The walls around King's Landing gaped in many places, like a mouth missing half its teeth.
“What melts stone?” Tuft, the ship's boy, asked her. The air was still, the sea shushing against the side of the boat.
“Dragon fire,” Mella replied. The words felt familiar in her mouth. Mella licked her upper lip. (She was no one. She knew nothing of dragons.)
“Dragons.” Tuft's eyes were wide and pleased. “Will I see one, do you think?”
“Get on, boy!” the captain called. “Back to the cargo!”
Mella looked into the swirling water below. It was full of debris from King's Landing—wood and dead fish and rope. The captain hadn't trusted her from the moment she stepped on board, though he had accepted the iron coin of the Faceless Men without question. The sailors called her Rat Breath because she'd tamed a black rat with fish scraps, and said it was an ill omen to take a woman grown on board.
The pommel of her sword was always close to her hand. She crouched now, low in the prow, and saw, for a moment, the cargo hold through the eyes of the black rat. Its ears picked up the vibrations deep in the core of the boat, and though it could not understand the human voices, it heard every syllable.
The rich Braavosi filled Mella's ears, and she understood as easily as if she'd spoken it all her life. (She had not. She was Mella, orphan of King's Landing. She was Mella, hauling fish on the docks of Braavos until her arms were strong and deft. She could dance quicker than shadows. She was no one.) The sailors were saying the same old things—whether they could rape her before they docked, whether she was as quick with the sword as she seemed.
“I would not kiss her rat mouth, but her cunt might be sweet,” one of the sailors said.
“She has the hips to make a wife, but not the tits.”
Mella left the rat and came back to herself. She was smiling. She had spent too long cramped on this boat with these stinking men. She'd like to tear a limb or two.
She walked around the city. The forests that had once edged King's Landing had been razed, and in their place stretched fields of rough grass. In the distance, she could see herds of horses. Dothraki surrounding the city entirely—there was no need to rebuild the walls. She watched the men, their swinging braids, with interest. Even in Braavos, a city where all men might make a living, she had rarely seen Dothraki.
Though there were many openings now, Mella went in through the gates. No one stopped her. The Dothraki laughed and talked together, and let merchants and thieves alike pass between them. Only the prettiest whores attracted a second look.
The black rat thrashed in her bag, and she let it out into the gutter. It was always useful to have a second pair of eyes. It squeaked and ran between two carts, and behind a stall selling cake. It was gone.
The city had changed since Mella knew it last. It was quieter and the orphans were not so skinny. She tried to keep intent on the streets around her, to get a sense of the people, but her eyes kept straying upwards. Mella's heart should not thump with such excitement at the thought of seeing a dragon.
The dire wolf saw her before she saw it. She was walking upwards, out of the slums at the bottom of the hill, towards the finer establishments that ringed the Red Keep. She moved, as she had learnt long ago, in a loose-jointed, lumpish way, that belied her grace and made her seem unworthy of attention.
The white wolf did not growl. It stood in front of her, so tall it barely had to look up to see into her face. It sniffed thoughtfully. It had a gruesome face: one eye missing, and its lip torn so its mouth was fixed in a snarl. Its tongue lolled. It did not frighten her. Mella felt an unexpected, desperate surge of happiness.
(Mella was no one. Mella knew nothing of wolves.)
“Ghost! Ghost, to me!” The man who called was lean, cloaked in back, and his face was as scarred as the wolf's.
(Seeing him gave her no pleasure.)
The wolf turned its head towards him, but did not step away. “He won't bite unless I tell him,” the man said. “He isn't scaring you, is he, lad?”
“I am a swordsman of Braavos. I could have his head before he had a chance to growl,” Mella said.
“I did not know the Braavosi trained women to the sword.”
“If you give enough, Braavos will give you something in return,” Mella replied. (She did not want to stroke the wolf. She did not want to show her true face to this man.)
“That may be, but Ghost could certainly have your head before you touch the pommel of your sword. Luckily, he doesn't want the heads of cocky maids.”
“He looks old. He's not as quick as he once was.” The white fur rippled in the sea wind. Mella smelt smoke. She thought of snow and pine forests. (Mella knew nothing of snow. Mella was an orphan of King's Landing and Braavos.)
The man laughed. “Come to the tourney at the queen's court tomorrow,” the man said. “Test your mettle, swordswoman of Braavos. Tell them Lord Snow sent you. You are not as quick as you think.”
She watched him go. She watched the black cloak and the white tail disappearing into the crowd. Then she looked upwards, eyes itching for dragons.
The black rat fought two others for the scraps in the straw. One was a mother, dugs sweet with milk, fierce and quick. She tore his ear and pinned him. He slunk away while she fought the other. He groomed the blood out of his fur. He wandered long and far that night. He missed the colony on the boat, their familiar smell and warmth.
He found a place where the ground was hot and the air smelt of singed meat. He scurried around, searching for the source of the enticing scent. He found charred bones picked clean and scraps of skin like leather. He chewed one. He listened.
“Tournaments bore the Queen, but she'll go. She knows the importance of a spectacle.”
“The plan is already in motion...”
Mella woke from the rat dream, pulse quick in her temples. She scratched six fresh flea bites on her side. She tried to slip back inside the rat but her mind was cloudy and the rat resisted her. (Arya Stark would have no trouble entering the rat. Arya Stark had died long ago, here in King's Landing.)
The plan. It had done well, the black rat, to travel so far. One of those men knew the queen's habits, and the other knew there was a plan. The rat must be near the Red Keep, if not inside it. She had not expected to have eyes there so soon.
She dressed, and picked up her sword. If she went to the tournament, she would see the queen and she might see a way to give her the gift. Yet, Mella should not be seen by anyone. No one should know her face, not there. It was bad enough that the man with the white wolf had seen her.
She saw the priests and acolytes in their black and white robes. The men who had no faces. They had shown her how to give the gift, they told her to whom it was to be given. She was no one, and nothing else mattered.
(She wanted to best a filthy Westerosi lord in a sword fight.)
Mella did not spot the Queen at once, though the Queen sat in the centre of the stands, apart from the crowd, and she was dressed in the complex silken robes worn only by queens and the finest of whores. The Queen did not look like the queens of Mella's imagination. She had many braids in her hair, long and hung with bells, and her attendants were all Dothraki, save for one who seemed to be a Summer Islander. Her only Westerosi companion was a fat maester in a tattered black robe, and the Queen was more slight of build than even Sansa Stark.
(Not that Mella has ever seen the Lady Sansa Stark.)
The rats squeaked beneath the stands; for a moment Mella saw grain and toasted meat and her head was full of the ripe, hot scent of people, and she could not move. Then she saw through her own eyes once more: the throng of Westerosi, the queen, the swordsmen waiting for the mêlée.
She watched the Queen who did not look like a queen with her tanned skin and her singed hair. Her hand gestures were not those of Westeros, and when she laughed, it was too loudly. The smallfolk in the tavern last night had said they were ruled by a filthy, foreign whore who fed lost children to dragons, and Mella understood their animosity. She watched the Queen's quick hands. She was laughing at something a Dothraki man said; she ran her fingers through the hair of the maester sitting next to her.
Her face was not beautiful, but even from here, across the divide of stands and swordsmen and horses, Mella could see how alive it was. Its liveliness struck her more than anything. She had seen so many come for the gift, beg for it, and she had seen so many fight the gift with all the strength they had—yet no one had ever seemed so utterly alive as this Queen of Westeros.
“I thought you came here to fight.”
The wolf was missing, but the man was the same. He wore black, but beneath it was stout leather, and gleaming chain-male. His lip had been torn once and had healed badly: he wore a permanent snarl. His face was friendly, Mella thought, despite this, and she knew how to read faces. She could see muscles glide into a lie, or stretch around the truth.
“I won't fight in a mêlée against fifty filthy Westerosi whores.” Mella spat. “It's not worth my time.”
“Whores, are they?” the man said. “Then what are you?”
“You're not fighting either.”
“Only because I'd win.”
His teeth gleamed between his lips. His skin was pale; his beard very black. There was something familiar, something knowing, in his look, and seeing him made Mella's skin buzz all over, as though something was trying to get out. “You remind me of someone,” he said.
“I can't,” Mella snapped back quickly. “I'm no one. You look like a lord.”
“Not a filthy whore?” He held out his hand to her. “I am Lord Snow.”
She let him grip her hand, and she could read in his face that he was going to try something, and she could see by the way his neck moved that he wanted to unbalance her, to knock her to her knees. She moved with him; his motion was gentle: he didn't want to hurt her, only put her in her place. She kept the momentum, moved her foot in the right direction, and he fell onto his left knee with a gasp while she stood firm.
“My name,” she said, “is Mella Stone.” (She should have let him unbalance her. She should not have come.)
He grinned at her, but the torn lip turned it into a snarl. “I'd like to fight you, girl.”
It was utterly wrong, and she knew it down to her bowels. She had bowed before the Queen, and the Queen had laughed and nodded, and now she was not no one. She was Mella Stone, and she was quicker with the sword than Lord Snow. Her feet were more deft, her face more impassive, her blows more true.
He was a good swordsman; few swordsmen who had not learned the water dance could make her sweat beneath her armpits and make her face grow hot. He was strong and sure and she had to move quickly. She had lost all her grace once, when her hips had grown and her muscles had turned heavy, and she worked until she thought she would die from it, and when her grace came back it was more quick and true than it had been before. She needed all that grace and skill now.
He would have beaten me, she thought, darting, four years ago. He cannot beat me now.
“It was a good fight,” she said with her sword at his throat, and his sword in her right hand. “You are quick, Lord Snow. For a Westerosi.”
He scrubbed the sweat from his brow, and she stood back and let him rise. She tested his sword in her hand. It was too big for her, but it was a good blade; better than her own, though her own had been forged for her by the best blacksmith in Braavos, and he knew more of the water dance than anyone in Westeros. Its pommel had the shape of a snarling wolf.
Lord Snow called up to the stands, “Do you like what I bring you, your grace? You asked me to liven up the tourney.” He was still panting.
The Queen stood. They were close to the stands now, and Mella could make out each glinting bell in the Queen's hair. Her throat, deeply tanned, was dark against her silvery hair. She could see the Dothraki more clearly too, the breadth of their bodies, their long braids. She thought they looked more fun to fight than any of the Westerosi.
“What is your name?” the Queen said. Her voice, when she spoke the common tongue, was unaccented, but she said the words with a certain gravity and sureness that was exclusive to royalty.
“Mella Stone, your grace.”
“A girl with the name of a bastard from Westeros who fights like a swordsman from Braavos?” The Queen smiled. “Have you embarrassed Lord Snow sufficiently? Then join me in my tent for something to drink.”
The bells in the Queen's hair tinkled faintly when she laughed. She ate lightly, fruits and small cakes, while Mella sipped an unpleasant Dornish wine and ate an overcooked fish in a few quick gulps. There was no reason to pass over free food.
People usually accepted Mella's laconic lies. The Queen asked probing questions, leaning towards Mella, smiling so easily and seeming so indifferent to the answers that Mella lost the thread of her usual story. The Queen had a rhythm she was not used to.
And the Queen was so warm, and her face was so alive, and Mella could not forget that she sat next to Daenerys Targaryen, named Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, and on and on, those titles Mella knew so well and should not know so well and could not forget. The knowledge itched in her throat as the violet-blue eyes darted over her face.
“I am no one, your grace,” she tried. “I have always been no one.”
The Queen wore a sweet-scented flower perfume, but under it, and much more powerfully, she smelt like a bonfire at night, like charred meat, like fire carried by a vast, dry wind. Mella was lost in the scent.
A fish bone stuck in her gum and made it bleed, and for a second she was a huge wolf on a riverside, scenting out a wounded deer.
“No one is no one,” the Queen was saying, and laughing. “Someone taught you to fight like that, someone with much skill. Such people do not spend time on no one.”
“I had talent, your grace, not a noble birth.”
The Queen touched her chin with fingers so warm they seemed to burn Mella's skin. “I think perhaps you had both,” she said, and then her eyes slid away and she was looking over the table at Lord Snow, laughing with the fat maester, and then back to Mella. “How did you come to Braavos?”
“On a ship.”
“Some people would take such an answer as an insult.” The Queen gripped the wrist of the Summer Islander and whispered some words in High Valyrian. (Not that Mella, an orphan of King's Landing, could recognise High Valyrian.) She returned to the Mella as if their conversation had not ceased. “Luckily, I am not one of them. What made you come back?”
“You, your grace,” Mella said, honestly. “I lived here a long time ago, when the streets were full of starving orphans and my father and I could barely scrape together a living. In Braavos, I heard new tales from the sailors. I heard that things were changed. I wanted to see for myself.”
“Did you miss it, then, King's Landing?”
“No. The last thing I saw here was my father's death.” Mella glanced up, quickly, into the Queen's face, and saw the dancing eyes, the quick, charming smile. Mella knew too, the work that went into that smile, the time the Queen had spent learning to make herself so charming: a trick she had taught herself so well she no longer knew she was employing it.
“I knew nothing of King's Landing before I came,” the Queen said. “The only cities I knew were those across the Narrow Sea, and those I had sacked and conquered. Yet King's Landing was my city, and I belonged to it in a way I would never belong to Yunkai. I have learnt to appreciate it.” She paused, glanced round the table, so quickly it seemed that she could not take in any impression of the crowd, but Mella sensed the Queen was thinking, assessing them. “Come with me, Mella Stone, and I will show you how to appreciate King's Landing again.”
She took Mella's hand in her narrow, hot one, and stood. The rest of the table stood too, except one elderly lord who was glazed with drink. The queen told them to sit once more, said she was going to take the air, and led Mella from the room. Two Dothraki followed at a discreet distance.
They climbed a long flight of stairs, and crossed a moonlit landing. (Mella had learnt the water dance on these stairs; she had chased cats from one pool of moonlight to another. She had not; she had never been here before: she was no one.) They ascended another, narrow staircase, and were out, on a narrow tower, so high above the castle it seemed to no longer be part of it.
This far above the city Mella could not smell its reek. She could only smell the sea, and the hot, strange, charred scent of the queen. The Dothraki they had left at the bottom of the stairs, silent and watchful.
The gift, Mella thought suddenly, staring out over the dark sea. One quick push: I could easily overpower her before she screams. The Queen was smiling, her face alive with light. Mella was conscious, suddenly, of the smell of her own body, which had become overheated in the tourney, and again at the meal, and was now rapidly cooling; and of the coarseness of her body in comparison with the Queen's. Her chest was small, her biceps large, but her hips were too broad for her to ever play a boy again, and her grace was the grace of swordsman, not of a woman.
“They told me you had dragons,” Mella said, to the bright, narrow face across from her in the starlight. It was beautiful; she had been wrong earlier. The Queen was so beautiful Mella couldn't bear it.
“You cannot really have a dragon,” the Queen said, “Though if they belong to anyone, they belong to me. Drogon tolerates me riding him; the others do not kill me. To ride a dragon is a gift beyond comparison, but to know that one will not kill you is a richness, too.” She sighed. “It was different once; I was their mother once.”
“Did they forget?” Mella asked, and then added, quickly, “Your grace.”
“Perhaps. I don't think dragons know they ever had a mother. They know I have dragon's blood, though, and that is enough.”
Mella saw them in her mind's eye: huge and bold and vicious. She could not imagine the tiny Queen controlling one; and yet, if anyone could have a dragon, she thought this queen could. This queen, in another life, could have been one of the Faceless Men, and that was the greatest compliment Mella could give anyone. She asked, “Would they kill me?”
The Queen put her hands on Mella's face, gentle and hot, one on each cheek. “Yes, sweetling. They would kill you.”
After she had kissed Mella, mouth sudden and strong and so warm, she said, “Or perhaps they wouldn't. It is very hard to tell, with dragons. You walk into death every time.”
“I am used to death,” Mella said, and this time it was her mouth that sought the Queen's, there on the highest tower of the Red Keep, in the light of stars reflected on sea water.
The Queen undressed first, as if disrobing in front of a grubby swordsman from Braavos was an ordinary occurrence. She moved easily in her naked skin, long, muscled limbs owning the space around her. The Dothraki soldiers waited outside. One of them had winked lewdly at the Queen; she had smiled in return.
Mella gaped, awkward, looking at the Queen's fine bones, the wings of her clavicles, her small breasts. Two candles were lit on the window ledge and moonlight cast shadows through the room. “Come here,” the Queen said, and she took Mella in her arms, tracing Mella's jawbone with her fingers. Her breath was sweet in Mella's mouth, scented with herbs and fruit.
The Queen was warm and certain. Mella found she was trembling; she had learnt, as a novice, how to control even the slightest tremor in her fingers, and she breathed carefully now, sending them away.
This is wrong, Mella told herself. You are no one. You must not answer your private lusts.
But the Queen kissed her again, and Mella was suddenly immune to such thoughts. “Take these off,” the Queen said, fingering Mella's coarse jerkin, her rough linen shirt.
“Yes,” Mella whispered. “Yes, your grace.”
Her body ached with uncertainty, but also with longing. She had, for so long, wanted to touch soft limbs, to feel hands on her own. She listened to the bawdy talk of sailors and thieves and was filled with a fierce desire.
And yet, every time she wanted to smile at a pretty girl across a quay, something stifled her.
The Queen's hands were undoing her shirt, pulling it from her belt. Her fingers worked over Mella's trousers. Mella shivered with the desperate, formless want, and she buried her face in the Queen's neck and breathed in the fiery scent of her skin.
The warm hands slid the shirt off her shoulders and ran her upper arms, her ribcage. Mella made a breathy, gasping sound, and pressed her lips to the queen's cheek. “Your grace...” she murmured.
“Daenerys,” the Queen whispered in return. “My name is Daenerys.”
“My body...” Mella whispered, remembering the queen's smooth limbs, bright in the pool of moonlight, “My body isn't like yours.”
The Queen gently pulled Mella free from her smallclothes. Mella thought she could smell her skin, ripe and unpleasant, in the softly scented room. The Queen licked along Mella's breast, and Mella's eyes fluttered shut.
She was dark everywhere the Queen was pale: dark hair under her arms, on her legs, over her cunt, even a trail of hair from her navel downwards. She was scarred too: arms and neck and torso from endless nicks with swords. The Queen cupped her hips with her hands. “You are so beautiful,” Mella murmured, “And I'm...”
“You are a swordswoman of Braavos,” the Queen said. “And I am going to take you here in this bed as many times as I like.” She kissed Mella's ear. “You fought so beautifully today.”
“Your grace I... I don't know...” The words didn't come easily.
The Queen cupped Mella's chin in her hand. “Have you done this before, sweetling?”
Mute, Mella shook her head.
“Don't worry; with another woman it is only ever pleasurable.”
The Queen guided Mella down onto the bed before Mella could protest that she wasn't worried about that. She sank, instead, into the Queen's arms, into her fiery beauty.
Mella dreamt a wolf dream that night; Arya Stark's dream. She was huge and dark and her pale grey brothers ran behind her. The air was sweet with spring after the long winter, and the deer were mating again.
She woke with blood hot in her mouth.
The Queen's thighs and hands were calloused, and her skin was wind-brown. Mella focused on her, breathing deeply, forcing herself to return to this room, swallowing down the taste of copper. She looked at the Queen's imperfections: the fine scars and rough fingers; the singed hair and chapped lips. The Queen slept with her mouth slightly open, her face turned against the pillow. A brazier blazed in the corner of the room, and sent flickering shadows over the walls.
The gift. She must do what she had been sent to do. There were so many ways to give the gift. A hand on the Queen's throat and she would choke and turn blue and shit herself and then be still, the life fading from her strong, muscular body. Or Mella could kiss her awake and then slide a knife inside at just the right angle, and the Queen would die after only a few gasping breaths. Mella would see the life leave her eyes. These were the most personal ways, the most dangerous, and yet they were the ones Mella wanted to use. The Queen deserved to know who gave her the gift.
There were quicker, more subtle ways. A drop or two of poison in her water glass; an iron coin that would stop her heart. A sprinkling of powder in her smallclothes that would open her bowels again and again until she was bled dry. Mella could be far away by then. Mella stirred, fingers restless, thinking of the knife, the blade, red blood beneath wind-rough skin.
The Queen woke, blinking, sleep falling at once from her face. She rolled onto her back and drew herself up into her elbows. Her breasts were pale against her tanned chest, and she arched her spine guilelessly. “Plotting my demise, sweetling?” she said.
Mella swallowed. She sat up too, curling her feet underneath her, ready to run, to dance the water dance. “Your demise, your grace?”
The Queen took Mella's left hand, her sword hand, in her own. She traced the pattern of callouses with rough fingers, and said, “Sometimes I sleep with my assassins. Especially when they look like you.”
“Why?” The question came out without Mella's volition, and she bit her tongue. She had not said something so ill-judged in years.
The Queen smiled. “Because their death isn't always the most efficient solution.” She stroked Mella's hair back from her face. “This needs a wash, and a trim, too.”
Mella turned her face away. She couldn't stand the Queen's eyes, their quick, clever gaze. “I can kill you before you can call your guards. I can be out of this room before you can scream. And when I leave, no one will recognise me again.”
“Of course, sweetling, you're one of the Faceless Men of Braavos. My dear Lord Snow told me all about you. You would not have got this close without my will, you know.”
Mella tugged at her hair with her hands, calculating how quickly she could be out of the room.
“You did not even betray them. I found out in my own ways.” The Queen stretched. “It's not your fault that you couldn't kill me: no one has managed it yet. And I usually find uses for my assassins in the end.”
Mella wrapped her arms around herself, pulling the sheet up to cover her thighs. Give her the gift. Get out the window. You are not Arya Stark.
The door opened. “Eight ravens this morning, your grace, and Maester Tarly wants to see you urgently. Lord Snow seeks audience when you have time. Khal Jhaqo says Drogon needs your attention.” It was the Summer Islander Mella had seen the night before, and though she spoke formally, she looked at the queen as though they were closer than sisters.
“May I not have breakfast first?” the Queen said. “You work me so hard, Missandei.”
Mella tugged the sheet all the way up, until she was covered to her neck. The Queen lounged naked and unconcerned on the bed, warmed by the heat of the brazier. Missandei brought her a plate with figs, soft cheese and small, yellow cakes, and the Queen sat up to eat it. “I suppose I should dress before you send Maester Tarly in. He is very coy, for a maester.”
Missandei laughed. “I think it would be best, your grace. Shall I have water heated for your bath?”
“I'll have one after I see the dragons.” She gestured to Mella with her foot. “This assassin could do with one though.”
“Her hair is very untidy, your grace,” Missandei agreed calmly. Mella looked from her to the window, and wondered why no one was screaming for the guards.
“You could trim it for her,” the Queen said. She took one of the cakes from her plate and swung her legs out of bed. “Help me dress first.”
They left Mella alone in the room, next to the glimmering brazier, as they, quite unconcerned, went to inspect the Queen's wardrobe.
Mella found she was shivering all over, in a manner she had not since before she was a novice. She tucked quivering fingers into her armpits and crawled out of bed.
She didn't even leave through the window. She wished the guards would stop her as she went down the stairs, but they simply let her pass.
On her bed in the tavern, bitten by fleas, Mella slipped inside the rat. It was safe inside the rat; the rat was not now afraid. He was in a stable. He had not been in a stable before, he had known only ships and salt fish, and he found the grain much more appealing. The traps, too, were easier to avoid than a fisherman's knife. It can be a comforting thing, to be a rat, safe and solid in a pile of hay, nibbling oats.
Voices outside the stable. The rat listened, feeling only slightly afraid. He could be gone long before the humans stirred the straw. He nibbled the oat. He was growing to like the scent of horse.
The rat heard, but Mella understood.
“She'll send her wolf back to the North soon, then we'll have a chance.”
“The little hussy from the Faceless Men went upstairs with her last night.”
“She's probably gutted now, eh? While the Whore Queen's still swanning around the city. What makes you think you have a chance?”
“Because I'm not a little hussy, am I?”
“I say you strike tonight, under the wolf's nose. That would destroy him too, letting his precious little cunt die when he was here.”
The rat wriggled in the straw. Mella sent it upwards, closer to the edge. It peered out with small eyes, its angles of vision so different from Mella's own. She made out the man's boots, black and caked in horse shit, but that, and the tone of his voice, was all she knew.
“Tonight? Are you daft?”
“No, she's gutted the hussy. She won't be on her guard. She goes out to the dragons every evening, for ten minutes she doesn't have any guards because the dragons would kill 'em.”
“Yeah, but she has dragons.”
The voices continued, discussing the logistics of the plan. The rat was bored. It nosed out an oat-husk and squirmed back into the centre of the straw where it felt safe. Mella fought it, but it didn't listen to her. She could be inside it, but it didn't always listen to her whims.
She let it sit, chewing the oat, and thought about the evening. Dragons, swords, the Queen. The Queen. She blinked and was on her bed again, scratching at her flea bites.
The Queen. Daenerys. Her hands, the feel of her skin beneath Mella's rough fingers. The hopeless longing she woke within Mella.
The gift. She must die. You've been sent to kill her. Mella let the voice run through her mind, and then she stood up. She called downstairs for water, and washed in the chilly half-full bucket that was provided. She ran her fingers through her hair. It stuck to her neck, lank.
Then she dressed and buckled her sword around her waist. It was warm in King's Landing, at the beginning of this summer, but she swung a hessian cloak around her shoulders before starting out into the streets.
Arya Stark had dreamed of dragons. She had known their names, their wingspans. She had stood inside their skulls. She had climbed trees and imagined she rode on their broad backs.
Mella Stone slipped along the back streets, remembering dragon dreams. The Queen had held her and had not looked at her like she was no one. The Queen knew more than she said.
Her brother, the brother she had never thought to see again, was here too. Her brother.
That thought shocked her. She had not allowed herself to think she had a brother for so long. She pressed back against one of the walls, tilting her head into the shade, breathing the scent of fish and effluence rapidly through her nose to dispel the frightening realisation.
Her hands were trembling again.
Dragons. The Queen had said she would see her dragon after she had attended matters of state. The rat knew where the dragons were. Everyone, Mella thought, knew where the dragons were, at the heart of the city. They lived under the shadow of dragons. The dragons could melt their roofs, could pry them away and snap their necks.
The threat of dragons also kept them safe.
The evening sun was in her eyes. She walked to the Red Keep, and behind it, to the vast empty space where towers and chambers and stables had once stood, now there was only earth and stones and charred flesh. And dragons. The area of the castle directly beside the huge arena was not guarded, but it was empty. The dragons kept eyes away.
Mella had not been to the Red Keep for so long, it had changed since her time: yet she found the paths through it easily, as though her feet knew their own way. Dragons, she thought to herself again and again, her heart pounding, drawn helplessly on by her need to see the Queen, by the horrible knowledge that she was not really Mella at all.
It was her first dragon, and it lay, huge, ridiculously huge, over the barren ground, basking in the sunshine. It stretched wings, eyes shut, black scales gleaming.
Mella stood in the shadows, wondering if it could see her. Wondering if it would carry her off.
She heard the Queen's voice behind her. The dragon heard also, blinking open a lazy eye. Its iris was vast and red.
“He'll be fine. You can leave me now, Missandei, I know they frighten you.”
The answering voice was softer; Mella could not quite make out the words. And, echoing behind her, faint in the wide space, she heard the dull sound of boots.
She crouched, hand on her sword. The Queen stepped into sight, in a soft tunic, wearing leather boots. For a second Mella's eyes flicked over her muscular thighs. Then her feet moved without thinking.
The man did not get anywhere near the Queen before Mella's sword was at his throat.
Mella stood, panting slightly, her blade pressing into his skin. They were alone: Mella, the Queen, the dragon, and the man.
The dragon raised its head, stretched vast wings.
“Shall I kill him, your grace?”
“No. Bind his hands. I'll bring him to my guards.”
“Your guards should have their throats slit, your grace; they let him get this close.”
“But you stopped him, didn't you, sweetling?”
The Queen was looking away from her, at the dragon stretching his muscles, but her tone was tender.
“You could have died,” Mella protested.
“If you had not saved me, Drogon would.” The Queen put one hand, gently, on Mella's shoulder. The warm fingers sent a tremor through her. Then the Queen said, “Now I must ask you to leave, because Drogon's waking up, and he won't be as tender to you as he is to me.”
Mella nodded, though she was unwilling to leave the Queen alone. She pulled the man after her, over the barren ground, to the wall. He protested weakly, big hands struggling against her own. She pressed him against the wall, bound him one handed with her belt, and led him out with the sword at his throat. She wanted to watch the Queen, the little golden figure, advancing over the smooth ground to the dragon, but she kept her mind on the man.
She brought the assassin to the Dothraki guards. “You should have gone with her; she could have died,” she snapped at them.
“The Khaleesi tolerates no one with her when she visits her dragon,” one said. Mella had not expected them to speak the common tongue so clearly.
“It is known,” the other agreed.
“Besides,” said the first. “She trusted you to save her. And she was not wrong.”
Mella thrust the man at the guards, her skin prickling, her mind full of half-formed thoughts.
“The Khaleesi will see no one until tomorrow evening. Then you should visit her.”
Mella looked between them, at their serious faces, their strong hands crushing the man's shoulders. He was crying, she saw, silent tears leaking from between closed lids.
A shadow passed over them. As one, the guards looked up, and Mella looked up with them.
The dragon was flying north over the city, dark scales catching the evening sun. She could not see the Queen, but Mella knew she was there, tiny and fierce, delighting in the vast beast, the long flight.
She slipped into the castle so easily she thought the guards must have been told to let her move freely.
She took her clothes off first, Mella Stone's clothes, and dropped them in a pile on that high tower. It was different in the daylight, dustier than it had seemed in starlight with the Queen, plainer and more exposed.
She was shaking; the sea wind rose and gusted around the tower.
She took off her face next, and it hurt her, and she gasped and cried before she let it fall. Her hands rose to staunch blood that did not come.
She wore, then, the face she had lost for so long, the face of Arya Stark. She stood, trembling, wearing the forgotten face, utterly naked, utterly herself. Her hands touched her skin; it did not feel different to her, but she knew she had changed.
She was Arya Stark. She had not been Arya Stark for such a long time.
She picked up the sword and walked, barefoot, down the narrow stairs to the landing below.
She meant to find the queen. She meant to find the Queen and confess everything and press her face to that lovely chest and beg because that was what Arya Stark wanted to do. Arya Stark had never wanted to beg before, but that was all she had left inside.
She wasn't sure the Dragon Queen would like to see her beg.
She didn't find the Queen right away. She found her brother, or her brother found her. She stood, shivering, and he gaped at her with his scarred, older face. But he was her brother. She stood on the steps of the tower, her sword in her hand.
The wolf knew her at once. The wolf bounded to her side in two steps.
She dropped the sword.
She knelt by the wolf, naked and herself, her skin prickling with cold. Her eyes were level with the wolf's. He did not snarl. “Ghost,” she whispered, and it was the first word Arya had spoken in so long, and the word came out wet and gravelly.
She pressed her face into his fur. He let her. Her tears fell into his soft ruff. She smelled him—wolf, and pine trees, and freshly fallen snow, and somewhere, above it all, the sharp, high scent of burning.
She looked up at Jon with blurry eyes. Her skin was on fire. “Arya,” she said. “I'm Arya.”
“I know,” he said. When he hugged her, he smelt just like Ghost.