By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 30, 2012

32. A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin, pp. 835-859

The Ugly Little Girl

Arya is serving at a meeting of the priests of the Many-Faced God, after which the kindly man tells her that the priest whose face is disfigured by sores and other signs of the plague wants to speak with her. He goes through the familiar routine, asking her, "Who are you?" and when she answers "No one," calling her a liar. "You are Arya of House Stark, who bites her lip and cannot tell a lie." She insists that she was Arya once, but that she isn't anymore.

Then he tells her, "You would kill for your own purposes, for your own pleasures. Do you deny it?" When she hesitates in her answer, he slaps her. Silently, she repeats her mantra, her list of the people she wants to see dead. He tells her that she is "too proud to serve," but sets her a task to prove her humility: "Give a man a certain gift.... No one you love, no one you hate, no one you have ever known. Will you kill him?" She says yes, and the next day she returns to the house of the fishmonger Brusco.

She soon sees the man she is supposed to kill. He is past fifty: "He has lived too long, she tried to tell herself. Why should he have so many years when my father had so few?" Then she remembers that she is Cat of the Canals, not Arya Stark, and has no father. She decides that the man is evil, but when she says that to the kindly man at the House of Black and White, he tells her, "He is a man like any other, with light in him and darkness." She dislikes his hands in particular, which look to her like white spiders.

She watches him for several days and decides that he is some kind of merchant, but he turns out to be an insurance broker. The kindly man explains that if a merchant's "ships are lost in a storm or taken by pirates, he promises to pay them for the value of the vessel and all its contents." She decides that he must have failed to pay someone's claim and that they have prayed for the man's death. But the kindly man won't tell her who has such a grudge.

She notices that the man has two guards, who keep people from getting too close and who taste his food before he eats. She suggests that she should wait until one of the guards leaves to urinate, stab the old man in the eye, and kill the other guard too. But the kindly man insists, "You are a servant of the Many-Faced God, and we who serve Him of Many faces give his gift only to those who have been marked and chosen." She realizes that she is not to kill anyone else in the process of killing the old man.

When she thinks she is ready to act, the kindly man says that she needs a different face: If Cat of the Canals kills him, that will cause trouble for Brusco and his family. She follows the kindly man down to a place in the temple she has never been: "the secret chambers where only the priests were permitted." They go down so far that she realizes she must be beneath the canals. Finally they reach a chamber, and by the light of the kindly man's lantern she sees a thousand faces hanging on the walls. She tells herself they are masks, but she realizes that they are in fact skins.

He tells her to sit and not to move. "This will hurt, ... but pain is the price of power." She closes her eyes and feels the knife, and then the blood flowing down her face. She is given a cup of something very tart to drink, and then the face is pulled over her own. "The leather scraped across her brow, dry and stiff, but as her blood soaked into it, it softened and turned supple." She feels hands choking her and hears "a noise, a hideous, crunching noise, accompanied by blinding pain. A face floated in front of her, fat, bearded, brutal, his mouth twisted in rage."

But then the priest speaks to her and tells her to breathe. When she does, the pain and the sensation of choking passes. She raises her hand to her face, but it feels unchanged. But the waif tells her that to others it looks different: "To others, your nose and jaw are broken.... One side of your face is caved in where your cheekbone shattered, and half your teeth are missing." The kindly man tells Arya that the person whose face she wears was beaten brutally by her father, and that she came to them asking for death. Arya thinks, "You should have killed him."

The next morning she makes her way through Braavos to the Purple Harbor where the old man does his business. She waits there until she sees a shipowner who has done business with the old man before. She follows him till she sees her opportunity to cut her way into the man's purse and steal his gold. He calls out "Thief!" as she dodges away, tripping him up in the process. Gold coins spill as she runs off into the alleys she knows well. She waits for an hour until until she knows the shipowner will have picked up all the coins and made his way to the insurance broker. Then she goes back to the House of Black and White.

The kindly man is waiting, and she gives him a gold coin. "I took one of his," she tells him, "but I left him one of ours." She has seen the old man bite into coins to test them. The kindly man realizes what she has done: The shipowner had paid the old man with the coin she had given him. "Soon after that the man's heart gave out. Is that the way of it? Very sad."

She is given back the face of Arya Stark and made an acolyte. The kindly man tells her, "On the morrow you will go to Izembaro to begin your first apprenticeship." He asks again who she is, and she replies, "No one."


Cersei is pacing her cell, trying to steel herself for the ordeal she faces, telling herself, "A little walk and I'll be home, I'll be back with Tommen, in my own chambers inside Maegor's Holdfast." Then the septas come with shears and a straight razor. "When her locks and curls were piled up around her feet, one of the novices soaped her head and the silent sister scraped away the stubble with a razor." Then she is told to remove her shift, and her body and pubic hair are shaved too.

She is given a robe to cover her as they move through the sept, but she is denied sandals and walks barefoot through the crowd of worshipers who have gathered in the Great Sept of Baelor. A member of the Warrior's Sons kneels before her and introduces himself as Ser Theodan the True; he tells her that he is in command of her escort. She looks at the men in the escort and notices her former lover, Lancel Lannister.

The door opens and she steps outside, welcoming the stench of the city because it signals the end of her captivity in the sept. "It came to her suddenly that she had stood in this very spot before, on the day Lord Eddard Stark had lost his head." There seem to be as many people gathered in the plaza as there were on that day. Then Septa Unella steps forward and announces that Cersei "has committed grievous falsehoods and fornications." She is followed by Septa Moelle, who says that the queen has been ordered "to demonstrate her repentance by putting aside all pride and artifice and presenting herself as the gods made her before the good people of the city." Septa Scolera finishes by proclaiming Cersei's "walk of atonement."

Cersei recalls how, after her grandfather's death, Tywin Lannister had humiliated his own father's mistress by forcing her to walk naked through the streets of Lannisport. Cersei hadn't witnessed it herself, but she remembers mocking stories about how the woman had begged and pleaded and tried to cover her nakedness. She resolves not to have such stories told about her. "I am a lioness. I will not cringe for them," she thinks, and removes her robe.

She holds her head high as she descends the steps, though the wind is cold. The escort fans out around her, and a woman in the crowd cries out, "Whore!" She is flanked by Unella and Moelle, but Septa Scolera walks behind, ringing a bell and calling out, "shame upon the sinner, shame, shame." She hears street vendors selling meat pies, people yelling out things, and sees a rotten vegetable fly through the air, though it misses her. She steps in something slick, but Unella keeps her from falling and warns her to watch where she's going.

A man is eating some meat on a skewer and offers it to her. She turns away in disgust, but he flings it at her, striking her on the thigh and leaving a smear down her leg. As she leaves the plaza and begins the descent of Visenya's hill, the road becomes steeper and dirtier and she has to walk through puddles that she tells herself are rainwater but are probably horse piss. Obscenities are shouted, and more things are being thrown from the windows and balconies along the way. A dead cat is thrown and bursts open on the cobblestones, "spattering her lower legs with entrails and maggots."

She slips and falls halfway down the hill, and scrapes her knee. The captain of the escort tells her to move faster because the crowd is getting out of hand, then grabs her arm and pulls her after him. She steps on something sharp and begins to leave a trail of bloody footprints. People mock her sagging breasts, and she begins seeing familiar faces in the crowd: Tywin, Ned Stark, Sansa, Tyrion, and Joffrey. When she falls again she begs Septa Moelle for mercy, but Septa Unella says it's not much farther, and she realizes that she is at the foot of Aegon's High Hill, at the top of which is the castle.

The jeers and obscenities grow worse as she climbs, but she tells herself they are just words and she is "beautiful, the most beautiful woman in all Westeros."
She did not feel beautiful, though. She felt old, used, filthy, ugly. There were stretch marks on her belly from the children she had borne, and her breasts were not as firm as they had been when she was younger. Without a gown to hold them up, they sagged against her chest. I should not have done this. I was their queen, but now they've seen, they've seen, they've seen. I should never have let them see. Gowned and crowned, she was a queen. Naked, bloody, limping, she was only a woman, not so very different from their wives, more like their mothers than their pretty little maiden daughters. What have I done?
Then she has a vision of the hag who had predicted that she will be cast down by someone "younger and more beautiful." She begins to cry, and to try to cover her nakedness with her hands, and breaks into a run. She stumbles, falls, and begins to crawl, "scrambling uphill on all fours like a dog as the good folks of King's Landing made way for her, laughing and jeering and applauding her."

Finally she is there, at the gates, where Ser Boros Blount and Ser Meryn Trant are moving toward her. Ser Kevan is there, too, and she begs to see Tommen. But Kevan harshly says, "Not here. No son should have to bear witness to his mother's shame," and orders her covered up. A giant of a man picks her up in his arms and carries her. She realizes that he is wearing a white cloak. Then Qyburn appears and tells her that the man is Ser Robert Strong, the latest member of the Kingsguard. But when Cersei addresses him, he remains silent. Qyburn explains that "Ser Robert has taken a holy vow of silence.... He has sworn that he will not speak until all of His Grace's enemies are dead and evil has been driven from the realm."

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