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By the time they reached Volantis, the sky was purple to the west and black to the east, and the stars were coming out. The same stars as in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister reflected.

He might have taken some comfort in that if he had not been trussed up like a goose and lashed to a saddle. He had given up squirming. The knots that bound him were too tight. Instead he’d gone as limp as a sack of meal. Saving my strength, he told himself, though for what he could not have said.

Volantis closed its gates at dark, and the guardsmen on its northern gate were grumbling impatiently at the stragglers. They joined the queue behind a wagon laden with limes and oranges. The guards motioned the wagon through with their torches but took a harder look at the big Andal on his warhorse, with his longsword and his mail. A captain was summoned. Whilst he and the knight exchanged some words in Volantene, one of the guardsmen pulled off his clawed gauntlet and gave Tyrion’s head a rub. “I’m full of good fortune,” the dwarf told him. “Cut me loose, friend, and I’ll see you’re well rewarded.”

His captor overheard. “Save your lies for those who speak your tongue, Imp,” he said, when the Volantenes waved them on.

They were moving again, through the gate and beneath the city’s massive walls. “You speak my tongue. Can I sway you with promises, or are you determined to buy a lordship with my head?”

“I was a lord, by right of birth. I want no hollow titles.”

“That’s all you’re like to get from my sweet sister.”

“And here I’d heard a Lannister always pays his debts.”

“Oh, every penny … but never a groat more, my lord. You’ll get the meal you bargained for, but it won’t be sauced with gratitude, and in the end it will not nourish you.”

“Might be all I want is to see you pay for crimes. The kinslayer is accursed in the eyes of gods and men.”

“The gods are blind. And men see only what they wish.”

“I see you plain enough, Imp.” Something dark had crept into the knight’s tone. “I have done things I am not proud of, things that brought shame onto my House and my father’s name … but to kill your own sire? How could any man do that?”

“Give me a crossbow and pull down your breeches, and I’ll show you.” Gladly.

“You think this is a jape?”

“I think life is a jape. Yours, mine, everyone’s.”

Inside the city walls, they rode past guildhalls, markets, and bathhouses. Fountains splashed and sang in the centers of wide squares, where men sat at stone tables, moving cyvasse pieces and sipping wine from glass flutes as slaves lit ornate lanterns to hold the dark at bay. Palms and cedars grew along the cobbled road, and monuments stood at every junction. Many of the statues lacked heads, the dwarf noted, yet even headless they still managed to look imposing in the purple dusk.

As the warhorse plodded south along the river, the shops grew smaller and meaner, the trees along the street became a row of stumps. Cobblestones gave way to devilgrass beneath their horse’s hooves, then to soft wet mud the color of a baby’s nightsoil. The little bridges that spanned the small streams that fed the Rhoyne creaked alarmingly beneath their weight. Where a fort had once overlooked the river now stood a broken gate, gaping open like an old man’s toothless mouth. Goats could be glimpsed peering over the parapets.

Old Volantis, first daughter of Valyria, the dwarf mused. Proud Volantis, queen of the Rhoyne and mistress of the Summer Sea, home to noble lords and lovely ladies of the most ancient blood. Never mind the packs of naked children that roamed the alleys screaming in shrill voices, or the bravos standing in the doors of wineshops fingering their sword hilts, or the slaves with their bent backs and tattooed faces who scurried everywhere like cockroaches. Mighty Volantis, grandest and most populous of the Nine Free Cities. Ancient wars had depopulated much of the city, however, and large areas of Volantis had begun to sink back into the mud on which it stood. Beautiful Volantis, city of fountains and flowers. But half the fountains were dry, half the pools cracked and stagnant. Flowering vines sent up creepers from every crack in the wall or pavement, and young trees had taken root in the walls of abandoned shops and roofless temples.

And then there was the smell. It hung in the hot, humid air, rich, rank, pervasive. There’s fish in it, and flowers, and some elephant dung as well. Something sweet and something earthy and something dead and rotten. “This city smells like an old whore,” Tyrion announced. “Like some sagging slattern who has drenched her privy parts in perfume to drown the stench between her legs. Not that I am complaining. With whores, the young ones smell much better, but the old ones know more tricks.”

“You would know more of that than I do.”

“Ah, of course. That brothel where we met, did you take it for a sept? Was that your virgin sister squirming in your lap?”

That made him scowl. “Give that tongue of yours a rest unless you’d rather I tied it in a knot.”

Tyrion swallowed his retort. His lip was still fat and swollen from the last time he had pushed the big knight too far. Hard hands and no sense of humor makes for a bad marriage. That much he’d learned on the road from Selhorys. His thoughts went to his boot, to the mushrooms in the toe. His captor had not searched him quite as thoroughly as he might have. There is always that escape. Cersei will not have me alive, at least.

Farther south, signs of prosperity began to reappear. Abandoned buildings were seen less often, the naked children vanished, the bravos in the doorways seemed more sumptuously dressed. A few of the inns they passed actually looked like places where a man might sleep without fear of having his throat slit. Lanterns swung from iron stanchions along the river road, swaying when the wind blew. The streets grew broader, the buildings more imposing. Some were topped with great domes of colored glass. In the gathering dusk, with fires lit beneath them, the domes glowed blue and red and green and purple.

Even so, there was something in the air that made Tyrion uneasy. West of the Rhoyne, he knew, the wharves of Volantis teemed with sailors, slaves, and traders, and the wineshops, inns, and brothels all catered to them. East of the river, strangers from across the seas were seen less seldom. We are not wanted here, the dwarf realized.

The first time they passed an elephant, Tyrion could not help but stare. There had been an elephant in the menagerie at Lannisport when he had been a boy, but she had died when he was seven … and this great grey behemoth looked to be twice her size.

Farther on, they fell in behind a smaller elephant, white as old bone and pulling an ornate cart. “Is an oxcart an oxcart without an ox?” Tyrion asked his captor. When that sally got no response, he lapsed back into silence, contemplating the rolling rump of the white dwarf elephant ahead of them.

Volantis was overrun with white dwarf elephants. As they drew closer to the Black Wall and the crowded districts near the Long Bridge, they saw a dozen of them. Big grey elephants were not uncommon either—huge beasts with castles on their backs. And in the half-light of evening the dung carts had come out, attended by half-naked slaves whose task it was to shovel up the steaming piles left by elephants both great and small. Swarms of flies followed the carts, so the dung slaves had flies tattooed upon their cheeks, to mark them for what they were. There’s a trade for my sweet sister, Tyrion mused. She’d look so pretty with a little shovel and flies tattooed on those sweet pink cheeks.

By then they had slowed to a crawl. The river road was thick with traffic, almost all of it flowing south. The knight went with it, a log caught in a current. Tyrion eyed the passing throngs. Nine men of every ten bore slave marks on their cheeks. “So many slaves … where are they all going?”

“The red priests light their nightfires at sunset. The High Priest will be speaking. I would avoid it if I could, but to reach the Long Bridge we must pass the red temple.”

Three blocks later the street opened up before them onto a huge torchlit plaza, and there it stood. Seven save me, that’s got to be three times the size of the Great Sept of Baelor. An enormity of pillars, steps, buttresses, bridges, domes, and towers flowing into one another as if they had all been chiseled from one collossal rock, the Temple of the Lord of Light loomed like Aegon’s High Hill. A hundred hues of red, yellow, gold, and orange met and melded in the temple walls, dissolving one into the other like clouds at sunset. Its slender towers twisted ever upward, frozen flames dancing as they reached for the sky. Fire turned to stone. Huge nightfires burned beside the temple steps, and between them the High Priest had begun to speak.

Benerro. The priest stood atop a red stone pillar, joined by a slender stone bridge to a lofty terrace where the lesser priests and acolytes stood. The acolytes were clad in robes of pale yellow and bright orange, priests and priestesses in red.

The great plaza before them was packed almost solid. Many and more of the worshipers were wearing some scrap of red cloth pinned to their sleeves or tied around their brows. Every eye was on the high priest, save theirs. “Make way,” the knight growled as his horse pushed through the throng. “Clear a path.” The Volantenes gave way resentfully, with mutters and angry looks.

Benerro’s high voice carried well. Tall and thin, he had a drawn face and skin white as milk. Flames had been tattooed across his cheeks and chin and shaven head to make a bright red mask that crackled about his eyes and coiled down and around his lipless mouth. “Is that a slave tattoo?” asked Tyrion.

The knight nodded. “The red temple buys them as children and makes them priests or temple prostitutes or warriors. Look there.” He pointed at the steps, where a line of men in ornate armor and orange cloaks stood before the temple’s doors, clasping spears with points like writhing flames. “The Fiery Hand. The Lord of Light’s sacred soldiers, defenders of the temple.”

Fire knights. “And how many fingers does this hand have, pray?”

“One thousand. Never more, and never less. A new flame is kindled for every one that gutters out.”

Benerro jabbed a finger at the moon, made a fist, spread his hands wide. When his voice rose in a crescendo, flames leapt from his fingers with a sudden whoosh and made the crowd gasp. The priest could trace fiery letters in the air as well. Valyrian glyphs. Tyrion recognized perhaps two in ten; one was Doom, the other Darkness.

Shouts erupted from the crowd. Women were weeping and men were shaking their fists. I have a bad feeling about this. The dwarf was reminded of the day Myrcella sailed for Dorne and the riot that boiled up as they made their way back to the Red Keep.

Haldon Halfmaester had spoken of using the red priest to Young Griff’s advantage, Tyrion recalled. Now that he had seen and heard the man himself, that struck him as a very bad idea. He hoped that Griff had better sense. Some allies are more dangerous than enemies. But Lord Connington will need to puzzle that one out for himself. I am like to be a head on a spike.

The priest was pointing at the Black Wall behind the temple, gesturing up at its parapets, where a handful of armored guardsmen stood gazing down. “What is he saying?” Tyrion asked the knight.

“That Daenerys stands in peril. The dark eye has fallen upon her, and the minions of night are plotting her destruction, praying to their false gods in temples of deceit … conspiring at betrayal with godless outlanders …”

The hairs on the back of Tyrion’s neck began to prickle. Prince Aegon will find no friend here. The red priest spoke of ancient prophecy, a prophecy that foretold the coming of a hero to deliver the world from darkness. One hero. Not two. Daenerys has dragons, Aegon does not. The dwarf did not need to be a prophet himself to foresee how Benerro and his followers might react to a second Targaryen. Griff will see that too, surely, he thought, surprised to find how much he cared.

The knight had forced their way through most of the press at the back of the plaza, ignoring the curses that were flung at them as they passed. One man stepped in front of them, but his captor gripped the hilt of his longsword and drew it just far enough to show a foot of naked steel. The man melted away, and all at once an alley opened up before them. The knight urged his mount to a trot, and they left the crowd behind them. For a while Tyrion could still hear Benerro’s voice growing fainter at their back and the roars his words provoked, sudden as thunder.

They came upon a stable. The knight dismounted, then hammered on the door until a haggard slave with a horsehead on his cheek came running. The dwarf was pulled down roughly from the saddle and lashed to a post whilst his captor woke the stable’s owner and haggled with him over the price of his horse and saddle. Cheaper to sell a horse than to ship one half across the world. Tyrion sensed a ship in his immediate future. Perhaps he was a prophet after all.

When the dickering was done, the knight slung his weapons, shield, and saddlebag over his shoulder and asked for directions to the nearest smithy. That proved shuttered too, but opened quick enough at the knight’s shout. The smith gave Tyrion a squint, then nodded and accepted a fistful of coins. “Come here,” the knight told his prisoner. He drew his dagger and slit Tyrion’s bonds apart. “My thanks,” said the dwarf as he rubbed his wrists, but the knight only laughed and said, “Save your gratitude for someone who deserves it, Imp. You will not like this next bit.”

He was not wrong.

The manacles were black iron, thick and heavy, each weighing a good two pounds, if the dwarf was any judge. The chains added even more weight. “I must be more fearsome than I knew,” Tyrion confessed as the last links were hammered closed. Each blow sent a shock up his arm almost to the shoulder. “Or were you afraid that I would dash away on these stunted little legs of mine?”

The ironsmith did not so much as look up from his work, but the knight chuckled darkly. “It’s your mouth that concerns me, not your legs. In fetters, you’re a slave. No one will listen to a word you say, not even those who speak the tongue of Westeros.”

“There’s no need for this,” Tyrion protested. “I will be a good little prisoner, I will, I will.”

“Prove it, then, and shut your mouth.”

So he bowed his head and bit his tongue as the chains were fixed, wrist to wrist, wrist to ankle, ankle to ankle. These bloody things weigh more than I do. Still, at least he drew breath. His captor could just as easily have cut his head off. That was all Cersei required, after all. Not striking it off straightaway had been his captor’s first mistake. There is half a world between Volantis and King’s Landing, and much and more can happen along the way, ser.

The rest of the way they went by foot, Tyrion clanking and clattering as he struggled to keep up with his captor’s long, impatient strides. Whenever he threatened to fall behind, the knight would seize his fetters and yank them roughly, sending the dwarf stumbling and hopping along beside him. It could be worse. He could be urging me along with a whip.

Volantis straddled one mouth of the Rhoyne where the river kissed the sea, its two halves joined by the Long Bridge. The oldest, richest part of the city was east of the river, but sellswords, barbarians, and other uncouth outlanders were not welcome there, so they must needs cross over to the west.

The gateway to the Long Bridge was a black stone arch carved with sphinxes, manticores, dragons, and creatures stranger still. Beyond the arch stretched the great span that the Valyrians had built at the height of their glory, its fused stone roadway supported by massive piers. The road was just wide enough for two carts to pass abreast, so whenever a wagon headed west passed one going east, both had to slow to a crawl.

It was well they were afoot. A third of the way out, a wagon laden with melons had gotten its wheels tangled with one piled high with silken carpets and brought all wheeled traffic to a halt. Much of the foot traffic had stopped as well, to watch the drivers curse and scream at one another, but the knight grabbed hold of Tyrion’s chain and bulled a path through the throng for both of them. In the middle of the press, a boy tried to reach into his purse, but a hard elbow put an end to that and spread the thief’s bloody nose across half his face.

Buildings rose to either side of them: shops and temples, taverns and inns, cyvasse parlors and brothels. Most were three or four stories tall, each floor overhanging the one beneath it. Their top floors almost kissed. Crossing the bridge felt like passing through a torchlit tunnel. Along the span were shops and stalls of every sort; weavers and lacemakers displayed their wares cheek by jowl with glassblowers, candlemakers, and fishwives selling eels and oysters. Each goldsmith had a guard at his door, and every spicer had two, for their goods were twice as valuable. Here and there, between the shops, a traveler might catch a glimpse of the river he was crossing. To the north the Rhoyne was a broad black ribbon bright with stars, five times as wide as the Blackwater Rush at King’s Landing. South of the bridge the river opened up to embrace the briny sea.

At the bridge’s center span, the severed hands of thieves and cutpurses hung like strings of onions from iron stanchions along the roadway. Three heads were on display as well—two men and a woman, their crimes scrawled on tablets underneath them. A pair of spearmen attended them, clad in polished helms and shirts of silver mail. Across their cheeks were tiger stripes as green as jade. From time to time the guards waved their spears to chase away the kestrels, gulls, and carrion crows paying court to the deceased. The birds returned to the heads within moments.

“What did they do?” Tyrion inquired innocently.

The knight glanced at the inscriptions. “The woman was a slave who raised her hand to her mistress. The older man was accused of fomenting rebellion and spying for the dragon queen.”

“And the young one?”

“Killed his father.”

Tyrion gave the rotting head a second look. Why, it almost looks as if those lips are smiling.

Farther on, the knight paused briefly to consider a jeweled tiara displayed upon a bed of purple velvet. He passed that by, but a few steps on he stopped again to haggle over a pair of gloves at a leatherworker’s stall. Tyrion was grateful for the respites. The headlong pace had left him puffing, and his wrists were chafed raw from the manacles.

From the far end of the Long Bridge, it was only a short walk through the teeming waterfront districts of the west bank, down torchlit streets crowded with sailors, slaves, and drunken merrymakers. Once an elephant lumbered past with a dozen half-naked slave girls waving from the castle on its back, teasing passersby with glimpses of their breasts and crying, “Malaquo, Malaquo.” They made such an entrancing sight that Tyrion almost waddled right into the steaming pile of dung the elephant had left to mark its passage. He was saved at the last instant when the knight snatched him aside, yanking on his chain so hard it made him reel and stumble.

“How much farther?” the dwarf asked.

“Just there. Fishmonger’s Square.”

Their destination proved to be the Merchant’s House, a four-story monstrosity that squatted amongst the warehouses, brothels, and taverns of the waterside like some enormous fat man surrounded by children. Its common room was larger than the great halls of half the castles in Westeros, a dim-lit maze of a place with a hundred private alcoves and hidden nooks whose blackened beams and cracked ceilings echoed to the din of sailors, traders, captains, money changers, shippers, and slavers, lying, cursing, and cheating each other in half a hundred different tongues.

Tyrion approved the choice of hostelry. Soon or late the Shy Maid must reach Volantis. This was the city’s biggest inn, first choice for shippers, captains, and merchantmen. A lot of business was done in that cavernous warren of a common room. He knew enough of Volantis to know that. Let Griff turn up here with Duck and Haldon, and he would be free again soon enough.

Meanwhile, he would be patient. His chance would come.

The rooms upstairs proved rather less than grand, however, particularly the cheap ones up on the fourth floor. Wedged into a corner of the building beneath a sloping roof, the bedchamber his captor had engaged featured a low ceiling, a sagging feather bed with an unpleasant odor, and a slanting wood-plank floor that reminded Tyrion of his sojourn at the Eyrie. At least this room has walls. It had windows too; those were its chief amenity, along with the iron ring set in the wall, so useful for chaining up one’s slaves. His captor paused only long enough to light a tallow candle before securing Tyrion’s chains to the ring.

“Must you?” the dwarf protested, rattling feebly. “Where am I going to go, out the window?”

“You might.”

“We are four floors up, and I cannot fly.”

“You can fall. I want you alive.”

Aye, but why? Cersei is not like to care. Tyrion rattled his chains. “I know who you are, ser.” It had not been hard to puzzle out. The bear on his surcoat, the arms on his shield, the lost lordship he had mentioned. “I know what you are. And if you know who I am, you also know that I was the King’s Hand and sat in council with the Spider. Would it interest you to know that it was the eunuch who dispatched me on this journey?” Him and Jaime, but I’ll leave my brother out of it. “I am as much his creature as you are. We ought not be at odds.”

That did not please the knight. “I took the Spider’s coin, I’ll not deny it, but I was never his creature. And my loyalties lie elsewhere now.”

“With Cersei? More fool you. All my sister requires is my head, and you have a fine sharp sword. Why not end this farce now and spare us both?”

The knight laughed. “Is this some dwarf’s trick? Beg for death in hopes I’ll let you live?” He went to the door. “I’ll bring you something from the kitchens.”

“How kind of you. I’ll wait here.”

“I know you will.” Yet when the knight left, he locked the door behind him with a heavy iron key. The Merchant’s House was famous for its locks. As secure as a gaol, the dwarf thought bitterly, but at least there are those windows.

Tyrion knew that the chances of his escaping his chains were little and less, but even so, he felt obliged to try. His efforts to slip a hand through the manacle served only to scrap off more skin and leave his wrist slick with blood, and all his tugging or twisting could not pull the iron ring from the wall. Bugger this, he thought, slumping back as far as his chains would allow. His legs had begun to cramp. This was going to be a hellishly uncomfortable night. The first of many, I do not doubt.

The room was stifling, so the knight had opened the shutters to let in a cross breeze. Cramped into a corner of the building under the eaves, the chamber was fortunate in having two windows. One looked toward the Long Bridge and the black-walled heart of Old Volantis across the river. The other opened on the square below. Fishermonger’s Square, Mormont called it. As tight as the chains were, Tyrion found he could see out the latter by leaning sideways and letting the iron ring support his weight. Not as long a fall as the one from Lysa Arryn’s sky cells, but it would leave me just as dead. Perhaps if I were drunk …

Even at this hour the square was crowded, with sailors roistering, whores prowling for custom, and merchants going about their business. A red priestess scurried past, attended by a dozen acolytes with torches, their robes whisking about their ankles. Elsewhere a pair of cyvasse players waged war outside a tavern. A slave stood beside their table, holding a lantern over the board. Tyrion could hear a woman singing. The words were strange, the tune was soft and sad. If I knew what she was singing, I might cry. Closer to hand, a crowd was gathering around a pair of jugglers throwing flaming torches at each other.

His captor returned shortly, carrying two tankards and a roasted duck. He kicked the door shut, ripped the duck in two, and tossed half of it to Tyrion. He would have snatched it from the air, but his chains brought him up short when he tried to lift his arms. Instead the bird struck his temple and slid hot and greasy down his face, and he had to hunker down and stretch for it with fetters clanking. He got it on the third try and tore into it happily with his teeth. “Some ale to wash this down?”

Mormont handed him a tankard. “Most of Volantis is getting drunk, why not you?”

The ale was sweet as well. It tasted of fruit. Tyrion drank a healthy swallow and belched happily. The tankard was pewter, very heavy. Empty it and fling it at his head, he thought. If I am lucky, it might crack his skull. If I’m very lucky, it will miss, and he’ll beat me to death with his fists. He took another gulp. “Is this some holy day?”

“Third day of their elections. They last for ten. Ten days of madness. Torchlight marches, speeches, mummers and minstrels and dancers, bravos fighting death duels for the honor of their candidates, elephants with the names of would-be triarchs painted on their sides. Those jugglers are performing for Methyso.”

“Remind me to vote for someone else.” Tyrion licked grease from his fingers. Below, the crowd was flinging coins at the jugglers. “Do all these would-be triarchs provide mummer shows?”

“They do whatever they think will win them votes,” said Mormont. “Food, drink, spectacle … Alios has sent a hundred pretty slave girls out into the streets to lie with voters.”

“I’m for him,” Tyrion decided. “Bring me a slave girl.”

“They’re for freeborn Volantenes with enough property to vote. Precious few voters west of the river.”

“And this goes on for ten days?” Tyrion laughed. “I might enjoy that, though three kings is two too many. I am trying to imagine ruling the Seven Kingdoms with my sweet sister and bra............
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