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THE UGLY LITTLE GIRL
Eleven servants of the Many-Faced God gathered that night beneath the temple, more than she had ever seen together at one time. Only the lordling and the fat fellow arrived by the front door; the rest came by secret ways, through tunnels and hidden passages. They wore their robes of black and white, but as they took their seats each man pulled his cowl down to show the face he had chosen to wear that day. Their tall chairs were carved of ebony and weirwood, like the doors of the temple above. The ebon chairs had weirwood faces on their backs, the weirwood chairs faces of carved ebony.

One of the other acolytes stood across the room with a flagon of dark red wine. She had the water. Whenever one of the servants wished to drink, he would raise his eyes or crook a finger, and one or both of them would come and fill his cup. But mostly they stood, waiting on looks that never came. I am carved of stone, she reminded herself. I am a statue, like the Sealords that stand along the Canal of the Heroes. The water was heavy, but her arms were strong.

The priests used the language of Braavos, though once for several minutes three spoke heatedly in High Valyrian. The girl understood the words, mostly, but they spoke in soft voices, and she could not always hear. “I know this man,” she did hear a priest with the face of a plague victim say. “I know this man,” the fat fellow echoed, as she was pouring for him. But the handsome man said, “I will give this man the gift, I know him not.” Later the squinter said the same thing, of someone else.

After three hours of wine and words, the priests took their leave … all but the kindly man, the waif, and the one whose face bore the marks of plague. His cheeks were covered with weeping sores, and his hair had fallen out. Blood dripped from one nostril and crusted at the corners of both eyes. “Our brother would have words with you, child,” the kindly man told her. “Sit, if you wish.” She seated herself in a weirwood chair with a face of ebony. Bloody sores held no terror for her. She had been too long in the House of Black and White to be afraid of a false face.

“Who are you?” plague face asked when they were alone.

“No one.”

“Not so. You are Arya of House Stark, who bites her lip and cannot tell a lie.”

“I was. I’m not now.”

“Why are you here, liar?”

“To serve. To learn. To change my face.”

“First change your heart. The gift of the Many-Faced God is not a child’s plaything. You would kill for your own purposes, for your own pleasures. Do you deny it?”

She bit her lip. “I—”

He slapped her.

The blow left her cheek stinging, but she knew that she had earned it. “Thank you.” Enough slaps, and she might stop chewing on her lip. Arya did that, not the night wolf. “I do deny it.”

“You lie. I can see the truth in your eyes. You have the eyes of a wolf and a taste for blood.”

Ser Gregor, she could not help but think. Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling. Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei. If she spoke, she would need to lie, and he would know. She kept silent.

“You were a cat, they tell me. Prowling through the alleys smelling of fish, selling cockles and mussels for coin. A small life, well suited for a small creature such as you. Ask, and it can be restored to you. Push your barrow, cry your cockles, be content. Your heart is too soft to be one of us.”

He means to send me away. “I have no heart. I only have a hole. I’ve killed lots of people. I could kill you if I wanted.”

“Would that taste sweet to you?”

She did not know the right answer. “Maybe.”

“Then you do not belong here. Death holds no sweetness in this house. We are not warriors, nor soldiers, nor swaggering bravos puffed up with pride. We do not kill to serve some lord, to fatten our purses, to stroke our vanity. We never give the gift to please ourselves. Nor do we choose the ones we kill. We are but servants of the God of Many Faces.”

“Valar dohaeris.” All men must serve.

“You know the words, but you are too proud to serve. A servant must be humble and obedient.”

“I obey. I can be humbler than anyone.”

That made him chuckle. “You will be the very goddess of humility, I am sure. But can you pay the price?”

“What price?”

“The price is you. The price is all you have and all you ever hope to have. We took your eyes and gave them back. Next we will take your ears, and you will walk in silence. You will give us your legs and crawl. You will be no one’s daughter, no one’s wife, no one’s mother. Your name will be a lie, and the very face you wear will not be your own.”

She almost bit her lip again, but this time she caught herself and stopped. My face is a dark pool, hiding everything, showing nothing. She thought of all the names that she had worn: Arry, Weasel, Squab, Cat of the Canals. She thought of that stupid girl from Winterfell called Arya Horseface. Names did not matter. “I can pay the price. Give me a face.”

“Faces must be earned.”

“Tell me how.”

“Give a certain man a certain gift. Can you do that?”

“What man?”

“No one that you know.”

“I don’t know a lot of people.”

“He is one of them. A stranger. No one you love, no one you hate, no one you have ever known. Will you kill him?”

“Yes.”

“Then on the morrow, you shall be Cat of the Canals again. Wear that face, watch, obey. And we will see if you are truly worthy to serve Him of Many Faces.”

So the next day she returned to Brusco and his daughters in the house on the canal. Brusco’s eyes widened when he saw her, and Brea gave a little gasp. “Valar morghulis,” Cat said, by way of greeting. “Valar dohaeris,” Brusco replied.

After that it was as if she had never been away.

She got her first look at the man she must kill later that morning as she wheeled her barrow through the cobbled streets that fronted on the Purple Harbor. He was an old man, well past fifty. He has lived too long, she tried to tell herself. Why should he have so many years when my father had so few? But Cat of the Canals had no father, so she kept that thought to herself.

“Cockles and mussels and clams,” Cat cried as he went past, “oysters and prawns and fat green mussels.” She even smiled at him. Sometimes a smile was all you needed to make them stop and buy. The old man did not smile back. He scowled at her and went on past, sloshing through a puddle. The splash wet her feet.

He has no courtesy, she thought, watching him go. His face is hard and mean. The old man’s nose was pinched and sharp, his lips thin, his eyes small and close-set. His hair had gone to grey, but the little pointed beard at the end of his chin was still black. Cat thought it must be dyed and wondered why he had not dyed his hair as well. One of his shoulders was higher than the other, giving him a crooked cast.

“He is an evil man,” she announced that evening when she returned to the House of Black and White. “His lips are cruel, his eyes are mean, and he has a villain’s beard.”

The kindly man chuckled. “He is a man like any other, with light in him and darkness. It is not for you to judge him.”

That gave her pause. “Have the gods judged him?”

“Some gods, mayhaps. What are gods for if not to sit in judgment over men? The Many-Faced God does not weigh men’s souls, however. He gives his gift to the best of men as he gives it to the worst. Elsewise the good would live forever.”

The old man’s hands were the worst thing about him, Cat decided the next day, as she watched him from behind her barrow. His fingers were long and bony, always moving, scratching at his beard, tugging at an ear, drumming on a table, twitching, twitching, twitching. He has hands like two white spiders. The more she watched his hands, the more she came to hate them.

“He moves his hands too much,” she told them at the temple. “He must be full of fear. The gift will bring him peace.”

“The gift brings all men peace.”

“When I kill him he will look in my eyes and thank me.”

“If he does, you will have failed. It would be best if he takes no note of you at all.”

The old man was some sort of merchant, Cat concluded after watching him for a few days. His trade had to do with the sea, though she never saw him set foot upon a ship. He spent his days sitting in a soup shop near the Purple Harbor, a cup of onion broth cooling at his elbow as he shuffled papers and sealing wax and spoke in sharp tones to a parade of captains, shipowners, and other merchants, none of whom seemed to like him very much.

Yet they brought him money: leather purses plump with gold and silver and the square iron coins of Braavos. The old man would count it out carefully, sorting the coins and stacking them up neatly, like with like. He never looked at the coins. Instead he bit them, always on the left side of his mouth, where he still had all his teeth. From time to time he’d spin one on the table and listen to the sound it made when it came clattering to a stop.

And when all the coins had been counted and tasted, the old man would scrawl upon a parchment, stamp it with his seal, and give it to the captain. Else he’d shake his head and shove the coins back across the table. Whenever he did that, the other man would get red-faced and angry, or pale and scared-looking.

Cat did not understand. “They pay him gold and silver, but he only gives them writing. Are they stupid?”

“A few, mayhaps. Most are simply cautious. Some think to cozen him. He is not a man easily cozened, however.”

“But what is he selling them?”

“He is writing each a binder. If their ships are lost in a storm or taken by pirates, he promises to pay them for the value of the vessel and all its contents.”

“Is it some kind of wager?”

“Of a sort. A wager every captain hopes to lose.”

“Yes, but if they win …”

“… they lose their ships, oftimes their very lives. The seas are dangerous, and never more so than in autumn. No doubt many a captain sinking in a storm has taken some small solace in his binder back in Braavos, knowing that his widow and children will not want.” A sad smile touched his lips. “It is one thing to write such a binder, though, and another to make good on it.”

Cat understood. One of them must hate him. One of them came to the House of Black and White and prayed for the god to take him. She wondered who it had been, but the kindly man would not tell her. “It is not for you to pry into such matters,” he said. “Who are you?”

“No one.”

“No one asks no questions.” He took her hands. “If you cannot do this thing, you need only say so. There is no shame in that. Some are made to serve the Many-Faced God and some are not. Say the word, and I shall lift this task from you.”

“I will do it. I said I would. I will.”

How, though? That was harder.

He had guards. Two of them, a tall thin man and a short thick one. They went with him everywhere, from when he left his house in the morning till he returned at night. They made certain no one got close to the old man without his leave. Once a drunk almost staggered into him as he was coming home from the soup shop, but the tall one stepped between them and gave the man a sharp shove that knocked him to the ground. At the soup shop, the short one always tasted the onion broth first. The old man waited until the broth had cooled before he took a sip, long enough to be sure his guardsman had suffered no ill effects.

“He’s afraid,” she realized, “or else he knows that someone wants to kill him.”

“He does not know,” said the kindly man, “but he suspects.”

“The guards go with him even when he slips out to make water,” she said, “but he doesn’t go when they do. The tall one is the quicker. I’ll wait till he is making water, walk into the soup shop, and stab the old man through the eye.”

“And the other guard?”

“He’s slow and stupid. I can kill him too.”

“Are you some butcher of the battlefield, hacking down every man who stands in your way?”

“No.”

“I would hope not. You are a servant of the Many-Faced God, and we who serve Him of Many Faces give his gift only to those who have been marked and chosen.”

She understood. Kill him. Kill only him.

It took her three more days of watching before she found the way, and another day of practicing with her finger knife. Red Roggo had taught her how to use it, but she had not slit a purse since back before they took away her eyes. She wanted to make certain that she still knew how. Smooth and quick, that’s the way, no fumbling, she told herself, and she slipped the little blade out of her sleeve, again and again and again. When she was satisfied that she still remembered how to do it, she sharpened the steel on a whetstone until its edge glimmered silver-blue in the candlelight. The other part was trickier, but the waif was there to help her. “I will give the man the gift on the morrow,” she announced as she was breaking her fast.

“Him of Many Faces will be pleased.” The kindly man rose. “Cat of the Canals is known to many. If she is seen to have done this deed, it might bring down trouble on Brusco and his daughters. It is time you had another face.”

The girl did not smile, but inside she was pleased. She had lost Cat once, and mourned her. She did not want to lose her again. “What will I look like?”

“Ugly. Women will look away when they see you. Children will stare and point. Strong men will pity you, and some may shed a tear. No one who sees you will soon forget you. Come.”

The kindly man took the iron lantern off its hook and led her past the still black pool and the rows of dark and silent gods, to the steps at the rear of the temple. The waif fell in behind them as they were making their descent. No one spoke. The soft scuff of slippered feet on the steps was the only sound. Eighteen steps brought them to the vaults, where five arched passageways spread out like the fingers of a man’s hand. Down here the steps grew narrower and steeper, but the girl had run up and down them a thousand times and they held no terrors for her. Twenty-two more steps and they were at the subcellar. The tunnels here were cramped and crooked, black wormholes twisting through the heart of the great rock. One passage was closed off by a heavy iron door. The priest hung the lantern from a hook, slipped a hand inside his robe, and produced an ornate key.

Gooseprickles rose along her arms. The sanctum. They were going lower still, down to the third level, to the secret chambers where only the priests were permitted.

The key clicked three times, very softly, as the kindly man turned it in a lock. The door swung open on oiled iron hinges, making not a sound. Beyond were still more steps, hewn out of solid rock. The priest took down the lantern once again and led ............
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