A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire 5) - Page 179

Locusts, Selmy realized. "Groleo," he said. "Groleo," one of the locusts replied. "I have more locusts if you need them," said Skahaz. "Six should serve. What of the men on the doors?"

"Mine. You will have no trouble."

Ser Barristan clasped the Shavepate by the arm. "Shed no blood unless you must. Come the morrow we will convene a council and tell the city what we've done and why."

"As you say. Good fortune to you, old man."

They went their separate ways. The Brazen Beasts fell in behind Ser Barristan as he continued his descent.

The king's apartments were buried in the very heart of the pyramid, on the sixteenth and seventeenth levels. When Selmy reached those floors, he found the doors to the interior of the pyramid chained shut, with a pair of Brazen Beasts posted as guards. Beneath the hoods of their patchwork cloaks, one was a rat, the other a bull.

"Groleo," Ser Barristan said. "Groleo," the bull returned. "Third hall to the right." The rat unlocked the chain. Ser Barristan and his escort stepped through into a narrow, torchlit servants' corridor of red and black brick. Their footsteps echoed on the floors as they strode past two halls and took the third one to the right.

Outside the carved hardwood doors to the king's chambers stood Steel-skin, a younger pit fighter, not yet regarded as of the first rank. His cheeks and brow were scarred with intricate tattoos in green and black, ancient Valyrian sorcerer's signs that supposedly made his flesh and skin as hard as steel. Similar markings covered his chest and arms, though whether they would actually stop a sword or axe remained to be seen. Even without them, Steelskin looked formidable - a lean and wiry youth who overtopped Ser Barristan by half a foot. "Who goes there?" he called out, swinging his longaxe sideways to bar their way. When he saw Ser Barristan, with the brass locusts behind him, he lowered it again. "Old Ser."

"If it please the king, I must needs have words with him."

"The hour is late."

"The hour is late, but the need is urgent."

"I can ask." Steelskin slammed the butt of his longaxe against the door to the king's apartments. A slidehole opened. A child's eye appeared. A child's voice called through the door. Steelskin replied. Ser Barristan heard the sound of a heavy bar being drawn back. The door swung open.

"Only you," said Steelskin. "The beasts wait here."

"As you wish." Ser Barristan nodded to the locusts. One returned his nod. Alone, Selmy slipped through the door.

Dark and windowless, surrounded on all sides by brick walls eight feet thick, the chambers that the king had made his own were large and luxurious within. Great beams of black oak supported the high ceilings. The floors were covered with silk carpets out of Qarth. On the walls were priceless tapestries, ancient and much faded, depicting the glory of the Old Empire of Ghis. The largest of them showed the last survivors of a defeated Valyrian army passing beneath the yoke and being chained. The archway leading to the royal bedchamber was guarded by a pair of sandalwood lovers, shaped and smoothed and oiled. Ser Barristan found them distasteful, though no doubt they were meant to be arousing. The sooner we are gone from this place, the better.

An iron brazier gave the only light. Beside it stood two of the queen's cupbearers, Draqaz and Qezza. "Miklaz has gone to wake the king," said Qezza. "May we bring you wine, ser?"

"No. I thank you."

"You may sit," said Draqaz, indicating a bench. "I prefer to stand."

He could hear voices drifting through the archway from the bedchamber. One of them was the king's.

It was still a good few moments before King Hizdahr zo Loraq, Fourteenth of That Noble Name, emerged yawning, knotting the sash that closed his robe. The robe was green satin, richly worked with pearls and silver thread. Under it the king was quite naked. That was good. Naked men felt vulnerable and were less inclined to acts of suicidal heroism. The woman Ser Barristan glimpsed peering through the archway from behind a gauzy curtain was naked as well, her br**sts and hips only partially concealed by the blowing silk.

"Ser Barristan." Hizdahr yawned again. "What hour is it? Is there news of my sweet queen?"

"None, Your Grace."

Hizdahr sighed.

" 'Your Magnificence, ' please. Though at his hour,

'Your Sleepiness' would be more apt." The king crossed to the sideboard to pour himself a cup of wine, but only a trickle remained in the bottom of the flagon. A flicker of annoyance crossed his face. "Miklaz, wine. At once."

"Yes, Your Worship."

"Take Draqaz with you. One flagon of Arbor gold, and one of that sweet red. None of our yellow piss, thank you. And the next time I find my flagon dry, I may have to take a switch to those pretty pink cheeks of yours."

The boy went running off, and the king turned back to Selmy. "I dreamed you found Daenerys."

"Dreams can lie, Your Grace."

" 'Your Radiance' would serve. What brings you to me at this hour, ser? Some trouble in the city?"

"The city is tranquil."

"Is it so?" Hizdahr looked confused. "Why have you come?"

"To ask a question. Magnificence, are you the Harpy?"

Hizdahr's wine cup slipped through his fingers, bounced off the carpet, rolled. "You come to my bedchamber in the black of night and ask me that? Are you mad?" It was only then that the king seemed to notice that Ser Barristan was wearing his plate and mail. "What ... why ... how dare you ..."

"Was the poison your work, Magnificence?"

King Hizdahr backed away a step. "The locusts? That ... that was the Dornishman. Quentyn, the so-called prince. Ask Reznak if you doubt me."

"Have you proof of that? Has Reznak?"

"No, else I would have had them seized. Perhaps I should do so in any case. Marghaz will wring a confession out of them, I do not doubt. They're all poisoners, these Dornish. Reznak says they worship snakes."

"They eat snakes," said Ser Barristan. "It was your pit, your box, your seats. Sweet wine and soft cushions, figs and melons and honeyed locusts. You provided all. You urged Her Grace to try the locusts but never tasted one yourself."

"I ... hot spices do not agree with me. She was my wife. My queen. Why would I want to poison her?"

Was, he says. He believes her dead. "Only you can answer that, Magnificence. It might be that you wished to put another woman in her place." Ser Barristan nodded at the girl peering timidly from the bed-chamber. "That one, perhaps?"

The king looked around wildly. "Her? She's nothing. A bedslave."

He raised his hands. "I misspoke. Not a slave. A free woman. Trained in pleasure. Even a king has needs, she ... she is none of your concern, ser. I would never harm Daenerys. Never."

"You urged the queen to try the locusts. I heard you."

"I thought she might enjoy them." Hizdahr retreated another step.

"Hot and sweet at once."

"Hot and sweet and poisoned. With mine own ears I heard you commanding the men in the pit to kill Drogon. Shouting at them."

Hizdahr licked his lips. "The beast devoured Barsena's flesh. Dragons prey on men. It was killing, burning ..."

"... burning men who meant harm to your queen. Harpy's Sons, as like as not. Your friends."

"Not my friends."

"You say that, yet when you told them to stop killing they obeyed. Why would they do that if you were not one of them?"

Hizdahr shook his head. This time he did not answer. "Tell me true,"

Ser Barristan said, "did you ever love her, even a little? Or was it just the crown you lusted for?"

"Lust? You dare speak to me of lust?" The king's mouth twisted in anger. "I lusted for the crown, aye ... but not half so much as she lusted for her sellsword. Perhaps it was her precious captain who tried to poison her, for putting him aside. And if I had eaten of his locusts too, well, so much the better."

"Daario is a killer but not a poisoner." Ser Barristan moved closer to the king. "Are you the Harpy?" This time he put his hand on the hilt of his longsword. "Tell me true, and I promise you shall have a swift, clean death."

"You presume too much, ser," said Hizdahr. "I am done with these questions, and with you. You are dismissed from my service. Leave Meereen at once and I will let you live."

"If you are not the Harpy, give me his name." Ser Barristan pulled his sword from the scabbard. Its sharp edge caught the light from the brazier, became a line of orange fire.

Hizdahr broke. "Khrazz!" he shrieked, stumbling backwards toward his bedchamber. "Khrazz! Khrazz! "

Ser Barristan heard a door open, somewhere to his left. He turned in time to see Khrazz emerge from behind a tapestry. He moved slowly, still groggy from sleep, but his weapon of choice was in his hand: a Dothraki arakh, long and curved. A slasher's sword, made to deliver deep, slicing cuts from horseback. A murderous blade against half-naked foes, in the pit or on the battlefield. But here at close quarters, the arakh's length would tell against it, and Barristan Selmy was clad in plate and mail.

"I am here for Hizdahr," the knight said. "Throw down your steel and stand aside, and no harm need come to you."

Khrazz laughed. "Old man. I will eat your heart." The two men were of a height, but Khrazz was two stone heavier and forty years younger, with pale skin, dead eyes, and a crest of bristly red-black hair that ran from his brow to the base of his neck.

"Then come," said Barristan the Bold. Khrazz came.

For the first time all day, Selmy felt certain. This is what I was made for, he thought. The dance, the sweet steel song, a sword in my hand and a foe before me.

The pit fighter was fast, blazing fast, as quick as any man Ser Barristan had ever fought. In those big hands, the arakh became a whistling blur, a steel storm that seemed to come at the old knight from three directions at once. Most of the cuts were aimed at his head. Khrazz was no fool. Without a helm, Selmy was most vulnerable above the neck. He blocked the blows calmly, his longsword meeting each slash and turning it aside. The blades rang and rang again. Ser Barristan retreated. On the edge of his vision, he saw the cupbearers watching with eyes as big and white as chicken eggs. Khrazz cursed and turned a high cut into a low one, slipping past the old knight's blade for once, only to have his blow scrape uselessly off a white steel greave. Selmy's answering slash found the pit fighter's left shoulder, parting the fine linen to bite the flesh beneath. His yellow tunic began to turn pink, then red.

"Only cowards dress in iron," Khrazz declared, circling. No one wore armor in the fighting pits. It was blood the crowds came for: death, dismemberment, and shrieks of agony, the music of the scarlet sands. Ser Barristan turned with him. "This coward is about to kill you, ser."

The man was no knight, but his courage had earned him that much courtesy. Khrazz did not know how to fight a man in armor. Ser Barristan could see it in his eyes: doubt, confusion, the beginnings of fear. The pit fighter came on again, screaming this time, as if sound could slay his foe where steel could not. The arakh slashed low, high, low again.

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