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DAENERYS
The candle was almost gone. Less than an inch remained, jutting from a pool of warm melted wax to cast its light over the queen’s bed. The flame had begun to gutter.

It will go out before much longer, Dany realized, and when it does another night will be at its end.

Dawn always came too soon.

She had not slept, could not sleep, would not sleep. She had not even dared to close her eyes, for fear it would be morning when she opened them again. If only she had the power, she would have made their nights go on forever, but the best that she could do was stay awake to try and savor every last sweet moment before daybreak turned them into no more than fading memories.

Beside her, Daario Naharis was sleeping as peacefully as a newborn babe. He had a gift for sleeping, he’d boasted, smiling in that cocksure way of his. In the field, he would sleep in the saddle oft as not, he claimed, so as to be well rested should he come upon a battle. Sun or storm, it made no matter. “A warrior who cannot sleep soon has no strength to fight,” he said. He was never vexed by nightmares either. When Dany told him how Serwyn of the Mirror Shield was haunted by the ghosts of all the knights he’d killed, Daario only laughed. “If the ones I killed come bother me, I will kill them all again.” He has a sellsword’s conscience, she realized then. That is to say, none at all.

Daario lay upon his stomach, the light linen coverlets tangled about his long legs, his face half-buried in the pillows.

Dany ran her hand down his back, tracing the line of his spine. His skin was smooth beneath her touch, almost hairless. His skin is silk and satin. She loved the feel of him beneath her fingers. She loved to run her fingers through his hair, to knead the ache from his calves after a long day in the saddle, to cup his cock and feel it harden against her palm.

If she had been some ordinary woman, she would gladly have spent her whole life touching Daario, tracing his scars and making him tell her how he’d come by every one. I would give up my crown if he asked it of me, Dany thought … but he had not asked it, and never would. Daario might whisper words of love when the two of them were as one, but she knew it was the dragon queen he loved. If I gave up my crown, he would not want me. Besides, kings who lost their crowns oft lost their heads as well, and she could see no reason why it would be any different for a queen.

The candle flickered one last time and died, drowned in its own wax. Darkness swallowed the feather bed and its two occupants, and filled every corner of the chamber. Dany wrapped her arms around her captain and pressed herself against his back. She drank in the scent of him, savoring the warmth of his flesh, the feel of his skin against her own. Remember, she told herself. Remember how he felt. She kissed him on his shoulder.

Daario rolled toward her, his eyes open. “Daenerys.” He smiled a lazy smile. That was another of his talents; he woke all at once, like a cat. “Is it dawn?”

“Not yet. We have a while still.”

“Liar. I can see your eyes. Could I do that if it were the black of night?” Daario kicked loose of the coverlets and sat up. “The half-light. Day will be here soon.”

“I do not want this night to end.”

“No? And why is that, my queen?”

“You know.”

“The wedding?” He laughed. “Marry me instead.”

“You know I cannot do that.”

“You are a queen. You can do what you like.” He slid a hand along her leg. “How many nights remain to us?”

Two. Only two. “You know as well as I. This night and the next, and we must end this.”

“Marry me, and we can have all the nights forever.”

If I could, I would. Khal Drogo had been her sun-and-stars, but he had been dead so long that Daenerys had almost forgotten how it felt to love and be loved. Daario had helped her to remember. I was dead and he brought me back to life. I was asleep and he woke me. My brave captain. Even so, of late he grew too bold. On the day that he returned from his latest sortie, he had tossed the head of a Yunkish lord at her feet and kissed her in the hall for all the world to see, until Barristan Selmy pulled the two of them apart. Ser Grandfather had been so wroth that Dany feared blood might be shed. “We cannot wed, my love. You know why.”

He climbed from her bed. “Marry Hizdahr, then. I will give him a nice set of horns for his wedding gift. Ghiscari men like to prance about in horns. They make them from their own hair, with combs and wax and irons.” Daario found his breeches and pulled them on. He did not trouble himself with smallclothes.

“Once I am wed it will be high treason to desire me.” Dany pulled the coverlet up over her breasts.

“Then I must be a traitor.” He slipped a blue silk tunic over his head and straightened the prongs of his beard with his fingers. He had dyed it afresh for her, taking it from purple back to blue, as it had been when first she met him. “I smell of you,” he said, sniffing at his fingers and grinning.

Dany loved the way his gold tooth gleamed when he grinned. She loved the fine hairs on his chest. She loved the strength in his arms, the sound of his laughter, the way he would always look into her eyes and say her name as he slid his cock inside her. “You are beautiful,” she blurted as she watched him don his riding boots and lace them up. Some days he let her do that for him, but not today, it seemed. That’s done with too.

“Not beautiful enough to marry.” Daario took his sword belt off the peg where he had hung it.

“Where are you going?”

“Out into your city,” he said, “to drink a keg or two and pick a quarrel. It has been too long since I’ve killed a man. Might be I should seek out your betrothed.”

Dany threw a pillow at him. “You will leave Hizdahr be!”

“As my queen commands. Will you hold court today?”

“No. On the morrow I will be a woman wed, and Hizdahr will be king. Let him hold court. These are his people.”

“Some are his, some are yours. The ones you freed.”

“Are you chiding me?”

“The ones you call your children. They want their mother.”

“You are. You are chiding me.”

“Only a little, bright heart. Will you come hold court?”

“After my wedding, perhaps. After the peace.”

“This after that you speak of never comes. You should hold court. My new men do not believe that you are real. The ones who came over from the Windblown. Bred and born in Westeros, most of them, full of tales about Targaryens. They want to see one with their own eyes. The Frog has a gift for you.”

“The Frog?” she said, giggling. “And who is he?”

He shrugged. “Some Dornish boy. He squires for the big knight they call Greenguts. I told him he could give his gift to me and I’d deliver it, but he wouldn’t have it.”

“Oh, a clever frog. ‘Give the gift to me.’ ” She threw the other pillow at him. “Would I have ever seen it?”

Daario stroked his gilded mustachio. “Would I steal from my sweet queen? If it were a gift worthy of you, I would have put it into your soft hands myself.”

“As a token of your love?”

“As to that I will not say, but I told him that he could give it to you. You would not make a liar of Daario Naharis?” Dany was helpless to refuse. “As you wish. Bring your frog to court tomorrow. The others too. The Westerosi.” It would be nice to hear the Common Tongue from someone besides Ser Barristan.

“As my queen commands.” Daario bowed deeply, grinned, and took his leave, his cloak swirling behind him.

Dany sat amongst the rumpled bedclothes with her arms about her knees, so forlorn that she did not hear when Missandei came creeping in with bread and milk and figs. “Your Grace? Are you unwell? In the black of night this one heard you scream.”

Dany took a fig. It was black and plump, still moist with dew. Will Hizdahr ever make me scream? “It was the wind that you heard screaming.” She took a bite, but the fruit had lost its savor now that Daario was gone. Sighing, she rose and called to Irri for a robe, then wandered out onto her terrace.

Her foes were all about her. There were never less than a dozen ships drawn up on the shore. Some days there were as many as a hundred, when the soldiers were disembarking. The Yunkai’i were even bringing in wood by sea. Behind their ditches, they were building catapults, scorpions, tall trebuchets. On still nights she could hear the hammers ringing through the warm, dry air. No siege towers, though. No battering rams. They would not try to take Meereen by storm. They would wait behind their siege lines, flinging stones at her until famine and disease had brought her people to their knees.

Hizdahr will bring me peace. He must.

That night her cooks roasted her a kid with dates and carrots, but Dany could only eat a bite of it. The prospect of wrestling with Meereen once more left her feeling weary. Sleep came hard, even when Daario came back, so drunk that he could hardly stand. Beneath her coverlets she tossed and turned, dreaming that Hizdahr was kissing her … but his lips were blue and bruised, and when he thrust himself inside her, his manhood was cold as ice. She sat up with her hair disheveled and the bedclothes atangle. Her captain slept beside her, yet she was alone. She wanted to shake him, wake him, make him hold her, fuck her, help her forget, but she knew that if she did, he would only smile and yawn and say, “It was just a dream, my queen. Go back to sleep.”

Instead she slipped into a hooded robe and stepped out onto her terrace. She went to the parapet and stood there gazing down upon the city as she had done a hundred times before. It will never be my city. It will never be my home.

The pale pink light of dawn found her still out on her terrace, asleep upon the grass beneath a blanket of fine dew. “I promised Daario that I would hold court today,” Daenerys told her handmaids when they woke her. “Help me find my crown. Oh, and some clothes to wear, something light and cool.”

She made her descent an hour later. “All kneel for Daenerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Shackles and Mother of Dragons,” Missandei called.

Reznak mo Reznak bowed and beamed. “Magnificence, every day you grow more beautiful. I think the prospect of your wedding has given you a glow. Oh, my shining queen!”

Dany sighed. “Summon the first petitioner.”

It had been so long since she last held court that the crush of cases was almost overwhelming. The back of the hall was a solid press of people, and scuffles broke out over precedence. Inevitably it was Galazza Galare who stepped forward, her head held high, her face hidden behind a shimmering green veil. “Your Radiance, it might be best were we to speak in private.”

“Would that I had the time,” said Dany sweetly. “I am to be wed upon the morrow.” Her last meeting with the Green Grace had not gone well. “What would you have of me?”

“I would speak to you about the presumption of a certain sellsword captain.”

She dares say that in open court? Dany felt a blaze of anger. She has courage, I grant that, but if she thinks I am about to suffer another scolding, she could not be more wrong. “The treachery of Brown Ben Plumm has shocked us all,” she said, “but your warning comes too late. And now I know you will want to return to your temple to pray for peace.”

The Green Grace bowed. “I shall pray for you as well.”

Another slap, thought Dany, color rising to her face.

The rest was a tedium the queen knew well. She sat upon her cushions, listening, one foot jiggling with impatience. Jhiqui brought a platter of figs and ham at midday. There seemed to be no end to the petitioners. For every two she sent off smiling, one left red-eyed or muttering.

It was close to sunset before Daario Naharis appeared with his new Stormcrows, the Westerosi who had come over to him from the Windblown. Dany found herself glancing at them as yet another petitioner droned on and on. These are my people. I am their rightful queen. They seemed a scruffy bunch, but that was only to be expected of sellswords. The youngest could not have been more than a year older than her; the oldest must have seen sixty namedays. A few sported signs of wealth: gold arm rings, silken tunics, silver-studded sword belts. Plunder. For the most part, their clothes were plainly made and showed signs of hard wear.

When Daario brought them forward, she saw that one of them was a woman, big and blond and all in mail. “Pretty Meris,” her captain named her, though pretty was the last thing Dany would have called her. She was six feet tall and earless, with a slit nose, deep scars in both cheeks, and the coldest eyes the queen had ever seen. As for the rest …

Hugh Hungerford was slim and saturnine, long-legged, long-faced, clad in faded finery. Webber was short and muscular, with spiders tattooed across his head and chest and arms. Red-faced Orson Stone claimed to be a knight, as did lanky Lucifer Long. Will of the Woods leered at her even as he took a knee. Dick Straw had cornflower-blue eyes, hair as white as flax, and an unsettling smile. Ginger Jack’s face was hidden behind a bristly orange beard, and his speech was unintelligible. “He bit off half his tongue in his first battle,” Hungerford explained to her.

The Dornishmen seemed different. “If it please Your Grace,” said Daario, “these three are Greenguts, Gerrold, and Frog.”

Greenguts was huge and bald as a stone, with arms thick enough to rival even Strong Belwas. Gerrold was a lean, tall youth with sun streaks in his hair and laughing blue-green eyes. That smile has won many a maiden’s heart, I’ll wager. His cloak was made of soft brown wool lined with sandsilk, a goodly garment.

Frog, the squire, was the youngest of the three, and the least impressive, a solemn, stocky lad, brown of hair and eye. His face was squarish, with a high forehead, heavy jaw, and broad nose. The stubble on his cheeks and chin made him look like a boy trying to grow his first beard. Dany had no inkling why anyone would call him Frog. Perhaps he can jump farther than the others.

“You may rise,” she said. “Daario tells me you come to us from Dorne. Dornishmen will always have a welcome at my court. Sunspear stayed loyal to my father when the Usurper stole his throne. You must have faced many perils to reach me.”

“Too many,” said Gerrold, the handsome one with the sun-streaked hair. “We were six when we left Dorne, Your Grace.”

“I am sorry for your losses.” The queen turned to his large companion. “Greenguts is a queer sort of name.”

“A jape, Your Grace. From the ships. I was greensick the whole way from Volantis. Heaving and … well, I shouldn’t say.”

Dany giggled. “I think that I can guess, ser. It is ser, is it not? Daario tells me that you are a knight.”

“If it please Your Grace, we are all three knights.”

Dany glanced at Daario and saw anger flash across his face. He did not know. “I have need of knights,” she said.

Ser Barristan’s suspicions had awakened. “Knighthood is easily claimed this far from Westeros. Are you prepared to defend that boast with sword or lance?”

“If need be,” said Gerrold, “though I will not claim that any of us is the equal of Barristan the Bold. Your Grace, I beg your pardon, but we have come before you under false names.”

“I knew someone else who did that once,” said Dany, “a man called Arstan Whitebeard. Tell me your true names, then.”

“Gladly … but if we may beg the queen’s indulgence, is there some place with fewer eyes and ears?”

Games within games. “As you wish. Skahaz, clear my court.”

The Shavepate roared out orders. His Brazen Beasts did the rest, herding the other Westerosi and the rest of the day’s petitioners from the hall. Her counselors remained.

“Now,” Dany said, “your names.”

Handsome young Gerrold bowed. “Ser Gerris Drinkwater, Your Grace. My sword is yours.”

Greenguts crossed his arms against his chest. “And my warhammer. I’m Ser Archibald Yronwood.”

“And you, ser?” the queen asked the boy called Frog.

“If it please Your Grace, may I first present my gift?”

“If you wish,” Daenerys said, curious, but as Frog started forward Daario Naharis stepped in front of him and held out a gloved hand. “Give this gift to me.”

Stone-faced, the stocky lad bent, unlaced his boot, and drew a yellowed parchment from a hidden flap within.

“This is your gift? A scrap of writing?” Daario snatched the parchment out of the Dornishman’s hands and unrolled it, squinting at the seals and signatures. “Very pretty, all the gold and ribbons, but I do not read your Westerosi scratchings.”

“Bring it to the queen,” Ser Barristan commanded. “Now.”

Dany could feel the anger in the hall. “I am only a young girl, and young girls must have their gifts,” she said lightly. “Daario, please, you must not tease me. Give it here.”

The parchment was written in the Common Tongue. The queen unrolled it slowly, studying the seals and signatures. When she saw the name Ser Willem Darry, her heart beat a little faster. She read it over once, and then again.

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