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Picture Postcards From Planetos

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There was a mild breeze at the mouth of the Wyl, where the river gurgled and rushed as the water poured into the Sea of Dorne. The outlines of Castle Wyl on the other shore were blurry, hazy lines against the bright afternoon sun, a big, formless blob sitting on the Dornish Red Mountains.

Beric wandered along the banks toward the coast, his gaze lost in the clear, blue sky over the sea. He tasted the salt in the wind, inhaled distant adventures, and with every step he took his mind drifted further back in the past.

Back when he was a boy, he often came here with his father. They had fished for crabs, though Beric never fancied the taste. Catching them was just entertaining and the closest a small boy came to hunting. Sometimes, his father brought one of the birds, Seawind the hawk or Lightning the falcon, and had them dive for fish in the river while he sat and told his stories on the banks.

Beric listened to the legends of storm kings, heard the tale of House Dondarrion's beginning, learned how the marcher lords defended the pass through the mountains from Dornish invasions. He especially loved the stories his father told of Robert's Rebellion, how he had fought side by side with the man who now sat on the throne.

It all seemed so long ago, but the memory was still as clear as the sky. Once the Wyl had been the widest and wildest river he knew, a mysterious, forbidden land of strangers and sand began behind the Red Mountains and the Sea of Dorne had marked the end of the world. How small this world had been, Beric pondered with a distant smile on his lips. If anything, this coast was the beginning.

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"Thoros, what a surprise..." Lord Ossyn seemed somewhat puzzled when the visitor was led into the Great Hall. "I didn't know you were coming. If you sent a raven, the message must have gotten lost on the way." He nodded to Maester Jeon who began gathering the scrolls and notes, then Lord Ossyn got up from the table and went to greet Thoros.

"I sent a raven before I left King's Landing," Thoros replied, now looking puzzled himself. "Strange, the Red Keep's birds are usually very reliable. Must have been one of 'those days'."

Ossyn shrugged and began walking toward the gate to the courtyard. "No matter. Now you're here and I am glad to see you. However, Beric still hasn't returned from Highgarden and Anguy went to the valley this morning to speak to the horse breeders. For now, you'll have to make do with my company."

"You make it sound like a burden." Thoros chuckled and followed him through the gate. "But if you are busy and were not prepared for my visit, I'll find something to keep myself entertained until Beric gets back."

Lord Ossyn stopped on the yard and hesitated before he answered. "I must admit, you arrived at a bad time," he said. "I expect a party from Stonehelm tomorrow, important matters of trade, I'm sure you understand." He looked up to the parapet walk of the keep's second story, leading to the guest chambers. "I'm afraid I cannot offer you your usual room for that reason. But I hope you won't mind being housed in more humble quarters for two or three days."

Thoros shrugged and walked next to Ossyn toward the stairs. "As long as there is wine, I'll feel right at home," he gave back.

"I'm certain we can arrange that," Ossyn replied, leading the way up the wooden steps and down the parapet, to the Lightning Tower, connecting Blackhaven's south and east walls. As far as Thoros knew, this tower housed the rookery and the room of the maester, along with his study and storage room. Maybe Lord Ossyn led him to the archer's post under the roof, a humble quarter indeed.

When Thoros stepped through the door Ossyn opened for him, he paused and looked around in mild confusion. The room wasn't humble, it only differed from Beric's in its shape. "This isn't what I call humble," Thoros stated the obvious and when he turned around, he noticed a roguish smile on Ossyn's face. "And how did you make it back from Highgarden all of a sudden?" Thoros added when Beric appeared behind his father.

"If I was an envious man, I'd chase you out of my castle for whisking my son away to wild adventures," Lord Ossyn began. "But you're in luck. I'm not such a man and instead cherish the knowledge he found a friend in you." He stepped aside to let Beric enter the room, then continued. "I know my son loves you dearly. When he brought up the idea of a permanent residence for you, I couldn't deny his wish." He nodded to Beric who handed Thoros an ornate key. "Take this and know you're always welcome under my roof."

Thoros stared at the key for a moment, then he took it and pulled Beric into a hug. "I didn't expect you to go that far to steal me from Robert," he said, laughing, then put a kiss on Beric's cheek. "I love you, too, you scheming bastard."

"Don't call him that." Lord Ossyn chuckled. "If my son was a bastard, I'm sure I would know."

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Her story began eons ago, but it's not the one she tells travelers visiting these dark lands. Most wouldn't understand how long she has truly been waiting, might even pity her for dwelling in shadows all this time. Only few catch a glimpse of her purpose. Even fewer feel her content with this fate.

The gibbous moon hid behind ragged, black clouds when she walked to the shores on this stormy evening. Some called this ritual futile and maybe it was. But a lonely light must burn in the darkness, so the one she waits for will find the way.

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"Don't be so gloomy." Thoros waved a bottle of wine, half empty, under Beric's nose. "It's your name day! We should at least try celebrating a little!" A drop of rain from the soaked tent's ceiling hit Beric's nose, then another, and Beric glowered at Thoros without saying a word. He pulled his cloak tighter together, then directed his glare toward the tent flap that barely kept the rain and wind out. Thoros sighed and shrugged, waited a moment, then just took a swig from the wine himself. "We'll find an inn or a tavern tomorrow," he said when he lowered the bottle. "And I'll make up for the spoiled name day once we're back in King's Landing, I promise."

"It's not the rain." Beric looked back to him and reached for the bottle. "And it's not spending my name day out here during a storm." Thoros let him have the wine and Beric took a pull before he continued. "I was a coward. Fate pitted me against Ser Gregor. I didn't speak up when you convinced the king to change the result of the draw. I idly stood by and felt only relief about Loras facing the Mountain instead of me." He took another swig from the wine, then gave the bottle back to Thoros. "What kind of knight am I if I run from a challenge?"

"You didn't run," Thoros firmly corrected. "I didn't give you a choice because I knew you were unprepared for this challenge and Loras was not. Would it make you a better knight if you were crippled and all his hard training had gone to waste?"

"No," Beric replied with an uncertain smile on his lips.

"Admitting a weakness isn't dishonorable or cowardly," Thoros added. "Knowing your limits is what keeps you alive."

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There were two white horses slowly coming closer. One had a silvery mane, the other's was almost as pale as its coat. Both looks had their merit, though the snow-white one had probably been a bit more expensive. Not as costly as the fawn one over there though. People paid ridiculous prices for horses of that color because they shone golden like wine in the sun. No doubt, it was a beautiful sight and well worth the money. Beautiful, yet overrated. A deep, rich brown with a tinge of red, on the other hand, went for average prices, but always caught the eye nonetheless. Then there were black horses, of course. Not much variety among those. Some had subtle white markings or manes of differing shades, but so did horses of other colors and there was simply more variation. Sand Steeds were the most diverse breed, perhaps, though maybe that was just a matter of perception. They were a rare sight this far from Dorne and usually belonged to well-heeled visitors. Naturally, they rode only the finest mounts on their journeys and left the more mundane ones at home. Still, maybe a Sand Steed would be a good investment. They were famed for their natural elegance, endurance and speed. An ink-black stallion with a fiery red mane, like Prince Oberyn rode to battle. Or a snow-white one, with a long, flowing mane the color of Dornish sand. Either would certainly make quite an impression and...

"Did you see that? What a spectacle! I've never seen Ser Gellon unseated in the first pass before!"

The booming voice of his brother woke Renly from his musings and he quickly raised his cup to a toast. "A marvelous display indeed!" he declared with utter conviction. "If only every tilt could be this exciting!"

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Leiff stood outside the Winding Walls of Sunspear, his gaze drifting across endless dunes. The air flimmered in the afternoon heat and it seemed as if there were blurry shapes in the distance, outlines of memories or echoes of dreams. There were no mountains, no rocky hills like they passed through on the way here, only a sea of dry sand. Above it, the perfect blue sky wore no clouds either. No birds, no green crowns of trees, nothing at all obscured the hazy line of the horizon and the dazzling light of the scorching sun.

He blinked; there was motion somewhere far away, where the so clearly and sharply defined fields of yellow and blue collided. Riders, Leiff recognized, as he narrowed his eyes to watch them come closer. Four or five, maybe more, it was hard making out their numbers in the in the cloud of dust they swirled up. It created the illusion of them emerging from nowhere, like phantoms stepping through an invisible portal into his world. They wore bright Dornish robes and concealed their faces with veils, and despite their striking colors they merged with their surroundings. There was a harmony between men and desert that made it look like the riders belonged to the landscape; the way flowers belonged to a meadow or waves belonged to the sea.

Only when Beric called his name from the gate, Leiff turned away from the peculiar sight. The North was often said to be empty, austere, vast and lonely; a place where one could go without crossing paths with another soul for weeks at a time. But it didn't compare to the impressions of Dorne. The torrid void of the South was empty in a different way; filled with light, vibrant colors and the promise of adventure.

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The harbor of Planky Town was filled with music and colors. The local merchants had set up their stalls alongside the docks, the Orphans' artfully painted rafts were anchored by the banks of the Greenblood and various minstrels entertained the visitors with cheerful songs.

Loras led Lady Satal to a long, orange-red pavilion and sat down next to her on a bench. "Get us some wine," he told his squire, glancing over his shoulder and making sure the Lords Vaith were still watching a juggler's performance a good distance away. "I can't understand a word here," he admitted, turning back to Satal. "Your father and you make an effort, but your uncle's accent could as well be High Valyrian to me."

Satal nodded apologetically and sighed. "Maybe you will get used to it if you visit more often," she said. "It might not always be as dull for you either. I heard my uncle suggest hosting a tourney at Vaith."

That got Loras' attention in an instant. "That would indeed be less dull than strolling through vineyards," he said. "For both of us, I suppose. My sister can accompany me, along with her husband, so we'd both..."

"I fear not," Satal replied, followed by another sigh. "My uncle wants you to crown me as your Queen of Love and Beauty, so people take note of our... liasion." She hesitated and looked around for Iagan to return with the wine. "He brought up the idea to my father because our effort here doesn't draw as much attention as your grandmother hoped. And we can hardly go around spreading rumors about ourselves."

"People will start talking soon enough." Loras leaned closer, pretending to whisper sweetly into her ear. "We'll just do everything Renly and Margaery do. Attend tourneys together, swoon about one another to whoever will listen, and Renly promised to buy fabrics in Sunspear and have a dress made for you in the colors of House Tyrell."

Satal nodded and reached for his hand, then leaned in for her hushed answer. "My uncle knows we'll do what we can. What concerns him is that people don't recognize you in Dorne." She pretended to blush and lowered her gaze. "Maybe if you had worn your surcoat today, so people would see your coat of arms..."

Loras quietly groaned, but he forced a smile. "We're not very good at this yet, are we?"

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"The first I remember was Marq Grafton." The king furrowed his brow in thought, then reached for his cup and took a swig from the wine. "Bashed his head in at the walls of Gulltown, but I recall there was already blood on my hammer. Must have slain some of his soldiers before, but the names and faces escape me." He raised the empty cup, both as a toast and a demand for more wine. "A great victory nonetheless, as we took Gulltown that day!"

Thoros returned the toast, but he knew better than to interrupt the king's story. He had heard it so many times by now, Thoros could have told it himself, down to every detail, but Robert didn't tell it for sake of informing.

"And at Summerhall, I took the life of Lord Fell," His Grace continued, now more pensive. "My own bannerman, looked him right in the eyes when the blow struck his temple." He sighed and impatiently glared at his squire as the boy filled the cup with fruity, red wine.

"He left you no choice, Your Grace," Thoros recited the right thing to say at this point of the story. "He betrayed you, and friends become enemies if they do that."

"You're right about that!" Robert poured down the wine and immediately gestured for another refill. "Disloyalty must be punished! I gave him the chance to surrender, but the stubborn, old goat just wouldn't back down!" He leaned closer over the table, not minding his squire's attempt to follow the cup with the half-empty carafe. "Stony Sept," he said sternly. "What a battle that was! Even wounded and patched up by whores, the Hand couldn't stop me. Almost got the damned bugger!"

"And he got what he deserved despite evading the final blow of your hammer," Thoros solemnly added. "Disgraced, stripped of lands and titles and exiled to Essos."

Lancel only managed to fill the king's cup because His Grace abandoned it on the table in favor of the roast on his plate. "And of course, there was the decisive battle at the Trident!" he continued, now chewing. "Knocked the rubies right off Rhaegar's chest and the dragon collapsed dead in a stream of red water!"

"You changed the course of history with one well-aimed swing of your hammer," Thoros said. "It was a victory the realms will never forget."

Robert dropped the fork and leaned back, then sighed deeply. "Then they put this dreaded crown on my head and I thought it meant I had won the war. Having lived through all the hardships and battles, I was naive enough to not recognize that this was the moment I should truly have feared."

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The crooked alleys and sunlit cobblestone yards of the Weeping Town were teeming with visitors from every corner of the Stormlands. Vendors in colorful tents and decorated stalls cried their wares, one louder, more enthusiatsic than the next, heralding the opening of the Summer Market, held here in honor of the Smith every year.

In the early morning, the stonemasons had been among the first to set up their tents, offering stone figurines and displaying samples of stones. One especially eager group had hauled their finest statue to the town square, a man-sized portrayal of the Smith made from white marble. Carpenters had laid out wood carvings as samples of their craftsmanship, some had brought pieces of furniture; footstools, small chests and side tables. Fishermen had decorated their stalls and barrels with seashells and nets, and farmers lured customers closer with varied fruits; bright green apples, dark cherries, melons from the Reach and lemons from Dorne.

Thoros picked up an ornate, bulbous bottle and inspected the coloring, holding it against the afternoon sun. "You never told me your mother is such a shrewd merchant," he noted when Beric joined him on the Dornish glassmaker's stall. "If it wasn't for that fancy dress I'd think she'd be a silversmith's daughter, raised to peddle his wares."

Beric pointedly raised an eyebrow and glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to Thoros. "Are you implying my mother looks like a commoner to you?" he asked with playful indigniation.

Thoros put the bottle down and shook his head. "Your mother looks as alluring as ever," he gave back and Beric's feigned indignation made way for a reproachful glare. "But that aside, I'm simply surprised seeing a highborn lady manning a market stall. She seems to be in her element over there."

Beric's glance followed Thoros' across the town square to the crowd that had gathered around the silversmith's table and inspected the wares. Lady Laenah was cheerfully chatting and pointing out items while the smith behind the counter made sale after sale. "The Summer Market is her favorite event of the year," Beric said. "Each year she claims she attends to talk to Lord Amberly about procuring gemstones from his mines in the Rainwood. And each year, the negotiations take less than hour, if they take place at all. What she truly enjoys is seeing her designs worn and finding inspiration by listening to her customers' ideas. She..." He broke off when Thoros abandoned the glassmaker and wandered toward the silversmith's stall instead. "What are you...?" he began and got an roguish smile as answer before he finished the question. "Don't you dare!" he got out, then quickly tried to catch up with Thoros.

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The tourney at Grandview was well underway. Lord Grandison had just announced the draw for the first round of the joust, musicians played on a small stage and visitors sampled the wares of the wine merchants from Dorne and the Reach. The sole dark cloud on this sunny, warm day hovered above a dark blue pavilion and it was dangerously close to bursting with rain.

Ser Garvan's armor had already been shiny when Beric had taken it out of the trunk, but that hadn't stopped him from giving the breastplate and pauldrons another polish. The metal didn't mind the gruff scrub and it felt good having an outlet for the frustration boiling in Beric.

What was his uncle thinking, arranging for that obnoxious brat Rowland to serve Ser Aydan? How did his big mouth and habit of pranking earn him this honor? Yes, of course, Ser Aydan was now betrothed to Beric's cousin, but did that really mean her brother had to become his page? Wasn't Beric a much better choice for this position? He was just as related to Lady Symone, but unlike Rowland, he never stood out for bad behavior. On the contrary. He had always carried out his duties with diligence, had meticulously followed his knight's instructions and always shown him great respect. But no, apparently that counted for nothing and for reasons beyond Beric's comprehension, Rowland's unruly nature had been rewarded instead.

"What are you, a maid or a squire?" Rowland's freckled face peeked through the curtain, stirring up his cousin's silent rage all anew. "Don't waste your time shining that armor. My knight will knock yours into the dirt in the first tilt anyway!" A handful of mud hit Beric's knee and part of the breastplate, Beric reached for his sword and Rowland quickly escaped.

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"Are they even moving?" Loras parried Thoros' attack and pushed him backwards, swords crossed between them.

"Renly took a sip from his wine a while ago," Thoros noted, quickly pulled the sword back and began circling his opponent, waiting for a new chance to attack. "That counts as movement, the cup was not levitating by the sheer force of his will."

"I mean their game," Loras replied. He glanced to the terrace where Beric and Renly sat in a rose-entwined pavilion and intently stared at a board on their table. "What Beric told me sounded more entertaining. He said there are dragons, catapults, and tactics of battle. But I thought the point was moving the pieces, not glaring at them until they yield." In his preoccupation, he only saw Thoros' strike in the very last moment and shot him reproachful glance after jumping out of the way.

"Did you expect they'd sit there, bash the pieces together and mimic battle cries of their tiny armies?" Thoros laughed and boldly tried the same approach again, but this time Loras saw it coming from miles away and evaded the attack with ease.

"I didn't." Loras skipped back and forth in front of Thoros, sword ready to counter, inviting another attempt at landing a hit. "But maybe they should. It would at least look more exciting than sitting there like statues for hours."

"A keen blade is even more dangerous if its wielder also possesses a keen mind," Thoros gave back with an air of importance. "At least that's what Beric says," he then admitted and shrugged. "By now I'm used to him winning, no matter what elaborate 'tactics' I try. Maybe Renly gives him more of a challenge..." He broke off as an unexpected strike hit his shoulder and Loras shot him an innocent smile.

"I think I prefer your approach to battle." Loras teasingly waved his practice sword around under Thoros' nose. "You didn't earn your reputation by staring down toy soldiers. If the rumors about your inebriation at Pyke are only half-true, it was also not due to careful planning."

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♪ "On the shores of a lake, sapphire waves and tourmaline billows,
amidst rolling green hills, in the shades of tall willows,
there was a quaint thorp of farmers and fishermen living in peace
working with jolly songs on their lips in the warm summer breeze..." ♫

Darien paused, put his lute aside and scribbled on a piece of parchment, apparently undecided whether he liked the revised verse or not. He thoughtfully read over the lines once more, then put the feather back in the inkpot and took his instrument again.

♪ "One day, a band of uncouth villains arrived in the peaceful village,
they cursed the gods, soiled the lake and threatened to pillage,
the good people cried out in despair and turned to the heavens to pray
that the gods may help them and send a savior their way."

Again, Darien furrowed his brow, glanced at his scroll, but didn't take notes this time.

♪ "Their prayers were answered when a handsome hero rode into town,
a man of honor and valor and great renown,
and he chased the villains and all the worries they had brought away,
and the villagers rejoyced and celebrated that wonderful day." ♫

Apparently satisfied with this verse, Darien quickly wrote it down on his parchment, then continued his song.

♪ "From this day on, every village boy dreamt of being like him,
and around this man every lass forgot to be proper and prim,
never had they laid eyes upon a man this handsome and strong,
giving in to the temptation of his lips couldn't be wrong,
not one lass could resist his bright smile, his shroud gold as wheat,
one look into his green eyes made them mad like vixen in heat..." ♫

Leiff skeptically looked up from his stew and regarded Darien for a while. "I'm not sure Beric will like that last verse," he said.

"Beric?" Darien echoed, seemingly irritated. "He told me liked my performance of the 'Tale of the Green King' earlier. Clearly, he has very good taste when it comes to music."

"He'd rather be known for his sword skills than his stunning looks," Leiff replied. "If nothing else, he'll tell you that you got his eye color wrong. It's blue, not green."

"Oh." Darien looked stumped now. "This ballad is not about him," he then explained with an air of importance. "It's about me."

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"Who was that girl I saw leaving the temple before dawn?"

Thoros lazily opened one eye and blinked up to his disgruntled teacher, a dark shape in the doorway against the flickering torches in the hallway behind. "That's a good question," he mumbled into the pillow. "I don't think I caught her name, or I..."

"Or you were too drunk when she told you," she cut him off. "Not that it makes a different. You snuck out to the winehouse again instead of studying last night!"

"Wouldn't call it 'sneaking', exactly," Thoros muttered under his breath, thinking back to tripping over a brazier and almost setting a curtain ablaze on his way back.

Sandrine sighed and the look on her face softened in resignation. "Sometimes I think we should give up on the practice of accepting donations of children," she said. "Each year, there's one boy like you. Shows great promise, picks up reading and writing faster than others. And the moment the first hair sprouts on his chin, he trades all the potential for the fleeting excitement of women and wine. But we've been over that so many times, I know another lecture won't make you change your ways." She nodded to a bucket in the room's corner. "And you know where the rags are and what the punishment for your transgressions is. Get up and scrub the stairs to the temple. And shave your head before you go out. You look like a Lyseni savage with that stubble."

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Long, black hair in stark contrast to bright eyes, an intelligent twinkle in them, an infectious smile. Why was it so hard to find some appreciation for those traits in a lady? Loras glared at the lady in question with hazy eyes, trying to find the beauty he told himself was there, but came up empty once more. He took another pull from the bottle of Dornish wine. Maybe it would help somehow. After all, this was a Dornish woman, so it wasn't really a long shot, was it? He stared again, but before he failed anew in his quest of appreciation, the return of Prince Oberyn provided a welcome distraction.

Not all of Oberyn's words made too much sense. Not his fault, this was all on Loras' advanced inebriation. Still, he caught some of the broader subjects and listening to tales about Oberyn's time in Essos was infinitely better than watching Renly dance with the wrong Tyrell. Lady Satal listened intently as well, and by the looks of it she wasn't any more sober than Loras. No man could have been drunk enough to not notice how insincerely her laughter rang. But she tried, by the Seven, she tried. Tried to not look over to the dancefloor, tried to not see Margaery dancing in Renly's arm.

While Oberyn's story moved on to his studies in Oldtown, the wine directed Loras' thoughts somewhere else. Did Satal also try to find appreciation for him? Did she look at his auburn hair and imagine it was his sister's? If she looked into his eyes and pretended they were hers? Pondering this amused him and Loras quietly laughed to himself at the thought.

Apparently, Prince Oberyn didn't think the details of his life in the Citadel warranted this kind of reaction. He got up again, excused himself and asked his paramour to dance.

"They could at least look a little less happy."

Satal's slurred words startled Loras, enough to knock over his bottle when he tried to grab it. No big loss, it had almost been empty, he thought and began looking around for another. Slowly, Satal's blurry hand moved into his field of vision, holding a bottle, only half-empty under his nose.

"Here," she said with the politeness of a sailor. "I'll need all the help I can get if I want to find a better world on the bottom of it."

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The Essosi sun was already warm when it rose somewhere behind the golden dome of the temple, heralding the muggy heat of the waking day. It was the same ball of fire and light that cast its glow over the Red Mountains day by day, yet it felt like a brand-new phenomenon unfolding its glory so far from home.

The workers unfasten the ropes and the crew set sails for the journey back to Oldtown and Lord Ossyn blinked against the bright sky. It didn't look like rain, he thought, taking a long, unburdened breath instead of gasping for air.

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Death comes to all, they say, and it is true. The misconception lies in the belief that death takes those it visits and that there's no escape.

There are witches and warlocks using dark magic to extend their lifespans by hundreds of years. Make their gods blink with spells and potions. Exchange the life of another for more time with sacrifices on their altars. Trade souls for the preservation of flesh and blood.

There are creatures that defy lifespans people call 'natural' with their very nature, demons and spirits that don't exist in mortal planes. Beings born of magic with no sense of time, abominations created by those who seek wisdom or power in forbidden tomes and dark knowledge no man should possess.

And there are those who are bound to life by a higher calling, a purpose death can not interfere with. They don't truly belong to one world or another, they drift inbetween. Some wish for death to relieve them of this existance, others are content with their fate. Death is no almighty certainty to such creatures. Over the years, decades, eons, it becomes just another thing that happens to 'other people', always knocks on somebody else's door.

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Beric had just closed his eyes for a nap in the afternoon sun when the sonorous, phantasmal noise of Nereon's instrument began wafting up to the deck. Tormented, Beric sighed and sat up in the hammock, abandoning all hope of being able to ignore the disturbance when Nereon's raspy voice merged with the haunting melody of his so-called ballad.

♪ "On the salty cliffs of the shore a cold wind blows grey clouds across a faded sky
She holds her lover in her cold arms, watches him drift far away, dreaming, drowning..." ♫

Of course. It was about sorrow and death once more. What else would the self-proclaimed 'worst voice of the waves' choose as his subject? Beric's gaze wandered out to the bright, blue horizon, to beams of sunlight dancing on the shimmering waves. Did such a beautiful sight really not provide any more pleasant inspiration? Could Nereon not sound like a dirgesinger, just once?

♪ "Oh, sweet Neryse, you married a man who married the sea, you now mourn the living
He looks right through you to the distant grey, calling, calling, calling for him to come home..." ♫

Beric groaned, lay back down in the hammock, and shielded his eyes with one arm from the dazzling sun. Unsurprisingly, yet still disappointing, the weak attempt to hide from the minstrel was futile. The weird instrument whimpered on, accompanied by growls and shrieks as Nereon wailed like a banshee.

♪ "His skin cold as ice and his lips blue like water
The sea is calling him home again..." ♫

There was a third subject, Beric remembered, and he felt it stronger than ever. Madness. Pure, unadulterated madness, and Nereon pushed him ever closer toward that edge with each verse.

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Nereon set down his mug on the marble garden table and reached for the carafe to pour himself more wine. "Generion had never seen the world outside the castle," he continued his tale, the noble listeners of the Reach hanging on his every word. "He couldn't tell if there even was a world beyond the thick walls, as he had never encountered a door or window when roaming the hallways and chambers, lit by the dim, wafting light of lonely candles." He put the carafe down, took the mug, drank a sip and was about to go on when one of the listeners interrupted.

"Didn't Generion have a lady in his castle? If he lived there for as long as you say, why didn't he ever take a wife?" the young woman asked, seemingly puzzled about this particular detail being left out.

"He lived alone," Nereon confirmed in an ominous tone. "He had never seen another being, none that was alive. He had found bones of dogs or wolves in the cellars, but they were brittle and ancient and shattered when touched. Sometimes he wondered if there were others like him and as time went on, the desire for company became unbearable, even though he had never experienced such joys. When the pain of solitude had almost consumed him, he came upon a large ladder, reaching up in what Generion believed to be the keep's tallest tower and..."

"But had his parents not arranged a marriage for him?" another lady interjected. "Surely he was of high birth if he lived in a castle."

"They didn't," Nereon replied with growing irritation. "Generion had never met another living being. There were no parents, so servants, no potential matches." He took a swig from the wine and tried his best to ignore the puzzled looks from his audience. "So Generion began climbing the ladder, higher and higher, until he reached the top. And he realized it had not been a tower at all when he opened the door leading outside his dark, confined world. He had ascended from underground and now, standing under the open sky after decades in darkness, even the starlight seemed blinding and much too bright. In the distance, he saw the outline of a building, with warm light pouring out into the night through large windows, suggesting the company he so desperately sought might be there. So he..."

"So he was looking for a lover!" one of the listeners excitedly cried out, as if this part of the tale confirmed the theory others had voiced.

Nereon sighed and vaguely nodded. "Maybe," he said. "Generion didn't care too much who it would be. All he wanted was certainty, knowing he wasn't all alone in the world and..."

"But he would have preferred a beautiful lady, wouldn't he?" the first listener cut him off. "Generion is a man, and all men chase women they desire whenever they can!" Others in the audience firmly nodded in agreement and Nereon rolled his eyes.

"Generion had never seen another person," he sharply replied. "How would he even know what 'beauty' is? I told you this is a tragic tale of despair and isolation, you insisted on hearing it anyway." He took a deep breath and was about to continue, but the second listener now spoke up.

"Well, yes, you said that," she reluctantly admitted. "But you said it was the tale of a lonesome man longing for company. You can't blame us for expecting he'd find love in the end."

"I said 'company' indeed," Nereon gave back. "I also said the man is an outcast and there would be no happy ending. I..."

"You can't possibly say he dies a maiden!" One of the listeners huffed with indignation and two others on the chairs behind hers got up and left. "Who is supposed to believe such a fantastic tale? A man who desires no woman, not even once, that's unheard of! Nobody said there needs to be a happy end to the story, but you could at least give poor Generion one night of lewd joy!"

"Generion is a monster," Nereon grunted. "He is an abomination and when he left his dwelling, he realized there was no point in seeking out people, as they'd only reject him. So he took a noose, just like that, out of thin air, spontanously grew a tree from the rocks and ended his miserable life. There's your lewd joy, you've been a wonderful audience and now excuse me, my lute must be tuned." He grabbed the carafe, turned on his heel and angrily stormed off.

"Your... 'lute'." Beric put the bizarre instrument down on a table in Nereon's tent. "I thought you might need it if you want to tune it."

Nereon glared up from a corner, sitting on the floor between empty bottles and jugs. "It's tuned enough for those cretins out there," he noted. "They have no appreciation for my art either way."

"Maybe you should try telling more uplifting stories," Beric suggested and turned to leave. "You know, something without death, despair, pain and madness. Maybe revise Generion's tale. Have him find the company he seeks. Make a friend in the lit building instead of..." He paused and glanced to the frustrated minstrel in his corner. "...whatever the actual ending is. Everyone dies, I presume?"

"People flee from Generion in terror," Nereon replied with a shrug. "Then he sees his own reflection, shatters the mirror and returns to his castle where he dies forsaken and unmourned, never having known the delights of life."

Beric sighed and opened the curtain. "See? That is your problem, that all your stories end in tragedy and death. It has become too predictable and people like being surprised every once in a while."

Nereon's foggy black eyes furtively regarded Beric, the way sharks look at prey in dark, murky waters. "Wouldn't be my style," he said after a short moment of silence. "But I'm glad you actually listened and didn't make up your own story between lines I never said."

Chapter Text

Jeon, old friend, 

A novice has been assigned to me, after being passed around for months and studying under several different maesters. The lad's father is a protégé of Lord Hightower who wishes to see his son well educated, so I'm stuck with this keen, yet misguided, young mind. When he came to us, he desired to be taught the art of warcraft. Two months into his studies he became more interested in math, only to decide he'd rather learn about the secrets of healing when another month passed. I do what I can to give good counsel, but it appears the lad is already bored with my teachings. Recently he's been watching the sky from the tower and I fear he'll request yet another new tutor. 

Last week, another student,  Aurum, - you might remember him from your last years in the Citadel, -  approached me, saying the pesky novice followed him around, claiming an  astronomer's true aspiration should be reaching the sky. Aurum said the  lad seemed almost afflicted, rambling about vehicles forged from steel  that men should catapult to the stars. As you know, Maester Benedeon is a close friend of mine and he's not been in good health for a number of years. I'd rather not burden him with the incessant chatter and fantastic ideas of a novice whose father's money prevents him from knowing his place.

I'm at a loss and at the end of patience. If you have any advice how to handle this situation, I'd be eternally grateful for your wise words.


Erwyn, my friend,

It pains me to hear you are burdened with such a troublesome student and I wouldn't wish this fate on Maester Benedeon either. Your message confirms that not every man has the mind suited for the sciences. I suggest you have him write down all those fantastic ideas. It will keep the lad occupied for a while and perhaps the result can be sold as a work of fiction. He may be a lost cause for science, but his fiction may have some merit and entertain simpler minds.

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Seventy-five years ago, a man from Qohor offered her the secret of forging Valyrian Steel in exchange for this book. Sixteen years after that, an envoy of a Triarch of Volantis tried buying it for a sack full of golden honors and a hundred well-trained slaves. Another twenty-two years later, a warlock of Qarth offered various trinkets, what he claimed was a dragon's egg among the pile of incoherent spells, animal bones, vials and jewels.

Yesterday, a man - or perhaps a woman - from Braavos made an attempt at obtaining the tome. His face shifted, features dancing like shadows cast by a flickering fire before the old woman's blind eyes. Such a fine book was well worth a chest full of pearls and their weight in gold, the would-be buyer said, then added the ship he had sailed on when the original offer was declined. He had given up after that, having nothing else to sweeten the proposed deal.

The tome, bound in black leather, adorned with pale crystals, still rested on the old woman's table where the negotiations had taken place. She smiled to herself and flipped through the pages, all of them empty with words yet to be written.

Chapter Text

Another faint dot of light, this one had a slightly red tint, different from the white-blue one that could be seen further east. Or the yellowish one, the dot he had spotted first, tiny and surrounded by what looked like a halo.

Though the red speck was vaguely more interesting than the black, empty void all around, Maester Jeon still didn't understand what some of his colleagues found so fascinating about the stars.

He sighed with resignation and stepped away from the Far Eyes, an artwork of craftsmanship wasted on a man with no appreciation for the mysteries far above.

Chapter Text

"You place too much importance on the 'dishonesty' of the deal." Danyal dismissively shrugged, leaned back and waved for a new drink.

"You sold a fox to a blind man who asked for a cat," Beric noted. "What would you call it if not dishonest?"

"An opportunity," Danyal firmly replied. "I had a fox, the man had a basement full of rats and wanted a cat to scare them away. The fox did just that, that's what matters."

"So you're a shrewd merchant, not a scoundrel?" Beric chuckled when Danyal decidedly nodded.

"One with happy customers at that," Danyal added.

Chapter Text

The piece of meat hit the floor of the rookery with a splosh and it took only a moment until a fat, grey mouse darted toward the feast from underneath a shelf stocked with inkpots and parchment.

Stormclaw's ear tufts stood straight up, making the owl look resentful and angry, yet at the same time the bird seemed utterly baffled at the shameless theft. The glare of the big, yellow eyes followed the mouse as it dragged the spoils of the daring foray back to its hideout and lingered there, as if staring would make the mouse see the errors of its way and return the loot to its rightful owner.

The indignant hoot made Maester Jeon look up from his scroll and he couldn't help but chuckle about the owl's all too human behavior. "At once, my lord," he said, took another piece of meat from the bowl and held it under Stormclaw's beak until the bird took it.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, in dreams, she tries to remember what the lands looked like before darkness fell. Tries to imagine what she'll see when the shadows will be lifted.

Does the sun remember these canyons and valleys? Can light touch the grey cliffs, would the beams recoil from their sharp edges? It seems so impossible it could pierce the black veil, could burn away the stains of perpetual darkness, dread and death.

Yet there is always a radiance in those dreams. Two hazy shapes, an eternal flame cutting away the night and all of its terrors; a certainty that light will prevail.

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My lady,
I hope your journey has not been too unpleasant. The northern roads do not offer much comfort and their dreariness can wear even hardy northmen down. I sent instructions to prepare the best chambers for you, and I hope they find your approval even though you are probably used to better accomodations at The Twins. Do you get along with my parents? I let them know about our betrothal, but ravens are hard to come by on the road and I'm not sure the letter reached them before you did. If this was the case, please describe my mother's face in your letter. Her expression must have been hilarious when you were introduced as my lady all of a sudden.

My lord,
It pains me to disappoint you. Your letter reached Frostspear Hall almost two weeks before I did. Your family was well prepared and expected my arrival, therefore your mother's face was no source of amusement. However, your brother was upset that your last raven came from Oldtown, yet there was no word when he'd be sent to the Citadel on the scroll. He told me he read every book in the keep's solar in preparation and only calmed down when I said I had brought a few new books with me. Your parents thanked me for keeping him occupied by letting him read them, so I believe I made a good first impression. I also must say the dreariness of the North was overstated. The lack of gnats in the courtyard was a pleasant surprise. Your ancestors were smart to not build their keep by a river like mine.

My lady,
My brother is a brat. He probably didn't understand half of the books from the solar, or found them more dull than he would ever admit. Two years ago he wanted to be a ranger. He read books in secret and called the maester's lessons in reading a waste of his time. Ever since I told him he'd be sent to the Citadel when I become Lord of Frostspear Hall, he hasn't touched a spear or a bow. Instead, he has become insufferable with his constant bragging about how smart and well-read he is. It will be a year before I return and my father would rather see him go with the hunters or fishers until then. I assure you he won't be a bother once we're wed, but so long I fear you'll have to put up with his big mouth.

My lord,
I'm not bothered. I've grown up with more siblings than I can count and learned how to handle big-mouthed brats early on. I quizzed your brother on my books and dared him to show me what he learned from them. One is the tale of a boy determined to catch the largest fish in the world. Benjen has been trying to do just that for the past two weeks. Though the fish he brought back so far were not particularly large, your father is very pleased and I have my peace.

Chapter Text

Her blind eyes were fixed on a blank spot on the map she was making, an empty void between lines and dots of black ink. It wouldn't be filled in, wouldn't have drawn landmarks or symbols later, no hints for travelers which path to take and which to avoid. She had vague memories of the places that lay in the emptiness, recalled the way certain mountains, caverns and bends of the river had looked eons ago. But who knew what the shadows concealed so many lifetimes later? Mountains crumbled, caverns collapsed. River beds ate through brittle ground and water found new ways.

Once, long ago, as a young and too ambitious woman, she had been there, had seen the secrets of Stygai with her own eyes. And she had paid dearly for the sights of the valley, long abandoned by its builders and claimed by creatures too ancient, too unfathomable to bear any names.

She remembered the impressions of her daring journey, the overwhelming amazement and wonder she had felt when she wandered between the ancient ruins. Yet the memories of the marvels that had summoned these feelings were long lost in the unforgiving currents of time. It had seemed impossible she'd ever forget what she saw, but the City of the Night had its own ways of keeping its secrets.

When she returned to her small boat and let the Ash carry her back to the shores of Asshai, the vivid images already began fading away from her mind. The fog shrouding the memories became thicker and thicker and by the time she reached her destination, there was nothing left of them and the haze had also claimed her eyes. Stygai protected its mysteries, ensured she'd never see them again, never speak of them, never find her way back.

Chapter Text

 Lightning Lord

Chapter Text

"Life is like wine," Thoros insisted. "Sometimes it's sweet, sometimes it's sour, sometimes the cup is half-empty, sometimes it's half-full. Some days, you can't get enough of the flavors and it makes you merrier the more you indulge. And on other days, it tastes pungent and all you want to is stay in bed and only lean over on occassion to throw up in a bucket."

"Life is a gamble," Danyal corrected. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but most days you just place a few small bets to get by. If you're lucky your big bet pays out and you live like a king for a while, and if fortune doesn't remember your name you spend your days like a beggar instead. Politics, love and life in general, you need to know which risks are worth it, but in the end you're always just playing the odds."

"Life is a conquest," Loras said. "It's a constant battle against outside forces. Some challenges make you succeed and grow stronger, others show what skills you lack and throw you back in the dirt. Sometimes you know your foe's weakness, sometimes you can predict where he'll attack and face him with an advantage. Other times he takes you by surprise or outsmarts you and you suffer defeat. But no matter the outcome, if you don't get back in the saddle and keep on fighting, you're a dead man either way."

The three of them looked to Beric who had quietly listened and sipped his ale during their discussion. "What is your stance on the issue?" Thoros asked. "Which of us is right about life?"

"None of you is 'right'," Beric gave back, took another sip and appraisingly regarded his companions. "Nor is anyone 'wrong' either. Nobody can be 'right' or 'wrong' when you're all saying the same thing."

Chapter Text

The black walls were cold to the touch, and shimmered silvery in the light of the fire. Walking down the dimly lit, subterranean hallway felt exploring the hidden tunnels of a lost world. Above in the courtyard, the sun burned without mercy, down here the air was pleasantly cool, almost chilly. 

Beric turned around and handed Thoros the torch when they reached a large oak door, then unlocked it with a heavy key and pushed it open.

"How long have we known each other now?" Thoros asked before following Beric into the cellar. "Four years? Five? And in all this time, you never took me down here. I would have thought you knew me well enough long ago to show me these hidden treasures."

"Your reputation proceeds you," Beric gave back and stepped aside to let Thoros enter. "Trusting you with my life is one thing, but showing you the way to the wine cellar is an entirely different matter."


Chapter Text

"We've been riding all day. How can you not want any refreshment?" Beric looked down the hill to the idyllic lake, hidden in a grove of tall willow trees on the other side of the path, then back to their campsite. The early evening hadn't cooled the air down and the fire Danyal had lit to prepare supper only added to the oppressive heat.

"The sun is setting," Danyal firmly gave back. "Only a fool would go swimming at night." He poked the fire under the pot, then unwrapped some of the meat and vegetables they had bought before leaving the settlement a few hours ago. "I grew up on an island, you know?" He looked up and skeptically regarded his lord for a moment. "Where I come from, everyone knows that malevolent souls and creatures that fear the light lurk near dark waters."

Beric laughed and shook his head in disbelief at Danyal's apparently dead serious statement. "The Northerners say the Nightfort is haunted, yet when I roamed the ruins at night I didn't find the slightest trace of a ghost." He took off his sword belt and stored the weapon away in the tent, then went around the fire pit toward the path. "It's all just silly superstition, if you ask me."

"I know more than one man who ignored the warnings and never came back," Danyal replied. "Enough to be cautious and not take the risk."

"Suit yourself." Beric shrugged, took off his riding coat and threw it over a tree trunk by the fire. "If I'll find any mermaids, kraken or sea dragons, I'll let you know."


The water of the lake was as refreshing as it had looked from the top of the hill, so much that it felt a bit too cold by now. In the distance, the fire of the camp was roaring higher, suggesting the pot had been removed and the stew - or whatever Danyal was cooking - was ready, so Beric decided to end his swim. Though he had crossed the lake back and forth twice, he hadn't found a single mythical creature, not in the water and not on the banks. Amused by Danyal's superstitious caution, Beric left the lake and thought about making up some fantastical story, claim he barely got away from the grasp of a colossal kraken that tried pulling him down to the lake's frightening depth.

Once he had mossy ground under his feet, he went to get his clothes and the towel. He had put the stack all on a large boulder under a willow and weighted it down with a rock, but now neither was to be found on this spot; the boulder was empty. He looked around if there was a place that looked alike, maybe he had mistaken this tree for another. None of the other willows nearby had boulders this size by their roots and as darkness had fallen, it became hard to see. The wind felt colder now as well and wearing nothing but dripping wet smallclothes only made things worse. He'd need a torch if he wanted his misplaced clothes back, Beric decided. And though he dreaded the thought of going back to the campsite like this, the situation hardly left him a choice.


Danyal barely looked up from his bowl of stew when Beric approached the fire, shivering, arms wrapped around his torso and clenching his teeth. "I told you there are things you shouldn't provoke in the darkness," he nonchalantly noted when Beric reached him and hastily grabbed his riding coat from the trunk.

As soon as he had wrapped the coat around his shoulders, Beric paused and glared down to the trunk. Those were his boots, leaning against it, and his clothes and towel had been revealed under the coat. He quickly grabbed all of it and glowered at Danyal, struggling for words that would do justice to his anger. "Am I supposed to believe in your ghost stories now?" he got out between gritted teeth.

"I never said there are ghosts," Danyal calmly gave back and looked up with a smile. "But you'll take my next warning more seriously, now that you know what can happen."


Chapter Text

The three men stoically observed the dancing couples from their table under the ornate pavilion, only every once in a while one of them took a sip from his wine. The musicians on the stage had changed their tune twice since the competition had started. Now the melody of 'Flowers of Spring' had faded and 'Bessa the Barmaid' with its more spirited rhythm brought the dancefloor to life.

"Five pennies on Ser Loras," Ser Eldrion Thorncliffe said and threw the coins into the cup designated for wagers. "He's so drunk he can barely stand straight. Past events at the Arbor have taught me that the obvious pick always makes a safe bet in that regard."

"I'll match your bet," Ser Danyal replied, adding his coins to the cup. "However, my money is on his lady. If the festivals I attended in Lannisport are anything to go by, it's always the pretty girls who can't dance."

"Twenty on Lord Mallister, the young one," Thoros raised the stakes. "He's obviously drunk and his lady is pretty. What I learned from the tourneys in King's Landing is that a safe bet is never the right time to be cautious with money."

Ser Eldrion thoughtfully stroked his grey beard and regarded Thoros from the corner of his eye. "Good point," he then noted and threw another handful of pennies into the cup. "I've never witnessed how the Mallister lad handles wine, but I'm always willing to learn from experienced gamblers."

"Listening to him is a lesson you might want to skip." Danyal took a sip from his wine and covered the stack of pennies, seashells and other nick-nack with his free hand. "I wasn't there when he messed with the bets in Lannisport, but I heard about the mischief it caused and learned to not trust Red Priests when it comes to wagers."

Thoros was about to retort, but a sudden thud from the dancefloor made him pause and stare in surprise, just like his two companions. Near the stage, Dickon Tarly, neither drunk nor dancing with an especially fair lady, had tripped over a low planter and fallen into an arrangement of wildflowers. "And what do we learn?" Thoros leaned back in his chair with a sigh and began counting the remaining coins and seashells in his bowl. "We played it too safe. Sometimes it pays out to place faith in the underdog."

Chapter Text

Earlier in the afternoon, Ser Lukys Paeron had bought one round after another for every man on his table, wine, cider or ale, whichever they preferred. And when their thirst was quenched for the moment, he had moved on to the next table and done the same there. Those who had been drunk before Ser Lykus' generous tour began had missed the speech he gave as explanation for his high spirits, others still remembered the reason for the spontanous celebration. Ser Lukys' wife, Lady Teressa, had sent a raven to let him know about the birth of their his first son.

"About time after four daughters!" Ser Lukys had cheerfully proclaimed and toasted to the group whenever he finished his short introduction at a new table. "Tara is sixteen now, and I made a very good match for her two years ago. Alyenne will be thirteen soon and she'll be a septa. Always practices her songs, praising the Seven, and I tell you that girl has a heavenly voice. The twins, Marina and Lauryn, are eight and both actually kept begging for a little brother since they learned to speak. We'll have a big celebration once I return home! Now all I have to do is win the joust to afford it!"

His eyes had been grey and frozen when a squire removed Ser Lukys' helmet after the fall and they had still stared to the list when the body was carried away. Some said he was too drunk with wine or with joy, others said his opponent simply got lucky in the third tilt. It wouldn't matter who was right in the end. Tomorrow, Lady Teressa would receive a raven and the only line of importance in the letter it brought would tell her that her husband was dead.

Chapter Text

The fish market. The street of bakers, the street of fishers and the street of smiths.

In Myr, markets and bakers, fishers and smiths could be found on many corners all over the city. The rich and highborn opened shops and built squares wherever they saw fit - and the Conclave allowed it. There were entire streets owned by certain nobles who selected their tenants by occupation, gathered the stores that were most convenient to them near their estates.

But it wasn't only the layout that struck Thoros as strange when he arrived in King's Landing. The singular nature extended beyond the location of stores. One tongue. One faith. One culture. One bloodline. One king. In Myr, the magisters were selected by the wealthy elite, there was no single man ruling all others without any dispute. Good relations with a magister were as important to nobles as money or land, as each of them held considerable power and could sway decisions in favor of his friends. Though R'hllor was the one true god, or so the elders in the temple said, but worship of other deities was not discouraged in Myr. There were temples, albeit smaller ones, dedicated to them, each designed in the unique way of the faith it represented. In Westeros, all septs looked alike, seven walls housing the same seven gods.

And there was one mission Thoros had, one reason for the journey to this strange, distant place. 'Convert the king,' the High Priest had ordered, without saying how one man was supposed to break the conformity of thousands of years.

Thoros had quickly learned that his mission was hopeless, a convenient way to dispose of a hopeless priest. But there was a silver lining on the foreign horizon. If nothing else, King's Landing offered variety in wines.

Chapter Text

"Do you think I'm too lenient with him?" Beric regarded Thoros over the edge of his mug, after shooting a telltale glance to one of the other tables. The card game had been going on for close to three hours, and Danyal didn't look like he'd fold any time soon. He was laughing and drinking, and occasionally Beric heard him raise the stakes. "It's one thing to make a few bets during tourneys, but a knight shouldn't gamble away nights in taverns. Maybe I should have a word with him about such behavior."

Thoros raised his eyebrows and emptied his mug, then reached for the jug to refill it. "Maybe you aren't lentient enough," he gave back. "I'm neither a lord nor a knight nor do I care much about 'proper' behavior, but if I was in your shoes I'd just keep my mouth shut. He isn't hurting anyone and from what I've seen he's quite a good player. It's his money, not yours and..."

"It isn't proper for a knight," Beric cut him off. "He's sworn to me, he fights under my banner. How he presents himself in public also affects my reputation." He took a sip from his ale and glared over his shoulder when he heard Danyal match another man's wager. "He saved my life, but that debt is long paid. Now I expect him to..."

"And that might be why you keep clashing with him," Thoros interrupted him in return. "Your ideals of knighthood aren't his and you had every reason to expect that would be the case when you took his oath. Many knights play card or dice games in taverns. It's hardly a crime and it certainly won't stain your reputation if you overlook it."

Beric sighed and sloshed the ale in his mug. "How many things am I supposed to overlook then? His big mouth that almost got us into several fights? His bragging about bedding a new lass in every village we visit? His drinking, his gambling? Where does it end? He's not going to show me respect if I keep turning a blind eye to..."

This time it wasn't Thoros who interrupted, it was Danyal rushing toward the door, following one of the men he had played with, that made Beric pause. With an annoyed sigh, but without hesitation, both he and Thoros got up. "Maybe you should address his habit of starting trouble though," Thoros admitted when they hurried to the door.

As soon as they stepped outside into the dark alley and saw what transpired on the opposite, they froze. Danyal had caught up to his fellow gambler and now had the man restrained, holding a knife to his throat. Before Beric recovered from his shock and reacted, the man, whimpering and begging to let him go, dropped a small, black object into Danyal's hand and ran off into the darkness the moment Danyal released him.

"Have you lost your mind?" Beric tried storming toward him, anger and disbelief fighting in his tone for domination, and was only held back by Thoros quickly grabbing his arm.

"I have not, my lord," Danyal calmly replied, sheathed the dagger and turned around with a blithe smile. "But you..."

"No, not me," Beric shouted across the alley and tried to free himself from Thoros' grip. "You, we're going to talk about you and your constant misbehavior. I know, you don't care much about my orders, but you can't possibly believe I'll let it slide if you rob men in dark alleys!"

Danyal, still smiling, wandered over and slightly shook his head. "Of course not, my lord," he gave back, tossing the black thing in his hand in the air and nonchalantly caught it without looking. "I wouldn't dream of committing such crimes, those days are long past me. And I care about your orders. In fact, I just followed one since you told me to take petty quarrels outside and not start fights inside taverns." Beric just stared at him, the disbelief had won his inner struggle, but before he could voice it, Danyal tossed the black object at him. Too baffled by what he had just heard, Beric didn't react quickly enough to catch it, bounced off his chest and gave Thoros the time to catch it instead.

"That's your purse," Thoros noted after inspecting what he had caught. "And it's empty."

"You didn't miss it at all, did you, my lord?" Danyal laughed and felt around in his pockets. "Didn't notice that cutpurse took it from your coat an hour ago, after losing his last coin on a particularly bad hand?" He came closer and reached for Beric's wrist with one hand to force his angered lord's fist open. "I noticed. And I didn't start any trouble or fights, I calmly kept playing." Coins rattled as they fell onto Beric's palm and Danyal snickered at the stunned look on his face. "Won every penny back," he added. "But the bastard wouldn't give the purse back when it was empty, and I felt he desperately needed a lesson in proper behavior."

Chapter Text

"There you are." Leiff entered the kitchen, sniffing the air and glancing over the counters on the way to Kareena. "I've been looking for you. My mother asked if we want the large wardrobe from father's room for our chambers and..." He paused and inspected a pan with several pieces of cod sizzling in it, then skeptically eyed the pot next to it. "What in the world are you doing here?" he asked in bewilderment when he looked back up to Kareena.

"Cooking," Kareena gave back with a shrug. "Don't tell me it isn't 'proper' for a lady to work in the kitchen. I've seen your mother help the servants and she's a lady, too." She emptied a cup of red wine into the pot and stirred it into the simmering sauce. "You try out recipes all the time yourself and..."

"I'm not saying it isn't 'proper'," Leiff replied, still starring into the pot with wide eyes. "I don't care about breaking such taboos. If my lady wants to cook, I won't stand in her way." He looked up to her while decidedly pulling the pot away from the fire. "But you just can't combine fish with red wine, ever."

Chapter Text

After careful research and many travels, these are my findings regarding the claims of the most 'cursed' place in the realms. While it is not a subject many of my peers find worth their time or attention, I felt a need to rectify certain points of misinformation, if only as guideline for travelers to the pertaining area.

The Nightfort, located five days north of Queenscrown, has been named by many as a location where apparitions were sighted throughout its long, troubled history. However, after camping for three nights in the ruins I cannot confirm that these legends are true. Admittedly, the remains of the castle seem eerie, but the reasons for this can be found in fiction more than any facts. It is my belief that the Nightfort's horrors can be attributed to the folk tales so commonly told in the North. Northern children listen to these tales of caution from early age on, instilling a deep-rooted fear of unknown dangers lingering in the Nightfort's shadows. (I recommend reading Maester Ottum's acclaimed 'Myths of the North", which details many of the legends kept alive in song and story, should you seek further information on this subject.) Yet only few Northmen ever visit the Nightfort throughout their lives, leading to their acceptance of their childhood beliefs as the truth without ever verifying what they fear truly exists.

I have conducted experiments in each night of my stay, and can therefore belie many of the myths growing through those 'haunted' ruins:

Night 1: Set out several pies prepared with different cuts of meat in the remains of the Great Hall. The fabled 'Rat Cook' has not appeared, instead the pies were eaten within the first hour by common rats. There certainly is an infestation of such vermin, yet there is nothing supernatural about this pest.

Night 2: Placed remaining meat in a bucket outside the former kennels. All through the night, no 'hellhound' nor any other canine took the bait. In the early hours of morning I spotted a snow fox lurking about, yet the animal retreated into the thicket after sensing my presence. The meat was finally claimed by a small flock of crows, common in nature and not ghostly at all.

Night 3: Heavy rain prevented my foray beyond the Wall where I intended to locate the 'seventy-nine sentinels'. Instead, I wandered the better-preserved hallways in search of the apparition called 'Mad Axe'. Though I had borrowed attire from the Night's Watch in preparation, no axe-wielding ghost chased me that night. I found traces of blood, but they were not dripping from the beard of a legend. I found them in my boots, since my long excursion and the cold, damp weather gave me blisters.

Though it may be disappointing for more daring travelers, I can only conclude that there is nothing dreadful in those ruins and the Nightfort is not haunted at all. Maybe, and hopefully, the continuation of my studies of 'curses' will be more fruitful at Harrenhal.

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'Lys the Lovely', that's what citizens called their city, but love or beauty was not what the wispy man in the deep red and purple robes sought. No, Lys held other, less obvious secrets and they were not on display for the entertainment of nobles and their distinguished guests.

He had left the lavish harbor behind, had swiftly walked through the wide streets of the inner city, without paying attention to the luxuriant villas the magisters wanted visitors to see. The merchants' galleys with their blue-striped hulls didn't carry the cargo he had come to acquire, nor did the bazaars near the docks offer such exclusive wares. Courtesans and bedslaves tempted with smiles and bare skin on the balconies and terraces of bedhouses, but they held no appeal, not today.

His path led past the markets and trade districts, away from the busy streets and waterfront stores, to the parts of the city that were all but lovely. In these alleys the scent of Lysene perfume did not linger, the air was filled with the stench of rotting fish, seagull shit and despair. Not every slave bred in Lys possessed the fabled beauty, not every merchant was honorable and successful in his pursuits. Here in the outskirts, far from the bustling heart of the city, Lys the Lovely hid its unloved sons and daughters.

The hut he entered was barely held together by driftwood and ropes. Boarded up windows kept out the afternoon sun, only a few beams shone through the cracks and the holes of a tattered curtain that served as a door.

"Is it still for sale?" he addressed the old man cowering on a rickety chair behind a makeshift counter. "Don't tell me you changed your mind and I traveled the long way for nought."

The old man wordlessly reached under his counter and produced a small velvet bag, pale blue in color like his customer's lips, and calmly opened it, ignoring the impatient glare. An elongated crystal emerged and slid onto the counter, then it just lay there, dull and black.

"It is depleted." The customer's voice betrayed annoyance and indignation, he crossed his arms and paced a few steps up and down. "Your message didn't say so."

"You want it or not?" The old man, seemingly already bored with the brief exchange, barely looked up when his visitor finally stopped in front him.

Coins rattled as they fell onto the counter, a pale hand took the crystal, and a moment later the old man was alone again in his store.

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"The guards apprehended them on the banks of the Blackwater." Lord Tarly stopped in front of the metal bars of a dimly lit cell. "Not the harbor, they took their boat further down the river. Somehow slipped by unnoticed and made it past the fish market. They were caught unloading their cargo by the tourney grounds, at the dock of a boathouse currently under repair." He stepped aside and let the light of the torch illuminate the cell and its three occupants.

For a moment, Stannis appraisingly regarded the three boys cowering in a corner. Only one of them was old enough to grow a stubble, all three were skinny, their faces gaunt and the rags they wore were covered in dirt. "What was their cargo?" Stannis finally turned to Lord Tarly.

"Hides," Randyll Tarly plainly replied. "And a crate with tools used by tanners. Said they salvaged it near the mouth of the Wendwater, from the wreck of a small boat they found adrift." He paused and waited for further questions, but none came. "There were two men with them by the boathouse," Tarly added. "They ran when they saw the guards, but they dropped what I believe was brought as payment for the smuggled goods." He pointed to a sack leaning against the wall across from the cell door. Stannis still didn't comment, but he nodded to Ser Davos who came closer and opened the sack.

"Five loaves of bread, some dried mutton, and rope commonly used in the construction of ships," he said after inspecting the contents. "Doesn't quite tally up to the value of hides and good tools, but it wouldn't surprise me if those lads had accepted the offer."

"Not only criminals, but also dimwitted," Lord Tarly noted as he watched Ser Davos put the items back into the sack. "Why even bother and evade taxes if they trade their loot for something of lesser value in the end?" He sighed with annoyance and turned back to Stannis. "What shall be done with them? Hand them over to the Wandering Crow on his next visit? I need those cells, I can't keep every petty thief down here forever."

Stannis didn't grace him with his attention or an answer. Instead he regarded the three boys in their cell for a moment before turning to leave the Red Keep's dungeons. "Send them to the Wall," he scoffed and shook his head in disbelief as he stopped by the stairs. "For trying to trade salvaged hides for a few loaves of bread." He looked over to Lord Tarly as if he tried to figure out if the man was serious about the suggestion, though it wasn't necessary, Stannis knew that he was. "Davos, what made these boys try to trade their loot for goods of lesser value? Is it a criminal mind lacking wit?"

"Hunger, my lord," Davos promptly replied. "I can't speak to their wits, but hides make worse meals than mutton or bread."

Stannis went two steps back into the hallway, toward Lord Tarly. "The Wall has no use for starving children," he said. "Sentence them to labor for two or three months. Have them repair the boathouse, have them catch rats in the warehouses by the harbor." Tarly was about to interject, but he just closed his mouth without saying a word when Stannis continued. "Harsh punishment won't make these boys honest. They can't withhold taxes because they don't have any money. Put them to work. If they do a good job someone might hire them. That's what will keep them out of your cells."

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The opulent chambers lay in darkness at this late hour. No candles, no braziers, no flames in the hearth, just the flickering torch from the hallway cast its dim light through the door. Though he had opened it without announcing his presence, Stannis knocked, once, twice, but received no answer before he made a step into the room. His eyes tried to find a focus, a shape, a silhouette in the dark, and finally rested on the vague outline of the desk and armchairs, stark black against the nightly sky outside the window.

"I should have tried harder," he said, a whisper into the silence. "Past grievances shouldn't have gotten the better of me, I know that. I should have apologized and we could have put these things behind us once and for all." He took a deep breath and his gaze wandered up to the ceiling, then suddenly jumped to the black outline of the bed. "But it is not my fault alone," he continued, his voice harsher now, the words more firm. "Things didn't just happen to turn out this way by pure chance, it was also your doing. The defiance and high spirits of youth are no excuse, and we've been more patient with you than other men would have been in our place!" He sighed and his gaze drifted back to the window, then he continued in a pensive, more amicable tone. "I wish you could have seen things my way, just for one moment. If you had buried your petty grudges, Robert would have done the same without hesitation."

For one heartbeat there was silence, then anger flared up again. "But you were never the forgiving kind, were you?" Stannis turned on his heel, let the door slam shut and walked away. From the empty room, from his absent brother, from the third side of the story lingering untold in the dead of the night.

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If there was one thing out of reach even for a king, it was the power of making people just shut the fuck up. Your Grace this, Your Grace that, always another terrible crisis in need of immediate attention, one more request that absolutely had to be heard. Even when the crown came off at night and the mask attached to it fell there was no peace and quiet. No doors could lock a man away from a throne he despised, from the shackles of Seven Kingdoms. A king was never alone, always haunted by disquiet ghosts of the past.

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"Is it really closed?" Beric sat down on the edge of his bed and shot a leery glance to the door. "Nobody needs to hear this and I don't want the servants to barge in when I bring up private matters."

Thoros shrugged and rattled the doorknob, though he was certain the door had been properly closed. "Everyone looked busy with the preparations for the festival in the yard," he gave back. "Haven't seen anyone follow us up the stairs, except..."

Beric's eyes wandered to the window and immediately saw what Thoros had meant. Stormclaw sat on the sill, a toy made of leather and fur in its beak, and stared back at its master with big, round eyes. Beric sighed with annoyance and got up. "Not now," he said, went the few steps to the window and took the toy after Stormclaw had dropped it on the sill. He threw it outside, the toy landed somewhere near the well in the kitchen's backyard and the owl followed it in an instant. "I especially don't want Anguy or Danyal to know I said this," Beric turned back to Thoros. "I'd never hear the end of their teasing if they..." He paused when he heard the flapping of wings behind him and sighed again instead of finishing the sentence.

"It's an owl," Thoros stated the obvious. "It won't tell Anguy or Danyal a thing." He chuckled when Beric just glared at him, went to the window and threw the recovered toy back to the yard.

"I know it's an owl." Beric returned to his spot on the bed. "But it looks at me like it understands our language. I'd rather not discuss things of a delicate nature when it sits there and judges every word I say. It is..." He broke off and glared at the window, Stormclaw had brought back the toy once again.

Thoros snickered, took the toy, but this time he didn't throw it. "I understand you're anxious, but even if it understands what we say, there's nothing an owl can do about it." Stormclaw waddled up and down on the sill, its eyes fixed on the toy in Thoros' hand. "Though I'm the wrong guy to ask," Thoros continued, carefully watching the impatient bird. "I'm not a cook, I never prepared an owl roast, I can't tell you what herbs..." He laughed out loud when the owl pricked its tufts and quickly took off, suddenly having lost all interest in the toy.

"I knew it!" Beric jumped up from the bed and rushed to the window, frantically looked around for the feathered spy, then quickly closed the shutters. "I just hope it can't read as well, otherwise we might be in trouble." He slunk back to the bed, sat down and looked up to Thoros. "Stormclaw has free roam in the rookery and has seen every scroll, every letter in Maester Jeon's archives. Maybe we should roast the beast before it sells all our secrets to Dorne."

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The Queen of Cities wears many perfumes, more varied than the perpetual sickly sweet stench of Lys. Fragrances linger wherever one wanders in Qarth, a wealth of vibrant impressions, unseen by the eye.

Saffron, cinnamon and sage wafts through the streets of the spicers, a different aroma emerges from every store, every house.

Strange fruits and flowers claim the air in the Garden of Gehane, the fragrance is never the same, yet always pleasant. Some men claim they can tell in which way the weather will change by the garden's most dominant scent on a given day.

The Warlock's Way carries odors mortal men would only recognize from feverish dreams. The distinctive flavor that attracts spirits to untarnished souls, the pungent smell of demon's blood when it is mixed with the tears of the wronged.

The port and the waterfront are more mundane in that regard. Sweat of workers, salt from the sea, the breath of drunk sailors.

Yet in all this wealth and variety, there is one smell Qarth has forgotten.

Sometimes, when he walks out of the Palace of Dust onto the dry, barren plane, he wonders if anyone else in this city remembers the scent of rain.

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"Where is it? I know it must be somewhere here in your chambers!" Jalabhar grabbed the cushions from Thoros' sofa and threw them onto the bed, then meticulously searched the seat where they had been. When Thoros just watched him with a puzzled expression, Jalabhar paused in his efforts and turned around. "Why are you just standing there? Help me find it!" He resumed his search though Thoros didn't answer, then stopped dead in his tracks and pushed the sofa away. "Maybe it slipped under the carpets," he mumbled and that finally made Thoros interfere.

"You're not going to rip out my carpets!" He darted to the sofa and tried to hold it in place. "Maybe you took it off and added it to the wager. You were drunk, we all were, who knows? Maybe Robert has it! You should ask him before you turn my chambers upside down!"

"I didn't take it off, I never do." Jalabhar glared at him and tried to push Thoros away, along with the sofa. "I wouldn't gamble my signet ring away! You think I kept it for its value when I went into exile? I had enough gemstones in my pockets to last me a lifetime. This ring is more valuable, my only proof that I truly am who I say I am." Again, he leaned against the sofa to move it and again Thoros held it in place. "Any fool could claim he's the rightful Prince of the Red Flower Vale, but only I have the ring passed down in the royal bloodline."

"Interesting, I didn't know that." Thoros nonchalantly stepped away from the sofa and the sudden lack of resistance toppled it over, along with Jalabhar Xho.

Cursing, he got back up to his feet and skeptically regarded Thoros, strolling toward the door. "Where are you going? You have to help me find the damned ring!"

"I can't, not now." Thoros smiled and pushed the door to the hallway open. "I must speak to the king immediately." He rummaged around in his pocket, then produced a golden ring with rubies and diamonds. "After my luck with the dice last night, I just have a feeling Robert will finally listen and grant me the men I need to take back my seat."

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"Mole's Town?" Danyal regarded Beric with incredulous eyes. "How is that the worst inn you've ever seen? I thought you were sober on Blacktyde. Don't you remember the dump we stayed in?"

"I was sober," Beric gave back. "And I didn't mind the meager accomodations on Blacktyde. The beds were simple, but I found them comfortable enough. The hearth, the armchairs..."

"Right, your room was the one without broken windows," Danyal interjected. "Francis and I got the one where the wind blew through the cracks."

"I wouldn't mind that either." Beric shrugged and took a sip from the mulled wine. "As long as there are windows, broken or not, I'm not complaining. What bothered me in Mole's Town was the lack of them. The worst inn was the one I've seen in the tunnels. I didn't stay there, I spent the night in a cheaper room overground."

Danyal poured the rest of the wine into their cups and put the empty jug away behind him. "But why?" he asked, clearly puzzled. "It must be incredibly cold that close to the Wall. Isn't it much warmer in the caverns than above ground?"

"It is," Beric confirmed. "But the cold doesn't remind me of..." He paused and cleared his throat. "When I was very young a mine shaft collapsed near Blackhaven. It took almost two weeks to dig through to the trapped men. Only three out of twelve survived, most died from injuries or suffocated before they were found. That's all I could think about for months after it happened. Being trapped underground without light, without air, alone in the dark." He drank from his wine and pulled his cloak tighter together. "I know, it's unlikley Mole's Town will collapse. But still, those memories are too haunting. I just couldn't stay there."

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"Rugard, 'and me the other candle." Yesha wildly gestured from the corner of the tavern to the men on the barstools. "I need more wax if want to fix this." She kneaded the warm wax between her fingers, then tried to apply it to the propped up bones in the box. The small skull fell off again the moment her fingers let go, leaving the seal spine headless, just like before. Only when she cursed louder, the taciturn man rose from his seat, grabbed the candle holder from the counter and brought it to her without saying a word.

"Nobody's paying to see yer 'mermaid', 'ead or not," another man grunted. "You've 'ad the damn thing since Lord Marsh's second tourney. By now everyone from 'ere to Dorne knows it's a fraud."

"Odran's right," the potbellied man next to him agreed. "Ye need a new exhibit, something real." He took a few sips from his mug and turned around to Yesha. "If ye're interested, I got somethin' I'd part with for a small sum. Largest eel a man ever pulled out of the ocean. I can mount it for ye, make it look really impressive."

Yesha shot him a dismissive glance and went back to her work, adding more wax and a prayer to the seal bones. "Shut yer trap, Toalon, I don't need yer rubbish," she mumbled, then cursed when the skull dropped once more.

"Rubbish?" Toalon huffed with indignation. "Fine, 'ow 'bout the tusk of a walrus? Caught it with me bare 'ands north of Orkmont, and I tell ye that beast was enormous! Swallowed a ship boy whole just before I got close enough to kill it!"

"So ye're saying it's the largest walrus tusk the world 'as ever seen?" Yesha slammed the candle holder onto a table and went back to the counter. "Large enough to pass as the tooth of a leviathan?"

Toalon proudly nodded and downed the rest of his beer. "It's so 'uge ye could carve a scrimshaw great sword from it!"

Yesha grabbed a bottle from the upper shelf and put down in front of her patron. "Ye're 'ired," she dryly explained. "Beer's on the 'ouse for ye from now on. Just sit 'ere and spin yer yarn when the visitors come for the tourney. Got the largest thing ever found in the oceans that way, I'm pretty certain it's yer mouth."

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'It must be a palace,' they thought when they were brought to the sprawling estate's courtyard. Who, if not a king or queen, could afford such splendor? Tall statues guarded the steps to the terraces, in the stables near the gate no less than six elephants could be seen. Maybe it had been a blessing in disguise when the ship had been shattered on the Orange Shore by the Rhoyne. Being fished out of the water by slavers had opened the gates to Volantis, and the woman who had purchased the group sure looked like a queen. A servant's life in her palace would be more pleasant than starving at home, wouldn't it?

The woman, accompanied by a man dressed in fine robes, stopped by the wagon and had the cage opened. "Here," she told her companion, touching a young girl's face with one finger, right under the right eye.

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"What in the world are you doing?" Beric stared at Leiff, utter bewilderment in his eyes as he watched his squire's bizarre behavior.

Moments ago, Leiff had announced that the stew was almost ready. He had arranged the bowls already, but only filled one of them with food so far. Now he had poured the content out, spread it all over a flat stone and poked around in it with a spoon.

"Did you lose a hidden treasure in the stew?" Thoros carefully inquired, equally puzzled by what he saw.

"I did," Leiff gave back without interrupting his dissection. "I ran out of spices, so I used the seasoning sample a merchant gave me for free a few weeks ago. He said it's 'mixed herbs from the region' and that it goes well with white mushrooms. I didn't think it was anything special, but whatever it was now tastes amazing. I need to find out what it was before we eat all of it. I can't let the mystery of this secret ingredient go unsolved."

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He had last seen Robert a few days ago in the Great Hall, slouching on the throne he so despised, listening to requests he found petty. With unconcealed boredom His Grace had granted or denied them, almost at random, barely listening to the counsel of his advisers. This was not the man he had raised, Jon Arryn thought. This was a shadow of him, a caricature of the potential his younger years had promised a lifetime ago. All that was left of the proud warrior was his strength, and he used it to cling to fleeting diversions. Beneath the boasts and the crown, there was nothing more than hopes and dreams reality had left irreparably broken.

He hadn't seen Renly in recent months, not since he had left King's Landing. And as strange as the realization had been then, it still held true. Knowing his destination was Highgarden, not Storm's End, had made his departure seem natural, almost long expected. Not for a moment had it felt as if the king's brother was leaving. It had felt like a lost son finding the way home. In a way, Jon Arryn thought, Renly had always been a rose by any other name House Baratheon had only borrowed.

Stannis sat across from him now, skimming over notes of the last council session, occasionally looking up when he reached for his ale. He never complained, didn't let his personal feelings get in the way of his work. He picked up the duties others neglected. He voiced reason when emotions boiled over in the council chambers. He patiently tried to reconcile his quarreling brothers, however futile the task. Most days Stannis seemed happy with this arrangement, as much a man said to never smile could anyway. But even though he rarely betrayed any emotions, sometimes Jon Arryn couldn't help thinking he saw something blue.

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The masked woman hadn't said a word since he had stepped to her table, though the bright smaragd eyes followed his hands as he picked up and inspected the wares. Stingers of maticores, robes made from the coats of zorses, pointed skulls with carved symbols, fangs of tigers from Leng and incense from Yi Ti. As valuable as these things were, none of it had lured him the long way from Qarth to the Eastern Market of Vaes Dothrak.

He held the gaze of the merchant woman as he opened his palm, drew a line and three circles on it, then the shape of a glyph in the air, right where their eyes met. The symbol glowed brightly just for a brief moment, then it faded as if the radiance merged with the dazzling light of the sun.

She didn't nod, she didn't speak, instead she answered with a sequence of fleeting glyphs of her own. A virulent pink swirl, followed by sharper, green lines, two dots void of color, and a rarely used yet unambiguous symbol of death.

Without hesitation he traced the last glyph as his answer. Just like before, the lines didn't glow, they seemed to cut through the day's brightness, became visible only as a brief absence of light. Many men may have fled upon such forboding sights, but all he felt was vindication. The rumors his peers had dismissed as foolish were true, the whispers from dark taverns and alleys hadn't led him astray on a futile journey.

Though the masked merchant didn't react to his confirmation, her green eyes now betrayed sadness and fear. She knew, he realized. She had wished for it to be nothing but misguided superstition, and she feared the confirmation as much as his haughty colleagues. But unlike them she didn't turn away from the truth he had shown her, didn't closed her eyes from the terror looming ahead.

His finger drew a pale yellow half-circle in the air, hoping she would follow, would help find the answers he sought. But this time her reply was not a drawn symbol. This time she shook her head and lowered her gaze in resignation. There was no point in asking again, her answer had been final and no spell in the world would change her mind. In silent acceptance he took a manticore stinger, dropped some coins on the table and left.

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"Where did you get that spear?" Satal stopped on the terrace outside the orangery, keeping her distance from Loras further down on the stairs. "And who are you trying to challenge with it?"

Loras didn't look up, he kept searching the ground and nearby stairs for his invisible foe. "From the gallery," he gave back. "My own weapons are upstairs, the beast might have escaped if I went to get them."

Now Satal came a few steps closer and peered over the wall to the lower terraces. "What foe warrants the use of my grandfather's weapon?" she asked, slightly puzzled. "Unless you have declared war against agaves or lemon trees..."

Loras sighed resignedly and glared to the shrubs in the long, wide flower beds lining the terrace. "It's huge." He gestured with his free arm and the spear to describe the size better. "And it appears to be armored. When I first saw it in the orangery I threw a flower pot to chase it away from the tree it was eating. The pot just shattered on the creature's back and didn't faze it all."

Satal laughed and went down the few stairs, then took the spear from Loras' hand. "You're right, it's a beast, but there's no need to slay it," she said, still amused. "It's Ser Nymerian, my mother's pet armadillo. Yes, on occasion he gets cheeky and tries to eat the orange trees, but that's a small price for him keeping the snakes out of the gardens."

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Beric and Anguy trying to rescue Stormclaw from the well, by Ella (no AO3 account)


Stormclaw by KtrenalWinterheart


Sigil of House Rainborn, by me


Blackhaven, by Ella


Lady Jiara Fowler and Kyrion Sand, by Ella


Beric and Stormclaw, by Ella

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Pesky creatures. Did they even use these shell-shaped outgrowths on their heads for listening, as they often claimed? Probably not. If they ever listened they'd have known how unacceptable this floppy, chewy meat was. How dare they serve their lord such an inferior supper? Even the lesser lordlings in the dungeons were served something better than this!

The piece of rabbit meat hit the rookery's floor with a soft splosh, followed by a reproachful hoot from the backrest of Maester Jeon's chair.

No reaction. The servant with the fox-colored fur kept moving a long feather above a piece of parchment, staining it with strange, linear patterns in black. The Lord of Blackhaven hooted again, louder this time, more affronted, yet still nothing happened. What did a noble have to do around here to get the smallfolk's attention? Another hoot went ignored and the lord's large, yellow eyes returned to the dismissed supper on the floor. Maybe it was more juicy and tender than it looked at first glance. Yes, on second thought it actually seemed quite appealing...

With a few elegant flaps the lord descended from his elevated position, picked up the piece of rabbit and gave it a try.

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It was maddening, no, absolutely infuriating, that not a single soul in the Red Keep had made as much as a whispered remark. This was the sixteenth lordling or shopkeeper making his plea without even acknowledging the utter insanity occupying the throne. They all acted as if it was perfectly normal that King Robert I. Baratheon wore the red and black robes bearing the dragon of the dynasty his rebellion had ended. Not even the red-golden crown with the ruby-eyed dragon, the very crown that had adorned the skull of the Mad King, enticed a reaction. Had these people forgotten the tyrant they had been freed from? Didn't his regalia spark any suspicion or fear of another king going mad? Was it too much to hope for a tiny bit of outrage, a little excitement on such a dull day?

"Your Grace, Borys, a baker seeking permission to..."

The introduction of the next man who stepped forward was interrupted by King Robert raising from his throne.

"I don't care what he's seeking!" he thundered. "I want to know what he's thinking about his king's new attire!" He glared at the confused baker in front of the dais. "Tell me, Boyrs The Baker, do you like the new robes? Do you think this crown suits me better than the old one?"

"I do not like any of it, Your Grace." The old man's voice was firmer and louder than the king had expected. "My sons and I fought under the banner of House Baratheon in the Rebellion. We cheered when stags replaced those damned dragons and I prayed to the Gods that I would never see them again."

Breathless silence filled the Great Hall and concerned looks were exchanged, the Kingsguards' hands rested on the hilts of their swords and several people who had been waiting to be heard now nervously glanced to the gates.

The red-golden crown's clank on the floor broke the silence, followed by the king's roaring laughter echoing through the hall. "Permission granted, whatever the request was," he got out, then suddenly turned around to his squire. "Why are you standing there? Fetch my real robes! A king needs to look presentable, yet it's a baker who speaks up while my squire can't get a word out!" He descended the steps and leaned closer to Borys. "And now we go for a drink in my favorite tavern."

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"How come you all have more stones if each of us won roughly the same number of hands?" Beric lowered the cards, making sure they were covered, and counted the pebbles serving as wagers again. "The rules seemed simple enough when you explained the game, but something doesn't add up with the distribution of winnings."

"We won hands with higher stakes," Thoros gave back without looking up from studying his cards.

"And lost the ones when fewer pebbles were in the pot," Danyal added. "You understood the rules, but we can't explain strategies or tell you when to take risks."

Anguy threw three of his stones into the bowl in the middle, then leaned back against a hay bale with a smug smile. "It's about bluffing, not letting the opponents know what you think," he said. "It shouldn't be obvious how good or bad your hand is from the amount you are betting."

Beric picked up his cards and thoughtfully stared at them for a moment, his free hand hovering over the last two pebbles he had. "But if none of my hands is 'good' I'd run out of wagers much sooner if I bet any higher. In the rounds I won I barely made back what I lost before. If you all take higher risks why doesn't that happen to you?"

"Bad luck?" Danyal reached for his mug of ale, but before he touched it Beric grabbed his wrist.

"Or bad eyesight," he noted as he pulled a card out of Danyal's sleeve. "If you're hiding the cards that make for 'good' hands it's no surprise they are never dealt to me."

"That's one card!" Danyal huffed and put it back on the stack. "That's hardly the reason why you don't draw better hands."

"You're right." Beric dropped his cards and leaned over to Anguy, grabbed his arm and inspected the sleeve. "It's actually the first King I've seen all evening and I know a deck has four of them... And here's another." He pulled the card out of Anguy's sleeve, then his glare wandered to Thoros. "I wonder where the two others might be..." Before he had finished the question, Thoros sighed and shook his sleeve over the bowl with the wagers, letting the two missing Kings and a Dragon tumble out.

"See, that is why I don't gamble." Beric pulled the bowl closer uncontested, claiming the wagers of the last round. "And neither should you. You're not very good at it if your 'best strategy' doesn't even include some coordination to disguise your blatant cheating from beginners."

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The day of reckoning had finally come, the lord could feel it in the tips of his feathers. Today he would reclaim his rightful position, chase the red-furred imposter and his court out of the Great Hall. So far, everything had gone according to plan. The villain had entered the rookery, suspecting nothing, and ordered the silver-furred servant to open the dungeons. He had brought his pup though, and that was somewhat inconvenient. Somehow, the enemy's offspring managed to distract the lord from his long overdue vengeance, with tasty pieces of meat and excursions to the marshes. But not this time! Today, the true Lord of Blackhaven would triumph. Once victory was claimed he'd leave this lofty prison whenever he wanted, he'd no longer depend on the red-furred pup's whims.

There! The silver-furred servant had opened the dungeons! No bars were between the lesser lords and their insolent captor! The lord hooted, giving the signal to start the uprising, but no such thing happened. Lord Duskwind stepped onto the imposter's thick leather glove without protest, took the offered meat and attempted no escape. Maybe his brothers in arms hadn't heard the first signal. The lord hooted again and still, there was no reaction.

"I'll take Stormclaw with us," Beric said to his father. "Last time we've been to the Widow's Streams we almost caught a small beaver. Maybe today we'll have better luck and work our way up to almost catching a squirrel."

Lord Ossyn chuckled and closed Duskwind's cage while the falcon stoically sat on his glove and devoured the treat. "I admire your stubborn optimism," he replied before he left through the rookery's western door.

The red-furred pup came closer to the lord's seat and he had an especially tasty-looking peace of meat in his hand. The lord glared up with big, yellow eyes and hooted in protest. First Lord Duskwind had betrayed him, and now the imposter's agent tore down his will to resist. The Widow's Streams! The tasty treat! It wasn't just and it wasn't fair, but it was too much of a temptation. The rebellion could wait one more day, the lord decided and stepped onto the thick leather glove to receive the delicious meat.

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She knelt in the dry grass, her dark shape against the endless, blue sky the only elevation as far as the eye could see. A light breeze tugged the tattered, black robes and caressed the wounds on her wrists that just wouldn't bleed. He had found the dagger a short distance away, between her and the abandoned cart he recalled from the market. An elegant, curved blade made of obsidian, carelessly discarded and covered in ashes and dust.

The woman looked up when he approached, stepped between her and the dazzling sun. Fine, grey dust trickled from the cuts on her wrists and wafted away, faded before it touched the edge of his robes.

"It didn't work, did it?" His voice was calm, almost aloof, and his gaze drifted to the distant horizon, across the vast emptiness of the Dothraki Sea. She raised her arms, not as an answer. It was a silent plea, and though he didn't look down he could feel her almond-shaped eyes firmly resting on the obsidian dagger.

"I can't help you," he said. "I'm merely a scholar, a seeker of wisdom, and my studies have not yet taken me to the Secret City. What knowledge I have about the forces of life and death won't be enough for the daring task you're asking of me."

Her finger moved swiftly through the air, drew a glyph that said 'South', then she lowered her hands to the ground.

"The Undying?" His blue-tinted lips formed a smile, compassion or pity even he couldn't tell. "They wouldn't. They'd cut you open to study the secrets you hold. Only few of them have insights into the ways of Nefer. They'd close the wounds, keep you alive..." He paused and glanced down for a moment, then corrected himself. " this state for as long as they could."

She lowered her head in resignation, then quickly looked up again as he began walking away, back to where he had found the dagger.

"You can come with me," he said without turning around. "Perhaps we will find some answers together. I wouldn't mind the company on my journey and I give you my word that I will not stitch your cuts."

He heard movement behind him as her robes dragged through the grass, and they continued toward the abandoned cart together in silence.

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Sandrine of Myr, Thoros' former teacher, mentioned in "Summer Storm". By Ella (no AO3 account)

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"It once was a palace," she muttered, her bony fingers tracing the hazy shapes of a dream in the air. "Or a temple, a sanctuary, there were inscriptions carved into the walls." The invisible lines became jittery as the memory faded. "But there was light!" she cried, as if saying it out loud could hold onto the image, make it more real. "A flickering, emitting from the cliffs! There was fire..." The cry faded into a whisper as the City of the Nights shrouded its secrets in oblivion once more. "There was fire... Fire in the heart of the shadow..."

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Water was dripping from the walls as if they were sweating, and the air smelled of salt and seaweed even down here in the dungeons. Somewhere outside on the hallway a heavy door opened, moaning and creaking from years of rare use. "Very generous of you, my lord," a voice grunted, then a faint rattling of coins could be heard. "Lord Sparr will be glad to see this foul creature removed from his lands. Cursed the last raid to return empty-handed, and three good men died of illness out at sea."

"He's a sorcerer? I wasn't aware." The second voice was unfamiliar and didn't sound concerned about this information.

"Lord Sparr thinks so," the guard replied with some hesitation. "Can't prove a thing, of course, and I doubt it is true."

"I'm not worried about the truth of that account," the stranger gave back. "Outrageous rumors, fantastic yarn, that's what I'm after."

"In that case you won't be disappointed," the guard said and apparently stopped on the hallway, letting his guest enter the hallway housing the cells by himself.

"Nereon Pyke?" The stranger's hand demonstratively held up the key to the rusty cell door. The prisoner behind it regarded the visitor with furtive, black eyes, and after a moment he silently nodded. "I have a proposal you might find more appealing than being thrown into the ocean during the next storm," the stranger almost cheerfully declared. "Have you ever thought about regaling the lords of the Reach with your tales?"

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House Hallsten

Words: Higher And Farther
Seat: Farwatch Keep
Liege: House Hunter, House Arryn
Lord: Ulric Hallsten
Lady: Gylenna Hallsten (ne Hunter)
Heir: Ser Aydan Rainborn


House Warryng

Words: Ever So Vigilant
Seat: Frostspear Hall
Liege: House Bolton, House Stark
Lord: Leiff Warryng
Lady: Kareena Warryng (ne Frey)
Heir: Benjen Warryng


House Thorncliffe

Words: Wild Waters Run Deep
Seat: Ironrose Island
Liege: House Redwyne, House Tyrell
Lord: Eldrion Thorncliffe
Lady: Yigara Thorncliffe (ne Redwyne)
Heir: Mortymar Thorncliffe


House Marsh

Words: Here Comes The Flood
Seat: Blackbridge
Liege: House Blacktyde, House Greyjoy
Lord: Kaedmon Marsh
Lady: Lady Marsh
Heir: Ivander Marsh

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"So is it true?" Ser Eldrion didn't turn around to his peculiar companion as they walked down the cobbled path to the harbor. "They threw you over board three times and you were just found again in your cabin the next morning as if nothing had happened?"

For a few steps the only answer was the man's piercing glare in his neck, then Ser Eldrion heard a raspy sound, vaguely akin to a laughter. "That's what they told you? They left out the part about the sea being calm? And it somehow surprised them that a sailor is a good swimmer?"

"They mentioned a storm brewing on the horizon." Ser Eldrion stopped and waited for Nereon to follow him to the pier where the Red Bloom lay docked. "And two men claimed they saw a walrus in the waters at night. Though they didn't say it out right, I believe they meant to suggest it was you."

Nereon furtively regarded his new acquaintance for a while, then his lips formed a pitiful smile. "And when you heard I can change my skin, on top of cursing sailors will strange ailments at will, you decided to bail me out of Lord Sparr's dungeons? Are you hoping my black magic will help you to conquer the Reach?" He opened the bag with his belongings, pulled an old lute out and held it under Ser Eldrion's nose. "I'm not a warlock. I'm a minstrel and the only crime I can confess to is not being a good one. I can barely play this thing!" He waved the lute around, then dropped it back into the bag. "And apparently even my captors have a more vivid imagination than me."

Ser Eldrion made an inviting gesture toward the ship. "We won't need magic to conquer the Reach," he said. "And I'm sure you'll come up with some fantastic yarn on our journey. Your captors had some splendid ideas, together we can certainly build on that."

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"And here's the first sabotage!" Hot Pie lowered a small curtain, revealing the empty hearth of the tavern behind it. "You can take away a rival's fire and leave them with 'Olenna Tyrell's sick burns' as their only source of heat for this round! Let's start bidding with two golden dragons!"

"What is this madness?" Tywin Lannister promptly demanded to know. The situation he found himself in was entirely unusual, not only because he had no memory of how he got here.

"Two golden dragons," Arya Stark, standing on a counter next to Lord Tywin, yelled at Hot Pie without acknowledging the confusing surroundings.

"Fuck it, five dragons," Sandor Clegane barked, then his brow furrowed in thought and he glared at the host. "I can sabotage myself if I win the bid, right?" When Hot Pie didn't immediately answer Clegane made a menacing step toward him and got the confirmation he wanted.

Tywin Lannister still didn't understand what was going on, but he gathered this was a competition and it was about money. "Ten golden dragons!" he shouted. "And now someone tell me why we are bidding on things!"

"You are on Cutthroat Kitchen," Hot Pie calmly informed him while the other contestants rolled their eyes. "Your task is to cook the best dish of each round, and to improve your chances you may buy sabotages and inconvenience your opponents." He glanced to said opponents, but none of them signaled a higher offer. "Congratulations, Lord Tywin, the first sabotage is yours! Which rival are you giving it to?"

Irritated, Tywin glared at a servant who took ten golden dragons from a bowl on the counter and brought the coins to Hot Pie. "What in the world would I want with Olenna Tyrell?" Tywin asked. Then it occured to him that he won something, so why shouldn't he use it? "Give her to Clegane," he said with a shrug. "If this is about cooking, he's a lost cause either way. Never squired, I doubt he can even boil water."

"You are supposed to hinder your rivals, not do them favors!" Arya shot a snide glance to Tywin, then looked at the snickering Hound to her right. Before she could voice more discontent, her attention was drawn to a large cart wheeled in by servants.

"Our next sabotage is a very special one," Hot Pie announced, visibly amused, and pulled the cloth off the cart, revealing a cage with three confused men inside. "Remember, your first task is preparing a delicious roast. If you win this bid you may replace one rival's meat of choice with three sons of Walder Frey! Now that would really inconvenience them, wouldn't it?"

"Twenty golden dragons!" Tywin shouted before Hot Pie had even named the price bidding would start with.

"You only have fifteen dragons left," Hot Pie calmly replied. "You paid ten for the sabotage you gave to Sandor Clegane."

"I don't understand." Tywin inspected the bowl on his counter. "This is hardly all the money I own, I can..."

"Those are the rules," Hot Pie cut him off with an air of importance. "Twenty-five dragons for each contestant. Do you want to bid fifteen then?"

Still puzzled, Tywin nodded and since nobody challenged the ridiculously high offer, another small victory went to him. "Let Arya have them," he muttered while watching a servant take the remaining coins from his bowl. "She wanted a sabotage, now she got one."

"As if that's a problem for me." Arya scoffed and began preparing the knives on her counter. "No-one has a better roast recipe, I can make it work with any meat."

And as she said it, the memory finally came back to Tywin. He smiled, reached behind his ear and pulled off his face. "I do indeed have a better recipe," he said and proceeded to cook the best duck roast in all of the realms.

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When they had left the narrow pass through the jagged chalk mountains, the Secret City had not looked like much. A sleepy village that braved the hardships of its remote location with stoicism and unwavering routine, that's all there was. Thin masts and pale sails of fishing boats pierced the fog shrouding the harbor, here and there villagers in dull robes went about their day between quaint little houses, scattered sparsely along the trampled dirt roads. The infamous last city of N'ghai would have been a disappointment to travelers seeking the capital of a kingdom, there was no king here, no palace, not even in ruins. Where deep shadows protected the mysteries of Asshai, too dark to even touch the banks of the poisonous river, Nefer hid its secrets under thick layers of the mundane.

After descending rickety stairs in the small watermill's basement, the enormity of the subterranean necropolis overwhelmed the senses. The true city sprawled underground, in a vast network of tunnels that expanded southward under the mountains. Sickly sweet scents of decaying flowers wafted through the caverns, illuminated by a faint glow that never flickered. Ominous chants to forgotten gods echoed in narrow passages and there was a cacophony of tormented screams that seemed to be close wherever one walked. This was the Nefer of legend, the last bastion of a fallen kingdom, strangely alive in its disquiet death.

It had felt like walking for hours when they reached a wall lined with columns carved into the pale grey rock, though the maze swallowed all sense of time. They had been welcomed by a man who just stood there, unmoving, guarding a hole between two of the ornate columns from absent intruders. An acolyte, no doubt, in the early years of his studies, as his gaunt cheeks were still flushed pink with life and his greeting gave away that he still had his tongue. Beyond the unassuming hole he had guarded, there was a cave, almost perfectly round and unfathomably vast in size. There were columns in here as well, each pair enclosing a cove, the last resting place of a mummy. Their mouths gaped with bone-white teeth and absent tongues, their eyes were sewn shut, and the leathery skin of their foreheads bore glyphs that faintly glowed in the cave's twilight.

No Qartheen warlock had ever stood here before, Treske thought while waiting for his companion to bid her farewell. And as he watched her carve a glyph in an empty cove, he realized no other warlock might stand in this place after him. As majestic as the true Nefer was, he could feel the cracks in the city's foundation, thin like strings of a spider, running from the endless depths of the underground canyons up to the unassuming village above. The tremors could not be felt yet, but he knew they were there. This was not the bargain this cabal had struck with death, these mummies held answers that were not meant to be lost. Did they see the impending cataclysm through their perpetually shut eyes? Was that why their whispers were so urgent, so loud in his mind?

His silent companion turned away from her cove and the glyph she had carved, dull and emitting no light like the others. He nodded and they returned to the hole they had come through, climbed through it and began their long way back to the rickety stairs of the mill. The Secret City lost one more of its secrets, the whispers of one mind would not echo within these halls in the last days to come.

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The forest seemed frozen in time as they sat down to rest on the gnarly roots of an ancient tree. No wind rustled the dark green leaves far above, no birds sang, no small critters scurried through the thicket. The journey to Mossovy had been exhausting. Weeks on the road, passing through dangerous lands. And in the end it had all been in vain. There was nothing here, not anymore, no answers, no questions, no echoes of spells lingering in this forest.

Treske regarded his silent companion and the ashes trickling from the cuts on her wrists. They shouldn't have wasted their time coming here, he thought. Every grain that fell from her arms was a secret drifting away, precious knowledge forever lost in the torrents of time. This forest, as silent as she was, had not been worth the sacrifices their journey had demanded.

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The wind was cold and cutting on top of the tower, but Leiff barely felt it under his fur-lined hood. His gaze followed the dark figure walking down the trail to the forest, the moss-green cloak dragging behind her through the snow. It was the first time Lady Hannah left the keep since the death of her husband, and Leiff knew she went to the weirwood for one more goodbye. Was his path as clear as his mother's, he wondered. Was it right to send his siblings away one by one? Was it truly the best for everyone, as he kept telling himself? There was no future here, not in the barren lands of the Lonely Hills, not in the vacant chambers of Frostspear Hall, not in a winter that would last ten years. But the past was here and perhaps leaving it behind was not meant to be easy.

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They were exhausted from wandering through the dark tunnels, from crossing rickety bridges over gaping chasms, climbing up creaking ladders, and crawling through narrow passages carved into rugged rock. Though she had once called this subterranean world her home, it felt as if she was trespassing when she stepped into the Hall of Mummies.

Generations of Those Who Came Before greeted her from their coves with urgent whispers, but her ears were yet of the living world, unable to understand the hushed words. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't believed she'd join them one day, take her place in a cove and add her voice to the chorus of whispers. Now the mummies had turned into strangers, relics of a past she had abandoned in the desolation of the Dothraki Sea. They were the pack, and she was the lone wolf, merely a visitor to their secret world.

The choice had been made, the ties had been cut. A greater fate had set her onto a new path, and she would walk it with one foot in the living world, one in another.

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"See, there's things out here in the North that your precious Reach knights didn't tell you about." Gundar kicked the branches and the skewer they had held fell, clanking against the cold rocks of the fire pit. "Look at that." He poked his sword into a black bundle of fur, turning it around and revealing it to be a forearm wearing a bracer. The frozen, dead hand seemed to reach for the rocks, as if it was trying to grab the warmth of a long cold fire. "They didn't tell you about the cannibals, did they?"

The young ranger didn't answer, he kept staring at the hand on the snowy ground.

"Not all wildlings are like the Thenns you encountered," Gundar continued. "They'll only kill you if you don't show them respect, but the ice river clans? They're more belligerent, they'll hunt you like game because that's all you are. Deer, elk, man, doesn't make any difference to them."

"It was a dare!" the boy blurted out, stumbling backwards away from the remains of the gruesome feast. "I joked with my friends that I would take the black! I only meant to stay a few weeks and return home before I'd have to take any oaths!"

Gundar laughed and spread out his arms, a tall, black shape against the icy horizon. "I didn't think it was possible, but you're even dumber than you look, Flowers."

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"It's the Drowned God," Ordan explained with an air of importance. "Makes a fine exhibit. Me son Dolyn carved it, but ye can say it was washed up from the sea and spin some yarn that sounds a bit more exciting."

Yesha skeptically turned the scrimshaw figurine in her hands. It vaguely resembled a creature of some sort, as much as one could expect from the work of a six years old boy, and the statuette's arms guarded a seashell, held there by wax. "Why does it 'ave 'orns?" she inquired, now looking at Ordan. "And where are the eyes? This don't look like no Drowned God, if anything it's an odd bat."

"Use yer imagination!" Toalon took the figurine and inspected it briefly. "It's a deep one," he then firmly declared. "Ye found it on the seashore in a cold, stormy night. The deep ones, they need no eyes in their realm under water, yet ye can still feel this strange artifact watch ye sometimes as if it's alive."

Yesha shrugged and took the statuette back, then went to the corner and pulled back the curtain. "If ye put it that way..." she said, removed an oddly shaped rock from one of the rickety tables and put the scrimshaw figurine in it's place. "It makes a fine exhibit indeed."

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"Don't eat that!" Gundar stomped on the frozen ground, but the crows kept stalking around the scorched pile of bones. "Stupid birds..." he muttered under his breath and tried to shoo them away, this time waving his cloak in their direction. "Might be poison," he warned the stubborn birds. "You never know with curses and the remains of their victims." The crows cawed, yet they still ignored his warning about magical dangers and Gundar sighed with annoyance. "Fine, have it your way," he grumbled as he left the meager feast in the snow behind and went back to the castle.

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The northern wind swirled the ashes up from the pyre, whirled them toward the sky until they became indistinguishable from the light snow. The last gasp of the fire died upon a charred pile of pine wood, and the smoke faded in the cold air as if the breeze carried away his father's ghost. A son could never truly be prepared for the farewell to his father, but the coming winter had no regard for unreadiness. There was no time for tears or mourning, no other choice but to walk the way back to Frostspear Hall in his father's footsteps.

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The sickly stench of spilled wine and stale ale clings to the chambers, but it's not what he smells when he stares out of the window to the pale autumn sky. He smells the sweet fragrance of winter roses, as pale and blue as her eyes. He doesn't hear the clamor of voices from Fishmonger's Square and other markets. He hears the cheers and laughter of tourneys, the song the musicians played when he first asked her to dance. When he fucks Bessie, Tayssa or Sarya in a tavern's pantry he closes his eyes and loves the She-Wolf.

Lyanna. She was the only one he ever wanted, his heart and mind still scream for her after all these years. She walks his dreams every night and sometimes the dream feels so real that he can't tell if he's awake or still dwells in sweet illusions. He keeps looking for traces, for a sign that it was real in those dusky moments before the sun claims the sky. A long, raven hair in the sheets, her scent on the pillows. Yet he never finds anything but an empty bed. Empty because she's not there, was never there, will always be there.

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"It is the strangest coincidence," Lord Ossyn began when he entered Maester Jeon's chambers in the Lighting Tower. "Ever since I returned from Myr the weather seems to get worse though the season of storms is still over one year away." He chuckled to himself as the maester eagerly nodded and waved his lord over to the window.

"I noticed this as well, my lord," Jeon replied, visibly excited about the mundane subject. "Here, take a look for yourself." He stepped away from the Myrish far eyes on the tripod. "Another strong gale is approaching the mountains, this time from the north-east."

"These are some mighty clouds indeed," Lord Ossyn gave back after peering through the far eyes, then let the maester reclaim the spot and his precious device.

"Too far to reach us up here," Jeon quickly cut in. "But you brought up an interesting thought I had not yet considered. Has there been a change of climate in Essos? Did you notice anything during your visit that could explain the odd weather on our shores?"

"I fear I have no point of reference as it was my first visit," Lord Ossyn replied. "But since the storms don't tarnish your sunny disposition this is a mystery I don't mind."

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"What does this link stand for?" Leiff curiously regarded Maester Jeon's chain. "I've only ever seen the one Maester Furak wore. Tin, silver, copper, and yellow gold."

"Education, medicine, history and math," Maester Jeon listed the subjects and lifted the link Leiff had pointed out. "This one is made from lead," he went on to explain. "Meteorology, the study of weather and climate. It was the first one I forged for my chain."

Leiff furrowed his brow in thought and inspected the grey metal, then looked up to the maester. "That seems a strange choice, if I may say so. I always thought subjects like economics, healing, and agriculture are in high demand, as lords request maesters with knowledge that pertains to their daily lives."

"It was more of a personal choice than a practical one," Jeon admitted with a slight chuckle. "The waywardness of the weather was the reason I left my old life behind. A part of me thought if I study it I might unravel its mysteries and make my peace with the caprices of nature." He shrugged and shuffled to his desk under the window. "And in a way it worked out for me, though I still don't understand why storms destroy harvests or ships at the most inconvenient times. My studies distracted me from my grudge, and I found my true passion." His knotty, old hand lifted a different link, the silver one, and Jeon smiled. "Healing and anatomy, as you know. Such a fascinating subject, even at my advanced age I never stop learning."

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Somehow, the sun shone brighter in Essos this morning, and the air felt much fresher in his lungs. The bustle of Myr's largest market seemed bizarre in its mundanity, the vendors and buyers were so unaware of how much more alive they appeared. The day before they had been dressed in dull, faded colors, haggled with muted voices and moved as if time itself slowed them down. Today they were loud and vibrant, and had cast of the shackles of lethargy over night.

The priestess had only put her hands on his chest for a short moment, but the touch had changed everything, had brought him back to true life.

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The crescent of a gibbous moon hid behind hurriedly drifting rags of dark clouds, and only a pale shroud of illumination reached the path under the weeping willows. Relentless rain fell, had been falling for hours, and turned the way up the foothills into sticky mud. There were faint, luminous dots in the distance, eerie reflections of moonlight dancing in the fog above shallow streams. The sudden crashing of thunder and a bright flash of lightning from the mountains above made the horses, usually calm and docile even in heavy weather, whinny and baulk.

Danyal pulled the hood deeper into his face and shook the reins, trying to regain control over his scared mount. "I've never seen the horses like this," he yelled through the downpour to Beric, not far ahead, but almost merging with the dark of the forest in his drenched, black cloak. "Aren't they used to thunder and lightning? This is hardly the first time we've been caught up in a bad storm."

"It's not the weather," one of the guards, Yanic, answered instead. "It's the presence of apparitions and malicious spirits that spook them, their senses are more receptive for things that escape the human mind and eye."

"Apparitions?" Danyal looked around, but all he could make out in the darkness were the willows, their twigs and leaves helpless playthings of the fierce storm. Here and there he caught a glimpse through their erratic shadows, to the fog-shrouded marshes and the peculiar dots of faint light. "Are they trying to tell me these are will-o'-the-wisps?" he turned to Thoros to his right.

Thoros peered out under his faded, red hood, a somewhat incredulous look in his eyes. "I can't believe none of them has told you the legend that gave the Widow's Streams their name. I must have heard it a hundred times by now, as someone can't resist the urge to tell it even in bright daylight in the midst of summer." He glanced to Yanic, making him out as the culprit, and earned a reproachful glare in return.

"Make it a thousand times for me then," Beric interjected, slowing down his horse and falling back to ride between Danyal and Thoros. "This legend was old when the world was still young, and even as a boy I never thought it held any truth." He instinctively ducked his head when the howling storm whipped the twigs of a willow in their path. "The storm kings still reigned when it supposedly happened, and nobody can even tell if Lady..."

"Don't!" Yanic cut him off, his voice shaky and panicked. "Don't speak the name, it attracts her attention! You may not believe she was real, but I have seen her ghost among the willows, and I don't want to be cursed!"

"Oh, please." Beric's sigh was swallowed by the wind and another loud crack of thunder. "There's no 'curse', it's only an old story told to scare children. Whatever you saw out here was probably fog. It can take on strange shapes in the dark under the willows. But it was certainly not the vengeful ghost of..."

"I know what I saw!" Yanic insisted. "And I wasn't too drunk that night, if that's what you think! I saw the restless soul of a woman scorned! Even the knife she drove into the heart of her unfaithful husband flashed in the moonlight! She emerged from the fog by the streams, where she threw his mangled corpse into the water!"

"If she was a ghost how did she carry a knife?" Thoros asked. "Aren't they spectral shapes made of mist? A knife should slip right through their ephemeral hands."

"How would there be a ghost if the woman may have never existed?" Beric continued this line of thought. "I surely heard every version of the tale, yet none mentions the location where it supposedly happened. There's no evidence the house ever existed. No ruins, no overgrown castle or keep. All that's left is the legend of Lady Fallhurst and..."

The moment he said the name a sudden dead calm came over the forest, as if the sky held its breath and the rain forgot to fall. There was only the rustling of leaves, then an eerie breeze whispering through the fields of thick of fog. The horses neighed in fear and dashed up the path, ignoring any commands from their startled riders. The bright flash of lightning briefly shattered the night, thunder echoed, and heavy rain fell again, just as suddenly as it had ceased a few heartbeats before.

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"Your coat of arms is really just a white field?" Loras eyed Danyal's blank shield with amusement. "I thought Beric was joking."

"I'm not a talented artist," Danyal gave back. "I tried to sketch a lion lurking in a cavern, but it always looked like a haystack with glowing eyes in the end."

"A lion?" Loras laughed and leaned so far back with his chair that it almost fell over. "Are you sure Ser Jaime didn't only suggest it because he thought you can't draw one?" He sloshed the wine around in his cup instead of drinking. "It wouldn't be a good fit for you anyway, so maybe he did you a favor."

"What would be more fitting then?" Danyal studied the empty, white field on his shield. "Don't say a  bird, I can't draw those either."

"A chameleon," Loras prompty replied and snickered at Danyal's puzzled expression. "It's a kind of lizard," Loras explained. "I've seen them in the menagerie at Sunspear, they are quite entertaining. They can blend in with the surface by changing their skin's color. All you need to paint is an eye, a simple, black circle. Then you say it's a chameleon hiding in snow."

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"Do you have use for this or can I have it?" Thoros stopped rummaging around in the barrel, tucked away in the armory's storage corner.

When Jasry turned around he saw Thoros holding a sword, apparently the treasure he had found amidst all the junk. "I'd melt it down and use the metal to patch something up that's not beyond repair," he replied. "That's all the scrap from the barrel is good for."

Thoros regarded the sword for a moment, then looked over to Jasry and shook his head. "It's perfectly good for the melee at Stonehelm," he said. "If you don't mind I'll use it. You can still melt it down after I brought it back."

"Don't bother, just keep it." Jasry let out an incredulous laughter. "It's one of those poorly forged swords they hand out as 'prizes' in tourneys for squires. I think Ser Alessandrin's boy won it at Cider Hall a few months ago." He shot a pitiful glance at the sword in Thoros' hand. "The tip was chopped off within two days of practice. I'd be surprised if anything was left after a real fight."

"So would I, so would I..." Thoros chuckled and went back to the courtyard with his not so brandnew weapon.

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Anguy just stood there like frozen like a statue and stared in disbelief, his eyes fixed on the green feather marking his arrow. A perfect shot that had hit the exact middle of the bullseye, centered between Balon Swann's white-feathered shaft just one finger's breadth to the left, and Jalabhar Xho's arrow with the red feather a little above to the right. Finally, after years of just coming close he had beat them, and now he wasn't sure whether he should be cheering or laughing about his own past stubbornness. Being sober for once, that was all it had taken?

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"It's strange how things change and yet still stay the same." Harrion sauntered along the curved wall of the tower, casually trying to make out movements in the foggy pine forest past the foothills. "You think friendship is hereditary, that such ties are passed down from generation to generation?"

"What do you mean?" Leiff didn't look over, he kept staring out to the snow-crowned treetops swaying in the cold wind.

"A few years ago your father was the lord, and my father was his best friend and the First Hunter." Harrion's eyes briefly narrowed, but the rustling in the distance didn't hold his attention for long. "Now we're following in their footsteps and it got me thinking." He stopped next to Leiff and appraisingly regarded him from the side.

"About what?" Leiff shot him a quick glance without leaving his slouched position on the balustrade. "Speaking in riddles? Confusing your lord and best friend?"

"About getting married," Harrion promptly replied. "You have a wife now. It's only a matter of time until you'll have children. Maybe I should hurry and get wed as soon as I can, so my firstborn can be your heir's friend and the tradition lives on."

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Maester Jeon rubbed the iron link between his knotty fingers as he skimmed over the pages, without even realizing he was doing it. The tome had just arrived in the morning, the long-awaited copy of Maester Fersh's work in geological studies. Lord Ossyn had requested the book after it had been recommended as a source for possible improvements to Blackhaven's mines, but Maester Jeon also found other insights in it. Less practical notions perhaps, but nonetheless fascinating to ponder. 

The landscapes were meticulously described and listed with their most common deposits of gemstones and ore, but the more Jeon read the more facets emerged inbetween the well-penned lines. 

The Red Mountains, sturdy and unchanging, reminded him of Lord Ossyn. Ever dutiful and unmoving, a unison of man and mountain still guarding the Boneway from Dornish invasions that had ceased a long time ago. The forests of Cape Wrath reflected Lady Laenah, wearing a new color each season, never singing the same songs, always enthusiastic about reinvention. She took inspiration from the Rainwood's varied faces, incorporated motifs in her designs with ease, whether nature gave her pastel spring flowers or the rich colors of autumn. And there was the sea, this strange blend of calm and impulsive Beric also possessed. A mellow surface that could unleash spring tides of anger, and at the same time hide troubled depths not even the strongest storm could bring forth. 

Lord Ossyn's steadfastness, Lady Laenah's creativity, Beric's silent longing for distant shores, this geology book captured them surprisingly well. What landscape would I be , Maester Jeon wondered. A desert most likely, always thirsting for knowledge.

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"I know who his father is, don't be silly!"

The girl's voice still echoed in the back of Lord Bolton's mind, though he had overheard the conversation more than four years ago.

"He gives me the chills," the second girl had answered, but was immediately interrupted by her more enthusiastic friend.

"And he isn't the one I would gladly marry," she firmly declared. "Whatever makes you uneasy about the father clearly wasn't passed down to the son. You cannot deny that Domeric is very handsome, and people say he has a bright future on the lists. Did you ever hear him play the harp? Have you even spoken to him, just once?" The second girl had been about to answer, but her friend went on and didn't let her get a single word in. "Of course you haven't," she said, wrinkling her nose. "If you had you would prefer him to Robb Stark as well."

The barking of hounds outside tore Roose Bolton away from the recollection, and his gaze drifted out through the window to the yard. He had laid Domeric to rest there, his bones side by side with those of his brothers, three years ago. His trueborn son, his pride and his future. Where Domeric used to ride his horses the bastard who had taken his life now trained a pack of barking hounds. There was no pride, no future out there, no heir who noble daughters prefered to Robb Stark. There was only a makeshift solution, a bastard who could never replace what he had taken.

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"I'm no longer the failure father thought me to be." Rowland poured down his wine and triumphantly grinned at his sister. "You and your oh so perfect, knightly husband only produced a daughter. I'm sure father expected you to give him a grandson, a proper heir."

Symone sighed and rolled her eyes at her brother. "Father had a 'proper' heir. If you hadn't behaved the way you did he wouldn't have cast you aside in my favor. Besides..." She took a sip from her wine and glared at Rowland over the brim of the cup. "I've only been married for two years. Nobody said I won't have more children in the future."

"You married when you were twenty-six," Rowland countered. "I married at sixteen and fathered a son right away. Now who can be expected to have the more fertile line of succession?"

Symone gasped and stared at him in disbelief. "The circumstances are hardly a matter of pride! Father hurried to arrange your marriage because Myra already carried your child in her belly! You came very close to disgracing our name with a bastard!" Rowland tried to protest, but Symone wasn't finished. "And speaking of names..." Her reprimanding glare made her brother withdraw away from her in his chair. "You let your drunkard wife name the poor child 'Lysarryn'! Nobody stopped her! What kind of name is that? You should be ashamed of condeming your own son to such a cruel fate!"

"We are honoring Lady Arryn with this choice," Rowland meekly gave back. "Lord Langley liked the notion, and Myra's mother said it sounds 'strong and distinguished'."

"Why am I not surprised?" Symone sighed again and got up from the table. "If they see nothing wrong with it, you're truly better off as the heir of House Langley."

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They came as conquerors, aeons ago, to lands untouched and unexplored by their rivals. They brought spears and swords and an unquenchable thirst for glory in their quest for treasures and the ancient secrets of these foreign islands. There had been warnings, as there are before any expedition into the unknown. And they had ignored them, laughed them off, as foolhardy soldiers of fortune do.

Now their black eyes are full of stars, reflections of the same stars that guided them to this island long ago on oily, black stone. Some days, when the sky is clear, sailors can see the Eternal Invasion if they are brave or reckless enough to sail close to these shores. Once living statues, their swords still pointed at the lands they never conquered, the treasures they left forever unclaimed. An army, eternally frozen in time on the austere beach of the Isle of Toads.

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"You should tell Danyal and Jalabhar that you found wine." Beric looked up to Thoros with one eye, his face half-buried in Danyal's cloak, serving as a pillow on the rough floor of the cave. "It is not very kind to get drunk while they're sipping rain water."

"What makes you think I have wine?" Thoros shot an incredolous glance down to Beric. "This is water. You drank from the same bowl earlier." He lifted the bowl, the only one they had in the cavern, but Beric's reprimanding glare didn't change.

"You sound drunk. I know what you sound like when you're drunk." Beric paused and furrowed his brow in thought. "You sounded drunk," he corrected after some consideration. "Now you don't anymore."

"He was speaking Valyrian," Jalabhar tried to put an end to this confusion. "A prayer to the Lord of Light, from what I understood."

Beric's expression betrayed sudden shock at this revelation and he laboriously sat up from his makeshift bed. "The Lord of Light doesn't speak the common tongue?" he inquired, looking to Thoros. "I owe my life to a god who doesn't understand me? Will I have to get drunk now each time I pray?"

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Beric woke up from a rumble, not a particularly unusual occurance in any castle, but this noise had originated in his room, not somewhere outside. The usual suspect for loud disturbances - the work on the well in the yard behind the kitchen - was quickly dismissed, as it was still dark and there was certainly nobody digging in the dead of the night. The tall, dark shape in front of the open window, on the other hand, was doubtlessly cause for alarm. Beric hastily rolled onto his stomach and felt around under the bed for the dagger he had stored there.

His movement drew the dark shape's attention and a moment later, Beric gave up the search for the weapon when the intruder identified himself by his voice. "Don't worry about finding the dagger," Danyal whispered. "I have my sword, that should be enough for my lord's protection."

"My protection?!" Beric groaned and rolled onto his back again. "Why would I need your protection? I'm at home, in my own chambers, trying to sleep in my own bed. There's a whole barrack of guards outside, the gate will be closed until sunset and I locked my door!"

"You didn't lock the window," Danyal gave back with an air of importance. "Should an assassin get wind of that habit he could easily slit your throat while you're asleep."

"Why would anyone try to assassinate me?" Beric covered his face with one arm and pulled the blanket over it with the other, as if there was any chance he could hide from Danyal's idiotic explanation that way. "Anyone smart enough to find out about my unlocked window would also know how pointless that is."

"Ser Allon tried." Danyal's silhouette wandered up and down in front of the window, perhaps mocking the patrol route of a guard.

"Ser Allon fled to the Free Cities." Beric added the pillow to the hideout he had created over his head. "And he isn't smart, not by any definition. I doubt he'd even find the way to Blackhaven on a map." He peeked out from under the stack on his head, but the shape by the window had not disappeared in spite of all hope. "If you must guard me, could you at least not do it here in my room? I'm trying to sleep and you're not especially quiet."

"Of course!" The shape now moved toward the window. "I should guard the window and catch assassins before they can climb in."

"Exactly!" Beric sighed with relief when he saw the shadow climb through the frame. "Perhaps you should also check the shaft of the new well. Who knows what intruder might be hiding in there unnoticed." He waited a moment and when no answer came, Beric quickly jumped up and went to the window. Danyal had almost reached the roof of the breezeway below, a rather impressive feat for a man of his size. For one brief moment Beric thought he heard him snicker, and quickly closed the window, this time making sure it was firmly locked.

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"You've grown fat! And the grey strands on your temples don't suit you! Just look at yourself, look at that disgusting beer gut oozing out of that fine robe! Even a drunkard can see you let yourself go too much in recent years. Where's the great warrior now? Where are his victories? Where's his glory? All I see standing before me is the pitiful shadow of a man I knew long ago. Almost didn't recognize you without a cup of wine in your hand! Don't try to tell me it's too early for that. I know as well as you do that you wouldn't say 'no' if I offered you a bottle right now. There we go, I can see you're glancing at the shelf behind me. Which one will it be? The pear brandy your drunkard friend gave you for your name day? The summerwine some groveling shit brought you from Fairmarket? Perhaps the Dornish Red for a change?

Oh, of course. The Arbor Gold. We have to keep up appearances in here. Only the best, anything else would be beneath you. A distinguished vintage for a distinguished man who has so much appreciation for the fine things of life. Who do you think you're fooling with this act? Not me, that much is for certain. You married the most beautiful lady in all Seven Kingdoms, but you prefer bedding buxom whores in roadside taverns in her stead. The most talented minstrels sing songs in your honor, but you rather listen to the clanking of swords swung by hedge knights even more drunk than yourself. There's no need for this charade, it's just you and me. We both know you really want the cheap summerwine. Go ahead, take a pull, maybe some liquid courage will unseal your lips. You've been quiet ever since I entered your chambers..."


The bottle of summerwine hit the mirror and shattered the image of the uninvited guest into pieces, spilling the peachy content all over the floor.

"What I do in my private chambers is nobody's business! I'm the king!"

Robert's foot swept the bits of broken glass around for a moment, regarding his fractured reflection on the floor with furrowed brows. "Beyond these walls, at least," he muttered under his breath. "In here I'm just a man and what a mere man does has no bearing on the affairs of a king."

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"And you simply rejected him? You didn't even pretend to consider his request for a moment?" Margaery rolled her eyes, got up from the armchair and began pacing up and down in front of the hearth. "What did grandmother have to say about it? Don't tell me you didn't even consult with her before you made the choice."

"I did." Loras straightened his back as if he had been challenged, but he remained seated and snatched some grapes from Renly's bowl. "And she agreed with me. Besides, why in the world would I have use for another squire? I have no complaints about Amady's service."

Renly nodded along with the statement and ate one of his grapes, then turned to Margaery, still chewing as he spoke. "There'd be no benefit for us in the arrangement. What do we have to gain in the Reach? We don't need to further our relations with houses this side of the Red Mountains. If Loras were to take another squire into his service he should consider boys from Dorne."

Margaery stopped and sighed with annoyance. "He already has a squire from Salt Shore and two pages from Dornish houses," she reminded Renly as if he had forgotten this fact. "We shouldn't give people the impression he abandoned his roots altogether. This was a chance for reconciliation!" She reproachfully glared at her brother. "You would have been the bigger man if you had overlooked the sins of his father!"

Loras sighed, gestured for the grape bowl and took a handful when Renly passed it to him. "Do I really have to spell it out for you?" The grapes disappeared in his mouth while Margaery sternly nodded. Loras exchanged a brief glance with Renly, then turned back to his sister with an air of importance. "I don't want a squire named 'Dickon'. I'd fall off my horse laughing each time I'd have to give him instructions."

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Cover for Uncharted Horizons by jixie

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 What am I doing here? Am I trying to lead my brother, my king, down the path of madness?

The thought echoed in Stannis' mind when he put down the stack of books on the desk in his chambers.

Dragons, Merfolk and Monsters.

Tales for children. The eponymous monsters had been no more than that for thousands of years. Was keeping it this way for just a little while longer the right thing to do? Did the people of the realms not have a right to the truth? A right, yes, perhaps. But a need for more worries they had certainly not. Winter was coming, there'd be enough to worry about. Frozen fields and rivers and their constant companion, starvation. The bitter cold creeping through every window and door, every crack in the walls. Hunger and disease in the settlements, castles and streets of the cities, the deeds of desperate people trying to get by and survive.

The realms faced enough challenges in these trying times. What good would it do to also frighten them by bringing those long forgotten nightmares back to life? No, it would only unleash a wave of terror in lands where fear already ruled.

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"A curious proposition." Grand Maester Pycelle shuffled from one tall shelf to another and let his old, knotty finger slide over the backs of even older books. "But I can assure you that there were no oversights. There are no 'hidden' or 'long forgotten' archives in the catacombs of the Citadel, if there were I would know it."

"I meant no offense, Grand Maester," Stannis replied, though maybe deep down he did. "My requests were rather unusual, I gather, therefore I thought it possible there were tomes stored away and forgotten due to the insignificance of the content. It was not an accussation, I know the Conclave would not withhold vital information from the crown."

"Of course, of course." Pycelle's eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he brushed off what had been most certainly an accussation with a lazy wave of his hand. "However, the Citadel is a place of learning, an archive of wisdom. There is little to learn from the books you requested, at least for the keen minds of maesters. Perhaps you should direct your inquiry to nannies or maids. They might 'study' what interests or scares young children and possess the tomes you are looking for."

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The way Beric moved along the wall and peered down the hallways made it abundantly clear that he was trying to not be noticed. What he was looking for or why he thought such secrecy was in order was a mystery to Thoros though. Lord Severyn's wedding celebration was in full swing, none of the guests paid any attention to the far side of the Great Hall where Beric wandered. There were not even windows to look out to the courtyard, no paintings or tapestries, nothing of interest at all. Beric couldn't possibly be drunk enough to not know what he was doing either. He had nursed a cup of wine for the better part of an hour and there were still some sips left in it now.

"It appears my talents and wits are required," Darien of Darry's voice woke Thoros from his contemplation. "The bedding ceremony is about to begin and I don't care for Lord Ferrington trying to pass off my best jokes as his own. Again." He wrinkled his nose and got up from the chair. "Can you believe it? Just last month at Rosby, he blurted out a remark I had made during his very own bedding ceremony as soon as the bride's gown came down! Does he believe stealing my jokes makes him look witty?"

"The audacity, unbelievable." Thoros' absent tone didn't match the outrage his words suggested, but Darien hadn't waited for a reply anyway. He was already rushing toward the gathering in front of Lord Frey's table, ready for a petty battle of wits against Lord Ferrington and other perceived competition.


"What are you doing here? You're about to miss your bizarre bedding custom."

Beric stopped dead in his tracks, but relaxed when he peered over his shoulder and realized it was Thoros standing behind him. "That's the point," he gave back, whispering through there was nobody close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation. "If anyone asks, I'm 'looking for the way to the privy'."

Thoros raised his eyebrows and watched Beric return to his undecided pacing. "I asked and you just told me that's not really what you're doing. So what's the actual purpose of this charade?"

"Missing 'my' bizarre custom." Beric stopped again after realizing that Thoros blocked his line of sight to Lord Frey's table from his current position. "If I was a gambling man I'd bet good money on being far from the only one who dislikes this tradition. I have yet to attend a wedding where neither the bride nor the groom looks uncomfortable when the ceremony is initiated." He cautiously glanced around Thoros to see Lord Severyn and Lady Mayda had been lifted up by the crowd. "The only purpose of this tradition is showing that one abides by tradition."

"I was told it is meant to ensure the newlywed couple will consummate the marriage." Thoros looked over his shoulder and watched the cheering guests carry Lord Severyn and Lady Mayda away. "Make sure that their houses can soon expect the birth of an heir."

Beric huffed, then immediately adjusted his position for better cover. "Couples who forwent the tradition still have heirs. Where do people think newlywed lovers go after the celebration if they are not carried to their bedchambers? To the very same place, to do the very same thing, that's where. There is no need for such uncouth spectacles. The couple should be allowed to cherish their first night together without a jeering mob outside their door."

"And here I thought you disapprove because lewd jokes make you more flustered than the couple." Thoros chuckled when Beric shot him a reprimanding glare that all but confirmed the suspicion, but he just nonchalantly nodded to the arch of a hallway. "Let's see if we can find the privy then."

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"It's not the most practical weapon if you ask me."

Danyal skeptically watched Jalabhar polish the ornate hilt of the dagger, gold, ivory and rubies holding a double-edged blade. The scabbard on the table displayed the same rich adornments, along with finely carved lines that resembled the structure of feathers.

"It is not meant to be 'practical'," Jalabhar sharply replied. "The regalia of a king are not used in combat. They serve a ceremonial purpose. A symbol of power that is passed down through generations by kings." He lowered the cloth and turned the dagger in the sunlight. "Legend says it was forged from the tongue of a sea dragon and its prowess is still trapped in the blade."

"Hm." Danyal seemed unimpressed by the lofty claim. "Didn't look that way when you tried to crack open a barrel earlier," he said. "Or maybe you're too concerned with its pristine condition to properly use it. Either way, it's not practical and a weapon should be."

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There are many doors in the Palace of Dust, revealing or hiding rooms filled with pasts, presents and futures. There are stairs leading up to the stars, tracing the steps of giants through long gone or still distant eons. There are paths sloping downwards to the bottoms of oceans, chambers echoing with familiar tales that will never be told. There are hidden passages that connect the Here and Now to the There and Then, and bridges crossing the deep chasms of Never. There are wonders, visions and terrors, horrific beauty, dazzling atrocity, enthralling mediocrity, puzzling clarity and everything in between. There's ice from the sun and there are fires from the heart of endless winter, there are deafening whispers from a million voices and there is perfect silence. There are truths and lies, promises and deceptions, warnings and temptations, and there are the wicked choices no man has ever made.

There's no measure for the time spent in the House of the Undying. Moments turn into lifetimes, years pass in the blink of an eye. Many enter these mysterious halls, but few ever leave them. Some wander the hallways forever, aimless, yet driven toward something they can't ever fathom. Others get lost on their way, distracted by marvels and an abundance of choices. They perish, their eyes still filled with visions, euphoric smiles still contorting their faces even in death.

The notion that all this in itself was an illusion, a fickle diversion from the real world outside, had occured to Treske without warning. He had been content with his studies and the insights he found in the maze, until that one fateful day when he was suddenly not. It had begun as a vision like any other, albeit mundane at first. An image of the exterior, the way it looked just before he had entered, as it had always and would always be. The crumbling walls and roofs of a lonesome fortress, winding like a snake in the shade of the black trees. There had been nothing else in this vision, no symbols, no dream figures posing questions, riddles or answers. Only a vague sense of passing time as the building, already in ruins, turned into the eponymous dust and was carried away by the wind.

The Undying Ones dismissed his conclusions as foolish, refused to entertain the thought of their looming demise. It was the prerogative of the Undying to close their eyes to this truth, revel in the splendor of illusions and vain wisdom. Treske, however, had found the one thing the Palace of Dust had denied him. A purpose, a conviction, a puzzle the shade of the evening could not solve. The answer, if there was one at all, was waiting somewhere in the tangible, real world and it took a true seeker to find it.

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The water stretched out beyond the rocky shoreline, deep-red like the blood of a thousand dragons. Undisturbed by any wind, there were no waves or ripples. The surface was smooth as a mirror and reflected the blue sky with its ragged, grey clouds in bizarre, distorted colors. As unnatural as the sight was, the Bleeding Sea and the blooming plant responsible for the blood-red coloration lacked any useful properties. Many warlocks and herbalists had studied the water through the ages, yet they all left disappointed in the end. Removed from their native waters, the algae lost their striking color and didn't even have any value as dye.

"Does the sight make you nostalgic for times when blood ran through your veins?" Treske wandered along the rust-colored coast, not expecting an answer from his silent companion. She just stood there, gazing out across the blood-red sea, still like a statue dressed in tattered, black rags. "Kinou," he tried again, testing whether she would react to the name he had given her a few days ago. Traveling with a mute companion was one thing, but not knowing how to address her was another, rather inconvenient matter. Her true name belonged to the other side ever since she had cut out her tongue, it was only used in whispers by the mummies, yet somehow mere mortals had to make do.

She turned around, slowly, as if the lack of wind made it strenuous to move, and raised one arm in the same glacial fashion. Her finger drew a glyph into the still air, made the invisible lines glow bright for a heartbeat.

"I know." Treske wandered toward the blood-red sea. "I have seen it as well, in visions and dreams. The cataclysm, the demise of what we are." His gaze drifted out to the eastern horizon beyond the Bleeding Sea. "Perhaps in a city of madness we will be believed. Perhaps unknown K'Dath holds the answers we seek."

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She dreams of a world shrouded in shadows, of stars shattering and eternal darkness obscuring the sky.

She dreams of the greatest cities' walls crumbling, of kings and queens falling and empires drowning in the flood of night.

She dreams of ashes blowing over inferile soil, of the silence that lingers when all is said and done.

She dreams of the last gasp of the long summer, of the last fiery embers fading into the chill of endless winter and of the last tears ever cried.

She dreams of a light, of persisting hope to ward off the Long Night.

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"Can it fly?"

Beric watched the obese parrot waddle back and forth on the table, sticking its beak into every mug and bowl it came across before moving on to the next.

Captain Yörb furrowed his brow in thought and regarded the bird for a moment. "Maybe?" he gave back, sounding doubtful. "I've seen birds of this kind fly before, but Yörb never did." The parrot began banging its beak against an empty mug and curiously erected its crest upon hearing the sound. "Suits me fine though," the captain added. "I rarely leave my vessel either, so why should Yörb?"

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The clouds drifted apart on the horizons like grey, puffy curtains and unveiled the fiery sun to the blossoming day. The world looked brand-new in the shroud of deep orange light. There was a new magic to the shimmering waves of the Narrow Sea, and the salt-breeze tasted fresher, more alive than before. The Lord of Light had revealed himself to Thoros in the most unexpected way, had painted the world in more vivid colors, had given death and its finality a new meaning. Had proven that his fire would conquer even the darkest of terrors lingering in the night.

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"Is this flag akin to a captain's coat of arms?" Beric watched as the captain raised a small, sky-blue flag with the white shape of a whale in the middle. "An Ibbenese tradition, perhaps? I have never seen it on Westerosi ships during my travels."

At first Captain Yörb seemed stumped about the inquiry, but a wide, crooked smile emerged amidst the wiry, black beard when he turned around. "A tradition of my people it is, but we don't have knights, castles or a use for coats of arms where I come from." He fastened the rope and walked over to Beric. "This flag has no meaning to mortals and men. We signal to the sky father with it, the almighty master of the winds."

Beric blinked when he glanced up to the flag, almost invisible against the similar blue of the sky. "What are you signaling to him? Are there different flags with different meanings?"

Yörb laughed, shook his head and went ahead to the stairs leading up to the bridge. "It's not that complicated," he said. "Old gods grow tired of hidden symbols and intricate meanings, I suppose. At full mast, it means we're asking for more wind to fill our sails. If the flag is pulled down, we want the wind calm down as well. And at half mast it says we're fine with the wind as it is, and the sky father simply keeps it that way."

"Why does it show a whale then?" Beric followed Yörb to the stairs and up to the bridge. "Is it this sky father's symbol?"

The captain furrowed his brow, then he chuckled to himself. "Maybe it is akin to a coat of arms, after all. There's a whale on it because I used to be a whaler. No hidden meaning, no symbol, I just like the shape of whales."

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And there it rose before them against the pale grey horizon, unknown K'Dath, the first and oldest city in the Known World. The silhouettes of cyclopean walls, slender minarets and vaulted temples stood out against the colorless sky and the endless plains of rock and rubble. Every legend, every superstition and every myth was true within the walls of the city, or so its inhabitants were said to claim.

The vagueness of his own thought amused Treske as he made a first, firm step toward the imposing, black shape in the distance. During his travels he had never met an inhabitant of the city nor anyone who made such a claim. Who knew what secets K'Dath truly held? Perhaps nobody had ever lived in the city since it had been built, Treske pondered, perhaps none of the outlandish legends were true. After all, suspicions of unspeakable rites, mad gods and wayward magic were often cast where nobody went.

As he walked across the empty, grey plains an instinct made him lift his eyes up to the empty, grey sky. The bleeding star he had seen in his vision was absent, yet there was a tangible, forboding tension in the air.

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From stone we came, and with the strength of giants we tamed the Shivering Sea. For thousands of years we have ruled the islands of Skagos, never feared the treacheous currents that wash around the austere coasts of our home. The peoples of the mainland tremble before the might of winter. They hide within their staggering castles, behind the cyclopean Wall they built to fend off the cold. The stoneborn have never cowered in fear. We conquered winter, seized it, made its strength our own. The Northmen just barely survive. We have adapted, we thrive where the coldest winds blow.


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I returned to the table and picked up the letter, thoughtlessly left behind by the room's previous occupant. The strange circumstances of Maester Jeraume's disappearance had intrigued me during my studies, though never enough to look into it. But I couldn't deny that I had pricked my ears when I heard whispers about this subject in the taverns. A famed artist and respected scholar who suddenly vanished during his travels, the controversy surrounding his work, the all too simple, too ostensible explanation. It was a good mystery, well-suited to take a man's mind off more pressing matters for an evening.

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Strange shadows dance in this realm of perputal twilight, where the sky and the sea itself come alive, where mortal men shall not wander. The dark regions beyond the Veil of the World belong to beings even greater and older than krakens and dragons, elusive and wraithlike, too ancient to bear any names.

Brave sailors don't venture here, people say. They have the courage to admit that this place strikes fear in their hearts, and the wits to stay away from these forsaken waters. It is the forlon, the misguided who pierce the Veil; lost souls drawn to lost places.

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"A dangerous path." Dareyush turned his glassy gaze back to me, looked at me, through me, through the Ghost Grass, through space and time. "The answers you seek echo in the Palace of Dust, but finding them, recognizing the truth among possibilities and illusions, is all but an easy task. Many have entered in search of revelation and instead got lost between their own desires and fears. And even if you don't stray from your path, you may not like what you find in the end."

"I am aware of the risks and I am willing to face them. In my true heart of hearts this is not a choice."