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Queen Selyse descended upon Castle Black with her daughter and her daughter’s fool, her serving girls and lady companions, and a retinue of knights, sworn swords, and men-at-arms fifty strong. Queen’s men all, Jon Snow knew. They may attend Selyse, but it is Melisandre they serve. The red priestess had warned him of their coming almost a day before the raven arrived from Eastwatch with the same message.

He met the queen’s party by the stables, accompanied by Satin, Bowen Marsh, and half a dozen guards in long black cloaks. It would never do to come before this queen without a retinue of his own, if half of what they said of her was true. She might mistake him for a stableboy and hand him the reins of her horse.

The snows had finally moved off to the south and given them a respite. There was even a hint of warmth in the air as Jon Snow took a knee before this southron queen. “Your Grace. Castle Black welcomes you and yours.”

Queen Selyse looked down at him. “My thanks. Please escort me to your lord commander.”

“My brothers chose me for that honor. I am Jon Snow.”

“You? They said you were young, but …” Queen Selyse’s face was pinched and pale. She wore a crown of red gold with points in the shape of flames, a twin to that worn by Stannis. “… you may rise, Lord Snow. This is my daughter, Shireen.”

“Princess.” Jon inclined his head. Shireen was a homely child, made even uglier by the greyscale that had left her neck and part of her cheek stiff and grey and cracked. “My brothers and I are at your service,” he told the girl.

Shireen reddened. “Thank you, my lord.”

“I believe you are acquainted with my kinsman, Ser Axell Florent?” the queen went on.

“Only by raven.” And report. The letters he’d received from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea had a deal to say of Axell Florent, very little of it good. “Ser Axell.”

“Lord Snow.” A stout man, Florent had short legs and a thick chest. Coarse hair covered his cheeks and jowls and poked from his ears and nostrils.

“My loyal knights,” Queen Selyse went on. “Ser Narbert, Ser Benethon, Ser Brus, Ser Patrek, Ser Dorden, Ser Malegorn, Ser Lambert, Ser Perkin.” Each worthy bowed in turn. She did not trouble to name her fool, but the cowbells on his antlered hat and the motley tattooed across his puffy cheeks made him hard to overlook. Patchface. Cotter Pyke’s letters had made mention of him as well. Pyke claimed he was a simpleton.

Then the queen beckoned to another curious member of her entourage: a tall gaunt stick of a man, his height accentuated by an outlandish three-tiered hat of purple felt. “And here we have the honorable Tycho Nestoris, an emissary of the Iron Bank of Braavos, come to treat with His Grace King Stannis.”

The banker doffed his hat and made a sweeping bow. “Lord Commander. I thank you and your brothers for your hospitality.” He spoke the Common Tongue flawlessly, with only the slightest hint of accent. Half a foot taller than Jon, the Braavosi sported a beard as thin as a rope sprouting from his chin and reaching almost to his waist. His robes were a somber purple, trimmed with ermine. A high stiff collar framed his narrow face. “I hope we shall not inconvenience you too greatly.”

“Not at all, my lord. You are most welcome.” More welcome than this queen, if truth be told. Cotter Pyke had sent a raven ahead to advise them of the banker’s coming. Jon Snow had thought of little since.

Jon turned back to the queen. “The royal chambers in the King’s Tower have been prepared for Your Grace for so long as you wish to remain with us. This is our Lord Steward, Bowen Marsh. He will find quarters for your men.”

“How kind of you to make room for us.” The queen’s words were courteous enough, though her tone said, It is no more than your duty, and you had best hope these quarters please me. “We will not be with you long. A few days at the most. It is our intent to press on to our new seat at the Nightfort as soon as we are rested. The journey from Eastwatch was wearisome.”

“As you say, Your Grace,” said Jon. “You will be cold and hungry, I am sure. A hot meal awaits you in our common room.”

“Very good.” The queen glanced about the yard. “First, though, we wish to consult with the Lady Melisandre.”

“Of course, Your Grace. Her apartments are in the King’s Tower as well. This way, if you will?” Queen Selyse nodded, took her daughter by the hand, and permitted him to lead them from the stables. Ser Axell, the Braavosi banker, and the rest of her party followed, like so many ducklings done up in wool and fur.

“Your Grace,” said Jon Snow, “my builders have done all they can to make the Nightfort ready to receive you … yet much of it remains in ruins. It is a large castle, the largest on the Wall, and we have only been able to restore a part of it. You might be more comfortable back at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.”

Queen Selyse sniffed. “We are done with Eastwatch. We did not like it there. A queen should be mistress beneath her own roof. We found your Cotter Pyke to be an uncouth and unpleasant man, quarrelsome and niggardly.”

You should hear what Cotter says of you. “I am sorry for that, but I fear Your Grace will find conditions at the Nightfort even less to your liking. We speak of a fortress, not a palace. A grim place, and cold. Whereas Eastwatch—”

“Eastwatch is not safe.” The queen put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “This is the king’s true heir. Shireen will one day sit the Iron Throne and rule the Seven Kingdoms. She must be kept from harm, and Eastwatch is where the attack will come. This Nightfort is the place my husband has chosen for our seat, and there we shall abide. We—oh!”

An enormous shadow emerged from behind the shell of the Lord Commander’s Tower. Princess Shireen gave a shriek, and three of the queen’s knights gasped in harmony. Another swore. “Seven save us,” he said, quite forgetting his new red god in his shock.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jon told them. “There’s no harm in him, Your Grace. This is Wun Wun.”

“Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun.” The giant’s voice rumbled like a boulder crashing down a mountainside. He sank to his knees before them. Even kneeling, he loomed over them. “Kneel queen. Little queen.” Words that Leathers had taught him, no doubt.

Princess Shireen’s eyes went wide as dinner plates. “He’s a giant! A real true giant, like from the stories. But why does he talk so funny?”

“He only knows a few words of the Common Tongue as yet,” said Jon. “In their own land, giants speak the Old Tongue.”

“Can I touch him?”

“Best not,” her mother warned. “Look at him. A filthy creature.” The queen turned her frown on Jon. “Lord Snow, what is this bestial creature doing on our side of the Wall?”

“Wun Wun is a guest of the Night’s Watch, as you are.”

The queen did not like that answer. Nor did her knights. Ser Axell grimaced in disgust, Ser Brus gave a nervous titter, Ser Narbert said, “I had been told all the giants were dead.”

“Almost all.” Ygritte wept for them.

“In the dark the dead are dancing.” Patchface shuffled his feet in a grotesque dance step. “I know, I know, oh oh oh.” At Eastwatch someone had sewn him a motley cloak of beaver pelts, sheepskins, and rabbit fur. His hat sported antlers hung with bells and long brown flaps of squirrel fur that hung down over his ears. Every step he took set him to ringing.

Wun Wun gaped at him with fascination, but when the giant reached for him the fool hopped back away, jingling. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” That brought Wun Wun lurching to his feet. The queen grabbed hold of Princess Shireen and pulled her back, her knights reached for their swords, and Patchface reeled away in alarm, lost his footing, and plopped down on his arse in a snowdrift.

Wun Wun began to laugh. A giant’s laughter could put to shame a dragon’s roar. Patchface covered his ears, Princess Shireen pressed her face into her mother’s furs, and the boldest of the queen’s knights moved forward, steel in hand. Jon raised an arm to block his path. “You do not want to anger him. Sheathe your steel, ser. Leathers, take Wun Wun back to Hardin’s.”

“Eat now, Wun Wun?” asked the giant.

“Eat now,” Jon agreed. To Leathers he said, “I’ll send out a bushel of vegetables for him and meat for you. Start a fire.”

Leathers grinned. “I will, m’lord, but Hardin’s is bone cold. Perhaps m’lord could send out some wine to warm us?”

“For you. Not him.” Wun Wun had never tasted wine until he came to Castle Black, but once he had, he had taken a gigantic liking to it. Too much a liking. Jon had enough to contend with just now without adding a drunken giant to the mix. He turned back to the queen’s knights. “My lord father used to say a man should never draw his sword unless he means to use it.”

“Using it was my intent.” The knight was clean-shaved and windburnt; beneath a cloak of white fur he wore a cloth-of-silver surcoat emblazoned with a blue five-pointed star. “I had been given to understand that the Night’s Watch defended the realm against such monsters. No one mentioned keeping them as pets.”

Another bloody southron fool. “You are …?”

“Ser Patrek of King’s Mountain, if it please my lord.”

“I do not know how you observe guest right on your mountain, ser. In the north we hold it sacred. Wun Wun is a guest here.”

Ser Patrek smiled. “Tell me, Lord Commander, should the Others turn up, do you plan to offer hospitality to them as well?” The knight turned to his queen. “Your Grace, that is the King’s Tower there, if I am not mistaken. If I may have the honor?”

“As you wish.” The queen took his arm and swept past the men of the Night’s Watch with never a second glance.

Those flames on her crown are the warmest thing about her. “Lord Tycho,” Jon called. “A moment, please.”

The Braavosi halted. “No lord I. Only a simple servant of the Iron Bank of Braavos.”

“Cotter Pyke informs me that you came to Eastwatch with three ships. A galleas, a galley, and a cog.”

“Just so, my lord. The crossing can be perilous in this season. One ship alone may founder, where three together may aid one another. The Iron Bank is always prudent in such matters.”

“Perhaps before you leave we might have a quiet word?”

“I am at your service, Lord Commander. And in Braavos we say there is no time like the present. Will that suit?”

“As good as any. Shall we repair to my solar, or would you like to see the top of the Wall?”

The banker glanced up, to where the ice loomed vast and pale against the sky. “I fear it will be bitter cold up top.”

“That, and windy. You learn to walk well away from the edge. Men have been blown off. Still. The Wall is like nothing else on earth. You may never have another chance to see it.”

“No doubt I shall rue my caution upon my deathbed, but after a long day in the saddle, a warm room sounds preferable to me.”

“My solar, then. Satin, some mulled wine, if you would.”

Jon’s rooms behind the armory were quiet enough, if not especially warm. His fire had gone out some time ago; Satin was not as diligent in feeding it as Dolorous Edd had been. Mormont’s raven greeted them with a shriek of “Corn!” Jon hung up his cloak. “You come seeking Stannis, is that correct?”

“It is, my lord. Queen Selyse has suggested that we might send word to Deepwood Motte by raven, to inform His Grace that I await his pleasure at the Nightfort. The matter that I mean to put to him is too delicate to entrust to letters.”

“A debt.” What else could it be? “His own debt? Or his brother’s?”

The banker pressed his fingers together. “It would not be proper for me to discuss Lord Stannis’s indebtedness or lack of same. As to King Robert … it was indeed our pleasure to assist His Grace in his need. For so long as Robert lived, all was well. Now, however, the Iron Throne has ceased all repayment.”

Could the Lannisters truly be so foolish? “You cannot mean to hold Stannis responsible for his brother’s debts.”

“The debts belong to the Iron Throne,” Tycho declared, “and whosoever sits on that chair must pay them. Since young King Tommen and his counsellors have become so obdurate, we mean to broach the subject with King Stannis. Should he prove himself more worthy of our trust, it would of course be our great pleasure to lend him whatever help he needs.”

“Help,” the raven screamed. “Help, help, help.”

Much of this Jon had surmised the moment he learned that the Iron Bank had sent an envoy to the Wall. “When last we heard, His Grace was marching on Winterfell to confront Lord Bolton and his allies. You may seek him there if you wish, though that carries a risk. You could find yourself caught up in his war.”

Tycho bowed his head. “We who serve the Iron Bank face death full as often as you who serve the Iron Throne.”

Is that whom I serve? Jon Snow was no longer certain. “I can provide you with horses, provisions, guides, whatever is required to get you as far as Deepwood Motte. From there you will need to make your own way to Stannis.” And you may well find his head upon a spike. “There will be a price.”

“Price,” screamed Mormont’s raven. “Price, price.”

“There is always a price, is there not?” The Braavosi smiled. “What does the Watch require?”

“Your ships, for a start. With their crews.”

“All three? How will I return to Braavos?”

“I only need them for a single voyage.”

“A hazardous voyage, I assume. For a start, you said?”

“We need a loan as well. Gold enough to keep us fed till spring. To buy food and hire ships to bring it to us.”

“Spring?” Tycho sighed. “It is not possible, my lord.”

What was it Stannis had said to him? You haggle like a crone with a codfish, Lord Snow. Did Lord Eddard father you on a fishwife? Perhaps he had at that.

It took the better part of an hour before the impossible became possible, and another hour before they could agree on terms. The flagon of mulled wine that Satin delivered helped them settle the more nettlesome points. By the time Jon Snow signed the parchment the Braavosi drew up, both of them were half-drunk and quite unhappy. Jon thought that a good sign.

The three Braavosi ships would bring the fleet at Eastwatch up to eleven, including the Ibbenese whaler that Cotter Pyke had commandeered on Jon’s order, a trading galley out of Pentos similarly impressed, and three battered Lysene warships, remnants of Salladhor Saan’s former fleet driven back north by the autumn storms. All three of Saan’s ships had been in dire need of refitting, but by now the work should be complete.

Eleven ships was no wise enough, but if he waited any longer, the free folk at Hardhome would be dead by the time the rescue fleet arrived. Sail now or not at all. Whether Mother Mole and her people would be desperate enough to entrust their lives to the Night’s Watch, though …

The day had darkened by the time he and Tycho Nestoris left the solar. Snow had begun to fall. “Our respite was a brief one, it would seem.” Jon drew his cloak about himself more tightly.

“Winter is nigh upon us. The day I left Braavos, there was ice on the canals.”

“Three of my men passed through Braavos not long ago,” Jon told him. “An old maester, a singer, and a young steward. They were escorting a wildling girl and her child to Oldtown. I do not suppose you chanced to encounter them?”

“I fear not, my lord. Westerosi pass through Braavos every day, but most come and go from the Ragman’s Harbor. The ships of the Iron Bank moor at the Purple Harbor. If you wish, I can make inquiries after them when I return home.”

“No need. By now they should be safe in Oldtown.”

“Let us hope so. The n............
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