Credit to MandTeKad who is serving as co-author on this story (along with working in the backroom for my other series).

As always, this chapter was released at least 2 weeks ago to my Pat-re-ons (with every level above tier 1 having seen a draft version, and the highest level seeing the redrafted form, around 2 months ago) and on the story's Discord server (in GDoc form) about a week ago. Hopefully, all the little mistakes have been found and removed.

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ALSO ALSO

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The Dust has Settled

… …

(Circa 297AC)


There was an urge for me to put my feet on the desk in what had once been the Grim Prince's solar. I resisted it however as the desk was impressive, though it had taken some damage over the years as there were stains from Gods knew what on the surface along with cut marks on the inner edge where I was sitting.

The desk was massive, rivalling the one in Prince Doran's solar in size and, even with damage to it, likely worth a fair amount of coin. Around the edges, various animals – some of which I had never heard of – had been carved into the wood along with Valyrian words and symbols before it was polished and coated. It had three drawers though the locks on the right side were gone, having been broken open at some point in the past while I'd not found any hint of a key to lock those on the left.

The drawers themselves had included some files, scribbled in horrible shorthand that I'd yet to work out, but given it was only a few hours since I'd taken the building as my command station and settled into the office, that wasn't a surprise. What had been were the bottles of alcohol from across the world.

Volantene and Arbor Reds sat beside what looked like something from Ghis and another from YiTi. I wasn't sure how, when, or where the Grim Prince had gotten them, but after tasting them I wasn't complaining. Yet all of them felt bland when compared to a good Dornish red, but that might just be because of whatever was affecting my tastebuds as breakfast earlier today had also felt bland.

In the corners of the room were two large cabinets that, while also finely made, failed to match the desk; or each other, though that might have been the idea. One was made of wood so white it reminded me of my bow the other one was as black as obsidian. The drawers inside those held some trinkets, handfuls of coin, one pile of books, and several more bottles of alcohol.

The large chair I was relaxing in didn't match the styling of the desk, but the high back and velvet cushioning on it meant it was a better choice as the main chair than any of the other three in the room. While none were poorly made, they weren't meant for someone of importance.

Much like the woodwork not matching, the floor was covered in a hodgepodge of carpets and rugs of varying qualities, colours, and patterns. Most were well-worn from years, if not decades of use, but some seemed recent additions. Those ones I had already rolled up and placed to one side as they had some potential value, and while I waited, I flicked through one of the few books the Grim Prince had kept.

This book detailed an expedition by Gahaelor Baeliar – a former Triarch of Volantis – to Sothoryos about two hundred years ago. I'd read a few references to Gahaelor while growing up in Sunspear but never read the recounting of his adventures. According to what Maester Caleotte told me years ago, this book was a rare find, and I planned to take it, and the few others the Grim Prince had kept, back with me to Sunspear. It appeared the book was in decent condition, and between Caleotte and Master Myles, it should be possible for them to copy the contents of this and the other books into new bindings.

I'd just reached the part where he landed on the southern continent when there was a knock at the door. I lowered the book, finding a sheet of parchment to use as a mark when the door opened, and Bronn popped his head in.

"Got more for the backroom," he said before coming in. Behind him came two men, one carrying a small chest, the other a crate of comparable size.

I stood and moved toward a secure door at the back of the room, pulling a key from around my neck. The room behind the locked door had been the Grim Prince's private hoard. When we'd first found it, there'd been a chest full of coin and another filled with gems and jewellery. Since then, it had evolved into a store for anything of decent value to take back to Sunspear. Joining those chests, which were larger than anything we'd found in the southern settlement, was another chest of random coin – the Prince's one had filled with gold coins from Westeros and Essos – and crates containing a wide variety of goods. Rolls of fabric, some made of silk, had been joined by sealed sacks of clothing and a small supply of porcelain bowls and cutlery that hadn't yet been ruined by the pirates, figurines made of ivory, jade, and bone, and the odd pieces of jewellery.

From the pile, I'd already picked out a few to gift to others. An ivory figurine of a knight on horseback was going to Elia, as that girl adored riding. Hells, if she'd been born a man, I knew she'd have already won several squire jousts. I'd also discovered an unexpected find that was going to Ari. While Valyrian steel wasn't as uncommon as I'd expected before my rebirth – there were over two hundred weapons in Westeros made of the metal – finery made of it was a rare find. That was why the necklace engraved with Valyrian characters and symbols and inlaid with emeralds and jade was going to the princess, as it was something meant for a noble woman. Those two, and the gifts for my other sisters, mother, Oberyn, Asha, and Lady Ellaria were all gathered in a small chest padded with velvet near a corner of the treasure room. The Grim Prince's goldenheart bow, which would go to Doran, rested over the top.

I stepped back to allow the two men to place their finds inside, though as they stepped inside they, like others before them, froze in shock at seeing the rest of the room. The various chests and crates were closed, but given how much was in there, it didn't take a genius to work out that this room was worth a small fortune.

"Eh-hem," I muttered as I tapped on the door with the key and let my other hand rest gently on Red Rain's hilt. While I doubted the men would try anything, a gentle reminder of the chain of command was never a bad thing.

"Sorry, boss. Hard to not get distracted by all this." The reply came from the taller of the pair, a man named Jovarn from the Stormlands. Since he didn't carry himself with any hint of class, I suspected he was lowborn, but that didn't matter in the grand scheme of things. He wasn't bad with a blade and had managed to survive both battles.

"Aye, I know. But we're not divvying up anything until every building is searched and the last of Grim Prince's men are dealt with."

"Yes, boss." The fact that Jovarn, like many others, preferred to call me boss instead of 'milord' was another hint toward his lower birth. Which was fine as I wasn't a lord technically. Oh, Dustspear was mine, but I hadn't yet considered how to set up things here to ensure the rest of the Stepstone knew the Rogue Viper was the new pirate lord of the island.

The man with him, another Stormlander named Chass, gave me a nod in understanding as the pair stepped out of the room. As they reached the exit to my solar, Bronn smirked. I ignored it as I resecured the door and lock and slipped the key back around my neck and under my shirt. "How goes the search?"

"Think we've covered most of the place," Bronn replied. I gestured toward a chair on the other side of the desk. Bronn moved toward it as I slipped around the desk. "Daemon and Cayde are moving slowly as we can't be sure how many of the Prince's men slipped away in the night. Though when we do find them, most give up the fight quickly."

"To be expected of pirates."

"Aye, but I think your wolf has something to do with that as well."

I chuckled even as I slipped into my chair. "Possibly."

After defeating the Prince, we'd started searching the buildings near the docks. From one, a trio of pirates had rushed out. They'd quickly dispatched the two men nearby, but their attempted attack had died when Ymir entered the scene.

A howl from him had echoed around the settlement, and the trio and many of my men had frozen on the spot. My men had recovered quickly, but before they could reach the pirates, one of them had been yanked into the shadows. A scream that echoed through the soul had come from that shadow before it was cut off by the sound of bones breaking. When Ymir had then emerged from the shadow, the arm of the pirate serving as a chew toy, the other two had thrown down their blades and surrendered.

I'd struggled with the image of the limb in his mouth, as it took my thoughts back to the night previous when I'd been inside his mind as he dealt with a traitor. I knew that was going to be an issue going forward, but for now, I wasn't focusing on it. Instead, I found almost anything I could to distract my thoughts.

Still, since then, most of the pirates discovered in the settlement – which had only been a handful, had surrendered on sight. However, while it seemed the settlement was secure now, the men from the gate leading into the forest, along with those on the causeway that guarded the harbour, hadn't yet been accounted for. Jaeronos was leading a dozen men on in the forest searching for those pirates, though given the semi-regular howls that reached the docks, and the sense of delight I could sense from him, I knew Ymir was taking care of many of the pirates himself.

I'd sent him out, as promised, to hunt on the island but it appeared that at least for now, humans were proving easier and more plentiful bounty.

"How many are locked up now?" I asked as I opened one of the drawers on the desk.

Bronn shrugged as my hand gripped a bottle of Arbor Red. "Last I checked, ten and three. All secured like nice little pigs in a nearby storehouse." When he saw the bottle, his brow rose, and he smiled. "going to do the same as in the last place?" he asked as I slowly filled two goblets.

"First I'll talk with them. Politely of course."

Bronn chuckled. "Aye, talk you say. I remember how the last round of talks went." As he spoke, I passed him a goblet and before picking up mine, put the cork back in the bottle. "Pretty devious way to go about it. Men liked it though, and trust you more because of it as well. As do the slaves."

"You saying you have reason not to trust me?" I asked as I took a sip of the wine. Like earlier tastes, I found the flavour lacking when compared to a Dornish Red. Yet all morning the bottle, and one Volantene Red, lacked in flavour. While that might simply be as they weren't great vintages when combined with the fact that the morning meal had tasted oddly bland – at least until I'd added some spice to it – it was something I'd have to keep an eye on.

"No, of course not," Bronn responded with a wave of his hand that over-played his words. "I trust you. At least as long as you keep paying me as well as you have."

I laughed at that as we both took another sip of our wine. However, any further talk was cut off as a bell rang outside. That bell was the same one the Prince had used for warnings, and as such, we placed our goblets down – me more carefully than Bronn – and moved toward the door. As Bronn opened it, I picked up my bow and quiver.

Stepping outside, I looked around, taking in the situation on the docks. Most of the men were slowly gathering, blades in hand, but none were taking charge. Seeing Jovarn and Chass rushing toward me, I turned to them. "Get Cayde and Daemon back here!" The pair nodded as they slid to a halt, and as they turned, I looked at Bronn. "Get those here ready," I ordered as I saw two vessels slip around the causeway protecting the harbour.

As he started shouting at the men, I drew an arrow and nocked it, though I paused as I saw the lead ship turn and spotted its sails. Seeing the symbol of the Rogue Price on the main sail, and picking out the figurehead of the Windchaser, I relaxed slightly, and further still when I saw Garreo standing on the foredeck of my ship, though given I now had a fleet, I supposed I should call it my flagship.

"Jovarn, hold!" I called out, keeping my eyes on the Windchaser and the vessel behind. "It's the Windchaser!"

Hearing a response from Jovarn, I moved toward the pier. The arrow remained nocked, but I kept it pointed down.

"That one is not ours," Bronn remarked as he moved with me, sword, and shield in hand but at arresting position.

"No, it is not. Be ready."

I moved down the pier, slowly raising my bow. Not enough so that I was aiming at Garreo, but enough that I could get off a snapshot if this was any sort of deception. As it came closer, I saw most of the crew on the Windchaser's deck, though my eyes were drawn to the faces of men I didn't recognize. Each of the dozen there were, based on their relative height, kneeling. Behind them, I saw some of my sellswords and Irraro.

Time slowed as the Windchaser drew up alongside the pier and I waited carefully as the mooring lines were tossed over. "I take it you had some fun of your own?" I called up as two of my men worked with a pair of crewmen who'd jumped down to secure the lines.

"That we did," Garreo called back from the foredeck. "As we hoped, the ships that exited the harbour gave chase. I have not seen from the Trickster but this one tried to turn tail and run when they realised what was going on." He patted the scorpion that had a place of prominence on the foredeck. "Our girl ran them down, and thanks to this baby, we convinced them to surrender without too much effort."

"That takes us to five captured vessels," I replied with a wide smile as I placed the arrow back in the quiver. Turning, I moved alongside midship, and as the gangplank was lowered, slung my bow over my shoulder. Two of the sellswords came down first before the prisoners were marched off my ship.

"Hello there," I began as the last one stepped onto the plank, pulling Red Rain from its sheath and resting it lightly on the shoulder opposite my bow. "Your lord, the Grim Prince is dead. I now rule this isle. Until I decide if you may be worthy of serving me, you'll be housed with your companions within the settlement. If you would like a fate beyond summary execution, when I speak with you privately, you shall tell me whatever I want to know." As I spoke, I made eye contact with the pirates. Most looked down, resigned to their fates, though a handful glared back at me. "If you would rather not, then I have someone who shall rip anything of use from your hides."

The prisoners didn't get the joke, but my men did. All understood I was speaking about Ymir, though only Bronn and perhaps Irraro knew how truthful I was about the direwolf ripping this lot apart. As for the prisoners, they'd learn what I was implying when they met Ymir during my interviews.

My speech finished; I stepped back to let the group be guided past. As they passed me, one spat on my boots. Irraro moved to grab that one, yet already my gaze had shifted to the man behind. He'd been one of the few to glare at me, and his gaze had fallen on my axe as he approached. As Irraro grabbed the spitter, the other man moved toward me.

His bound hands pushed forward, going for my axe. However, before he reached my weapon, I was moving.

Red Rain slipped from my shoulder, my grip on the hilt tight, before I severed the hands that dared to try and touch me. "huh?" the pirate breathed in shock as he fell to his knees, though any further sounds were cut off as I brought my blade around in a backstroke and removed his head.

"He chose poorly," I said to the remaining pirates, who'd all frozen as the head of their comrade bounced off the pier. The body slumped to the ground, blood gushing from the wrists and neck. "You two," I continued, using Red Rain to point at the pair – one of whom was the one who'd spat on my boot – as the head bounced once more before dropping into the harbour. "Pick up the body. You shall carry him with you to your prison. Perhaps a few hours with the reminder of what awaits you if you try anything might loosen your tongues."

One pirate – the one who'd not spat on me – scurried forward almost before I finished talking. The other one, the spitter who I would repay for his actions in this incident when I spoke with him, delayed a moment before helping his compatriot. Once they'd hoisted up the body, the spitter drawing the short straw and having to hold onto the bleeding arms, my men escorted them down the pier.

"Dumb cunt that one was," Bronn remarked once the prisoners moved away. His hands hadn't moved from his belt throughout the incident, but given his skill with a blade, I didn't take his lack of readiness as disrespect. More that he simply didn't regard the pirates as anything more than cattle for the slaughter.

"Always one." I picked up a rag and wiped the blood from my blade before sliding it back into its sheath. "Well done," I said to Irraro as he waited with us for Garreo. "For capturing the ship."

"Thank boss," the large Summer Islander replied as Garreo moved down the plank. I greeted my First Mate – though at this point it was perhaps better to refer to him as the captain of the Windchaser – and grasped his arm.

"You did well," I said to both as I let go of Garreo's arm. "Later today, find me in the stone building. For capturing the ship, you can take a single piece of value from our bounty. I shall also make sure to give you and the men with you a bonus when the loot is divided."

"The men will be thankful for that, Captain," Garreo replied, as Irraro nodded in agreement.

"If there is anything from their ship of value, have it brought to me," I added as the captured vessel moved to the other side of the pier, the Windchaser's helmsman, Caddar, in command of the latest member of my small, but growing, fleet. Given the lack of trusted figures, there was a good chance he'd gain command of that vessel for the return to Sunspear. "Oh, were there any slaves onboard?" Since it had set sail in the early hours of the morning, I doubted it, but I had to be sure.

"No."

"Thank fuck," I muttered, which drew confused looks from Irraro and Garreo. "We have found nearly forty already. While it is good they are free, watching and feeding them is a diversion of men I would rather have not had." I looked back at the newest ship in my fleet as its mooring lines were tossed onto the pier. "I had even been concerned about getting everyone back to Sunspear before you solved that issue." The pair nodded in understanding, and I turned to Bronn. "You able to handle bringing everyone up to speed?"

"Aye, but it will cost you."

"Arbor or Volantene?" I asked in response, which drew a chuckle from the sellsword.

"Volantene. Nice to have something different," Bronn replied with a wide smile even as Garreo laughed at the interplay. "wine, coin, and women," he shook his head and laughed. "You sure you were not sent by the Gods?"

"Certainly not the Seven," I replied, which only made him laugh more. "and I would ask that you refrain from one of those things until we are back in Sunspear."

"Aye, no issue there. While some of the locals are appealing, they've been through enough that anything would not be as fun."

"Good choice." I knew that many of the men were annoyed by my ruling that the freed slaves weren't to be taken, not without the one they wanted confirming it to me personally, but I needed to remain clear in my ruling. Freeing slaves was possibly unique in the Stepstones, so it would set me apart, and might, with time, bear fruit among other slaves if they learnt my name and that I was coming to their island.

With the moment of concern and then surprise at the Windchaser's return having passed, I walked back toward the dock. In front of me, turning toward their future accommodation, was the group of eleven who'd been captured at sea. The body of their dead comrade with them. I'd deal with them and the others in due time, but the body would serve to weaken, if not break, the resolve of any that still held hope of fighting their way out of their imprisonment.

Reaching the docks, and with the freed slaves on my mind, I turned the other way from the temporary stockade. Like with the southern settlement, the slaves here were skewed more toward women than men, though the split was more equal. When I'd first discovered there were male slaves on the island, I wondered why, yet with time to think on the matter I could see why they'd keep them around. There would be jobs that needed doing that most pirates wouldn't want to do, and with the women busy with 'other duties' the male slaves would handle those jobs.

Still, regardless of why they were here, all of them, plus those in the southern settlement, would be coming with us to Sunspear and given some coin to restart or resume their lives. If such a thing was possible after months or years of being enslaved.

Now, perhaps some would consider returning to help develop the changes I had planned, but if they didn't, I'd understand. This place would have terrible, traumatic memories that most people would never have the will or desire to face again. Still, for my plans for Dustspear to happen, I needed more than sellswords under my command.

I still had to survey the settlement properly and consider what the island provided, but I could already see how it would grow. All I needed was the resources and manpower to make those plans viable.

… …


… …

Seeing the tip of Bronn's blade thrust toward me as his shoulder shifted, I slid a foot back and shifted my weight for a riposte as his blade sailed past. Before I could bring my blade to bare, his had already transitioned from a thrust to a fast cut at my head.

Bringing my blade around to deflect his, I stepped forward trying to shoulder-check him and gain some space. Unfortunately, he was far too skilled and easily circled out.

"Gotta do better than that, princeling," he said with a wide smile even as he came in for a quick series of cuts which I barely defended against.

My blade, which wasn't Red Rain, but instead one of the swords taken from the defeated pirates and blunted, shifted as I tried to lock his blade in place with the cross guard. Bronn easily shifted though, coming forward and grasping his blade with his offhand as his pommel swung around to smash my nose in.

Backstepping out to avoid it as it whistled past my nose, I slid back and pivoted, bringing my blade down in a wrath cut at his shoulder. His blade came up to block that and then knocked mine to the side as he transitioned back into a one-handed grip and his sword swung for my ribs. I hastily retreated letting his blade slash the air, though the sound of metal scrapping against metal made it clear he'd clipped the mail I was wearing for our spar.

With his blade offline, I lunged forward blade going for his side. He riposted away with blinding speed as my blade barely clipped his upraised sword arm and I felt pressure against my gut. Looking down, I saw he'd used his free hand to pull a dagger and thrust it against me. The position left him slightly off-balance, but given the wound would've been fatal for me, it ended the spar.

"Dead," Bronn remarked as I let my sword drop, signalling my defeat.

"Aye, I would be," I replied as I took a step back, easing the pressure on my gut. "Again."

Twenty spars against Bronn had all ended the same way, with me dead in the simulated combat. The only upside, if one could call it that, was that we were being very careful as we were sparring with steel and limited protection, meaning a mistake from either of us could've been fatal for the other. The spars had moved slightly slower than normal because of that, but all that ever did was delay my defeat.

"Well, I've been doing this since before you stopped sucking on your mother's tits," Bronn shot back with a smile. He sheathed the dagger as we turned and moved toward the bench where some drinks – and in my case, Red Rain and the axe I'd been using for this campaign – waited. "Still, you are good Cregan. Better than those here. Well, bar Daemon, Cayde, Jae, Irraro and myself, but all of us got you beat with age and experience. With time, you gonna be fucking dangerous."

I nodded, accepting the praise, such as it was, and picked up a flagon from the bench. The ale inside tasted slightly bland, as every drink had in the last few days. Food was salvageable, but it required using more spice than I'd done before coming to the island. I had a suspicion as to why this was happening, but until I returned to Sunspear, and tasted dishes that I knew and enjoyed, I wasn't willing to delve too deeply into the issue.

Bronn sipped at his ale, far less parched than I was, which given I'd been on the defensive for most of the spar, was expected. Still, the moment of quiet allowed me to reflect on the last few days.

The calendar had changed to 297AC yesterday, which had resulted in a small party with everyone in the settlement – that included the Trickster's crew, as they'd returned the evening of the Windchaser's return– though it had been a muted affair even by Westerosi standards. The turning of the calendar was far less of a festival than in my former life.

Most of the freed slaves had joined us, and a few had even overcome their ordeal enough that with the drink they had taken to laying with the men. Bronn had been pleased as he'd bag a pair of girls for the night, which were still in his cabin when I'd seen them this morning, though I'd had to turn down offers from several of the women, and one man. While the girls were attractive, I wasn't willing to give them any sort of false impression about why I'd freed them, or that anything we might experience would lead toward something permanent. As for the man, I simply didn't have the same proclivities my father did.

Still, in the days before the new year, when I'd not been managing the odd issue that came up regarding how the settlement should be run, and sparring with Bronn, Daemon, and others, I'd been speaking with the prisoners.

Most of them had been willing to spill anything they knew, and the few who didn't had been persuaded to do so by myself, Bronn, and Ymir. Though a few had succumbed to their injuries before anything of use could be drawn from them. An added advantage of Ymir being there, beyond the intimidation factor, was his ability to seemingly smell a lie. When a lie was followed by the direwolf snarling and moving closer, the few who'd felt a need to lie quickly corrected their story. From those talks, I'd learnt far more about the situation in the Stepstones than I'd known before I'd left Sunspear.

Apart from being the closest island to Sunspear, Dustspear was slightly isolated from the other major islands in the Steps, which was something that had played into my plans for attacking it. While there had been more trade between Dorne and the rest of Westeros in the last few years, the increased military might of House Martell had limited the opportunities for the Grim Prince to take advantage of the new targets. That was why he'd set up outposts in the Broken Arm.

That plan had weakened the manpower he'd had on the island, which had helped me take him out. The isolation of the island from the others would mean it should take time for word to get out that the Rogue Viper had replaced the Grim Prince. Which I was going to use to return to Sunspear, gather more forces and return.

I was uncertain as to which way I'd go for my next attack though. I'd thought hard about targeting the Whores, a group of seven major islands and twice that in smaller ones, that could be waded between. The islands were unclaimed, however, Pirate Lords from Bloodstone, The Shrouded Isle, and Grey Gallows were constantly skirmishing near and on the Whores, leaving them unclaimed. That status made them seem a logical target, but having a half dozen Pirate Lords fighting there regularly would make holding the Whore extremely difficult with my current forces.

Because of that, and the information I'd turned my attention toward Redwater. The island was nearly three times the size of Dustspear, but unlike some of the other islands, wasn't united under the control of a single Pirate Lord. Instead, three pirates called themselves Lord of Redwater and skirmished with each other as much as they attacked passing vessels. There were at least ten settlements on the island, with several changing allegiances every few moons. With the place in chaos, but not prone to threats from other islands, I was thinking Redwater would be my next target once Dustspear was secure.

As for the islands, the Coral Isle and the Lotus Shores lay east of Redwater, with the Coral Isle being closer to Essos than Dustspear was to Dorne. The Coral Isle was home to Salladhor Saan, who while not the richest or having the largest fleet, was the only Pirate Lords to control one of the larger Stepstone islands alone. Saan was also unusual in that he seemed to make most of his coin by escorting ships around not just his island, but the others in the chain as well, and given the name of his isle, I could understand the logic of doing that.

The Lotus Shores was smaller than even Dustspear, but its Lord, who was said to hail from YiTi, was known to specifically target vessels involved in slavery. Even those of other Pirate Lords. That said, the Lotus Prince – which I felt was a bit on the nose – had some form of alliance with Saan as none of those I'd talked to could recall the pair ever skirmishing.

To the south of the Lotus Shores, and east of the southern tip of Redwater, lay Stormwatch. Smaller than the Lotus Shores, it was claimed that the local Pirate Lord was in service of the pleasure city, Lys. Or possibly Volantis. Regardless, the Lord there was a seemingly minor player which made sense due to the slightly isolated location of the island.

The other island in the Steps that was claimed to be under the control of a Free City was Saffron Reach. Given that the island lay far to the north of the other Stepstone islands and due west of – and barely a day's sail from – Tyrosh, that wasn't a surprise.

South of Saffron Reach was Obsidian Sand, which was about the size of Dustspear and likewise ruled by a single Pirate Lord. However, that Lord wasn't seemingly powerful as the island sat between Bloodstone and Whisperwind, which were east and west of Obsidian Sands. Whisperwind was controlled by two Pirate Lords, though unlike one Bloodstone, Redwater or the Shrouded Isle, those two weren't skirmishing. Or at least the prisoners didn't know of any such actions taking place. That lack of intel extended to Suncrest and Valyria's Tooth which lay between Whisperwind and the Disputed Lands, and Misthaven which lay due south of Whisperwind.

The prisoners had given more intel on the other three major islands in the Steps – Grey Gallows, Bloodstone, and the Shrouded Isle. A single lord ruled from Grey Gallows, which was logical as it was a smaller island, even if it held the centre point of the island chain. The Shrouded Isle was contested by four pirates, though only two – the Bloodhawk and Lucian Koros, a man with Volantene history – had been considered by the Grim Prince to be his equals.

Like Redwater, Bloodstone was contested by three pirates. The smallest of those called himself the Blood King, which was a pretentious name but given he'd seemingly been losing ground to the other two, it didn't seem as if I'd have to face him any time soon. The other two Pirate Lords on Bloodstone were Aeron Indarys and the Blood Serpent. While there was an urge to comment on the originality of Pirate Lord names, I didn't make it. Daemon had, along with a remark about the Rogue Viper that I'd taken for the time being.

Regardless of the names, Indarys and the Blood Serpent were the two major Pirate Lords on Bloodstone and often skirmished with each other. They also did so with the Pirate Lords of the Shrouded Isle over a series of smaller islands between the two larger ones known as the Bone Breaker Isles. They were also the ones who had skirmished over the Whores with Pirate Lords from the Shrouded Isle and Grey Gallows, whom Indarys had recently defeated in what the prisoners called a major battle.

Now, I understood that I couldn't trust that what the prisoners had told me was accurate, but based on everything, I was looking east and not north for my next target. Of course, first I'd have to speak with Doran and Oberyn as to them, attacking Dustspear had been about clearing, and hopefully holding it, not using it as a stepping stone to the rest of the islands. I'd also need far more men to even consider attacking another island as I had to ensure Dustspear remained secure on the chance that I was forced to retreat from Redwater.

"My Lord." I was pulled from my thoughts – which had taken place between a few more gulps of ale – when Irraro spoke. Turning to him, I kept the frown from my face at him calling me a Lord. While Dustspear was mine, I was not yet a Lord, though many of the men had started doing so, as had all the freed slaves. "The, uh, voting has finished."

"Very well." I looked at Bronn. "You want to watch this?"

Bronn seemed to consider it for a moment before surging. "Eh, why not? Not much better to do on this island." He grinned as he picked up his flagon. "And curious what exactly been concocting in that twisted mind of yours."

I chuckled and took his words as a compliment as I moved off. Bronn and Irraro fell into step just behind, which was something they, Cayde, and Jaeronos had been doing ever since the southern settlement fell. Daemon generally walked at my side, but that was more because of his orders from Ari to protect me from harm.

Moving through the settlement, we encountered some of my men. Most nodded or greeted me with something like 'milord', and fell in behind once they realised where we were heading, and what was happening. The only ones who didn't were those on guard duty or with work to handle.

When we arrived at the docks, we found the twenty captured pirates. They were lined up on their knees with hands bound behind their backs, mouths gagged, and blindfolded. Behind the row stood a half-dozen of my men with Cayde in charge. While it was unlikely that any would try to escape from their current position, if they did Cayde had orders to execute them. There had been three more pirates, but two had died from wounds taken in battle and the last had been willing to die before telling me anything, which had happened during his interview.

I wiped my brow theatrically as I neared the line. "I hope you and the men made sure to stay cool," I said to Cayde, tormenting the pirates who'd been kneeling here from just after breakfast until late afternoon. While their torment of sitting outside in the sun seemed mild, it wasn't why I'd lined them up here. That was for the various bowls that were in front of each pirate, and the stones on each bowl.

"Aye. Made sure to shift around regularly as you said as well," Cayde replied with a smile.

"Bring me the bowls." As the men moved to obey, I wondered how this would play out. The idea of simply allowing the slaves to slaughter the pirates as I'd done in the southern settlement was appealing. However, after talking with Daemon, Bronn, and the others, I'd decided to alter the way I handled this. If I simply went after pirates and killed them all, then future battles would turn violent as the pirates would fight to the death. Thus, I was trialling another idea today, one that I'd come up with yesterday morning but not fully explained to anyone.

Before the first bowl reached me, I turned to where the freed slaves had gathered. "I know what I asked today sounded strange, and no doubt was hard to do, but I thank you for your service," I said to them before lowering my head.

With that done I looked through each bowl and quickly counted the stones within. If there were more than five, the associated pirate was moved to the left, while those with less than five were moved to my right. However, there was one bowl without a single stone within. "Everyone here has made a judgment?" I asked the slaves, wanting to be sure that all had voted. A vote went to any slave that had, in any physical way, abused them while they'd been enslaved. I'd honestly expected every pirate to have a dozen or more stones, so finding any with a few was unexpected, and one with none something I hadn't prepared for.

"We have, My Lord. That one was new to their ranks and had yet to… partake in the activities the others did." The one who spoke was an older man named Phenias. From what I'd learnt from speaking with him, he'd been a trader from Myr who'd fallen afoul of the Grim Prince sometime in the last few moons when his ship had been unable to escape a longship in becalmed seas. The man's Common Tongue was heavily accented, but he was fluent enough to hold a conversation and seemed to have taken a position of importance among the freed slaves.

"Unexpected," I muttered before speaking louder. "Very well." I turned to Cayde. "Bring that one to me."

The pirate was brought toward me, and his blindfold and gag were roughly removed. He blinked, adjusting to the harsh light while I examined his face. He looked to be around my age, perhaps a little older, though a head shorter than me. His hands weren't as rough or dirty as most of the other pirates and his clothes seemed an ill-fit. I also remembered speaking with him. He'd blurted out everything he knew, and not just about the Grim Prince, before I'd even managed to explain the situation, never once lying. Not that he seemed to know much as he'd blathered on about only joining the Grim Prince late last year in the hopes of one day becoming a captain of a vessel of his own.

"It seems boy, that you are something of a rarity. A pirate with enough moral fibre to not instantly turn into scum." I glanced at the two groups of pirates. "Those you could have abused or assaulted have spoken today of your innocence in such matters, even if your acts of piracy are undisputed. Therefore, I am going to give you a choice. Eith…"

I never got to finish as the boy dropped to his knees. "I pledge myself to your side, My Lord," he said before lowering his head to seemingly kiss my boots.

"That was fast." The remark came from Bronn as I pulled my boots back, not wanting this boy to kiss them. As he looked up at me, gestured to Cayde and the boy was hoisted to his feet.

"Your name lad?"

"Eddin, milord," the boy replied, a Westerosi accent easy to pick out even if it wasn't a Dornish one. "I… I joined the Grim Prince as I wanted to one day captain a…"

I held up my hand to stop him. "Yes, I remember you telling me all this when we last spoke." I looked him over, judging him. "I accept your pledge. For now, you will be unarmed and serve as Cabin Boy aboard the Windchaser. In time, if you prove yourself, You will have the chance to earn your dream."

"Thank you, milord," Eddin replied giving me a deep, but flawed, bow. I jerked my head to the side and Eddin scampered away, though as he moved to head behind me, I shook my head and pointed toward the stone building I'd taken as mine. He nodded and then ran over. He'd not be able to get in as the door was locked and the window closed. Both of them had guards to make sure no one tried anything while I was away.

"I was na' expecting that," Cayde muttered as he came closer.

"No, but at least we might find one man, well boy, worth keeping around." I looked toward the two groups of pirates and gave a nod. At that, they were brought to their feet and the blindfolds were removed.

I looked into the eyes of each man, seeing which, if any had any resentment or stubbornness in them, making a note of it for what was to come. "All of you have, like Eddin, been judged by those you formerly oppressed. However, unlike him, you were all guilty of some form of abuse, for which you will face judgement. Your actions, your choices in life, have led you to this moment, however, you will not face equal punishment." I looked at the right group, of which there were six. "You lot have only been marked as having committed some crimes against those you captured and abused. That might be because you were only a member of the Grim Prince's force for a few weeks, or that you have some odd sense of honour. Whatever the case, your lack of crimes grants you a chance at redemption. At least of a sort."

I walked toward the group, taking the measure of each, judging how they reacted to my gaze and how open they'd been when I'd spoken to them. "You have a choice," I continued, taking my time to look each in the eye. "Either you swear your lives, however short they might be, to me, or you fight against a warrior of my choice. If you defeat them, I will grant you your freedom and drop you off the coast of Dorne. If you lose, and survive, then you join your cohorts over there."

I stepped back, giving them room. "Make your choice. Bend the knee, or stand and fight."

Of the six, four dropped to a knee while two remained standing, which made me smile. I'd known some would reject an offer to serve, and wanted to use them for another purpose. However, first I had to deal with the four who'd knelt. "Good, I accept you lot into my serve. I don't, however, have reason to trust you. Your hands will remain bound until such time that I, or one of my lieutenants, feel like removing them, for the first quarter of the year you shall also only receive quarter wages." One of the four snarled, unhappy with the conditions, and I moved toward him. "If you dislike the terms, you could choose to fight," I snarled back. The pirate lost his glare and lowered his head. "A wise choice. The storehouse shall remain your bunks until such time as I deem otherwise, though you are free to remove the body of your fallen comrade. His lesson in how I handle dissent has been made. Irraro," I waited for the tall Summer Islander to come over. "Escort our new men to their bunk and then remove their gags. If they dislike my terms, return them here to join that group," I pointed at the larger group that was being guarded by Cayde and more men, all of whom had their blades ready to strike down any attempted rebellion.

"Yes, My lord."

I nodded, accepting Irraro's title, and then looked at the remaining pair. One was nervous about his choice and kept glancing at the other man. That one appeared to be the older of the pair, and if looks could kill, I'd have been a pile of ash on the docks by now. "Bronn, clear me some space."

"Right, you heard him! Move back, you mangy lot!" I chuckled at Bronn's words, even as I continued to watch the two men.

The one who kept glaring had a broken finger which helped me remember exactly how his interview had gone. That one had been reluctant to tell us the truth and it had required some persuasion to get anything of use from him. From what I'd learnt from the other prisoners, he'd been the first mate of one of the Grim Prince's vessels and considered himself above most of the other pirates.

I turned and moved over to Bronn. "Hold this," I said as I unbuckled the strap holding Red Rain.

Bronn raised an eyebrow. "you sure about this?" He asked as he took my blade, his lips twitching upward in amusement.

"Aye." I handed him my axe. "Been looking forward to this," I added with a smirk that made him laugh.

"Just try not to get yourself killed. Apart from having to fight for my share, would rather not have that wolf of yours in a foul mood with no one to control it." I laughed at that and then turned back to the pair.

"You first," I said, pointing at the angrier of the pair. "To make this fair, since your fingers are broken," I grinned, knowing I was responsible for that, which would only anger the man further, "we shall fight unarmed."

The man snarled behind his gag at the reminder of why his fingers were broken, which was what I wanted. He was around my height, but bulkier and I could just about remember him from the battle for the settlement. If I had him pegged right, he preferred wide, powerful strikes over control when using a blade and had little formal training, and based on his build and how he moved, he'd be the same unarmed.

I gestured toward Cayde, who moved behind the man and cut the bindings. As soon as that was done, the pirate rushed at me, gag still in his mouth and fists clenched.

Judging the distance, I waited until one arm moved back, giving away his strike. However, not being too confident, instead of engaging his charge, I slipped away, letting the wild swing miss. As he rushed past me, I dragged one foot out and sent him tumbling to the stones of the dock.

"Not even waiting for a signal to begin?" How uncivilized," I muttered with exaggerated tutting. "I mean, at least tell me your name before you lose," I added as the man pushed himself up from the stones.

Instead of doing so, or removing the gag, the man turned and charged again. He cocked his fists in the same manner, and I dodged to the other side this time, a trailing foot sending him to the ground once more.

"Really? That's the best you've got? Attacking like a wild beast. How embarrassing," I added with a shake of my head. The pirate stood, his eyes burning with rage as he wiped away blood from his mouth. "Look, I haven't even struck you and you're bleeding."

I knew I was showboating with this, but that was my intent. Hopefully, this pirate would start putting up a decent fight so I could make a statement to not just those who'd just sworn to me, but those who had come here for the coin. I knew many might choose to leave once we returned to Sunspear, content with their new-found wealth, but I wanted to prove to those who were considering staying that I was worth following. I knew I wasn't the best fighter here, every one of my lieutenants, bar Irraro, kept defeating me in spars, but that didn't mean I wasn't the leader of this motley band.

The pirate snarled and came in again, though this time he did so cautiously. Because of that, I started taking this seriously.

A fist came in, better controlled than before but still predictable. I slipped it, avoiding the blow, and then planted my feet while twisting from the hips as my arm flashed into a hook. My fist crashed into his side, cracking at least one rib, and drawing a grunt of pain from the pirate. He swung his arm back, hoping to land a blow even as he stumbled back.

My arm went high, hooking his, before dropping low. As I trapped the arm, I turned. My other arm came in, my fist slamming into his shoulder even as I used my shift along with his momentum to pull him back awkwardly for him.

A cry of pain slipped from his lips as my blow dislocated the shoulder, yet I didn't give him a chance to recover. Keeping his arm trapped, I pulled it down as my knee came up, slamming into his trapped elbow.

"Aargh!"

The cry of pain echoed around the docks as the bones in his forearm broke through the skin. I cut off his cry by slamming my fist into his jaw, rocking his jaw just as I released the broken arm, and he fell to the ground, his good arm taking the brunt of the landing.

Before he could recover, I moved closer, the heel of my boot crashing into the back of his knee. "Aah!" he screamed, which grew louder when I repeated the attack, breaking the joint. A small mercy for him was that the bones in his leg didn't pierce the skin this time.

I slipped back, avoiding the stone he'd gathered with his good hand and tossed at me as he rolled over.

"I said unarmed." My words were followed up by me dropping my knee into his gut. The blow forced air from his lungs and as he instinctively raised his head, my elbow slammed into his face. A groan of pain came from him as his head snapped back, cracking against the stones on the ground. Any further sound from him was cut off as a quick thrust had my hand jam into his throat.

His good arm came up wildly, trying frantically to get me to move. My hand gripped his wrist and twisted, rolling, it painfully. I followed that up by slamming the palm of my other hand into his elbow, jarring the joint, before slamming the side of my palm into the gap under his arm.

As he groaned in pain, I stood. "Pathetic." The word slipped from me as I looked down at his form, and with this fight over, raised one foot. Before he could realise what I was doing and counter, I drove the heel of my steel boot into his throat, crushing his windpipe with a crunch of cartilage.

The pirate's eyes widened drastically as he realised what I'd done, and he scratched frantically at my leg. A flick of my foot knocked his hand away, and I stepped back, surveying the broken form in front of me.

"No time even to place a wager," Bronn remarked as I stepped away from the pirate, leaving them gasping for air as their body reacted to the fact no more could be inhaled.

"Doubt you would have won much," I replied with a grin as I took back Red Rain and my axe from him.

Bronn shrugged. "I mean, I would have bet on you ending it quickly, but aye, it was a fool bet to expect you not to win." He turned and glanced at the other pirate who'd chosen combat. "What about that one?"

I turned and looked at the pirate. His eyes were wide, fear radiating from him so much that Ymir could probably taste it from inside the stone building where he was lazing away out of the sun. Hells, there was a dark stain running from his groin down one leg that made clear how frightened he was. "You want this one?" I asked Bronn as I turned back to him.

"Eh, not really a challenge."

"Make it two bottles if you defeat him faster than I beat my man."

Bronn grinned in a way that I feared the pirate might shit himself. "Oh, in that case, I accept."

I turned to the man behind the pirate. "Cut his bindings."

Once the pirate's hands were free, he rubbed his wrists, his eyes bouncing between me and Bronn. While I likely shouldn't enjoy seeing such terror in another man's eyes, I couldn't deny I was enjoying the sight. Yet, instead of crumbling to the ground, or begging for mercy, the pirate surprised me.

Acting with unexpected courage, he turned, gripped my man's wrist, and yanked the knife from his grip.

"Hold your blades!" I called as the pirate turned back to face me, the dagger shaking in his grip. "Well done on disarming my man, but the question is what are you going to do with your blade?" I said slowly, not backing down or moving as the tip pointed at me threateningly. I took a step toward him, and the blade rose, the shaking slowly increasing. "Are you going to use it to try and kill me, to get some sort of justice for your former lord? Or do you think that it will somehow prevent Bronn here from killing you?"

"Not bloody likely," Bronn commented with a snort, no hint of concern in his tone.

As the pirate continued to hesitate, I took another step toward him, wanting to see if he had any sort of backbone.

Sadly, he didn't, as before I could take another step, and be in range of an attack, he turned. Before my man could react, the pirate had pushed past him and started running toward the forest.

"Bloody hells!. Someone get me a bow!" Bronn called out.

"No need for that," I said as I watched the pirate run. "Let him run!" I called out to my men as some moved to intercept the pirate. "Ymir!"

The door to the stone building burst open as the large black frame of my direwolf emerged. He snarled, annoyed at being disturbed but I was impressed he'd reacted as fast as he had. Perhaps the smell of blood from the man I'd beaten had caught his scent, or perhaps he'd sensed my enjoyment of battle. Either way, he was up but unhappy to be out in the sun.

I pointed at the pirate. "Enjoy."

Ymir snarled and then howled loudly. The pirate glanced over his shoulder and then stumbled falling to the ground, the dagger bouncing away as he fell. As he pulled himself up, the black mass of his impending death raced toward him.

"As much as I would like that bottle, I am not fool enough to get between Ymir and a kill." I chuckled at Bronn's remark.

"You choose wisely." The pirate reached the first line of buildings, slipping from sight, the mass of a hunting direwolf bearing down on him like sent by Death itself. Trusting Ymir to not toy with his meal too much, I looked at the man who'd first lost his knife and then allowed the pirate to run. "I'm docking you half a day's pay for that. There will not be a next time."

"Yes, milord." While I was docking him significant pay, his mistakes could've cost himself or others their lives, and it was better than trying to dismiss him from my service. However, if he wanted to sign on again for my return to Dustspear, I'd have to consider the matter after this incident.

Putting the matter to one side, even as a howl echoed around the settlement, I turned to the remaining group of pirates. "Now, you lot. You were judged to have committed significant crimes against those you captured and enslaved. For that, I find I cannot offer any chance of redemption or mercy. No, your sentence is simple. Death."

I smiled as I walked toward the group of prisoners who were now struggling with their bonds, wanting to enjoy the next few moments. "However, your deaths won't come by my hands, nor by any of my men or my direwolf. No, your punishment will be served by those you wronged." I stopped and looked toward where the freed slaves were gathered. At a nod from me, two of my men brought over a small crate and pulled back a tarp that was covering it. That exposed an array of weaponry within.

As the slaves looked worryingly at the weapons, I walked toward them. "These men abused you, tormented you. They killed your friends, and your family, and placed you in chains. Their fate is sealed because of that. However, I grant you the chance to exact revenge, to send these men to hell, and in the process, perhaps, excise some of the terrors that haunt your thoughts!"

I reached the crates as I finished and nodded to the two men there. The pair reached inside and pulled out blades, holding the hilts toward the former slaves. "If you do not wish to gain some small measure of justice for what they did to you, I understand. To take the life of another is never an easy thing. However, by their very actions, these men forfeited whatever rights they had in front of any god for mercy. Valar morghūlis, yn valar ȳdra daor emagon se paktot naejot ābrar." While most didn't understand the full statement I'd made, enough knew the opening part.

I waited, watchful until the first slave approached the blade. It was a woman, perhaps the same age as Ari and Ty, though it was hard to be sure. While the dirt many had been found in had been cleaned up, the wounds and blows they'd endured from the pirates remained and this girl still had a swollen eye. As she gripped the dagger offered to her, my man moved back. While he reached in to draw another blade, the girl stepped forward.

As she passed me, she lowered her head. "Ñuha āeksio."

I stepped toward her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She tensed at the gesture but allowed it, the grip on her dagger tightening. "Iksan daor iā āeksio. Ao ȳdra daor emagon naejot obūljagon. Mirre hen iksā dāez." While the gesture of accepting me as her lord was nice, I wasn't. She was free to choose her own path.

After offering me a small smile, I let her pass, moving away on the remote chance she might choose to use the blade against me. As she moved closer to the pirates, all of whom were being held down by my men, more of the slaves moved forward. Many lowered their heads or bowed to me as they passed, and I returned each with a nod.

By the time the last slave that was willing to lift a blade had passed, I turned away. The sounds behind me made it clear the pirates were getting exactly what they deserved. "Once they have all died, burn the bodies," I said as I passed Cayde and Bronn only to stop. "Actually, have those who swore themselves, do it. Help them break their chains to their former lives."

Cayde chuckled. "Aye, that'd do it."

I moved off, heading toward my solar, only to see Daemon approach. "The Princess will not be happy to hear about this."

I chuckled. "About arming the freed slaves or me killing a man with my fists?" I knew Ari wouldn't care about the former, feeling the pirates had gotten what they deserved. As for the latter, I felt she'd enjoy it. She did seem to find pleasure in watching tourneys. Or at least the melees more than the jousts. Almost as if she got a rush of seeing men battering and killing each other. Given some of the places she'd demanded I take her within the walls of Sunspear, I felt she was something of an adrenaline junkie who got off on danger and dangerous events.

Daemon opened his mouth to respond, only for a loud, triumphant howl to echo through the settlement. A faint, momentary scream accompanied the howl, but it ended quickly. Through our bond, I sensed Ymir's delight, meaning he'd found his target and was now enjoying the moment before he went for the kill.

I shook my head, clearing thoughts of that night when I'd shared his mind and focused on Daemon. "Perhaps that is a matter best left to her and her paramour," he remarked with a smirk. I was glad that the divide between us was gone, and that he'd let go of whatever feelings he might've held for Ari. Though I'd rather do without any teasing from him on how often I emerged from her quarters in the morning. "Though I was hoping if I might take something from the haul."

"For this mystery lady who has caught your eye?" I asked, turning the tables. Daemon had revealed that a lady at court had caught his attention, but he wouldn't reveal who it was. Since he'd assured me he'd not pursue her if she rejected him, and that it wasn't Nym, Ty, Asha, Sarella, or Ari I saw no reason to pry.

"Yes. I hope a spoil of war might help warm her heart toward me."

"Fine," I said, resuming my walk toward my solar. "But before we return to Sunspear, I want to know who it is." Mainly so I could avoid flirting with them, never mind risking Ari or one of the other girls bringing them to my bed and risking the renewed friendship I had with Daemon.

I might be greedy in not wanting any man near those I considered mine, but I wasn't so greedy as to steal from a friend.

… …


… …

"You remember the plan?" I asked as I moved down the pier with Bronn and Irraro just behind me.

"Yes, boss," Irraro replied in a resigned tone. "Just as we did the previous five and twenty times you checked."

I paused as I reached the gangplank of the Windchaser, and turned to look at the pair. Irraro looked as irritated as he sounded, while Bronn barely looked to be paying attention. I knew that wasn't the case, just that he liked to project a laissez-faire attitude while actually paying more attention than it appeared.

"I know I keep going on about this, it's just I would rather everything we fought for not to fall away in the moon it takes me to sort things out in Sunspear and return."

"As if there is any in these isles that could best me."

I smirked at Bronn's bravado. "One-on-one, you might be right, but a hundred to one? A thousand to one? You may be good but not that good."

"Eh," he muttered with a shrug of doubt. While he was good, better than anyone else here, so much so that he'd sparred against Daemon and Cayde and managed to hold his own. That said, I'd place a wager on Oberyn, Jaime, Barristan, and others of that calibre being able to beat him.

"Still, be cautious," I said as I walked up the gangplank. "And remember whatever they offer you, I will double it."

The pair laughed at that. "Aye, we know you will," Bronn said once he'd stopped laughing. "After this adventure, we know you are good for it. Now get going before I decide to take all that coin and goods than let you sail away with it."

"Fine, fine," I said with a chuckle as I reached the Windchaser. As I turned, two of the crew pulled the plank back. I moved to the forecastle, as the mooring lines were untied and tossed on board, taking in the sight of my island.

Bronn, Irraro, a dozen men, and one of the captured ships, were remaining behind to secure the settlement on the chance any of the Grim Prince's men returned to try and take the place. Or that another pirate might choose now to attack.

Irraro was a close match to the Grim Prince in height, so he was dressed up as the former Pirate Lord –whose skull was stored in the hold after the flesh was burnt off so I could present it to Dora. Hopefully, that would fool anyone entering the harbour. Now, anyone with a brain would use a Myrish eye to confirm that Irraro was the Grim Prince, but the hope was that if the former ruler's men returned, they'd not check that before sailing into the harbour while forces of another pirate might not know what the Grim Prince looked like.

I doubted that any ship would approach while I was away, but it was better to be prepared, and if it could be managed, I'd promised all the men remaining a month's wage if they captured another ship and found me some more men to interview.

Those that had sworn themselves to me were coming with us as I didn't trust them, though none were on the Windchaser or Trickster as those two vessels were carrying all our loot, with my flagship taking the bulk. We'd stop in the southern settlement and collect the handful of men and freed slaves there and take six vessels back to Sunspear.

I'd already done the rough figures in my head of what I had to pay out in remaining wages and bonus pay, and what I wanted to gift to the freed slaves to help them recover from their ordeal. With those costs taken care of, and the large cut I'd have to give to Doran for allowing the expedition – he might not have paid for anything, but he had allowed me to do this, with carried risk toward Dornish shipping if I'd failed – I'd have more than enough to outfit all six vessels and pay for supplies to take back. Hopefully, I'd also be able to hire crew for the vessels, more sellswords willing to sign on for future expeditions and, if all went well, people willing to chance moving to the island to help turn it into something other than a pirate haven.

… …


… …

"Gods, how much longer is this going to take?" Jaeronos said as he stood behind me with Daemon. Behind them were the various chests and crates that held most of the loot from Dustspear.

"As long as needed," I replied as I stood patiently, looking at the doors that led toward the throne room of Sunspear.

We'd been waiting in this antechamber for a while now, which explained Jaeronos' irritation, but since we'd arrived without an invitation or summons, we had to wait at the back of the line. Though the quiet grumble from my stomach reminded me it had been a while since we'd docked.

Having six vessels sail into the harbour, especially four without markings, had meant the dockmaster and head of the guard at the docks coming to greet us. Once Stuar Blackwood had realised it was me leading the small force into the harbour, he'd stood down the guard. After a comment about how I seemed to enjoy arriving back with more ships than I set sail with, I paid the docking fees for all six vessels for half a moon and asked all to be checked for repairs. Only the Windchaser and Trickster were to be fixed without asking though. With him accepting my words, and a request to have a dozen scorpions – six the same as those mounted on my vessels, six larger – commissioned accepted, turned back to the ships, and all the men and women were disembarking.

Since I'd paid three-fourths of the basic pay to my sellswords before we'd left, I only had the remainder of that to hand over, along with their cut of the loot. Still, because the take had been greater than I'd expected, everyone ended up all but being paid double for the moon's worth of work. Those like Daemon, Cayde, and Garreo who I considered officers in the unit were paid far more of that cut.

Daemon had also taken a necklace for the girl he wished to woo, who rather unexpectedly had been revealed as my cousin, Alysanne Snow.

Before he'd revealed her name, he'd asked me to not lash out, and even after promising to do so, I almost still did. Of all the names he could have given, my cousin – and the hidden Targaryen – was the one I'd not expected. Still, after taking a few days to cool my emotions, I'd found myself accepting the potential pairing.

Daemon was a good man, and a highly skilled swordsman with excellent prospects for a bastard while Alysanne was, to the outside world, nothing more than the bastard daughter of Ned Stark. Oh, I knew she was more than that, and she and Ty suspected – as did Doran and Oberyn – but others didn't. While I wasn't sure what would come of the pairing, I wasn't going to stand in his way, not unless Alysanne asked me to do so. Plus, this would help her shift her attention away from me.

While she was maturing, and I suspected due to her Targaryen heritage, would develop into a beautiful young lady, I didn't want her to get hung up on me as seemed to have been happening before we'd left the North. Ignoring any issues I might have with her current age – which I was well aware was hypocritical since I'd bedded Ty when I'd been about the age Alysanne was now – I didn't want to pursue that. Her having a dragon egg, and likely being able to ride and bond with it should she hatch it, was a powerful motivator to keep her close, but that didn't mean I'd have to bed her.

Of course, the morning before we arrived in Sunspear, I'd taken Daemon aside and made it very clear that if he ever did anything to hurt her, there would be no place in Westeros, Essos, or beyond where I wouldn't find him. Daemon had accepted the warning without question, which was impressive as Ymir had spent the entire time growling so deeply it rattled my bones. He'd also promised to not make any move toward her without the permission of Prince Doran since Alysanne was his ward, and that I felt was the most likely way the courtship could be scuppered. At least in Dorne as I had no idea how Ned would react if he learnt of the couple.

Anyway, after paying the men, I'd tasked Cayde with finding the freed slaves places to stay for a few days while they made their minds up about what they wished to do with their lives. I'd spoken to the group of around fifty telling them I'd give them some coin to help them resume and rebuild their lives, but what they did was up to them. Still, a few had seemed to want to come with me to the palace, and in the end, I'd allowed five to do so.

The Myrish merchant Phenias had led the group which included the girl who had first taken a dagger in the northern settlement, another girl around my mother's age, and two young men from the group from the southern settlement. Those five were standing behind the Martell warriors who were carrying and guarding my loot. While the four younger ones seemed unsure of themselves, Phenias seemed at ease, suggesting he'd dealt with nobles before his enslavement.

With that done, Stuar had arranged for guards to find a caravan to carry our loot to the palace and granted me four guards to help escort it. Though with myself, Daemon, Jaeronos, Ymir and a dozen of my men around the cart, and the five freed slaves as well though none were armed, I'd not expected any trouble. While I had been accurate in that assessment, we had stopped several times as we walked through the Shadow City.

Word had leaked from the palace about where I and Daemon had gone, and why, and it seemed that many were worried about us. Or me at least, as while Daemon was a member of the household and Oberyn's former squire, I was his adopted son and someone it seemed many people liked. Most spoke of their love for my father and offered thanks to the New and Old Gods for my safe return. Others gave us food and drink to mark our safe return, and while all had dismissed taking any payment for the nourishment, I and Daemon made note of which merchants gave us what so I could keep them in mind in the future. While Sunspear wasn't my city, it was my home, and to help secure their loyalty toward the Martells, I wanted to do my part.

However, the most unexpected but welcome stop had come when we'd reached one of the main squares in the Shadow City – though it wasn't much of a square given the way the streets of the city seemed to twist and turn every which way. There, a sharp, high-pitched whistle from above had drawn a loud bark of laughter from Ymir and a moment later, Rian had flown down to greet us.

As he landed on my arm, I was glad I'd left my bracers on, otherwise his massive claws would've ripped my flesh to the bone. While I passed him a piece of dried meat, a merchant had approached us with fish in hand. I'd frowned, wondering what was going on, but then the merchant tossed the fish into the air.

Rian had taken off instantly, and even before the fish started falling back to the ground, had buried his talons into it. I watched as he climbed higher, taking the meal to his mate, at which point I'd turned to the merchant, curious as to why he'd done that. The fish merchant, a portly man named Laroy, let me know that he and others had been doing this for the last moon.

A rumour was circulating around the city that I'd not taken Rian with me because he'd found a mate, and they had an egg inside the palace of Sunspear. Since there was a part to the rumour that hinted Ari was caring for the mate and an egg, the merchants felt it was their duty to help. It seemed that Rian had become something of a symbol for the Martells, or at least Ari, which given how magnificent he was, did make some sense. Add in that it was known I was close to the Martells as an adopted son, and that Ari was caring for the eagles while I was gone, and the city's merchants had decided to help ease the burden on Rian as he hunted for food.

That had me wondering how Laroy and others saw Ymir and Kaa. The merchant knew little of Kaa, thinking he was simply a gift I'd been given by Oberyn several years ago, but Ymir did have a reputation in the city. Once I was aware of it, I found it amusing as fuck.

When he'd left he'd still been small enough that he could pass himself off as a large hunting dog. However, words had spread not long after our arrival from the North that he was, in fact, a direwolf. While many were nervous to have such a beast within the city walls, most of the children enjoyed coming up to pet him. What helped with parents accepting that was seeing Oberyn's younger daughters and Ari moving around the direwolf without concern.

By the point Rian had appeared, several children had come out to greet Ymir, though most were held back by their parents since he'd grown some more in the moon we'd been gone. Hells, he was now at the point where I could rest my elbow on his shoulder, dwarfing any other canine in Dorne.

After saying goodbye to Laroy and the others in the square, we'd continued to the palace, moving through the Threefold Gate that granted a direct path to the palace. At the final gates, we were greeted by the Castellan, Manfrey Martell. There, the guards that the Dockmaster had assigned us broke away, replaced by the palace guard. They escorted us inside the palace, and after Manfrey understood what we were escorting, had helped carry the chests and crates inside.

"But I thought you were the son of Prince Oberyn Martell," Jaeronos remarked, his irritation at our waiting continuing to grow.

"Cregan is Prince Oberyn's adopted son," Daemon cut in, saving me from doing so. "Even if he was trueborn, he would still be made to wait. It is protocol." Unlike me and Jaeronos, he was in full plate armour, he wasn't a returning or visiting figure, but a sworn shield returning from an assignment. Plus, I suspected he wanted to impress Alysanne if he could, though I did wonder if he was struggling as full plate in the Dornish heat was something that would quickly tire even the strongest of men.

"And here I thought I was done with this," Jaeronos muttered to himself, though I still overheard it.

I knew Jaeronos came from a family of some, though not major, importance in Volantis, but as the third son, hadn't had many prospects if he remained. At least not as anything more than a position of importance in the city's guard, or married to some minor noble. To change his fate, he'd become a sellsword and at some point met and befriended Bronn. However, that was all I'd learnt about his family, not even his family name, mainly as I wasn't going to pry into his personal business while he was a simple sellsword. If he remained with me and returned to Dustspear, then I'd push to know more. While Volantis wasn't a major player in the Stepstones, it was still one I had to be careful of. Plus, during my magical awakening dream, I'd sensed something ancient, dark, and powerful there when I'd drifted too close.

"It is the same the world over, as you well know. Men sit in chairs above others, making those below them wait and bow. Such is true even of Prince Doran who is sworn to the Iron Throne." While true, I wondered how willingly Doran would swear himself to Robert, or if he'd even head to King's Landing if summoned.

Silence returned to the chamber, and the minutes continued to tick away until, eventually, the door opened. The Seneschal of Sunspear, Ricasso, stepped in, smiling warmly. "It is good to see you again, Cregan," He said as he came over and grasped my forearms. "Certain members of the court have been rather sullen ever since your departure," he added with a nod as he broke his grasp. I chuckled at that but said nothing as he moved past me. "Ser Daemon, it is good to see your return, and with your assignment completed."

"It was more difficult than I expected, mainly as that one could not help but get us into trouble."

"I do not go looking for it," I replied to Daemon's comment.

"Is that not exactly what you set out to do this time?" I inclined my head sheepishly at Ricasso's critique. "Gods be good, will you ever stop growing, Ymir?" Ymir snorted and shook his head, drawing a chuckle from the old man. "Well, I hope you do. I doubt the cooks will enjoy feeding you if you reach the size of a horse. Not with the need to ensure your meals are kept as raw as possible."

I held my tongue, not wanting to remark on how well-fed Ymir had been on Dustspear. There was little need to imply my direwolf had developed a taste for human flesh. At least not to people I considered friends.

"From the chests, I suspect your voyage was a successful one?"

"It was indeed. And no matter what this one says," I gestured at Daemon, "relatively uneventful."

"I will leave that matter up to Prince Doran," Ricasso said, choosing to not be drawn into any form of debate between myself and Daemon. "If you would follow me." After I nodded in acceptance, he turned and exited the room.

"If you would rather wait out here, you have my blessing," I said to Jaeronos as the guard dropped to pick up the chests and crates.

"Let's just get this over with," he replied.

I nodded and then turned and walked after Ricasso, listening to my boots click with each step as they touched the white-marbled floor. Ricasso was waiting at the main doors that led into the palace. Seeing us stepping into the corridor, he moved toward the main doors as I saw Phenias and the other slaves that had come with us to the court emerge from another, smaller waiting room. Two pairs of guards stood on either side and as Ricasso approached, the innermost guard on each side turned and pushed the doors open.

The sounds of the court rushed to greet us, and as the seneschal stepped into the room, making whoever was speaking around the room stop, I picked out the thrones of House Martell. The twin chairs dominated the room, the throne of the ruler of Dorne and their spouse. Yet, as had been the case for several years, the chair of the spouse, resplendent in the colours of the Rhoyne, was empty. Lady Mellario had left not long after Quentyn Martell had been sent to foster with Lord Yronwood and Ari sent to be the cupbearer of the Sealord of Braavos; well, the former Sealord as there'd been a change in leadership there while I'd been in the North meeting and bonding with Ymir.

My eyes fought to not move from Doran to his daughter, as she sat at a chair just behind his throne, one with an ornate spear carved into the wooden back and inlaid with gems, forming a glittering ruby tip. Ari seemed to freeze as she saw me, shocked at my arrival, yet she stayed still, knowing her place in the protocol of the room while Doran sat in court.

"Prince Doran, Princess Arianne, Prince Oberyn, members of House Martell and distinguished guests, returning from their adventures I present Ser Cregan Sand, Ser Dameon Sand and the mighty direwolf Ymir!" Ricasso said to the room as he reached the main floor and bowed deeply.

That was my cue and I stepped into the room, surveying it. The court seemed full, with few spaces not occupied by some noble. As a murmur rippled through those gathered and whispers of where we'd been passed from various lips, I saw my parents sitting near the throne.

Oberyn was seated at the seat closest to the throne, well second closest as Ari's chair was just behind Doran's, and at his side sat my mother. Oberyn offered a small smile, entirely unconcerned by my return, and offering no hint of concern while my mother smiled widely, joyful to see me return unharmed. I would greet them soon, however, protocol demanded that my attention remain fixed on Doran. That meant I couldn't look around and see who else was present as I walked down the steps, Red Rain at my side, slipped through a hoop on my belt to display the Valyrian steel to the court.

While normally returning knights would be asked to remove their blades when in the courtly presence of the Prince or Princess of Dorne, I and Daemon were allowed to keep our blades. For me, it was because I was linked to the family, even if through marriage alone while Daemon was a sworn knight of the house. Jaeronos was unarmed, something he'd not been happy about when Manfrey insisted he and the freed slaves be disarmed.

I marched toward the throne, stopping about three-quarters of the way across the floor, before dropping to a knee. Behind me, I heard Daemon and Jaeronos do likewise. "I return with news, My Prince," I said, keeping my eyes on the floor, which was so polished I could make out my reflection in the marble.

"Rise." I did as ordered but made no other move. Doran allowed a small smile to come to his face. "While you are not of my blood, I consider you as much a nephew as my brother sees you as his son. It pleases us and the rest of our family I am sure, that you have returned from your voyage unharmed. Though judging by those behind you, not empty-handed."

"No, My Prince. I am pleased to report that the mission was a success." I paused and turned. Jaeronos stepped forward and handed me the cloth-covered object he'd carried since we'd entered the palace. "My Prince, My Princess, people of Sunspear, it pleases me to state that the pirates that have long plagued shipping from Dorne to the rest of the Seven Kingdoms and Essos have been driven back." I pulled the sheet back and held aloft the skull it covered. "The Grim Prince, self-styled Pirate Lord of the island Dustspear is dead, killed by my very blade!"

When I finished, polite applause broke out from the galleries. I heard whispered conversations under the sound of clapping, but I ignored it, keeping my focus on Doran. The Prince allowed the ovation to go on for perhaps half a minute before raising an open hand. That had the sounds in the chamber drop away. "It pleases me and our people to hear this and to see you and Ser Daemon return to report your victory. Though I do hope that more than just the defeat of this pirate was accomplished?"

"It was, My Prince. Like the Grim Prince, most of his men fell to our blades. The few that did not either bent the knee or fled, carried as far as their oars could take them. Dustspear had been broken, its treasures, ships, and riches taken and brought before you."

Another round of applause came from the court. As it did, I turned and gestured for the chest to be brought forward, along with the small group of freed slaves. When I turned back, Doran again raised his hand, bringing silence to the chamber.

"My Prince, the former Pirate Lord of Dustspear held many slaves, all of which had been freed and brought to Sunspear. This group wished to greet you as representatives."

I waited as Phenias moved to my side, he dropped to a knee as the four behind him also did the same. "Prince Doran."

Doran looked quizzically at me for a moment. "Rise." The former slaves did as commanded. "I know not what Ser Cregan has promised, nor the abhorrent situation you found yourself in on Dustspear, but such practices are forbidden within Dorne and all of Westeros."

"We are grateful to hear this, Prince Doran. I am Phenias Irryl, and before my enslavement, I was a trader from Myr who travelled many times to your great city. For nearly two years I suffered under the thrall of those monsters that plague the Stepstones. Thanks to Ser Cregan, I and fifty others are now free. While we expect nothing from you, I, and the small group with me, wished to accompany Ser Cregan so that we might offer our thanks for your allowing his expedition. While we know our freedom was not your motivation, your action in allowing the assault granted us back our liberty. Ser Cregan has already offered to help those of us recover, though many of us wish, if we can, be of service, serve him, and you Prince Doran, if you would have use for us."

Doran looked down at Phenias, almost as if he was judging him. "For now, I cannot say if I might have need for so many. However, until I have made a decision, or until any of your group wishes to depart for your homelands, you are all welcome within my city. I will also, see to it that accommodation is found for you and your people."

"We are humbled by your offer, Prince Doran. However, Ser Cregan has already dispatched the rest of our group with some of his more trusted men, to locate room and board."

Doran offered me a small smile and nodded. "It pleases me to see that Ser Cregan holds to the principles of knighthood. It honours both the one who knighted him and his bloodline." Doran looked toward where my parents sat. They both smiled at the compliment, though Oberyn's was more amused by the turn of events with the freed men and women while my mother seemed relieved that I had returned unharmed. "Since Ser Cregan has already provided you with help of his own, I extend the protection of my House to your people for however long you remain within Dorne."

"Many thanks, Prince Doran." Phenias bowed deeply, almost to the point I feared he might fall over. He didn't though, instead shuffling back and returning the floor to me.

"While the removal of the Grim Prince was my primary motive for assaulting Dustspear, many unexpected windfalls came of it," I said when I realised Doran wished for me to resume my detailing of events. "Beyond the freeing of those enslaved by the vile fiend that formerly ruled the island, many other rewards were discovered." I turned and held out my arms.

Jaeronos knew what that meant, and from the top of the largest crate, he lifted a long object that was covered in a sheet of worn, but still detailed, velvet. I took the object and its cover onto my arms and then turned back to face Doran. "In honour of your victory, My Prince, I present the Grim Prince's most prized possession, and his favoured weapon." As I detailed what I held, I took a step forward, reaching the base of the dais that held the thrones of Dorne and then dropped to a knee.

I kept my head down and waited as I heard someone approach. A hand on my shoulder had me looking up to see my father had come over. While I was trusted by the family, to present a covered and unknown gift to the ruler of Dorne meant Doran couldn't accept it himself. I smiled at Oberyn as he pulled back the sheet.

Several gasps came from the court as he lifted the goldenheart bow. Certain there was no hidden threat, Oberyn turned and walked up half the steps to the throne and held out the bow. Doran stood and took the bow. He turned it over in his hands and then pulled back the bow gently, testing the string. "A fine weapon, and one unworthy of a pirate, no matter their belief in their nobility," Doran said slowly. "Now rise, nephew."

I did as he commanded, pleased to hear the public confirmation of our connection. While I didn't share the blood of House Martell, by publicly stating I was his nephew, Doran reaffirmed that the attack on Dustspear was something he approved of. Yes, that would get to King's Landing and beyond, but since the way I'd spoken today hinted the island was simply cleared of pirates and all my men returned, it wouldn't draw any undue concern from major players in the Great Game, except, perhaps, to believe that I was a piece under the control of Doran.

While that was something Doran also believed, I knew it wasn't entirely true, though the discussion with him and Oberyn about my full intentions would wait until I was summoned to Doran's solar sometime in the next few days.

"On behalf of myself, our family, and all Dorne, I offer my thanks to you Ser Cregan, to you Ser Daemon, and to all those who served under you in this campaign. The removal of the self-styled pirate lord removes threats to those who risk the seas to trade with Dorne."

I bowed deeply as a third, louder round of applause echoed around the chamber. A loud cheer from my right caught my attention and I turned to see the cause. There, near the back of the gallery, Beron, Wylla, Alysanne and others stood. I didn't know they'd arrived, but behind them were Ser Jory Cassel and Ser Kevan Brightlight. Lady Jynessa Blackmont, the heir to Blackmont and one of several ladies-in-waiting for Ari who was helping guide and teach Wylla and Alysanne was standing nearby, watching the younger girls closely.

For a moment, my thoughts turned to Alysanne, and the fact Daemon had at some point decided to pursue her. While there was nearly an eight-year gap between the pair, such relationships were common in this world. Something proven by me and my various partners. However, that didn't mean that a part of me was hoping that Doran, or perhaps Beron, would deny Daemon the right to pursue Alysanne. Still, I wasn't going to stand in his way, not unless he did something to hurt her, at which point, all bets were off.

I turned back to Doran, seeing him smile warmly at me as he held his new bow in his right arm. It was then that I noticed he was standing freely, without any hint of unsteadiness, nor was the walking stick he'd been using when I'd returned from the North nearby. While I didn't know how far he'd advanced in his use of water magic, it seemed that what he could do had cleared his gout enough to seemingly have recovered from it.

"While I, and many more here, would enjoy hearing of your adventures, I feel that it should wait for this evening's feast when we might celebrate your triumphant return."

"Yes, My Prince," I said with a bow. "However, before then, if you would permit me but one further moment of attention?"

Doran looked at me carefully, wondering what I was wanting, before nodding. "Very well," he stepped back and made his way to his chair. "The floor is once more yours, Ser Cregan."

I bowed again in thanks. "When I presented you with the Grim Prince's bow, My Prince, I spoke of how we found many treasures on the island. Of those, there was one piece that upon seeing, Ser Daemon and I agreed was worthy only of royalty." Daemon hadn't said anything actually, but by deflecting some of the attention toward him, I was avoiding anyone thinking my next gift was in any way a play for Arianne's hand. Or so I hoped. "However, this gift, we feel, is not one best suited for you, My Prince, but for the fairest lady in Dorne, if not all Westeros."

Reaching into a pouch on my belt, I turned my gaze to Ari. "Princess Arianne, since I first arrived in Sunspear with my mother for her wedding to your uncle, Prince Oberyn, you have treated me as family. While I often, perhaps, have not been as caring in return," Ari smiled slightly at my words, "I wish to present you with a token of my esteem. For your willingness in accepting me into your family, and as a mark of respect toward you and your family."

"If my father will allow it," Ari began, shifting her attention to Doran. When he nodded, she stood and walked toward me as I struggled to not let my eyes wander over her frame and drink in the delight of her beauty for the first time in a moon, stopping about halfway down the dais. "Ser Cregan, you have always been family to me, somehow becoming closer to me than either of my brothers." I bit the inside of my lip to avoid smirking at the comment. "When I learnt of your service to our House, I was concerned for your safety, though words fail to describe how relieved I am that you have returned unharmed."

"Thanks for that must go to your sworn sword, Ser Daemon Sand, My Princess," I replied, shifting focus to Daemon again. "Without his presence, I fear I would have been lost when surrounded by sellswords who, at the time, perhaps only saw me as nothing more than a way to earn some quick coin." While I was laying it on thick, Daemon had been invaluable, and I hoped he might return with me to Dustspear. I didn't expect him to be released of his vow to Arianne, but the longer his blade was beside mine, the greater the chance of success I'd have.

Arianne turned to Daemon. "Then it would be remiss of me to not offer you my thanks, Ser Daemon, for returning my cousin to me."

"It was my honour, Princess," Daemon replied. While I couldn't see him as my eyes were locked on the beauty before me, I expected he'd lowered his head. "While Ser Cregan is young, his knighthood was well earned as he fought with courage, bravery, and ingenuity. Under his command, as you well know, many people were freed and a threat to Dorne was removed. Though I will admit that his need to lead at the vanguard did make it harder for me to keep my vow to you of ensuring his safety. Especially when he chose to rush, at no small risk to his life, to engage the Grim Prince in single combat in the final battle of the campaign."

I fought off an urge to roll my eyes at Daemon laying it on thick. He knew of my relationship with Ari and perhaps was hyping my actions to thank me for not stepping between him and his intentions toward my cousin.

Ari's gaze returned to me, a hunger burning brightly in her eyes. "Defeating such a foe is one worthy of a true knight. The Old Gods are honoured by your worship, as I am to name you my champion." I blinked in shock as whispers shot around the room, at both the reveal of my beliefs and my new status as her champion. I'd not expected that, yet as quickly realised it was a way to explain why I was often seen in her presence, and perhaps quell any rumours of me being her paramour. Not that either of us were concerned about those rumours. "Yet, as much as I yearn to hear of your adventures, my curiosity about this gift you bring overrides it."

"As My Princess, commands." I reached into the pouch with my free hand and gently pulled the necklace inside into view. Ari gasped as the light caught the inlaid emeralds and jade and her hands came to her mouth as the exquisite and familiar ripples of Valyrian steel glittered as I moved my hand.

"Gods be good," she whispered into the silent chamber. "Is that…"

"Valyrian steel, My Princess," I finished, setting off gasps of shock from the galleries. "I know not how or where the Grim Prince came to possess such a thing, but the instant my eyes fell upon it, I knew of but one place where it belonged."

Ari moved down the final few steps of the dais. "It's beautiful," she said as her fingers gently traced the inscriptions engraved into the steel.

"It is indeed," Doran commented, drawing my attention from Ari as her fingers brushed against the necklace and my palm. "and it explains why you were clear in stating it was a gift toward our family and not just my daughter. Such finery is worthy of a princess."

"Yes, My Prince, and with your permission," I gestured toward Ari. Doran looked down at us carefully before offering a small smile and nodding. Ari was slow to remove her fingers, wanting to let them linger against my skin, yet she did remove them and then turned around. Once she pulled back her hair, I inhaled the scent of her for the first time in a moon, I reached around and slowly, carefully secured the necklace in place. There was an urge to let my hands linger, to pull her close, but I knew I couldn't do that. Not here and now. So once the necklace was secure, I stepped back, granting her room to turn.

As the chamber clapped in delight at seeing the necklace in the place I knew it belonged from the moment I'd first laid eyes upon it, Ari gazed at me. The fire in them stirred my loins, and I knew before the night was over I'd find myself once more in her bed.

… …


… …

Valyrian Phrases:

"Valar morghūlis, yn valar ȳdra daor emagon se paktot naejot ābrar"

- All men must die, but all men don't have the right to life.

"Ñuha āeksio."

- My Lord.

"Iksan daor iā āeksio. Ao ȳdra daor emagon naejot obūljagon. Mirre hen iksā dāez."

- I'm not a lord. You don't have to bend the knee. All of you are free.


A/N: For a map of the Stepstones for this story. Head to Imgur. /a/ccNF3rZ

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This story is crossposted on Questionable Questing, Archive of our Own and Royal Road.

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