A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire 5) - Page 82

"Others blamed Daenerys," said the weaver, "but more of us still loved you. 'She is on her way,' we said to one another. 'She is coming at the head of a great host, with food for all.' "

I can scarce feed my own folk. If I had marched to Astapor, I would have lost Meereen.

The cobbler told them how the body of the Butcher King had been disinterred and clad in copper armor, after the Green Grace of Astapor had a vision that he would deliver them from the Yunkai'i. Armored and stinking, the corpse of Cleon the Great was strapped onto the back of a starving horse to lead the remnants of his new Unsullied on a sortie, but they rode right into the iron teeth of a legion from New Ghis and were cut down to a man.

"Afterward the Green Grace was impaled upon a stake in the Plaza of Punishment and left until she died. In the pyramid of Ullhor, the survivors had a great feast that lasted half the night, and washed the last of their food down with poison wine so none need wake again come morning. Soon after came the sickness, a bloody flux that killed three men of every four, until a mob of dying men went mad and slew the guards on the main gate."

The old brickmaker broke in to say, "No. That was the work of healthy men, running to escape the flux."

"Does it matter?" asked the cobbler. "The guards were torn apart and the gates thrown open. The legions of New Ghis came pouring into Astapor, followed by the Yunkai'i and the sellswords on their horses. Queen Whore died fighting them with a curse upon her lips. King Cutthroat yielded and was thrown into a fighting pit, to be torn apart by a pack of starving dogs."

"Even then some said that you were coming," said the weaver.

"They swore they had seen you mounted on a dragon, flying high above the camps of the Yunkai'i. Every day we looked for you."

I could not come, the queen thought. I dare not. "And when the city fell?" demanded Skahaz. "What then?"

"The butchery began. The Temple of the Graces was full of the sick who had come to ask the gods to heal them. The legions sealed the doors and set the temple ablaze with torches. Within the hour fires were burning in every corner of the city. As they spread they joined with one another. The streets were full of mobs, running this way and that to escape the flames, but there was no way out. The Yunkai'i held the gates."

"Yet you escaped," the Shavepate said. "How is that?"

The old man answered. "I am by trade a brickmaker, as my father and his father were before me. My grandfather built our house up against the city walls. It was an easy thing to work loose a few bricks every night. When I told my friends, they helped me shore up the tunnel so it would not collapse. We all agreed that it might be good to have our own way out."

I left you with a council to rule over you, Dany thought, a healer, a scholar, and a priest. She could still recall the Red City as she had first seen it, dry and dusty behind its red brick walls, dreaming cruel dreams, yet full of life. There were islands in the Worm where lovers kissed, but in the Plaza of Punishment they peeled the skin off men in strips and left them hanging naked for the flies. "It is good that you have come," she told the Astapori.

"You will be safe in Meereen."

The cobbler thanked her for that, and the old brickmaker kissed her foot, but the weaver looked at her with eyes as hard as slate. She knows I lie, the queen thought. She knows I cannot keep them safe. Astapor is burning, and Meereen is next.

"There's more coming," Brown Ben announced when the Astapori had been led away. "These three had horses. Most are afoot."

"How many are they?" asked Reznak.

Brown Ben shrugged. "Hundreds. Thousands. Some sick, some burned, some wounded. The Cats and the Windblown are swarming through the hills with lance and lash, driving them north and cutting down the laggards."

"Mouths on feet. And sick, you say?" Reznak wrung his hands.

"Your Worship must not allow them in the city."

"I wouldn't," said Brown Ben Plumm. "I'm no maester, mind you, but I know you got to keep the bad apples from the good."

"These are not apples, Ben," said Dany. "These are men and women, sick and hungry and afraid." My children. "I should have gone to Astapor."

"Your Grace could not have saved them," said Ser Barristan. "You warned King Cleon against this war with Yunkai. The man was a fool, and his hands were red with blood."

And are my hands any cleaner? She remembered what Daario had said - that all kings must be butchers, or meat. "Cleon was the enemy of our enemy. If I had joined him at the Horns of Hazzat, we might have crushed the Yunkai'i between us."

The Shavepate disagreed. "If you had taken the Unsullied south to Hazzat, the Sons of the Harpy - "

"I know. I know. It is Eroeh all over again."

Brown Ben Plumm was puzzled. "Who is Eroeh?"

"A girl I thought I'd saved from rape and torment. All I did was make it worse for her in the end. And all I did in Astapor was make ten thousand Eroehs."

"Your Grace could not have known - "

"I am the queen. It was my place to know."

"What is done is done," said Reznak mo Reznak. "Your Worship, I beg you, take the noble Hizdahr for your king at once. He can speak with the Wise Masters, make a peace for us."

"On what terms?" Beware the perfumed seneschal, Quaithe had said. The masked woman had foretold the coming of the pale mare, was she right about the noble Reznak too? "I may be a young girl innocent of war, but I am not a lamb to walk bleating into the harpy's den. I still have my Unsullied. I have the Stormcrows and the Second Sons. I have three companies of freedmen."

"Them, and dragons," said Brown Ben Plumm, with a grin. "In the pit, in chains," wailed Reznak mo Reznak. "What good are dragons that cannot be controlled? Even the Unsullied grow fearful when they must open the doors to feed them."

"What, o' the queen's little pets?" Brown Ben's eyes crinkled in amusement. The grizzled captain of the Second Sons was a creature of the free companies, a mongrel with the blood of a dozen different peoples flowing through his veins, but he had always been fond of the dragons, and them of him.

"Pets?" screeched Reznak. "Monsters, rather. Monsters that feed on children. We cannot - "

"Silence, " said Daenerys. "We will not speak of that."

Reznak shrank away from her, flinching from the fury in her tone.

"Forgive me, Magnificence, I did not ..."

Brown Ben Plumm bulled over him. "Your Grace, the Yunkish got three free companies against our two, and there's talk the Yunkishmen sent to Volantis to fetch back the Golden Company. Those bastards field ten thousand. Yunkai's got four Ghiscari legions too, maybe more, and I heard it said they sent riders across the Dothraki sea to maybe bring some big khalasar down on us. We need them dragons, the way I see it."

Dany sighed. "I am sorry, Ben. I dare not loose the dragons." She could see that was not the answer that he wanted.

Plumm scratched at his speckled whiskers. "If there's no dragons in the balance, well ... we should leave before them Yunkish bastards close the trap ... only first, make the slavers pay to see our backs. They pay the khals to leave their cities be, why not us? Sell Meereen back to them and start west with wagons full o' gold and gems and such."

"You want me to loot Meereen and flee? No, I will not do that. Grey Worm, are my freedmen ready for battle?"

The eunuch crossed his arms against his chest. "They are not Unsul-lied, but they will not shame you. This one will swear to that by spear and sword, Your Worship."

"Good. That's good." Daenerys looked at the faces of the men around her. The Shavepate, scowling. Ser Barristan, with his lined face and sad blue eyes. Reznak mo Reznak, pale, sweating. Brown Ben, white-haired, grizzled, tough as old leather. Grey Worm, smooth-cheeked, stolid, expressionless. Daario should be here, and my bloodriders, she thought. If there is to be a battle, the blood of my blood should be with me. She missed Ser Jorah Mormont too. He lied to me, informed on me, but he loved me too, and he always gave good counsel. "I defeated the Yunkai'i before. I will defeat them again. Where, though? How?"

"You mean to take the field?" The Shavepate's voice was thick with disbelief. "That would be folly. Our walls are taller and thicker than the walls of Astapor, and our defenders are more valiant. The Yunkai'i will not take this city easily."

Ser Barristan disagreed. "I do not think we should allow them to invest us. Theirs is a patchwork host at best. These slavers are no soldiers. If we take them unawares ..."

"Small chance of that," the Shavepate said. "The Yunkai'i have many friends inside the city. They will know."

"How large an army can we muster?" Dany asked. "Not large

enough, begging your royal pardon," said Brown Ben Plumm. "What does Naharis have to say? If we're going to make a fight o' this, we need his Stormcrows."

"Daario is still in the field." Oh, gods, what have I done? Have I sent him to his death? "Ben, I will need your Second Sons to scout our enemies. Where they are, how fast they are advancing, how many men they have, and how they are disposed."

"We'll need provisions. Fresh horses too."

"Of course. Ser Barristan will see to it."

Brown Ben scratched his chin. "Might be we could get some o'

them to come over. If Your Grace could spare a few bags o' gold and gems ... just to give their captains a good taste, as it were ... well, who knows?"

"Buy them, why not?" Dany said. That sort of thing went on all the time amongst the free companies of the Disputed Lands, she knew. "Yes, very good. Reznak, see to it. Once the Second Sons ride out, close the gates and double the watch upon the walls."

"It shall be done, Magnificence," said Reznak mo Reznak. "What of these Astapori?"

My children. "They are coming here for help. For succor and protection. We cannot turn our backs on them."

Ser Barristan frowned. "Your Grace, I have known the bloody flux to destroy whole armies when left to spread unchecked. The seneschal is right. We cannot have the Astapori in Meereen."

Dany looked at him helplessly. It was good that dragons did not cry.

"As you say, then. We will keep them outside the walls until this ... this curse has run its course. Set up a camp for them beside the river, west of the city. We will send them what food we can. Perhaps we can separate the healthy from the sick." All of them were looking at her. "Will you make me say it twice? Go and do as I've commanded you." Dany rose, brushed past Brown Ben, and climbed the steps to the sweet solitude of her terrace. Two hundred leagues pided Meereen from Astapor, yet it seemed to her that the sky was darker to the southwest, smudged and hazy with the smoke of the Red City's passing. Brick and blood built Astapor, and brick and blood its people. The old rhyme rang in her head. Ash and bone is Astapor, and ash and bone its people. She tried to recall Eroeh's face, but the dead girl's features kept turning into smoke.

When Daenerys finally turned away, Ser Barristan stood near her, wrapped in his white cloak against the chill of evening. "Can we make a fight of this?" she asked him.

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