"The fastest way to Volantis is by sea."
"The sea is hazardous," replied Illyrio. "Autumn is a season rife with storms, and pirates still make their dens upon the Stepstones and venture forth to prey on honest men. It would never do for my little friend to fall into such hands."
"There are pirates on the Rhoyne as well."
"River pirates." The cheesemonger gave a yawn, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. "Cockroach captains scurrying after crumbs."
"One hears talk of stone men as well."
"They are real enough, poor damned things. But why speak of such things? The day is too fine for such talk. We shall see the Rhoyne soon, and there you shall be rid of Illyrio and his big belly. Till then, let us drink and dream. We have sweet wine and savories to enjoy. Why dwell upon disease and death?"
Why indeed? Tyrion heard the thrum of a crossbow once again, and wondered. The litter swayed side to side, a soothing movement that made him feel as if he were a child being rocked to sleep in his mother's arms. Not that I would know what that was like. Silk pillows stuffed with goose down cushioned his cheeks. The purple velvet walls curved overhead to form a roof, making it pleasantly warm within despite the autumn chill outside.
A train of mules trailed behind them, carrying chests and casks and barrels, and hampers of delectables to keep the lord of cheese from growing peckish. They nibbled on spiced sausage that morning, washed down with a dark smokeberry brown. Jellied eels and Dornish reds filled their afternoon. Come evening there were sliced hams, boiled eggs, and roasted larks stuffed with garlic and onions, with pale ales and Myrish fire wines to help in their digestion. The litter was as slow as it was comfortable, however, and the dwarf soon found himself itching with impatience.
"How many days until we reach the river?" he asked Illyrio that evening. "At this pace, your queen's dragons will be larger than Aegon's three before I can lay eyes upon them."
"Would it were so. A large dragon is more fearsome than a small one." The magister shrugged. "Much as it would please me to welcome Queen Daenerys to Volantis, I must rely on you and Griff for that. I can serve her best in Pentos, smoothing the way for her return. So long as I am with you, though ... well, an old fat man must have his comforts, yes?
Come, drink a cup of wine."
"Tell me," Tyrion said as he drank, "why should a magister of Pentos give three figs who wears the crown in Westeros? Where is the gain for you in this venture, my lord?"
The fat man dabbed grease from his lips. "I am an old man, grown weary of this world and its treacheries. Is it so strange that I should wish to do some good before my days are done, to help a sweet young girl regain her birthright?"
Next you will be offering me a suit of magic armor and a palace in Valyria. "If Daenerys is no more than a sweet young girl, the Iron Throne will cut her into sweet young pieces."
"Fear not, my little friend. The blood of Aegon the Dragon flows in her veins."
Along with the blood of Aegon the Unworthy, Maegor the Cruel, and Baelor the Befuddled. "Tell me more of her."
The fat man grew pensive. "Daenerys was half a child when she came to me, yet fairer even than my second wife, so lovely I was tempted to claim her for myself. Such a fearful, furtive thing, however, I knew I should get no joy from coupling with her. Instead I summoned a bed-warmer and f**ked her vigorously until the madness passed. If truth be told, I did not think Daenerys would survive for long amongst the horselords."
"That did not stop you selling her to Khal Drogo ..."
"Dothraki neither buy nor sell. Say rather that her brother Viserys gave her to Drogo to win the khal's friendship. A vain young man, and greedy. Viserys lusted for his father's throne, but he lusted for Daenerys too,and was loath to give her up. The night before the princess wed he tried to steal into her bed, insisting that if he could not have her hand, he would claim her maidenhead. Had I not taken the precaution of posting guards upon her door, Viserys might have undone years of planning."
"He sounds an utter fool."
"Viserys was Mad Aerys's son, just so. Daenerys ... Daenerys is quite different." He popped a roasted lark into his mouth and crunched it noisily, bones and all. "The frightened child who sheltered in my manse died on the Dothraki sea, and was reborn in blood and fire. This dragon queen who wears her name is a true Targaryen. When I sent ships to bring her home, she turned toward Slaver's Bay. In a short span of days she conquered Astapor, made Yunkai bend the knee, and sacked Meereen. Mantarys will be next, if she marches west along the old Valyrian roads. If she comes by sea, well ... her fleet must take on food and water at Volantis."
"By land or by sea, there are long leagues between Meereen and Volantis," Tyrion observed.
"Five hundred fifty, as the dragon flies, through deserts, mountains, swamps, and demon-haunted ruins. Many and more will perish, but those who survive will be stronger by the time they reach Volantis ... where they shall find you and Griff awaiting them, with fresh forces and sufficient ships to carry them all across the sea to Westeros."
Tyrion pondered all he knew of Volantis, oldest and proudest of the Nine Free Cities. Something was awry here. Even with half a nose, he could smell it. "It's said there are five slaves for every free man in Volantis. Why would the triarchs assist a queen who smashed the slave trade?" He pointed at Illyrio. "For that matter, why would you? Slavery may be forbidden by the laws of Pentos, yet you have a finger in that trade as well, and maybe a whole hand. And yet you conspire for the dragon queen, and not against her. Why? What do you hope to gain from Queen Daenerys?"
"Are we back to that again? You are a persistent little man." Illyrio gave a laugh and slapped his belly. "As you will. The Beggar King swore that I should be his master of coin, and a lordly lord as well. Once he wore his golden crown, I should have my choice of castles ... even Casterly Rock, if I desired."
Tyrion snorted wine back up the scarred stump that had been his nose.
"My father would have loved to hear that."
"Your lord father had no cause for concern. Why would I want a rock? My manse is large enough for any man, and more comfortable than your drafty Westerosi castles. Master of coin, though ..." The fat man peeled another egg. "I am fond of coins. Is there any sound as sweet as the clink of gold on gold?"
A sister' s screams. "Are you quite certain that Daenerys will make good her brother's promises?"
"She will, or she will not." Illyrio bit the egg in half. "I told you, my little friend, not all that a man does is done for gain. Believe as you wish, but even fat old fools like me have friends, and debts of affection to repay."
Liar, thought Tyrion. There is something in this venture worth more to you than coin or castles. "You meet so few men who value friendship over gold these days."
"Too true," the fat man said, deaf to the irony. "How is it that the Spider became so dear to you?"
"We were young together, two green boys in Pentos."
"Varys came from Myr."
"So he did. I met him not long after he arrived, one step ahead of the slavers. By day he slept in the sewers, by night he prowled the rooftops like a cat. I was near as poor, a bravo in soiled silks, living by my blade. Perhaps you chanced to glimpse the statue by my pool? Pytho Malanon carved that when I was six-and-ten. A lovely thing, though now I weep to see it."
"Age makes ruins of us all. I am still in mourning for my nose. But Varys ..."
"In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him. In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten. Why he chose me to protect him I may never know, but we came to an arrangement. Varys spied on lesser thieves and took their takings. I offered my help to their victims, promising to recover their valuables for a fee. Soon every man who had suffered a loss knew to come to me, whilst city's footpads and cutpurses sought out Varys ... half to slit his throat, the other half to sell him what they'd stolen. We both grew rich, and richer still when Varys trained his mice."
"In King's Landing he kept little birds."
"Mice, we called them then. The older thieves were fools who thought no further than turning a night's plunder into wine. Varys preferred orphan boys and young girls. He chose the smallest, the ones who were quick and quiet, and taught them to climb walls and slip down chimneys. He taught them to read as well. We left the gold and gems for common thieves. Instead our mice stole letters, ledgers, charts ... later, they would read them and leave them where they lay. Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires, Varys claimed. Just so. I grew so respectable that a cousin of the Prince of Pentos let me wed his maiden daughter, whilst whispers of a certain eunuch's talents crossed the narrow sea and reached the ears of a certain king. A very anxious king, who did not wholly trust his son, nor his wife, nor his Hand, a friend of his youth who had grown arrogant and overproud. I do believe that you know the rest of this tale, is that not so?"
"Much of it," Tyrion admitted. "I see that you are somewhat more than a cheesemonger after all."
Illyrio inclined his head. "You are kind to say so, my little friend. And for my part, I see that you are just as quick as Lord Varys claimed." He smiled, showing all his crooked yellow teeth, and shouted for another jar of Myrish fire wine.
When the magister drifted off to sleep with the wine jar at his elbow, Tyrion crept across the pillows to work it loose from its fleshy prison and pour himself a cup. He drained it down, and yawned, and filled it once again. If I drink enough fire wine, he told himself, perhaps I' ll dream of dragons. When he was still a lonely child in the depths of Casterly Rock, he oft rode dragons through the nights, pretending he was some lost Targaryen princeling, or a Valyrian dragonlord soaring high o'er fields and mountains. Once, when his uncles asked him what gift he wanted for his name-day, he begged them for a dragon. "It wouldn't need to be a big one. It could be little, like I am." His uncle Gerion thought that was the funniest thing he had ever heard, but his uncle Tygett said, "The last dragon died a century ago, lad." That had seemed so monstrously unfair that the boy had cried himself to sleep that night.
Yet if the lord of cheese could be believed, the Mad King's daughter had hatched three living dragons. Two more than even a Targaryen should require. Tyrion was almost sorry that he had killed his father. He would have enjoyed seeing Lord Tywin's face when he learned that there was a Targaryen queen on her way to Westeros with three dragons, backed by a scheming eunuch and a cheesemonger half the size of Casterly Rock. The dwarf was so stuffed that he had to undo his belt and the topmost laces on his breeches. The boy's clothes his host had dressed him in made him feel like ten pounds of sausage in a five-pound skin. If we eat this way every day I will be the size of Illyrio before I meet this dragon queen. Out-side the litter night had fallen. Inside all was dark. Tyrion listened to Illyrio's snores, the creak of the leather straps, the slow clop clop of the team's ironshod hooves on the hard Valyrian road, but his heart was listening for the beat of leathern wings.