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THE MERCHANT’S MAN
Adventure stank.

She boasted sixty oars, a single sail, and a long lean hull that promised speed. Small, but she might serve, Quentyn thought when he saw her, but that was before he went aboard and got a good whiff of her. Pigs, was his first thought, but after a second sniff he changed his mind. Pigs had a cleaner smell. This stink was piss and rotting meat and nightsoil, this was the reek of corpse flesh and weeping sores and wounds gone bad, so strong that it overwhelmed the salt air and fish smell of the harbor.

“I want to retch,” he said to Gerris Drinkwater. They were waiting for the ship’s master to appear, sweltering in the heat as the stench wafted up from the deck beneath them.

“If the captain smells anything like his ship, he may mistake your vomit for perfume,” Gerris replied.

Quentyn was about to suggest that they try another ship when the master finally made his appearance, with two vile-looking crewmen at his side. Gerris greeted him with a smile. Though he did not speak the Volantene tongue as well as Quentyn, their ruse required that he speak for them. Back in the Planky Town Quentyn had played the wineseller, but the mummery had chafed at him, so when the Dornishmen changed ships at Lys they had changed roles as well. Aboard the Meadowlark, Cletus Yronwood became the merchant, Quentyn the servant; in Volantis, with Cletus slain, Gerris had assumed the master’s role.

Tall and fair, with blue-green eyes, sandy hair streaked by the sun, and a lean and comely body, Gerris Drinkwater had a swagger to him, a confidence bordering on arrogance. He never seemed ill at ease, and even when he did not speak the language, he had ways of making himself understood. Quentyn cut a poor figure by comparison—short-legged and stocky, thickly built, with hair the brown of new-turned earth. His forehead was too high, his jaw too square, his nose too broad. A good honest face, a girl had called it once, but you should smile more.

Smiles had never come easily for Quentyn Martell, any more than they did for his lord father.

“How swift is your Adventure?” Gerris said, in a halting approximation of High Valyrian.

The Adventure’s master recognized the accent and responded in the Common Tongue of Westeros. “There is none swifter, honored lord. Adventure can run down the wind itself. Tell me where you wish to sail, and swiftly I shall bring you there.”

“I seek passage to Meereen for myself and two servants.”

That gave the captain pause. “I am no stranger to Meereen. I could find the city again, aye … but why? There are no slaves to be had in Meereen, no profit to be found there. The silver queen has put an end to that. She has even closed the fighting pits, so a poor sailor cannot even amuse himself as he waits to fill his holds. Tell me, my Westerosi friend, what is there in Meereen that you should want to go there?”

The most beautiful woman in the world, thought Quentyn. My bride-to-be, if the gods are good. Sometimes at night he lay awake imagining her face and form, and wondering why such a woman would ever want to marry him, of all the princes in the world. I am Dorne, he told himself. She will want Dorne.

Gerris answered with the tale they had concocted. “Wine is our family trade. My father owns extensive vineyards back in Dorne, and wishes me to find new markets. It is hoped that the good folk of Meereen will welcome what I sell.”

“Wine? Dornish wine?” The captain was not convinced. “The slave cities are at war. Can it be you do not know this?”

“The fighting is between Yunkai and Astapor, we had heard. Meereen is not involved.”

“Not as yet. But soon. An envoy from the Yellow City is in Volantis even now, hiring swords. The Long Lances have already taken ship for Yunkai, and the Windblown and the Company of the Cat will follow once they have finished filling out their ranks. The Golden Company marches east as well. All this is known.”

“If you say so. I deal in wine, not wars. Ghiscari wine is poor stuff, all agree. The Meereenese will pay a good price for my fine Dornish vintages.”

“Dead men do not care what kind of wine they drink.” The master of Adventure fingered his beard. “I am not the first captain you have approached, I think. Nor the tenth.”

“No,” Gerris admitted.

“How many, then? A hundred?”

Close enough, thought Quentyn. The Volantenes were fond of boasting that the hundred isles of Braavos could be dropped into their deep harbor and drowned. Quentyn had never seen Braavos, but he could believe it. Rich and ripe and rotted, Volantis covered the mouth of the Rhoyne like a warm wet kiss, stretching across hill and marsh on both sides of the river. Ships were everywhere, coming down the river or headed out to sea, crowding the wharves and piers, taking on cargo or off-loading it: warships and whalers and trading galleys, carracks and skiffs, cogs, great cogs, longships, swan ships, ships from Lys and Tyrosh and Pentos, Qartheen spicers big as palaces, ships from Tolos and Yunkai and the Basilisks. So many that Quentyn, seeing the port for the first time from the deck of the Meadowlark, had told his friends that they would only linger here three days.

Yet twenty days had passed, and here they remained, still shipless. The captains of the Melantine, the Triarch’s Daughter, and the Mermaid’s Kiss had all refused them. A mate on the Bold Voyager had laughed in their faces. The master of the Dolphin berated them for wasting his time, and the owner of the Seventh Son accused them of being pirates. All on the first day.

Only the captain of the Fawn had given them reasons for his refusal. “It is true that I am sailing east,” he told them, over watered wine. “South around Valyria and thence into the sunrise. We will take on water and provisions at New Ghis, then bend all oars toward Qarth and the Jade Gates. Every voyage has perils, long ones more than most. Why should I seek out more danger by turning into Slaver’s Bay? The Fawn is my livelihood. I will not risk her to take three mad Dornishmen into the middle of a war.”

Quentyn had begun to think that they might have done better to buy their own ship in the Planky Town. That would have drawn unwanted attention, however. The Spider had informers everywhere, even in the halls of Sunspear. “Dorne will bleed if your purpose is discovered,” his father had warned him, as they watched the children frolic in the pools and fountains of the Water Gardens. “What we do is treason, make no mistake. Trust only your companions, and do your best to avoid attracting notice.”

So Gerris Drinkwater gave the captain of Adventure his most disarming smile. “Truth be told, I have not kept count of all the cowards who refused us, but at the Merchant’s House I heard it said that you were a bolder sort of man, the sort who might risk anything for sufficient gold.”

A smuggler, Quentyn thought. That was how the other traders styled Adventure’s master, back at the Merchant’s House. “He is a smuggler and a slaver, half pirate and half pander, but it may be that he is your best hope,” the innkeep had told them.

The captain rubbed thumb and forefinger together. “And how much gold would you deem sufficient for such a voyage?”

“Thrice your usual fee for passage to Slaver’s Bay.”

“For each of you?” The captain showed his teeth in something that might have been intended as a smile though it gave his narrow face a feral look. “Perhaps. It is true, I am a bolder man than most. How soon will you wish to leave?”

“The morrow would not be too soon.”

“Done. Return an hour before first light, with your friends and your wines. Best to be under way whilst Volantis sleeps, so no one will ask us inconvenient questions about our destination.”

“As you say. An hour before first light.”

The captain’s smile widened. “I am pleased that I can help you. We will have a happy voyage, yes?”

“I am certain of it,” said Gerris. The captain called for ale then, and the two of them drank a toast to their venture.

“A sweet man,” Gerris said afterward, as he and Quentyn made their way down to the foot of the pier where their hired hathay waited. The air hung hot and heavy, and the sun was so bright that both of them were squinting.

“This is a sweet city,” Quentyn agreed. Sweet enough to rot your teeth. Sweet beets were grown in profusion hereabouts, and were served with almost every meal. The Volantenes made a cold soup of them, as thick and rich as purple honey. Their wines were sweet as well. “I fear our happy voyage will be short, however. That sweet man does not mean to take us to Meereen. He was too quick to accept your offer. He’ll take thrice the usual fee, no doubt, and once he has us aboard and out of sight of land, he’ll slit our throats and take the rest of our gold as well.”

“Or chain us to an oar, beside those wretches we were smelling. We need to find a better class of smuggler, I think.”

Their driver awaited them beside his hathay. In Westeros, it might have been called an oxcart, though it was a deal more ornate than any cart that Quentyn had ever seen in Dorne, and lacked an ox. The hathay was pulled by a dwarf elephant, her hide the color of dirty snow. The streets of Old Volantis were full of such.

Quentyn would have preferred to walk, but they were miles from their inn. Besides, the innkeep at the Merchant’s House had warned him that traveling afoot would taint them in the eyes of foreign captains and the native-born Volantenes alike. Persons of quality traveled by palanquin, or in the back of a hathay … and as it happened the innkeep had a cousin who owned several such contrivances and would be pleased to serve them in this matter.

Their driver was one of the cousin’s slaves, a small man with a wheel tattooed upon one cheek, naked but for a breechclout and a pair of sandals. His skin was the color of teak, his eyes chips of flint. After he had helped them up onto the cushioned bench between the cart’s two huge wooden wheels, he clambered onto the elephant’s back. “The Merchant’s House,” Quentyn told him, “but go along the wharves.” Beyond the waterfront and its breezes, the streets and alleys of Volantis were hot enough to drown a man in his own sweat, at least on this side of the river.

The driver shouted something at his elephant in the local tongue. The beast began to move, trunk swaying from side to side. The cart lurched along behind her, the driver hooting at sailors and slaves alike to clear the way. It was easy enough to tell one from the other. The slaves were all tattooed: a mask of blue feathers, a lightning bolt that ran from jaw to brow, a coin upon the cheek, a leopard’s spots, a skull, a jug. Maester Kedry said there were five slaves for every free man in Volantis though he had not lived long enough to verify his estimate. He had perished on the morning the corsairs swarmed aboard the Meadowlark.

Quentyn lost two other friends that same day—Willam Wells with his freckles and his crooked teeth, fearless with a lance, and Cletus Yronwood, handsome despite his lazy eye, always randy, always laughing. Cletus had been Quentyn’s dearest friend for half his life, a brother in all but blood. “Give your bride a kiss for me,” Cletus had whispered to him, just before he died.

The corsairs had come aboard in the darkness before the dawn, as the Meadowlark was anchored off the coast of the Disputed Lands. The crew had beaten them off, at the cost of twelve lives. Afterward the sailors stripped the dead corsairs of boots and belts and weapons, divvied up their purses, and yanked gemstones from their ears and rings from their fingers. One of the corpses was so fat that the ship’s cook had to cut his fingers off with a meat cleaver to claim his rings. It took three Meadowlarks to roll the body into the sea. The other pirates were chucked in after him, without a word of prayer or ceremony.

Their own dead received more tender treatment. The sailors sewed their bodies up in canvas, weighed down with ballast stones so they might sink more quickly. The captain of the Meadowlark led his crew in a prayer for the souls of their slain shipmates. Then he turned to his Dornish passengers, the three who still remained of the six who had come aboard at the Planky Town. Even the big man had emerged, pale and greensick and unsteady on his feet, struggling up from the depths of the ship’s hold to pay his last respects. “One of you should say some words for your dead, before we give them to the sea,” the captain said. Gerris had obliged, lying with every other word, since he dare not tell the truth of who they’d been or why they’d come.

It was not supposed to end like that for them. “This will be a tale to tell our grandchildren,” Cletus had declared the day they set out from his father’s castle. Will made a face at that, and said, “A tale to tell tavern wenches, you mean, in hopes they’ll lift their skirts.” Cletus had slapped him on the back. “For grandchildren, you need children. For children, you need to lift some skirts.” Later, in the Planky Town, the Dornishmen had toasted Quentyn’s future bride, made ribald japes about his wedding night to come, and talked about the things they’d see, the deeds they’d do, the glory they would win. All they won was a sailcloth sack filled with ballast stones.

As much as he mourned Will and Cletus, it was the maester’s loss that Quentyn felt most keenly. Kedry had been fluent in the tongues of all of the Free Cities, and even the mongrel Ghiscari that men spoke along the shores of Slaver’s Bay. “Maester Kedry will accompany you,” his father said the night they parted. “Heed his counsel. He has devoted half his life to the study of the Nine Free Cities.” Quentyn wondered if things might not have gone a deal easier if only he were here to guide them.

“I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze,” said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. “It’s moist as the Maiden’s cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city.”

Quentyn shared the feeling. The sullen wet heat of Volantis sapped his strength and left him feeling dirty. The worst part was knowing that nightfall would bring no relief. Up in the high meadows north of Lord Yronwood’s estates, the air was always crisp and cool after dark, no matter how hot the day had been. Not here. In Volantis, the nights were almost as hot as the days.

“The Goddess sails for New Ghis on the morrow,&............
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