. The way they rose and fell as the ship departed Oldtown had made Sam hold his breath… but that was the last good memory he had of the Redwyne Straits. Then as now the sea had made him sick, to his lord father’s disgust.

And when they reached the Arbor, things had gone from bad to worse. Lord Redwyne’s twin sons had despised Sam on first sight. Every morn they found some fresh way to shame him in the practice yard. On the third day Horas Redwyne made him squeal like a pig when he begged for quarter. On the fifth his brother Hobber clad a kitchen girl in his own armor and let her beat Sam with a wooden sword until he began to cry. When she revealed herself, all the squires and pages and stableboys howled with laughter.

“The boy needs a bit of seasoning, that’s all,” his father had told Lord Redwyne that night, but Redwyne’s fool rattled his rattle and replied, “Aye, a pinch of pepper, a few nice cloves, and an apple in his mouth.” Thereafter, Lord Randyll forbade Sam to eat apples so long as they remained beneath Paxter Redwyne’s roof. He had been seasick on their voyage home as well, but so relieved to be going that he almost welcomed the taste of vomit at the back of his throat. It was not until they were back at Horn Hill that his mother told Sam that his father had never meant for him to return. “Horas was to come with us in your place, whilst you remained on the Arbor as Lord Paxter’s page and cupbearer. If you had pleased him, you would have been betrothed to his daughter.” Sam could still recall the soft touch of his mother’s hand as she washed the tears off his face with a bit of lace, dampened with her spit. “My poor Sam,” she murmured. “My poor poor Sam.”

It will be good to see her again, he thought, as he clung to Blackbird’s rail and watched waves breaking on the stony shore. If she saw me in my blacks, it might even make her proud. “I am a man now, Mother,” I could tell her, “a steward, and a man of the Night’s Watch. My brothers call me Sam the Slayer sometimes.” He would see his brother Dickon too, and his sisters. “See,” I could tell them, “see, I was good for something after all.”

If he went to Horn Hill, though, his father might be there.

The thought made his belly heave again. Sam bent over the gunwale and retched, but not into the wind. He had gone to the right rail this time. He was getting good at retching.

Or so he thought, until Blackbird left the land behind and struck east across the bay for the shores of Skagos.

The island sat at the mouth of the Bay of Seals, massive and mountainous, a stark and forbidding land peopled by savages. They lived in caves and grim mountain fastnesses, Sam had read, and rode great shaggy unicorns to war. Skagos meant “stone” in the Old Tongue. The Skagosi named themselves the stoneborn, but their fellow northmen called them Skaggs and liked them little. Only a hundred years ago Skagos had risen in rebellion. Their revolt had taken years to quell and claimed the life of the Lord of Winterfell and hundreds of his sworn swords. Some songs said the Skaggs were cannibals; supposedly their warriors ate the hearts and livers of the men they slew. In ancient days, the Skagosi had sailed to the nearby isle of Skane, seized its women, slaughtered its men, and ate them on a pebbled beach in a feast that lasted for a fortnight. Skane remained unpeopled to this day.

Dareon knew the songs as well. When the bleak grey peaks of Skagos rose up from the sea, he joined Sam at Blackbird’s prow, and said, “If the gods are good, we may catch a glimpse of a unicorn.”

“If the captain is good, we won’t come that close. The currents are treacherous around Skagos, and there are rocks that can crack a ship’s hull like an egg. But don’t you mention that to Gilly. She’s scared enough.”

“Her and that squalling whelp of hers. I don’t know which of them is noisier. The only time he ever stops crying is when she shoves a nipple in his mouth, and then she starts to sob.”

Sam had noticed that as well. “Maybe the babe is hurting her,” he said, feebly. “If his teeth are coming in…”

Dareon plucked at his lute with one finger, sending up a derisive note. “I’d heard that wildlings were braver than that.”

“She is brave,” Sam insisted, though even he had to admit that he had never seen Gilly in such a wretched state. Though she hid her face more oft than not and kept the cabin dark, he could see that her eyes were always red, her cheeks wet with tears. When he asked her what was wrong, though, she only shook her head, leaving him to find answers of his own. “The sea scares her, that’s all,” he told Dareon. “Before she came to the Wall, all she knew was Craster’s Keep and the woods around it. I don’t know that she went more than half a league from the place that she was born. She knows streams and rivers, but she had never seen a lake until we came on one, and the sea… the sea is a scary thing.”

“We’ve never been out of sight of land.”

“We will be.” Sam did not relish that part himself.

“Surely a little water does not frighten the Slayer.”

“No,” Sam lied, “not me. But Gilly… maybe if you played some lullabies for them, it would help the babe to sleep.”

Dareon’s mouth twisted in disgust. “Only if she shoves a plug up his arse. I cannot abide the smell.”

The next day the rains began, and the seas grew rougher. “We had best go below, where it’s dry,” Sam said to Aemon, but the old maester only smiled, and said, “The rain feels good against my face, Sam. It feels like tears. Let me stay awhile longer, I pray you. It has been a long time since last I wept.”

If Maester Aemon meant to stay on deck, old and frail as he was, Sam had no choice but to do the same. He stayed beside the old man for nigh unto an hour, huddled in his cloak as a soft, steady rain soaked him to his skin. Aemon hardly seemed to feel it. He sighed and closed his eyes, and Sam moved closer to him, to shield him from the worst of the wind. He will ask me to help him to the cabin soon, he told himself. He must. But he never did, and finally thunder began to rumble in the distance, off to the east. “We have to get below,” Sam said, shivering. Maester Aemon did not reply. It was only then that Sam realized the old man had gone to sleep. “Maester,” he said, shaking him gently by one shoulder. “Maester Aemon, wake up.”

Aemon’s blind white eyes came open. “Egg?” he said, as the rain streamed down his cheeks. “Egg, I dreamed that I was old.”

Sam did not know what to do. He knelt and scooped the old man up and carried him below. No one had ever called him strong, and the rain had soaked through Maester Aemon’s blacks and made him twice as heavy, but even so, he weighed no more than a child.

When he shoved into the cabin with Aemon in his arms, he found that Gilly had let all the candles gutter out. The babe was asleep and she was curled up in a corner, sobbing softly in the folds of the big black cloak that Sam had given her. “Help me,” he said urgently. “Help me dry him off and get him warm.”

She rose at once, and together they got the old maester out of his wet clothes and buried him beneath a pile of furs. His skin was damp and cold, though, clammy to the touch. “You get in with him,” Sam told Gilly. “Hold him. Warm him with your body. We have to warm him up.” She did that too, never saying a word, all the while still sniffling. “Where’s Dareon?” asked Sam. “We’d all be warmer if we were together. He needs to be here too.” He was headed back up top to find the singer when the deck rose up beneath him, then fell away beneath his feet. Gilly wailed, Sam slammed down hard and lost his legs, and the babe woke screaming.

The next roll of the ship came as he was struggling back to his feet. It threw Gilly into his arms, and the wildling girl clung to him so fiercely that Sam could hardly breathe. “Don’t you be frightened,” he told her. “This is just an adventure. One day you’ll tell your son this tale.” That only made her dig her nails into his arm. She shuddered, her whole body shaking with the violence of her sobs. Whatever I say just makes her worse. He held her tightly, uncomfortably aware of her breasts pressing up against him. As frightened as he was, somehow that was enough to make him stiff. She’ll feel it, he thought, ashamed, but if she did, she gave no sign, only clung to him the harder.

The days ran together after that. They never saw the sun. The days were grey and the nights black, except when lightning lit the sky above the peaks of Skagos. All of them were starved yet none could eat. The captain broached a cask of firewine to fortify the oarsmen. Sam tried a cup and sighed as hot snakes wriggled down his throat and through his chest. Dareon took a liking to the drink as well, and was seldom sober thereafter.

The sails went up, the sails came down, and one ripped free of the mast and flew away like a great grey bird. As Blackbird rounded the south coast of Skagos, they spotted the wreckage of a galley on the rocks. Some of her crew had washed up on the shore, and the rooks and crabs had gathered to pay them homage. “Too bloody close,” grumbled Old Tattersalt when he saw. “One good blow, and we’ll be breaking up aside them.” Exhausted as they were, his rowers bent to their oars again, and the ship clawed south toward the narrow sea, till Skagos dwindled to no more than a few dark shapes in the sky that might have been thunderheads, or the tops of tall black mountains, or both. After that, they had eight days and seven nights of clear, smooth sailing.

Then came more storms, worse than before.

Was it three storms, or only one, broken up by lulls? Sam never knew, though he tried desperately to care. “What does it matter?” Dareon screamed at him once, when all of them were huddled in the cabin. It doesn’t, Sam wanted to tell him, but so long as I’m thinking about that I’m not thinking about drowning or being sick or Maester Aemon’s shivering. “It doesn’t,” he managed to squeak, but the thunder drowned out all the rest of it, and the deck lurched and knocked him sideways. Gilly was sobbing. The babe was shrieking. And up top he could hear Old Tattersalt bellowing at his crew, the ragged captain who never spoke at all.

I hate the sea, Sam thought, I hate the sea, I hate the sea, I hate the sea. The next lightning flash was so bright it lit the cabin through the seams in the planking overhead. This is a good sound ship, a good sound ship, a good ship, he told himself. It will not sink. I am not afraid.

During one of the lulls between the gales, as Sam clung white-knuckled to the rail wanting desperately to retch, he heard some of the crew muttering that this was what came of bringing a woman aboard ship, and a wildling woman at that. “Fucked her own father,” Sam heard one man say, as the wind was rising once again. “Worse than whoring, that. Worse than anything. We’ll all drown unless we get rid of her, and that abomination that she whelped.”

Sam dared not confront them. They were older men, hard and sinewy, their arms and shoulders thickened by years at the oars. But he made certain that his knife was sharp, and whenever Gilly left the cabin to make water, he went with her.

Even Dareon had no good to say about the wildling girl. Once, at Sam’s urging, the singer played a lullaby to soothe the babe, but partway through the first verse Gilly began to sob inconsolably. “Seven bloody hells,” Dareon snapped, “can’t you even stop weeping long enough to hear a song?”

“Just play,” Sam pleaded, “just sing the song for her.”

“She doesn’t need a song,” said Dareon. “She needs a good spanking, or maybe a hard fuck. Get out of my way, Slayer.” He shoved Sam aside and went from the cabin to find some solace in a cup of firewine and the rough brotherhood of the oars.

Sam was at his wit’s end by then. He had almost gotten used to the smells, but between the storms and Gilly’s sobbing he had not slept for days. “Isn’t there something you can give her?” he asked Maester Aemon very softly, when he saw that the old man was awake. “Some herb or potion, so she won’t be so afraid?”

“It is not fear you hear,” the old man told him. “That is the sound of grief, and there is no potion for that. Let her tears run their course, Sam. You cannot stem the flow.”

Sam had not understood. “She’s going to a safe place. A warm place. Why should she be grieving?”

“Sam,” the old man whispered, “you have two good eyes, and yet you do not see. She is a mother grieving for her child.”

“He’s greensick, that’s all. We’re all greensick. Once we make port in Braavos…”

“… the babe will still be Dalla’s son, and not the child of her body.”

It took Sam a moment to grasp what Aemon was suggesting. “That couldn’t… she wouldn’t… of course he’s hers. Gilly would never have left the Wall without her son. She loves him.”

“She nursed them both and loved them both,” said Aemon, “but not alike. No mother loves all her children the same, not even the Mother Above. Gilly did not leave the child willingly, I am certain. What threats the Lord Commander made, what promises, I can only guess… but threats and promises there surely were.”

“No. No, that’s wrong. Jon would never…”

“Jon would never. Lord Snow did. Sometimes there is no happy choice, Sam, only one less grievous than the others.”

No happy choice. Sam thought of all the trials that he and Gilly suffered, Craster’s Keep and the death of the Old Bear, snow and ice and freezing winds, days and days and days of walking, the wights at Whitetree, Coldhands and the tree of ravens, the Wall, the Wall, the Wall, the Black Gate beneath the earth. What had it all been for? No happy choices and no happy endings.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to howl and sob and shake and curl up in a little ball and whimper. He switched the babes, he told himself. He switched the babes to protect the little prince, to keep him away from Lady Melisandre’s fires, away from her red god. If she burns Gilly’s boy, who will care? No one but Gilly. He was only Craster’s whelp, an abomination born of incest, not the son of the King-beyond-the-Wall. He’s no good for a hostage, no good for a sacrifice, no good for anything, he doesn’t even have a name.

Wordless, Sam staggered up onto the deck to retch, but there was nothing in his belly to bring up. Night had come upon them, a strange still night such as they had not seen for many days. The sea was black as glass. At the oars, the rowers rested. One or two were sleeping where they sat. The wind was in the sails, and to the north Sam could even see a scattering of stars, and the red wanderer the free folk called the Thief. That ought to be my star, Sam thought miserably. I helped to make Jon Lord Commander, and I brought him Gilly and the babe. There are no happy endings.

“Slayer.” Dareon appeared beside him, oblivious to Sam’s pain. “A sweet night, for once. Look, the stars are coming out. We might even get a bit of moon. Might be the worst is done.”

“No.” Sam wiped his nose, and pointed south with a fat finger, toward the gathering darkness. “There,” he said. No sooner had he spoken than lightning flashed, sudden and silent and blinding bright. The distant clouds glowed for half a heartbeat, mountains heaped on mountains, purple and red and yellow, taller than the world. “The worst isn’t done. The worst is just beginning, and there are no happy endings.”

“Gods be good,” said Dareon, laughing. “Slayer, you are such a craven.”


Lord Tywin Lannister had entered the city on a stallion, his enameled crimson armor polished and gleaming, bright with gems and goldwork. He left it in a tall wagon draped with crimson banners, with six silent sisters riding attendance on his bones.

The funeral procession departed King’s Landing through the Gate of the Gods, wider and more splendid than the Lion Gate. The choice felt wrong to Jaime. His father had been a lion, that no one could deny, but even Lord Tywin never claimed to be a god.

An honor guard of fifty knights surrounded Lord Tywin’s wagon, crimson pennons fluttering from their lances. The lords of the west followed close behind them. The winds snapped at their banners, making their charges dance and flutter. As he trotted up the column, Jaime passed boars, badgers, and beetles, a green arrow and a red ox, crossed halberds, crossed spears, a treecat, a strawberry, a maunch, four sunbursts counterchanged.

Lord Brax was wearing a pale grey doublet slashed with cloth-of-silver, an amethyst unicorn pinned above his heart. Lord Jast was armored in black steel, three gold lion’s heads inlaid on his breastplate. The rumors of his death had not been far wrong, to look at him; wounds and imprisonment had left him a shadow of the man he’d been. Lord Banefort had weathered battle better, and looked ready to return to war at once. Plumm wore purple, Prester ermine, Moreland russet and green, but each had donned a cloak of crimson silk, in honor of the man they were escorting home.

Behind the lords came a hundred crossbowmen and three hundred men-at-arms, and crimson flowed from their shoulders as well. In his white cloak and white scale armor, Jaime felt out of place amongst that river of red.

Nor did his uncle make him more at ease. “Lord Commander,” Ser Kevan said, when Jaime trotted up beside him at the head of the column. “Does Her Grace have some last command for me?”

“I am not here for Cersei.” A drum began to beat behind them, slow, measured, funereal. Dead, it seemed to say, dead, dead. “I came to make my farewells. He was my father.”

“And hers.”

“I am not Cersei. I have a beard, and she has breasts. If you are still confused, nuncle, count our hands. Cersei has two.”

“Both of you have a taste for mockery,” his uncle said. “Spare me your japes, ser, I have no taste for them.”

“As you will.” This is not going as well as I might have hoped. “Cersei would have wanted to see you off, but she has many pressing duties.”

Ser Kevan snorted. “So do we all. How fares your king?” His tone made the question a reproach.

“Well enough,” Jaime said defensively. “Balon Swann is with him during the mornings. A good and valiant knight.”

“Once that went without saying when men spoke of those who wore the white cloak.”

No man can choose his brothers, Jaime thought. Give me leave to pick my own men, and the Kingsguard will be great again. Put that baldly, though, it sounded feeble; an empty boast from a man the realm called Kingslayer. A man with shit for honor. Jaime let it go. He had not come to argue with his uncle. “Ser,” he said, “you need to make your peace with Cersei.”

“Are we at war? No one told me.”

Jaime ignored that. “Strife between Lannister and Lannister can only help the enemies of our House.”

“If there is strife, it will not be my doing. Cersei wants to rule. Well and good. The realm is hers. All I ask is to be left in peace. My place is at Darry with my son. The castle must needs be restored, the lands planted and protected.” He gave a bark of bitter laughter. “And your sister has left me little else to occupy my time. I had as well see Lancel wed. His bride has grown impatient waiting for us to make our way to Darry.”

His widow from the Twins. His cousin Lancel was riding ten yards behind them. With his hollow eyes and dry white hair, he looked older than Lord Jast. Jaime could feel his phantom fingers itching at the sight of him… fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy for all I know… He had tried to speak with Lancel more times than he could count, but never found him alone. If his father was not with him, some septon was. He may be Kevan’s son, but he has milk in his veins. Tyrion was lying to me. His words were meant to wound.

Jaime put his cousin from his thoughts and turned back to his uncle. “Will you remain at Darry after the wedding?”

“For a while, mayhaps. Sandor Clegane is raiding along the Trident, it would seem. Your sister wants his head. It may be that he has joined Dondarrion.”

Jaime had heard about Saltpans. By now half the realm had heard. The raid had been exceptionally savage. Women raped and mutilated, children butchered in their mothers’ arms, half the town put to the torch. “Randyll Tarly is at Maidenpool. Let him deal with the outlaws. I would sooner have you go to Riverrun.”

“Ser Daven has command there. The Warden of the West. He has no need of me. Lancel does.”

“As you say, uncle.” Jaime’s head was pounding to the same beat as the drum. Dead, dead, dead. “You would do well to keep your knights around you.”

His uncle gave him a cool stare. “Is that a threat, ser?”

A threat? The suggestion took him aback. “A caution. I only meant… Sandor is dangerous.”

“I was hanging outlaws and robber knights when you were still shitting in your swaddling clothes. I am not like to go off and face Clegane and Dondarrion by myself, if that is what you fear, ser. Not every Lannister is a fool for glory.”

Why, nuncle, I believe you are talking about me. “Addam Marbrand could deal with these outlaws just as well as you. So could Brax, Banefort, Plumm, any of these others. But none would make a good King’s Hand.”

“Your sister knows my terms. They have not changed. Tell her that, the next time you are in her bedchamber.” Ser Kevan put his heels into his courser and galloped ahead, putting an abrupt end to their conversation.

Jaime let him go, his missing sword hand twitching. He had hoped against hope that Cersei had somehow misunderstood, but plainly that was wrong. He knows about the two of us. About Tommen and Myrcella. And Cersei knows he knows. Ser Kevan was a Lannister of Casterly Rock. He could not believe that she would ever do him harm, but… I was wrong about Tyrion, why not about Cersei? When sons were killing fathers, what was there to stop a niece from ordering an uncle slain? An inconvenient uncle, who knows too much. Though perhaps Cersei was hoping that the Hound might do her work for her. If Sandor Clegane cut down Ser Kevan, she would not need to bloody her own hands. And he will, if they should meet. Kevan Lannister had once been a stout man with a sword, but he was no longer young, and the Hound…

The column had caught up to him. As his cousin rode past, flanked by his two septons, Jaime called out to him. “Lancel. Coz. I wanted to congratulate you upon your marriage. I only regret that my duties do not permit me to attend.”

“His Grace must be protected.”

“And will be. Still, I hate to miss your bedding. It is your first marriage and her second, I understand. I’m sure my lady will be pleased to show you what goes where.”

The bawdy remark drew a laugh from several nearby lords and a disapproving look from Lancel’s septons. His cousin squirmed uncomfortably in the saddle. “I know enough to do my duty as a husband, ser.”

“That’s just the thing a bride wants on her wedding night,” said Jaime. “A husband who knows how to do his duty.

A flush crept up Lancel’s cheeks. “I pray for you, cousin. And for Her Grace the queen. May the Crone lead her to her wisdom and the Warrior defend her.”

“Why would Cersei need the Warrior? She has me.” Jaime turned his horse about, his white cloak snapping in the wind. The Imp was lying. Cersei would sooner have Robert’s corpse between her legs than a pious fool like Lancel. Tyrion, you evil bastard, you should have lied about someone more likely. He galloped past his lord father’s funeral wayn toward the city in the distance.

The streets of King’s Landing seemed almost deserted as Jaime Lannister made his way back to the Red Keep atop Aegon’s High Hill. The soldiers who had crowded the city’s gambling dens and pot shops were largely gone now. Garlan the Gallant had taken half the Tyrell strength back to Highgarden, and his lady mother and grandmother had gone with him. The other half had marched south with Mace Tyrell and Mathis Rowan to invest Storm’s End.

As for the Lannister host, two thousand seasoned veterans remained encamped outside the city walls, awaiting the arrival of Paxter Redwyne’s fleet to carry them across Blackwater Bay to Dragonstone. Lord Stannis appeared to have left only a small garrison behind him when he sailed north, so two thousand men would be more than sufficient, Cersei had judged.

The rest of the westermen had gone back to their wives and children, to rebuild their homes, plant their fields, and bring in one last harvest. Cersei had taken Tommen round their camps before they marched, to let them cheer their little king. She had never looked more beautiful than she did that day, with a smile on her lips and the autumn sunlight shining on her golden hair. Whatever else one might say about his sister, she did know how to make men love her when she cared enough to try.

As Jaime trotted through the castle gates, he came upon two dozen knights riding at a quintain in the outer yard. Something else I can no longer do, he thought. A lance was heavier and more cumbersome than a sword, and swords were proving trial enough. He supposed he might try holding the lance with his left hand, but that would mean shifting his shield to his right arm. In a tilt, a man’s foe was always to the left. A shield on his right arm would prove about as useful as nipples on his breastplate. No, my jousting days are done, he thought as he dismounted… but all the same, he stopped to watch awhile.

Ser Tallad the Tall lost his mount when the sandbag came around and thumped him in the head. Strongboar struck the shield so hard he cracked it. Kennos of Kayce finished the destruction. A new shield was hung for Ser Dermot of the Rainwood. Lambert Turnberry only struck a glancing blow, but Beardless Jon Bettley, Humfrey Swyft, and Alyn Stackspear all scored solid hits, and Red Ronnet Connington broke his lance clean. Then the Knight of Flowers mounted up and put the others all to shame.

Jousting was three-quarters horsemanship, Jaime had always believed. Ser Loras rode superbly, and handled a lance as if he’d been born holding one… which no doubt accounted for his mother’s pinched expression. He puts the point just where he means to put it, and seems to have the balance of a cat. Perhaps it was not such a fluke that he unhorsed me. It was a shame that he would never have the chance to try the boy again. He left the whole men to their sport.

Cersei was in her solar in Maegor’s Holdfast, with Tommen and Lord Merryweather’s dark-haired Myrish wife. The three of them were laughing at Grand Maester Pycelle. “Did I miss some clever jape?” Jaime said, as he shoved through the door.

“Oh, look,” purred Lady Merryweather, “your brave brother has returned, Your Grace.”

“Most of him.” The queen was in her cups, Jaime realized. Of late, Cersei always seemed to have a flagon of wine to hand, she who had once scorned Robert Baratheon for his drinking. He misliked that, but these days he seemed to mislike everything his sister did. “Grand Maester,” she said, “share the tidings with the Lord Commander, if you would.”

Pycelle looked desperately uncomfortable. “There has been a bird,” he said. “From Stokeworth. Lady Tanda sends word that her daughter Lollys has been delivered of a strong, healthy son.”

“And you will never guess what they have named the little bastard, brother.”

“They wanted to name him Tywin, I recall.”

“Yes, but I forbade it. I told Falyse that I would not have our father’s noble name bestowed upon the ill-gotten spawn of some pig boy and a feeble-witted sow.”

“Lady Stokeworth insists the child’s name was not her doing,” Grand Maester Pycelle put in. Perspiration dotted his wrinkled forehead. “Lollys’s husband made the choice, she writes. This man Bronn, he… it would seem that he…”

“Tyrion,” ventured Jaime. “He named the child Tyrion.

The old man gave a tremulous nod, mopping at his brow with the sleeve of his robe.

Jaime had to laugh. “There you are, sweet sister. You have been looking everywhere for Tyrion, and all the time he’s been hiding in Lollys’s womb.”

“Droll. You and Bronn are both so droll. No doubt the bastard is sucking on one of Lollys Lackwit’s dugs even as we speak, whilst this sellsword looks on, smirking at his little insolence.”

“Perhaps this child bears some resemblance to your brother,” suggested Lady Merryweather. “He might have been born deformed, or without a nose.” She laughed a throaty laugh.

“We shall have to send the darling boy a gift,” the queen declared. “Won’t we, Tommen?”

“We could send him a kitten.”

“A lion cub,” said Lady Merryweather. To rip his little throat out, her smile suggested.

“I had a different sort of gift in mind,” said Cersei.

A new stepfather, most like. Jaime knew the look in his sister’s eyes. He had seen it before, most recently on the night of Tommen’s wedding, when she burned the Tower of the Hand. The green light of the wildfire had bathed the face of the watchers, so they looked like nothing so much as rotting corpses, a pack of gleeful ghouls, but some of the corpses were prettier than others. Even in the baleful glow, Cersei had been beautiful to look upon. She’d stood with one hand on her breast, her lips parted, her green eyes shining. She is crying, Jaime had realized, but whether it was from grief or ecstasy he could not have said.

The sight had filled him with disquiet, reminding him of Aerys Targaryen and the way a burning would arouse him. A king has no secrets from his Kingsguard. Relations between Aerys and his queen had been strained during the last years of his reign. They slept apart and did their best to avoid each other during the waking hours. But whenever Aerys gave a man to the flames, Queen Rhaella would have a visitor in the night. The day he burned his mace-and-dagger Hand, Jaime and Jon Darry had stood at guard outside her bedchamber whilst the king took his pleasure. “You’re hurting me,” they had heard Rhaella cry through the oaken door. “You’re hurting me.” In some queer way, that had been worse than Lord Chelsted’s screaming. “We are sworn to protect her as well,” Jaime had finally been driven to say. “We are,” Darry allowed, “but not from him.”

Jaime had only seen Rhaella once after that, the morning of the day she left for Dragonstone. The queen had been cloaked and hooded as she climbed inside the royal wheelhouse that would take her down Aegon’s High Hill to the waiting ship, but he heard her maids whispering after she was gone. They said the queen looked as if some beast had savaged her, clawing at her thighs and chewing on her breasts. A crowned beast, Jaime knew.

By the end the Mad King had become so fearful that he would allow no blade in his presence, save for the swords his Kingsguard wore. His beard was matted and unwashed, his hair a silver-gold tangle that reached his waist, his fingernails cracked yellow claws nine inches long. Yet still the blades tormented him, the ones he could never escape, the blades of the Iron Throne. His arms and legs were always covered with scabs and half-healed cuts.

Let him be king over charred bones and cooked meat, Jaime remembered, studying his sister’s smile. Let him be the king of ashes. “Your Grace,” he said, “might we have a private word?”

“As you wish. Tommen, it is past time you had your lesson for the day. Go with the Grand Maester.”

“Yes, Mother. We are learning about Baelor the Blessed.”

Lady Merryweather took her leave as well, kissing the queen on both cheeks. “Shall I return for supper, Your Grace?”

“I shall be very cross with you if you do not.”

Jaime could not help but note the way the Myrish woman moved her hips as she walked. Every step is a seduction. When the door closed behind her, he cleared his throat and said, “First these Kettleblacks, then Qyburn, now her. It’s a queer menagerie you are keeping these days, sweet sister.”

“I am growing very fond of Lady Taena. She amuses me.”

“She is one of Margaery Tyrell’s companions,” Jaime reminded her. “She’s informing on you to the little queen.”

“Of course she is.” Cersei went to the sideboard to fill her cup anew. “Margaery was thrilled when I asked her leave to take Taena on as my companion. You should have heard her. ‘She will be a sister to you, as she’s been to me. Of course you must have her! I have my cousins and my other ladies.’ Our little queen does not want me to be lonely.”

“If you know she is a spy, why take her on?”

“Margaery is not half so clever as she thinks. She has no notion what a sweet serpent she has in that Myrish slut. I use Taena to feed the little queen what I want her to know. Some of it is even true.” Cersei’s eyes were bright with mischief. “And Taena tells me everything Maid Margaery is doing.”

“Does she? How much do you know about this woman?”

“I know she is a mother, with a young son that she wants to rise high in this world. She will do whatever is required to see that he does. Mothers are all the same. Lady Merryweather may be a serpent, but she is far from stupid. She knows I can do more for her than Margaery, so she makes herself useful to me. You would be surprised at all the interesting things she’s told me.”

“What sorts of things?”

Cersei sat beneath the window. “Did you know that the Queen of Thorns keeps a chest of coins in her wheelhouse? Old gold from before the Conquest. Should any tradesman be so unwise as to name a price in golden coins, she pays him with hands from Highgarden, each half the weight of one of our dragons. What merchant would dare complain of being cheated by Mace Tyrell’s lady mother?” She sipped her wine, and said, “Did you enjoy your little ride?”

“Our uncle remarked upon your absence.”

“Our uncle’s remarks do not concern me.”

“They should. You could make good use of him. If not at Riverrun or the Rock, then in the north against Lord Stannis. Father always relied upon Kevan when—”

“Roose Bolton is our Warden of the North. He will deal with Stannis.”

“Lord Bolton is trapped below the Neck, cut off from the north by the ironmen at Moat Cailin.”

“Not for long. Bolton’s bastard son will soon remove that little obstacle. Lord Bolton will have two thousand Freys to augment his own strength, under Lord Walder’s sons Hosteen and Aenys. That should be more than enough to deal with Stannis and a few thousand broken men.”

“Ser Kevan—”

“—will have his hands full at Darry, teaching Lancel how to wipe his arse. Father’s death has unmanned him. He is an old done man. Daven and Damion will serve us better.”

“They’ll suffice.” Jaime had no quarrel with his cousins. “You still require a Hand, however. If not our uncle, who?”

His sister laughed. “Not you. Have no fear on that count. Perhaps Taena’s husband. His grandfather was Hand under Aerys.”

The horn-of-plenty Hand. Jaime remembered Owen Merryweather well enough; an amiable man, but ineffectual. “As I recall, he did so well that Aerys exiled him and seized his lands.”

“Robert gave them back. Some, at least. Taena would be pleased if Orton could recover the rest.”

“Is this about pleasing some Myrish whore? Here I thought it was about governing the realm.”

I govern the realm.”

Seven save us all, you do. His sister liked to think of herself as Lord Tywin with teats, but she was wrong. Their father had been as relentless and implacable as a glacier, where Cersei was all wildfire, especially when thwarted. She had been giddy as a maiden when she learned that Stannis had abandoned Dragonstone, certain that he had finally given up the fight and sailed away to exile. When word came down from the north that he had turned up again at the Wall, her fury had been fearful to behold. She does not lack for wits, but she has no judgment, and no patience. “You need a strong Hand to help you.”

“A weak ruler needs a strong Hand, as Aerys needed Father. A strong ruler requires only a diligent servant to carry out his orders.” She swirled her wine. “Lord Hallyne might suit. He would not be the first pyromancer to serve as the King’s Hand.”

No. I killed the last one. “There is talk that you mean to make Aurane Waters the master of ships.”

“Has someone been informing on me?” When he did not answer, Cersei tossed her hair back, and said, “Waters is well suited to the office. He has spent half his life on ships.”

“Half his life? He cannot be more than twenty.”

“Two-and-twenty, and what of it? Father was not even one-and-twenty when Aerys Targaryen named him Hand. It is past time Tommen had some young men about him in place of all these wrinkled greybeards. Aurane is strong and vigorous.”

Strong and vigorous and handsome, Jaime thought… she’s been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy for all I know… “Paxter Redwyne would be a better choice. He commands the largest fleet in Westeros. Aurane Waters could command a skiff, but only if you bought him one.”

“You are a child, Jaime. Redwyne is Tyrell’s bannerman, and nephew to that hideous grandmother of his. I want none of Lord Tyrell’s creatures on my council.”

“Tommen’s council, you mean.”

“You know what I mean.”

Too well. “I know that Aurane Waters is a bad idea, and Hallyne is a worse one. As for Qyburn… gods be good, Cersei, he rode with Vargo Hoat. The Citadel stripped him of his chain!

“The grey sheep. Qyburn has made himself most useful to me. And he is loyal, which is more than I can say of mine own kin.”

The crows will feast upon us all if you go on this way, sweet sister. “Cersei, listen to yourself. You are seeing dwarfs in every shadow and making foes of friends. Uncle Kevan is not your enemy. I am not your enemy.”

Her face twisted in fury. “I begged you for your help. I went down on my knees to you, and you refused me!

“My vows…”

“… did not stop you slaying Aerys. Words are wind. You could have had me, but you chose a cloak instead. Get out.”


Get out, I said. I am sick of looking at that ugly stump of yours. Get out!” To speed him on his way, she heaved her wine cup at his head. She missed, but Jaime took the hint.

Evenfall found him sitting alone in the common room of White Sword Tower, with a cup of Dornish red and the White Book. He was turning pages with the stump of his sword hand when the Knight of Flowers entered, removed his cloak and swordbelt and hung them on a wall peg next to Jaime’s.

“I saw you in the yard today,” said Jaime. “You rode well.”

“Better than well, surely.” Ser Loras poured himself a cup of wine, and took a seat across the half-moon table.

“A more modest man might have answered ‘My lord is too kind,’ or ‘I had a good mount.’”

“The horse was adequate, and my lord is as kind as I am modest.” Loras waved at the book. “Lord Renly always said that books were for maesters.”

“This one is for us. The history of every man who has ever worn a white cloak is written here.”

“I have glanced at it. The shields are pretty. I prefer books with more illuminations. Lord Renly owned a few with drawings that would turn a septon blind.”

Jaime had to smile. “There’s none of that here, ser, but the histories will open your eyes. You would do well to know about the lives of those who went before.”

“I do. Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, Ser Ryam Redwyne, the Greatheart, Barristan the Bold…”

“… Gwayne Corbray, Alyn Connington, the Demon of Darry, aye. You will have heard of Lucamore Strong as well.”

“Ser Lucamore the Lusty?” Ser Loras seemed amused. “Three wives and thirty children, was it? They cut his cock off. Shall I sing the song for you, my lord?”

“And Ser Terrence Toyne?”

“Bedded the king’s mistress and died screaming. The lesson is, men who wear white breeches need to keep them tightly laced.”

“Gyles Greycloak? Orivel the Open-Handed?”

“Gyles was a traitor, Orivel a coward. Men who shamed the white cloak. What is my lord suggesting?”

“Little and less. Don’t take offense where none was meant, ser. How about Long Tom Costayne?”

Ser Loras shook his head.

“He was a Kingsguard knight for sixty years.”

“When was that? I’ve never—”

“Ser Donnel of Duskendale, then?”

“I may have heard the name, but—”

“Addison Hill? The White Owl, Michael Mertyns? Jeffory Norcross? They called him Neveryield. Red Robert Flowers? What can you tell me of them?”

“Flowers is a bastard name. So is Hill.”

“Yet both men rose to command the Kingsguard. Their tales are in the book. Rolland Darklyn is in here too. The youngest man ever to serve in the Kingsguard, until me. He was given his cloak on a battlefield and died within an hour of donning it.”

“He can’t have been very good.”

“Good enough. He died, but his king lived. A lot of brave men have worn the white cloak. Most have been forgotten.”

“Most deserve to be forgotten. The heroes will always be remembered. The best.”

“The best and the worst.” So one of us is like to live in song. “And a few who were a bit of both. Like him.” He tapped the page he had been reading.

“Who?” Ser Loras craned his head around to see. “Ten black pellets on a scarlet field. I do not know those arms.”

“They belonged to Criston Cole, who served the first Viserys and the second Aegon.” Jaime closed the White Book. “They called him Kingmaker.”


Three wretched fools with a leather sack, the queen thought as they sank to their knees before her. The look of them did not encourage her. I suppose there is always a chance.

“Your Grace,” said Qyburn quietly, “the small council…”

“… will await my pleasure. It may be that we can bring them word of a traitor’s death.” Off across the city, the bells of Baelor’s Sept sang their song of mourning. No bells will ring for you, Tyrion, Cersei thought. I shall dip your head in tar and give your twisted body to the dogs. “Off your knees,” she told the would-be lords. “Show me what you’ve brought me.”

They rose; three ugly men, and ragged. One had a boil on his neck, and none had washed in half a year. The prospect of raising such to lordship amused her. I could seat them next to Margaery at feasts. When the chief fool undid the drawstring on the sack and plunged his hand inside, the smell of decay filled her audience chamber like some rank rose. The head he pulled out was grey-green and crawling with maggots. It smells like Father. Dorcas gasped, and Jocelyn covered her mouth and retched.

The queen considered her prize, unflinching. “You’ve killed the wrong dwarf,” she said at last, grudging every word.

“We never did,” one of the fools dared to say. “This is got to be him, ser. A dwarf, see. He’s rotted some, is all.”

“He has also grown a new nose,” Cersei observed. “A rather bulbous one, I’d say. Tyrion’s nose was hacked off in a battle.”

The three fools exchanged a look. “No one told us,” said the one with head in hand. “This one come walking along as bold as you please, some ugly dwarf, so we thought…”

“He said he were a sparrow,” the one with the boil added, “and you said he was lying.” That was directed at the third man.

The queen was angry to think that she had kept her small council waiting for this mummer’s farce. “You have wasted my time and slain an innocent man. I should have your own heads off.” But if she did, the next man might hesitate and let the Imp slip the net. She would pile dead dwarfs ten feet high before she let that happen. “Remove yourselves from my sight.”

“Aye, Your Grace,” said the boil. “We beg your pardons.”

“Do you want the head?” asked the man who held it.

“Give it to Ser Meryn. No, in the sack, you lackwit. Yes. Ser Osmund, see them out.”

Trant removed the head and Kettleblack the headsmen, leaving only Lady Jocelyn’s breakfast as evidence of their visit. “Clean that up at once,” the queen commanded her. This was the third head that had been delivered to her. At least this one was a dwarf. The last had simply been an ugly child.

“Someone will find the dwarf, never fear,” Ser Osmund assured her. “And when they do, we’ll kill him good.”

Will you? Last night Cersei had dreamed of the old woman, with her pebbly jowls and croaking voice. Maggy the Frog, they had called her in Lannisport. If Father had known what she said to me, he would have had her tongue out. Cersei had never told anyone, though, not even Jaime. Melara said that if we never spoke about her prophecies, we would forget them. She said that a forgotten prophecy couldn’t come true.

“I have informers sniffing after the Imp everywhere, Your Grace,” said Qyburn. He had garbed himself in something very like maester’s robes, but white instead of grey, immaculate as the cloaks of the Kingsguard. Whorls of gold decorated his hem, sleeves, and stiff high collar, and a golden sash was tied about his waist. “Oldtown, Gulltown, Dorne, even the Free Cities. Wheresoever he might run, my whisperers will find him.”

“You assume he left King’s Landing. He could be hiding in Baelor’s Sept for all we know, swinging on the bell ropes to make that awful din.” Cersei made a sour face and let Dorcas help her to her feet. “Come, my lord. My council awaits.” She took Qyburn by the arm as they made their way down the stairs. “Have you attended to that little task I set you?”

“I have, Your Grace. I am sorry that it took so long. Such a large head. It took the beetles many hours to clean the flesh. By way of pardon, I have lined a box of ebony and silver with felt, to make a fitting presentation for the skull.”

“A cloth sack would serve as well. Prince Doran wants his head. He won’t give a fig what sort of box it comes in.”

The pealing of the bells was louder in the yard. He was only a High Septon. How long must we endure this? The ringing was more melodious than the Mountain’s screams had been, but…

Qyburn seemed to sense what she was thinking. “The bells will stop at sunset, Your Grace.”

“That will be a great relief. How can you know?”

“Knowing is the nature of my service.”

Varys had all of us believing he was irreplaceable. What fools we were. Once the queen let it become known that Qyburn had taken the eunuch’s place, the usual vermin had wasted no time in making themselves known to him, to trade their whispers for a few coins. It was the silver all along, not the Spider. Qyburn will serve us just as well. She was looking forward to the look on Pycelle’s face when Qyburn took his seat.

A knight of the Kingsguard was always posted outside the doors of the council chambers when the small council was in session. Today it was Ser Boros Blount. “Ser Boros,” the queen said pleasantly, “you look quite grey this morning. Something you ate, perchance?” Jaime had made him the king’s food taster. A tasty task, but shameful for a knight. Blount hated it. His sagging jowls quivered as he held the door for them.

The councillors quieted as she entered. Lord Gyles coughed by way of greeting, loud enough to wake Pycelle. The others rose, mouthing pleasantries. Cersei allowed herself the faintest of smiles. “My lords, I know you will forgive my lateness.”

“We are here to serve Your Grace,” said Ser Harys Swyft. “It is our pleasure to anticipate your coming.”

“You all know Lord Qyburn, I am sure.”

Grand Maester Pycelle did not disappoint her. “Lord Qyburn?” he managed, purpling. “Your Grace, this… a maester swears sacred vows, to hold no lands or lordships…”

“Your Citadel took away his chain,” Cersei reminded him. “If he is not a maester, he cannot be held to a maester’s vows. We called the eunuch lord as well, you may recall.”

Pycelle sputtered. “This man is… he is unfit…”

“Do not presume to speak to me of fitness. Not after the stinking mockery you made of my lord father’s corpse.”

“Your Grace cannot think…” He raised a spotted hand, as if to ward off a blow. “The silent sisters removed Lord Tywin’s bowels and organs, drained his blood… every care was taken… his body was stuffed with salts and fragrant herbs…”

“Oh, spare me the disgusting details. I smelled the results of your care. Lord Qyburn’s healing arts saved my brother’s life, and I do not doubt that he will serve the king more ably than that simpering eunuch. My lord, you know your fellow councillors?”

“I would be a poor informer if I did not, Your Grace.” Qyburn seated himself between Orton Merryweather and Gyles Rosby.

My councillors. Cersei had uprooted every rose, and all those beholden to her uncle and her brothers. In their places were men whose loyalty would be to her. She had even given them new styles, borrowed from the Free Cities; the queen would have no “masters” at court beside herself. Orton Merryweather was her justiciar, Gyles Rosby her lord treasurer. Aurane Waters, the dashing young Bastard of Driftmark, would be her grand admiral.

And for her Hand, Ser Harys Swyft.

Soft, bald, and obsequious, Swyft had an absurd little white puff of beard where most men had a chin. The blue bantam rooster of his House was worked across the front of his plush yellow doublet in beads of lapis. Over that he wore a mantle of blue velvet decorated with a hundred golden hands. Ser Harys had been thrilled by his appointment, too dim to realize that he was more hostage than Hand. His daughter was her uncle’s wife, and Kevan loved his chinless lady, flat-chested and chicken-legged as she was. So long as she had Ser Harys in hand, Kevan Lannister must needs think twice about opposing her. To be sure, a good-father is not the ideal hostage, but better a flimsy shield than none.

“Will the king be joining us?” asked Orton Merryweather.

“My son is playing with his little queen. For the moment, his idea of kingship is stamping papers with the royal seal. His Grace is still too young to comprehend affairs of state.”

“And our valiant Lord Commander?”

“Ser Jaime is at his armorer’s being fitted for a hand. I know we were all tired of that ugly stump. And I daresay he would find these proceedings as tiresome as Tommen.” Aurane Waters chuckled at that. Good, Cersei thought, the more they laugh, the less he is a threat. Let them laugh. “Do we have wine?”

“We do, Your Grace.” Orton Merryweather was not a comely man, with his big lumpish nose and shock of unruly reddish-orange hair, but he was never less than courteous. “We have Dornish red and Arbor gold, and a fine sweet hippocras from Highgarden.”

“The gold, I think. I find Dornish wines as sour as the Dornish.” As Merryweather filled her cup, Cersei said, “I suppose we had as well begin with them.”

Grand Maester Pycelle’s lips were still quivering, yet somehow he found his tongue. “As you command. Prince Doran has taken his brother’s unruly bastards into custody, yet Sunspear still seethes. The prince writes that he cannot hope to calm the waters until he receives the justice that was promised him.”

“To be sure.” A tiresome creature, this prince. “His long wait is almost done. I am sending Balon Swann to Sunspear, to deliver him the head of Gregor Clegane.” Ser Balon would have another task as well, but that part was best left unsaid.

“Ah.” Ser Harys Swyft fumbled at his funny little beard with thumb and forefinger. “He is dead then? Ser Gregor?”

“I would think so, my lord,” Aurane Waters said dryly. “I am told that removing the head from the body is often mortal.”

Cersei favored him with a smile; she liked a bit of wit, so long as she was not its target. “Ser Gregor perished of his wounds, just as Grand Maester Pycelle foretold.”

Pycelle harrumphed and eyed Qyburn sourly. “The spear was poisoned. No man could have saved him.”

“So you said. I recall it well.” The queen turned to her Hand. “What were you speaking of when I arrived, Ser Harys?”

“Sparrows, Your Grace. Septon Raynard says there may be as many as two thousand in the city, and more arriving every day. Their leaders preach of doom and demon worship…”

Cersei took a taste of wine. Very nice. “And long past time, wouldn’t you agree? What would you call this red god that Stannis worships, if not a demon? The Faith should oppose such evil.” Qyburn had reminded her of that, the clever man. “Our late High Septon let too much pass, I fear. Age had dimmed his sight and sapped his strength.”

“He was an old done man, Your Grace.” Qyburn smiled at Pycelle. “His passing should not have surprised us. No man can ask for more than to die peacefully in his sleep, full of years.”

“No,” said Cersei, “but we must hope that his successor is more vigorous. My friends upon the other hill tell me that it will most like be Torbert or Raynard.”

Grand Maester Pycelle cleared his throat. “I have friends among the Most Devout as well, and they speak of Septon Ollidor.”

“Do not discount this man Luceon,” Qyburn said. “Last night he feted thirty of the Most Devout on suckling pig and Arbor gold, and by day he hands out hardbread to the poor to prove his piety.”

Aurane Waters seemed as bored as Cersei by all this prattle about septons. Seen up close, his hair was more silvery than gold, and his eyes were grey-green where Prince Rhaegar’s had been purple. Even so, the resemblance… She wondered if Waters would shave his beard for her. Though he was ten years her junior, he wanted her; Cersei could see it in the way he looked at her. Men had been looking at her that way since her breasts began to bud. Because I was so beautiful, they said, but Jaime was beautiful as well, and they never looked at him that way. When she was small she would sometimes don her brother’s clothing as a lark. She was always startled by how differently men treated her when they thought that she was Jaime. Even Lord Tywin himself…

Pycelle and Merryweather were still quibbling about who the new High Septon was like to be. “One will serve as well as another,” the queen announced abruptly, “but whosoever dons the crystal crown must pronounce an anathema upon the Imp.” This last High Septon had been conspicuously silent regarding Tyrion. “As for these pink sparrows, so long as they preach no treason they are the Faith’s problem, not ours.”

Lord Orton and Ser Harys murmured agreement. Gyles Rosby’s attempt to do the same dissolved into a fit of coughing. Cersei turned away in distaste as he was hacking up a gob of bloody phlegm. “Maester, have you brought the letter from the Vale?”

“I have, Your Grace.” Pycelle plucked it from his pile of papers and smoothed it out. “It is a declaration, rather than a letter. Signed at Runestone by Bronze Yohn Royce, Lady Waynwood, Lords Hunter, Redfort, and Belmore, and Symond Templeton, the Knight of Ninestars. All have affixed their seals. They write—”

A deal of rubbish. “My lords may read the letter if they wish. Royce and these others are massing men below the Eyrie. They mean to remove Littlefinger as Lord Protector of the Vale, forcibly if need be. The question is, ought we allow this?”

“Does Lord Baelish seek our help?” asked Harys Swyft.

“Not as yet. In truth, he seems quite unconcerned. His last letter mentions the rebels only briefly before beseeching me to ship him some old tapestries of Robert’s.”

Ser Harys fingered his chin beard. “And these lords of the declaration, do they appeal to the king to take a hand?”

“They do not.”

“Then… mayhaps we need do nothing.”

“A war in the Vale would be most tragic,” said Pycelle.

“War?” Orton Merryweather laughed. “Lord Baelish is a most amusing man, but one does not fight a war with witticisms. I doubt there will be bloodshed. And does it matter who is regent for little Lord Robert, so long as the Vale remits its taxes?”

No, Cersei decided. If truth be told, Littlefinger had been more use at court. He had a gift for finding gold, and never coughed. “Lord Orton has convinced me. Maester Pycelle, instruct these Lords Declarant that no harm must come to Petyr. Elsewise, the crown is content with whatever dispositions they might make for the governance of the Vale during Robert Arryn’s minority.”

“Very good, Your Grace.”

“Might we discuss the fleet?” asked Aurane Waters. “Fewer than a dozen of our ships survived the inferno on the Blackwater. We must needs restore our strength at sea.”

Merryweather nodded. “Strength at sea is most essential.”

“Could we make use of the ironmen?” asked Orton Merryweather. “The enemy of our enemy? What would the Seastone Chair want of us as the price of an alliance?”

“They want the north,” Grand Maester Pycelle said, “which our queen’s noble father promised to House Bolton.”

“How inconvenient,” said Merryweather. “Still, the north is large. The lands could be divided. It need not be a permanent arrangement. Bolton might consent, so long as we assure him that our strength will be his once Stannis is destroyed.”

“Balon Greyjoy is dead, I had heard,” said Ser Harys Swyft. “Do we know who rules the isles now? Did Lord Balon have a son?”

“Leo?” coughed Lord Gyles. “Theo?”

“Theon Greyjoy was raised at Winterfell, a ward of Eddard Stark,” Qyburn said. “He is not like to be a friend of ours.”

“I had heard he was slain,” said Merryweather.

“Was there only one son?” Ser Harys Swyft tugged upon his chin beard. “Brothers. There were brothers. Were there not?”

Varys would have known, Cersei thought with irritation. “I do not propose to climb in bed with that sorry pack of squids. Their turn will come, once we have dealt with Stannis. What we require is our own fleet.”

“I propose we build new dromonds,” said Aurane Waters. “Ten, to start with.”

“Where is the coin to come from?” asked Pycelle.

Lord Gyles took that as an invitation to begin coughing again. He brought up more pink spittle and dabbed it away with a square of red silk. “There is no…” he managed, before the coughing ate his words. “… no… we do not…”

Ser Harys proved swift enough at least to grasp the meaning between the coughs. “The crown incomes have never been greater,” he objected. “Ser Kevan told me so himself.”

Lord Gyles coughed. “… expenses… gold cloaks…”

Cersei had heard his objections before. “Our lord treasurer is trying to say that we have too many gold cloaks and too little gold.” Rosby’s coughing had begun to vex her. Perhaps Garth the Gross would not have been so ill. “Though large, the crown incomes are not large enough to keep abreast of Robert’s debts. Accordingly, I have decided to defer our repayment of the sums owed the Holy Faith and the Iron Bank of Braavos until war’s end.” The new High Septon would doubtless wring his holy hands, and the Braavosi would squeak and squawk at her, but what of it? “The monies saved will be used for the building of our new fleet.”

“Your Grace is prudent,” said Lord Merryweather. “This is a wise measure. And needed, until the war is done. I concur.”

“And I,” said Ser Harys.

“Your Grace,” Pycelle said in a quavering voice, “this will cause more trouble than you know, I fear. The Iron Bank…”

“… remains on Braavos, far across the sea. They shall have their gold, maester. A Lannister pays his debts.”

“The Braavosi have a saying too.” Pycelle’s jeweled chain clinked softly. “The Iron Bank will have its due, they say.”

“The Iron Bank will have its due when I say they will. Until such time, the Iron Bank will wait respectfully. Lord Waters, commence the building of your dromonds.”

“Very good, Your Grace.”

Ser Harys shuffled through some papers. “The next matter… we have had a letter from Lord Frey putting forth some claims…”

“How many lands and honors does that man want?” snapped the queen. “His mother must have had three teats.”

“My lords may not know,” said Qyburn, “but in the winesinks and pot shops of this city, there are those who suggest that the crown might have been somehow complicit in Lord Walder’s crime.”

The other councillors stared at him uncertainly. “Do you refer to the Red Wedding?” asked Aurane Waters. “Crime?” said Ser Harys. Pycelle cleared his throat noisily. Lord Gyles coughed.

“These sparrows are especially outspoken,” warned Qyburn. “The Red Wedding was an affront to all the laws of gods and men, they say, and those who had a hand in it are damned.”

Cersei was not slow to take his meaning. “Lord Walder must soon face the Father’s judgment. He is very old. Let the sparrows spit upon his memory. It has nought to do with us.”

“No,” said Ser Harys. “No,” said Lord Merryweather. “No one could think so,” said Pycelle. Lord Gyles coughed.

“A little spittle on Lord Walder’s tomb is not like to disturb the grave worms,” Qyburn agreed, “but it would also be useful if someone were to be punished for the Red Wedding. A few Frey heads would do much to mollify the north.”

“Lord Walder will never sacrifice his own,” said Pycelle.

“No,” mused Cersei, “but his heirs may be less squeamish. Lord Walder will soon do us the courtesy of dying, we can hope. What better way for the new Lord of the Crossing to rid himself of inconvenient half brothers, disagreeable cousins, and scheming sisters than by naming them the culprits?”

“Whilst we await Lord Walder’s death, there is another matter,” said Aurane Waters. “The Golden Company has broken its contract with Myr. Around the docks I’ve heard men say that Lord Stannis has hired them and is bringing them across the sea.”

“What would he pay them with?” asked Merryweather. “Snow? They are called the Golden Company. How much gold does Stannis have?”

“Little enough,” Cersei assured him. “Lord Qyburn has spoken to the crew of that Myrish galley in the bay. They claim the Golden Company is making for Volantis. If they mean to cross to Westeros, they are marching in the wrong direction.”

“Perhaps they grew weary of fighting on the losing side,” suggested Lord Merryweather.

“There is that as well,” agreed the queen. “Only a blind man could fail to see our war is all but won. Lord Tyrell has Storm’s End invested. Riverrun is besieged by the Freys and my cousin Daven, our new Warden of the West. Lord Redwyne’s ships have passed through the Straits of Tarth and are moving swiftly up the coast. Only a few fishing boats remain on Dragonstone to oppose Redwyne’s landing. The castle may hold for some time, but once we have the port we can cut the garrison off from the sea. Then only Stannis himself will remain to vex us.”

“If Lord Janos can be believed, he is trying to make common cause with the wildlings,” warned Grand Maester Pycelle.

“Savages in skins,” declared Lord Merryweather. “Lord Stannis must be desperate indeed, to seek such allies.”

“Desperate and foolish,” the queen agreed. “The northmen hate the wildlings. Roose Bolton should have no trouble winning them to our cause. A few have already joined up with his bastard son to help him clear the wretched ironmen from Moat Cailin and clear the way for Lord Bolton to return. Umber, Ryswell… I forget the other names. Even White Harbor is on the point of joining us. Its lord has agreed to marry both his granddaughters to our friends of Frey and open his port to our ships.”

“I thought we had no ships,” Ser Harys said, confused.

“Wyman Manderly was a loyal bannerman to Eddard Stark,” said Grand Maester Pycelle. “Can such a man be trusted?

No one can be trusted. “He’s a fat old man, and frightened. However, he is proving stubborn on one point. He insists that he will not bend the knee until his heir has been returned to him.”

“Do we have this heir?” asked Ser Harys.

“He will be at Harrenhal, if he is still alive. Gregor Clegane took him captive.” The Mountain had not always been gentle with his prisoners, even those worth a goodly ransom. “If he is dead, I suppose we will need to send Lord Manderly the heads of those who killed him, with our most sincere apologies.” If one head was enough to appease a prince of Dorne, a bag of them should be more than adequate for a fat northman wrapped in sealskins.

“Will not Lord Stannis seek to win the allegiance of White Harbor as well?” asked Grand Maester Pycelle.

“Oh, he has tried. Lord Manderly has sent his letters on to us and replied with evasions. Stannis demands White Harbor’s swords and silver, for which he offers… well, nothing.” One day she must light a candle to the Stranger for carrying Renly off and leaving Stannis. If it had been the other way around, her life would have been harder. “Just this morning there was another bird. Stannis has sent his onion smuggler to treat with White Harbor on his behalf. Manderly has clapped the wretch inside a cell. He asks us what he should do with him.”

“Send him here, that we might question him,” suggested Lord Merryweather. “The man might know much of value.”

“Let him die,” said Qyburn. “His death will be a lesson to the north, to show them what becomes of traitors.”

“I quite agree,” the queen said. “I have instructed Lord Manderly to have his head off forthwith. That should put an end to any chance of White Harbor supporting Stannis.”

“Stannis will need another Hand,” observed Aurane Waters with a chuckle. “The turnip knight, perhaps?”

“A turnip knight?” said Ser Harys Swyft, confused. “Who is this man? I have not heard of him.”

Waters did not reply, except to roll his eyes.

“What if Lord Manderly should refuse?” asked Merryweather.

“He dare not. The onion knight’s head is the coin he’ll need to buy his son’s life.” Cersei smiled. “The fat old fool may have been loyal to the Starks in his own way, but with the wolves of Winterfell extinguished—”

“Your Grace has forgotten the Lady Sansa,” said Pycelle.

The queen bristled. “I most certainly have not forgotten that little she-wolf.” She refused to say the girl’s name. “I ought to have shown her to the black cells as the daughter of a traitor, but instead I made her part of mine own household. She shared my hearth and hall, played with my own children. I fed her, dressed her, tried to make her a little less ignorant about the world, and how did she repay me for my kindness? She helped murder my son. When we find the Imp, we will find the Lady Sansa too. She is not dead… but before I am done with her, I promise you, she will be singing to the Stranger, begging for his kiss.”

An awkward silence followed. Have they all swallowed their tongues? Cersei thought, with irritation. It was enough to make her wonder why she bothered with a council.

“In any case,” the queen went on, “Lord Eddard’s younger daughter is with Lord Bolton, and will be wed to his son Ramsay as soon as Moat Cailin has fallen.” So long as the girl played her role well enough to cement their claim to Winterfell, neither of the Boltons would much care that she was actually some steward’s whelp tricked up by Littlefinger. “If the north must have a Stark, we’ll give them one.” She let Lord Merryweather fill her cup once again. “Another problem has arisen on the Wall, however. The brothers of the Night’s Watch have taken leave of their wits and chosen Ned Stark’s bastard son to be their Lord Commander.”

“Snow, the boy is called,” Pycelle said unhelpfully.

“I glimpsed him once at Winterfell,” the queen said, “though the Starks did their best to hide him. He looks very like his father.” Her husband’s by-blows had his look as well, though at least Robert had the grace to keep them out of sight. Once, after that sorry business with the cat, he had made some noises about bringing some baseborn daughter of his to court. “Do as you please,” she’d told him, “but you may find that the city is not a healthy place for a growing girl.” The bruise those words had won her had been hard to hide from Jaime, but they heard no more about the bastard girl. Catelyn Tully was a mouse, or she would have smothered this Jon Snow in his cradle. Instead, she’s left the filthy task to me. “Snow shares Lord Eddard’s taste for treason too,” she said. “The father would have handed the realm to Stannis. The son has given him lands and castles.”

“The Night’s Watch is sworn to take no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Pycelle reminded them. “For thousands of years the black brothers have upheld that tradition.”

“Until now,” said Cersei. “The bastard boy has written us to avow that the Night’s Watch takes no side, but his actions give the lie to his words. He has given Stannis food and shelter, yet has the insolence to plead with us for arms and men.”

“An outrage,” declared Lord Merryweather. “We cannot allow the Night’s Watch to join its strength to that of Lord Stannis.”

“We must declare this Snow a traitor and a rebel,” agreed Ser Harys Swyft. “The black brothers must remove him.”

Grand Maester Pycelle nodded ponderously. “I propose that we inform Castle Black that no more men will be sent to them until such time as Snow is gone.”

“Our new dromonds will need oarsmen,” said Aurane Waters. “Let us instruct the lords to send their poachers and thieves to me henceforth, instead of to the Wall.”

Qyburn leaned forward with a smile. “The Night’s Watch defends us all from snarks and grumkins. My lords, I say that we must help the brave black brothers.”

Cersei gave him a sharp look. “What are you saying?”

“This,” Qyburn said. “For years now, the Night’s Watch has begged for men. Lord Stannis has answered their plea. Can King Tommen do less? His Grace should send the Wall a hundred men. To take the black, ostensibly, but in truth…”

“… to remove Jon Snow from the command,” Cersei finished, delighted. I knew I was right to want him on my council. “That is just what we shall do.” She laughed. If this bastard boy is truly his father’s son, he will not suspect a thing. Perhaps he will even thank me, before the blade slides between his ribs. “It will need to be done carefully, to be sure. Leave the rest to me, my lords.” This was how an enemy should be dealt with: with a dagger, not a declaration. “We have done good work today, my lords. I thank you. Is there aught else?”

“One last thing, Your Grace,” said Aurane Waters, in an apologetic tone. “I hesitate to take up the council’s time with trifles, but there has been some queer talk heard along the docks of late. Sailors from the east. They speak of dragons…”

“… and manticores, no doubt, and bearded snarks?” Cersei chuckled. “Come back to me when you hear talk of dwarfs, my lord.” She stood, to signal that the meeting was at an end.

A blustery autumn wind was blowing when Cersei left the council chambers, and bells of Blessed Baelor still sang their song of mourning off across the city. In the yard twoscore knights were hammering each other with sword and shield, adding to the din. Ser Boros Blount escorted the queen back to her apartments, where she found Lady Merryweather chuckling with Jocelyn and Dorcas. “What is it you all find so amusing?”

“The Redwyne twins,” said Taena. “Both of them have fallen in love with Lady Margaery. They used to fight over which would be the next Lord of the Arbor. Now both of them want to join the Kingsguard, just to be near the little queen.”

“The Redwynes have always had more freckles than wits.” It was a useful thing to know, though. If Horror or Slobber were to be found abed with Margaery… Cersei wondered if the little queen liked freckles. “Dorcas, fetch me Ser Osney Kettleblack.”

Dorcas blushed. “As you command.”

When the girl was gone, Taena Merryweather gave the queen a quizzical look. “Why did she turn so red?”

“Love.” It was Cersei’s turn to laugh. “She fancies our Ser Osney.” He was the youngest Kettleblack, the clean-shaved one. Though he had the same black hair, hooked nose, and easy smile as his brother Osmund, one cheek bore three long scratches, courtesy of one of Tyrion’s whores. “She likes his scars, I think.”

Lady Merryweather’s dark eyes shone with mischief. “Just so. Scars make a man look dangerous, and danger is exciting.”

“You shock me, my lady,” the queen said, teasing. “If danger excites you so, why wed Lord Orton? We all love him, it is true, but still…” Petyr had once remarked that the horn of plenty that adorned House Merryweather’s arms suited Lord Orton admirably, since he had carrot-colored hair, a nose as bulbous as a beetroot, and pease porridge for wits.

Taena laughed. “My lord is more bountiful than dangerous, this is so. Yet… I hope Your Grace will not think the less of me, but I did not come a maid entire to Orton’s bed.”

You are all whores in the Free Cities, aren’t you? That was good to know; one day, she might be able to make use of it. “And pray, who was this lover who was so… full of danger?”

Taena’s olive skin turned even darker as she blushed. “Oh, I should not have spoken. Your Grace will keep my secret, yes?”

“Men have scars, women mysteries.” Cersei kissed her cheek. I will have his name out of you soon enough.

When Dorcas returned with Ser Osney Kettleblack, the queen dismissed her ladies. “Come sit with me by the window, Ser Osney. Will you take a cup of wine?” She poured for them herself. “Your cloak is threadbare. I have a mind to put you in a new one.”

“What, a white one? Who’s died?”

“No one, as yet,” the queen said. “Is that your wish, to join your brother Osmund in our Kingsguard?”

“I’d rather be the queen’s guard, if it please Your Grace.” When Osney grinned, the scars on his cheek turned bright red.

Cersei’s fingers traced their path across his cheek. “You have a bold tongue, ser. You will make me forget myself again.”

“Good.” Ser Osney caught her hand and kissed her fingers roughly. “My sweet queen.”

“You are a wicked man,” the queen whispered, “and no true knight, I think.” She let him touch her breasts through the silk of her gown. “Enough.”

“It isn’t. I want you.”

“You’ve had me.”

“Only once.” He grabbed her left breast again and gave it a clumsy squeeze that reminded her of Robert.

“One good night for one good knight. You did me valiant service, and you had your reward.” Cersei walked her fingers up his laces. She could feel him stiffening through his breeches. “Was that a new horse you were riding in the yard yestermorn?”

“The black stallion? Aye. A gift from my brother Osfryd. Midnight, I call him.”

How wonderfully original. “A fine mount for a battle. For pleasure, though, there is nothing to compare to a gallop on a spirited young filly.” She gave him a smile and a squeeze. “Tell me true. Do you think our little queen is pretty?”

Ser Osney drew back, wary. “I suppose. For a girl. I’d sooner have a woman.”

“Why not both?” she whispered. “Pluck the little rose for me, and you will not find me to be ungrateful.”

“The little… Margaery, you mean?” Ser Osney’s ardor was wilting in his breeches. “She’s the king’s wife. Wasn’t there some Kingsguard who lost his head for bedding the king’s wife?”

“Ages ago.” She was his king’s mistress, not his wife, and his head was the only thing he did not lose. Aegon dismembered him piece by piece, and made the woman watch. Cersei did not want Osney dwelling on that ancient unpleasantness, however. “Tommen is not Aegon the Unworthy. Have no fear, he will do as I bid him. I mean for Margaery to lose her head, not you.”

That gave him pause. “Her maidenhead, you mean?”

“That too. Assuming she has one still.” She traced his scars again. “Unless you think Margaery would prove unresponsive to your… charms?”

Osney gave her a wounded look. “She likes me well enough. Them cousins of hers are always teasing with me about my nose. How big it is, and all. The last time Megga did that, Margaery told them to stop and said I had a lovely face.”

“There you are, then.”

“There I am,” the man agreed, in a doubtful tone, “but where am I going to be if she… if I… after we…?”

“… do the deed?” Cersei gave him a barbed smile. “Lying with a queen is treason. Tommen would have no choice but to send you to the Wall.”

“The Wall?” he said with dismay.

It was all she could do not to laugh. No, best not. Men hate being laughed at. “A black cloak would go well with your eyes, and that black hair of yours.”

“No one returns from the Wall.”

“You will. All you need to do is kill a boy.”

“What boy?”

“A bastard boy in league with Stannis. He’s young and green, and you’ll have a hundred men.”

Kettleblack was afraid, she could smell it on him, but he was too proud to own up to that fear. Men are all alike. “I’ve killed more boys than I can count,” he insisted. “Once this boy is dead, I’d get my pardon from the king?”

“That, and a lordship.” Unless Snow’s brothers hang you first. “A queen must have a consort. One who knows no fear.”

“Lord Kettleblack?” A slow smile spread across his face, and his scars flamed red. “Aye, I like the sound o’ that. A lordly lord…”

“… and fit to bed a queen.”

He frowned. “The Wall is cold.”

“And I am warm.” Cersei put her arms about his neck. “Bed a girl and kill a boy and I am yours. Do you have the courage?”

Osney thought a moment before he nodded. “I am your man.”

“You are, ser.” She kissed him, and let him have a little taste of tongue before she broke away. “Enough for now. The rest must wait. Will you dream of me tonight?”

“Aye.” His voice was hoarse.

“And when you’re abed with our Maid Margaery?” she asked him, teasing. “When you’re in her, will you dream of me then?”

“I will,” swore Osney Kettleblack.


After he was gone, Cersei summoned Jocelyn to brush her hair out whilst she slipped off her shoes and stretched like a cat. I was made for this, she told herself. It was the sheer elegance of it that pleased her most. Even Mace Tyrell would not dare defend his darling daughter if she was caught in the act with the likes of Osney Kettleblack, and neither Stannis Baratheon nor Jon Snow would have cause to wonder why Osney was being sent to the Wall. She would see to it that Ser Osmund was the one to discover his brother with the little queen; that way the loyalty of the other two Kettleblacks need not be impugned. If Father could only see me now, he would not be so quick to speak of marrying me off again. A pity he’s so dead. Him and Robert, Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, Renly Baratheon, all dead. Only Tyrion remains, and not for long.

That night the queen summoned Lady Merryweather to her bedchamber. “Will you take a cup of wine?” she asked her.

“A small one.” The Myrish woman laughed. “A big one.”

“On the morrow I want you to pay a call on my good-daughter,” Cersei said as Dorcas was dressing her for bed.

“Lady Margaery is always happy to see me.”

“I know.” The queen did not fail to note the style that Taena used when referring to Tommen’s little wife. “Tell her I’ve sent seven beeswax candles to the Baelor’s Sept in memory of our dear High Septon.”

Taena laughed. “If so, she will send seven-and-seventy candles of her own, so as not to be outmourned.”

“I will be very cross if she does not,” the queen said, smiling. “Tell her also that she has a secret admirer, a knight so smitten with her beauty that he cannot sleep at night.”

“Might I ask Your Grace which knight?” Mischief sparkled in Taena’s big dark eyes. “Could it be Ser Osney?”

“It could be,” the queen said, “but do not offer up that name freely. Make her worm it out of you. Will you do that?”

“If it please you. That is all I wish, Your Grace.”

Outside a cold wind was rising. They stayed up late into the morning, drinking Arbor gold and telling one another tales. Taena got quite drunk and Cersei pried the name of her secret lover from her. He was a Myrish sea captain, half a pirate, with black hair to the shoulders and a scar that ran across his face from chin to ear. “A hundred times I told him no, and he said yes,” the other woman told her, “until finally I was saying yes as well. He was not the sort of man to be denied.”

“I know the sort,” the queen said with a wry smile.

“Has Your Grace ever known a man like that, I wonder?”

“Robert,” she lied, thinking of Jaime.

Yet when she closed her eyes, it was the other brother that she dreamt of, and the three wretched fools with whom she had begun her day. In the dream it was Tyrion’s head they brought her in their sack. She had it bronzed, and kept it in her chamber pot.


The wind was blowing from the north as the Iron Victory came round the point and entered the holy bay called Nagga’s Cradle.

Victarion joined Nute the Barber at her prow. Ahead loomed the sacred shore of Old Wyk and the grassy hill above it, where the ribs of Nagga rose from the earth like the trunks of great white trees, as wide around as a dromond’s mast and twice as tall.

The bones of the Grey King’s Hall. Victarion could feel the magic of this place. “Balon stood beneath those bones, when first he named himself a king,” he recalled. “He swore to win us back our freedoms, and Tarle the Thrice-Drowned placed a driftwood crown upon his head. ‘BALON!’ they cried. ‘BALON! BALON KING!’”

“They will shout your name as loud,” said Nute.

Victarion nodded, though he did not share the Barber’s certainty. Balon had three sons, and a daughter he loved well.

He had said as much to his captains at Moat Cailin, when first they urged him to claim the Seastone Chair. “Balon’s sons are dead,” Red Ralf Stonehouse had argued, “and Asha is a woman. You were your brother’s strong right arm, you must pick up the sword that he let fall.” When Victarion reminded them that Balon had commanded him to hold the Moat against the northmen, Ralf Kenning said, “The wolves are broken, lord. What good to win this swamp and lose the isles?” And Ralf the Limper added, “The Crow’s Eye has been too long away. He knows us not.”

Euron Greyjoy, King of the Isles and the North. The thought woke an old rage in his heart, but still…

“Words are wind,” Victarion told them, “and the only good wind is that which fills our sails. Would you have me fight the Crow’s Eye? Brother against brother, ironborn against ironborn?” Euron was still his elder, no matter how much bad blood might be between them. No man is as accursed as the kinslayer.

But when the Damphair’s summons came, the call to kingsmoot, then all was changed. Aeron speaks with the Drowned God’s voice, Victarion reminded himself, and if the Drowned God wills that I should sit the Seastone Chair… The next day he gave command of Moat Cailin to Ralf Kenning and set off overland for the Fever River where the Iron Fleet lay amongst the reeds and willows. Rough seas and fickle winds had delayed him, but only one ship had been lost, and he was home.

Grief and Iron Vengeance were close behind as Iron Victory passed the headland. Behind came Hardhand, Iron Wind, Grey Ghost, Lord Quellon, Lord Vickon, Lord Dagon, and the rest, nine-tenths of the Iron Fleet, sailing on the evening tide in a ragged column that extended back long leagues. The sight of their sails filled Victarion Greyjoy with content. No man had ever loved his wives half as well as the Lord Captain loved his ships.

Along the sacred strand of Old Wyk, longships lined the shore as far as the eye could see, their masts thrust up like spears. In the deeper waters rode prizes: cogs, carracks, and dromonds won in raid or war, too big to run ashore. From prow and stern and mast flew familiar banners.

Nute the Barber squinted toward the strand. “Is that Lord Harlaw’s Sea Song?” The Barber was a thickset man with bandy legs and long arms, but his eyes were not so keen as they had been when he was young. In those days he could throw an axe so well that men said he could shave you with it.

Sea Song, aye.” Rodrik the Reader had left his books, it would seem. “And there’s old Drumm’s Thunderer, with Blacktyde’s Nightflyer beside her.” Victarion’s eyes were as sharp as they had ever been. Even with their sails furled and their banners hanging limp, he knew them, as befit the Lord Captain of the Iron Fleet. “Silverfin too. Some kin of Sawane Botley.” The Crow’s Eye had drowned Lord Botley, Victarion had heard, and his heir had died at Moat Cailin, but there had been brothers, and other sons as well. How many? Four? No, five, and none with any cause to love the Crow’s Eye.

And then he saw her: a single-masted galley, lean and low, with a dark red hull. Her sails, now furled, were black as a starless sky. Even at anchor Silence looked both cruel and fast. On her prow was a black iron maiden with one arm outstretched. Her waist was slender, her breasts high and proud, her legs long and shapely. A windblown mane of black iron hair streamed from her head, and her eyes were mother-of-pearl, but she had no mouth.

Victarion’s hands closed into fists. He had beaten four men to death with those hands, and one wife as well. Though his hair was flecked with hoarfrost, he was as strong as he had ever been, with a bull’s broad chest and a boy’s flat belly. The kinslayer is accursed in the eyes of gods and men, Balon had reminded him on the day he sent the Crow’s Eye off to sea.

“He is here,” Victarion told the Barber. “Drop sail. We proceed on oars alone. Command Grief and Iron Vengeance to stand between Silence and the sea. The rest of the fleet to seal the bay. None is to leave save at my command, neither man nor crow.”

The men upon the shore had spied their sails. Shouts echoed across the bay as friends and kin called out greetings. But not from Silence. On her decks a motley crew of mutes and mongrels spoke no word as the Iron Victory drew nigh. Men black as tar stared out at him, and others squat and hairy as the apes of Sothoros. Monsters, Victarion thought.

They dropped anchor twenty yards from Silence. “Lower a boat. I would go ashore.” He buckled on his swordbelt as the rowers took their places; his longsword rested on one hip, a dirk upon the other. Nute the Barber fastened the Lord Captain’s cloak about his shoulders. It was made of nine layers of cloth-of-gold, sewn in the shape of the kraken of Greyjoy, arms dangling to his boots. Beneath he wore heavy grey chain mail over boiled black leather. In Moat Cailin he had taken to wearing mail day and night. Sore shoulders and an aching back were easier to bear than bloody bowels. The poisoned arrows of the bog devils need only scratch a man, and a few hours later he would be squirting and screaming as his life ran down his legs in gouts of red and brown. Whoever wins the Seastone Chair, I shall deal with the bog devils.

Victarion donned a tall black warhelm, wrought in the shape of an iron kraken, its arms coiled down around his cheeks to meet beneath his jaw. By then the boat was ready. “I put the chests into your charge,” he told Nute as he climbed over the side. “See that they are strongly guarded.” Much depended on the chests.

“As you command, Your Grace.”

Victarion returned a sour scowl. “I am no king as yet.” He clambered down into the boat.

Aeron Damphair was waiting for him in the surf with his waterskin slung beneath one arm. The priest was gaunt and tall, though shorter than Victarion. His nose rose like a shark’s fin from a bony face, and his eyes were iron. His beard reached to his waist, and tangled ropes of hair slapped at the back of his legs when the wind blew. “Brother,” he said as the waves broke white and cold around their ankles, “what is dead can never die.”

“But rises again, harder and stronger.” Victarion lifted off his helm and knelt. The bay filled his boots and soaked his breeches as Aeron poured a stream of salt water down upon his brow. And so they prayed.

“Where is our brother Crow’s Eye?” the Lord Captain demanded of Aeron Damphair when the prayers were done.

“His is the great tent of cloth-of-gold, there where the din is loudest. He surrounds himself with godless men and monsters, worse than before. In him our father’s blood went bad.”

“Our mother’s blood as well.” Victarion would not speak of kinslaying, here in this godly place beneath the bones of Nagga and the Grey King’s Hall, but many a night he dreamed of driving a mailed fist into Euron’s smiling face, until the flesh split and his bad blood ran red and free. I must not. I pledged my word to Balon. “All have come?” he asked his priestly brother.

“All who matter. The captains and the kings.” On the Iron Islands they were one and the same, for every captain was a king on his own deck, and every king must be a captain. “Do you mean to claim our father’s crown?”

Victarion imagined himself seated on the Seastone Chair. “If the Drowned God wills it.”

“The waves will speak,” said Aeron Damphair as he turned away. “Listen to the waves, brother.”

“Aye.” He wondered how his name would sound whispered by waves and shouted by the captains and the kings. If the cup should pass to me, I will not set it by.

A crowd had gathered round to wish him well and seek his favor. Victarion saw men from every isle: Blacktydes, Tawneys, Orkwoods, Stonetrees, Wynches, and many more. The Goodbrothers of Old Wyk, the Goodbrothers of Great Wyk, and the Goodbrothers of Orkmont all had come. The Codds were there, though every decent man despised them. Humble Shepherds, Weavers, and Netleys rubbed shoulders with men from Houses ancient and proud; even humble Humbles, the blood of thralls and salt wives. A Volmark clapped Victarion on the back; two Sparrs pressed a wineskin into his hands. He drank deep, wiped his mouth, and let them bear him off to their cookfires, to listen to their talk of war and crowns and plunder, and the glory and the freedom of his reign.

That night the men of the Iron Fleet raised a huge sailcloth tent above the tideline, so Victarion might feast half a hundred famous captains on roast kid, salted cod, and lobster. Aeron came as well. He ate fish and drank water, whilst the captains quaffed enough ale to float the Iron Fleet. Many promised him their voices: Fralegg the Strong, clever Alvyn Sharp, humpbacked Hotho Harlaw. Hotho offered him a daughter for his queen. “I have no luck with wives,” Victarion told him. His first wife died in childbed, giving him a stillborn daughter. His second had been stricken by a pox. And his third…

“A king must have an heir,” Hotho insisted. “The Crow’s Eye brings three sons to show before the kingsmoot.”

“Bastards and mongrels. How old is this daughter?”

“Twelve,” said Hotho. “Fair and fertile, newly flowered, with hair the color of honey. Her breasts are small as yet, but she has good hips. She takes after her mother, more than me.”

Victarion knew that to mean the girl did not have a hump. Yet when he tried to picture her, he only saw the wife he’d killed. He had sobbed each time he struck her, and afterward carried her down to the rocks to give her to the crabs. “I will gladly look at the girl once I am crowned,” he said. That was as much as Hotho dared hope for, and he shambled off, content.

Baelor Blacktyde was more difficult to please. He sat by Victarion’s elbow in his lambswool tunic of black-and-green vairy, smooth-faced and comely. His cloak was sable, and pinned with a silver seven-pointed star. He had been eight years a hostage in Oldtown, and had returned a worshiper of the seven green land gods. “Balon was mad, Aeron is madder, and Euron is maddest of them all,” Lord Baelor said. “What of you, Lord Captain? If I shout your name, will you make an end of this mad war?”

Victarion frowned. “Would you have me bend the knee?”

“If need be. We cannot stand alone against all Westeros. King Robert proved that, to our grief. Balon would pay the iron price for freedom, he said, but our women bought Balon’s crowns with empty beds. My mother was one such. The Old Way is dead.”

“What is dead can never die, but rises harder and stronger. In a hundred years men will sing of Balon the Bold.”

“Balon the Widowmaker, call him. I will gladly trade his freedom for a father. Have you one to give me?” When Victarion did not answer, Blacktyde snorted and moved off.

The tent grew hot and smoky. Two of Gorold Goodbrother’s sons knocked a table over fighting; Will Humble lost a wager and had to eat his boot; Little Lenwood Tawney fiddled whilst Romny Weaver sang “The Bloody Cup” and “Steel Rain” and other old reaving songs. Qarl the Maid and Eldred Codd danced the finger dance. A roar of laughter went up when one of Eldred’s fingers landed in Ralf the Limper’s wine cup.

A woman was amongst those laughing. Victarion rose and saw her by the tent flap, whispering something in the ear of Qarl the Maid that made him laugh as well. He had hoped she would not be fool enough to come here, yet the sight of her made him smile all the same. “Asha,” he called in a commanding voice. “Niece.”

She made her way to his side, lean and lithe in high boots of salt-stained leather, green woolen breeches, and brown quilted tunic, a sleeveless leather jerkin half-unlaced. “Nuncle.” Asha Greyjoy was tall for a woman, yet she had to stand on her toes to kiss his cheek. “I am pleased to see you at my queensmoot.”

“Queensmoot?” Victarion laughed. “Are you drunk, niece? Sit. I did not spy your Black Wind on the strand.”

“I beached her beneath Norne Goodbrother’s castle and rode across the island.” She sat upon a stool and helped herself unasked to Nute the Barber’s wine. Nute raised no objection; he had passed out drunk some time ago. “Who holds the Moat?”

“Ralf Kenning. With the Young Wolf dead, only the bog devils remain to plague us.”

“The Starks were not the only northmen. The Iron Throne has named the Lord of the Dreadfort as Warden of the North.”

“Would you lesson me in warfare? I was fighting battles when you were sucking mother’s milk.”

“And losing battles too.” Asha took a drink of wine.

Victarion did not like to be reminded of Fair Isle. “Every man should lose a battle in his youth, so he does not lose a war when he is old. You have not come to make a claim, I hope.”

She teased him with a smile. “And if I have?”

“There are men who remember when you were a little girl, swimming naked in the sea and playing with your doll.”

“I played with axes too.”

“You did,” he had to grant, “but a woman wants a husband, not a crown. When I am king I’ll give you one.”

“My nuncle is so good to me. Shall I find a pretty wife for you, when I am queen?”

“I have no luck with wives. How long have you been here?”

“Long enough to see that Uncle Damphair has woken more than he intended. The Drumm means to make a claim, and Tarle the Thrice-Drowned was heard to say that Maron Volmark is the true heir of the black line.”

“The king must be a kraken.”

“The Crow’s Eye is a kraken. The elder brother comes before the younger.” Asha leaned close. “But I am the child of King Balon’s body, so I come before you both. Hear me, nuncle…”

But then a sudden silence fell. The singing died, Little Lenwood Tawney lowered his fiddle, men turned their heads. Even the clatter of plates and knives was hushed.

A dozen newcomers had entered the feast tent. Victarion saw Pinchface Jon Myre, Torwold Browntooth, Left-Hand Lucas Codd. Germund Botley crossed his arms against the gilded breastplate he had taken off a Lannister captain during Balon’s first rebellion. Orkwood of Orkmont stood beside him. Behind them were Stonehand, Quellon Humble, and the Red Oarsman with his fiery hair in braids. Ralf the Shepherd too, and Ralf of Lordsport, and Qarl the Thrall.

And the Crow’s Eye, Euron Greyjoy.

He looks unchanged, Victarion thought. He looks the same as he did the day he laughed at me and left. Euron was the most comely of Lord Quellon’s sons, and three years of exile had not changed that. His hair was still black as a midnight sea, with never a whitecap to be seen, and his face was still smooth and pale beneath his neat dark beard. A black leather patch covered Euron’s left eye, but his right was blue as a summer sky.

His smiling eye, thought Victarion. “Crow’s Eye,” he said.

King Crow’s Eye, brother.” Euron smiled. His lips looked very dark in the lamplight, bruised and blue.

“We shall have no king but from the kingsmoot.” The Damphair stood. “No godless man—”

“—may sit the Seastone Chair, aye.” Euron glanced about the tent. “As it happens I have oft sat upon the Seastone Chair of late. It raises no objections.” His smiling eye was glittering. “Who knows more of gods than I? Horse gods and fire gods, gods made of gold with gemstone eyes, gods carved of cedar wood, gods chiseled into mountains, gods of empty air… I know them all. I have seen their peoples garland them with flowers, and shed the blood of goats and bulls and children in their names. And I have heard the prayers, in half a hundred tongues. Cure my withered leg, make the maiden love me, grant me a healthy son. Save me, succor me, make me wealthy… protect me! Protect me from mine enemies, protect me from the darkness, protect me from the crabs inside my belly, from the horselords, from the slavers, from the sellswords at my door. Protect me from the Silence.” He laughed. “Godless? Why, Aeron, I am the godliest man ever to raise sail! You serve one god, Damphair, but I have served ten thousand. From Ib to Asshai, when men see my sails, they pray.”

The priest raised a bony finger. “They pray to trees and golden idols and goat-headed abominations. False gods…”

“Just so,” said Euron, “and for that sin I kill them all. I spill their blood upon the sea and sow their screaming women with my seed. Their little gods cannot stop me, so plainly they are false gods. I am more devout than even you, Aeron. Perhaps it should be you who kneels to me for blessing.”

The Red Oarsman laughed loudly at that, and the others took their lead from him.

“Fools,” said the priest, “fools and thralls and blind men, that is what you are. Do you not see what stands before you?”

“A king,” said Quellon Humble.

The Damphair spat, and strode out into the night.

When he was gone, the Crow’s Eye turned his smiling eye upon Victarion. “Lord Captain, have you no greeting for a brother long away? Nor you, Asha? How fares your lady mother?”

“Poorly,” Asha said. “Some man made her a widow.”

Euron shrugged. “I had heard the Storm God swept Balon to his death. Who is this man who slew him? Tell me his name, niece, so I might revenge myself on him.”

Asha got to her feet. “You know his name as well as I. Three years you were gone from us, and yet Silence returns within a day of my lord father’s death.”

“Do you accuse me?” Euron asked mildly.

“Should I?” The sharpness in Asha’s voice made Victarion frown. It was dangerous to speak so to the Crow’s Eye, even when his smiling eye was shining with amusement.

“Do I command the winds?” the Crow’s Eye asked his pets.

“No, Your Grace,” said Orkwood of Orkmont.

“No man commands the winds,” said Germund Botley.

“Would that you did,” the Red Oarsman said. “You would sail wherever you liked and never be becalmed.”

“There you have it, from the mouths of three brave men,” Euron said. “The Silence was at sea when Balon died. If you doubt an uncle’s word, I give you leave to ask my crew.”

“A crew of mutes? Aye, that would serve me well.”

“A husband would serve you well.” Euron turned to his followers again. “Torwold, I misremember, do you have a wife?”

“Only the one.” Torwold Browntooth grinned, and showed how he had won his name.

“I am unwed,” announced Left-Hand Lucas Codd.

“And for good reason,” Asha said. “All women do despise the Codds as well. Don’t look at me so mournful, Lucas. You still have your famous hand.” She made a pumping motion with her fist.

Codd cursed, till the Crow’s Eye put a hand upon his chest. “Was that courteous, Asha? You have wounded Lucas to the quick.”

“Easier than wounding him in the prick. I throw an axe as well as any man, but when the target is so small…”

“This girl forgets herself,” snarled Pinchface Jon Myre. “Balon let her believe she was a man.”

“Your father made the same mistake with you,” said Asha.

“Give her to me, Euron,” suggested the Red Oarsman. “I’ll spank her till her arse is as red as my hair.”

“Come try,” said Asha, “and hereafter we can call you the Red Eunuch.” A throwing axe was in her hand. She tossed it in the air and caught it deftly. “Here is my husband, Nuncle. Any man who wants me should take it up with him.”

Victarion slammed his fist upon the table. “I’ll have no blood shed here. Euron, take your… pets… and go.”

“I had looked for a warmer welcome from you, brother. I am your elder… and soon, your rightful king.”

Victarion’s face darkened. “When the kingsmoot speaks, we shall see who wears the driftwood crown.”

“On that we can agree.” Euron lifted two fingers to the patch that covered his left eye, and took his leave. The others followed at his heels like mongrel dogs. Silence lingered behind them, till Little Lenwood Tawney took up his fiddle. The wine and ale began to flow again, but several guests had lost their thirst. Eldred Codd slipped out, cradling his bloody hand. Then Will Humble, Hotho Harlaw, a goodly lot of Goodbrothers.

“Nuncle.” Asha put a hand upon his shoulder. “Walk with me, if you would.”

Outside the tent the wind was rising. Clouds raced across the moon’s pale face. They looked a bit like galleys, stroking hard to ram. The stars were few and faint. All along the strand the longships rested, tall masts rising like a forest from the surf. Victarion could hear their hulls creaking as they settled on the sand. He heard the keening of their lines, the sound of banners flapping. Beyond, in the deeper waters of the bay, larger ships bobbed at anchor, grim shadows wreathed in mist.

They walked along the strand together just above the surf, far from the camps and the cookfires. “Tell me true, nuncle,” Asha said, “why did Euron go away so suddenly?”

“The Crow’s Eye oft went reaving.”

“Never for so long.”

“He took the Silence east. A lengthy voyage.”

“I asked why he went, not where.” When he did not answer, Asha said, “I was away when Silence sailed. I had taken Black Wind around the Arbor to the Stepstones, to steal a few trinkets from the Lyseni pirates. When I came home, Euron was gone and your new wife was dead.”

“She was only a salt wife.” He had not touched another woman since he gave her to the crabs. I will need to take a wife when I am king. A true wife, to be my queen and bear me sons. A king must have an heir.

“My father refused to speak of her,” said Asha.

“It does no good to speak of things no man can change.” He was weary of the subject. “I saw the Reader’s longship.”

“It took all my charm to winkle him out of his Book Tower.”

She has the Harlaws, then. Victarion’s frown grew deeper. “You cannot hope to rule. You are a woman.”

“Is that why I always lose the pissing contests?” Asha laughed. “Nuncle, it grieves me to say so, but you may be right. For four days and four nights, I have been drinking with the captains and the kings, listening to what they say… and what they will not say. Mine own are with me, and many Harlaws. I have Tris Botley too, and some few others. Not enough.” She kicked a rock, and sent it splashing into the water between two longships. “I am of a mind to shout my nuncle’s name.”

“Which uncle?” he demanded. “You have three.”

“Four. Nuncle, hear me. I will place the driftwood crown upon your brow myself… if you will agree to share the rule.”

Share the rule? How could that be?” The woman was not making sense. Does she want to be my queen? Victarion found himself looking at Asha in a way he had never looked at her before. He could feel his manhood beginning to stiffen. She is Balon’s daughter, he reminded himself. He remembered her as a little girl, throwing axes at a door. He crossed his arms against his chest. “The Seastone Chair seats but one.”

“Then let my nuncle sit,” Asha said. “I will stand behind you, to guard your back and whisper in your ear. No king can rule alone. Even when the dragons sat the Iron Throne, they had men to help them. The King’s Hands. Let me be your Hand, Nuncle.”

No King of the Isles had ever needed a Hand, much less one who was a woman. The captains and the kings would mock me in their cups. “Why would you wish to be my Hand?”

“To end this war before this war ends us. We have won all that we are like to win… and stand to lose all just as quick, unless we make a peace. I have shown Lady Glover every courtesy, and she swears her lord will treat with me. If we hand back Deepwood Motte, Torrhen’s Square, and Moat Cailin, she says, the northmen will cede us Sea Dragon Point and all the Stony Shore. Those lands are thinly peopled, yet ten times larger than all the isles put together. An exchange of hostages will seal the pact, and each side will agree to make common cause with the other should the Iron Throne—”

Victarion chuckled. “This Lady Glover plays you for a fool, niece. Sea Dragon Point and the Stony Shore are ours. Why hand back anything? Winterfell is burnt and broken, and the Young Wolf rots headless in the earth. We will have all the north, as your lord father dreamed.”

“When longships learn to row through trees, perhaps. A fisherman may hook a grey leviathan, but it will drag him down to death unless he cuts it loose. The north is too large for us to hold, and too full of northmen.”

“Go back to your dolls, niece. Leave the winning of wars to warriors.” Victarion showed her his fists. “I have two hands. No man needs three.”

“I know a man who needs House Harlaw, though.”

“Hotho Humpback has offered me his daughter for my queen. If I take her, I will have the Harlaws.”

That took the girl aback. “Lord Rodrik rules House Harlaw.”

“Rodrik has no daughters, only books. Hotho will be his heir, and I will be the king.” Once he had said the words aloud, they sounded true. “The Crow’s Eye has been too long away.”

“Some men look larger at a distance,” Asha warned. “Walk amongst the cookfires if you dare, and listen. They are not telling tales of your strength, nor of my famous beauty. They talk only of the Crow’s Eye; the far places he has seen, the women he has raped and the men he’s killed, the cities he has sacked, the way he burnt Lord Tywin’s fleet at Lannisport…”

I burnt the lion’s fleet,” Victarion insisted. “With mine own hands I flung the first torch onto his flagship.”

“The Crow’s Eye hatched the scheme.” Asha put her hand upon his arm. “And killed your wife as well… did he not?”

Balon had commanded them not to speak of it, but Balon was dead. “He put a baby in her belly and made me do the killing. I would have killed him too, but Balon would have no kinslaying in his hall. He sent Euron into exile, never to return…”

“… so long as Balon lived?”

Victarion looked at his fists. “She gave me horns. I had no choice.” Had it been known, men would have laughed at me, as the Crow’s Eye laughed when I confronted him. “She came to me wet and willing,” he had boasted. “It seems Victarion is big everywhere but where it matters.” But he could not tell her that.

“I am sorry for you,” said Asha, “and sorrier for her… but you leave me small choice but to claim the Seastone Chair myself.”

You cannot. “Your breath is yours to waste, woman.”

“It is,” she said, and left him.


Only when his arms and legs were numb from the cold did Aeron Greyjoy struggle back to shore and don his robes again.

He had run before the Crow’s Eye as if he were still the weak thing he had been, but when the waves broke over his head they reminded once more that that man was dead. I was reborn from the sea, a harder man and stronger. No mortal man could frighten him, no more than the darkness could, nor the bones of his soul, the grey and grisly bones of his soul. The sound of a door opening, the scream of a rusted iron hinge.

The priest’s robes crackled as he pulled them down, still stiff with salt from their last washing a fortnight past. The wool clung to his wet chest, drinking the brine that ran down from his hair. He filled his waterskin and slung it over his shoulder.

As he strode across the strand, a drowned man returning from a call of nature stumbled into him in the darkness. “Damphair,” he murmured. Aeron laid a hand upon his head, blessed him, and moved on. The ground rose beneath his feet, gently at first, then more steeply. When he felt scrub grass between his toes, he knew that he had left the strand behind. Slowly he climbed, listening to the waves. The sea is never weary. I must be as tireless.

On the crown of the hill four-and-forty monstrous stone ribs rose from the earth like the trunks of great pale trees. The sight made Aeron’s heart beat faster. Nagga had been the first sea dragon, the mightiest ever to rise from the waves. She fed on krakens and leviathans and drowned whole islands in her wrath, yet the Grey King had slain her and the Drowned God had changed her bones to stone so that men might never cease to wonder at the courage of the first of kings. Nagga’s ribs became the beams and pillars of his longhall, just as her jaws became his throne. For a thousand years and seven he reigned here, Aeron recalled. Here he took his mermaid wife and planned his wars against the Storm God. From here he ruled both stone and salt, wearing robes of woven seaweed and a tall pale crown made from Nagga’s teeth.

But that was in the dawn of days, when mighty men still dwelt on earth and sea. The hall had been warmed by Nagga’s living fire, which the Grey King had made his thrall. On its walls hung tapestries woven from silver seaweed most pleasing to the eyes. The Grey King’s warriors had feasted on the bounty of the sea at a table in the shape of a great starfish, whilst seated upon thrones carved from mother-of-pearl. Gone, all the glory gone. Men were smaller now. Their lives had grown short. The Storm God drowned Nagga’s fire after the Grey King’s death, the chairs and tapestries had been stolen, the roof and walls had rotted away. Even the Grey King’s great throne of fangs had been swallowed by the sea. Only Nagga’s bones endured to remind the ironborn of all the wonder that had been.

It is enough, thought Aeron Greyjoy.

Nine wide steps had been hewn from the stony hilltop. Behind rose the howling hills of Old Wyk, with mountains in the distance black and cruel. Aeron paused where the doors once stood, pulled the cork from his waterskin, took a swallow of salt water, and turned to face the sea. We were born from the sea, and to the sea we must return. Even here he could hear the ceaseless rumble of the waves and feel the power of the god who lurked below the waters. Aeron went to his knees. You have sent your people to me, he prayed. They have left their halls and hovels, their castles and their keeps, and come here to Nagga’s bones, from every fishing village and every hidden vale. Now grant to them the wisdom to know the true king when he stands before them, and the strength to shun the false. All night he prayed, for when the god was in him Aeron Greyjoy had no need of sleep, no more than the waves did, nor the fishes of the sea.

Dark clouds ran before the wind as the first light stole into the world. The black sky went grey as slate; the black sea turned grey-green; the black mountains of Great Wyk across the bay put on the blue-green hues of soldier pines. As color stole back into the world, a hundred banners lifted and began to flap. Aeron beheld the silver fish of Botley, the bloody moon of Wynch, the dark green trees of Orkwood. He saw warhorns and leviathans and scythes, and everywhere the krakens great and golden. Beneath them, thralls and salt wives begin to move about, stirring coals into new life and gutting fish for the captains and the kings to break their fasts. The dawnlight touched the stony strand, and he watched men wake from sleep, throwing aside their sealskin blankets as they called for their first horn of ale. Drink deep, he thought, for we have god’s work to do today.

The sea was stirring too. The waves grew larger as the wind rose, sending plumes of spray to crash against the longships. The Drowned God wakes, thought Aeron. He could hear his voice welling from the depths of the sea. I shall be with you here this day, my strong and faithful servant, the voice said. No godless man will sit my Seastone Chair.

It was there beneath the arch of Nagga’s ribs that his drowned men found him, standing tall and stern with his long black hair blowing in the wind. “Is it time?” Rus asked. Aeron gave a nod, and said, “It is. Go forth and sound the summons.”

The drowned men took up their driftwood cudgels and began to beat them one against the other as they walked back down the hill. Others joined them, and the clangor spread along the strand. Such a fearful clacking and a clattering it made, as if a hundred trees were pummeling one another with their limbs. Kettledrums began to beat as well, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. A warhorn bellowed, then another. AAAAAAoooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Men left their fires to make their way toward the bones of the Grey King’s Hall; oarsmen, steersmen, sailmakers, shipwrights, the warriors with their axes and the fishermen with their nets. Some had thralls to serve them; some had salt wives. Others, who had sailed too often to the green lands, were attended by maesters and singers and knights. The common men crowded together in a crescent around the base of the knoll, with the thralls, children, and women toward the rear. The captains and the kings made their way up the slopes. Aeron Damphair saw cheerful Sigfry Stonetree, Andrik the Unsmiling, the knight Ser Harras Harlaw. Lord Baelor Blacktyde in his sable cloak stood beside The Stonehouse in ragged sealskin. Victarion loomed above all of them save Andrik. His brother wore no helm, but elsewise he was all in armor, his kraken cloak hanging golden from his shoulders. He shall be our king. What man could look on him and doubt it?

When the Damphair raised his bony hands the kettledrums and the warhorns fell silent, the drowned men lowered their cudgels, and all the voices stilled. Only the sound of the waves pounding remained, a roar no man could still. “We were born from the sea, and to the sea we all return,” Aeron began, softly at first, so men would strain to hear. “The Storm God in his wrath plucked Balon from his castle and cast him down, yet now he feasts beneath the waves in the Drowned God’s watery halls.” He lifted his eyes to the sky. “Balon is dead! The iron king is dead!”

“The king is dead!” his drowned men shouted.

“Yet what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger!” he reminded them. “Balon has fallen, Balon my brother, who honored the Old Way and paid the iron price. Balon the Brave, Balon the Blessed, Balon Twice-Crowned, who won us back our freedoms and our god. Balon is dead… but an iron king shall rise again, to sit upon the Seastone Chair and rule the isles.”

“A king shall rise!” they answered. “He shall rise!”

“He shall. He must.” Aeron’s voice thundered like the waves. “But who? Who shall sit in Balon’s place? Who shall rule these holy isles? Is he here among us now?” The priest spread his hands wide. “Who shall be king over us?”

A seagull screamed back at him. The crowd began to stir, like men waking from a dream. Each man looked at his neighbors, to see which of them might presume to claim a crown. The Crow’s Eye was never patient, Aeron Damphair told himself. Mayhaps he will speak first. If so, it would be his undoing. The captains and the kings had come a long way to this feast and would not choose the first dish set before them. They will want to taste and sample, a bite of him, a nibble of the other, until they find the one that suits them best.

Euron must have known that as well. He stood with his arms crossed amongst his mutes and monsters. Only the wind and the waves answered Aeron’s call.

“The ironborn must have a king,” the priest insisted, after a long silence. “I ask again. Who shall be king over us?

“I will,” came the answer from below.

At once a ragged cry of “Gylbert! Gylbert King!” went up. The captains gave way to let the claimant and his champions ascend the hill to stand at Aeron’s side beneath the ribs of Nagga.

This would-be king was a tall spare lord with a melancholy visage, his lantern jaw shaved clean. His three champions took up their position two steps below him, bearing his sword and shield and banner. They shared a certain look with the tall lord, and Aeron took them for his sons. One unfurled his banner, a great black longship against a setting sun. “I am Gylbert Farwynd, Lord of the Lonely Light,” the lord told the kingsmoot.

Aeron knew some Farwynds, a queer folk who held lands on the westernmost shores of Great Wyk and the scattered isles beyond, rocks so small that most could support but a single household. Of those, the Lonely Light was the most distant, eight days’ sail to the northwest amongst rookeries of seals and sea lions and the boundless grey oceans. The Farwynds there were even queerer than the rest. Some said they were skinchangers, unholy creatures who could take on the forms of sea lions, walruses, even spotted whales, the wolves of the wild sea.

Lord Gylbert began to speak. He told of a wondrous land beyond the Sunset Sea, a land without winter or want, where death had no dominion. “Make me your king, and I shall lead you there,” he cried. “We will build ten thousand ships as Nymeria once did and take sail with all our people to the land beyond the sunset. There every man shall be a king and every wife a queen.”

His eyes, Aeron saw, were now grey, now blue, as changeable as the seas. Mad eyes, he thought, fool’s eyes. The vision he spoke of was doubtless a snare set by the Storm God to lure the ironborn to destruction. The offerings that his men spilled out before the kingsmoot included sealskins and walrus tusks, arm rings made of whalebone, warhorns banded in bronze. The captains looked and turned away, leaving lesser men to help themselves to the gifts. When the fool was done talking and his champions began to shout his name, only the Farwynds took up the cry, and not even all of them. Soon enough the cries of “Gylbert! Gylbert King!” faded away to silence. The gull screamed loudly above them, and landed atop one of Nagga’s ribs as the Lord of the Lonely Light made his way back down the hill.

Aeron Damphair stepped forward once more. “I ask again. Who shall be king over us?

“Me!” a deep voice boomed, and once more the crowd parted.

The speaker was borne up the hill in a carved driftwood chair carried on the shoulders of his grandsons. A great ruin of a man, twenty stones heavy and ninety years old, he was cloaked in a white bearskin. His own hair was snow white as well, and his huge beard covered him like a blanket from cheeks to thighs, so it was hard to tell where the beard ended and the pelt began. Though his grandsons were great strapping men, they struggled with his weight on the steep stone steps. Before the Grey King’s Hall they set him down, and three remained below him as his champions.

Sixty years ago, this one might well have won the favor of the moot, Aeron thought, but his hour is long past.

“Aye, me!” the man roared from where he sat, in a voice as huge as he was. “Why not? Who better? I am Erik Ironmaker, for them who’s blind. Erik the Just. Erik Anvil-Breaker. Show them my hammer, Thormor.” One of his champions lifted it up for all to see; a monstrous thing it was, its haft wrapped in old leather, its head a brick of steel as large as a loaf of bread. “I can’t count how many hands I’ve smashed to pulp with that hammer,” Erik said, “but might be some thief could tell you. I can’t say how many heads I’ve crushed against my anvil neither, but there’s some widows could. I could tell you all the deeds I’ve done in battle, but I’m eight-and-eighty and won’t live long enough to finish. If old is wise, no one is wiser than me. If big is strong, no one’s stronger. You want a king with heirs? I’ve more’n I can count. King Erik, aye, I like the sound o’ that. Come, say it with me. ERIK! ERIK ANVIL-BREAKER! ERIK KING!

As his grandsons took up the cry, their own sons came forward with chests upon their shoulders. When they upended them at the base of the stone steps, a torrent of silver, bronze, and steel spilled forth; arm rings, collars, daggers, dirks, and throwing axes. A few captains snatched up the choicest items and added their voices to the swelling chant. But no sooner had the cry begun to build than a woman’s voice cut through it. “Erik!” Men moved aside to let her through. With one foot on the lowest step, she said, “Erik, stand up.”

A hush fell. The wind blew, waves broke against the shore, men murmured in each other’s ears. Erik Ironmaker stared down at Asha Greyjoy. “Girl. Thrice-damned girl. What did you say?”

“Stand up, Erik,” she called. “Stand up and I’ll shout your name with all the rest. Stand up and I’ll be the first to follow you. You want a crown, aye. Stand up and take it.”

Elsewhere in the press, the Crow’s Eye laughed. Erik glared at him. The big man’s hands closed tight around the arms of his driftwood throne. His face went red, then purple. His arms trembled with effort. Aeron could see a thick blue vein pulsing in his neck as he struggled to rise. For a moment it seemed as though he might do it, but the breath went out of him all at once, and he groaned and sank back onto his cushion. Euron laughed all the louder. The big man hung his head and grew old, all in the blink of an eye. His grandsons carried him back down the hill.

“Who shall rule the ironborn?” Aeron Damphair called again. “Who shall be king over us?”

Men looked at one another. Some looked at Euron, some at Victarion, a few at Asha. Waves broke green and white against the longships. The gull cried once more, a raucous scream, forlorn. “Make your claim, Victarion,” the Merlyn called. “Let us have done with this mummer’s farce.”

“When I am ready,” Victarion shouted back.

Aeron was pleased. It is better if he waits.

The Drumm came next, another old man, though not so old as Erik. He climbed the hill on his own two legs, and on his hip rode Red Rain, his famous sword, forged of Valyrian steel in the days before the Doom. His champions were men of note: his sons Denys and Donnel, both stout fighters, and between them Andrik the Unsmiling, a giant of a man with arms as thick as trees. It spoke well of the Drumm that such a man would stand for him.

“Where is it written that our king must be a kraken?” Drumm began. “What right has Pyke to rule us? Great Wyk is the largest isle, Harlaw the richest, Old Wyk the most holy. When the black line was consumed by dragonfire, the ironborn gave the primacy to Vickon Greyjoy, aye… but as lord, not king.”

It was a good beginning. Aeron heard shouts of approval, but they dwindled as the old man began to tell of the glory of the Drumms. He spoke of Dale the Dread, Roryn the Reaver, the hundred sons of Gormond Drumm the Oldfather. He drew Red Rain and told them how Hilmar Drumm the Cunning had taken the blade from an armored knight with wits and a wooden cudgel. He spoke of ships long lost and battles eight hundred years forgotten, and the crowd grew restive. He spoke and spoke, and then he spoke still more.

And when Drumm’s chests were thrown open, the captains saw the niggard’s gifts he’d brought them. No throne was ever bought with bronze, the Damphair thought. The truth of that was plain to hear, as the cries of “Drumm! Drumm! Dunstan King!” died away.

Aeron could feel a tightness in his belly, and it seemed to him that the waves were pounding louder than before. It is time, he thought. It is time for Victarion to make his claim. “Who shall be king over us?” the priest cried once more, but this time his fierce black eyes found his brother in the crowd. “Nine sons were born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy. One was mightier than all the rest, and knew no fear.”

Victarion met his eyes, and nodded. The captains parted before him as he climbed the steps. “Brother, give me blessing,” he said when he reached the top. He knelt and bowed his head. Aeron uncorked his waterskin and poured a stream of seawater down upon his brow. “What is dead can never die,” the priest said, and Victarion replied, “but rises again, harder and stronger.”

When Victarion rose, his champions arrayed themselves beneath him; Ralf the Limper, Red Ralf Stonehouse, and Nute the Barber, noted warriors all. Stonehouse bore the Greyjoy banner; the golden kraken on a field as black as the midnight sea. As soon as it unfurled, the captains and the kings began to shout out the Lord Captain’s name. Victarion waited till they quieted, then said, “You all know me. If you want sweet words, look elsewhere. I have no singer’s tongue. I have an axe, and I have these.” He raised his huge mailed hands up to show them, and Nute the Barber displayed his axe, a fearsome piece of steel. “I was a loyal brother,” Victarion went on. “When Balon was wed, it was me he sent to Harlaw to bring him back his bride. I led his longships into many a battle, and never lost but one. The first time Balon took a crown, it was me sailed into Lannisport to singe the lion’s tail. The second time, it was me he sent to skin the Young Wolf should he come howling home. All you’ll get from me is more of what you got from Balon. That’s all I have to say.”

With that his champions began to chant: “VICTARION! VICTARION! VICTARION KING!” Below, his men were spilling out his chests, a cascade of silver, gold, and gems, a wealth of plunder. Captains scrambled to seize the richest pieces, shouting as they did so. “VICTARION! VICTARION! VICTARION KING!” Aeron watched the Crow’s Eye. Will he speak now, or let the kingsmoot run its course? Orkwood of Orkmont was whispering in Euron’s ear.

But it was not Euron who put an end to the shouting, it was the woman. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled, a sharp shrill sound that cut through the tumult like a knife through curds. “Nuncle! Nuncle!” Bending, she snatched up a twisted golden collar and bounded up the steps. Nute seized her by the arm, and for half a heartbeat Aeron was hopeful that his brother’s champions would keep her silent, but Asha wr