"Men can always fight, Your Grace. Ask rather if we can win. Dying is easy, but victory comes hard. Your freedmen are half-trained and un-blooded. Your sellswords once served your foes, and once a man turns his cloak he will not scruple to turn it again. You have two dragons who cannot be controlled, and a third that may be lost to you. Beyond these walls your only friends are the Lhazarene, who have no taste for war."
"My walls are strong, though."
"No stronger than when we sat outside them. And the Sons of the Harpy are inside the walls with us. So are the Great Masters, both those you did not kill and the sons of those you did."
"I know." The queen sighed. "What do you counsel, ser?"
"Battle," said Ser Barristan. "Meereen is overcrowded and full of hungry mouths, and you have too many enemies within. We cannot long withstand a siege, I fear. Let me meet the foe as he comes north, on ground of my own choosing."
"Meet the foe," she echoed, "with the freedmen you've called half-trained and unblooded."
"We were all unblooded once, Your Grace. The Unsullied will help stiffen them. If I had five hundred knights ..."
"Or five. And if I give you the Unsullied, I will have no one but the Brazen Beasts to hold Meereen." When Ser Barristan did not dispute her, Dany closed her eyes. Gods, she prayed, you took Khal Drogo, who was my sun-and-stars. You took our valiant son before he drew a breath. You have had your blood of me. Help me now, I pray you. Give me the wisdom to see the path ahead and the strength to do what I must to keep my children safe. The gods did not respond.
When she opened her eyes again, Daenerys said, "I cannot fight two enemies, one within and one without. If I am to hold Meereen, I must have the city behind me. The whole city. I need ... I need ..." She could not say it.
"Your Grace?" Ser Barristan prompted, gently. A queen belongs not to herself but to her people. "I need Hizdahr zo Loraq."
It was never truly dark in Melisandre's chambers.
Three tallow candles burned upon her windowsill to keep the terrors of the night at bay. Four more flickered beside her bed, two to either side. In the hearth a fire was kept burning day and night. The first lesson those who would serve her had to learn was that the fire must never, ever be allowed to go out.
The red priestess closed her eyes and said a prayer, then opened them once more to face the hearthfire. One more time. She had to be certain. Many a priest and priestess before her had been brought down by false visions, by seeing what they wished to see instead of what the Lord of Light had sent. Stannis was marching south into peril, the king who carried the fate of the world upon his shoulders, Azor Ahai reborn. Surely R'hllor would vouchsafe her a glimpse of what awaited him. Show me Stannis, Lord, she prayed. Show me your king, your instrument.
Visions danced before her, gold and scarlet, flickering, forming and melting and dissolving into one another, shapes strange and terrifying and seductive. She saw the eyeless faces again, staring out at her from sockets weeping blood. Then the towers by the sea, crumbling as the dark tide came sweeping over them, rising from the depths. Shadows in the shape of skulls, skulls that turned to mist, bodies locked together in lust, writhing and rolling and clawing. Through curtains of fire great winged shadows wheeled against a hard blue sky.
The girl. I must find the girl again, the grey girl on the dying horse. Jon Snow would expect that of her, and soon. It would not be enough to say the girl was fleeing. He would want more, he would want the when and where, and she did not have that for him. She had seen the girl only once. A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away. A face took shape within the hearth. Stannis? she thought, for just a moment ... but no, these were not his features. A wooden face, corpse white. Was this the enemy? A thousand red eyes floated in the rising flames. He sees me. Beside him, a boy with a wolf's face threw back his head and howled.
The red priestess shuddered. Blood trickled down her thigh, black and smoking. The fire was inside her, an agony, an ecstasy, filling her, searing her, transforming her. Shimmers of heat traced patterns on her skin, insistent as a lover's hand. Strange voices called to her from days long past.
"Melony," she heard a woman cry. A man's voice called, "Lot Seven."
She was weeping, and her tears were flame. And still she drank it in. Snowflakes swirled from a dark sky and ashes rose to meet them, the grey and the white whirling around each other as flaming arrows arced above a wooden wall and dead things shambled silent through the cold, beneath a great grey cliff where fires burned inside a hundred caves. Then the wind rose and the white mist came sweeping in, impossibly cold, and one by one the fires went out. Afterward only the skulls remained. Death, thought Melisandre. The skulls are death. The flames crackled softly, and in their crackling she heard the whispered name Jon Snow. His long face floated before her, limned in tongues of red and orange, appearing and disappearing again, a shadow half-seen behind a fluttering curtain. Now he was a man, now a wolf, now a man again. But the skulls were here as well, the skulls were all around him. Melisandre had seen his danger before, had tried to warn the boy of it. Enemies all around him, daggers in the dark. He would not listen. Unbelievers never listened until it was too late.
"What do you see, my lady?" the boy asked, softly.
Skulls. A thousand skulls, and the bastard boy again. Jon Snow. Whenever she was asked what she saw within her fires, Melisandre would answer, "Much and more," but seeing was never as simple as those words suggested. It was an art, and like all arts it demanded mastery, discipline, study. Pain. That too. R'hllor spoke to his chosen ones through blessed fire, in a language of ash and cinder and twisting flame that only a god could truly grasp. Melisandre had practiced her art for years beyond count, and she had paid the price. There was no one, even in her order, who had her skill at seeing the secrets half-revealed and half-concealed within the sacred flames. Yet now she could not even seem to find her king. I pray for a glimpse of Azor Ahai, and R' hllor shows me only Snow. "Devan," she called, "a drink." Her throat was raw and parched.
"Yes, my lady." The boy poured her a cup of water from the stone jug by the window and brought it to her.
"Thank you." Melisandre took a sip, swallowed, and gave the boy a smile. That made him blush. The boy was half in love with her, she knew. He fears me, he wants me, and he worships me.
All the same, Devan was not pleased to be here. The lad had taken great pride in serving as a king's squire, and it had wounded him when Stannis commanded him to remain at Castle Black. Like any boy his age, his head was full of dreams of glory; no doubt he had been picturing the prowess he would display at Deepwood Motte. Other boys his age had gone south, to serve as squires to the king's knights and ride into battle at their side. Devan's exclusion must have seemed a rebuke, a punishment for some failure on his part, or perhaps for some failure of his father. In truth, he was here because Melisandre had asked for him. The four eldest sons of Davos Seaworth had perished in the battle on the Blackwater, when the king's fleet had been consumed by green fire. Devan was the fifthborn and safer here with her than at the king's side. Lord Davos would not thank her for it, no more than the boy himself, but it seemed to her that Seaworth had suffered enough grief. Misguided as he was, his loyalty to Stannis could not be doubted. She had seen that in her flames. Devan was quick and smart and able too, which was more than could be said about most of her attendants. Stannis had left a dozen of his men behind to serve her when he marched south, but most of them were useless. His Grace had need of every sword, so all he could spare were grey-beards and cripples. One man had been blinded by a blow to his head in the battle by the Wall, another lamed when his falling horse crushed his legs. Her serjeant had lost an arm to a giant's club. Three of her guard were geldings that Stannis had castrated for raping wildling women. She had two drunkards and a craven too. The last should have been hanged, as the king himself admitted, but he came from a noble family, and his father and brothers had been stalwart from the first.
Having guards about her would no doubt help keep the black brothers properly respectful, the red priestess knew, but none of the men that Stannis had given her were like to be much help should she find herself in peril. It made no matter. Melisandre of Asshai did not fear for herself. R'
She took another sip of water, laid her cup aside, blinked and stretched and rose from her chair, her muscles sore and stiff. After gazing into the flames so long, it took her a few moments to adjust to the dimness. Her eyes were dry and tired, but if she rubbed them, it would only make them worse.
Her fire had burned low, she saw. "Devan, more wood. What hour is it?"
"Almost dawn, my lady."
Dawn. Another day is given us, R' hllor be praised. The terrors of the night recede. Melisandre had spent the night in her chair by the fire, as she often did. With Stannis gone, her bed saw little use. She had no time for sleep, with the weight of the world upon her shoulders. And she feared to dream. Sleep is a little death, dreams the whisperings of the Other, who would drag us all into his eternal night. She would sooner sit bathed in the ruddy glow of her red lord's blessed flames, her cheeks flushed by the wash of heat as if by a lover's kisses. Some nights she drowsed, but never for more than an hour. One day, Melisandre prayed, she would not sleep at all. One day she would be free of dreams. Melony, she thought. Lot Seven. Devan fed fresh logs to the fire until the flames leapt up again, fierce and furious, driving the shadows back into the corners of the room, devouring all her unwanted dreams. The dark recedes again ... for a little while. But beyond the Wall, the enemy grows stronger, and should he win the dawn will never come again. She wondered if it had been his face that she had seen, staring out at her from the flames. No. Surely not. His visage would be more frightening than that, cold and black and too terrible for any man to gaze upon and live. The wooden man she had glimpsed, though, and the boy with the wolf's face ... they were his servants, surely ... his champions, as Stannis was hers.
Melisandre went to her window, pushed open the shutters. Outside the east had just begun to lighten, and the stars of morning still hung in a pitch-black sky. Castle Black was already beginning to stir as men in black cloaks made their way across the yard to break their fast with bowls of porridge before they relieved their brothers atop the Wall. A few snowflakes drifted by the open window, floating on the wind.
"Does my lady wish to break her fast?" asked Devan.
Food. Yes, I should eat. Some days she forgot. R'hllor provided her with all the nourishment her body needed, but that was something best concealed from mortal men.
It was Jon Snow she needed, not fried bread and bacon, but it was no use sending Devan to the lord commander. He would not come to her summons. Snow still chose to dwell behind the armory, in a pair of modest rooms previously occupied by the Watch's late blacksmith. Perhaps he did not think himself worthy of the King's Tower, or perhaps he did not care. That was his mistake, the false humility of youth that is itself a sort of pride. It was never wise for a ruler to eschew the trappings of power, for power itself flows in no small measure from such trappings.