A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire 5) - Page 97

"is there no more we can do? You have provisions."

"Provisions for Your Grace's soldiers. We may well need to withstand a long siege. The Stormcrows and the Second Sons can harry the Yunkishmen, but they cannot hope to turn them. If Your Grace would allow me to assemble an army ..."

"If there must be a battle, I would sooner fight it from behind the walls of Meereen. Let the Yunkai'i try and storm my battlements." The queen surveyed the scene around her. "If we were to share our food equally ..."

"... the Astapori would eat through their portion in days, and we would have that much less for the siege."

Dany gazed across the camp, to the many-colored brick walls of Meereen. The air was thick with flies and cries. "The gods have sent this pestilence to humble me. So many dead ... I will not have them eating corpses." She beckoned Aggo closer. "Ride to the gates and bring me Grey Worm and fifty of his Unsullied."

"Khaleesi. The blood of your blood obeys." Aggo touched his horse with his heels and galloped off.

Ser Barristan watched with ill-concealed apprehension. "You should not linger here overlong, Your Grace. The Astapori are being fed, as you commanded. There's no more we can do for the poor wretches. We should repair back to the city."

"Go if you wish, ser. I will not detain you. I will not detain any of you." Dany vaulted down from the horse. "I cannot heal them, but I can show them that their Mother cares."

Jhogo sucked in his breath. "Khaleesi, no."

The bell in his braid rang

softly as he dismounted. "You must not get any closer. Do not let them touch you! Do not!"

Dany walked right past him. There was an old man on the ground a few feet away, moaning and staring up at the grey belly of the clouds. She knelt beside him, wrinkling her nose at the smell, and pushed back his dirty grey hair to feel his brow. "His flesh is on fire. I need water to bathe him. Seawater will serve. Marselen, will you fetch some for me? I need oil as well, for the pyre. Who will help me burn the dead?"

By the time Aggo returned with Grey Worm and fifty of the Unsullied loping behind his horse, Dany had shamed all of them into helping her. Symon Stripeback and his men were pulling the living from the dead and stacking up the corpses, while Jhogo and Rakharo and their Dothraki helped those who could still walk toward the shore to bathe and wash their clothes. Aggo stared at them as if they had all gone mad, but Grey Worm knelt beside the queen and said, "This one would be of help."

Before midday a dozen fires were burning. Columns of greasy black smoke rose up to stain a merciless blue sky. Dany's riding clothes were stained and sooty as she stepped back from the pyres. "Worship," Grey Worm said, "this one and his brothers beg your leave to bathe in the salt sea when our work here is done, that we might be purified according to the laws of our great goddess."

The queen had not known that the eunuchs had a goddess of their own.

"Who is this goddess? One of the gods of Ghis?"

Grey Worm looked troubled. "The goddess is called by many names. She is the Lady of Spears, the Bride of Battle, the Mother of Hosts, but her true name belongs only to these poor ones who have burned their manhoods upon her altar. We may not speak of her to others. This one begs your forgiveness."

"As you wish. Yes, you may bathe if that is your desire. Thank you for your help."

"These ones live to serve you."

When Daenerys returned to her pyramid, sore of limb and sick of heart, she found Missandei reading some old scroll whilst Irri and Jhiqui argued about Rakharo. "You are too skinny for him," Jhiqui was saying.

"You are almost a boy. Rakharo does not bed with boys. This is known."

Irri bristled back. "It is known that you are almost a cow. Rakharo does not bed with cows."

"Rakharo is blood of my blood. His life belongs to me, not you,"

Dany told the two of them. Rakharo had grown almost half a foot during his time away from Meereen and returned with arms and legs thick with muscle and four bells in his hair. He towered over Aggo and Jhogo now, as her handmaids had both noticed. "Now be quiet. I need to bathe." She had never felt more soiled. "Jhiqui, help me from these clothes, then take them away and burn them. Irri, tell Qezza to find me something light and cool to wear. The day was very hot."

A cool wind was blowing on her terrace. Dany sighed with pleasure as she slipped into the waters of her pool. At her command, Missandei stripped off her clothes and climbed in after her. "This one heard the Astapori scratching at the walls last night," the little scribe said as she was washing Dany's back.

Irri and Jhiqui exchanged a look. "No one was scratching," said Jhiqui. "Scratching ... how could they scratch?"

"With their hands," said Missandei. "The bricks are old and crumbling. They are trying to claw their way into the city."

"This would take them many years," said Irri. "The walls are very thick. This is known."

"It is known," agreed Jhiqui.

"I dream of them as well." Dany took Missandei's hand. "The camp is a good half-mile from the city, my sweetling. No one was scratching at the walls."

"Your Grace knows best," said Missandei. "Shall I wash your hair?

It is almost time. Reznak mo Reznak and the Green Grace are coming to discuss - "

" - the wedding preparations." Dany sat up with a splash. "I had almost forgotten." Perhaps I wanted to forget. "And after them, I am to dine with Hizdahr." She sighed. "Irri, bring the green tokar, the silk one fringed with Myrish lace."

"That one is being repaired, Khaleesi. The lace was torn. The blue tokar has been cleaned."

"Blue, then. They will be just as pleased."

She was only half-wrong. The priestess and the seneschal were happy to see her garbed in a tokar, a proper Meereenese lady for once, but what they really wanted was to strip her bare. Daenerys heard them out, incredulous. When they were done, she said, "I have no wish to give offense, but I will not present myself naked to Hizdahr's mother and sisters."

"But," said Reznak mo Reznak, blinking, "but you must, Your Worship. Before a marriage it is traditional for the women of the man's house to examine the bride's womb and, ah ... her female parts. To ascertain that they are well formed and, ah ..."

"... fertile," finished Galazza Galare. "An ancient ritual, Your Radiance. Three Graces shall be present to witness the examination and say the proper prayers."

"Yes," said Reznak, "and afterward there is a special cake. A women's cake, baked only for betrothals. Men are not allowed to taste it. I am told it is delicious. Magical."

And if my womb is withered and my female parts accursed, is there a special cake for that as well? "Hizdahr zo Loraq may inspect my women'

s parts after we are wed." Khal Drogo found no fault with them, why should he? "Let his mother and his sisters examine one another and share the special cake. I shall not be eating it. Nor shall I wash the noble Hizdahr's noble feet."

"Magnificence, you do not understand," protested Reznak. "The washing of the feet is hallowed by tradition. It signifies that you shall be your husband's handmaid. The wedding garb is fraught with meaning too. The bride is dressed in dark red veils above a tokar of white silk, fringed with baby pearls."

The queen of the rabbits must not be wed without her floppy ears.

"All those pearls will make me rattle when I walk."

"The pearls symbolize fertility. The more pearls Your Worship wears, the more healthy children she will bear."

"Why would I want a hundred children?" Dany turned to the Green Grace. "If we should wed by Westerosi rites ..."

"The gods of Ghis would deem it no true union." Galazza Galare'

s face was hidden behind a veil of green silk. Only her eyes showed, green and wise and sad. "In the eyes of the city you would be the noble Hizdahr'

s concubine, not his lawful wedded wife. Your children would be bastards. Your Worship must marry Hizdahr in the Temple of the Graces, with all the nobility of Meereen on hand to bear witness to your union."

Get the heads of all the noble houses out of their pyramids on some pretext, Daario had said. The dragon' s words are fire and blood. Dany pushed the thought aside. It was not worthy of her. "As you wish," she sighed. "I shall marry Hizdahr in the Temple of the Graces wrapped in a white tokar fringed with baby pearls. Is there anything else?"

"One more small matter, Your Worship," said Reznak. "To

celebrate your nuptials, it would be most fitting if you would allow the fighting pits to open once again. It would be your wedding gift to Hizdahr and to your loving people, a sign that you had embraced the ancient ways and customs of Meereen."

"And most pleasing to the gods as well," the Green Grace added in her soft and kindly voice.

A bride price paid in blood. Daenerys was weary of fighting this battle. Even Ser Barristan did not think she could win. "No ruler can make a people good," Selmy had told her. "Baelor the Blessed prayed and fasted and built the Seven as splendid a temple as any gods could wish for, yet he could not put an end to war and want." A queen must listen to her people, Dany reminded herself. "After the wedding Hizdahr will be king. Let him reopen the fighting pits if he wishes. I want no part of it." Let the blood be on his hands, not mine. She rose. "If my husband wishes me to wash his feet, he must first wash mine. I will tell him so this evening." She wondered how her betrothed would take that.

She need not have been concerned. Hizdahr zo Loraq arrived an hour after the sun had set. His own tokar was burgundy, with a golden stripe and a fringe of golden beads. Dany told him of her meeting with Reznak and the Green Grace as she was pouring wine for him. "These rituals are empty,"

Hizdahr declared, "just the sort of thing we must sweep aside. Meereen has been steeped in these foolish old traditions for too long."

He kissed her hand and said, "Daenerys, my queen, I will gladly wash you from head to heel if that is what I must do to be your king and consort."

"To be my king and consort, you need only bring me peace. Skahaz tells me you have had messages of late."

"I have." Hizdahr crossed his long legs. He looked pleased with himself. "Yunkai will give us peace, but for a price. The disruption of the slave trade has caused great injury throughout the civilized world. Yunkai and her allies will require an indemnity of us, to be paid in gold and gem-stones."

Gold and gems were easy. "What else?"

"The Yunkai'i will resume slaving, as before. Astapor will be rebuilt, as a slave city. You will not interfere."

"The Yunkai'i resumed their slaving before I was two leagues from their city. Did I turn back? King Cleon begged me to join with him against them, and I turned a deaf ear to his pleas. I want no war with Yunkai. How many times must I say it? What promises do they require?"

"Ah, there is the thorn in the bower, my queen," said Hizdahr zo Loraq. "Sad to say, Yunkai has no faith in your promises. They keep plucking the same string on the harp, about some envoy that your dragons set on fire."

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