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THE BLIND GIRL
Her nights were lit by distant stars and the shimmer of moonlight on snow, but every dawn she woke to darkness.

She opened her eyes and stared up blind at the black that shrouded her, her dream already fading. So beautiful. She licked her lips, remembering. The bleating of the sheep, the terror in the shepherd’s eyes, the sound the dogs had made as she killed them one by one, the snarling of her pack. Game had become scarcer since the snows began to fall, but last night they had feasted. Lamb and dog and mutton and the flesh of man. Some of her little grey cousins were afraid of men, even dead men, but not her. Meat was meat, and men were prey. She was the night wolf. But only when she dreamed.

The blind girl rolled onto her side, sat up, sprang to her feet, stretched. Her bed was a rag-stuffed mattress on a shelf of cold stone, and she was always stiff and tight when she awakened. She padded to her basin on small, bare, callused feet, silent as a shadow, splashed cool water on her face, patted herself dry. Ser Gregor, she thought. Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling. Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei. Her morning prayer. Or was it? No, she thought, not mine. I am no one. That is the night wolf’s prayer. Someday she will find them, hunt them, smell their fear, taste their blood. Someday.

She found her smallclothes in a pile, sniffed at them to make sure they were fresh enough to wear, donned them in her darkness. Her servant’s garb was where she’d hung it—a long tunic of undyed wool, roughspun and scratchy. She snapped it out and pulled it down over her head with one smooth practiced motion. Socks came last. One black, one white. The black one had stitching round the top, the white none; she could feel which was which, make sure she got each sock on the right leg. Skinny as they were, her legs were strong and springy and growing longer every day. She was glad of that. A water dancer needs good legs. Blind Beth was no water dancer, but she would not be Beth forever.

She knew the way to the kitchens, but her nose would have led her there even if she hadn’t. Hot peppers and fried fish, she decided, sniffing down the hall, and bread fresh from Umma’s oven. The smells made her belly rumble. The night wolf had feasted, but that would not fill the blind girl’s belly. Dream meat could not nourish her, she had learned that early on.

She broke her fast on sardines, fried crisp in pepper oil and served so hot they burned her fingers. She mopped up the leftover oil with a chunk of bread torn off the end of Umma’s morning loaf and washed it all down with a cup of watered wine, savoring the tastes and the smells, the rough feel of the crust beneath her fingers, the slickness of the oil, the sting of the hot pepper when it got into the half-healed scrape on the back of the hand. Hear, smell, taste, feel, she reminded herself. There are many ways to know the world for those who cannot see.

Someone had entered the room behind her, moving on soft padded slippers quiet as a mouse. Her nostrils flared. The kindly man. Men had a different smell than women, and there was a hint of orange in the air as well. The priest was fond of chewing orange rinds to sweeten his breath, whenever he could get them.

“And who are you this morning?” she heard him ask, as he took his seat at the head of the table. Tap, tap, she heard, then a tiny crackling sound. Breaking his first egg.

“No one,” she replied.

“A lie. I know you. You are that blind beggar girl.”

“Beth.” She had known a Beth once, back at Winterfell when she was Arya Stark. Maybe that was why she’d picked the name. Or maybe it was just because it went so well with blind.

“Poor child,” said the kindly man. “Would you like to have your eyes back? Ask, and you shall see.”

He asked the same question every morning. “I may want them on the morrow. Not today.” Her face was still water, hiding all, revealing nothing.

“As you will.” She could hear him peeling the egg, then a faint silvery clink as he picked up the salt spoon. He liked his eggs well salted. “Where did my poor blind girl go begging last night?”

“The Inn of the Green Eel.”

“And what three new things do you know that you did not know when last you left us?”

“The Sealord is still sick.”

“This is no new thing. The Sealord was sick yesterday, and he will still be sick upon the morrow.”

“Or dead.”

“When he is dead, that will be a new thing.”

When he is dead, there will be a choosing, and the knives will come out. That was the way of it in Braavos. In Westeros, a dead king was followed by his eldest son, but the Braavosi had no kings. “Tormo Fregar will be the new sealord.”

“Is that what they are saying at the Inn of the Green Eel?”

“Yes.”

The kindly man took a bite of his egg. The girl heard him chewing. He never spoke with his mouth full. He swallowed, and said, “Some men say there is wisdom in wine. Such men are fools. At other inns other names are being bruited about, never doubt.” He took another bite of egg, chewed, swallowed. “What three new things do you know, that you did not know before?”

“I know that some men are saying that Tormo Fregar will surely be the new sealord,” she answered. “Some drunken men.”

“Better. And what else do you know?”

It is snowing in the riverlands, in Westeros, she almost said. But he would have asked her how she knew that, and she did not think that he would like her answer. She chewed her lip, thinking back to last night. “The whore S’vrone is with child. She is not certain of the father, but thinks it might have been that Tyroshi sellsword that she killed.”

“This is good to know. What else?”

“The Merling Queen has chosen a new Mermaid to take the place of the one that drowned. She is the daughter of a Prestayn serving maid, thirteen and penniless, but lovely.”

“So are they all, at the beginning,” said the priest, “but you cannot know that she is lovely unless you have seen her with your own eyes, and you have none. Who are you, child?”

“No one.”

“Blind Beth the beggar girl is who I see. She is a wretched liar, that one. See to your duties. Valar morghulis.”

“Valar dohaeris.” She gathered up her bowl and cup, knife and spoon, and pushed to her feet. Last of all she grasped her stick. It was five feet long, slender and supple, thick as her thumb, with leather wrapped around the shaft a foot from the top. Better than eyes, once you learn how to use it, the waif had told her.

That was a lie. They often lied to her, to test her. No stick was better than a pair of eyes. It was good to have, though, so she always kept it close. Umma had taken to calling her Stick, but names did not matter. She was her. No one. I am no one. Just a blind girl, just a servant of Him of Many Faces.

Each night at supper the waif brought her a cup of milk and told her to drink it down. The drink had a queer, bitter taste that the blind girl soon learned to loathe. Even the faint smell that warned her what it was before it touched her tongue soon made her feel like retching, but she drained the cup all the same.

“How long must I be blind?” she would ask.

“Until darkness is as sweet to you as light,” the waif would say, “or until you ask us for your eyes. Ask and you shall see.”

And then you will send me away. Better blind than that. They would not make her yield.

On the day she had woken blind, the waif took her by the hand and led her through the vaults and tunnels of the rock on which the House of Black and White was built, up the steep stone steps into the temple proper. “Count the steps as you climb,” she had said. “Let your fingers brush the wall. There are markings there, invisible to the eye, plain to the touch.”

That was her first lesson. There had been many more.

Poisons and potions were for the afternoons. She had smell and touch and taste to help her, but touch and taste could be perilous when grinding poisons, and with some of the waif’s more toxic concoctions even smell was less than safe. Burned pinky tips and blistered lips became familiar to her, and once she made herself so sick she could not keep down any food for days.

Supper was for language lessons. The blind girl understood Braavosi and could speak it passably, she had even lost most of her barbaric accent, but the kindly man was not content. He was insisting that she improve her High Valyrian and learn the tongues of Lys and Pentos too.

In the evening she played the lying game with the waif, but without eyes to see the game was very different. Sometimes all she had to go on was tone and choice of words; other times the waif allowed her to lay hands upon her face. At first the game was much, much harder, the next thing to impossible … but just when she was near the point of screaming with frustration, it all became much easier. She learned to hear the lies, to feel them in the play of the muscles around the mouth and eyes.

Many of her other duties had remained the same, but as she went about them she stumbled over furnishings, walked into walls, dropped trays, got hopelessly helplessly lost inside the temple. Once she almost fell headlong down the steps, but Syrio Forel had taught her balance in another lifetime, when she was the girl called Arya, and somehow she recovered and caught herself in time.

Some nights she might have cried herself to sleep if she had still been Arry or Weasel or Cat, or even Arya of House Stark … but no one had no tears. Without eyes, even the simplest task was perilous. She burned herself a dozen times as she worked with Umma in the kitchens. Once, chopping onions, she cut her finger down to the bone. Twice she could not even find her own room in the cellar and had to sleep on the floor at the base of the steps. All the nooks and alcoves made the temple treacherous, even after the blind girl had learned to use her ears; the way her footsteps bounced off the ceiling and echoed round the legs of the thirty tall stone gods made the walls themselves seem to move, and the pool of still black water did strange things to sound as well.

“You have five senses,” the kindly man said. “Learn to use the other four, you will have fewer cuts and scrapes and scabs.”

She could feel air currents on her skin now. She could find the kitchens by their smell, tell men from women by their scents. She knew Umma and the servants and the acolytes by the pattern of their footfalls, could tell one from the other before they got close enough to smell (but not the waif or the kindly man, who hardly made a sound at all unless they wanted to). The candles burning in the temple had scents as well; even the unscented ones gave off faint wisps of smoke from their wicks. They had as well been shouting, once she had learned to use her nose.

The dead men had their own smell too. One of her duties was to find them in the temple every morning, wherever they had chosen to lie down and close their eyes after drinking from the pool.

This morning she found two.

One man had died at the feet of the Stranger, a single candle flickering above him. She could feel its heat, and the scent that it gave off tickled her nose. The candle burned with a dark red flame, she knew; for those with eyes, the corpse would have seemed awash in a ruddy glow. Before summoning the serving men to carry him away, she knelt and felt his face, tracing the line of his jaw, brushing her fingers across his cheeks and nose, touching his hair. Curly hair, and thick. A handsome face, unlined. He was young. She wondered what had brought him here to seek the gift of death. Dying bravos oft found their way to the House of Black and White, to hasten their ends, but this man had no wounds that she could find.

The second body was that of an old woman. She had gone to sleep upon a dreaming couch, in one of the hidden alcoves where special candles conjured visions of things loved and lost. A sweet death and a gentle one, the kindly man was fond of saying. Her fingers told her that the old woman had died with a smile on her face. She had not been dead long. Her body was still warm to the touch. Her skin is so soft, like old thin leather that’s been folded and wrinkled a thousand times.

When the serving men arrived to bear the corpse away, the blind girl followed them. She let their footsteps be her guide, but when they made their descent she counted. She knew the counts of all the steps by heart. Under the temple was a maze of vaults and tunnels where even men with two good eyes were often lost, but the blind girl had learned every inch of it, and she had her stick to help her find her way should her memory falter.

The corpses were laid out in the vault. The blind girl went to work in the dark, stripping the dead of boots and clothes and other possessions, emptying their purses and counting out their coins. Telling one coin from another by touch alone was one of the first things the waif had taught her, after they took away her eyes. The Braavosi coins were old friends; she need only brush her fingertips across their faces to recognize them. Coins from other lands and cities were harder, especially those from far away. Volantene honors were most common, little coins no bigger than a penny with a crown on one side and a skull on the other. Lysene coins were oval and showed a naked woman. Other coins had ships stamped onto them, or elephants, or goats. The Westerosi coins showed a king’s head on the front and a dragon on the back.

The old woman had no purse, no wealth at all but for a ring on one thin finger. On the handsome man she found four golden dragons out of Westeros. She was running the ball of her thumb across the most worn of them, trying to decide which king it showed, when she heard the door opening softly behind her.

“Who is there?” she asked.

“No one.” The voice was deep, harsh, cold.

And moving. She stepped to one side, grabbed for her stick, snapped it up to protect her face. Wood clacked against wood. The force of the blow almost knocked the stick from her hand. She held on, slashed back … and found only empty air where he should have been. “Not there,” the voice said. “Are you blind?”

She did not answer. Talking would only muddle any sounds he might be making. He would be moving, she knew. Left or right? She jumped left, swung right, hit nothing. A stinging cut from behind her caught her in the back of the legs. “Are you deaf?............
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