the innkeep had told them.
The captain rubbed thumb and forefinger together. "And how much gold would you deem sufficient for such a voyage?"
"Thrice your usual fee for passage to Slaver's Bay."
"For each of you?" The captain showed his teeth in something that might have been intended as a smile though it gave his narrow face a feral look. "Perhaps. It is true, I am a bolder man than most. How soon will you wish to leave?"
"The morrow would not be too soon."
"Done. Return an hour before first light, with your friends and your wines. Best to be under way whilst Volantis sleeps, so no one will ask us inconvenient questions about our destination."
"As you say. An hour before first light."
The captain's smile widened. "I am pleased that I can help you. We will have a happy voyage, yes?"
"I am certain of it," said Gerris. The captain called for ale then, and the two of them drank a toast to their venture.
"A sweet man," Gerris said afterward, as he and Quentyn made their way down to the foot of the pier where their hired hathay waited. The air hung hot and heavy, and the sun was so bright that both of them were squinting.
"This is a sweet city," Quentyn agreed. Sweet enough to rot your teeth. Sweet beets were grown in profusion hereabouts, and were served with almost every meal. The Volantenes made a cold soup of them, as thick and rich as purple honey. Their wines were sweet as well. "I fear our happy voyage will be short, however. That sweet man does not mean to take us to Meereen. He was too quick to accept your offer. He'll take thrice the usual fee, no doubt, and once he has us aboard and out of sight of land, he'll slit our throats and take the rest of our gold as well."
"Or chain us to an oar, beside those wretches we were smelling. We need to find a better class of smuggler, I think."
Their driver awaited them beside his hathay. In Westeros, it might have been called an oxcart, though it was a deal more ornate than any cart that Quentyn had ever seen in Dorne, and lacked an ox. The hathay was pulled by a dwarf elephant, her hide the color of dirty snow. The streets of Old Volantis were full of such.
Quentyn would have preferred to walk, but they were miles from their inn. Besides, the innkeep at the Merchant's House had warned him that traveling afoot would taint them in the eyes of foreign captains and the native-born Volantenes alike. Persons of quality traveled by palanquin, or in the back of a hathay ... and as it happened the innkeep had a cousin who owned several such contrivances and would be pleased to serve them in this matter.
Their driver was one of the cousin's slaves, a small man with a wheel tattooed upon one cheek, naked but for a breechclout and a pair of sandals. His skin was the color of teak, his eyes chips of flint. After he had helped them up onto the cushioned bench between the cart's two huge wooden wheels, he clambered onto the elephant's back. "The Merchant's House,"
Quentyn told him, "but go along the wharves." Beyond the waterfront and its breezes, the streets and alleys of Volantis were hot enough to drown a man in his own sweat, at least on this side of the river.
The driver shouted something at his elephant in the local tongue. The beast began to move, trunk swaying from side to side. The cart lurched along behind her, the driver hooting at sailors and slaves alike to clear the way. It was easy enough to tell one from the other. The slaves were all tattooed: a mask of blue feathers, a lightning bolt that ran from jaw to brow, a coin upon the cheek, a leopard's spots, a skull, a jug. Maester Kedry said there were five slaves for every free man in Volantis though he had not lived long enough to verify his estimate. He had perished on the morning the corsairs swarmed aboard the Meadowlark.
Quentyn lost two other friends that same day - Willam Wells with his freckles and his crooked teeth, fearless with a lance, and Cletus Yron-wood, handsome despite his lazy eye, always randy, always laughing. Cletus had been Quentyn's dearest friend for half his life, a brother in all but blood.
"Give your bride a kiss for me," Cletus had whispered to him, just before he died.
The corsairs had come aboard in the darkness before the dawn, as the Meadowlark was anchored off the coast of the Disputed Lands. The crew had beaten them off, at the cost of twelve lives. Afterward the sailors stripped the dead corsairs of boots and belts and weapons, pvied up their purses, and yanked gemstones from their ears and rings from their fingers. One of the corpses was so fat that the ship's cook had to cut his fingers off with a meat cleaver to claim his rings. It took three Meadowlarks to roll the body into the sea. The other pirates were chucked in after him, without a word of prayer or ceremony.
Their own dead received more tender treatment. The sailors sewed their bodies up in canvas, weighed down with ballast stones so they might sink more quickly. The captain of the Meadowlark led his crew in a prayer for the souls of their slain shipmates. Then he turned to his Dornish passengers, the three who still remained of the six who had come aboard at the Planky Town. Even the big man had emerged, pale and greensick and unsteady on his feet, struggling up from the depths of the ship's hold to pay his last respects. "One of you should say some words for your dead, before we give them to the sea," the captain said. Gerris had obliged, lying with every other word, since he dare not tell the truth of who they'd been or why they'd come.
It was not supposed to end like that for them. "This will be a tale to tell our grandchildren," Cletus had declared the day they set out from his father's castle. Will made a face at that, and said, "A tale to tell tavern wenches, you mean, in hopes they'll lift their skirts." Cletus had slapped him on the back. "For grandchildren, you need children. For children, you need to lift some skirts." Later, in the Planky Town, the Dornishmen had toasted Quentyn's future bride, made ribald japes about his wedding night to come, and talked about the things they'd see, the deeds they'd do, the glory they would win. All they won was a sailcloth sack filled with ballast stones. As much as he mourned Will and Cletus, it was the maester's loss that Quentyn felt most keenly. Kedry had been fluent in the tongues of all of the Free Cities, and even the mongrel Ghiscari that men spoke along the shores of Slaver's Bay. "Maester Kedry will accompany you," his father said the night they parted. "Heed his counsel. He has devoted half his life to the study of the Nine Free Cities." Quentyn wondered if things might not have gone a deal easier if only he were here to guide them.
"I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze," said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. "It's moist as the Maiden's cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city."
Quentyn shared the feeling. The sullen wet heat of Volantis sapped his strength and left him feeling dirty. The worst part was knowing that nightfall would bring no relief. Up in the high meadows north of Lord Yronwood's estates, the air was always crisp and cool after dark, no matter how hot the day had been. Not here. In Volantis, the nights were almost as hot as the days.
"The Goddess sails for New Ghis on the morrow," Gerris reminded him. "That at least would bring us closer."
"New Ghis is an island, and a much smaller port than this. We would be closer, yes, but we could find ourselves stranded. And New Ghis has allied with the Yunkai'i." That news had not come as a surprise to Quentyn. New Ghis and Yunkai were both Ghiscari cities. "If Volantis should ally with them as well - "
"We need to find a ship from Westeros," suggested Gerris, "some trader out of Lannisport or Oldtown."
"Few come this far, and those who do fill their holds with silk and spice from the Jade Sea, then bend their oars for home."
"Perhaps a Braavosi ship? One hears of purple sails as far away as Asshai and the islands of the Jade Sea."
"The Braavosi are descended from escaped slaves. They do not trade in Slaver's Bay."
"Do we have enough gold to buy a ship?"
"And who will sail her? You? Me?" Dornishmen had never been seafarers, not since Nymeria burned her ten thousand ships. "The seas around Valyria are perilous, and thick with corsairs."
"I have had enough of corsairs. Let's not buy a ship."
This is still just a game to him, Quentyn realized, no different than the time he led six of us up into the mountains to find the old lair of the Vulture King. It was not in Gerris Drinkwater's nature to imagine they might fail, let alone that they might die. Even the deaths of three friends had not served to chasten him, it would seem. He leaves that to me. He knows my nature is as cautious as his is bold.
"Perhaps the big man is right," Ser Gerris said. "Piss on the sea, we can finish the journey overland."
"You know why he says that," Quentyn said. "He'd rather die than set foot on another ship." The big man had been greensick every day of their voyage. In Lys, it had taken him four days to recover his strength. They'd had to take rooms in an inn so Maester Kedry could tuck him into a feather bed and feed him broths and potions until some pink returned to his cheeks.
It was possible to go overland to Meereen, that much was true. The old Valyrian roads would take them there. Dragon roads, men called the great stone roadways of the Freehold, but the one that ran eastward from Volantis to Meereen had earned a more sinister name: the demon road.
"The demon road is dangerous, and too slow, " Quentyn said.
"Tywin Lannister will send his own men after the queen once word of her reaches King's Landing." His father had been certain of that. "His will come with knives. If they reach her first - "
"Let's hope her dragons will sniff them out and eat them," said Gerris. "Well, if we cannot find a ship, and you will not let us ride, we had as well book passage back to Dorne."
Crawl back to Sunspear defeated, with my tail between my legs? His father's disappointment would be more than Quentyn could bear, and the scorn of the Sand Snakes would be withering. Doran Martell had put the fate of Dorne into his hands, he could not fail him, not whilst life remained. Heat shimmers rose off the street as the hathay rattled and jounced along on its iron-rimmed wheels, giving a dreamlike quality to their surroundings. In amongst the warehouses and the wharves, shops and stalls of many sorts crowded the waterfront. Here fresh oysters could be bought, here iron chains and manacles, here cyvasse pieces carved of ivory and jade. Here were temples too, where sailors came to sacrifice to foreign gods, cheek by jowl with pillow houses where women called down from balconies to men below. "Have a look at that one," Gerris urged, as they passed one pillow house. "I think she's in love with you."
And how much does a whore' s love cost? Truth be told, girls made Quentyn anxious, especially the pretty ones.
When first he'd come to Yronwood, he had been smitten with Ynys, the eldest of Lord Yronwood's daughters. Though he never said a word about his feelings, he nursed his dreams for years ... until the day she was dispatched to wed Ser Ryon Allyrion, the heir to Godsgrace. The last time he had seen her, she'd had one boy at her breast and another clinging to her skirts.
After Ynys had come the Drinkwater twins, a pair of tawny young maidens who loved hawking, hunting, climbing rocks, and making Quentyn blush. One of them had given him his first kiss, though he never knew which one. As daughters of a landed knight, the twins were too lowborn to marry, but Cletus did not think that was any reason to stop kissing them. "After you're wed you can take one of them for a paramour. Or both, why not?"