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The king was angry. Sam saw that at once.  As the black brothers entered one by one and knelt before him, Stannis shoved away his breakfast of hardbread, salt beef, and boiled eggs, and eyed them coldly. Beside him, the red woman Melisandre looked as if she found the scene amusing.  I have no place here, Sam thought anxiously, when her red eyes fell upon him. Someone had to help Maester Aemon up the steps. Don’t look at me, I’m just the maester’s steward. The others were contenders for the Old Bear’s command, all but Bowen Marsh, who had withdrawn from the contest but remained castellan and Lord Steward. Sam did not understand why Melisandre should seem so interested in him.  King Stannis kept the black brothers on their knees for an extraordinarily long time. “Rise,” he said at last. Sam gave Maester Aemon his shoulder to help him back up.  The sound of Lord Janos Slynt clearing his throat broke the strained silence. “Your Grace, let me say how pleased we are to be summoned here. When I saw your banners from the Wall, I knew the realm was saved. ‘There comes a man who neer forgets his duty’ I said to good Ser Alliser. ‘A strong man, and a true king.’ May I congratulate you on your victory over the savages? The singers will make much of it, I know -”  “The singers may do as they like,” Stannis snapped. “Spare me your fawning, Janos, it will not serve you.” He rose to his feet and frowned at them all. “Lady Melisandre tells me that you have not yet chosen a Lord Commander. I am displeased. How much longer must this folly last?”  “Sire,” said Bowen Marsh in a defensive tone, “no one has achieved two-thirds of the vote yet. It has only been ten days.”  “Nine days too long. I have captives to dispose of, a realm to order, a war to fight. Choices must be made, decisions that involve the Wall and the Night’s Watch. By rights your Lord Commander should have a voice in those decisions.”  “He should, yes,” said Janos Slynt. “But it must be said. We brothers are only simple soldiers. Soldiers, yes! And Your Grace will know that soldiers are most comfortable taking orders. They would benefit from your royal guidance, it seems to me. For the good of the realm. To help them choose wisely.”  The suggestion outraged some of the others. “Do you want the king to wipe our arses for us too?” said Cotter Pyke angrily. “The choice of a Lord Commander belongs to the Sworn Brothers, and to them alone,” insisted Ser Denys Mallister. “If they choose wisely they won’t be choosing me,” moaned Dolorous Edd. Maester Aemon, calm as always, said, “Your Grace, the Night’s Watch has been choosing its own leader since Brandon the Builder raised the Wall. Through Jeor Mormont we have had nine hundred and ninety-seven Lords Commander in unbroken succession, each chosen by the men he would lead, a tradition many thousands of years old.”  Stannis ground his teeth. “It is not my wish to tamper with your rights and traditions. As to royal guidance, Janos, if you mean that I ought to tell your brothers to choose you, have the courage to say so.”  That took Lord Janos aback. He smiled uncertainly and began to sweat, but Bowen Marsh beside him said, “Who better to command the black cloaks than a man who once commanded the gold, sire?”  “Any of you, I would think. Even the cook.” The look the king gave Slynt was cold. “Janos was hardly the first gold cloak ever to take a bribe, I grant you, but he may have been the first commander to fatten his purse by selling places and promotions. By the end he must have had half the officers in the City Watch paying him part of their wages. Isn’t that so, Janos?”  Slynt’s neck was purpling. “Lies, all lies! A strong man makes enemies, Your Grace knows that, they whisper lies behind your back. Naught was ever proven, not a man came forward...”  “Two men who were prepared to come forward died suddenly on their rounds.” Stannis narrowed his eyes. “Do not trifle with me, my lord. I saw the proof Jon Arryn laid before the small council. If I had been king you would have lost more than your office, I promise you, but Robert shrugged away your little lapses. ‘They all steal’ I recall him saying. ‘Better a thief we know than one we don’t, the next man might be worse.’ Lord Petyr’s words in my brother’s mouth, I’ll warrant. Littlefinger had a nose for gold, and I’m certain he arranged matters so the crown profited as much from your corruption as you did yourself.”  Lord Slynt’s jowls were quivering, but before he could frame a further protest Maester Aemon said, “Your Grace, by law a man’s past crimes and transgressions are wiped clean when he says his words and becomes a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch.”  “I am aware of that. If it happens that Lord Janos here is the best the Night’s Watch can offer, I shall grit my teeth and choke him down. It is naught to me which man of you is chosen, so long as you make a choice. We have a war to fight.”  “Your Grace,” said Ser Denys Mallister, in tones of wary courtesy. “If you are speaking of the wildlings...”  “I am not. And you know that, ser.”  “And you must know that whilst we are thankful for the aid you rendered us against Mance Rayder, we can offer you no help in your contest for the throne. The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms. For eight thousand years -”  “I know your history, Ser Denys,” the king said brusquely. “I give you my word, I shall not ask you to lift your swords against any of the rebels and usurpers who plague me. I do expect that you will continue to defend the Wall as you always have.”  “We’ll defend the Wall to the last man,” said Cotter Pyke.  “Probably me,” said Dolorous Edd, in a resigned tone.  Stannis crossed his arms. “I shall require a few other things from you as well. Things that you may not be so quick to give. I want your castles. And I want the Gift.”  Those blunt words burst among the black brothers like a pot of wildfire tossed onto a brazier. Marsh, Mallister, and Pyke all tried to speak at once. King Stannis let them talk. When they were done, he said, “I have three times the men you do. I can take the lands if I wish, but I would prefer to do this legally, with your consent.”  “The Gift was given to the Night’s Watch in perpetuity, Your Grace,” Bowen Marsh insisted.  “Which means it cannot be lawfully seized, attainted, or taken from you. But what was given once can be given again.”  “What will you do with the Gift?” demanded Cotter Pyke.  “Make better use of it than you have. As to the castles, Eastwatch, Castle Black, and the Shadow Tower shall remain yours. Garrison them as you always have, but I must take the others for my garrisons if we are to hold the Wall.”  “You do not have the men,” objected Bowen Marsh.  “Some of the abandoned castles are scarce more than ruins,” said Othell Yarwyck, the First Builder.  “Ruins can be rebuilt.”  “Rebuilt?” Yarwyck said. “But who will do the work?”  “That is my concern. I shall require a list from you, detailing the present state of every castle and what might be required to restore it. I mean to have them all garrisoned again within the year, and nightfires burning before their gates.”  “Nightfires?” Bowen Marsh gave Melisandre an uncertain look. “We’re to light nightfires now?”  “You are.” The woman rose in a swirl of scarlet silk, her long copperbright hair tumbling about her shoulders. “Swords alone cannot hold this darkness back. Only the light of the Lord can do that. Make no mistake, good sers and valiant brothers, the war we’ve come to fight is no petty squabble over lands and honors. Ours is a war for life itself, and should we fail the world dies with us.”  The officers did not know how to take that, Sam could see. Bowen Marsh and Othell Yarwyck exchanged a doubtful look, Janos Slynt was fuming, and Three-Finger Hobb looked as though he would sooner be back chopping carrots. But all of them seemed surprised to hear Maester Aemon murmur, “It is the war for the dawn you speak of, my lady. But where is the prince that was promised?”  “He stands before you,” Melisandre declared, “though you do not have the eyes to see. Stannis Baratheon is Azor Ahai come again, the warrior of fire. In him the prophecies are fulfilled. The red comet blazed across the sky to herald his coming, and he bears Lightbringer, the red sword of heroes.”  Her words seemed to make the king desperately uncomfortable, Sam saw. Stannis ground his teeth, and said, “You called and I came, my lords. Now you must live with me, or die with me. Best get used to that.” He made a brusque gesture. “That’s all. Maester, stay a moment. And you, Tarly. The rest of you may go.”  Me? Sam thought, stricken, as his brothers were bowing and making their way out. What does he want with me?  “You are the one that killed the creature in the snow,” King Stannis said, when only the four of them remained.  “Sam the Slayer.” Melisandre smiled.  Sam felt his face turning red. “No, my lady. Your Grace. I mean, I am, yes. I’m Samwell Tarly, yes.”  “Your father is an able soldier,” King Stannis said. “He defeated my brother once, at Ashford. Mace Tyrell has been pleased to claim the honors for that victory, but Lord Randyll had decided matters before Tyrell ever found the battlefield. He slew Lord Cafferen with that great Valyrian sword of his and sent his head to Aerys.” The king rubbed his jaw with a finger. “You are not the sort of son I would expect such a man to have.”  “I... I am not the sort of son he wanted, sire.”  “If you had not taken the black, you would make a useful hostage,” Stannis mused.  “He has taken the black, sire,” Maester Aemon pointed out.  “I am well aware of that,” the king said. “I am aware of more than you know, Aemon Targaryen.”  The old man inclined his head. “I am only Aemon, sire. We give up our House names when we forge our maester’s chains.”  The king gave that a curt nod, as if to say he knew and did not care. “You slew this creature with an obsidian dagger, I am told,” he said to Sam.  “Y-yes, Your Grace. Jon Snow gave it to me.”  “Dragonglass.” The red woman’s laugh was music. “Frozen fire, in the tongue of old Valyria. Small wonder it is anathema to these cold children of the other.”  “On Dragonstone, where I had my seat, there is much of this obsidian to be seen in the old tunnels beneath the mountain,” the king told Sam. “Chunks of it, boulders, ledges. The great part of it was black, as I recall, but there was some green as well, some red, even purple. I have sent word to Ser Rolland my castellan to begin mining it. I will not hold Dragonstone for very much longer, I fear, but perhaps the Lord of Light shall grant us enough frozen fire to arm ourselves against these creatures, before the castle falls.”  Sam cleared his throat. “S-sire. The dagger... the dragonglass only shattered when I tried to stab a wight.”  Melisandre smiled. “Necromancy animates these wights, yet they are still only dead flesh. Steel and fire will serve for them. The ones you call the Others are something more.”  “Demons made of snow and ice and cold,” said Stannis Baratheon. “The ancient enemy. The only enemy that matters.” He considered Sam again. “I am told that you and this wildling girl passed beneath the Wall, through some magic gate.”  “The B-black Gate,” Sam stammered. “Below the Nightfort.”  “The Nightfort is the largest and oldest of the castles on the Wall,” the king said. “That is where I intend to make my seat, whilst I fight this war. You will show me this gate.”  “I,” said Sam, “I w-will, if...” If it is still there. If it will open for a man not of the black. If...  “You will,” snapped Stannis. “I shall tell you when.”  Maester Aemon smiled. “Your Grace,” he said, “before we go, I wonder if you would do us the great honor of showing us this wondrous blade we have all heard so very much of.”  “You want to see Lightbringer? A blind man?”  “Sam shall be my eyes.”  The king frowned. “Everyone else has seen the thing, why not a blind man?” His swordbelt and scabbard hung from a peg near the hearth. He took the belt down and drew the longsword out. Steel scraped against wood and leather, and radiance filled the solar; shimmering, shifting, a dance of gold and orange and red light, all the bright colors of fire.  “Tell me, Samwell.” Maester Aemon touched his arm.  “It glows............
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