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For a moment it seemed as though the king had not heard. Stannis showed no pleasure at the news, no anger, no disbelief, not even relief. He stared at his Painted Table with teeth clenched hard. “You are certain?” he asked.  “I am not seeing the body, no, Your Kingliness,” said Salladhor Saan. “Yet in the city, the lions prance and dance. The Red Wedding, the smallfolk are calling it. They swear Lord Frey had the boy’s head hacked off, sewed the head of his direwolf in its place, and nailed a crown about his ears. His lady mother was slain as well, and thrown naked in the river.”  At a wedding, thought Davos. As he sat at his slayer’s board, a guest beneath his roof. These Freys are cursed. He could smell the burning blood again, and hear the leech hissing and spitting on the brazier’s hot coals.  “It was the Lord’s wrath that slew him,” Ser Axell Florent declared. “It was the hand of R’hllor!”  “Praise the Lord of Light!” sang out Queen Selyse, a pinched thin hard woman with large ears and a hairy upper lip.  “Is the hand of R’hllor spotted and palsied?” asked Stannis. “This sounds more Walder Frey’s handiwork than any god’s.”  “R’hllor chooses such instruments as he requires.” The ruby at Melisandre’s throat shone redly. “His ways are mysterious, but no man may withstand his fiery will.”  “No man may withstand him!” the queen cried.  “Be quiet, woman. You are not at a nightfire now.” Stannis considered the Painted Table. “The wolf leaves no heirs, the kraken too many. The lions will devour them unless... Saan, I will require your fastest ships to carry envoys to the Iron islands and White Harbor. I shall offer pardons.” The way he snapped his teeth showed how little he liked that word. “Full pardons, for all those who repent of treason and swear fealty to their rightful king. They must see...”  “They will not.” Melisandre’s voice was soft. “I am sorry, Your Grace. This is not an end. More false kings will soon rise to take up the crowns of those who’ve died.”  “More?” Stannis looked as though he would gladly have throttled her. “More usurpers? More traitors?”  “I have seen it in the flames.”  Queen Selyse went to the king’s side. “The Lord of Light sent Melisandre to guide you to your glory. Heed her, I beg you. R’hllor’s holy flames do not lie.”  “There are lies and lies, woman. Even when these flames speak truly, they are full of tricks, it seems to me.”  “An ant who hears the words of a king may not comprehend what he is saying,” Melisandre said, “and all men are ants before the fiery face of god. If sometimes I have mistaken a warning for a prophecy or a prophecy for a warning, the fault lies in the reader, not the book. But this I know for a certainty - envoys and pardons will not serve you now, no more than leeches. You must show the realm a sign. A sign that proves your power!”  “Power-” The king snorted. “I have thirteen hundred men on Dragonstone, another three hundred at Storm’s End.” His hand swept over the Painted Table. “The rest of Westeros is in the hands of my foes. I have no fleet but Salladhor Saan’s. No coin to hire sellswords. No prospect of plunder or glory to lure freeriders to my cause.”  “Lord husband,” said Queen Selyse, “you have more men than Aegon did three hundred years ago. All you lack are dragons.”  The look Stannis gave her was dark. “Nine mages crossed the sea to hatch Aegon the Third’s cache of eggs. Baelor the Blessed prayed over his for half a year. Aegon the Fourth built dragons of wood and iron. Aerion Brightflame drank wildfire to transform himself. The mages failed, King Baelor’s prayers went unanswered, the wooden dragons burned, and Prince Aerion died screaming.”  Queen Selyse was adamant. “None of these was the chosen of R’hllor. No red comet blazed across the heavens to herald their coming. None wielded Lightbringer, the red sword of heroes. And none of them paid the price. Lady Melisandre will tell you, my lord. Only death can pay for life.”  “The boy?” The king almost spat the words.  “The boy,” agreed the queen.  “The boy,” Ser Axell echoed.  “I was sick unto death of this wretched boy before he was even born, the king complained. “His very name is a roaring in my ears and a dark cloud upon my soul.”  “Give the boy to me and you need never hear his name spoken again,” Melisandre promised.  No, but you’ll hear him screaming when she burns him. Davos held his tongue. It was wiser not to speak until the king commanded it.  “Give me the boy for R’hllor,” the red woman said, “and the ancient prophecy shall be fulfilled. Your dragon shall awaken and spread his stony wings. The kingdom shall be yours.”  Ser Axell went to one knee. “On bended knee I beg you, sire. Wake the stone dragon and let the traitors tremble. Like Aegon you begin as Lord of Dragonstone. Like Aegon you shall conquer. Let the false and the fickle feel your flames.”  “Your own wife begs as well, lord husband.” Queen Selyse went down on both knees before the king, hands clasped as if in prayer. “Robert and Delena defiled our bed and laid a curse upon our union. This boy is the foul fruit of their fomications. Lift his shadow from my womb and I will bear you many trueborn sons, I know it.” She threw her arms around his legs. “He is only one boy, born of your brother’s lust and my cousin’s shame.”  “He is mine own blood. Stop clutching me, woman.” King Stannis put a hand on her shoulder, awkwardly untangling himself from her grasp. “Perhaps Robert did curse our marriage bed. He swore to me that he never meant to shame me, that he was drunk and never knew which bedchamber he entered that night. But does it matter? The boy was not at fault, whatever the truth.”  Melisandre put her hand on the king’s arm. “The Lord of Light cherishes the innocent. There is no sacrifice more precious. From his king’s blood and his untainted fire, a dragon shall be born.”  Stannis did not pull away from Melisandre’s touch as he had from his queen’s. The red woman was all Selyse was not; young, full-bodied, and strangely beautiful, with her heart-shaped face, coppery hair, and unearthly red eyes. “It would be a wondrous thing to see stone come to life,” he admitted, grudging. “And to mount a dragon... I remember the first time my father took me to court, Robert had to hold my hand. I could not have been older than four, which would have made him five or six. We agreed afterward that the king had been as noble as the dragons were fearsome.” Stannis snorted. “Years later, our father told us that Aerys had cut himself on the throne that morning, so his Hand had taken his place. It was Tywin Lannister who’d so impressed us.” His fingers touched the surface of the table, tracing a path lightly across the varnished hills. “Robert took the skulls down when he donned the crown, but he could not bear to have them destroyed. Dragon wings over Westeros... there would be such a...  “Your Grace!” Davos edged forward. “Might I speak?”  Stannis closed his mouth so hard his teeth snapped. “My lord of the Rainwood. Why do you think I made you Hand, if not to speak?” The king waved a hand. “Say what you will.”  Warrior, make me brave. “I know little of dragons and less of gods... but the queen spoke of curses. No man is as cursed as the kinslayer, in the eyes of gods and men.”  “There are no gods save R’hllor and the Other, whose name must not be spoken.” Melisandre’s mouth made a hard red line. “And small men curse what they cannot understand.”  “I am a small man,” Davos admitted, “so tell me why you need this boy Edric Storm to wake your great stone dragon, my lady.” He was determined to say the boy’s name as often as he could.  “Only death can pay for life, my lord. A great gift requires a great sacrifice.”  “Where is the greatness in a baseborn child?”  “He has kings’ blood in his veins. You have seen what even a little of that blood could do -”  “I saw you burn some leeches.”  “And two false kings are dead.”  “Robb Stark was murdered by Lord Walder of the Crossing, and we have heard that Balon Greyjoy fell from a bridge. Who did your leeches kill?”  “Do you doubt the power of R’hllor?”  No. Davos remembered too well the living shadow that had squirmed from out her womb that night beneath Storm’s End, its black hands pressing at her thighs. I must go carefully here, or some shadow may come seeking me as well. “Even an onion smuggler knows two onions from three. You are short a king, my lady.”  Stannis gave a snort of laughter. “He has you there, my lady. Two is not three.”  “To be sure, Your Grace. One king might die by chance, even two... but three? If Joffrey should die in the midst of all his power, surrounded by his armies and his Kingsguard, would not that show the power of the Lord at work?”  “It might.” The king spoke as if he grudged each word.  “Or not.” Davos did his best to hide his fear.  “Joffrey shall die,” Queen Selyse declared, serene in her confidence.  “It may be that he is dead already,” Ser Axell added.  Stannis looked at them with annoyance. “Are you trained crows, to croak at me in turns? Enough.”  “Husband, hear me -” the queen entreated.  “Why? Two is not three. Kings can count as well as smugglers. You may go.” Stannis turned his back on them.  Melisandre helped the queen to her feet. Selyse swept stiffly from the chamber, the red woman trailing behind. Ser Axell lingered long enough to give Davos one last look. An ugly look on an ugly face, he thought as he met the stare.  After the others had gone, Davos cleared his throat. The king looked up. “Why are you still here?”  “Sire, about Edric Storm...”  Stannis made a sharp gesture. “Spare me.”  Davos persisted. “Your daughter takes her lessons with him, and plays with him every day in Aegon’s Garden.”  “I know that.”  “Her heart would break if anything ill should -  “I know that as well.”  “If you would only see him -  “I have seen him. He looks like Robert. Aye, and worships him. Shall I tell him how often his beloved father ever gave him a thought? My brother liked the making of children well enough, but after birth they were a bother.”  “He asks after you every day, he -  “You are making me angry, Davos. I will hear no more of this bastard boy.”  “His name is Edric Storm, sire.”  “I know his name. Was there ever a name so apt? It proclaims his bastardy, his high birth, and the turmoil he brings with him. Edric Storm. There, I have said it. Are you satisfied, my lord Hand?”  “Edric -” he started.  “ - is one boy! He may be the best boy who ever drew breath and it would not matter. My duty is to the realm.” His hand swept across the Painted Table. “How many boys dwell in Westeros? How many girls? How many men, how many women? The darkness will devour them all, she says. The night that never ends. She talks of prophecies... a hero reborn in the sea, living dragons hatched from dead stone... she speaks of signs and swears they point to me. I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. Yet dare I disregard her?” He ground his teeth. “We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must... we must do our duty, no? Great or small, we must do our duty. Melisandre swears that she has seen me in her flames, facing the dark with Lightbringer raised on high. Lightbringer!” Stannis gave a derisive snort. “It glimmers prettily, I’ll grant you, but on the Blackwater this magic sword served me no better than any common steel. A dragon would have turned that battle. Aegon once stood here as I do, looking down on this table. Do you think we would name him Aegon the Conqueror today if he had not had dragons?”  “Your Grace,” said Davos, “the cost. .  “I know the cost! Last night, gazing into that hearth, I saw things in the flames as well. I saw a king, a crown of fire on his brows, burning... burning, Davos. His own crown consumed his flesh and turned him into ash. Do you think I need Melisandre to tell me what that means? Or you?” The king moved, so his shadow fell upon King’s Landing. “If Joffrey should die... what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”  “Everything,” said Davos, softly.  Stannis looked at him, jaw clenched. “Go,” the king said at last, “before you talk yourself back into the dungeon.”  Sometimes the storm winds blow so strong a man has no choice but to furl his sails. “Aye, Your Grace.” Davos bowed, but Stannis had seemingly forgotten him already.  It was chilly in the yard when he left the Stone Drum. A wind blew briskly from the cast, making the banners snap and flap noisily along the walls. Davos could smell salt in the air. The sea. He loved that smell. It made him want to walk a deck again, to raise his canvas and sail off south to Marya and his two small ones. He thought of them most every day now, and even more at night. Part of him wanted nothing so much as to take Devan and go home. I cannot. Not yet. I am a lord now, and the King’s Hand, I must not fail him.  He raised his eyes to gaze up at the walls. In place of merlons, a thousand grotesques and gargoyles looked down on him, each different from all the others; wyvems, griffins, demons, manticores, minotaurs, basilisks, hellhounds, cockatrices, and a thousand queerer creatures sprouted from the castle’s battlements as if they’d grown there. And the dragons were everywhere. The Great Hall was a dragon lying on its belly. Men entered through its open mouth. The kitchens were a dragon curled up in a ball, with the smoke and steam of the ovens vented through its nostrils. The towers were dragons hunched above the walls or poised for flight; the Windwyrrn seemed to scream defiance, while Sea Dragon Tower gazed serenely out across the waves. Smaller dragons framed the gates. Dragon claws emerged from walls to grasp at torches, great stone wings enfolded the smith and armory, and tails formed arches, bridges, and exterior stairs.  Davos had often heard it said that the wizards of Valyria did not cut and chisel as common masons did, but worked stone with fire and magic as a potter might work clay. But now he wondered. What if they were real dragons, somehow turned to stone?  “If the red woman brings them to life, the castle will come crashing down, I am thinking. What kind of dragons are full of rooms and stairs and furniture? And windows. And chimneys. And privy shafts.”  Davos turned to find Salladhor Saan beside him. “Does this mean you have forgiven my treachery, Salla?”  The old pirate wagged a finger at him. “Forgiving, yes. Forgetting, no. All that good gold on Claw isle that might have been mine, it makes me old and tired to think of it. When I die impoverished, my wives and concubines will curse you, Onion Lord. Lord Celtigar had many fine wines that now I am not tasting, a sea eagle he had trained to fly from the wrist, and a magic horn to summon krakens from the deep. Very useful such a horn would be, to pull down Tyroshi and other vexing creatures. But do I have this horn to blow? No, because the king made my old friend his Hand.” He slipped his arm through Davos’s and said, “The queen’s men love you not, old friend. I am hearing that a certain Hand has been making friends of his own. This is true, yes?”  You hear too much, you old pirate. A smuggler had best know men as well as tides, or he would not live to smuggle long. The queen’s men might remain fervent followers of the Lord of Light, but the lesser folk of Dragonstone were drifting back to the gods they’d known all their lives. They said Stannis was ensorceled, that Melisandre had turned him away from the Seven to bow before some demon out of shadow, and... worst sin of all... that she and her god had failed him. And there were knights and lordlings who felt the same. Davos had sought them out, choosing them with the same care with which he’d once picked his crews. Ser Gerald Gower fought stoutly on the Blackwater, but afterward had been heard to say that R’hllor must be a feeble............
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