We are at the Quill and Tankard in Oldtown, where maesters are educated at the Citadel, and in the company of some young would-be maesters, all of them studying to acquire links in the chains they will eventually wear around their necks. The point-of-view character is Pate, who is lusting after Rosey, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Emma, one of the serving wenches in the tavern. "Emma had decreed that Rosey's maidenhead would cost a golden dragon," and Pate has not only been saving up for it, he has also arranged to meet an alchemist there who may be able to speed the process.
The others there are, like Pate, mostly novices: Mollander, Alleras the Sphinx, and Roone, the youngest of the group. They are also joined by Armen the Acolyte, who has earned the pewter, tin, lead, and copper links, which he strings on a leather thong around his neck. They are arguing about dragons, with Armen insisting that the last dragon to die in Westeros was the last in the line. Mollander, who has a clubfoot that has prevented him from becoming a knight like his father, is tossing apples into the air for Alleras, a skilled archer, to shoot down. The group is celebrating Alleras's earning his copper link.
Pate is mooning over Rosey, thinking how he would quit his studies and wander around Westeros with her. He "knew how to set a bone and leech a fever. The smallfolk would be grateful for his help. If he could learn to cut hair and shave beards, he might even be a barber." He had been chosen to assist Achmaester Walgrave with the ravens, thinking that this would earn him a black iron link, but Walgrave is aged, senile, and incontinent, and "remained an archmaester only by courtesy."
Pate had met the stranger who claimed to be an alchemist at the tavern three days earlier. The man had told him, "I can change iron into gold," and made a golden coin dance across his knuckles. He had told Pate he'd be there tonight, which is why Pate has joined the party, where Mollander is arguing that just because there are no more dragons in Westeros, the world is large enough for them to exist somewhere. Mollander's father was killed at the Battle of the Blackwater, and he has been drinking every night since he received word of his death. He says there have been new stories about dragons from sailors from four different ships.
Armen scoffs at "stories told by sailors," and says these stories all all different: "Dragons in Asshai, dragons in Qarth, dragons in Meereen, Dothraki dragons, dragons freeing slaves ... each telling differs from the last." But Mollander sticks to his belief in them, insisting that these are only incidental details: "All speak of dragons, and a beautiful young queen." He tosses another apple for Alleras to shoot down.
Alleras is handsome and an outstanding student: "He had only been at the Citadel for a year, yet already he had forged three links of his maester's chain." Pate, on the other hand, has been there for five years, and the two times he went up for examinations he failed. Alleras was dubbed "the Sphinx" by Leo Tyrell, a novice known as Lazy Leo, because the sphinx is part one thing, part another: Alleras's "father was a Dornishman, his mother a black-skinned Summer Islander. His own skin was dark as teak. And like the green marble sphinxes that flanked the Citadel's main gate, Alleras had eyes of onyx."
It is Alleras who brings up the name of Daenerys, the surviving Targaryen, and the drunken Mollander proposes a toast to her, calling out for Rosey: "Our rightful queen deserves another round of cider, wouldn't you say?" This bit of treason causes Armen to try to hush Mollander: "You should not even jape about such things. You never know who could be listening. The Spider has ears everywhere." But they have been overheard by Lazy Leo, who says to Mollander, "I always knew you were a traitor, Hopfrog" -- referring to Mollander's clubfoot.
Armen says he thought Leo had been confined to the Citadel, but Leo shrugs it off and takes a seat at their table. He tells Mollander that if he'll bring him a cup of wine he won't report his treason to his father, who is Lord Commander of the City Watch of Oldtown, and the uncle of Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden, who is currently in King's Landing. He proceeds to insult Alleras and Pate. The latter wants to knock Leo's teeth out, but it is Alleras who demands an apology. Leo, however, says, "The mongrel has the right of it. The Mad King's daughter is alive, and she's hatched herself three dragons." Moreover, "The Mage is inclined to believe" the stories reported by the sailors.
Armen retorts, "Marwyn is unsound. Archmaester Perestan would be the first to tell you that." And Roone adds that Archmaester Ryam agrees. Archmaester Marwyn is notorious for keeping company with various unsavory types, and after traveling abroad for eight years, "mapping distant lands, searching for lost books, and studying with warlocks and shadowbinders," Archmaester Valleyn called him "Marwyn the Mage." Armen insists that Marwyn "has no more proof of dragons than Mollander. Just more sailor's stories."
But Leo has a topper: "There is a glass candle burning in the Mage's chambers." Roone has never heard of glass candles, but Pate has: "It was said that they had been brought to Oldtown from Valyria a thousand years before the Doom. He had heard there were four; one was green and three were black, and all were tall and twisted." Armen explains to Roone that the night before an acolyte takes his vows to become a maester, he spends the night in the vault standing vigil. There are no sources of light there, though there is a candle made of obsidian. Some, especially those who have studied what Armen dismisses as "the so-called higher mysteries," try to light the candle, and because obsidian has sharp edges, they often cut their fingers on it.
"It is a lesson," Armen said, "the last lesson we must learn before we don our maester's chains. The glass candle is meant to represent truth and learning, rare and beautiful and fragile things. It is made in the shape of a candle to remind us that a maester must cast light wherever he serves, and it is sharp to remind us that knowledge can be dangerous."Leo insists that he has seen Marwyn's candle burning, but Armen says it must have been a black candle. "Obsidian does not burn," and Pate observes that it is also called dragonglass by "the smallfolk." Alleras muses about the return of the dragons, and Leo comments, "Old powers waken. Shadows stir. An age of wonder and terror will soon be upon us, an age for gods and heroes." Which he says calls for another round of drinks, but Armen decides it's time to go: "Archmaester Ebrose will be speaking on the properties of urine" that morning and it's something anyone who wants a silver link should hear.
As they are leaving, Leo says he'll stay and make a play for Rosey, which causes Pate a pang. Alleras notices Pate's dismay and reminds him that if Leo doesn't have the money for a drink he doesn't have a gold dragon for Rosey. But Pate decides to linger a while longer to see if the alchemist shows up. Leo teases and mocks Pate, but he puts up with it, aware of Leo's Tyrell kin. So when he realizes it is almost dawn he decides to go.
"Oldtown was a veritable labyrinth of a city, all wynds and crisscrossing alleys and narrow crookback streets," and as Pate makes his way back to the Citadel he hears the sounds of the city beginning to awake. He starts daydreaming about becoming a maester and having a horse to ride instead of making his way on foot, but then he trips over a cobblestone and realizes, "There would be no chain for him, no seat at a lord's high table, no tall white horse to ride. His days would be spent listening to ravens quork and scrubbing shit stains off Archmaester Walgrave's smallclothes."
But as he's wiping off the mud from his fall, he finds the alchemist standing over him. "Have you decided what you are?" the hooded figure asks, and Pate replies, "I suppose I am a thief." He had pulled Walgrave's strongbox out from under his bed and opened it -- Walgrave had broken the lock after losing the key to the box. In it he found a heavy old key made of iron, which was supposedly the key to every door in the Citadel. He took the key as well as some silver coins.
"Do you have my dragon?" Pate asks the alchemist, who bids him follow. They go into a narrow alley, where the alchemist makes the gold coin dance across his knuckles before Pate grabs it. He bites the coin as if to test it, but only because it's something he has seen done. The alchemist asks for the key, and Pate asks what he wants it for. "What I want is none of your concern," the man replies. Pate thinks he should just take the coin and run to Rosey with it, but something makes him ask, "Show me your face." The alchemist complies.
He was just a man, and his face was just a face. A young man's face, ordinary, with full cheeks and the shadow of a beard. A scar showed faintly on his right cheek. He had a hooked nose, and a mat of dense black hair that curled tightly around his ears. It was not a face Pate recognized.He asks who the man is, and gets the reply, "A stranger. No one. Truly." Pate doesn't have anything else to say except "We're done, then," and he runs off. But halfway down the alley he feels the cobblestones moving under his feet and his heart is hammering. His legs give way under him, and he says, "I don't understand." A voice replies, "And never will." Pate tries to call out, but his voice fails him. "His last thought was of Rosey."
The prophet is Aeron Damphair Greyjoy, Theon's madly fanatical uncle, and we meet him as he is baptizing adherents to his faith. The baptism consists of drowning them and then (usually) resuscitating them with the kiss of life. The current drownee is a boy named Emmond, who puts up quite a struggle before Aeron succeeds in getting him to inhale underwater and then resuscitates him. "It was a sign of the Drowned God's favor, men said. Every other priest lost a man from time to time, even Tarle the Thrice-Drowned, who had once been thought so holy that he was picked to crown a king. But never Aeron Greyjoy."
His ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of three horsemen who bring the news of King Balon Greyjoy's death. Before they can tell him, Aeron asks, "Have you come to be drowned, my lords?" The oldest of them, Sparr, says that he "was drowned as a boy" and that his son, Steffarion, who is with him had also been drowned. But Aeron snorts because Steffarion was drowned in the newer manner: "a quick dip into a tub of seawater that scarce wet the infant's head." The third man is Gormond Goodbrother, whose father, Lord Gorold, had sent him to take Aeron to the keep. When Aeron is reluctant to leave his drowning, Sparr gives Gormond the go-ahead to break the news: "'The king is dead,' he said, as plain as that. Four small words, yet the sea itself trembled when he uttered them."
Prompted by Aeron, Gormond goes on to say that Balon fell from a bridge at Pyke "and was dashed upon the rocks below." There was a storm when it happened, and Aeron attributes his brother's death to "the Storm God's wrath." He demands Gormond's horse and sets off to ride the six leagues to speak with his father. "He was not fond of horses -- they were creatures from the green lands and helped to make men weak -- but necessity required that he ride."
Aeron was the youngest of the four sons of Quellon Greyjoy that lived to manhood. Balon, "the eldest and boldest," had always scorned Aeron. When he arrives at Lord Gorold's castle Aeron is told that his brother Euron Crow's Eye has seized the throne, the Seastone Chair. This won't do, in Aeron's view: "Only a godly man may sit the Seastone Chair. The Crow's Eye worships naught but his own pride." Gorold asks if Balon had spoken to him about the succession, and Aeron recalls the meeting in which he told Balon about the weakness of his son, Theon. Balon said he hoped Theon was dead, so that his daughter, Asha, could succeed to the throne, but Aeron opposed that idea: "No woman will ever rule the ironborn, not even a woman such as Asha."
Before Aeron can tell them about this conversation, Gorold's maester, Murenmure, speaks up to proclaim that Theon is the rightful heir, or Asha if Theon is dead. Aeron hates maesters, and he had tried to have Gorold send the maester away, and when Murenmure says, "That is the law," Aeron dismisses it as "Green land law.... What is that to us? We are ironborn, the sons of the sea, chosen of the Drowned God. No woman may rule over us, nor any godless man." Gorold mentions the fourth of the Greyjoy brothers, Victarion, and Aeron acknowledges that although Euron is the older brother, "Victarion is more godly."
The maester asks if Euron and Victarion will go to war over the throne, and Aeron says, "Ironborn must not spill the blood of ironborn." Gorold comments that Euron has already had a man "drowned for saying that the Seastone Chair by rights belonged to Theon," but Aeron has a response to that: "If he was drowned, no blood was shed." When Gorold asks whether he should proclaim "homage or defiance" to Euron, Aeron says he needs to pray on it. But the maester persists in claiming that the law says Theon or Asha rightfully inherit the throne.
"Silence!" Aeron roared. "Too long have the iron born listened to you chain-neck maesters prating of the green lands and their laws. It is time we listened to the sea again. It is time we listened to the voice of god." His own voice rang in that smoky hall, so full of power that neither Gorold Goodbrother nor his maester dared a reply. The Drowned God is with me, Aeron thought. He has shown me the way.He declines the offer to spend the night in the castle because he doesn't want to be that far from the sea. He asks for a fresh horse and sets off, riding the night. Drowsing in the saddle, he recalls how, when he was fourteen, he had cut off half of his brother Urrigon's hand while "playing at the finger dance," and how a maester's attempt to sew back the fingers led to an infection that killed his brother. Aeron had become drunken and dissolute, and famous for his ability to "piss longer or farther" than any other man. He once won a bet that he could put out a hearthfire by urinating it, and named his "longship Golden Storm, though Balon threatened to hang him from her mast when he heard what sort of ram his brother proposed to mount upon her prow." But eventually "Aeron had drowned and been reborn from the sea, god's own prophet."
Along his journey to the sea, Aeron preaches wherever he can, and by the time he gets there he has a dozen new followers ready to be drowned. After he takes care of them, he strides naked into the sea at night. "And gaunt and pale and shivering, Aeron Damphair struggled back to the shore, a wise man than he had been when he stepped into the sea. For he had found the answer in his bones, and the way was plain before him." The next morning, Lord Merlyn comes to see him and brings news that Asha is on her way to make her claim on the throne.
Aeron seizes the moment to proclaim again that neither the godless Euron nor the woman Asha should claim the throne. "Point your prow toward Old Wyk, where stood the Grey King's Hall. In the name of the Drowned God I summon you. I summon all of you! Leave your halls and hovels, your castles and your keeps, and return to Nagga's hill to make a kingsmoot!" That's the way the ironborn used to choose their kings, "raising up the worthiest amongst them," Aeron proclaims. "It is time we returned to the Old Way, for only that shall make us great again."