A feast for crows, p.16
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       A Feast for Crows, p.16

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
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  “Soon enough,” Lord Nestor said gruffly. “No man lingers long in the sky cells. The blue will call to him.”

  “It may,” said Petyr Baelish, “but whether Marillion will answer, only he can say.” He gestured, and his guardsmen opened the doors at the far end of the hall. “Sers, I know you must be weary after your ascent. Rooms have been prepared for all of you to spend the night, and food and wine await you in the Lower Hall. Oswell, show them the way, and see that they have all they need.” He turned to Nestor Royce. “My lord, will you join me in the solar for a cup of wine? Alayne, sweetling, come pour for us.”

  A low fire burned in the solar, where a flagon of wine awaited them. Arbor gold. Sansa filled Lord Nestor’s cup whilst Petyr prodded at the logs with an iron poker.

  Lord Nestor seated himself beside the fire. “This will not be the end of it,” he said to Petyr, as if Sansa were not there. “My cousin means to question the singer himself.”

  “Bronze Yohn mistrusts me.” Petyr pushed a log aside.

  “He means to come in force. Symond Templeton will join him, do not doubt it. And Lady Waynwood too, I fear.”

  “And Lord Belmore, Young Lord Hunter, Horton Redfort. They will bring Strong Sam Stone, the Tolletts, the Shetts, the Coldwaters, some Corbrays.”

  “You are well-informed. Which Corbrays? Not Lord Lyonel?”

  “No, his brother. Ser Lyn mislikes me, for some reason.”

  “Lyn Corbray is a dangerous man,” Lord Nestor said doggedly. “What do you intend to do?”

  “What can I do but make them welcome if they come?” Petyr gave the flames another stir and set the poker down.

  “My cousin means to remove you as Lord Protector.”

  “If so, I cannot stop him. I keep a garrison of twenty men. Lord Royce and his friends can raise twenty thousand.” Petyr went to the oaken chest that sat beneath the window. “Bronze Yohn will do what he will do,” he said, kneeling. He opened the chest, drew out a roll of parchment, and brought it to Lord Nestor. “My lord. This is a token of the love my lady bore you.”

  Sansa watched Royce unroll the parchment. “This… this is unexpected, my lord.” She was startled to see tears in his eyes.

  “Unexpected, but not undeserved. My lady valued you above all her other bannermen. You were her rock, she told me.”

  “Her rock.” Lord Nestor reddened. “She said that?”

  “Often. And this”—Petyr gestured at the parchment—“is the proof of it.”

  “That… that is good to know. Jon Arryn valued my service, I know, but Lady Lysa… she scorned me when I came to court her, and I feared…” Lord Nestor furrowed his brow. “It bears the Arryn seal, I see, but the signature…”

  “Lysa was murdered before the document could be presented for her signature, so I signed as Lord Protector. I knew that would have been her wish.”

  “I see.” Lord Nestor rolled the parchment. “You are… dutiful, my lord. Aye, and not without courage. Some will call this grant unseemly, and fault you for making it. The Keeper’s post has never been hereditary. The Arryns raised the Gates, in the days when they still wore the Falcon Crown and ruled the Vale as kings. The Eyrie was their summer seat, but when the snows began to fall the court would make its descent. Some would say the Gates were as royal as the Eyrie.”

  “There has been no king in the Vale for three hundred years,” Petyr Baelish pointed out.

  “The dragons came,” Lord Nestor agreed. “But even after, the Gates remained an Arryn castle. Jon Arryn himself was Keeper of the Gates whilst his father lived. After his ascent, he named his brother Ronnel to the honor, and later his cousin Denys.”

  “Lord Robert has no brothers, and only distant cousins.”

  “True.” Lord Nestor clutched the parchment tightly. “I will not say I had not hoped for this. Whilst Lord Jon ruled the realm as Hand, it fell to me to rule the Vale for him. I did all that he required of me and asked nothing for myself. But by the gods, I earned this!”

  “You did,” said Petyr, “and Lord Robert sleeps more easily knowing that you are always there, a staunch friend at the foot of his mountain.” He raised a cup. “So… a toast, my lord. To House Royce, Keepers of the Gates of the Moon… now and forever.”

  “Now and forever, aye!” The silver cups crashed together.

  Later, much later, after the flagon of Arbor gold was dry, Lord Nestor took his leave to rejoin his company of knights. Sansa was asleep on her feet by then, wanting only to crawl off to her bed, but Petyr caught her by the wrist. “You see the wonders that can be worked with lies and Arbor gold?”

  Why did she feel like weeping? It was good that Nestor Royce was with them. “Were they all lies?”

  “Not all. Lysa often called Lord Nestor a rock, though I do not think she meant it as a compliment. She called his son a clod. She knew Lord Nestor dreamed of holding the Gates in his own right, a lord in truth as well as name, but Lysa dreamed of other sons and meant the castle to go to Robert’s little brother.” He stood. “Do you understand what happened here, Alayne?”

  Sansa hesitated a moment. “You gave Lord Nestor the Gates of the Moon to be certain of his support.”

  “I did,” Petyr admitted, “but our rock is a Royce, which is to say he is overproud and prickly. Had I asked him his price, he would have swelled up like an angry toad at the slight upon his honor. But this way… the man is not utterly stupid, but the lies I served him were sweeter than the truth. He wants to believe that Lysa valued him above her other bannermen. One of those others is Bronze Yohn, after all, and Nestor is very much aware that he was born of the lesser branch of House Royce. He wants more for his son. Men of honor will do things for their children that they would never consider doing for themselves.”

  She nodded. “The signature… you might have had Lord Robert put his hand and seal to it, but instead…”

  “… I signed myself, as Lord Protector. Why?”

  “So… if you are removed, or… or killed…”

  “… Lord Nestor’s claim to the Gates will suddenly be called into question. I promise you, that is not lost on him. It was clever of you to see it. Though no more than I’d expect of mine own daughter.”

  “Thank you.” She felt absurdly proud for puzzling it out, but confused as well. “I’m not, though. Your daughter. Not truly. I mean, I pretend to be Alayne, but you know…”

  Littlefinger put a finger to her lips. “I know what I know, and so do you. Some things are best left unsaid, sweetling.”

  “Even when we are alone?”

  “Especially when we are alone. Elsewise a day will come when a servant walks into a room unannounced, or a guardsman at the door chances to hear something he should not. Do you want more blood on your pretty little hands, my darling?”

  Marillion’s face seemed to float before her, the bandage pale across his eyes. Behind him she could see Ser Dontos, the crossbow bolts still in him. “No,” Sansa said. “Please.”

  “I am tempted to say this is no game we play, daughter, but of course it is. The game of thrones.”

  I never asked to play. The game was too dangerous. One slip and I am dead. “Oswell… my lord, Oswell rowed me from King’s Landing the night that I escaped. He must know who I am.”

  “If he’s half as clever as a sheep pellet, you would think so. Ser Lothor knows as well. But Oswell has been in my service a long time, and Brune is close-mouthed by nature. Kettleblack watches Brune for me, and Brune watches Kettleblack. Trust no one, I once told Eddard Stark, but he would not listen. You are Alayne, and you must be Alayne all the time.” He put two fingers on her left breast. “Even here. In your heart. Can you do that? Can you be my daughter in your heart?”

  “I…” I do not know, my lord, she almost said, but that was not what he wanted to hear. Lies and Arbor gold, she thought. “I am Alayne, Father. Who else would I be?”

  Lord Littlefinger kissed her cheek. “With my wits and Cat’s beauty, the world will be yours, sweetling. Now
off to bed.”

  Gretchel had laid a fire in her hearth and plumped her featherbed. Sansa undressed and slipped beneath the blankets. He will not sing tonight, she prayed, not with Lord Nestor and the others in the castle. He would not dare. She closed her eyes.

  Sometime during the night she woke, as little Robert climbed up into her bed. I forgot to tell Lothor to lock him in again, she realized. There was nothing to be done for it, so she put her arm around him. “Sweetrobin? You can stay, but try not to squirm around. Just close your eyes and sleep, little one.”

  “I will.” He cuddled close and laid his head between her breasts. “Alayne? Are you my mother now?”

  “I suppose I am,” she said. If a lie was kindly meant, there was no harm in it.

  THE KRAKEN’S DAUGHTER

  The hall was loud with drunken Harlaws, distant cousins all. Each lord had hung his banner behind the benches where his men were seated. Too few, thought Asha Greyjoy, looking down from the gallery, too few by far. The benches were three-quarters empty.

  Qarl the Maid had said as much, when the Black Wind was approaching from the sea. He had counted the longships moored beneath her uncle’s castle, and his mouth had tightened. “They have not come,” he observed, “or not enough of them.” He was not wrong, but Asha could not agree with him, out where her crew might hear. She did not doubt their devotion, but even ironborn will hesitate to give their lives for a cause that’s plainly lost.

  Do I have so few friends as this? Amongst the banners, she saw the silver fish of Botley, the stone tree of the Stonetrees, the black leviathan of Volmark, the nooses of the Myres. The rest were Harlaw scythes. Boremund placed his upon a pale blue field, Hotho’s was girdled within an embattled border, and the Knight had quartered his with the gaudy peacock of his mother’s House. Even Sigfryd Silverhair showed two scythes counterchanged on a field divided bendwise. Only the Lord Harlaw displayed the silver scythe plain upon a night-black field, as it had flown in the dawn of days: Rodrik, called the Reader, Lord of the Ten Towers, Lord of Harlaw, Harlaw of Harlaw… her favorite uncle.

  Lord Rodrik’s high seat was vacant. Two scythes of beaten silver crossed above it, so huge that even a giant would have difficulty wielding them, but beneath were only empty cushions. Asha was not surprised. The feast was long concluded. Only bones and greasy platters remained upon the trestle tables. The rest was drinking, and her uncle Rodrik had never been partial to the company of quarrelsome drunks.

  She turned to Three-Tooth, an old woman of fearful age who had been her uncle’s steward since she was known as Twelve-Tooth. “My uncle is with his books?”

  “Aye, where else?” The woman was so old that a septon had once said she must have nursed the Crone. That was when the Faith was still tolerated on the isles. Lord Rodrik had kept septons at Ten Towers, not for his soul’s sake but for his books. “With the books, and Botley. He was with him too.”

  Botley’s standard hung in the hall, a shoal of silver fish upon a pale green field, though Asha had not seen his Swiftfin amongst the other longships. “I had heard my nuncle Crow’s Eye had old Sawane Botley drowned.”

  “Lord Tristifer Botley, this one is.”

  Tris. She wondered what had happened to Sawane’s elder son, Harren. I will find out soon enough, no doubt. This should be awkward. She had not seen Tris Botley since… no, she ought not dwell on it. “And my lady mother?”

  “Abed,” said Three-Tooth, “in the Widow’s Tower.”

  Aye, where else? The widow the tower was named after was her aunt. Lady Gwynesse had come home to mourn after her husband had died off Fair Isle during Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion. “I will only stay until my grief has passed,” she had told her brother, famously, “though by rights Ten Towers should be mine, for I am seven years your elder.” Long years had passed since then, but still the widow lingered, grieving, and muttering from time to time that the castle should be hers. And now Lord Rodrik has a second half-mad widowed sister beneath his roof, Asha reflected. Small wonder if he seeks solace in his books.

  Even now, it was hard to credit that frail, sickly Lady Alannys had outlived her husband Lord Balon, who had seemed so hard and strong. When Asha had sailed away to war, she had done so with a heavy heart, fearing that her mother might well die before she could return. Not once had she thought that her father might perish instead. The Drowned God plays savage japes upon us all, but men are crueler still. A sudden storm and a broken rope had sent Balon Greyjoy to his death. Or so they claim.

  Asha had last seen her mother when she stopped at Ten Towers to take on fresh water, on her way north to strike at Deepwood Motte. Alannys Harlaw never had the sort of beauty the singers cherished, but her daughter had loved her fierce strong face and the laughter in her eyes. On that last visit, though, she had found Lady Alannys in a window seat huddled beneath a pile of furs, staring out across the sea. Is this my mother, or her ghost? she remembered thinking as she’d kissed her cheek.

  Her mother’s skin had been parchment thin, her long hair white. Some pride remained in the way she held her head, but her eyes were dim and cloudy, and her mouth had trembled when she asked after Theon. “Did you bring my baby boy?” she had asked. Theon had been ten years old when he was carried off to Winterfell a hostage, and so far as Lady Alannys was concerned he would always be ten years old, it seemed. “Theon could not come,” Asha had to tell her. “Father sent him reaving along the Stony Shore.” Lady Alannys had naught to say to that. She only nodded slowly, yet it was plain to see how deep her daughter’s words had cut her.

  And now I must tell her that Theon is dead, and drive yet another dagger through her heart. There were two knives buried there already. On the blades were writ the words Rodrik and Maron, and many a time they twisted cruelly in the night. I will see her on the morrow, Asha vowed to herself. Her journey had been long and wearisome, she could not face her mother now.

  “I must speak with Lord Rodrik,” she told Three-Tooth. “See to my crew, once they’re done unloading Black Wind. They’ll bring captives. I want them to have warm beds and a hot meal.”

  “There’s cold beef in the kitchens. And mustard in a big stone jar, from Oldtown.” The thought of that mustard made the old woman smile. A single long brown tooth poked from her gums.

  “That will not serve. We had a rough crossing. I want something hot in their bellies.” Asha hooked a thumb through the studded belt about her hips. “Lady Glover and the children should not want for wood nor warmth. Put them in some tower, not the dungeons. The babe is sick.”

  “Babes are often sick. Most die, and folks are sorry. I shall ask my lord where to put these wolf folk.”

  She caught the woman’s nose between thumb and forefinger and pinched. “You will do as I say. And if this babe dies, no one will be sorrier than you.” Three-Tooth squealed and promised to obey, till Asha let her loose and went to find her uncle.

  It was good to walk these halls again. Ten Towers had always felt like home to Asha, more so than Pyke. Not one castle, ten castles squashed together, she had thought, the first time she had seen it. She remembered breathless races up and down the steps and along wallwalks and covered bridges, fishing off the Long Stone Quay, days and nights lost amongst her uncle’s wealth of books. His grandfather’s grandfather had raised the castle, the newest on the isles. Lord Theomore Harlaw had lost three sons in the cradle and laid the blame upon the flooded cellars, damp stones, and festering nitre of ancient Harlaw Hall. Ten Towers was airier, more comfortable, better sited… but Lord Theomore was a changeable man, as any of his wives might have testified. He’d had six of those, as dissimilar as his ten towers.

  The Book Tower was the fattest of the ten, octagonal in shape and made with great blocks of hewn stone. The stair was built within the thickness of the walls. Asha climbed quickly, to the fifth story and the room where her uncle read. Not that there are any rooms where he does not read. Lord Rodrik was seldom seen without a book in hand, be it in the privy, on the dec
k of his Sea Song, or whilst holding audience. Asha had oft seen him reading on his high seat beneath the silver scythes. He would listen to each case as it was laid before him, pronounce his judgment… and read a bit whilst his captain-of-guards went to bring in the next supplicant.

  She found him hunched over a table by a window, surrounded by parchment scrolls that might have come from Valyria before its Doom, and heavy leather-bound books with bronze-and-iron hasps. Beeswax candles as thick and tall as a man’s arm burned on either side of where he sat, on ornate iron holders. Lord Rodrik Harlaw was neither fat nor slim; neither tall nor short; neither ugly nor handsome. His hair was brown, as were his eyes, though the short, neat beard he favored had gone grey. All in all, he was an ordinary man, distinguished only by his love of written words, which so many ironborn found unmanly and perverse.

  “Nuncle.” She closed the door behind her. “What reading was so urgent that you leave your guests without a host?”

  “Archmaester Marwyn’s Book of Lost Books.” He lifted his gaze from the page to study her. “Hotho brought me a copy from Oldtown. He has a daughter he would have me wed.” Lord Rodrik tapped the book with a long nail. “See here? Marwyn claims to have found three pages of Signs and Portents, visions written down by the maiden daughter of Aenar Targaryen before the Doom came to Valyria. Does Lanny know that you are here?”

  “Not as yet.” Lanny was his pet name for her mother; only the Reader called her that. “Let her rest.” Asha moved a stack of books off a stool and seated herself. “Three-Tooth seems to have lost two more of her teeth. Do you call her One-Tooth now?”

  “I seldom call her at all. The woman frightens me. What hour is it?” Lord Rodrik glanced out the window, at the moonlit sea. “Dark, so soon? I had not noticed. You come late. We looked for you some days ago.”

  “The winds were against us, and I had captives to concern me. Robett Glover’s wife and children. The youngest is still at the breast, and Lady Glover’s milk dried up during our crossing. I had no choice but to beach Black Wind upon the Stony Shore and send my men out to find a wet nurse. They found a goat instead. The girl does not thrive. Is there a nursing mother in the village? Deepwood is important to my plans.”

  “Your plans must change. You come too late.”

  “Late and hungry.” She stretched her long legs out beneath the table and turned the pages of the nearest book, a septon’s discourse on Maegor the Cruel’s war against the Poor Fellows. “Oh, and thirsty too. A horn of ale would go down well, Nuncle.”

  Lord Rodrik pursed his lips. “You know I do not permit food nor drink in my library. The books—”

  “—might suffer harm.” Asha laughed.

  Her uncle frowned. “You do like to provoke me.”

  “Oh, don’t look so aggrieved. I have never met a man I didn’t provoke, you should know that well enough by now. But enough of me. You are well?”

  He shrugged. “Well enough. My eyes grow weaker. I have sent to Myr for a lens to help me read.”

  “And how fares my aunt?”

  Lord Rodrik sighed. “Still seven years my elder, and convinced Ten Towers should be hers. Gwynesse grows forgetful, but that she does not forget. She mourns for her dead husband as deeply as she did the day he died, though she cannot always recall his name.”

  “I am not certain she ever knew his name.” Asha closed the septon’s book with a thump. “Was my father murdered?”

  “So your mother believes.”

  There were times when she would gladly have murdered him herself, she thought. “And what does my nuncle believe?”

  “Balon fell to his death when a rope bridge broke beneath him. A storm was rising, and the bridge was swaying and twisting with each gust of wind.” Rodrik shrugged. “Or so we are told. Your mother had a bird from Maester Wendamyr.”

  Asha slid her dirk out of its sheath and began to clean the dirt from beneath her fingernails. “Three years away, and the Crow’s Eye returns the very day my father dies.”

  “The day after, we had heard. Silence was still out to sea when Balon died, or so it is claimed. Even so, I will agree that Euron’s return was… timely, shall we say?”

  “That is not how I would say it.” Asha slammed the point of the dirk into the table. “Where are my ships? I counted twoscore longships moored below, not near enough to throw the Crow’s Eye off my father’s chair.”

  “I sent the summons. In your name, for the love I bear you and your mother. House Harlaw has gathered. Stonetree as well, and Volmark. Some Myres…”

  “All from the isle of Harlaw… one isle out of seven. I saw one lonely Botley banner in the hall, from Pyke. Where are the ships from Saltcliffe, from Orkwood, from the Wyks?”

  “Baelor Blacktyde came from Blacktyde to consult with me, and just as soon set sail again.” Lord Rodrik closed The Book of Lost Books. “He is on Old Wyk by now.”

  “Old Wyk?” Asha had feared he was about to say that they all had gone to Pyke, to do homage to the Crow’s Eye. “Why Old Wyk?”

  “I thought you would have heard. Aeron Damphair has called a kingsmoot.”

  Asha threw back her head and laughed. “The Drowned God must have shoved a pricklefish up Uncle Aeron’s arse. A kingsmoot? Is this some jape, or does he mean it truly?”

  “The Damphair has not japed since he was drowned. And the other priests have taken up the call. Blind Beron Blacktyde, Tarle the Thrice-Drowned… even the Old Grey Gull has left that rock he lives on to preach this kingsmoot all across Harlaw. The captains are gathering on Old Wyk as we speak.”

  Asha was astonished. “Has the Crow’s Eye agreed to attend this holy farce and abide by its decision?”

  “The Crow’s Eye does not confide in me. Since he summoned me to Pyke to do him homage, I have had no word from Euron.”

  A kingsmoot. This is something new… or rather, something very old. “And my uncle Victarion? What does he make of the Damphair’s notion?”

  “Victarion was sent word of your father’s death. And of this kingsmoot too, I do not doubt. Beyond that, I cannot say.”

  Better a kingsmoot than a war. “I believe I’ll kiss the Damphair’s smelly feet and pluck the seaweed from out between his toes.” Asha wrenched loose her dirk and sheathed it once again. “A bloody kingsmoot!”

  “On Old Wyk,” confirmed Lord Rodrik. “Though I pray it is not bloody. I have
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