By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 30, 2011

22. A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin, pp. 579-604


As if he didn't have enough to deal with, Queen Selyse descends upon Jon with her retinue, so he meets her with a company of Night's Watch: "It would never do to come before this queen without a retinue of his own, if half of what they said about her was true. She might mistake him for a stableboy and hand him the reins of her horse." Even so, when he kneels before her she asks to see the lord commander, and he has to inform her, "My brothers chose me for that honor. I am Jon Snow."

She introduces him to Axell Florent, whose reputation has preceded him -- unfortunately. But more importantly, she brings with her Tycho Nestoris, of the Iron Bank of Braavos, who has come there to meet with Stannis. She asks to be taken to Melisandre, and Jon obliges. But on the way they encounter the giant, Wun Wun, who startles the queen's party but bows politely before her. "Even kneeling, he loomed over them." Selyse is unimpressed and asks, "Lord Snow, what is this bestial creature doing on our side of the Wall?" She doesn't like it when Jon says, "Wun Wun is a guest of the Night's Watch, as you are."

As Selyse and her company depart in a huff, Jon halts the banker, who agrees to talk with Jon in his solar. Tycho explains that he has come to Stannis about the debts that the Iron Throne has refused to pay. If Stannis is less obdurate about the debts, the bank might consider dealing with him. Jon tells Tycho that Stannis is away, marching on the Boltons, but he can supply horses and provisions to get him to Deepwood Motte and from there to go in search of Stannis, though he thinks to himself, "And you may well find his head upon a spike."

But Jon also wants a favor from the bank. He would like to borrow the three ships Tycho has at his disposal as well as enough gold to see the Watch through till spring. They haggle for an hour over the terms, helped along by the wine that Satin, Jon's steward, brings them. "By the time Jon Snow signed the parchment the Braavosi drew up, both of them were half-drunk and quite unhappy. Jon thought that a good sign." He intends to use the ships to rescue the people Mother Mole has led to Hardhome.

He conducts Tycho to the mess hall, where Ser Axell joins them and asks Jon about "this wildling princess His Grace King Stannis wrote of." Jon has persistently tried to correct the error of calling Val a princess, but to no avail. He also doesn't want to reveal that she has gone on a diplomatic errand for him. When Jon persists in keeping Val's whereabouts secret, though he knows that rumors of her departure have leaked out, Axell gets huffy: "My lord, have you forgotten who I am?" He can speak to the queen and "have this wildling girl delivered naked to the hall for our inspection." Jon says he doubts that the queen would violate the rules of hospitality in that way and takes his leave.

Back in his solar he reads over the agreement he had made with Tycho, regretting its necessity -- "when the choice is debt or death, best borrow" -- and wondering how the Iron Bank will deal with the reluctance of Cersei to repay: "When princes failed to repay the Iron Bank, new princes sprang up from nowhere and took their thrones. As poor plump Tommen may be about to learn," Jon thinks.

He dozes off in his chair, and is awakened by the news, "A girl's been found." He thinks of Val at first, but then remembers Melisandre's vision of a girl, supposedly Arya, riding a dying horse toward the Wall. She has been taken to Maester Aemon's chambers, and as he walks there he wonders what he can do to save her if it does prove to be Arya.

For a moment he thinks it is his sister, but she is almost as old as he is. And she soon reveals herself to be Alys Karstark, fleeing from a marriage to her cousin Cregan. He remembers meeting her some ten years ago at Winterfell with her father, whom Robb had beheaded for killing prisoners. She asks if there is a blood feud between her and Jon, but he assures her that when a man joins the Watch he puts all feuds behind him. She is glad to hear this because she has no one else to turn to "but the last son of Eddard Stark." Although she is the rightful heir to the family castle, Karstark, a marriage would deny her that right.

Jon tells her that he has nothing to offer her in the way of support, but he will write to Stannis requesting that he protect her. But she laughs bitterly and says, "Stannis will be dead before he gets your message." Arnolf Karstark is headed to Winterfell to support Roose Bolton. "Lord Stannis is marching to a slaughter." She kneels and begs Jon to protect her.

The Blind Girl

As for the real Arya Stark, she is better off than either Alys or the faux Arya, Jeyne Poole, except that she's blind. She still dreams wolf dreams, and she still recites her prayer for the deaths of her tormentors (most of whom are in fact already dead). And she still serves in the temple in Braavos, having learned to rely on her remaining sense: "Hear, smell, taste, feel, she reminded herself. There are many ways to know the world for those who cannot see."

She can even sense the presence of the kindly man by scent: "Men had a different smell than women, and there was a hint of orange in the air" from the orange peels he likes to chew. He asks her his usual question, "And who are you this morning?" And she replies with her usual answer, "No one," to which he says, "A lie." She is "that blind beggar girl." She has taken the name Beth, from a girl she once knew at Winterfell.

Then he asks if she would like her sight back. Perhaps tomorrow, she replies. "Not today." He asks where she went begging last night, and she tells him, "The Inn of the Green Eel." And he asks another usual question: "what three new things do you know that you did not know when last you left us." She replies with the scraps of gossip she has heard, but thinks, "It is snowing in the riverlands, in Westeros," which she has learned through her wolf dreams. "But he would have asked her how she knew that, and she did not think that he would like her answer."

She goes about her daily chores, using a stick to aid her. Every evening the waif brings her a cup of a bitter potion to drink, and Arya asks how long she will be blind. The waif's reply is, "Until darkness is as sweet to you as light, ... or until you ask us for your eyes. Ask and you shall see." But she holds off asking because she knows she will be sent away then. The waif has taken charge of her training since she became blind, and has trained her in poisons and potions and in the language of Braavos. She has lost her accent, but the kindly man wants her to learn High Valyrian and the languages of Lys and Pentos, too.

She also plays the lying game with the waif, learning to detect a lie by the sound of the words when it is spoken to her. Her training with Syrio Forel has helped her keep her balance when she encounters unfamiliar terrain. But she has endured cuts and bruises and burns while moving around the temple and the city, though many fewer now than when she started. One of her duties is to find the dead people in the temple on the mornings after they had drunk from the pool that puts an end to their lives. She helps lay out the bodies, and to sort through the coins and possessions of the dead.

One day she is doing this when she hears the door open behind her. She calls out, "Who is there?" but the answer, in a "deep, harsh, cold" voice is "No one." Then she feels movement and reaches out for her stick, holding it up to protect her face. There is a blow of wood on wood that almost knocks the stick out of her hand. She slashes back with her stick but misses, and the voice taunts her, "Are you blind?" She listens and when she hears a sound strikes out and makes contact. The voice says, "Good." The battle continues, and she receives more blows and makes fewer hits.

When it's over she returns to her task with the bodies, remembering when she was Cat, selling fish on the street. She liked that life the best, but after she killed Dareon, the singer who had deserted Samwell and Maester Aemon, the kindly man and the waif had given her the potion that blinded her.
The kindly man had told her that they would have taken her eyes from her anyway, to help her to learn to use her other senses, but not for half a year. Blind acolytes were common in the House of Black and White, but few as young as she. The girl was not sorry, though. Dareon had been a deserter from the Night's Watch; he had deserved to die.
But the kindly man disagreed that she had the right to take a life. In the temple, he explained, "We are but death's instruments, not death himself. When you slew the singer, you took god's powers on yourself. We kill men, but we do not presume to judge them. Do you understand?" She said yes, but thought no. And he told her she was lying. "And that is why you must now walk in darkness until you see the way. Unless you wish to leave us. You need only ask, and you may have your eyes back." So she didn't ask.

In the evening she goes out to beg, and before she does, the waif disguises her by making her ugly. She had never cared for being pretty, even though her mother and her sister had urged her to try. "But they were all dead now, even Arya, everyone but her half-brother, Jon. Some nights she heard talk of him, in the taverns and brothels of the Ragman's Harbor. The Black Bastard of the Wall, one man had called him." She knows her way to the various places where she begs, and tonight goes to a tavern called Pynto's. The cats at Pynto's recognize her from when she was Cat of the Canals.

The next morning when she tells the kindly man the three things she has learned, she says the Sealord had seized a slave ship called the Goodheart, which was carrying hundreds of slaves. "They were wildlings from Westeros, from a place called Hardhome," she says, and they had been taken by two slave ships. On the way back they had run into storms, and the Goodheart had put in to Braavos for repairs. The other ship may have made it to Lys, and if so there may be more slavers sent to Hardhome.

The kindly man asks what is the third thing she has learned, and she tells him she knows he's the one who has been hitting her when she lays out the corpses. She gives him a rap on the knuckles with her stick. He asks "how would a blind girl know that?" She thinks, "I saw you," but says, "I gave you three. I don't need to give you four."

That evening when the waif gives her the potion it is different. And in the morning she sees "a tallow candle burning where no candle had been the night before, its uncertain flame swaying back and forth like a whore at the Happy Port. She had never seen anything so beautiful."

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