"If my queen commands it." He took a bite of the pear, his gold tooth gleaming. Juice ran down into his purple beard.
The girl in her wanted to kiss him so much it hurt. His kisses would be hard and cruel, she told herself, and he would not care if I cried out or commanded him to stop. But the queen in her knew that would be folly.
"Tell me of your journey."
He gave a careless shrug. "The Yunkai'i sent some hired swords to close the Khyzai Pass. The Long Lances, they name themselves. We descended on them in the night and sent a few to hell. In Lhazar I slew two of my own serjeants for plotting to steal the gems and gold plate my queen had entrusted to me as gifts for the Lamb Men. Elsewise, all went as I had promised."
"How many men did you lose in the fighting?"
"Nine," said Daario, "but a dozen of the Long Lances decided they would sooner be Stormcrows than corpses, so we came out three ahead. I told them they would live longer fighting with your dragons than against them, and they saw the wisdom in my words."
That made her wary. "They might be spying for Yunkai."
"They are too stupid to be spies. You do not know them."
"Neither do you. Do you trust them?"
"I trust all my men. Just as far as I can spit." He spat out a seed and smiled at her suspicions. "Shall I bring their heads to you? I will, if you command it. One is bald and two have braids and one dyes his beard four different colors. What spy would wear such a beard, I ask you? The slinger can put a stone through a gnat's eye at forty paces, and the ugly one has a way with horses, but if my queen says that they must die ..."
"I did not say that. I only ... see that you keep your eye on them, that's all." She felt foolish saying it. She always felt a little foolish when she was with Daario. Gawky and girlish and slow-witted. What must he think of me? She changed the subject. "Will the Lamb Men send us food?"
"Grain will come down the Skahazadhan by barge, my queen, and other goods by caravan over the Khyzai."
"Not the Skahazadhan. The river has been closed to us. The seas as well. You will have seen the ships out in the bay. The Qartheen have driven off a third of our fishing fleet and seized another third. The others are too frightened to leave port. What little trade we still had has been cut off."
Daario tossed away the pear stem. "Qartheen have milk in their veins. Let them see your dragons, and they'll run."
Dany did not want to talk about the dragons. Farmers still came to her court with burned bones, complaining of missing sheep, though Drogon had not returned to the city. Some reported seeing him north of the river, above the grass of the Dothraki sea. Down in the pit, Viserion had snapped one of his chains; he and Rhaegal grew more savage every day. Once the iron doors had glowed red-hot, her Unsullied told her, and no one dared to touch them for a day. "Astapor is under siege as well."
"This I knew. One of the Long Lances lived long enough to tell us that men were eating one another in the Red City. He said Meereen's turn would come soon, so I cut his tongue out and fed it to a yellow dog. No dog will eat a liar's tongue. When the yellow dog ate his, I knew he spoke the truth."
"I have war inside the city too." She told him of the Harpy's Sons and the Brazen Beasts, of blood upon the bricks. "My enemies are all around me, within the city and without."
"Attack," he said at once. "A man surrounded by foes cannot defend himself. Try, and the axe will take you in the back whilst you are parrying the sword. No. When faced with many enemies, choose the weakest, kill him, ride over him, and escape."
"Where should I escape to?"
"Into my bed. Into my arms. Into my heart." The hilts of Daario's arakh and stiletto were wrought in the shape of golden women, naked and wanton. He brushed his thumbs across them in a way that was remarkably obscene and smiled a wicked smile.
Dany felt blood rushing to her face. It was almost as if he were caressing her. Would he think me wanton too if I pulled him into bed? He made her want to be his wanton. I should never see him alone. He is too dangerous to have near me. "The Green Grace says that I must take a Ghiscari king," she said, flustered. "She urges me to wed the noble Hizdahr zo Loraq."
"That one?" Daario chuckled. "Why not Grey Worm, if you want a eunuch in your bed? Do you want a king?"
I want you. "I want peace. I gave Hizdahr ninety days to end the killings. If he does, I will take him for a husband."
"Take me for your husband. I will do it in nine."
You know I cannot do that, she almost said. "You are fighting shadows when you should be fighting the men who cast them," Daario went on. "Kill them all and take their treasures, I say. Whisper the command, and your Daario will make you a pile of their heads taller than this pyramid."
"If I knew who they were - "
"Zhak and Pahl and Merreq. Them, and all the rest. The Great Masters. Who else would it be?"
He is as bold as he is bloody. "We have no proof this is their work. Would you have me slaughter my own subjects?"
"Your own subjects would gladly slaughter you."
He had been so long away, Dany had almost forgotten what he was. Sellswords were treacherous by nature, she reminded herself. Fickle, faithless, brutal. He will never be more than he is. He will never be the stuff of kings. "The pyramids are strong," she explained to him. "We could take them only at great cost. The moment we attack one the others will rise against us."
"Then winkle them out of their pyramids on some pretext. A wedding might serve. Why not? Promise your hand to Hizdahr and all the Great Masters will come to see you married. When they gather in the Temple of the Graces, turn us loose upon them."
Dany was appalled. He is a monster. A gallant monster, but a monster still. "Do you take me for the Butcher King?"
"Better the butcher than the meat. All kings are butchers. Are queens so different?"
"This queen is."
Daario shrugged. "Most queens have no purpose but to warm some king's bed and pop out sons for him. If that's the sort of queen you mean to be, best marry Hizdahr."
Her anger flashed. "Have you forgotten who I am?"
"No. Have you?"
Viserys would have his head off for that insolence. "I am the blood of the dragon. Do not presume to teach me lessons." When Dany stood, the lion pelt slipped from her shoulders and tumbled to the ground. "Leave me."
Daario gave her a sweeping bow. "I live to obey."
When he was gone, Daenerys called Ser Barristan back. "I want the Stormcrows back in the field."
"Your Grace? They have only now returned ..."
"I want them gone. Let them scout the Yunkish hinterlands and give protection to any caravans coming over the Khyzai Pass. Henceforth Daario shall make his reports to you. Give him every honor that is due him and see that his men are well paid, but on no account admit him to my presence."
"As you say, Your Grace."
That night she could not sleep but turned and twisted restlessly in her bed. She even went so far as to summon Irri, hoping her caresses might help ease her way to rest, but after a short while she pushed the Dothraki girl away. Irri was sweet and soft and willing, but she was not Daario. What have I done? she thought, huddled in her empty bed. I have waited so long for him to come back, and I send him away. "He would make a monster of me," she whispered, "a butcher queen." But then she thought of Drogon far away, and the dragons in the pit. There is blood on my hands too, and on my heart. We are not so different, Daario and I. We are both monsters.
THE LOST LORD
It should not have taken this long, Griff told himself as he paced the deck of the Shy Maid. Had they lost Haldon as they had Tyrion Lannister?
Could the Volantenes have taken him? I should have sent Duck-field with him. Haldon alone could not be trusted; he had proved that in Selhorys when he let the dwarf escape.
The Shy Maid was tied up in one of the meaner sections of the long, chaotic riverfront, between a listing poleboat that had not left the pier in years and the gaily painted mummers' barge. The mummers were a loud and lively lot, always quoting speeches at each other and drunk more oft than not.
The day was hot and sticky, as all the days had been since they left the Sorrows. A ferocious southern sun beat down upon the crowded riverfront of Volon Therys, but heat was the last and least of Griff's concerns. The Golden Company was encamped three miles south of town, well north of where he had expected them, and Triarch Malaquo had come north with five thousand foot and a thousand horse to cut them off from the delta road. Daenerys Targaryen remained a world away, and Tyrion Lannister ... well, he could be most anywhere. If the gods were good, Lannister's severed head was halfway back to King's Landing by now, but more like the dwarf was hale and whole and somewhere close, stinking drunk and plotting some new infamy.
"Where in the seven hells is Haldon?" Griff complained to Lady Lemore. "How long should it take to buy three horses?"
She shrugged. "My lord, wouldn't it be safer to leave the boy here aboard the boat?"
"Safer, yes. Wiser, no. He is a man grown now, and this is the road that he was born to walk." Griff had no patience for this quibbling. He was sick of hiding, sick of waiting, sick of caution. I do not have time enough for caution.
"We have gone to great lengths to keep Prince Aegon hidden all these years," Lemore reminded him. "The time will come for him to wash his hair and declare himself, I know, but that time is not now. Not to a camp of sellswords."
"If Harry Strickland means him ill, hiding him on the Shy Maid will not protect him. Strickland has ten thousand swords at his command. We have Duck. Aegon is all that could be wanted in a prince. They need to see that, Strickland and the rest. These are his own men."
"His because they're bought and paid for. Ten thousand armed strangers, plus hangers-on and camp followers. All it takes is one to bring us all to ruin. If Hugor's head was worth a lord's honors, how much will Cersei Lannister pay for the rightful heir to the Iron Throne? You do not know these men, my lord. It has been a dozen years since you last rode with the Golden Company, and your old friend is dead."
Blackheart. Myles Toyne had been so full of life the last time Griff had left him, it was hard to accept that he was gone. A golden skull atop a pole, and Homeless Harry Strickland in his place. Lemore was not wrong, he knew. Whatever their sires or their grandsires might have been back in Westeros before their exile, the men of the Golden Company were sell-swords now, and no sellsword could be trusted. Even so ...
Last night he'd dreamt of Stoney Sept again. Alone, with sword in hand, he ran from house to house, smashing down doors, racing up stairs, leaping from roof to roof, as his ears rang to the sound of distant bells. Deep bronze booms and silver chiming pounded through his skull, a maddening cacophony of noise that grew ever louder until it seemed as if his head would explode.
Seventeen years had come and gone since the Battle of the Bells, yet the sound of bells ringing still tied a knot in his guts. Others might claim that the realm was lost when Prince Rhaegar fell to Robert's warhammer on the Trident, but the Battle of the Trident would never have been fought if the griffin had only slain the stag there in Stoney Sept. The bells tolled for all of us that day. For Aerys and his queen, for Elia of Dorne and her little daughter, for every true man and honest woman in the Seven Kingdoms. And for my silver prince.