Gingerly, so gingerly, the seneschal approached the head, lifted it delicately by the hair. "Admiral Groleo."
Ser Barristan glanced toward the throne. He had served so many kings, he could not help but imagine how they might have reacted to this provocation. Aerys would have flinched away in horror, likely cutting himself on the barbs of the Iron Throne, then shrieked at his swordsmen to cut the Yunkishmen to pieces. Robert would have shouted for his hammer to repay Bloodbeard in kind. Even Jaehaerys, reckoned weak by many, would have ordered the arrest of Bloodbeard and the Yunkish slavers. Hizdahr sat frozen, a man transfixed. Reznak set the head on a satin pillow at the king's feet, then scampered away, his mouth twisted up in a moue of distaste. Ser Barristan could smell the seneschal's heavy floral perfume from several yards away.
The dead man stared up reproachfully. His beard was brown with caked blood, but a trickle of red still leaked from his neck. From the look of him, it had taken more than one blow to part his head from his body. In the back of the hall, petitioners began to slip away. One of the Brazen Beasts ripped off his brass hawk's mask and began to spew up his breakfast. Barristan Selmy was no stranger to severed heads. This one, though ... he had crossed half the world with the old seafarer, from Pentos to Qarth and back again to Astapor. Groleo was a good man. He did not deserve this end. All he ever wanted was to go home. The knight tensed, waiting.
"This," King Hizdahr said at last, "this is not ... we are not pleased, this ... what is the meaning of this ... this ..."
The slaver in the maroon tokar produced a parchment. "I have the honor to bear this message from the council of masters." He unrolled the scroll. "It is here written, ' Seven entered Meereen to sign the peace accords and witness the celebratory games at the Pit of Daznak. As surety for their safety, seven hostages were tendered us. The Yellow City mourns its noble son Yurkhaz zo Yunzak, who perished cruelly whilst a guest of Meereen. Blood must pay for blood. '"
Groleo had a wife back in Pentos. Children, grandchildren. Why him, of all the hostages? Jhogo, Hero, and Daario Naharis all commanded fighting men, but Groleo had been an admiral without a fleet. Did they draw straws, or did they think Groleo the least valuable to us, the least likely to provoke reprisal? the knight asked himself ... but it was easier to pose that question than to answer it. I have no skill at unraveling such knots.
"Your Grace," Ser Barristan called out. "If it please you to recall, the noble Yurkhaz died by happenstance. He stumbled on the steps as he tried to flee the dragon and was crushed beneath the feet of his own slaves and companions. That, or his heart burst in terror. He was old."
"Who is this who speaks without the king's leave?" asked the Yunkish lord in the striped tokar, a small man with a receding chin and teeth too big for his mouth. He reminded Selmy of a rabbit. "Must the lords of Yunkai attend to the natterings of guards?" He shook the pearls that fringed his tokar.
Hizdahr zo Loraq could not seem to look away from the head. Only when Reznak whispered something in his ear did he finally bestir himself.
"Yurkhaz zo Yunzak was your supreme commander," he said. "Which of you speaks for Yunkai now?"
"All of us," said the rabbit. "The council of masters."
King Hizdahr found some steel. "Then all of you bear the
responsibility for this breach of our peace."
The Yunkishman in the breastplate gave answer. "Our peace has not been breached. Blood pays for blood, a life for a life. To show our good faith, we return three of your hostages." The iron ranks behind him parted. Three Meereenese were ushered forward, clutching at their tokar s - two women and a man.
"Sister," said Hizdahr zo Loraq, stiffly. "Cousins." He gestured at the bleeding head. "Remove that from our sight."
"The admiral was a man of the sea," Ser Barristan reminded him.
"Mayhaps Your Magnificence might ask the Yunkai'i to return his body to us, so we may bury him beneath the waves?"
The rabbit-toothed lord waved a hand. "If it please Your Radiance, this shall be done. A sign of our respect."
Reznak mo Reznak cleared his throat noisily. "Meaning no offense, yet it seems to me that Her Worship Queen Daenerys gave you ... ah ...
seven hostages. The other three ..."
"The others shall remain our guests," announced the Yunkish lord in the breastplate, "until the dragons have been destroyed."
A hush fell across the hall. Then came the murmurs and the mutters, whispered curses, whispered prayers, the hornets stirring in their hive. "The dragons ..." said King Hizdahr.
"... are monsters, as all men saw in Daznak's Pit. No true peace is possible whilst they live."
Reznak replied. "Her Magnificence Queen Daenerys is Mother of Dragons. Only she can - "
Bloodbeard's scorn cut him off. "She is gone. Burned and devoured. Weeds grow through her broken skull."
A roar greeted those words. Some began to shout and curse. Others stamped their feet and whistled their approval. It took the Brazen Beasts pounding the butts of their spears against the floor before the hall quieted again.
Ser Barristan never once took his eyes off Bloodbeard. He came to sack a city, and Hizdahr' s peace has cheated him of his plunder. He will do whatever he must to start the bloodshed.
Hizdahr zo Loraq rose slowly from his dragon throne. "I must consult my council. This court is done."
"All kneel for His Magnificence Hizdahr zo Loraq, Fourteenth of That Ancient Name, King of Meereen, Scion of Ghis, Octarch of the Old Empire, Master of the Skahazadhan, Consort to Dragons and Blood of the Harpy, " the herald shouted. Brazen Beasts swung out amongst the pillars to form a line, then began a slow advance in lockstep, ushering the petitioners from the hall.
The Dornishmen did not have as far to go as most. As befit his rank and station, Quentyn Martell had been given quarters within the Great Pyramid, two levels down - a handsome suite of rooms with its own privy and walled terrace. Perhaps that was why he and his companions lingered, waiting until the press had lessened before beginning to make their way toward the steps.
Ser Barristan watched them, thoughtful. What would Daenerys want?
he asked himself. He thought he knew. The old knight strode across the hall, his long white cloak rippling behind him. He caught the Dornishmen at the top of the steps. "Your father's court was never half so lively," he heard Drinkwater japing.
"Prince Quentyn," Selmy called. "Might I beg a word?"
Quentyn Martell turned. "Ser Barristan. Of course. My chambers are one level down."
No. "It is not my place to counsel you, Prince Quentyn ... but if I were you, I would not return to my chambers. You and your friends should go down the steps and leave."
Prince Quentyn stared. "Leave the pyramid?"
"Leave the city. Return to Dorne."
The Dornishmen exchanged a look. "Our arms and armor are back in our apartments," said Gerris Drinkwater. "Not to mention most of the coin that we have left."
"Swords can be replaced," said Ser Barristan. "I can provide you with coin enough for passage back to Dorne. Prince Quentyn, the king made note of you today. He frowned."
Gerris Drinkwater laughed. "Should we be frightened of Hizdahr zo Loraq? You saw him just now. He quailed before the Yunkishmen. They sent him a head, and he did nothing."
Quentyn Martell nodded in agreement. "A prince does well to think before he acts. This king ... I do not know what to think of him. The queen warned me against him as well, true, but ..."
"She warned you?" Selmy frowned. "Why are you still here?"
Prince Quentyn flushed. "The marriage pact - "
" - was made by two dead men and contained not a word about the queen or you. It promised your sister's hand to the queen's brother, another dead man. It has no force. Until you turned up here, Her Grace was ignorant of its existence. Your father keeps his secrets well, Prince Quentyn. Too well, I fear. If the queen had known of this pact in Qarth, she might never have turned aside for Slaver's Bay, but you came too late. I have no wish to salt your wounds, but Her Grace has a new husband and an old paramour, and seems to prefer the both of them to you."
Anger flashed in the prince's dark eyes. "This Ghiscari lordling is no fit consort for the queen of the Seven Kingdoms."
"That is not for you to judge." Ser Barristan paused, wondering if he had said too much already. No. Tell him the rest of it. "That day at Daznak's Pit, some of the food in the royal box was poisoned. It was only chance that Strong Belwas ate it all. The Blue Graces say that only his size and freakish strength have saved him, but it was a near thing. He may yet die."
The shock was plain on Prince Quentyn's face. "Poison ... meant for Daenerys?"
"Her or Hizdahr. Perhaps both. The box was his, though. His Grace made all the arrangements. If the poison was his doing ... well, he will need a scapegoat. Who better than a rival from a distant land who has no friends at this court? Who better than a suitor the queen spurned?"
Quentyn Martell went pale. "Me? I would never ... you cannot think I had any part in any ..."
That was the truth, or he is a master mummer. "Others might," said Ser Barristan. "The Red Viper was your uncle. And you have good reason to want King Hizdahr dead."
"So do others," suggested Gerris Drinkwater. "Naharis, for one. The queen's ..."
"... paramour," Ser Barristan finished, before the Dornish knight could say anything that might besmirch the queen's honor. "That is what you call them down in Dorne, is it not?" He did not wait for a reply.
"Prince Lewyn was my Sworn Brother. In those days there were few secrets amongst the Kingsguard. I know he kept a paramour. He did not feel there was any shame in that."
"No," said Quentyn, red-faced, "but ..."
"Daario would kill Hizdahr in a heartbeat if he dared," Ser Barristan went on. "But not with poison. Never. And Daario was not there in any case. Hizdahr would be pleased to blame him for the locusts, all the same ... but the king may yet have need of the Stormcrows, and he will lose them if he appears complicit in the death of their captain. No, my prince. If His Grace needs a poisoner, he will look to you." He had said all that he could safely say. In a few more days, if the gods smiled on them, Hizdahr zo Loraq would no longer rule Meereen ... but no good would be served by having Prince Quentyn caught up in the bloodbath that was coming. "If you must remain in Meereen, you would do well to stay away from court and hope Hizdahr forgets you," Ser Barristan finished, "but a ship for Volantis would be wiser, my prince. Whatever course you choose, I wish you well."
Before he had gone three steps, Quentyn Martell called out to him.
"Barristan the Bold, they call you."
"Some do." Selmy had won that name when he was ten years old, a new-made squire, yet so vain and proud and foolish that he got it in his head that he could joust with tried and proven knights. So he'd borrowed a warhorse and some plate from Lord Dondarrion's armory and entered the lists at Blackhaven as a mystery knight. Even the herald laughed. My arms were so thin that when I lowered my lance it was all I could do to keep the point from furrowing the ground. Lord Dondarrion would have been within his rights to pull him off the horse and spank him, but the Prince of Dragonflies had taken pity on the addlepated boy in the ill-fitting armor and accorded him the respect of taking up his challenge. One course was all that it required. Afterward Prince Duncan helped him to his feet and removed his helm. "A boy," he had proclaimed to the crowd. "A bold boy."