A feast for crows, p.4
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       A Feast for Crows, p.4

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
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  read his letter beneath the orange trees in the dark of night.

  Obara touched her whip. “Thousands are crossing the sands afoot to climb the Boneway, so they may help Ellaria bring my father home. The septs are packed to bursting, and the red priests have lit their temple fires. In the pillow houses women are coupling with every man who comes to them, and refusing any coin. In Sunspear, on the Broken Arm, along the Greenblood, in the mountains, out in the deep sand, everywhere, everywhere, women tear their hair and men cry out in rage. The same question is heard on every tongue — what will Doran do? What will his brother do to avenge our murdered prince?” She moved closer to the captain. “And you say, he does not wish to be disturbed!”

  “He does not wish to be disturbed,” Areo Hotah said again.

  The captain of guards knew the prince he guarded. Once, long ago, a callow youth had come from Norvos, a big broad-shouldered boy with a mop of dark hair. That hair was white now, and his body bore the scars of many battles… but his strength remained, and he kept his longaxe sharp, as the bearded priests had taught him. She shall not pass, he told himself, and said, “The prince is watching the children at their play. He is never to be disturbed when he is watching the children at their play.”

  “Hotah,” said Obara Sand, “you will remove yourself from my path, else I shall take that longaxe and—”

  “Captain,” came the command, from behind. “Let her pass. I will speak with her.” The prince’s voice was hoarse.

  Areo Hotah jerked his longaxe upright and stepped to one side. Obara gave him a lingering last look and strode past, the maester hurrying at her heels. Caleotte was no more than five feet tall and bald as an egg. His face was so smooth and fat that it was hard to tell his age, but he had been here before the captain, had even served the prince’s mother. Despite his age and girth, he was still nimble enough, and clever as they came, but meek. He is no match for any Sand Snake, the captain thought.

  In the shade of the orange trees, the prince sat in his chair with his gouty legs propped up before him, and heavy bags beneath his eyes… though whether it was grief or gout that kept him sleepless, Hotah could not say. Below, in the fountains and the pools, the children were still at their play. The youngest were no more than five, the oldest nine and ten. Half were girls and half were boys. Hotah could hear them splashing and shouting at each other in high, shrill voices. “It was not so long ago that you were one of the children in those pools, Obara,” the prince said, when she took one knee before his rolling chair.

  She snorted. “It has been twenty years, or near enough to make no matter. And I was not here long. I am the whore’s whelp, or had you forgotten?” When he did not answer, she rose again and put her hands upon her hips. “My father has been murdered.”

  “He was slain in single combat during a trial by battle,” Prince Doran said. “By law, that is no murder.”

  “He was your brother.”

  “He was.”

  “What do you mean to do about his death?”

  The prince turned his chair laboriously to face her. Though he was but two-and-fifty, Doran Martell seemed much older. His body was soft and shapeless beneath his linen robes, and his legs were hard to look upon. The gout had swollen and reddened his joints grotesquely; his left knee was an apple, his right a melon, and his toes had turned to dark red grapes, so ripe it seemed as though a touch would burst them. Even the weight of a coverlet could make him shudder, though he bore the pain without complaint. Silence is a prince’s friend, the captain had heard him tell his daughter once. Words are like arrows, Arianne. Once loosed, you cannot call them back. “I have written to Lord Tywin—”

  “Written? If you were half the man my father was—”

  “I am not your father.”

  “That I knew.” Obara’s voice was thick with contempt.

  “You would have me go to war.”

  “I know better. You need not even leave your chair. Let me avenge my father. You have a host in the Prince’s Pass. Lord Yronwood has another in the Boneway. Grant me the one and Nym the other. Let her ride the kingsroad, whilst I turn the marcher lords out of their castles and hook round to march on Oldtown.”

  “And how could you hope to hold Oldtown?”

  “It will be enough to sack it. The wealth of Hightower—”

  “Is it gold you want?”

  “It is blood I want.”

  “Lord Tywin shall deliver us the Mountain’s head.”

  “And who will deliver us Lord Tywin’s head? The Mountain has always been his pet.”

  The prince gestured toward the pools. “Obara, look at the children, if it please you.”

  “It does not please me. I’d get more pleasure from driving my spear into Lord Tywin’s belly. I’ll make him sing ‘The Rains of Castamere’ as I pull his bowels out and look for gold.”

  “Look,” the prince repeated. “I command you.”

  A few of the older children lay facedown upon the smooth pink marble, browning in the sun. Others paddled in the sea beyond. Three were building a sand castle with a great spike that resembled the Spear Tower of the Old Palace. A score or more had gathered in the big pool, to watch the battles as smaller children rode through the waist-deep shallows on the shoulders of the larger and tried to shove each other into the water. Every time a pair went down, the splash was followed by a roar of laughter. They watched a nut-brown girl yank a towheaded boy off his brother’s shoulders to tumble him headfirst into the pool.

  “Your father played that same game once, as I did before him,” said the prince. “We had ten years between us, so I had left the pools by the time he was old enough to play, but I would watch him when I came to visit Mother. He was so fierce, even as a boy. Quick as a water snake. I oft saw him topple boys much bigger than himself. He reminded me of that the day he left for King’s Landing. He swore that he would do it one more time, else I would never have let him go.”

  “Let him go?” Obara laughed. “As if you could have stopped him. The Red Viper of Dorne went where he would.”

  “He did. I wish I had some word of comfort to—”

  “I did not come to you for comfort.” Her voice was full of scorn. “The day my father came to claim me, my mother did not wish for me to go. ‘She is a girl,’ she said, ‘and I do not think that she is yours. I had a thousand other men.’ He tossed his spear at my feet and gave my mother the back of his hand across the face, so she began to weep. ‘Girl or boy, we fight our battles,’ he said, ‘but the gods let us choose our weapons.’ He pointed to the spear, then to my mother’s tears, and I picked up the spear. ‘I told you she was mine,’ my father said, and took me. My mother drank herself to death within the year. They say that she was weeping as she died.” Obara edged closer to the prince in his chair. “Let me use the spear; I ask no more.”

  “It is a deal to ask, Obara. I shall sleep on it.”

  “You have slept too long already.”

  “You may be right. I will send word to you at Sunspear.”

  “So long as the word is war.” Obara turned upon her heel and strode off as angrily as she had come, back to the stables for a fresh horse and another headlong gallop down the road.

  Maester Caleotte remained behind. “My prince?” the little round man asked. “Do your legs hurt?”

  The prince smiled faintly. “Is the sun hot?”

  “Shall I fetch a draught for the pain?”

  “No. I need my wits about me.”

  The maester hesitated. “My prince, is it… is it prudent to allow Lady Obara to return to Sunspear? She is certain to inflame the common people. They loved your brother well.”

  “So did we all.” He pressed his fingers to his temples. “No. You are right. I must return to Sunspear as well.”

  The little round man hesitated. “Is that wise?”

  “Not wise, but necessary. Best send a rider to Ricasso, and have him open my apartments in the Tower of the Sun. Inform my daughter Arianne that I will
be there on the morrow.”

  My little princess. The captain had missed her sorely.

  “You will be seen,” the maester warned.

  The captain understood. Two years ago, when they had left Sunspear for the peace and isolation of the Water Gardens, Prince Doran’s gout had not been half so bad. In those days he had still walked, albeit slowly, leaning on a stick and grimacing with every step. The prince did not wish his enemies to know how feeble he had grown, and the Old Palace and its shadow city were full of eyes. Eyes, the captain thought, and steps he cannot climb. He would need to fly to sit atop the Tower of the Sun.

  “I must be seen. Someone must pour oil on the waters. Dorne must be reminded that it still has a prince.” He smiled wanly. “Old and gouty though he is.”

  “If you return to Sunspear, you will need to give audience to Princess Myrcella,” Caleotte said. “Her white knight will be with her… and you know he sends letters to his queen.”

  “I suppose he does.”

  The white knight. The captain frowned. Ser Arys had come to Dorne to attend his own princess, as Areo Hotah had once come with his. Even their names sounded oddly alike: Areo and Arys. Yet there the likeness ended. The captain had left Norvos and its bearded priests, but Ser Arys Oakheart still served the Iron Throne. Hotah had felt a certain sadness whenever he saw the man in the long snowy cloak, the times the prince had sent him down to Sunspear. One day, he sensed, the two of them would fight; on that day Oakheart would die, with the captain’s longaxe crashing through his skull. He slid his hand along the smooth ashen shaft of his axe and wondered if that day was drawing nigh.

  “The afternoon is almost done,” the prince was saying. “We will wait for morn. See that my litter is ready by first light.”

  “As you command.” Caleotte bobbed a bow. The captain stood aside to let him pass, and listened to his footsteps dwindle.

  “Captain?” The prince’s voice was soft.

  Hotah strode forward, one hand wrapped about his longaxe. The ash felt as smooth as a woman’s skin against his palm. When he reached the rolling chair he thumped its butt down hard to announce his presence, but the prince had eyes only for the children. “Did you have brothers, captain?” he asked. “Back in Norvos, when you were young? Sisters?”

  “Both,” Hotah said. “Two brothers, three sisters. I was the youngest.” The youngest, and unwanted. Another mouth to feed, a big boy who ate too much and soon outgrew his clothes. Small wonder they had sold him to the bearded priests.

  “I was the oldest,” the prince said, “and yet I am the last. After Mors and Olyvar died in their cradles, I gave up hope of brothers. I was nine when Elia came, a squire in service at Salt Shore. When the raven arrived with word that my mother had been brought to bed a month too soon, I was old enough to understand that meant the child would not live. Even when Lord Gargalen told me that I had a sister, I assured him that she must shortly die. Yet she lived, by the Mother’s mercy. And a year later Oberyn arrived, squalling and kicking. I was a man grown when they were playing in these pools. Yet here I sit, and they are gone.”

  Areo Hotah did not know what to say to that. He was only a captain of guards, and still a stranger to this land and its seven-faced god, even after all these years. Serve. Obey. Protect. He had sworn those vows at six-and-ten, the day he wed his axe. Simple vows for simple men, the bearded priests had said. He had not been trained to counsel grieving princes.

  He was still groping for some words to say when another orange fell with a heavy splat, no more than a foot from where the prince was seated. Doran winced at the sound, as if somehow it had hurt him. “Enough,” he sighed, “it is enough. Leave me, Areo. Let me watch the children for a few more hours.”

  When the sun set the air grew cool and the children went inside in search of supper, still the prince remained beneath his orange trees, looking out over the still pools and the sea beyond. A serving man brought him a bowl of purple olives, with flatbread, cheese, and chickpea paste. He ate a bit of it, and drank a cup of the sweet, heavy strongwine that he loved. When it was empty, he filled it once again. Sometimes in the deep black hours of the morning sleep found him in his chair. Only then did the captain roll him down the moonlit gallery, past a row of fluted pillars and through a graceful archway, to a great bed with crisp cool linen sheets in a chamber by the sea. Doran groaned as the captain moved him, but the gods were good and he did not wake.

  The captain’s sleeping cell adjoined his prince’s. He sat upon the narrow bed and found his whetstone and oilcloth in their niche, and set to work. Keep your longaxe sharp, the bearded priests had told him, the day they branded him. He always did.

  As he honed the axe, Hotah thought of Norvos, the high city on the hill and the low beside the river. He could still recall the sounds of the three bells, the way that Noom’s deep peals set his very bones to shuddering, the proud strong voice of Narrah, sweet Nyel’s silvery laughter. The taste of wintercake filled his mouth again, rich with ginger and pine nuts and bits of cherry, with nahsa to wash it down, fermented goat’s milk served in an iron cup and laced with honey. He saw his mother in her dress with the squirrel collar, the one she wore but once each year, when they went to see the bears dance down the Sinner’s Steps. And he smelled the stench of burning hair as the bearded priest touched the brand to the center of his chest. The pain had been so fierce that he thought his heart might stop, yet Areo Hotah had not flinched. The hair had never grown back over the axe.

  Only when both edges were sharp enough to shave with did the captain lay his ash-and-iron wife down on the bed. Yawning, he pulled off his soiled clothes, tossed them on the floor, and stretched out on his straw-stuffed mattress. Thinking of the brand had made it itch, so he had to scratch himself before he closed his eyes. I should have gathered up the oranges that fell, he thought, and went to sleep dreaming of the tart sweet taste of them, and the sticky feel of the red juice on his fingers.

  Dawn came too soon. Outside the stables the smallest of the three horse litters stood ready, the cedarwood litter with the red silk draperies. The captain chose twenty spears to accompany it, out of the thirty who were posted at the Water Gardens; the rest would stay to guard the grounds and children, some of whom were the sons and daughters of great lords and wealthy merchants.

  Although the prince had spoken of departing at first light, Areo Hotah knew that he would dawdle. Whilst the maester helped Doran Martell to bathe and bandaged up his swollen joints in linen wraps soaked with soothing lotions, the captain donned a shirt of copper scales as befit his rank, and a billowing cloak of dun-and-yellow sandsilk to keep the sun off the copper. The day promised to be hot, and the captain had long ago discarded the heavy horsehair cape and studded leather tunic he had worn in Norvos, which were like to cook a man in Dorne. He had kept his iron halfhelm, with its crest of sharpened spikes, but now he wore it wrapped in orange silk, weaving the cloth in and around the spikes. Elsewise the sun beating down on the metal would have his head pounding before they saw the palace.

  The prince was still not ready to depart. He had decided to break his fast before he went, with a blood orange and a plate of gull’s eggs diced with bits of ham and fiery peppers. Then nought would do but he must say farewell to several of the children who had become especial favorites: the Dalt boy and Lady Blackmont’s brood and the round-faced orphan girl whose father had sold cloth and spices up and down the Greenblood. Doran kept a splendid Myrish blanket over his legs as he spoke with them, to spare the young ones the sight of his swollen, bandaged joints.

  It was midday before they got under way; the prince in his litter, Maester Caleotte riding on a donkey, the rest afoot. Five spearmen walked ahead and five behind, with five more flanking the litter to either side. Areo Hotah himself took his familiar place at the left hand of the prince, resting his longaxe on a shoulder as he walked. The road from Sunspear to the Water Gardens ran beside the sea, so they had a cool fresh breeze to soothe them as they made their way across
a sparse red-brown land of stone and sand and twisted stunted trees.

  Halfway there, the second Sand Snake caught them.

  She appeared suddenly upon a dune, mounted on a golden sand steed with a mane like fine white silk. Even ahorse, the Lady Nym looked graceful, dressed all in shimmering lilac robes and a great silk cape of cream and copper that lifted at every gust of wind, and made her look as if she might take flight. Nymeria Sand was five-and-twenty, and slender as a willow. Her straight black hair, worn in a long braid bound up with red-gold wire, made a widow’s peak above her dark eyes, just as her father’s had. With her high cheekbones, full lips, and milk-pale skin, she had all the beauty that her elder sister lacked… but Obara’s mother had been an Oldtown whore, whilst Nym was born from the noblest blood of old Volantis. A dozen mounted spearmen tailed her, their round shields gleaming in the sun. They followed her down the dune.

  The prince had tied back the curtains on his litter, the better to enjoy the breeze blowing off the sea. Lady Nym fell in beside him, slowing her pretty golden mare to match the litter’s pace. “Well met, Uncle,” she sang out, as if it had been chance that brought her here. “May I ride with you to Sunspear?” The captain was on the opposite side of the litter from Lady Nym, yet he could hear every word she said.

  “I would be glad of it,” Prince Doran replied, though he did not sound glad to the captain’s ears. “Gout and grief make poor companions on the road.” By which the captain knew him to mean that every pebble drove a spike through his swollen joints.

  “The gout I cannot help,” she said, “but my father had no use for grief. Vengeance was more to his taste. Is it true that Gregor Clegane admitted slaying Elia and her children?”

  “He roared out his guilt for all the court to hear,” the prince admitted. “Lord Tywin has promised us his head.”

  “And a Lannister always pays his debts,” said Lady Nym, “yet it seems to me that Lord Tywin means to pay us with our own coin. I had a bird from our sweet Ser Daemon, who swears my father tickled that monster more than once as they fought. If so, Ser Gregor is as good as dead, and no thanks to Tywin Lannister.”

  The prince grimaced. Whether it was from the pain of gout or his niece’s words, the captain could not say. “It may be so.”

  “May be? I say ’tis.”

  “Obara would have me go to war.”

  Nym laughed. “Yes, she wants to set the torch to Oldtown. She hates that city as much as our little sister loves it.”

  “And you?”

  Nym glanced over a shoulder, to where her companions rode a dozen lengths behind. “I was abed with the Fowler twins when the word reached me,” the captain heard her say. “You know the Fowler words? Let Me Soar! That is all I ask of you. Let me soar, Uncle. I need no mighty host, only one sweet sister.”

  “Obara?”

  “Tyene. Obara is too loud. Tyene is so sweet and gentle that no man will suspect her. Obara would make Oldtown our father’s funeral pyre, but I am not so greedy. Four lives will suffice for me. Lord Tywin’s golden twins, as payment for Elia’s children. The old lion, for Elia herself. And last of all the little king, for my father.”

  “The boy has never wronged us.”

  “The boy is a bastard born of treason, incest, and adultery, if Lord Stannis can be believed.” The playful tone had vanished from her voice, and the captain found himself watching her through narrowed eyes. Her sister Obara wore her whip upon her hip and carried a spear where any man could see it. Lady Nym was no less deadly, though she kept her knives well hidden. “Only royal blood can wash out my father’s murder.”

  “Oberyn died during single combat, fighting in a matter that was none of his concern. I do not call that murder.”

  “Call it what you will. We sent them the finest man in Dorne, and they are sending back a bag of bones.”

  “He went beyond anything I asked of him. ‘Take the measure of this boy king and his council, and make note of their strengths and weaknesses,’ I told him, on the terrace. We were eating oranges. ‘Find us friends, if there are any to be found. Learn what you can of Elia’s end, but see that you do not provoke Lord Tywin unduly,’ those were my words to him. Oberyn laughed, and said, ‘When have I provoked any man… unduly? You would do better to warn the Lannisters against provoking me.’ He wanted justice for Elia, but he would not wait—”

  “He waited ten-and-seven years,” the Lady Nym broke in. “Were it you they’d killed, my father would have led his banners north before your corpse was cold. Were it you, the spears would be falling thick as rain upon the marches now.”

  “I do not doubt it.”

  “No more should you doubt this, my prince — my sisters and I shall not wait ten-and-seven years for our vengeance.” She put her spurs into the mare and she was off, galloping toward Sunspear with her tail in hot pursuit.

  The prince leaned back against his pillows and closed his eyes, but Hotah knew he did not sleep. He is in pain. For a moment he considered calling Maester Caleotte up to the litter, but if Prince Doran had wanted him, he would have called himself.

  The shadows of the afternoon were long and dark and the sun was as red and swollen as the prince’s joints before they glimpsed the towers of Sunspear to the east. First the slender Spear Tower, a hundred-and-a-half feet tall and crowned with a spear of gilded steel that added another thirty feet to its height; then the mighty Tower of the Sun, with its dome of gold and leaded glass; last the dun-colored Sandship, looking like some monstrous dromond that had washed ashore and turned to stone.

  Only three leagues of coast road divided Sunspear from the Water Gardens, yet they were two different worlds. There children frolicked naked in the sun, music played in tiled courtyards, and the air was sharp with the smell of lemons and blood oranges. Here the air smelled of dust, sweat, and smoke, and the nights were alive with the babble of voices. In place of the pink marble of the Water Gardens, Sunspear was built from mud and straw, and colored brown and dun. The ancient stronghold of House Martell stood at the easternmost end of a little jut of stone and sand, surrounded on three sides by the sea. To the west, in the shadows of Sunspear’s massive walls, mud-brick shops and windowless hovels clung to the castle like barnacles to a galley’s hull. Stables and inns and winesinks and pillow houses had grown up west of those, many enclosed by walls of their own, and yet more hovels had risen beneath those walls. And so and so and so, as the bearded priests would say. Compared to Tyrosh or Myr or Great Norvos, the shadow city was no more than a town, yet it was the nearest thing to a true city that these Dornish had.

  Lady Nym’s arrival had preceded theirs by some hours, and no doubt she had warned the guards of their coming, for the Threefold Gate was open when they reached it. Only here were the gates lined up one behind the other to allow visitors to pass beneath all three of the Winding Walls directly to the Old Palace, without first making their way through miles of narrow alleys, hidden courts, and noisy bazaars.

  Prince Doran had closed the draperies of his litter as soon as the Spear Tower came in sight, yet still the smallfolk shouted out to him as the litter passed. The Sand Snakes have stirred them to a boil, the captain thought uneasily. They crossed the squalor of the outer crescent and went through the second gate. Beyond, the wind stank of tar and salt water and rotting seaweed, and the crowd grew thicker with every step. “Make way for Prince Doran!” Areo Hotah boomed out, thumping the butt of his longaxe on the bricks. “Make way for the Prince of Dorne!”

  “The prince is dead!” a woman shrilled behind him.

 
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