KING'S LANDINGWESTEROS

"This arrived for you this morning." Varys interrupted Loras' breakfast by placing a suspect basket on the table, brimming with stale cloth wrappings.

Loras sank into his chair, put off by the smell.

He was dining on a sandstone table set into a courtyard which clung to the side of the palace. It was glorious, blushing red with arches overhead – all decorated by flowering vines which had gone limp in the unseasonable cold that sagged around the city.

The castle stepped out beneath in a cascade of terraces held back by an even older, grey wall that rose above the water like the exposed bone of a rotten limb. King's Landing had seen too much blood to be as beautiful as Highgarden, but there was a macabre charm about the gnawing sea and collapsing stone. Compost grows the most beautiful things… Without war, the Seven Kingdoms would never have flourished out of their primordial state.

Ships filled Blackwater Bay as the fleet consolidated. The harbour embraced the odd mix of supply vessels beckoned from the corners of the realm. Their red, white, and blue sails brimmed with a crisp Northerly. Military captains tested new crews which they taken on after the earlier slaughter. Markets sprouted from the mud as thousands of souls poured into King's Landing, including those coming from the East. Daenerys' arrival might have inadvertently killed thousands but Loras was sure there were more people in the city today than when he'd first seen it all those long years ago.

Merchants fled tales of horror, eyeless gods, and corpses that scaled the walls of grand cities in the night. It was impossible to know what tragedy had befallen Essos. Some said it was a hundred year sickness, others – a curse sent by the gods that sent its people mad. Loras had received ravens from city states that denied such nonsense and no ravens at all from Braavos, which had vanished from the map except for one whaling ship that reported ice in the water as far South as Hornbank, the Northernmost town in Pentos.

The East was losing power and Loras was keen to funnel as much of it as possible into his realm. Dorne, his grandmother warned, was always there nipping at their heels. The Wheel of Fortune was turning beneath the earth and it would shake loose any civilisation that latched onto the old ways. 'Do not take fancy in these old rocks,' his grandmother had said, calmly flipping cards late one night, 'this world is littered by grand corpses.'

Those with skills were distributed and put to work, the rest were set on the road to Highgarden, Storm's End, and the myriad of coastal towns that had suddenly become overcrowded city states. Business was booming and an array of minor lords Loras had never heard of were popping up all over the realm like weeds. He and Varys had set up an expanded privy council to handle their demands, but he still found them waiting to accost him at every corner, bickering like hags.

The Golden Company were easily picked out from their watery companions. Since arriving, their ships had taken up position in an arc protecting the harbour from a sea-born attack while their military created fortifications on the crumbling castle walls. Their commanders swamed through the crowds, looking for fighters. The Crown paid them out of Daenerys' treasure without permission. No one knew exactly where the Targaryen was, with her eye and her armies, pulled North by her Bear.

Varys tucked his hands into his sleeves, waiting.

Loras nudged his plate of figs aside, took the basket by its handle and twisted it around. He reached in to extract the heavy object. As soon as he felt the weight in his hands, Loras knew exactly what he'd been sent. With great distaste, he unwrapped the blood soaked cloth. Each layer revealed a fresh horror of smell from the severed head which had been left to rot for days. Part of Loras was terrified that he'd find his sister in his hands. Instead, he was greeted by the smiling face of an old man.

"Did it come with a message?"

"No, your Grace. I believe it is intended to be the message."

Loras lofted an eyebrow. "It would be much easier if the Capital's many enemies threatened us with a raven. I have dozens piled up from the warring Dornish armies. Do we know who this is – was?" He amended.

It has completely escaped Varys that not everyone had mastered the faces of the realm as carefully as he had. "That, I believe, was Lord Selwyn Tarth of -"

"-Tarth?"

"Indeed."

Loras put the head back into the basket and tossed the bloody rags over it. The scent of death clung to him like a fucking curse. Not just him, it stank out the whole city like rotting egg that settled with the evening mist. Some nights it was so bad that people held rags over their faces. "And who sent it?"

"Ah, well," Varys roamed over to the low wall so that the cool, salty air could wash away the perfume of grave stones. "That is more difficult to answer."

"Not for the Master of Whispers."

"Most of my little birds have flown away, your Grace. It takes time to hatch another flock, but I do have a vulture that claims Victarion's men captured Lord Tarth at a brothel in Mistwood. You," meaning Loras' surviving advisers, "sent him there to oversee a supply chain of seafood for the city."

"How trustworthy is this vulture of yours?"

"Difficult to say, that all depends on what he wants and who pays him the best. However, that," Varys nodded at the basket, "is indeed Lord Tarth's head and I do not imagine my vulture had the nerve to do it himself. Someone in Mistwood wants your attention and it very probably is Victarion." Varys hid his own concern. Victarion wasn't receiving blood money any more and Varys' spies near the old Lannister Keep reported seeing Ironborn ships head South into the fog.

"It might also be a Dornish warlord. You could swim horses between Mistwood and Dorne."

Varys did not deny it. "They usually prefer to sign their gifts. Honour and violence are somewhat of an art in Dorne. Far as I can gather, the Tarthians have no idea that their lord is dead. His surviving heir is gods knows where, traipsing around the ruins of the North guarding Ned Stark's eldest daughter." Varys left his sentence hanging in a peculiar place, hinting – without openly suggesting – that Loras might seize control of Tarth by sending in one of his lords to take possession of the island. The last thing the realm needed was a vine growing through the foundation of the South.

More and more, Loras was a child of his grandmother – though not as sharp. The matriarch's wit was diluted between Highgarden's descendants. "Bring me the raven maester. I wish to send word to the North. I want to find -?"

"Brienne of Tarth."

"- Brienne and call her back. In difficult times, blood ties fortify the strength of armies. In the meantime, send a few minor nobles over to keep an eye on the island. No one with ambition… Swear them to secrecy. I'll make preparations to assume control of Tarth in an emergency but not," Loras insisted, his eyes clear and sharp, "unless it is absolutely necessary. We have enough enemies in this world as it is without creating another on our doorstep."

Loras nudged the basket toward Varys. "Burn this with proper funeral rights."

Varys hesitated. "Are you sure, your Grace? Usually it is customary for the heir to decide upon the funeral arrangements of the lord."

"No child should see their parent as a head in a basket. What about that other matter upon which you have been uncommonly quiet?" Loras watched as Varys shifted uncomfortably. His meetings had taken on a swift nature if only so that the Spider could escape interrogation. "The month has come and gone since all that terrible business at Hornhill. Where is Lord Samwell Tarly? Either you are hiding him or he has slipped between your strands of silk."

"Tarly is a ghost," Varys admitted. "No one saw him leave the castle. It is impossible to say which direction he took. He could be anywhere in a realm overrun by chaos and refugees. I have sent ravens to every town in the Reach but their rulers have no idea who is squatting on their lands and most couldn't pick Tarly from a bale of hay."

"My grandmother always said, if you want to find a man, find out what he craves. A woman. Money. Power. Position. Battle. Having killed his Lady, his father and dishonoured the family House – what does Tarly crave?"

The question set Varys off balance. He knew the answer as soon as he was asked. "Forgiveness."

"And who, in all the world, is left to forgive a man like that?"

Varys picked up the basket and then dipped his body in a low bow. There was only one person left alive who could forgive Sam Tarly. Well, mostly alive.


Lugg waited outside the Red Keep, hiding among the ruins where chunks of pink rock lay amid a veil of burned wood, torn flags, and decomposing flesh from unclaimed limbs. It had been so long since the fight that the corpses were bleaching into husks – more salt than rot. The sand was dotted with rock that floated on the water. They were like grey pearls, all mottled and strung together as they drifted in on the tide.

Varys placed a pile of gold coins in Lugg's outstretched palm. The pirate wreaked of soot, ash, and sulphur. No wonder the locals had started calling the pirates, 'spawn of the dragon'.

"Is your man sure?"

Eli Lugg slipped the coins into his pocket, then used a piece of red silk to clean his monocle which was stained with a fine mist of salt. Its thick brass rim gleamed in the shadows beneath the rock. Since arriving in King's Landing, he'd added an elephant tattoo to the base of his neck where its trunk twisted up onto his bald head. His skin was so dark that it was more like the faded etchings of a forgotten civilisation rambling along a temple wall. "What kind of a question is that between friends?"

Varys found himself retreating as a stray wave crept higher than the rest – weaving around the discarded rocks until the water ran over Lugg's boots. He was already sodden and unconcerned by the caress of the tide.

"I liked the Lord of Tarth," Varys began. "As I am sure a worldly man such as yourself knows, there is a shortage of good men. I want to know what happened to him."

Lugg shrugged. "Then you will die unfulfilled."

They both looked out over the water, reaching an impasse. Blackwater Bay continued to cough up shipwrecks from the last war feeding a continuous stream of scavengers who ratted through the filth left on the sand. Others took their fishing boats out into the shallows and dived for heavier relics. Previous kings banned these activities, preferring to rake in the profit but Loras was a pragmatic caretaker, reasoning that it was better to let the people work for scraps – it was one less mouth to pay out of the city coffers.

"This arrangement of ours only works if I can trust you." Varys reminded the pirate.

"Yer can trust me," he assured the other man. "I want what I was promised an' sure as shit Victarion isn't going to share that treasure on Dragonstone. Put a few of my men on that Tarth place," he added. "I'll dress 'em as fishermen – keep an' eye on those flowery bastards. Look-" Lugg paused, as another wave crept over his feet, "Victarion has a cock the size of a tree trunk but he's not stupid. He wouldn't think about attacking King's Landing unless he thought he could take it."

"If Victarion believes that he can take King's Landing, then he must know something that we don't. Find out what it is."

Hours later, Varys remained on the beach, pacing along the sand which had lost all of its lustre. It had been stained with charcoal and mud, shades of grey which marbled along the shore like the sweeping of smoke. As dusk approached, he lifted his gaze to Dragonstone and the miserable castle built out of the rock like some great cancer. The pirates lived inside, infesting the last remnant of the dragon empire no better than maggots devouring a corpse. Above, the shadow of the Dragonmount changed daily, with its silhouette shifting under the constant disturbance of earthquakes. Now, when the sun was far enough West, an orange glow could be seen peeking out from the rock to spy on the stars. Sometimes, in the dead of night, the rumblings of its throat rose above the drone of the sea.

Varys turned to remark on the savagery only to realise that Tyrion had not been at his heels for months. He missed the bickering of the Lannister lord and the reassurance that there was someone alive in the world who could judge the Fates more harshly than him. He thought about sending another raven, but wherever the Lannister was, the birds never returned.

With no one else to do the honours except a pair of servants he'd brought from the palace, Varys placed the Lord of Tarth's head on a small raft fashioned into a funeral pyre, decorated with pink blossoms from the gardens of the Red Keep and doused in seal oil.

Once the pale head was balanced inside its makeshift pyramid, the servants waded out into the water and set the whole thing alight. Despite not being any friend of the gods – old or new – Varys recited prayers as the flames consumed the raft.

Varys stared into the depths of the dancing flame, listening for that filthy voice that had haunted him since childhood. He was met with innocent crackling and the gentle brush of the waves at his knees. If there was magic in the world, it had no more use for him. Did that mean he had been dealt out of the game? He feared he was like Tyrion's bastard friends – drinking, shitting, and fucking their way toward meaningless ends. Well, perhaps not fucking.

Like all island communities in Westeros, the Tarthian people had nowhere to bury their bodies and so adopted the Dornish rituals of sea burials. That had not always been true. Thousands of years ago, the ancient people who'd inhabited the limestone atoll dug vertical graves more like wells than tombs, into which they threw their dead. He'd seen a few of these hellish tunnels to the underworld, likening them to feeding tubes to the gods below. If there really was a necromancer raising the dead in the North, the realm would be overrun with corpses – all the sins of kings returning to seek their vengeance.


The pirates set out first, dressed in rags with fishing nets strapped to the back of their boat. A dozen of them occupied the decrepit vessel, making a poor show of manning the sails in case anyone was watching them track through the harbour. Lugg was among them, even though he preferred to remain on Dragonstone, guarding the treasure like a dragon curled up around its hoard. His eyes were always lingering on the black hunk of rock.

Onboard were Loras' requested collection of minor nobles – six men and one woman who wore hessian cloaks over their finer clothes so as not to attract the attention of the Golden Company. The nobles were uneasy about their pirate crew and kept their hands resting on sword hilts, even when the swell got rough, tossing water over the decks with a train of seagulls stretching out behind in shrieking laughter.

There were not many places to land on Tarth. Nearly all of its edges began with hundred foot cliffs made of limestone which thousands of birds had hollowed out into screaming walls. The pirates moored the ship in the protected waters inside an extended flank of cliffs that sheltered a tiny bay. They were so close to the island that its shadow remained over the boat even at noon when the rest of the island burned. Rocks and reefs loomed as shadows under the water, teasing death despite being too deep to cause any harm.

The sails were dropped and the naked masts left with the cool, light winds hissing against the wood. Terns immediately flocked from the cliffs and landed along all the new cross beams, picking out their positions to watch the waves. They shat over the small craft, raining white hell down on the decks where the pirates lowered the noble lords into a row boat.

Once onshore, they pulled the boat up across the white pebbles and left it flush to the cliffs. The curve of beach was far harsher up close than the serene sight they'd spied earlier. The ground beneath was scorching and heat radiated off the white faces of the cliffs as if they were standing in front of a forest of mirrors.

When their eyes adjusted to the glare, they could see steps cut into the cliffs which zigzagged up to the top before dissolving into shallow tracks that forked out like lightning.

Lugg led until there was a scuffle inside the party. One of the nobles broke from the line and ran over to the face of the cliff on their right where a piece of blue fabric was caught by the wind. Two brown sea eagles shrieked as the man approached, spreading their fabulous golden wings before dancing around, flapping and squawking in an intimidating fashion. The man drew his sword and slashed at the pair, forcing the birds to retreat to the cliffs and watch as the party approached the half-eaten corpse bleaching in the sun.

There was a murmur of horror as the party gathered around the headless body. The spinal column stuck out from the pink flesh along with tendrils of veins which had been tugged across the rocks. The man's clothes were torn open in dozens of holes, picked into by sharp beaks while something larger had gnawed at the legs.

"I thought the Tyrell said that Lord Tarth died in a coastal town?" An unsteady noble touched his sword again, wary of the pirates surrounding him. Never had the fragile safety of symbolic power been clearer than between steel and rock.

Lugg, calm and stark against the scene, paid little attention to the corpse. "So did I, my lord." He even nodded in a show of submission and respect. "Perhaps you and the other lords should return to the ship while my men continue to Tarth? It may not be safe for you here."

The noble rebelled at this, not wishing to show his childish fear in front of the others. "No – whatever is happening here," he stammered, puffing up his soft chest, "we go on. With caution. Then report back to Loras. He'll want to know the truth of these things."

"I am sure you are quite right," Lugg agreed, gently waving his men to continue on. The pirates gave the others space to collect themselves – whispering prayers at the corpse while trying not to imagine themselves in its place.

The eagles, sensing victory, returned as soon as the party moved away.

It took the group a quarter of an hour to climb the dangerous steps, some of which were missing where storms battered the cliffs into submission. Lugg went first. His pirates sank behind the nobles. When they reached the cliff edge, the island of Tarth lounged in front, perched on its flat-topped hill of rock.

Tarth was unexpectedly vast, meandering into mountain rises and lurid greed farms where the constant passing storms had battered the island into an eerie paradise that clung greedily to its scant inches of topsoil. Everything was so bright that the colours seemed wrong. The waters that surrounded it were jewel-like against the limestone which yawned on all sides. Evenfall Hall, Tarth's castle, worked its way up the Western side of the island. Its lower layers had their feet in the sea with boat chambers, prison cells, and markets dug straight into the cliffs. There was no need for a wall, the sheer incline made the whole thing a nightmarish prospect for raiders who could be picked off from above by lazy archers.

For the upper layers of the castle, the ancient Tarthian builders had used grey marble mined from the centre of the island. The two shades of white made creation appear to spiral like a shell, fossilised into the landscape. There was an odd sort of beauty about it with its proportions exaggerated, just like its people who had the blood of the First Men in them. Instead of arches, the castle relied on ornately carved columns holding up rectangular beams of marble. Each column had a different mythical creature wrapping its body around the rock with fins, tails, heads, and spines all protruding as if the gods themselves were guarding the castle. Once, long ago, they had been painted bright colours but all that had worn away in the thousands of years since its construction.

It was more temple than castle and perhaps that is what it had started out as. There were ruins on the other side of the island – huge pieces of marble scattered into the see where some colossal building had fallen away with the cliff. Marble tentacles and fragments of scaled-rock were all that remained from the monstrous fort that once towered the landscape. Only the Dornish kept records of the silver palace in the Sapphire Isle. It had been the theatre of the gods, a playground for ancient wealth that came across the sea when Westeros was still a sleeping wilderness.

One Rhoynish scholar said that, 'during an horrific night, the seas whipped into walls of water and threw salt on top of the island, he saw, where the reefs circled the island, marble tentacles peaking through the troughs of the waves where the top of the palace lay in death.'

Decadence, evil and beauty – time had worn them all.

In front, the group could see the blue line where the old quarry had been filled with water and fashioned into an artificial lake where the Tarthians farmed freshwater scallops. Woods were encouraged to wrap around the far side while farms rolled in to the other, populated with a village that sprawled in every direction. It was a strange setup, unfamiliar in the South. Tarth was a creation of its limited geography where the whole island had learned to live as a family, heavily dependent on each other. There were a few rich houses set back on the North Western mountains. They peered out as white, glistening eyes from their perches, surrounded by foreign trees – tall, dark green and narrow – more often seen in the Free Cities of Essos. It had been colder recently, leaving a dusting of snow across some of the low ranges.

Tarth was almost like a pretend world.

...and it was burning.

The oldest lord was the first to realise that there was something wrong. He recognised that the empty fields were not tranquil – they should have been full of people tending the harvest and yet their tools laid abandoned in the grass, for several days by the looks of the fires that had been let run down to coals. There were carts lashed to horses who had sat down, straining against their bindings. Goats were wandering through the village as white specks – some on top of people's stone roofs. The only noise was coming from the castle. Its walls were manned with Tarthian guards while its gorgeous blue insignia banners rustled over the rock.

"Something's not right."

Once the first lord drew his sword, so did the rest – including the pirates who fanned out protectively around the group.

Lugg agreed. "We look – quietly – then return to the ships." There was agreement. "Not much cover on the ocean side."

"Take the village pass," the lord replied, pointing out the track that snacked form shack-to-shack. "I know it."

The small party moved rapidly across the landscape, weaving into shadows that formed as the sun swung around, beginning its afternoon descent toward the castle. The villages were sporadic with narrow, clean streets made of stone where the Tarthians had simply scraped away the topsoil to reveal the island's bone.

As they approached the castle, they could hear that it was brimming with people. Drinking. Singing. Smoking. All of it wafted out through the cracks. The sun sat in the West behind the castle, glowing behind the windows as if they were a hundred burning eyes set into the silver rock.

"Is there some kind of festival going on?" One of the lords asked. "It doesn't look much like there's been a fight."

Lugg straightened up, sword in hand. "We'll have to get closer."

Which they did, using the castle as their alibi until they were pressed against one of its walls, looking through a broken section. Inside, hundreds of men staggered around with a sword in one hand and drink in the other. The stink of urine was nearly as powerful as the smoke, held down by the cold air that was settling over the island. There was a putrid flavour in it that wet their eyes.

One of the lords drew back as though the wall were made of flame. His expression dark. Eyes wide. Ironborn.

The revellers had their hair plaited into dreadlocks, decorated with the hollowed out bones of long dead victims. These greasy manes obscured flesh tattooed with ancient Valyrian curses. Their clothes were a mixture of filthy rags and luxurious silks stolen from corpses. Victarion's men were truly the ungodly marriage of the realm's inequality sewn into one people who crossed the seas as a plague.

Immediately, the nobles turned to flee, but they had been discovered – watched from the moment they'd made land by keen-eyed sailors hiding up in the castle's tower, dressed in the clothes of the guards they had murdered. They found themselves hemmed in by twenty of Victarion's men. It was not an insurmountable task but they'd have to be quick about it before more spilled out of the castle.

The two groups lined themselves up for the fight. A moment before the swords were due to clash, a slow, solitary applause rang out from the Ironborn. Victarion picked his way between his comrades, his own sword stowed on his hip. It was not worth drawing it for a group this small. He could tear them to pieces with his bare hands if he wanted to.

"Gentlemen, lords – and lady…" Victarion added, with a cruel, wry tone snapping at the woman. "Apologies. For a moment I mistook you for one of those foreign hermaphrodites in the Eastern palaces. There's good money in it, if you tire of the wars of kings."

The noble lady knew better than to rise to Victarion's childish challenges. Despite his infantile delight in the misery he brought others, there was an ever-present air of terror that stuck to him like smoke from the nostril of a dragon. Some people in the party were still fantasising about hatching an escape – re-clutching their swords with a creak of leather. Fools.

"Oh, please do." Victarion encouraged one of them. "No really, it has been months since I've had a good fight. Westeros is full to the brim of soft fucks and boy soldiers."

Victarion didn't need chains – his prisoners were shattered in their minds, unable to contemplate leaving his shadow for fear the sun would strike them down.

"Ah… look what the tide dragged in." Victarion's attention wandered to Lugg.

"Where are the people of Tarth?" Lugg replied, unmoved by the other man.

Victarion raised his finger to his lips. Even the gods were veiled from his crimes.


THE SUNSPEARDORNE

Black Scale sat on the soft sand, shadowed by a mixture of boulders and dragon bone. The huge vertebra were scattered over he undulating dunes like teeth in a bloody sea. The desert surrounded the Sunspear and its pilot city, forever threatening to embrace it. As the steep walls of red sand moved, they dislodged ancient skeletons lost in another time.

He had picked out a position high up, just shy of the dune's crest. It was easily four-hundred metres high, giving him a view over a supply track below while allowing him to hide among the rocks and pieces of spine. The rest of the Tyrell men sent to guard Margaery were hidden in a forest several day's walk to the North-East. If he squinted, Black Scale could make out the thin grey blur on the horizon where the tortured oaks and pine knit together in a howl of life.

The men had wanted to keep looking for their lady, but Black Scale quite rightly decided that the political situation in Dorne was collapsing too fast to keep a presence in the city. Their blue capes and silver breastplates were a target for the confused, war-like crowds. Instead, Black Scale remained nearby, alone, draped in some old rags he'd stolen from a murdered wine merchant. When it was safe, he slipped into the city to look for Margaery. So far – nothing. Not a whisper. Not a rumour.

That was good. If no one knew where Margaery was then she was probably still alive. By now, she would have had the child, so Black Scale searched for a woman and an infant in the crowds. He doubted that they would have the courage to leave the city. It would mean sneaking past the security on the gates or risk running into unstable an opportunistic commanders from the mountains who were performing violent raids on the city nearly every day.

There was one underway right now. Black Scale could feel the explosions in the tremble of the sand. It reached him long before the ominous booms which echoed across the desolate landscape. Then, a few minutes later, smoke would rose from the Sunspear, thick and hungry.

The Kings of the Torrentine were laying constant siege on the bickering nobility, who were themselves trying to work out who would take the throne now that the last Martell heir was dead. The Sandsnakes had arrived from hiding and tried to install themselves in the palace but the street were filled with graffiti showing snakes being stabbed, disembowelled, boiled, and eaten.

Black Scale cast his gaze behind the Sunspear, to the river and the open desert where several armies were amassing. Total war was inevitable now that the people had a taste for it. This nation thrived on the spear. Tonight, it would be alive again.

It was in this chaos that he waited for the moon to creep into the sky. Black Scale scurried down the dune and joined the tail of a spice caravan, pulling his hood down. His beard had grown while sweat and filth helped him blend with the others. At the gates of the Sunspear, Black Scale eyed the spikes on the wall beside. There were new heads there every day while the old ones were tossed unceremoniously into the dirt below to be dragged off by rats.

A horn went off. Then a steady, beating drum. The bell tower laid as rubble with its brass centre dully reflecting the firelight.

From nowhere, a rush of people exited a side street and rammed the gate, right where the caravan was trying to get in. They screamed – pleading to escape the city. Some slipped through. The guards struck at them with bats made of wood. One snapped a limb and cried out in agony. The rest escaped into the darkness dripping possessions onto the sand like tears.

The guards waved the caravan through to help push the peasants back into the city. Once they were within the walls, Black Scale heard the huge iron gate smash into its footing behind.

He understood why the crowd was trying to run. To his left, the market place was alight. Several streets were churning with fire – its canvas and silk sheets flapping around like wings beating as they disintegrated. Its people were tired of fighting. Many sat on the cobblestones, doing nothing as their lives burned.

Another explosion, this time close enough that Black Scale ducked. He could feel the heat of the wildfire erupting overhead. It twisted in the darkness. A green tail.

Not wanting to get caught up in a battle, Black Scale broke away from the group – darted through several side alleys – before stepping into an old mausoleum. He was sure it had been a temple originally and that the city had been built around it, butting up to the pink granite with its sickly, modern sprawl. The architecture was purely Rhoynish, created by hands that had touched The Sorrows in their glory. Entangled columns rose across its narrow front in the mimic of a forest with stone leaves curling out of it toward the top, which were similarly obscured by imitation foliage and rectangular beam where an inscription Black Scale couldn't read remained in perfect condition.

Inside, Black Scale joined the cold serenity of the dead. The door was not locked but the stone coffins sitting on the floor were sufficiently morbid to keep the life-loving people of Dorne away. Early nobles, he presumed, noting the marble replicas of their likeness laying on the surface of their rectangular sarcophagi. At the front was a wood pulpit, alter and a dozen or so benches made of wood – wood which Black Scale was sure came from Nymeria's ship still dotted with rusted iron nails.

"You're late." A heavily accented voice emerged from the edge of the room. It belonged to a young Dornish man who leaned heavily on one of the wooden carvings, clearly nursing a recent injury. Black Scale thought the man looked smooth and pretty with wide eyes and a sculpted features, not dissimilar to the murals of sailors peering out from the dust on the walls.

"You were in the palace before," Black Scale replied. "A servant of the Prince."

"Yes, and I know where your princess is."

"She is not my princess," Black Scale corrected firmly. "Unsullied have only one Queen. The true Queen. Breaker of Chains. Empress of the Eastern Realms. Conquress of Death. The-"

"Alright." The servant held his hand up to stop the tiresome pontificating. "The Tyrell girl."

"Is she alive?"

"Yes."

"Is she safe?"

"Not for long. The Torrentine Kings are moving on the city. They intend to tear the Martell empire apart, brick by brick if they have to. The men who are already in the city are searching for the Tyrell princess. She is the leverage they need to petition her brother on the Iron Throne."

"Caretaker of the throne."

"Yes. Okay. Caretaker of the throne."

"These false kings," Black Scale remained emotionless throughout the exchange. "Do they intend to marry her or kill her?"

"They are yet to decide. Whichever it is, the girl will not be safe in this part of the world. Her child, well, there is nothing that can save a Lannister child in Dorne."

"And what does a servant want in return for helping her to escape Dorne?"

The servant shrugged. "A king's ransom. A ship. Papers. Enough for a new life far away from this land of blood. I killed my Prince, you understand. Betrayed my nation – and my heart. I need to leave this place. Forever. It is no secret that aside from the Dragon Queen, the Tyrell's are the richest lords in Westeros. Are you authorised to give me these things?"


Margaery looked no better than a common street rat, hiding in the ruins. Rotten fruit stank beneath the rambling orchids of some long-dead royal. Vines knit the cracked stones together and, in the pale moonlight, the Tyrell princess nursed her infant.

A boy. The moment Black Scale saw the child, he knew that there would be endless seas of blood shed for him. A legitimate Lannister heir. Margaery must have sensed his thoughts, for the woman pulled away into the shadows.