"How did Stannis take it?"
"Not happily, by his face." Sam dropped his voice to a whisper. "I am not supposed to speak of it."
"Then don't." Jon wondered which of his father's bannermen had refused King Stannis homage this time. He was quick enough to spread the word when Karhold declared for him. "How are you and your longbow getting on?"
"I found a good book about archery." Sam frowned. "Doing it is harder than reading about it, though. I get blisters."
"Keep at it. We may need your bow on the Wall if the Others turn up some dark night."
"Oh, I hope not."
More guards stood outside the king's solar. "No arms are allowed in His Grace's presence, my lord," their serjeant said. "I'll need that sword. Your knives as well." It would do no good to protest, Jon knew. He handed them his weaponry.
Within the solar the air was warm. Lady Melisandre was seated near the fire, her ruby glimmering against the pale skin of her throat. Ygritte had been kissed by fire; the red priestess was fire, and her hair was blood and flame. Stannis stood behind the rough-hewn table where the Old Bear had once been wont to sit and take his meals. Covering the table was a large map of the north, painted on a ragged piece of hide. A tallow candle weighed down one end of it, a steel gauntlet the other.
The king wore lambswool breeches and a quilted doublet, yet somehow he looked as stiff and uncomfortable as if he had been clad in plate and mail. His skin was pale leather, his beard cropped so short that it might have been painted on. A fringe about his temples was all that remained of his black hair. In his hand was a parchment with a broken seal of dark green wax.
Jon took a knee. The king frowned at him, and rattled the parchment angrily. "Rise. Tell me, who is Lyanna Mormont?"
"One of Lady Maege's daughters, Sire. The youngest. She was named for my lord father's sister."
"To curry your lord father's favor, I don't doubt. I know how that game is played. How old is this wretched girl child?"
Jon had to think a moment. "Ten. Or near enough to make no matter. Might I know how she has offended Your Grace?"
Stannis read from the letter. "Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK. A girl of ten, you say, and she presumes to scold her lawful king." His close-cropped beard lay like a shadow over his hollow cheeks. "See that you keep these tidings to yourself, Lord Snow. Karhold is with me, that is all the men need know. I will not have your brothers trading tales of how this child spat on me."
"As you command, Sire." Maege Mormont had ridden south with Robb, Jon knew. Her eldest daughter had joined the Young Wolf's host as well. Even if both of them had died, however, Lady Maege had other daughters, some with children of their own. Had they gone with Robb as well? Surely Lady Maege would have left at least one of the older girls behind as castellan. He did not understand why Lyanna should be writing Stannis, and could not help but wonder if the girl's answer might have been different if the letter had been sealed with a direwolf instead of a crowned stag, and signed by Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell. It is too late for such misgivings. You made your choice.
"Two score ravens were sent out," the king complained, "yet we get no response but silence and defiance. Homage is the duty every leal subject owes his king. Yet your father's bannermen all turn their back on me,save the Karstarks. Is Arnolf Karstark the only man of honor in the north?"
Arnolf Karstark was the late Lord Rickard's uncle. He had been made the castellan of Karhold when his nephew and his sons went south with Robb, and he had been the first to respond to King Stannis's call for homage, with a raven declaring his allegiance. The Karstarks have no other choice, Jon might have said. Rickard Karstark had betrayed the direwolf and spilled the blood of lions. The stag was Karhold's only hope. "In times as confused as these, even men of honor must wonder where their duty lies. Your Grace is not the only king in the realm demanding homage."
Lady Melisandre stirred. "Tell me, Lord Snow ... where were these other kings when the wild people stormed your Wall?"
"A thousand leagues away and deaf to our need," Jon replied. "I have not forgotten that, my lady. Nor will I. But my father's bannermen have wives and children to protect, and smallfolk who will die should they choose wrongly. His Grace asks much of them. Give them time, and you will have your answers."
"Answers such as this?" Stannis crushed Lyanna's letter in his fist.
"Even in the north men fear the wroth of Tywin Lannister. Boltons make bad enemies as well. It is not happenstance that put a flayed man on their banners. They north rode with Robb, bled with him, died for him. They have supped on grief and death, and now you come to offer them another serving. Do you blame them if they hang back? Forgive me, Your Grace, but some will look at you and see only another doomed pretender."
"If His Grace is doomed, your realm is doomed as well," said Lady Melisandre. "Remember that, Lord Snow. It is the one true king of Westeros who stands before you."
Jon kept his face a mask. "As you say, my lady."
Stannis snorted. "You spend your words as if every one were a golden dragon. I wonder, how much gold do you have laid by?"
"Gold?" Are those the dragons the red woman means to wake?
Dragons made of gold? "Such taxes as we collect are paid in kind, Your Grace. The Watch is rich in turnips but poor in coin."
"Turnips are not like to appease Salladhor Saan. I require gold or silver."
"For that, you need White Harbor. The city cannot compare to Old-town or King's Landing, but it is still a thriving port. Lord Manderly is the richest of my lord father's bannermen."
"Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse." The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more. Stannis had commanded Jon not to speak of that one either.
"Perhaps his lordship would fancy a wildling wife," said Lady Melisandre. "Is this fat man married, Lord Snow?"
"His lady wife is long dead. Lord Wyman has two grown sons, and grandchildren by the elder. And he is too fat to sit a horse, thirty stone at least. Val would never have him."
"Just once you might try to give me an answer that would please me, Lord Snow," the king grumbled.
"I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king's dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want, she is like to slit his throat on their wedding night. Even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder."
"I know that," Stannis said, unhappily. "I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is cunning in him, I'll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder's life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms."
"The law ends at the Wall, Your Grace. You could make good use of Mance."
"I mean to. I'll burn him, and the north will see how I deal with turncloaks and traitors. I have other men to lead the wildlings. And I have Rayder's son, do not forget. Once the father dies, his whelp will be the King-Beyond-the-Wall."
"Your Grace is mistaken." You know nothing, Jon Snow, Ygritte used to say, but he had learned. "The babe is no more a prince than Val is a princess. You do not become King-Beyond-the-Wall because your father was."
"Good," said Stannis, "for I will suffer no other kings in Westeros. Have you signed the grant?"
"No, Your Grace." And now it comes. Jon closed his burned fingers and opened them again. "You ask too much."
"Ask? I asked you to be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. I require these castles."
"We have ceded you the Nightfort."
"Rats and ruins. It is a niggard's gift that costs the giver nothing. Your own man Yarwyck says it will be half a year before the castle can be made fit for habitation."
"The other forts are no better."
"I know that. It makes no matter. They are all we have. There are nineteen forts along the Wall, and you have men in only three of them. I mean to have every one of them garrisoned again before the year is out."
"I have no quarrel with that, Sire, but it is being said that you also mean to grant these castles to your knights and lords, to hold as their own seats as vassals to Your Grace."
"Kings are expected to be open-handed to their followers. Did Lord Eddard teach his bastard nothing? Many of my knights and lords abandoned rich lands and stout castles in the south. Should their loyalty go unrewarded?"
"If Your Grace wishes to lose all of my lord father's bannermen, there is no more certain way than by giving northern halls to southron lords."
"How can I lose men I do not have? I had hoped to bestow
Winterfell on a northman, you may recall. A son of Eddard Stark. He threw my offer in my face." Stannis Baratheon with a grievance was like a mastiff with a bone; he gnawed it down to splinters.
"By right Winterfell should go to my sister Sansa."
"Lady Lannister, you mean? Are you so eager to see the Imp perched on your father's seat? I promise you, that will not happen whilst I live, Lord Snow."
Jon knew better than to press the point. "Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn."
"Who told you that?"
The talk was all over Castle Black. "If you must know, I had the tale from Gilly."
"Who is Gilly?"
"The wet nurse," said Lady Melisandre. "Your Grace gave her freedom of the castle."
"Not for running tales. She's wanted for her teats, not for her tongue. I'll have more milk from her, and fewer messages. "
"Castle Black needs no useless mouths," Jon agreed. "I am sending Gilly south on the next ship out of Eastwatch."
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck. "Gilly is giving suck to Dalla's son as well as her own. It seems cruel of you to part our little prince from his milk brother, my lord."
Careful now, careful. "Mother's milk is all they share. Gilly's son is larger and more robust. He kicks the prince and pinches him, and shoves him from the breast. Craster was his father, a cruel man and greedy, and blood tells."
The king was confused. "I thought the wet nurse was this man Craster's daughter?"
"Wife and daughter both, Your Grace. Craster married all his daughters. Gilly's boy was the fruit of their union."
"Her own father got this child on her?" Stannis sounded shocked.
"We are well rid of her, then. I will not suffer such abominations here. This is not King's Landing."
"I can find another wet nurse. If there's none amongst the wildlings, I will send to the mountain clans. Until such time, goat's milk should suffice for the boy, if it please Your Grace."