Ser Franklyn did the introductions. Some of the sellsword captains bore bastard names, as Flowers did: Rivers, Hill, Stone. Others claimed names that had once loomed large in the histories of the Seven Kingdoms; Griff counted two Strongs, three Peakes, a Mudd, a Mandrake, a Lothston, a pair of Coles. Not all were genuine, he knew. In the free companies, a man could call himself whatever he chose. By any name, the sellswords displayed a rude splendor. Like many in their trade, they kept their worldly wealth upon their persons: jeweled swords, inlaid armor, heavy torcs, and fine silks were much in evidence, and every man there wore a lord's ransom in golden arm rings. Each ring signified one year's service with the Golden Company. Marq Mandrake, whose pox-scarred face had a hole in one cheek where a slave's mark had been burned away, wore a chain of golden skulls as well. Not every captain was of Westerosi blood. Black Balaq, a
white-haired Summer Islander with skin dark as soot, commanded the company's archers, as in Blackheart's day. He wore a feathered cloak of green and orange, magnificent to behold. The cadaverous Volantene, Gorys Edoryen, had replaced Strickland as paymaster. A leopard skin was draped across one shoulder, and hair as red as blood tumbled to his shoulders in oiled ringlets though his pointed beard was black. The spymaster was new to Griff, a Lyseni named Lysono Maar, with lilac eyes and white-gold hair and lips that would have been the envy of a whore. At first glance, Griff had almost taken him for a woman. His fingernails were painted purple, and his earlobes dripped with pearls and amethysts.
Ghosts and liars, Griff thought, as he surveyed their faces. Revenants from forgotten wars, lost causes, failed rebellions, a brotherhood of the failed and the fallen, the disgraced and the disinherited. This is my army. This is our best hope.
He turned to Harry Strickland.
Homeless Harry looked little like a warrior. Portly, with a big round head, mild grey eyes, and thinning hair that he brushed sideways to conceal a bald spot, Strickland sat in a camp chair soaking his feet in a tub of salt water. "You will pardon me if I do not rise," he said by way of greeting.
"Our march was wearisome, and my toes are prone to blisters. It is a curse."
It is a mark of weakness. You sound like an old woman. The Stricklands had been part of the Golden Company since its founding, Harry's great-grandsire having lost his lands when he rose with the Black Dragon during the first Blackfyre Rebellion. "Gold for four generations," Harry would boast, as if four generations of exile and defeat were something to take pride in.
"I can make you an ointment for that," said Haldon, "and there are certain mineral salts that will toughen your skin."
"That is kind of you." Strickland beckoned to his squire. "Watkyn, wine for our friends."
"Thank you, but no," said Griff. "We will drink water."
"As you prefer." The captain-general smiled up at the prince. "And this must be your son."
Does he know? Griff wondered. How much did Myles tell him? Varys had been adamant about the need for secrecy. The plans that he and Illyrio had made with Blackheart had been known to them alone. The rest of the company had been left ignorant. What they did not know they could not let slip.
That time was done, though. "No man could have asked for a worthier son," Griff said, "but the lad is not of my blood, and his name is not Griff. My lords, I give you Aegon Targaryen, firstborn son of Rhaegar, Prince of Dragonstone, by Princess Elia of Dorne ... soon, with your help, to be Aegon, the Sixth of His Name, King of Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms."
Silence greeted his announcement. Someone cleared his throat. One of the Coles refilled his wine cup from the flagon. Gorys Edoryen played with one of his corkscrew ringlets and murmured something in a tongue Griff did not know. Laswell Peake coughed, Mandrake and Lothston exchanged a glance. They know, Griff realized then. They have known all along. He turned to look at Harry Strickland. "When did you tell them?"
The captain-general wriggled his blistered toes in his footbath.
"When we reached the river. The company was restless, with good reason. We walked away from an easy campaign in the Disputed Lands, and for what? So we could swelter in this god-awful heat watching our coins melt away and our blades go to rust whilst I turn away rich contracts?"
That news made Griff's skin crawl. "Who?"
"The Yunkishmen. The envoy that they sent to woo Volantis has already dispatched three free companies to Slaver's Bay. He wishes us to be the fourth and offers twice what Myr was paying us, plus a slave for every man in the company, ten for every officer, and a hundred choice maidens all for me."
Bloody hell. "That would require thousands of slaves. Where do the Yunkishmen expect to find so many?"
"In Meereen." Strickland beckoned to his squire. "Watkyn, a towel. This water's growing cool, and my toes have wrinkled up like raisins. No, not that towel, the soft one."
"You refused him," said Griff. "I told him I would think on his proposal." Harry winced as his squire toweled his feet. "Gentle with the toes. Think of them as thin-skinned grapes, lad. You want to dry them without crushing them. Pat, do not scrub. Yes, like that." He turned back to Griff. "A blunt refusal would have been unwise. The men might rightly ask if I had taken leave of my wits."
"You will have work for your blades soon enough."
"Will we?" asked Lysono Maar. "I assume you know that the Targaryen girl has not started for the west?"
"We heard that tale in Selhorys."
"No tale. Simple truth. The why of it is harder to grasp. Sack Meereen, aye, why not? I would have done the same in her place. The slaver cities reek of gold, and conquest requires coin. But why linger? Fear?
"The why of it does not matter." Harry Strickland unrolled a pair of striped woolen stockings. "She is in Meereen and we are here, where the Volantenes grow daily more unhappy with our presence. We came to raise up a king and queen who would lead us home to Westeros, but this Targaryen girl seems more intent on planting olive trees than in reclaiming her father's throne. Meanwhile, her foes gather. Yunkai, New Ghis, Tolos. Bloodbeard and the Tattered Prince will both be in the field against her ...
and soon enough the fleets of Old Volantis will descend on her as well. What does she have? Bedslaves with sticks?"
"Unsullied," said Griff. "And dragons."
"Dragons, aye," the captain-general said, "but young ones, hardly more than hatchlings." Strickland eased his sock over his blisters and up his ankle. "How much will they avail her when all these armies close about her city like a fist?"
Tristan Rivers drummed his fingers on his knee. "All the more reason that we must reach her quickly, I say. If Daenerys will not come to us, we must go to Daenerys."
"Can we walk across the waves, ser?" asked Lysono Maar. "I tell you again, we cannot reach the silver queen by sea. I slipped into Volantis myself, posing as a trader, to learn how many ships might be available to us. The harbor teems with galleys, cogs, and carracks of every sort and size, yet even so I soon found myself consorting with smugglers and pirates. We have ten thousand men in the company, as I am sure Lord Connington remembers from his years of service with us. Five hundred knights, each with three horses. Five hundred squires, with one mount apiece. And elephants, we must not forget the elephants. A pirate ship will not suffice. We would need a pirate fleet ... and even if we found one, the word has come back from Slaver's Bay that Meereen has been closed off by blockade."
"We could feign acceptance of the Yunkish offer," urged Gorys Edoryen. "Allow the Yunkai'i to transport us to the east, then return their gold beneath the walls of Meereen."
"One broken contract is stain enough upon the honor of the company." Homeless Harry Strickland paused with his blistered foot in hand. "Let me remind you, it was Myles Toyne who put his seal to this secret pact, not me. I would honor his agreement if I could, but how? It seems plain to me that the Targaryen girl is never coming west. Westeros was her father's kingdom. Meereen is hers. If she can break the Yunkai'i, she'll be Queen of Slaver's Bay. If not, she'll die long before we could hope to reach her."
His words came as no surprise to Griff. Harry Strickland had always been a genial man, better at hammering out contracts than at hammering on foes. He had a nose for gold, but whether he had the belly for battle was another question.
"There is the land route," suggested Franklyn Flowers. "The demon road is death. We will lose half the company to desertion if we attempt that march, and bury half of those who remain beside the road. It grieves me to say it, but Magister Illyrio and his friends may have been unwise to put so much hope on this child queen."
No, thought Griff, but they were most unwise to put their hopes on you. And then Prince Aegon spoke. "Then put your hopes on me," he said.
"Daenerys is Prince Rhaegar's sister, but I am Rhaegar's son. I am the only dragon that you need."
Griff put a black-gloved hand upon Prince Aegon's shoulder.
"Spoken boldly," he said, "but think what you are saying."
"I have," the lad insisted. "Why should I go running to my aunt as if I were a beggar? My claim is better than her own. Let her come to me ...
Franklyn Flowers laughed. "I like it. Sail west, not east. Leave the little queen to her olives and seat Prince Aegon upon the Iron Throne. The boy has stones, give him that."
The captain-general looked as if someone had slapped his face. "Has the sun curdled your brains, Flowers? We need the girl. We need the marriage. If Daenerys accepts our princeling and takes him for her consort, the Seven Kingdoms will do the same. Without her, the lords will only mock his claim and brand him a fraud and a pretender. And how do you propose to get to Westeros? You heard Lysono. There are no ships to be had."
This man is afraid to fight, Griff realized. How could they have chosen him to take the Blackheart' s place? "No ships for Slaver's Bay. Westeros is another matter. The east is closed to us, not the sea. The triarchs would be glad to see the back of us, I do not doubt. They might even help us arrange passage back to the Seven Kingdoms. No city wants an army on its doorstep."
"He's not wrong," said Lysono Maar. "By now the lion surely has the dragon's scent," said one of the Coles, "but Cersei's attentions will be fixed upon Meereen and this other queen. She knows nothing of our prince. Once we land and raise our banners, many and more will flock to join us."
"Some," allowed Homeless Harry, "not many. Rhaegar's sister has dragons. Rhaegar's son does not. We do not have the strength to take the realm without Daenerys and her army. Her Unsullied."
"The first Aegon took Westeros without eunuchs," said Lysono Maar. "Why shouldn't the sixth Aegon do the same?"
"The plan - "
"Which plan?" said Tristan Rivers. "The fat man's plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? First Viserys Targaryen was to join us with fifty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back. Then the Beggar King was dead, and it was to be the sister, a pliable young child queen who was on her way to Pentos with three new-hatched dragons. Instead the girl turns up on Slaver's Bay and leaves a string of burning cities in her wake, and the fat man decides we should meet her by Volantis. Now that plan is in ruins as well.