It took the better part of an hour before the impossible became possible, and another hour before they could agree on terms. The flagon of mulled wine that Satin delivered helped them settle the more nettlesome points. By the time Jon Snow signed the parchment the Braavosi drew up, both of them were half-drunk and quite unhappy. Jon thought that a good sign.
The three Braavosi ships would bring the fleet at Eastwatch up to eleven, including the Ibbenese whaler that Cotter Pyke had commandeered on Jon's order, a trading galley out of Pentos similarly impressed, and three battered Lysene warships, remnants of Salladhor Saan's former fleet driven back north by the autumn storms. All three of Saan's ships had been in dire need of refitting, but by now the work should be complete. Eleven ships was no wise enough, but if he waited any longer, the free folk at Hardhome would be dead by the time the rescue fleet arrived. Sail now or not at all. Whether Mother Mole and her people would be desperate enough to entrust their lives to the Night's Watch, though ...
The day had darkened by the time he and Tycho Nestoris left the solar. Snow had begun to fall. "Our respite was a brief one, it would seem." Jon drew his cloak about himself more tightly.
"Winter is nigh upon us. The day I left Braavos, there was ice on the canals."
"Three of my men passed through Braavos not long ago," Jon told him. "An old maester, a singer, and a young steward. They were escorting a wildling girl and her child to Oldtown. I do not suppose you chanced to encounter them?"
"I fear not, my lord. Westerosi pass through Braavos every day, but most come and go from the Ragman's Harbor. The ships of the Iron Bank moor at the Purple Harbor. If you wish, I can make inquiries after them when I return home."
"No need. By now they should be safe in Oldtown."
"Let us hope so. The narrow sea is perilous this time of year, and of late there have been troubling reports of strange ships seen amongst the Step-stones."
"The Lysene pirate? Some say he has returned to his old haunts, this is so. And Lord Redwyne's war fleet creeps through the Broken Arm as well.
On its way home, no doubt. But these men and their ships are well-known to us. No, these other sails ... from farther east, perhaps ...
one hears queer talk of dragons."
"Would that we had one here. A dragon might warm things up a bit."
"My lord jests. You will forgive me if I do not laugh. We Braavosi are descended from those who fled Valyria and the wroth of its dragonlords. We do not jape of dragons."
No, I suppose not. "My apologies, Lord Tycho."
"None is required, Lord Commander. Now I find that I am hungry. Lending such large sums of gold will give a man an appetite. Will you be so good as to point me to your feast hall?"
"I will take you there myself." Jon gestured. "This way."
Once there, it would have been discourteous not to break bread with the banker, so Jon sent Satin off to fetch them food. The novelty of newcomers had brought out almost all the men who were not on duty or asleep, so the cellar was crowded and warm.
The queen herself was absent, as was her daughter. By now
presumably they were settling into the King's Tower. But Ser Brus and Ser Malegorn were on hand, entertaining such brothers as had gathered with the latest tidings from Eastwatch and beyond the sea. Three of the queen's ladies sat together, attended by their serving maids and a dozen admiring men of the Night's Watch.
Nearer the door, the Queen's Hand was attacking a brace of capons, sucking the meat off the bones and washing down each bite with ale. When he espied Jon Snow, Axell Florent tossed a bone aside, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and sauntered over. With his bowed legs, barrel chest, and prominent ears, he presented a comical appearance, but Jon knew better than to laugh at him. He was an uncle to Queen Selyse and had been among the first to follow her in accepting Melisandre's red god. If he is not a kinslayer, he is the next best thing. Axell Florent's brother had been burned by Melisandre, Maester Aemon had informed him, yet Ser Axell had done little and less to stop it. What sort of man can stand by idly and watch his own brother being burned alive?
"Nestoris," said Ser Axell, "and the lord commander. Might I join you?" He lowered himself to the bench before they could reply. "Lord Snow, if I may ask ... this wildling princess His Grace King Stannis wrote of ... where might she be, my lord?"
Long leagues from here, Jon thought. If the gods are good, by now she has found Tormund Giantsbane. "Val is the younger sister of Dalla, who was Mance Rayder's wife and mother to his son. King Stannis took Val and the child captive after Dalla died in childbed, but she is no princess, not as you mean it."
Ser Axell shrugged. "Whatever she may be, at Eastwatch men claimed the wench was fair. I'd like to see with mine own eyes. Some of these wildling women, well, a man would need to turn them over to do his duty as a husband. If it please the lord commander, bring her out, let us have a look."
"She is not a horse to be paraded for inspection, ser."
"I promise not to count her teeth." Florent grinned. "Oh, never fear, I'll treat her with all the courtesy she is due."
He knows I do not have her. A village has no secrets, and no more did Castle Black. Val's absence was not spoken of openly, but some men knew, and in the common hall at night the brothers talked. What has he heard? Jon wondered. How much does he believe? "Forgive me, ser, but Val will not be joining us."
"I'll go to her. Where do you keep the wench?"
Away from you. "Somewhere safe. Enough, ser."
The knight's face grew flushed. "My lord, have you forgotten who I am?" His breath smelled of ale and onions. "Must I speak to the queen? A word from Her Grace and I can have this wildling girl delivered naked to the hall for our inspection."
That would be a pretty trick, even for a queen. "The queen would never presume upon our hospitality," Jon said, hoping that was true. "Now I fear I must take my leave, before I forget the duties of a host. Lord Tycho, pray excuse me."
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"Yes, of course," the banker said. "A pleasure."
Outside, the snow was coming down more heavily. Across the yard the King's Tower had turned into a hulking shadow, the lights in its windows obscured by falling snow.
Back in his solar, Jon found the Old Bear's raven perched on the back of the oak-and-leather chair behind the trestle table. The bird began to scream for food the moment he entered. Jon took a fistful of dried kernels from the sack by the door and scattered them on the floor, then claimed the chair.
Tycho Nestoris had left behind a copy of their agreement. Jon read it over thrice. That was simple, he reflected. Simpler than I dared hope. Simpler than it should have been.
It gave him an uneasy feeling. Braavosi coin would allow the Night's Watch to buy food from the south when their own stores ran short, food enough to see them through the winter, however long it might prove to be. A long hard winter will leave the Watch so deep in debt that we will never climb out, Jon reminded himself, but when the choice is debt or death, best borrow.
He did not have to like it, though. And come spring, when the time came to repay all that gold, he would like it even less. Tycho Nestoris had impressed him as cultured and courteous, but the Iron Bank of Braavos had a fearsome reputation when collecting debts. Each of the Nine Free Cities had its bank, and some had more than one, fighting over every coin like dogs over a bone, but the Iron Bank was richer and more powerful than all the rest combined. When princes defaulted on their debts to lesser banks, ruined bankers sold their wives and children into slavery and opened their own veins. When princes failed to repay the Iron Bank, new princes sprang up from nowhere and took their thrones.
As poor plump Tommen may be about to learn. No doubt the Lannisters had good reason for refusing to honor King Robert's debts, but it was folly all the same. If Stannis was not too stiff-necked to accept their terms, the Braavosi would give him all the gold and silver he required, coin enough to buy a dozen sellsword companies, to bribe a hundred lords, to keep his men paid, fed, clothed, and armed. Unless Stannis is lying dead beneath the walls of Winterfell, he may just have won the Iron Throne. He wondered if Melisandre had seen that in her fires. Jon sat back, yawned, stretched. On the morrow he would draft orders for Cotter Pyke. Eleven ships to Hardhome. Bring back as many as you can, women and children first. It was time they set sail. Should I go myself, though, or leave it to Cotter? The Old Bear had led a ranging. Aye. And never returned.
Jon closed his eyes. Just for a moment ... ... and woke, stiff as a board, with the Old Bear's raven muttering, "Snow, Snow, " and Mully shaking him. "M'lord, you're wanted. Beg pardon, m'lord. A girl's been found."
"A girl?" Jon sat, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hands. "Val? Has Val returned?"
"Not Val, m'lord. This side of the Wall, it were."
Arya. Jon straightened. It had to be her. "Girl," screamed the raven.
"Girl, girl. " "Ty and Dannel came on her two leagues south of Mole's Town. They were chasing down some wildlings who scampered off down the king-sroad. Brought them back as well, but then they come on the girl. She's highborn, m'lord, and she's been asking for you."
"How many with her?" He moved to his basin, splashed water on his face. Gods, but he was tired.
"None, m'lord. She come alone. Her horse was dying under her. All skin and ribs it was, lame and lathered. They cut it loose and took the girl for questioning."
A grey girl on a dying horse. Melisandre's fires had not lied, it would seem. But what had become of Mance Rayder and his spearwives? "Where is the girl now?"
"Maester Aemon's chambers, m'lord." The men of Castle Black still called it that, though by now the old maester should be warm and safe in Oldtown. "Girl was blue from the cold, shivering like all get out, so Ty wanted Clydas to have a look at her."
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"That's good." Jon felt fifteen years old again. Little sister. He rose and donned his cloak.
The snow was still falling as he crossed the yard with Mully. A golden dawn was breaking in the east, but behind Lady Melisandre's window in the King's Tower a reddish light still flickered. Does she never sleep? What game are you playing, priestess? Did you have some other task for Mance?
He wanted to believe it would be Arya. He wanted to see her face again, to smile at her and muss her hair, to tell her she was safe. She won' t be safe, though. Winterfell is burned and broken and there are no more safe places.
He could not keep her here with him, no matter how much he might want to. The Wall was no place for a woman, much less a girl of noble birth. Nor was he about to turn her over to Stannis or Melisandre. The king would only want to marry her to one of his own men, Horpe or Massey or Godry Giantslayer, and the gods alone knew what use the red woman might want to make of her.
The best solution he could see would mean dispatching her to Eastwatch and asking Cotter Pyke to put her on a ship to someplace across the sea, beyond the reach of all these quarrelsome kings. It would need to wait until the ships returned from Hardhome, to be sure. She could return to Braavos with Tycho Nestoris. Perhaps the Iron Bank could help find some noble family to foster her. Braavos was the nearest of the Free Cities, though ... which made it both the best and the worst choice. Lorath or the Port of Ibben might be safer. Wherever he might send her, though, Arya would need silver to support her, a roof above her head, someone to protect her. She was only a child.
Tags:George R.R. MartinA Song of Ice and FireScience Fiction