A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire 5) - Page 42

"I had to come," said Xaro in a languid tone. "Even far away in Qarth, fearful tales had reached my ears. I wept to hear them. It is said that your enemies have promised wealth and glory and a hundred virgin slave girls to any man who slays you."

"The Sons of the Harpy." How does he know that? "They scrawl on walls by night and cut the throats of honest freedmen as they sleep. When the sun comes up they hide like roaches. They fear my Brazen Beasts."

Skahaz mo Kandaq had given her the new watch she had asked for, made up in equal numbers of freedmen and shavepate Meereenese. They walked the streets both day and night, in dark hoods and brazen masks. The Sons of the Harpy had promised grisly death to any traitor who dared serve the dragon queen, and to their kith and kin as well, so the Shavepate's men went about as jackals, owls, and other beasts, keeping their true faces hidden. "I might have cause to fear the Sons if they saw me wandering alone through the streets, but only if it was night and I was naked and unarmed. They are craven creatures."

"A craven's knife can slay a queen as easily as a hero's. I would sleep more soundly if I knew my heart's delight had kept her fierce horselords close around her. In Qarth, you had three bloodriders who never left your side. Wherever have they gone?"

"Aggo, Jhoqo, and Rakharo still serve me." He is playing games with me. Dany could play as well. "I am only a young girl and know little of such things, but older, wiser men tell me that to hold Meereen I must control its hinterlands, all the land west of Lhazar as far south as the Yunkish hills."

"Your hinterlands are not precious to me. Your person is. Should any ill befall you, this world would lose its savor."

"My lord is good to care so much, but I am well protected." Dany gestured toward where Barristan Selmy stood with one hand resting on his sword hilt. "Barristan the Bold, they call him. Twice he has saved me from assassins."

Xaro gave Selmy a cursory inspection. "Barristan the Old, did you say? Your bear knight was younger, and devoted to you."

"I do not wish to speak of Jorah Mormont."

"To be sure. The man was coarse and hairy." The merchant prince leaned across the table. "Let us speak instead of love, of dreams and desire and Daenerys, the fairest woman in this world. I am drunk with the sight of you."

She was no stranger to the overblown courtesies of Qarth. "If you are drunk, blame the wine."

"No wine is half so intoxicating as your beauty. My manse has seemed as empty as a tomb since Daenerys departed, and all the pleasures of the Queen of Cities have been as ashes in my mouth. Why did you abandon me?"

I was hounded from your city in fear for my life. "It was time. Qarth wished me gone."

"Who? The Pureborn? They have water in their veins. The Spicers?

There are curds between their ears. And the Undying are all dead. You should have taken me to husband. I am almost certain that I asked you for your hand. Begged you, even."

"Only half a hundred times," Dany teased. "You gave up too easily, my lord. For I must marry, all agree."

"A khaleesi must have a khal," said Irri, as she filled the queen's cup once again. "This is known."

"Shall I ask again?" wondered Xaro. "No, I know that smile. It is a cruel queen who dices with men's hearts. Humble merchants like myself are no more than stones beneath your jeweled sandals."

A single tear ran slowly down his pale white cheek.

Dany knew him too well to be moved. Qartheen men could weep at will. "Oh, stop that." She took a cherry from the bowl on the table and threw it at his nose. "I may be a young girl, but I am not so foolish as to wed a man who finds a fruit platter more enticing than my breast. I saw which dancers you were watching."

Xaro wiped away his tear. "The same ones Your Grace was following, I believe. You see, we are alike. If you will not take me for your husband, I am content to be your slave."

"I want no slave. I free you." His jeweled nose made a tempting target. This time Dany threw an apricot at him.

Xaro caught it in the air and took a bite. "Whence came this madness?

Should I count myself fortunate that you did not free my own slaves when you were my guest in Qarth?"

I was a beggar queen and you were Xaro of the Thirteen, Dany thought, and all you wanted were my dragons. "Your slaves seemed well treated and content. It was not till Astapor that my eyes were opened. Do you know how Unsullied are made and trained?"

"Cruelly, I have no doubt. When a smith makes a sword, he thrusts the blade into the fire, beats on it with a hammer, then plunges it into iced water to temper the steel. If you would savor the sweet taste of the fruit, you must water the tree."

"This tree has been watered with blood."

"How else, to grow a soldier? Your Radiance enjoyed my dancers. Would it surprise you to know that they are slaves, bred and trained in Yunkai? They have been dancing since they were old enough to walk. How else to achieve such perfection?" He took a swallow of his wine. "They are expert in all the erotic arts as well. I had thought to make Your Grace a gift of them."

"By all means." Dany was unsurprised. "I shall free them."

That made him wince. "And what would they do with freedom? As well give a fish a suit of mail. They were made to dance."

"Made by who? Their masters? Perhaps your dancers would sooner build or bake or farm. Have you asked them?"

"Perhaps your elephants would sooner be nightingales. Instead of sweet song, Meereen's nights would be filled with thunderous trumpetings, and your trees would shatter beneath the weight of great grey birds." Xaro sighed. "Daenerys, my delight, beneath that sweet young breast beats a tender heart ... but take counsel from an older, wiser head. Things are not always as they seem. Much that may seem evil can be good. Consider rain."

"Rain?" Does he take me for a fool, or just a child? "We curse the rain when it falls upon our heads, yet without it we should starve. The world needs rain ... and slaves. You make a face, but it is true. Consider Qarth. In art, music, magic, trade, all that makes us more than beasts, Qarth sits above the rest of mankind as you sit at the summit of this pyramid ... but below, in place of bricks, the magnificence that is the Queen of Cities rests upon the backs of slaves. Ask yourself, if all men must grub in the dirt for food, how shall any man lift his eyes to contemplate the stars? If each of us must break his back to build a hovel, who shall raise the temples to glorify the gods? For some men to be great, others must be enslaved."

He was too eloquent for her. Dany had no answer for him, only the raw feeling in her belly. "Slavery is not the same as rain," she insisted. "I have been rained on and I have been sold. It is not the same. No man wants to be owned. "

Xaro gave a languid shrug. "As it happens, when I came ashore in your sweet city, I chanced to see upon the riverbank a man who had once been a guest in my manse, a merchant who dealt in rare spices and choice wines. He was naked from the waist up, red and peeling, and seemed to be digging a hole."

"Not a hole. A ditch, to bring water from the river to the fields. We mean to plant beans. The beanfields must have water."

"How kind of my old friend to help with the digging. And how very unlike him. Is it possible he was given no choice in the matter? No, surely not. You have no slaves in Meereen."

Dany flushed. "Your friend is being paid with food and shelter. I cannot give him back his wealth. Meereen needs beans more than it needs rare spices, and beans require water."

"Would you set my dancers to digging ditches as well? Sweet queen, when he saw me, my old friend fell to his knees and begged me to buy him as a slave and take him back to Qarth."

She felt as if he'd slapped her. "Buy him, then."

"If it please you. I know it will please him. " He put his hand upon her arm. "There are truths only a friend may tell you. I helped you when you came to Qarth a beggar, and I have crossed long leagues and stormy seas to help you once again. Is there some place where we might speak frankly?"

Dany could feel the warmth of his fingers. He was warm in Qarth as well, she recalled, until the day he had no more use for me. She rose to her feet. "Come," she said, and Xaro followed her through the pillars, to the wide marble steps that led up to her private chambers at the apex of the pyramid.

"Oh most beautiful of women," Xaro said, as they began to climb, "there are footsteps behind us. We are followed."

"My old knight does not frighten you, surely? Ser Barristan is sworn to keep my secrets."

She took him out onto the terrace that overlooked the city. A full moon swam in the black sky above Meereen. "Shall we walk?" Dany slipped her arm through his. The air was heavy with the scent of night-blooming flowers. "You spoke of help. Trade with me, then. Meereen has salt to sell, and wine ..."

"Ghiscari wine?" Xaro made a sour face. "The sea provides all the salt that Qarth requires, but I would gladly take as many olives as you cared to sell me. Olive oil as well."

"I have none to offer. The slavers burned the trees." Olives had been grown along the shores of Slaver's Bay for centuries; but the Meereenese had put their ancient groves to the torch as Dany's host advanced on them, leaving her to cross a blackened wasteland. "We are replanting, but it takes seven years before an olive tree begins to bear, and thirty years before it can truly be called productive. What of copper?"

"A pretty metal, but fickle as a woman. Gold, now ... gold is sincere. Qarth will gladly give you gold ... for slaves."

"Meereen is a free city of free men."

"A poor city that once was rich. A hungry city that once was fat. A bloody city that once was peaceful."

His accusations stung. There was too much truth in them. "Meereen will be rich and fat and peaceful once again, and free as well. Go to the Dothraki if you must have slaves."

"Dothraki make slaves, Ghiscari train them. And to reach Qarth, the horselords must needs drive their captives across the red waste. Hundreds would die, if not thousands ... and many horses too, which is why no khal will risk it. And there is this: Qarth wants no khalasars seething round our walls. The stench of all those horses ... meaning no offense, Khaleesi. "

"A horse has an honest smell. That is more than can be said of some great lords and merchant princes."

Xaro took no notice of the sally. "Daenerys, let me be honest with you, as befits a friend. You will not make Meereen rich and fat and peaceful. You will only bring it to destruction, as you did Astapor. You are aware that there was battle joined at the Horns of Hazzat? The Butcher King has fled back to his palace, his new Unsullied running at his heels."

"This is known." Brown Ben Plumm had sent back word of the battle from the field. "The Yunkai'i have bought themselves new sellswords, and two legions from New Ghis fought beside them."

"Two will soon become four, then ten. And Yunkish envoys have been sent to Myr and Volantis to hire more blades. The Company of the Cat, the Long Lances, the Windblown. Some say that the Wise Masters have bought the Golden Company as well."

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