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Lord Alester looked up sharply. “Voices,” he said. “Do you hear, Davos? Someone is coming for us.”  “Lamprey,” said Davos. “It’s time for our supper, or near enough.” Last night Lamprey had brought them half a beef-and-bacon pie, and a flagon of mead as well. Just the thought of it made his belly start to rumble.  “No, there’s more than one.”  He’s right. Davos heard two voices at least, and footsteps, growing louder. He got to his feet and moved to the bars.  Lord Alester brushed the straw from his clothes. “The king has sent for me. Or the queen, yes, Selyse would never let me rot here, her own blood.”  Outside the cell, Lamprey appeared with a ring of keys in hand. Ser Axell Florent and four guardsmen followed close behind him. They waited beneath the torch while Lamprey searched for the correct key.  “Axell,” Lord Alester said. “Gods be good. Is it the king who sends for me, or the queen?”  “No one has sent for you, traitor,” Ser Axell said.  Lord Alester recoiled as if he’d been slapped. “No, I swear to you, I committed no treason. Why won’t you listen? If His Grace would only let me explain -”  Lamprey thrust a great iron key into the lock, turned it, and pulled open the cell. The rusted hinges screamed in protest. “You,” he said to Davos. “Come.”  “Where?” Davos looked to Ser Axell. “Tell me true, ser, do you mean to burn me?”  “You are sent for. Can you walk?”  “I can walk.” Davos stepped from the cell. Lord Alester gave a cry of dismay as Lamprey slammed the door shut once more.  “Take the torch,” Ser Axell commanded the gaoler. “Leave the traitor to the darkness.”  “No,” his brother said. “Axell, please, don’t take the light gods have mercy...”  “Gods? There is only R’hllor, and the Other.” Ser Axell gestured sharply, and one of his guardsmen pulled the torch from its sconce and led the way to the stair.  “Are you taking me to Melisandre?” Davos asked.  “She will be there,” Ser Axell said. “She is never far from the king. But it is His Grace himself who asked for you.”  Davos lifted his hand to his chest, where once his luck had hung in a leather bag on a thong. Gone now, he remembered, and the ends of four fingers as well. But his hands were still long enough to wrap about a woman’s throat, he thought, especially a slender throat like hers.  Up they went, climbing the turnpike stair in single file. The walls were rough dark stone, cool to the touch. The light of the torches went before them, and their shadows marched beside them on the walls. At the third turn they passed an iron gate that opened on blackness, and another at the fifth turn. Davos guessed that they were near the surface by then, perhaps even above it. The next door they came to was made of wood, but still they climbed. Now the walls were broken by arrow slits, but no shafts of sunlight pried their way through the thickness of the stone. It was night outside.  His legs were aching by the time Ser Axell thrust open a heavy door and gestured him through. Beyond, a high stone bridge arched over emptiness to the massive central tower called the Stone Drum. A sea wind blew restlessly through the arches that supported the roof, and Davos could smell the salt water as they crossed. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the clean cold air. Wind and water, give me strength, he prayed. A huge nightfire burned in the yard below, to keep the terrors of the dark at bay, and the queen’s men were gathered around it, singing praises to their new red god.  They were in the center of the bridge when Ser Axell stopped suddenly. He made a brusque gesture with his hand, and his men moved out of earshot. “Were it my choice, I would burn you with my brother Alester, he told Davos. “You are both traitors.”  “Say what you will. I would never betray King Stannis.”  “You would. You will. I see it in your face. And I have seen it in the flames as well. R’hllor has blessed me with that gift. Like Lady Melisandre, he shows me the future in the fire. Stannis Baratheon will sit the Iron Throne. I have seen it. And I know what must be done. His Grace must make me his Hand, in place of my traitor brother. And you will tell him so.”  Will I? Davos said nothing.  “The queen has urged my appointment,” Ser Axell went on. “Even your old friend from Lys, the pirate Saan, he says the same. We have made a plan together, him and me. Yet His Grace does not act. The defeat gnaws inside him, a black worm in his soul. It is up to us who love him to show him what to do. If you are as devoted to his cause as you claim, smuggler, you will join your voice to ours. Tell him that I am the only Hand he needs. Tell him, and when we sail I shall see that you have a new ship.”  A ship. Davos studied the other man’s face. Ser Axell had big Florent ears, much like the queen’s. Coarse hair grew from them, as from his nostrils; more sprouted in tufts and patches beneath his double chin. His nose was broad, his brow beetled, his eyes close-set and hostile. He would sooner give me a pyre than a ship, he said as much, but if I do him this favor...  “If you think to betray me,” Ser Axell said, “pray remember that I have been castellan of Dragonstone a good long time. The garrison is mine. Perhaps I cannot burn you without the king’s consent, but who is to say you might not suffer a fall.” He laid a meaty hand on the back of Davos’s neck and shoved him bodily against the waist-high side of the bridge, then shoved a little harder to force his face out over the yard. “Do you hear me?”  “I hear,” said Davos. And you dare name me traitor?  Ser Axell released him. “Good.” He smiled. “His Grace awaits. Best we do not keep him.”  At the very top of Stone Drum, within the great round room called the Chamber of the Painted Table, they found Stannis Baratheon standing behind the artifact that gave the hall its name, a massive slab of wood carved and painted in the shape of Westeros as it had been in the time of Aegon the Conqueror. An iron brazier stood beside the king, its coals glowing a ruddy orange. Four tall pointed windows looked out to north, south, east, and west. Beyond was the night and the starry sky. Davos could hear the wind moving, and fainter, the sounds of the sea.  “Your Grace,” Ser Axell said, “as it please you, I have brought the onion knight.”  “So I see.” Stannis wore a grey wool tunic, a dark red mantle, and a plain black leather belt from which his sword and dagger hung. A red-gold crown with flame-shaped points encircled his brows. The look of him was a shock. He seemed ten years older than the man that Davos had left at Storm’s End when he set sail for the Blackwater and the battle that would be their undoing. The king’s close-cropped beard was spiderwebbed with grey hairs, and he had dropped two stone or more of weight. He had never been a fleshy man, but now the bones moved beneath his skin like spears, fighting to cut free. Even his crown seemed too large for his head. His eyes were blue pits lost in deep hollows, and the shape of a skull could be seen beneath his face.  Yet when he saw Davos, a faint smile brushed his lips. “So the sea has returned me my knight of the fish and onions.”  “It did, Your Grace.” Does he know that he had me in his dungeon? Davos went to one knee.  “Rise, Ser Davos,” Stannis commanded. “I have missed you, ser. I have need of good counsel, and you never gave me less. So tell me true - what is the penalty for treason?”  The word hung in the air. A frightful word, thought Davos. Was he being asked to condemn his cellmate? Or himself, perchance? Kings know the penalty for treason better than any man. “Treason?” he finally managed, weakly.  “What else would you call it, to deny your king and seek to steal his rightful throne. I ask you again - what is the penalty for treason under the law?”  Davos had no choice but to answer. “Death,” he said. “The penalty is death, Your Grace.”  “It has always been so. I am not... I am not a cruel man, Ser Davos. You know me. Have known me long. This is not my decree. It has always been so, since Aegon’s day and before. Daemon Blackfyre, the brothers Toyne, the Vulture King, Grand Maester Hareth... traitors have always paid with their lives... even Rhaenyra Targaryen. She was daughter to one king and mother to two more, yet she died a traitor’s death for trying to usurp her brother’s crown. It is law. Law, Davos. Not cruelty.”  “Yes, Your Grace.” He does not speak of me. Davos felt a moment’s pity for his cellmate down in the dark. He knew he should keep silent, but he was tired and sick of heart, and he heard himself say, “Sire, Lord Florent meant no treason.”  “Do smugglers have another name for it? I made him Hand, and he would have sold my rights for a bowl of pease porridge. He would even have given them Shireen. Mine only child, he would have wed to a bastard born of incest.” The king’s voice was thick with anger. “My brother had a gift for inspiring loyalty. Even in his foes. At Summerhall he won three battles in a single day, and brought Lords Grandison and Cafferen back to Storm’s End as prisoners. He hung their banners in the hall as trophies. Cafferen’s white fawns were spotted with blood and Grandison’s sleeping lion was torn near in two. Yet they would sit beneath those banners of a night, drinking and feasting with Robert. He even took them hunting.  ‘These men meant to deliver you to Aerys to be burned’ I told him after I saw them throwing axes in the yard. ‘You should not be putting axes in their hands.’ Robert only laughed. I would have thrown Grandison and Cafferen into a dungeon, but he turned them into friends. Lord Cafferen died at Ashford Castle, cut down by Randyll Tarly whilst fighting for Robert. Lord Grandison was wounded on the Trident and died of it a year after. My brother made them love him, but it would seem that I inspire only betrayal. Even in mine own blood and kin. Brother, grandfather, cousins, good uncle...”  “Your Grace,” said Ser Axell, “I beg you, give me the chance to prove to you that not all Florents are so feeble.”  “Ser Axell would have me resume the war,” King Stannis told Davos. “The Lannisters think I am done and beaten, and my sworn lords have forsaken me, near every one. Even Lord Estermont, my own mother’s father, has bent his knee to Joffrey. The few loyal men who remain to me are losing heart. They waste their days drinking and gambling, and lick their wounds like beaten curs.”  “Battle will set their hearts ablaze once more, Your Grace,” Ser Axell said. “Defeat is a disease, and victory is the cure.”  “Victory.” The king’s mouth twisted. “There are victories and victories, ser. But tell your plan to Ser Davos. I would hear his views on what you propose.”  Ser Axell turned to Davos, with a look on his face much like the look that proud Lord Belgrave must have worn, the day King Baelor the Blessed had commanded him to wash the beggar’s ulcerous feet. Nonetheless, he obeyed.  The plan Ser Axell had devised with Salladhor Saan was simple. A few hours’ sail from Dragonstone lay Claw Isle, ancient sea-girt seat of House Celtigar. Lord Ardrian Celtigar had fought beneath the fiery heart on the Blackwater, but once taken, he had wasted no time in going over to Joffrey. He remained in King’s Landing even now. “Too frightened of His Grace’s wrath to come near Dragonstone, no doubt,” Ser Axell declared. “And wisely so. The man has betrayed his rightful king.”  Ser Axell proposed to use Salladhor Saan’s fleet and the men who had escaped the Blackwater - Stannis still had some fifteen hundred on Dragonstone, more than half of them Florents - to exact retribution for Lord Celtigar’s defection. Claw Isle was but lightly garrisoned, its castle reputedly stuffed with Myrish carpets, Volantene glass, gold and silver plate, jeweled cups, magnificent hawks, an axe of Valyrian steel, a horn that could summon monsters from the deep, chests of rubies, and more wines than a man could drink in a hundred years. Though Celtigar had shown the world a niggardly face, he had never stinted on his own comforts. “Put his castle to the torch and his people to the sword, I say,” Ser Axell concluded. “Leave Claw Isle a desolation of ash and bone, fit only for carrion crows, so the realm might see the fate of those who bed with Lannisters.”  Stannis listened to Ser Axell’s recitation in silence, grinding his jaw slowly from side to side. When it was done, he said, “It could be done, I believe. The risk is small. Joffrey has no strength at sea until Lord Redwyne sets sail from the Arbor. The plunder might serve to keep that Lysene pirate Salladhor Saan loyal for a time. By itself Claw Isle is worthless, but its fall would serve notice to Lord Tywin that my cause is not yet done.” The king turned back to Davos. “Speak truly, ser. What do you make of Ser Axell’s proposal?”  Speak truly, ser. Davos remembered the dark cell he had shared with Lord Alester, remembered Lamprey and Porridge. He thought of the promises that Ser Axell had made on the bridge above the yard. A ship or a shove, what shall it be? But this was Stannis asking. “Your Grace,” he said slowly, “I make it folly... aye, and cowardice.”  “Cowardice?” Ser Axell all but shouted. “No man calls me craven before my king!”  “Silence,” Stannis commanded. “Ser Davos, speak on, I would hear your reasons.”  Davos turned to face Ser Axell. “You say we ought show the realm we are not done. Strike a blow. Make war, aye... but on what enemy? You will find no Lannisters on Claw Isle.”  “We will find traitors,” said Ser Axell, “though it may be I could find some closer to home. Even in this very room.”  Davos ignored the jibe. “I don’t doubt Lord Celtigar bent the knee to the boy Joffrey. He is an old done man, who wants no more than to end his days in his castle, drinking his fine wine out of his jeweled cups.” He turned back to Stannis. “Yet he came when you called, sire. Came, with his ships and swords. He stood by you at Storm’s End when Lord Renly came down on us, and his ships sailed up the Blackwater. His men fought for you, killed for you, burned for you. Claw Isle is weakly held, yes. Held by women and children and old men. And why is that? Because their husbands and sons and fathers died on the Blackwater, that’s why. Died at their oars, or with swords in their hands, fighting beneath our banners. Yet Ser Axell proposes we swoop down on the homes they left behind, to rape their widows and put their children to the sword. These smallfolk are no traitors...”  “They are,” insisted Ser Axell. “Not all of Celtigar’s men were slain on the Blackwater. Hundreds were taken with their lord, and bent the knee when he did.”  “When he did,” Davos repeated. “They were his men. His sworn men. What choice were they given?”  “Every man has choices. They might have refused to kneel. Some did, and died for it. Yet they died true men, and loyal.”  “Some men are stronger than others.” It was a feeble answer, and Davos knew it. Stannis Baratheon was a man of iron will who neither understood nor forgave weakness in others. I am losing, he thought, despairing.  “It is every man’s duty to remain loyal to his rightful king, even if the lord ............
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