Ser Balon's journey had been shorter but troubling in its own way, the captain knew. Three knights, eight squires, twenty men-at-arms, and sundry grooms and servants had accompanied him from King's Landing, but once they crossed the mountains into Dorne their progress had been slowed by a round of feasts, hunts, and celebrations at every castle that they chanced to pass. And now that they had reached Sunspear, neither Princess Myrcella nor Ser Arys Oakheart was on hand to greet them. The white knight knows that something is amiss, Hotah could tell, but it is more than that. Perhaps the presence of the Sand Snakes unnerved him. If so, Obara'
to the hall must have been vinegar in the wound. She slipped back into her place without a word, and sat there sullen and scowling, neither smiling nor speaking.
Midnight was close at hand when Prince Doran turned to the white knight and said, "Ser Balon, I have read the letter that you brought me from our gracious queen. Might I assume that you are familiar with its contents, ser?"
Hotah saw the knight tense. "I am, my lord. Her Grace informed me that I might be called upon to escort her daughter back to King's Landing. King Tommen has been pining for his sister and would like Princess Myrcella to return to court for a short visit."
Princess Arianne made a sad face. "Oh, but we have all grown so fond of Myrcella, ser. She and my brother Trystane have become inseparable."
"Prince Trystane would be welcome in King's Landing as well,"
said Balon Swann. "King Tommen would wish to meet him, I am sure. His Grace has so few companions near his own age."
"The bonds formed in boyhood can last a man for life," said Prince Doran. "When Trystane and Myrcella wed, he and Tommen will be as brothers. Queen Cersei has the right of it. The boys should meet, become friends. Dorne will miss him, to be sure, but it is past time Trystane saw something of the world beyond the walls of Sunspear."
"I know King's Landing will welcome him most warmly."
Why is he sweating now? the captain wondered, watching. The hall is cool enough, and he never touched the stew.
"As for the other matter that Queen Cersei raises," Prince Doran was saying, "it is true, Dorne's seat upon the small council has been vacant since my brother's death, and it is past time that it was filled again. I am flattered that Her Grace feels my counsel might be of use to her, though I wonder if I have the strength for such a journey. Perhaps if we went by sea?"
"By ship?" Ser Balon seemed taken aback. "That ... would that be safe, my prince? Autumn is a bad season for storms, or so I've heard, and ... the pirates in the Stepstones, they ..."
"The pirates. To be sure. You may be right, ser. Safer to return the way you came." Prince Doran smiled pleasantly. "Let us talk again on the morrow. When we reach the Water Gardens, we can tell Myrcella. I know how excited she will be. She misses her brother too, I do not doubt."
"I am eager to see her once again," said Ser Balon. "And to visit your Water Gardens. I've heard they are very beautiful."
"Beautiful and peaceful," the prince said. "Cool breezes, sparkling water, and the laughter of children. The Water Gardens are my favorite place in this world, ser. One of my ancestors had them built to please his Targaryen bride and free her from the dust and heat of Sunspear. Daenerys was her name. She was sister to King Daeron the Good, and it was her marriage that made Dorne part of the Seven Kingdoms. The whole realm knew that the girl loved Daeron's bastard brother Daemon Black-fyre, and was loved by him in turn, but the king was wise enough to see that the good of thousands must come before the desires of two, even if those two were dear to him. It was Daenerys who filled the gardens with laughing children. Her own children at the start, but later the sons and daughters of lords and landed knights were brought in to be companions to the boys and girls of princely blood. And one summer's day when it was scorching hot, she took pity on the children of her grooms and cooks and serving men and invited them to use the pools and fountains too, a tradition that has endured till this day." The prince grasped the wheels of his chair and pushed himself from the table. "But now you must excuse me, ser. All this talk has wearied me, and we should leave at break of day. Obara, would you be so kind as to help me to my bed? Nymeria, Tyene, come as well, and bid your old uncle a fond good night."
So it fell to Obara Sand to roll the prince's chair from Sunspear's feast hall and down a long gallery to his solar. Areo Hotah followed with her sisters, along with Princess Arianne and Ellaria Sand. Maester Caleotte hurried behind on slippered feet, cradling the Mountain's skull as if it were a child.
"You cannot seriously intend to send Trystane and Myrcella to King's Landing," Obara said as she was pushing. Her strides were long and angry, much too fast, and the chair's big wooden wheels clack ed noisily across rough-cut stone floors. "Do that, and we will never see the girl again, and your son will spend his life a hostage to the Iron Throne."
"Do you take me for a fool, Obara?" The prince sighed. "There is much you do not know. Things best not discussed here, where anyone can hear. If you hold your tongue, I may enlighten you." He winced. "Slower, for the love you bear me. That last jolt sent a knife right through my knee."
Obara slowed her pace by half. "What will you do, then?"
Her sister Tyene gave answer. "What he always does," she purred.
"Delay, obscure, prevaricate. Oh, no one does that half so well as our brave uncle."
"You do him wrong," said Princess Arianne. "Be quiet, all of you,"
the prince commanded.
Not until the doors of his solar were safely closed behind them did he wheel his chair about to face the women. Even that effort left him breathless, and the Myrish blanket that covered his legs caught between two spokes as he rolled, so he had to clutch it to keep it from being torn away. Beneath the coverlet, his legs were pale, soft, ghastly. Both of his knees were red and swollen, and his toes were almost purple, twice the size they should have been. Areo Hotah had seen them a thousand times and still found them hard to look upon.
Princess Arianne came forward. "Let me help you, Father."
The prince pulled the blanket free. "I can still master mine own blanket. That much at least." It was little enough. His legs had been useless for three years, but there was still some strength in his hands and shoulders.
"Shall I fetch my prince a thimble cup of milk of the poppy?"
Maester Caleotte asked.
"I would need a bucket, with this pain. Thank you, but no. I want my wits about me. I'll have no more need of you tonight."
"Very good, my prince." Maester Caleotte bowed, Ser Gregor's head still clutched in his soft pink hands.
"I'll take that." Obara Sand plucked the skull from him and held it at arm's length. "What did the Mountain look like? How do we know that this is him? They could have dipped the head in tar. Why strip it to the bone?"
"Tar would have ruined the box," suggested Lady Nym, as Maester Caleotte scurried off. "No one saw the Mountain die, and no one saw his head removed. That troubles me, I confess, but what could the bitch queen hope to accomplish by deceiving us? If Gregor Clegane is alive, soon or late the truth will out. The man was eight feet tall, there is not another like him in all of Westeros. If any such appears again, Cersei Lannister will be exposed as a liar before all the Seven Kingdoms. She would be an utter fool to risk that. What could she hope to gain?"
"The skull is large enough, no doubt," said the prince. "And we know that Oberyn wounded Gregor grievously. Every report we have had since claims that Clegane died slowly, in great pain."
"Just as Father intended," said Tyene. "Sisters, truly, I know the poison Father used. If his spear so much as broke the Mountain's skin, Clegane is dead, I do not care how big he was. Doubt your little sister if you like, but never doubt our sire."
Obara bristled. "I never did and never shall." She gave the skull a mocking kiss. "This is a start, I'll grant."
"A start?" said Ellaria Sand, incredulous. "Gods forbid. I would it were a finish. Tywin Lannister is dead. So are Robert Baratheon, Amory Lorch, and now Gregor Clegane, all those who had a hand in murdering Elia and her children. Even Joffrey, who was not yet born when Elia died. I saw the boy perish with mine own eyes, clawing at his throat as he tried to draw a breath. Who else is there to kill? Do Myrcella and Tommen need to die so the shades of Rhaenys and Aegon can be at rest? Where does it end?"
"It ends in blood, as it began," said Lady Nym. "It ends when Casterly Rock is cracked open, so the sun can shine on the maggots and the worms within. It ends with the utter ruin of Tywin Lannister and all his works."
"The man died at the hand of his own son," Ellaria snapped back.
"What more could you wish?"
"I could wish that he died at my hand." Lady Nym settled in a chair, her long black braid falling across one shoulder to her lap. She had her father's widow's peak. Beneath it her eyes were large and lustrous. Her wine-red lips curled in a silken smile. "If he had, his dying would not have been so easy."
"Ser Gregor does look lonely," said Tyene, in her sweet septa's voice. "He would like some company, I'm certain."
Ellaria's cheeks were wet with tears, her dark eyes shining. Even weeping, she has a strength in her, the captain thought.
"Oberyn wanted vengeance for Elia. Now the three of you want vengeance for him. I have four daughters, I remind you. Your sisters. My Elia is fourteen, almost a woman. Obella is twelve, on the brink of maiden-hood. They worship you, as Dorea and Loreza worship them. If you should die, must El and Obella seek vengeance for you, then Dorea and Loree for them? Is that how it goes, round and round forever? I ask again, where does it end?" Ellaria Sand laid her hand on the Mountain's head. "I saw your father die. Here is his killer. Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?"
"What would you have us do, my lady?" asked the Lady Nym.
"Shall we lay down our spears and smile, and forget all the wrongs that have been done to us?"
"War will come, whether we wish it or not," said Obara. "A boy king sits the Iron Throne. Lord Stannis holds the Wall and is gathering northmen to his cause. The two queens are squabbling over Tommen like bitches with a juicy bone. The ironmen have taken the Shields and are raiding up the Mander, deep into the heart of the Reach, which means Highgarden will be preoccupied as well. Our enemies are in disarray. The time is ripe."
"Ripe for what? To make more skulls?" Ellaria Sand turned to the prince. "They will not see. I can hear no more of this."
"Go back to your girls, Ellaria," the prince told her. "I swear to you, no harm will come to them."
"My prince." Ellaria kissed him on the brow and took her leave. Areo Hotah was sad to see her go. She is a good woman. When she had gone, Lady Nym said, "I know she loved our father well, but it is plain she never understood him."