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THE QUEEN’S HAND
The Dornish prince was three days dying.

He took his last shuddering breath in the bleak black dawn, as cold rain hissed from a dark sky to turn the brick streets of the old city into rivers. The rain had drowned the worst of the fires, but wisps of smoke still rose from the smoldering ruin that had been the pyramid of Hazkar, and the great black pyramid of Yherizan where Rhaegal had made his lair hulked in the gloom like a fat woman bedecked with glowing orange jewels.

Perhaps the gods are not deaf after all, Ser Barristan Selmy reflected as he watched those distant embers. If not for the rain, the fires might have consumed all of Meereen by now.

He saw no sign of dragons, but he had not expected to. The dragons did not like the rain. A thin red slash marked the eastern horizon where the sun might soon appear. It reminded Selmy of the first blood welling from a wound. Often, even with a deep cut, the blood came before the pain.

He stood beside the parapets of the highest step of the Great Pyramid, searching the sky as he did every morning, knowing that the dawn must come and hoping that his queen would come with it. She will not have abandoned us, she would never leave her people, he was telling himself, when he heard the prince’s death rattle coming from the queen’s apartments.

Ser Barristan went inside. Rainwater ran down the back of his white cloak, and his boots left wet tracks on the floors and carpets. At his command, Quentyn Martell had been laid out in the queen’s own bed. He had been a knight, and a prince of Dorne besides. It seemed only kind to let him die in the bed he had crossed half a world to reach. The bedding was ruined—sheets, covers, pillows, mattress, all reeked of blood and smoke, but Ser Barristan thought Daenerys would forgive him.

Missandei sat at the bedside. She had been with the prince night and day, tending to such needs as he could express, giving him water and milk of the poppy when he was strong enough to drink, listening to the few tortured words he gasped out from time to time, reading to him when he fell quiet, sleeping in her chair beside him. Ser Barristan had asked some of the queen’s cupbearers to help, but the sight of the burned man was too much for even the boldest of them. And the Blue Graces had never come, though he’d sent for them four times. Perhaps the last of them had been carried off by the pale mare by now.

The tiny Naathi scribe looked up at his approach. “Honored ser. The prince is beyond pain now. His Dornish gods have taken him home. See? He smiles.”

How can you tell? He has no lips. It would have been kinder if the dragons had devoured him. That at least would have been quick. This … Fire is a hideous way to die. Small wonder half the hells are made of flame. “Cover him.”

Missandei pulled the coverlet over the prince’s face. “What will be done with him, ser? He is so very far from home.”

“I’ll see that he’s returned to Dorne.” But how? As ashes? That would require more fire, and Ser Barristan could not stomach that. We’ll need to strip the flesh from his bones. Beetles, not boiling. The silent sisters would have seen to it at home, but this was Slaver’s Bay. The nearest silent sister was ten thousand leagues away. “You should go sleep now, child. In your own bed.”

“If this one may be so bold, ser, you should do the same. You do not sleep the whole night through.”

Not for many years, child. Not since the Trident. Grand Maester Pycelle had once told him that old men do not need as much sleep as the young, but it was more than that. He had reached that age when he was loath to close his eyes, for fear that he might never open them again. Other men might wish to die in bed asleep, but that was no death for a knight of the Kingsguard.

“The nights are too long,” he told Missandei, “and there is much and more to do, always. Here, as in the Seven Kingdoms. But you have done enough for now, child. Go and rest.” And if the gods are good, you will not dream of dragons.

After the girl was gone, the old knight peeled back the coverlet for one last look at Quentyn Martell’s face, or what remained of it. So much of the prince’s flesh had sloughed away that he could see the skull beneath. His eyes were pools of pus. He should have stayed in Dorne. He should have stayed a frog. Not all men are meant to dance with dragons. As he covered the boy once more, he found himself wondering whether there would be anyone to cover his queen, or whether her own corpse would lie unmourned amongst the tall grasses of the Dothraki sea, staring blindly at the sky until her flesh fell from her bones.

“No,” he said aloud. “Daenerys is not dead. She was riding that dragon. I saw it with mine own two eyes.” He had said the same a hundred times before … but every day that passed made it harder to believe. Her hair was afire. I saw that too. She was burning … and if I did not see her fall, hundreds swear they did.

Day had crept upon the city. Though the rain still fell, a vague light suffused the eastern sky. And with the sun arrived the Shavepate. Skahaz was clad in his familiar garb of pleated black skirt, greaves, and muscled breastplate. The brazen mask beneath his arm was new—a wolf’s head with lolling tongue. “So,” he said, by way of greeting, “the fool is dead, is he?”

“Prince Quentyn died just before first light.” Selmy was not surprised that Skahaz knew. Word traveled quickly within the pyramid. “Is the council assembled?”

“They await the Hand’s pleasure below.”

I am no Hand, a part of him wanted to cry out. I am only a simple knight, the queen’s protector. I never wanted this. But with the queen gone and the king in chains, someone had to rule, and Ser Barristan did not trust the Shavepate. “Has there been any word from the Green Grace?”

“She is not yet returned to the city.” Skahaz had opposed sending the priestess. Nor had Galazza Galare herself embraced the task. She would go, she allowed, for the sake of peace, but Hizdahr zo Loraq was better suited to treat with the Wise Masters. But Ser Barristan did not yield easily, and finally the Green Grace had bowed her head and sworn to do her best.

“How stands the city?” Selmy asked the Shavepate now.

“All the gates are closed and barred, as you commanded. We are hunting down any sellswords or Yunkai’i left inside the city and expelling or arresting those we catch. Most seem to have gone to ground. Inside the pyramids, beyond a doubt. The Unsullied man the walls and towers, ready for any assault. There are two hundred highborn gathered in the square, standing in the rain in their tokars and howling for audience. They want Hizdahr free and me dead, and they want you to slay these dragons. Someone told them knights were good at that. Men are still pulling corpses from the pyramid of Hazkar. The Great Masters of Yherizan and Uhlez have abandoned their own pyramids to the dragons.”

Ser Barristan had known all that. “And the butcher’s tally?” he asked, dreading the answer.

“Nine-and-twenty.”

“Nine-and-twenty?” That was far worse than he could ever have imagined. The Sons of the Harpy had resumed their shadow war two days ago. Three murders the first night, nine the second. But to go from nine to nine-and-twenty in a single night …

“The count will pass thirty before midday. Why do you look so grey, old man? What did you expect? The Harpy wants Hizdahr free, so he has sent his sons back into the streets with knives in hand. The dead are all freedmen and shavepates, as before. One was mine, a Brazen Beast. The sign of the Harpy was left beside the bodies, chalked on the pavement or scratched into a wall. There were messages as well. ‘Dragons must die,’ they wrote, and ‘Harghaz the Hero.’ ‘Death to Daenerys’ was seen as well, before the rain washed out the words.”

“The blood tax …”

“Twenty-nine hundred pieces of gold from each pyramid, aye,” Skahaz grumbled. “It will be collected … but the loss of a few coins will never stay the Harpy’s hand. Only blood can do that.”

“So you say.” The hostages again. He would kill them every one if I allowed it. “I heard you the first hundred times. No.”

“Queen’s Hand,” Skahaz grumbled with disgust. “An old woman’s hand, I am thinking, wrinkled and feeble. I pray Daenerys returns to us soon.” He pulled his brazen wolf’s mask down over his face. “Your council will be growing restless.”

“They are the queen’s council, not mine.” Selmy exchanged his damp cloak for a dry one and buckled on his sword belt, then accompanied the Shavepate down the steps.

The pillared hall was empty of petitioners this morning. Though he had assumed the title of Hand, Ser Barristan would not presume to hold court in the queen’s absence, nor would he permit Skahaz mo Kandaq to do such. Hizdahr’s grotesque dragon thrones had been removed at Ser Barristan’s command, but he had not brought back the simple pillowed bench the queen had favored. Instead a large round table had been set up in the center of the hall, with tall chairs all around it where men might sit and talk as peers.

They rose when Ser Barristan came down the marble steps, Skahaz Shavepate at his side. Marselen of the Mother’s Men was present, with Symon Stripeback, commander of the Free Brothers. The Stalwart Shields had chosen a new commander, a black-skinned Summer Islander called Tal Toraq, their old captain, Mollono Yos Dob, having been carried off by the pale mare. Grey Worm was there for the Unsullied, attended by three eunuch serjeants in spiked bronze caps. The Stormcrows were represented by two seasoned sellswords, an archer named Jokin and the scarred and sour axeman known simply as the Widower. The two of them had assumed joint command of the company in the absence of Daario Naharis. Most of the queen’s khalasar had gone with Aggo and Rakharo to search for her on the Dothraki sea, but the squinty, bowlegged jaqqa rhan Rommo was there to speak for the riders who remained.

And across the table from Ser Barristan sat four of King Hizdahr’s erstwhile guardsmen, the pit fighters Goghor the Giant, Belaquo Bonebreaker, Camarron of the Count, and the Spotted Cat. Selmy had insisted on their presence, over the objections of Skahaz Shavepate. They had helped Daenerys Targaryen take this city once, and that should not be forgotten. Blood-soaked brutes and killers they might be, but in their own way they had been loyal … to King Hizdahr, yes, but to the queen as well.

Last to come, Strong Belwas lumbered into the hall.

The eunuch had looked death in the face, so near he might have kissed her on the lips. It had marked him. He looked to have lost two stone of weight, and the dark brown skin that had once stretched tight across a massive chest and belly, crossed by a hundred faded scars, now hung on him in loose folds, sagging and wobbling, like a robe cut three sizes too large. His step had slowed as well, and seemed a bit uncertain.

Even so, the sight of him gladdened the old knight’s heart. He had once crossed the world with Strong Belwas, and he knew he could rely on him, should all this come to swords. “Belwas. We are pleased that you could join us.”

“Whitebeard.” Belwas smiled. “Where is liver and onions? Strong Belwas is not so strong as before, he must eat, get big again. They made Strong Belwas sick. Someone must die.”

Someone will. Many someones, like as not. “Sit, my friend.” When Belwas sat and crossed his arms, Ser Barristan went on. “Quentyn Martell died this morning, just before the dawn.”

The Widower laughed. “The dragonrider.”

“Fool, I call him,” said Symon Stripeback.

No, just a boy. Ser Barristan had not forgotten the follies of his own youth. “Speak no ill of the dead. The prince paid a ghastly price for what he did.”

“And the other Dornish?” asked Tal Taraq.

“Prisoners, for the nonce.” Neither of the Dornishmen had offered any resistance. Archibald Yronwood had been cradling his prince’s scorched and smoking body when the Brazen Beasts had found him, as his burned hands could testify. He had used them to beat out the flames that had engulfed Quentyn Martell. Gerris Drinkwater was standing over them with sword in hand, but he had dropped the blade the moment the locusts had appeared. “They share a cell.”

“Let them share a gibbet,” said Symon Stripeback. “They unleashed two dragons on the city.”

“Open the pits and give them swords,” urged the Spotted Cat. “I will kill them both as all Meereen shouts out my name.”

“The fighting pits will remain closed,” said Selmy. “Blood and noise would only serve to call the dragons.”

“All three, perhaps,” suggested Marselen. “The black beast came once, why not again? This time with our queen.”

Or without her. Should Drogon return to Meereen without Daenerys mounted on his back, the city would erupt in blood and flame, of that Ser Barristan had no doubt. The very men sitting at this table would soon be at dagger points with one another. A young girl she might be, but Daenerys Targaryen was the only thing that held them all together.

“Her Grace will return when she returns,” said Ser Barristan. “We have herded a thousand sheep into the Daznak’s Pit, filled the Pit of Ghrazz with bullocks, and the Golden Pit with beasts that Hizdahr zo Loraq had gathered for his games.” Thus far both dragons seemed to have a taste for mutton, returning to Daznak’s whenever they grew hungry. If either one was hunting man, inside or outside the city, Ser Barristan had yet to hear of it. The only Meereenese the dragons had slain since Harghaz the Hero had been the slavers foolish enough to object when Rhaegal attempted to make his lair atop the pyramid of Hazkar. “We have more pressing matters to discuss. I have sent the Green Grace to the Yunkishmen to make arrangements for the release of our hostages. I expect her back by midday with their answer.”

“With words,” said the Widower. “The Stormcrows know the Yunkai’i. Their tongues are worms that wriggle this way or that. The Green Grace will come back with worm words, not the captain.”

“If it pleases the Queen’s Hand to recall, the Wise Masters hold our Hero too,” said Grey Worm. “Also the horselord Jhogo, the queen’s own blood rider.”

“Blood of her blood,” agreed the Dothraki Rommo. “He must be freed. The honor of the khalasar demands it.”

“He shall be freed,” said Ser Barristan, “but first we must needs wait and see if the Green Grace can accomplish—”

Skahaz Shavepate slammed his fist upon the table. “The Green Grace will accomplish nothing. She may be conspiring with the Yunkai’i even as we sit here. Arrangements, did you say? Make arrangements? What sort of arrangements?”

“Ransom,” said Ser Barristan. “Each man’s weight in gold.”

“The Wise Masters do not need our gold, ser,” said Marselen. “They are richer than your Westerosi lords, every one.”

“Their sellswords will want the gold, though. What are the hostages to them? If the Yunkishmen refuse, it will drive a blade between them and their hirelings.” Or so I hope. It had been Missandei who suggested the ploy to him. He would never have thought of such a thing himself. In King’s Landing, bribes had been Littlefinger’s domain, whilst Lord Varys had the task of fostering division amongst the crown’s enemies. His own duties had been more straightforward. Eleven years of age, yet Missandei is as clever as half the men at this table and wiser than all of them. “I have instructed the Green Grace to present the offer only when all of the Yunkish commanders have assembled to hear it.”

“They will refuse, even so,” insisted Symon Stripeback. “They will say they want the dragons dead, the king restored.”

“I pray that you are wrong.” And fear that you are right.

“Your gods are far away, Ser Grandfather,” said the Widower. “I do not think they hear your prayers. And when the Yunkai’i send back the old woman to spit in your eye, what then?”

“Fire and blood,” said Barristan Selmy, softly, softly.

For a long moment no one spoke. Then Strong Belwas slapped his belly and said, “Better than liver and onions,” and Skahaz Shavepate stared through the eyes of his wolf’s head mask and said, “You would break King Hizdahr’s peace, old man?”

“I would shatter it.” Once, long ago, a prince had named him Barristan the Bold. A part of that boy was in him still. “We have built a beacon atop the pyramid where once the Harpy stood. Dry wood soaked with oil, covered to keep the rain off. Should the hour come, and I pray that it does not, we will light that beacon. The flames will be your signal to pour out of our gates and attack. Every man of you will have a part to play, so every man must be in readiness at all times, day or night. We will destroy our foes or be destroyed ourselves.” He raised a hand to signal to his waiting squires. “I have had some maps prepared to show the dispositions of our foes, their camps and siege lines and trebuchets. If we can break the slavers, their sellswords will abandon them. I know you will have concerns and questions. Voice them here. By the time we leave this table, all of us must be of a single mind, with a single purpose.”

“Best send down for some food and drink, then,” suggested Symon Stripeback. “This will take a while.”

It took the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon. The captains and commanders argued over the maps like fishwives over a bucket of crabs. Weak points and strong points, how to best employ their small company of archers, whether the elephants should be used to break the Yunkish lines or held in reserve, who should have the honor of leading the first advance, whether their horse cavalry was best deployed on the flanks or in the vanguard.

Ser Barristan let each man speak his mind. Tal Toraq thought that they should march on Yunkai once they had broken through the lines; the Yellow City would be almost undefended, so the Yunkai’i would have no choice but to lift the siege and follow. The Spotted Cat proposed to challenge the enemy to send forth a champion to face him in single combat. Strong Belwas liked that notion but insisted he should fight, not th............
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