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THE IRON SUITOR
Grief appeared alone at daybreak, her black sails stark against the pale pink skies of morning.

Fifty-four, Victarion thought sourly when they woke him, and she sails alone. Silently he cursed the Storm God for his malice, his rage a black stone in his belly. Where are my ships?

He had set sail from the Shields with ninety-three, of the hundred that had once made up the Iron Fleet, a fleet belonging not to a single lord but to the Seastone Chair itself, captained and crewed by men from all the islands. Ships smaller than the great war dromonds of the green lands, aye, but thrice the size of any common longship, with deep hulls and savage rams, fit to meet the king’s own fleets in battle.

In the Stepstones they had taken on grain and game and fresh water, after the long voyage along the bleak and barren coast of Dorne with its shoals and whirlpools. There, the Iron Victory had captured a fat merchant ship, the great cog Noble Lady, on her way to Oldtown by way of Gulltown, Duskendale, and King’s Landing, with a cargo of salt cod, whale oil, and pickled herring. The food was a welcome addition to their stores. Five other prizes taken in the Redwyne Straights and along the Dornish coast—three cogs, a galleas, and a galley—had brought their numbers to ninety-nine.

Nine-and-ninety ships had left the Stepstones in three proud fleets, with orders to join up again off the southern tip of the Isle of Cedars. Forty-five had now arrived on the far side of the world. Twenty-two of Victarion’s own had straggled in, by threes and fours, sometimes alone; fourteen of Ralf the Limper’s; only nine of those that had sailed with Red Ralf Stonehouse. Red Ralf himself was amongst the missing. To their number the fleet had added nine new prizes taken on the seas, so the sum was fifty-four … but the captured ships were cogs and fishing boats, merchantmen and slavers, not warships. In battle, they would be poor substitutes for the lost ships of the Iron Fleet.

The last ship to appear had been the Maiden’s Bane, three days previous. The day before that, three ships had come out of the south together—his captive Noble Lady, lumbering along between Ravenfeeder and Iron Kiss. But the day before and the day before there had been nothing, and only Headless Jeyne and Fear before that, then two more days of empty seas and cloudless skies after Ralf the Limper appeared with the remnants of his squadron. Lord Quellon, White Widow, Lamentation, Woe, Leviathan, Iron Lady, Reaper’s Wind, and Warhammer, with six more ships behind, two of them storm-wracked and under tow.

“Storms,” Ralf the Limper had muttered when he came crawling to Victarion. “Three big storms, and foul winds between. Red winds out of Valyria that smelled of ash and brimstone, and black winds that drove us toward that blighted shore. This voyage was cursed from the first. The Crow’s Eye fears you, my lord, why else send you so far away? He does not mean for us to return.”

Victarion had thought the same when he met the first storm a day out of Old Volantis. The gods hate kinslayers, he brooded, elsewise Euron Crow’s Eye would have died a dozen deaths by my hand. As the sea crashed around him and the deck rose and fell beneath his feet, he had seen Dagon’s Feast and Red Tide slammed together so violently that both exploded into splinters. My brother’s work, he’d thought. Those were the first two ships he’d lost from his own third of the fleet. But not the last.

So he had slapped the Limper twice across the face and said, “The first is for the ships you lost, the second for your talk of curses. Speak of that again and I will nail your tongue to the mast. If the Crow’s Eye can make mutes, so can I.” The throb of pain in his left hand made the words harsher than they might have been elsewise, but he meant what he said. “More ships will come. The storms are done for now. I will have my fleet.”

A monkey on the mast above howled derision, almost as if it could taste his frustration. Filthy, noisy beast. He could send a man up after it, but the monkeys seemed to like that game and had proved themselves more agile than his crew. The howls rang in his ears, though, and made the throbbing in his hand seem worse.

“Fifty-four,” he grumbled. It would have been too much to hope for the full strength of the Iron Fleet after a voyage of such length … but seventy ships, even eighty, the Drowned God might have granted him that much. Would that we had the Damphair with us, or some other priest. Victarion had made sacrifice before setting sail, and again in the Stepstones when he split the fleet in three, but perhaps he had said the wrong prayers. That, or the Drowned God has no power here. More and more, he had come to fear that they had sailed too far, into strange seas where even the gods were queer … but such doubts he confided only to his dusky woman, who had no tongue to repeat them.

When Grief appeared, Victarion summoned Wulfe One-Ear. “I will want words with the Vole. Send word to Ralf the Limper, Bloodless Tom, and the Black Shepherd. All hunting parties are to be recalled, the shore camps broken up by first light. Load as much fruit as can be gathered and drive the pigs aboard the ships. We can slaughter them at need. Shark is to remain here to tell any stragglers where we’ve gone.” She would need that long to make repairs; the storms had left her little more than a hulk. That would bring them down to fifty-three, but there was no help for it. “The fleet departs upon the morrow, on the evening tide.”

“As you command,” said Wulfe, “but another day might mean another ship, lord Captain.”

“Aye. And ten days might mean ten ships, or none at all. We have squandered too many days waiting on the sight of sails. Our victory will be that much the sweeter if we win it with a smaller fleet.” And I must needs reach the dragon queen before the Volantenes.

In Volantis he had seen the galleys taking on provisions. The whole city had seemed drunk. Sailors and soldiers and tinkers had been observed dancing in the streets with nobles and fat merchants, and in every inn and winesink cups were being raised to the new triarchs. All the talk had been of the gold and gems and slaves that would flood into Volantis once the dragon queen was dead. One day of such reports was all that Victarion Greyjoy could stomach; he paid the gold price for food and water, though it shamed him, and took his ships back out to sea.

The storms would have scattered and delayed the Volantenes, even as they had his own ships. If fortune smiled, many of their warships might have sunk or run aground. But not all. No god was that good, and those green galleys that survived by now could well have sailed around Valyria. They will be sweeping north toward Meereen and Yunkai, great dromonds of war teeming with slave soldiers. If the Storm God spared them, by now they could be in the Gulf of Grief. Three hundred ships, perhaps as many as five hundred. Their allies were already off Meereen: Yunkishmen and Astapors, men from New Ghis and Qarth and Tolos and the Storm God knew where else, even Meereen’s own warships, the ones that fled the city before its fall. Against all that, Victarion had four-and-fifty. Three-and-fifty, less the Shark.

The Crow’s Eye had sailed halfway across the world, reaving and plundering from Qarth to Tall Trees Town, calling at unholy ports beyond where only madmen went. Euron had even braved the Smoking Sea and lived to tell of it. And that with only one ship. If he can mock the gods, so can I.

“Aye, Captain,” said Wulfe One-Ear. He was not half the man that Nute the Barber was, but the Crow’s Eye had stolen Nute. By raising him to Lord of Oakenshield, his brother made Victarion’s best man his own. “Is it still to be Meereen?”

“Where else? The dragon queen awaits me in Meereen.” The fairest woman in the world if my brother could be believed. Her hair is silver-gold, her eyes are amethysts.

Was it too much to hope that for once Euron had told it true? Perhaps. Like as not, the girl would prove to be some pock-faced slattern with teats slapping against her knees, her “dragons” no more than tattooed lizards from the swamps of Sothoryos. If she is all that Euron claims, though … They had heard talk of the beauty of Daenerys Targaryen from the lips of pirates in the Stepstones and fat merchants in Old Volantis. It might be true. And Euron had not made Victarion a gift of her; the Crow’s Eye meant to take her for himself. He sends me like a serving man to fetch her. How he will howl when I claim her for myself. Let the men mutter. They had sailed too far and lost too much for Victarion to turn west without his prize.

The iron captain closed his good hand into a fist. “Go see that my commands are carried out. And find the maester wherever he is hiding and send him to my cabin.”

“Aye.” Wulfe hobbled off.

Victarion Greyjoy turned back toward the prow, his gaze sweeping across his fleet. Longships filled the sea, sails furled and oars shipped, floating at anchor or run up on the pale sand shore. The Isle of Cedars. Where were these cedars? Drowned four hundred years ago, it seemed. Victarion had gone ashore a dozen times, hunting fresh meat, and had yet to see a cedar.

The girlish maester Euron had inflicted upon him back in Westeros claimed this place had once been called ‘the Isle of a Hundred Battles,’ but the men who had fought those battles had all gone to dust centuries ago. The Isle of Monkeys, that’s what they should call it. There were pigs as well: the biggest, blackest boars that any of the ironborn had ever seen and plenty of squealing piglets in the brush, bold creatures that had no fear of man. They were learning, though. The larders of the Iron Fleet were filling up with smoked hams, salted pork, and bacon.

The monkeys, though … the monkeys were a plague. Victarion had forbidden his men to bring any of the demonic creatures aboard ship, yet somehow half his fleet was now infested with them, even his own Iron Victory. He could see some now, swinging from spar to spar and ship to ship. Would that I had a crossbow.

Victarion did not like this sea, nor these endless cloudless skies, nor the blazing sun that beat down on their heads and baked the decks until the boards were hot enough to scorch bare feet. He did not like these storms, which seemed to come up out of nowhere. The seas around Pyke were often stormy, but there at least a man could smell them coming. These southron storms were as treacherous as women. Even the water was the wrong color—a shimmering turquoise close to shore, and farther out a blue so deep that it was almost black. Victarion missed the grey-green waters of home, with their whitecaps and surges.

He did not like this Isle of Cedars either. The hunting might be good, but the forests were too green and still, full of twisted trees and queer bright flowers like none his men had ever seen before, and there were horrors lurking amongst the broken palaces and shattered statues of drowned Velos, half a league north of the point where the fleet lay at anchor. The last time Victarion had spent a night ashore, his dreams had been dark and disturbing and when he woke his mouth was full of blood. The maester said he had bitten his own tongue in his sleep, but he took it for a sign from the Drowned God, a warning that if he lingered here too long, he would choke on his own blood.

On the day the Doom came to Valyria, it was said, a wall of water three hundred feet high had descended on the island, drowning hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, leaving none to tell the tale but some fisherfolk who had been at sea and a handful of Velosi spearmen posted in a stout stone tower on the island’s highest hill, who had seen the hills and valleys beneath them turn into a raging sea. Fair Velos with its palaces of cedar and pink marble had vanished in a heartbeat. On the north end of the island, the ancient brick walls and stepped pyramids of the slaver port Ghozai had suffered the same fate.

So many drowned men, the Drowned God will be strong there, Victarion had thought when he chose the island for the three parts of his fleet to join up again. He was no priest, though. What if he had gotten it backwards? Perhaps the Drowned God had destroyed the island in his wroth. His brother Aeron might have known, but the Damphair was back on the Iron Islands, preaching against the Crow’s Eye and his rule. No godless man may sit the Seastone Chair. Yet the captains and kings had cried for Euron at the kingsmoot, choosing him above Victarion and other godly men.

The morning sun was shining off the water in ripples of light too bright to look upon. Victarion’s head had begun to pound, though whether from the sun, his hand, or the doubts that troubled him, he could not say. He made his way below to his cabin, where the air was cool and dim. The dusky woman knew what he wanted without his even asking. As he eased himself into his chair, she took a soft damp cloth from the basin and laid it across his brow. “Good,” he said. “Good. And now the hand.”

The dusky woman made no reply. Euron had sliced her tongue out before giving her to him. Victarion did not doubt that the Crow’s Eye had bedded her as well. That was his brother’s way. Euron’s gifts are poisoned, the captain had reminded himself the day the dusky woman came aboard. I want none of his leavings. He had decided then that he would slit her throat and toss her in the sea, a blood sacrifice to the Drowned God. Somehow, though, he had never quite gotten around to it.

They had come a long way since. Victarion could talk to the dusky woman. She never attempted to talk back. “Grief is the last,” he told her, as she eased his glove off. “The rest are lost or late or sunk.” He grimaced as the woman slid the point of her knife beneath the soiled linen wound about his shield hand. “Some will say I should not have split the fleet. Fools. Nine-and-ninety ships we had … a cumbersome beast to shepherd across the seas to the far end of the world. If I’d kept them together, the faster ships would have been held hostage to the slowest. And where to find provisions for so many mouths? No port wants so many warships in their waters. The storms would have scattered us, in any case. Like leaves strewn across the Summer Sea.”

Instead he had broken the great fleet into squadrons, and sent each by a different route to Slaver’s Bay. The swiftest ships he gave to Red Ralf Stonehouse to sail the corsair’s road along the northern coast of Sothoryos. The dead cities rotting on that fervid, sweltering shore were best avoided, every seamen knew, but in the mud-and-blood towns of the Basilisks Isles, teeming with escaped slaves, slavers, skinners, whores, hunters, brindled men, and worse, there were always provisions to be had for men who were not afraid to pay the iron price.

The larger, heavier, slower ships made for Lys, to sell the captives taken on the Shields, the women and children of Lord Hewett’s Town and other islands, along with such men who decided they would sooner yield than die. Victarion had only contempt for such weaklings. Even so, the selling left a foul taste in his mouth. Taking a man as thrall or a woman as a salt wife, that was right and proper, but men were not goats or fowl to be bought and sold for gold. He was glad to leave the selling to Ralf the Limper, who would use the coin to load his big ships with provisions for the long slow middle passage east.

His own ships crept along the shores of the Disputed Lands to take on food and wine and fresh water at Volantis before swinging south around Valyria. That was the most common way east, and the one most heavily trafficked, with prizes for the taking and small islands where they could shelter during storms, ............
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