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Strange Language

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You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse
-The Tempest

When Missandei was seven she spoke three languages. That was before she left the island, long before she learned the power of knowing more than she seemed to. Yet even then she recognized the falsity of language, how nothing had just one name. Words were her game, and there was always another way to twist them.

Her first and her best and her favorite was Naath, the language of her family and friends and home. Naath was the only place she knew those first seven years. Even when she had left, she would dream of its dense, green forests, thick with vines and loud with the cries of birds and animals; the lush, heavy scent of flowers and fruits, which in her memories seemed to be always present and always ripe; the games of climbing and running she played with the other children, darting from the hot bright sunlight into the welcoming shade under the trees and beneath the porches of their homes.

Her second language was Thok Nath, the ancient language of her island's priests. Prayers were in Thok Nath, and the stories of the butterfly women who attended God, and the sacred texts, which were kept secret from the eyes of outsiders. And from the eyes of children, no matter how inquisitive. Missandei spoke only a little of this language, being many years from the rites of adulthood that required the knowledge of Thok Nath, but she loved what she knew, loved the cadences and rhythms of the tongue, which seemed to her to hold everything worth knowing. Sometimes she hid in the trees around the little temple near her home, to eavesdrop on the priests when they sang the holy myths; she could understand only one word in ten, but she felt the harmonies inside of her chest like another heartbeat, and she longed to be closer.

The third language Missandei barely spoke at all. She knew only some words- boat, banana, rice, hello- and a few short phrases. It was the language of the sailor who loved Missandei's mother. Her mother had six children, which was already more than most families on Naath, but she was still young, and tall, and slim, with a clear, high voice, and many men courted her. Missandei liked it when they came, because her mother laughed and cooked more food than usual. But Missandei's favorite was the sailor, who visited the least often. He was on Naath only twice or three times a year, but he always brought presents. He pretended to court Missandei, calling her monkey, kneeling beside her to teach her new words of his funny, guttural language on every visit, lifting her onto his shoulders. Missandei knew that he only did it to make her mother smile, but she still treasured his visits.

But the sailor was not on the ships that came in the early spring of Missandei's seventh year. Those ships brought swords and fire and slavers, and when they left, their wide, deep holds were full of fear and grief and the people of Naath. Missandei and most of her family was there, though others had hidden, and others had died. The slavers had the same red-black hair as her mother's sailor, and they spoke the same growling language, though it was not so funny now. Missandei learned more of it quickly, words like water, sick, no, please.

*****

Those who had survived the voyage from Naath emerged from the stinking, diseased holds of the ships, blinking in the painfully bright sunlight, to a city that made some of them try to turn back to those holds. This was Astapor, Missandei had learned on the voyage. The city was red as blood and hard as bone; there were no wood buildings like on Naath, but only brick: brick walls, brick homes, brick streets, brick pyramids towering above all else, and every brick was red.

The slavers led them from the ships through what seemed like a maze, turns and twists along narrow alleys and broad streets, and every wall turned a blank face to their path, and every wall was red brick. They finally entered a wide place, marked by a platform that held bodies, lifting them up to the pale sky. One was not yet dead, and his quiet weeping filled Missandei's head. Others hung from rope, some missing the skin from their limbs, the flesh covered with crawling flies. The slavers pointed and explained that these were slaves, that this was what happened to slaves in Astapor who displeased their masters. Missandei did not translate for her people who had not learned this city's language. But she heard others doing so, and the crying in the place increased.

Others with the bristly red-black hair and dark eyes of the slavers, dressed in strange ways, came to the square. They walked among the people, talking of them, looking at them, even touching them, as though the people were empty shells, dead objects that could be poked and prodded without response.

First they took the strongest and fastest of the boys and young men, including all of Missandei's brothers. She saw coins change hands, saw the slavers' pleased smiles, saw the wide, startled eyes of her brothers as they were herded away. She felt tears in her throat but was afraid to cry, and it seemed like all she could hear was the man on the platform, his endless sobs.

Then they took the prettiest, to be sold to Yunkai. Missandei had always had a flat face and thin lips, eyes that were big but not bright like her mother's; they left her. Over and over, the men draped in delicate cloth fringed with precious materials looked at the dirty, half-naked people, and took some away. It seemed like hours before there was only a small group left, Missandei among them, those who had no special talent or reason to be wanted. And then a man came and whispered to the slavers, gave them gold until they nodded.

He took a package tied with cloth from them, grinning as he unwrapped it, excited and confident. Missandei recognized it before the cloth had all dropped away; the wooden top was unique, completely covered with intricate carvings inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The palm leaf pages whispered as he lifted the cover, hissed as he traced the writing there with his fingertips.

He looked up, staring at the people of Naath left in that square in a way none of the others had; he looked at them, meeting Missandei's eyes for a long moment before she turned her gaze to the ground.

"You know this," he said, holding up the book, one of the sacred Thok Nath texts. None of the people responded, though he was clearly trying to keep his language simple, to make them understand. "No one has bought you. You will be sent to work the fields, the mines, to row the ships. You will die." He pointed at the bodies on the platform. "Die." In the silence as he paused, the man on the platform wept without pause, like something inhuman, like the wind or the rain. Missandei did not think it often rained in Astapor.

"Unless you read me this. Whoever reads it will be treated well; I promise you will not be sold out of the city. I will train you myself, make you valuable, keep you from cruel use. Understand? Read!" He shook the book at them, the fragile pages fluttering. "Or die!" He pointed again. Still none of the people moved. He turned to the slavers, angry. "Have someone translate."

Before the slavers could respond, one of the people, an old man who had also learned this language, said in Naath, "He wants someone to read the book, in exchange for a better life. He says otherwise they will send us to die." No one answered him. The Thok Nath texts were kept secret from the eyes of outsiders. The man eyed the old speaker warily, clearly not understanding Naath, but waited.

Missandei remembered this book, remembered seeing it in the hands of the priest at the temple. He had not been on the ship from Naath; perhaps he had fought the slavers to protect this book, though violence was against the laws. Perhaps he had hidden, abandoning it. She looked at her people, those who were left; most of them had their eyes on the ground, though some stared defiant at the man with the book, and some looked away but had clenched fists.

Missandei stepped forward. She felt the eyes of the man on her, hungry, but she did not dare to look at him. She looked at the book, looked at the familiar, mysterious letters of the Thok Nath script. She stumbled in Thok Nath and she stumbled in High Valyrian, but she read it, and no one stopped her, and the only sound in the square was her small voice and the sobs of the man on the platform.

*****

The man from the square kept his promises. Missandei was taken to his home, a place full of books and scrolls and tablets and dust. She did not ask what happened to the others from Naath; she did not think she could bear to know. She was still a slave, but she worked in cool rooms rather than under the hot sun, and had food and clothes. The man taught Missandei more High Valyrian; he taught her to write; he had her record her translation of the Thok Naath texts. He introduced her to other languages, more than she had known existed: Qarth and Asshai, the tongues of the Dothraki sea and the Summer Islands, languages of the past and present, languages spoken only by children of the streets and those confined to scholars and priests.

Missandei learned all that he taught her, but she was afraid of the man, who was cool and patient and always watching her. She was half-convinced he could read her thoughts, except that if he knew her secrets, he would surely have been angry, would have punished her, might even have killed her. But he didn't; Missandei's days passed with the same calm studies as ever. Someday he would find out. She was certain of it. She lost sleep to nightmares, dreaming of the bodies she had seen on the platform her first day in Astapor, and wondered what the punishment was for her crime. She dreamed of her tongue being cut out, dreamed of her fingers being broken, which she had learned was the traditional penalty for scribes, and the man was making her into a scribe. Missandei grew clumsy and slow; she pretended not to learn, to forget what she knew. She took twice as long to perform a task as she once had.

It took months, but finally the man sold her, saying that at least she knew enough for her new owner's needs. It was an escape, of sorts; she went only from one red-brick building to another, but at least her new owner had no curiosity about her thoughts. She felt safer under his indifference.

Kraznys mo Nakloz was not a vicious man. In that too, Missandei supposed she was lucky. He could be cruel, but it came from impatience or irritation; Kraznys was quick to slap or kick or shake, but he did not devise the terrible, meticulous punishments that some others of the Good Masters did. He was too lazy to administer a thorough beating himself, and often would not even stir himself to call the butler to see to it.

Years passed. She grew used to the red dust that was always on the wind in Astapor, to the way storms stung her skin and gritted in her eyes and mouth. She grew used to the heat, which was arid as sand, nothing like the wet heat of Naath. She grew used to the food; she did not like to eat flesh as was common here, but she adjusted to dates and figs and pomegranates, even grew to love the strong, bitter taste of olives. One morning Missandei woke and realized that she no longer dreamed in Naath, but in Valyrian.

*****

When the Targaryen queen came to buy Unsullied, Missandei did not think anything would change. The woman was so young, a girl really, just a few years older than Missandei herself. But she looked like a queen, if she did not travel like one; her hair was white as lightening and her eyes were the color of the sky after the sun has set. When Kraznys gave Missandei to her, fear gripped her belly tight, though she was careful to hold her face still. She did not know this queen, did not know what she was like, did not know how she treated her slaves.

But Daenerys was even stranger than Missandei had feared. She told Missandei that she was free. The day after that, she killed Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the other Good Masters, and most of the nobles of the city, and overwhelmed the army, and burned the platform of the Plaza of Punishment, and broke the Harpy's chains. And when they left Astapor, Missandei rode with Daenerys's personal servants, and the former slaves of the city lined the streets and cheered and followed on foot along the dusty roads outside of Astapor's walls.

It was harder to learn to be free than it had been to learn to be a slave. The rules were less clear. Languages, once her protection, escaped her, and she found herself using the wrong words; it was easier to say this one than to say I, easier to remember master than queen. Missandei felt lost inside herself. She grew to dread having free time, for it left her aimless and empty; she dreamed of falling and falling, until she ached to hit the ground. She had told Daenerys that she had nowhere else to go, but she knew that did not mean she had a place here.

Irri and Jhiqui were kind, and Ser Jorah Mormont was kind when he bothered to notice her, and Daenerys herself was kind, and Missandei did not know what to do. She took refuge in translation, saying little except to repeat another's words into a new language. That seemed safe; languages were so easy to understand, to make one word equivalent to another. Missandei did not have to worry what the words meant or why they were said, she had only to translate them. It kept her mind empty.

But for all the languages in Queen Daenerys's camp, Missandei still found herself with time when she could not stop from thinking. And there was one thing that her mind kept returning to: Daenerys spoke High Valyrian. All the time she was in Astapor, Missandei had translated between Kraznys and her, and yet it had been unnecessary. Queen Daenerys had pretended to be less than was. And at the time she had been so little anyway; now she had the entire force of the Unsullied behind her and many of the freed people of Astapor, and it was easy to forget, but when Missandei had translated for Kraznys, Daenerys had had only a few followers, and they were mostly children and old men.

Before Missandei had solved this mystery, she witnessed it again: Queen Daenerys met with captains of the mercenary armies outside of Yunkai, and she told each of them that she was a young girl, unskilled in the ways of war. Missandei watched closely, and she saw how easily they believed it. And then Daenerys killed them, as she had killed Kraznys mo Nakloz, as she had killed the Good Masters, as she had beaten all those who underestimated her.

The land changed as they traveled north from Astapor. The sand turned to dust turned to dirt, and trees began to grow, scattered at first, but increasing in number, and grass and bushes and fields appeared. The temperatures cooled, the air grew less dry. Missandei began to understand.

*****

One night in Meereen, Missandei woke to silence. She could hear the soft breathing of others in the room, but when she sat up, she saw that Daenerys's bed was empty. Missandei slipped quietly from beneath her sheets and padded out of the room.

Queen Daenerys was in the garden; it was the first place Missandei had looked, knowing Daenerys's ways. The dragons flew overhead, shadows against the stars in the black sky. Daenerys turned her head slightly when she heard Missandei's approach, nodding when she recognized her servant. "Sit with me," she said in High Valyrian, turning back to the dragons. Her hair was loose and mussed, and she wore only a robe, but even in darkness that leached away what color she had, she was still beautiful.

Missandei did, folding her hands in her lap. "Trouble sleeping, your grace?"

Daenerys sighed and shrugged. She kept her eyes on the dragons. "I have many things to think about. It is not conducive to sleep."

Missandei nodded. "You do not like others to notice how much you think," she ventured cautiously.

Daenerys turned sharply toward her at that, but she did not seem angry. "Don't I?"

"I have noticed, your grace."

Daenerys studied Missandei's face before answering. "Well. So many people want to think little of me even before they've met me. If I encourage them to keep believing that way, it's only to my advantage." One of the dragons let loose a gust of flame, and it reflected in Daenerys's eyes and turned her hair and skin briefly orange. She looked up, a strand of hair falling over her shoulder. "I have not always had much power," she said in a quiet voice.

Missandei was not sure if Daenerys was speaking to her or to herself. But she said, "I understand."

"Yes. You would, wouldn't you?" Daenerys stood abruptly, crossing her arms over her chest. "I had to lie!" she said vehemently, slipping into the Common Tongue, which she often spoke when angry. "My dragons are all I have. I couldn't sell them. But I had nothing else to offer. What could I do but pretend to trade Drogon? What other choice was there, but to be false or to give away my most precious possession?" Daenerys caught her breath and paused. "You may leave me," she said in a calmer voice, back to Valyrian.

Missanderi clenched her hands together. "Your grace, this one- I- when I first was brought to Astapor, I was not a scribe, or a translator. I had no skills." She peeked up at Daenerys, but the Queen did not repeat her order to leave. "Slaves without skills are sold to places where they die quickly. But a man came to us, with a book of my people. A sacred book, written in an ancient language. No one not of my people is taught this language, because- because it is a secret. This book is not meant to be read by anyone not of Naath." Missandei swallowed. "But this man, he said that anyone who read it for him would not die, but be rewarded. So I read it."

For a moment, Missandei was afraid to continue her story. Daenerys turned to her, and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "But I lied. I was too young to know how to read the language. Instead, I told him a lullaby my mother used to sing."

Missandei heard Daenerys's sharp, in-drawn breath. "Weren't you afraid someone else of your people would tell?"

Missandei shook her head. "No one wanted to reveal what the book really said." Missandei looked up, meeting Daenerys's surprised eyes. "So I know how it is, to make that choice."

Daenerys stared at her, and then a sudden smile broke out on her face. Overhead, Drogon screamed; he had the deepest voice of the three dragons. "You surprise me."

"I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to know." Missandei took a breath. "I lied to everyone in Astapor."

Daenerys sunk slowly back onto the bench. "And so I should know that you won't lie to me?"

"No," Missandei said. "Well. Perhaps for you, your grace."

Daenerys's smile grew wider. "Yes. I think that would be acceptable. We will let them fool themselves, Missandei. And while they waste time, my dragons are growing." She tilted her chin up, the line of her jaw dagger-sharp. In the sky, small shadows darted like mice, until fire revealed their true shapes.