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What's West of Westeros

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“Arya, would you please stop that?”

 

“Stop what?” his sister asked, only half listening to him as she squinted against the tropical sun glinting off the crystalline sea.

 

Men were shouting and shuffling around them as they hoisted sails and tied off masts, preparing to anchor on the pinline, pearly coast floating on the horizon. Jon could see the dark specks of river barges and a mob of people against the green curtain of jungle that bowed over the beach.

 

“You’re drumming your hands on the rail. It’s driving me mad.”

 

“Everything has been driving you mad,” Arya pointed out dryly, still not looking at him.

 

“Almost a month aboard a ship with you is enough to drive anyone mad,” Jon replied, ambling up to the rail where his sister sat with one leg hoisted upon the wood.

 

She looked over at him, unamused. “It’s not my fault you hate sailing.” She leaned to the side, looking over his shoulder and perked up, grinning. “Daenerys, tell your husband to shut up and enjoy himself.”

 

“What is it now?” his wife asked with a little laugh as she drew level with them, fresh from her bath and dressing.

 

“He’s being quite sour for someone who is about to see a kingdom no one ever has before,” Arya replied as she looked back over the prow to the coast beyond.

 

“Except for you,” Jon pointed out proudly and Arya responded with a satisfied smirk.

 

Jon watched as Daenerys leaned her hip against the rail, giving him a knowing look. She was wearing a dress he’d never seen before— airy silk the color of blood that wrapped around her shoulders in a flowing drape, veined with gold as fine as flax. Her long hair had been bound up-- some wizardry of Missandei’s doing, and was wrapped in a scarf of the same hue. Around her neck and stretching over her shoulders lay the priceless gold collar Arya had brought back to King’s Landing from the king and queen of Wakanda. A gesture of good faith, of welcome. It, and the many other such treasures that had accompanied it (including, he suspected, the dress his wife now donned), were far more than he and Daenerys could have ever hoped for.

 

He was struck mute, mesmerized by this new vision of her.

 

Daenerys grinned at Arya, shaking her head. “He was never one for sea travel.”

 

“Aye, a Stark through and through in that, I’m afraid,” Arya replied.

 

There was a small pause, all eyes and minds set to the ever-lengthening foreign coast drawing nearer. Daenerys slipped a hand into his own, leaning her head closer to whisper. “Everything well, love?”

 

Jon looked to his boots, pulled from his spell and maybe a bit embarrassed. “Well, I suppose I’m... nervous,” he admitted as Arya chortled in the background. “And more than a bit sweaty. It’s bloody hot.”

 

“You should take this off,” Daenerys pointed out, tugging at the gambeson he wore under his hauberk. “It would help…” she leaned closer to him, candid, “and be extremely becoming.”

 

He grinned at her as Arya scoffed from beside them. “Can you two stop it already?”

 

Jon ignored her, looking back to Daenerys. “I think I would feel rather odd greeting a royal family bare armed.”

 

“You would feel odd doing anything bare armed,” Arya pointed out. “Come to think of it… I don’t think I’ve ever seen your arms.”

 

“They’re quite nice,” Daenerys said, squeezing his bicep. “He should show them off more often.”

 

Arya pulled a face, gagging a bit. “Forget that I said anything.”

 

Daenerys turned back to face him with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, my love, did Missandei not deliver the gown that T’Challa sent back with Arya for you?”

 

He shook his head, looking back to the horizon, his stomach falling a bit as he realized how much closer they had drawn in the short time he hadn’t been paying attention. “She did… but… seriously, Daenerys… that thing? It’s ridiculous. It looks like a dress.”

 

“It’s handsome and just your color.”

 

He huffed. “Black?”

 

“Exactly,” she said with a fondness in her eyes that still made his stomach turnover, even after all these years. “And it is not a thing , love, it’s called a dashiki .” She turned her head, lifting her chin and Jon followed her gaze. “See how handsome your son looks in it?”

 

Indeed, his son did look quite fetching as he strolled up to join them at the rail. He wore a robe very much like the one Jon had been gifted with, only his was a deep purple, detailed with black thread. His silver hair had been brushed and sat atop his head in a tight knot held with some sharp, needle-like implementation Jon had never seen before. “How long until we land?” Aemon asked impatiently, leaning over the rail. Their oldest son had been most eager to go with them, and now that their destination was within sight, Jon was unsure if the boy would simply jump into the sea and swim the rest of the way.

 

“We’re nearly there,” Jon answered with some exasperation. His son took to the sea about as well as he did, but was much more vociferous about it. “But it will be a long journey up the river. How long did it take, Arya?”

 

“About four hours.”

 

Aemon groaned, hanging his head. He was near a man grown, sixteen next year, but sometimes he acted much younger. “Why does it take so damn long to do anything?”

 

“Would you refrain from acting like a spoilt child?” Daenerys scolded. “We are about to meet the royal family of a realm few have ever even stepped foot in. It is a momentous occasion and could mean sure prosperity for--”

 

“I know, mother, I know,” Aemon returned softly, turning and bending to kiss her cheek. Jon did not know where the boy got his height, but he already stood almost eye-level with him and was bound to be taller by him by at least a few inches-- a fact that Jon was sure would irk him for the rest of his days. “I am sorry for being such an ass, I’m just… impatient to get off this ship and clap eyes on the place.” He paused, leaning away from Daenerys and looking her up and down with those pale eyes so much like his mother’s. “You look lovely, mother.” Aemon’s eyes slid to Jon. “Why haven’t you changed, father?”

 

“You know how he is, dear,” Daenerys replied with a scoff. “He’s being stubborn.”

 

Aemon cracked a smile, shaking his head. “Unthinkable.”

 

Jon rolled his eyes. “Where is your sister?” he asked, more to change the subject than anything. He knew very well where his oldest daughter could be found-- if she wasn’t in the rigging. To eliminate this fairly horrifying possibility, he glanced upward, just to be sure.

 

“Tinkering with something or another below decks,” Aemon answered with a shrug. “Ducking the handmaidens.”

 

Daenerys quirked an eyebrow at Jon. “She is certainly her father’s daughter.”

 

Jon shook his head as Arya barked a laugh in acknowledgment. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said as he stepped away. “I have a daughter to cajole and a dress to change into.”

 

“It’s a dashiki!” Daenerys cried after him.

 

+++

 

The very air was different.

 

It felt different. It was thick and clung to her skin like wet cotton. The heat was a very familiar thing to her to be sure, a comforting weight on her shoulders, but the oppressive humidity was another trial altogether.

 

It also smelled different— distinctly riparian and unmistakable— clay and soft wood and tannin-rich reed groves. It was an aroma that could be found in Westeros, but it was paired with something else that was pointedly foreign. The sweet, heady smell of rotted fruit, the musk of leaf litter, and the tang of the very earth itself— the sun baking away at root and stem, creating a near constant mist that soaked the lungs with petrichor and sweet rot.  

 

The sounds as well… it was as noisy as Kings Landing during market day. The bellow of gibbons and the snort of some kind of jungle deer. The near-constant chorus of insects and frogs, the jabber of birds inumerable. They even heard the distant trumpet of elephants almost as soon as they had boarded the barge. Shuri had told them that they were entering the Techano jungle, a wilderness as vast as the Dothraki Sea and thrice as wild.

 

Her husband sat beside her on the spindly couch, twitchy and tense as ever, tugging at the collar of his dashiki and roving his eyes about as if he expected some strange creature to burst from the wild green that hemmed the wide, sluggish river they floated upon. Arya had called it “the River of Grace and Wisdom” before she had retired under the linen canopy at the stern of the ship to sleep off the long journey up the river. Evidently, the novelty of the scenery and the company had worn off. Missandei sat on an ottoman to Dany’s right, straight-backed and proper, as usual, listening intently to the idle chatter of the two bare-chested guards that stood behind her. She was most eager to learn a new language.

 

Aemon sat on the edge of the chaise across from them, as eager and nervous as a hungry hound. He stared wide-eyed, looking both scared and fascinated, at a gang of monkeys lazing in the high branches munching on figs, jumped at the cry of some strange bird as it was startled from its roost.

 

Her daughter, on the other hand, was walking the length of the massive barge with their escort, Shuri, the sister of King T’Challa. Rhaella had almost instantly gravitated to the clever young woman when they had hoved their boat onto the sand. After introductions and a gracious (and quite genuine) praise of the vessel that would be transporting them, Shuri explained quite proudly how she had devised a some new and inventive technique to craft it-- specifically for this momentous occasion. Rhaella, being the creature of curiosity that she was, was rendered smitten.

 

The craft that now bore them was indeed unlike anything Dany had ever seen. It looked as if it had been carved clean and precise from the hulk of a single, ancient tree as black as soot. Veins of glowing amber swirled through it, gleaming in the dappled sun that filtered through the branches bowing over them. It glided through the water, shunted along seemingly effortlessly by two oarsmen with long poles, resplendent with brilliant silks and leopard pelts.

 

“Please, eat, my friends,” a kind-eyed man named W’kabi said from across them. He was one of T’Challa’s closest friends and the leader of the Border Tribes, the first defense of Wakanda against invaders and brigands. They rode rhinos into battle-- whatever those were. At least that’s how Daenerys had understood it from Arya’s briefings. That had been weeks ago and she still felt like her head was spinning.

 

W’kabi leaned forward, perched on the edge of the cushions and picked up a strange, scaly fruit from the palm leaf that covered the entire surface of the mahogany table between them. “This is monkey fruit. It is soft and sweet.” He placed it down and indicated a sizable pile of shaved meat. “And this is cured goat. It is a delicacy. As sweet as guava, but as savory as salted beef. Have Your Graces ever had goat?”

 

Before either she or her husband could answer, Tormund butted in, evidently returning from his “first piss in a jungle”.

 

“Goat is delicious!” he cried, looking quite out of place with his fiery beard paired with his airy linen tunic. “If it wasn’t deer or elk, it was goat for most of my days beyond the Wall, but I’ve never had it cured before.”

 

At this, W’kabi looked at him, slightly mystified by what, exactly, ‘beyond the Wall’ meant. He shook it off, piling a generous helping of the translucent meat onto a little golden saucer and handing it over to Tormund. “Please, my friend, and tell me if you’ve ever had anything more delicious.”

 

Daenerys thought that Tormund seemed quite like a shark on a mountaintop, but, as she had expected, he was adapting as easily as water adapts to the shape of a bottle. He had flatly refused to be left behind, claiming that “the scarred fucker” and the “old man” could not be their only security retinue. Daenerys seriously doubted that his protestations were his only motivation in joining in on the journey.

 

Dany watched as Tormund ate almost the entire offering in one bite, his eyes lighting up with glee. “Now that’s some fucking goat.”

 

Davos, standing behind them and still resolutely dressed in his usual salt-stained leathers, hissed in rebuke. “Tormund, could you maybe set a better example? Our hosts are going to think the worst of us--”

 

“It is quite alright!” W’kabi interrupted with a flamboyant wave of his hands. Dany had already noted how expressive the people seemed to be with their gestures here. “It was a compliment after all.” He looked to her and Jon, raising his eyebrows as he indicated the lavish spread before them. Dany shook her head. “I’m afraid I just ate, my lord.”

 

The man shook his head, looking to the statuesque woman standing next to the chaise in bewilderment. “T’challa told me these Westerosi had strange customs, but I don’t think our king properly prepared me.”

 

The woman grinned, tapping the butt of her fearsome looking spear upon the deck. “Don’t be so boorish, W’kabi. As I understand it, ‘my lord’ is simply a gesture of respect. Which is more than the likes of you deserves.”

 

W’kabi simply tilted his head with a knowing frown, turning his attention back to them. “Okoye has a point, Your Graces. ‘W’kabi’ will work just fine going forward.”

 

Jon nodded. “I appreciate the show of hospitality… W’ka… W’kabi, but I am afraid that my stomach is still settling after a month at sea.”

 

W’kabi inclined his head. “A plight we have in common, Your Grace. I am also not accustomed to the sea.”

 

“May I try?” Aemon asked eagerly, leaning forward with roving eyes as if he had just noticed the delicacies that lay in front of him.

 

“Of course!” W’kabi said graciously, spreading his arms as Aemon piled the cured goat as well as the plethora of fruits and pickled roots onto his plate.

 

“Don’t be greedy, my love,” Dany warned.

 

“He can take as much as he likes, Your Grace,” W’kabi assured with a grin. “Hospitality is sacred in Wakanda. There is plenty more.”

 

“We could not be more grateful for it,” Jon said, leaning his elbows on his thighs. “It is more than we could have ever wished for.”

 

“Our king and queen are gracious and noble,” Okoye said seriously, looking over them both with a critical gaze. “He and your sister tell me that so are you.”

 

Jon looked at the woman, a bit taken aback. Daenerys remembered Arya telling her that Okoye was the captain of an elite fighting force, equivocal to the Kingsguard in Westeros. Except, shockingly, this force was made up entirely of women. She had proven as fearsome as Arya had described her.

 

“There is a saying in our country… ‘words are wind’,” Dany began coolly in light of her husband’s silence. “We cannot assure you of these claims with words alone. Only time will reveal the truth.”

 

Okoye did not give much away, but Dany saw her eyes lighten, her lips twitch. The woman regarded her carefully for a moment longer before waving her spear between The Hound and Jorah, standing silently on either side of the couch her and her husband sat in. “These men,” she began skeptically, “they are your guard?”

 

“Aye,” Jon replied, “they are two of the best fighters in the world, I’d venture to guess.”

 

Okoye tried to keep the doubt from her face, but was most unsuccessful by Dany’s estimation. “Forgive me, King Snow, but how can this one,” she said as she pointed her spear at Clegane, “even move… much less fight to protect you?”

 

“King Snow doesn’t need much protection,” Clegane replied sourly, the first words he had uttered since they had landed on the beach. “But armor is better than a spear in your gut.”

 

Okoye grinned, maybe a bit smug. “Is it not your duty to protect your king? Not yourself?”

 

“Aye, and I can’t very well do that if I’m dead, can I?”

 

Okoye did not respond, only inclining her head, before turning her fierce gaze to Jorah. “And this one! He looks as old as Zuri.”

 

“Ser Jorah has saved my life more times than I can count, my lady,” Dany replied breezily. Arya had also warned them all of the Wakandan sense of humor-- which seemingly consisted of jibes and teasing. The more they disparaged, the more they liked you, apparently.

 

Okoye grinned, leaning on her spear gripped within both her hands. “I have heard much about the prowess of the Westerosi. I look forward to testing those tales.”

 

Jon huffed. “I hear that my sister was able to at least come to a draw with you in a spar.”

 

Okoye looked a bit scandalized for a moment before a wide, slightly wicked smile snaked its way onto her face. “She did, Your Grace. She tells me that her brother is even better.”

 

Before her husband could respond, W’kabi intervened, sensing tension. “Your sister tells me you have two other children,” he ventured magnanimously. “You’ve left them behind?”

 

Dany nodded. “We thought them too young for such a long journey. They remain in King’s Landing with my husband’s oldest sister and my Hand.”

 

“Understandable,” he returned with a smile. “And what of the dragons, Your Grace? I cannot help but notice their absence.”

 

Dany smiled tightly. “I thought it best for them to remain with the rest of the fleet, until such a time your people are more prepared to see such a marvel. They tend to… frighten people, and that is not what I came here to do.”

 

W’kabi nodded, trying to suppress his frown of disappointment. Dany did not think much of it… she was well used to people’s over eagerness to catch a glimpse of her dragons. She could not well blame them.

 

Their host reached for an ewer carved from some strange, brightly colored gourd before him and poured from it a liquid that looked as golden as honey and almost as thick. “Guava wine,” he supplied as he handed her a tiny, fluted glass. “I look forward to the wine you’ve brought from your homeland, Your Grace. I suspect that this will prove far inferior.”

 

She waited patiently as W’kabi poured a glass for Jon. He looked at her and her husband questioningly before he passed a glass to Aemon as well, Jon giving his ascent with a nod. W’kabi looked to Tormund. “And you, my red friend?”

 

“Aye,” Tormund replied, taking the proffered cup eagerly.

 

“A drink for my advisor as well,” Dany said lightly. “If you don’t mind.”

 

“Of course,” W’kabi replied, passing over another glass to Missandei. He looked up to Davos. “And what of the dour one?”

 

Dany and Jon glanced over their shoulder at Davos, who simply shook his head.

 

“To a most fruitful friendship!” W’kabi declared, raising his glass. Dany and everyone else with a serving of the strange drink followed suit.

 

As they threw it back, everyone sputtered, save for Tormund, who slammed the glass back on the table, clapping W’kabi on the shoulder so hard the man nearly fell over. “Now that’s a drink, my friend.”

 

Dany was disinclined to agree. Not only was it strong, it tasted like overripe fruit and oddly of wet leather.

 

W’kabi laughed heartily at the response the spirit had conjured. He looked to Okoye. “I doubt the quality of this Westerosi wine.”

 

“It may not be as strong,” Missandei gasped. “But at least it is enjoyable to drink.”

 

Okoye looked at W’kabi with a raised brow and a shrug. “She has a point.”

 

W’kabi waved his hand in dismissal. “Whatever the quality of spirits, our esteemed guests come with other treasures.” He tilted his chin at them. “Tell me more of these beasts you bring. I have been most curious.”

 

“800 of the finest steeds that Westeros has to offer,” Jon said, his cheeks still a bit red from the drink. “Bred and trained by Dothraki horse lords who have centuries of practice in the art.” Jon looked to her with a fond smile. “But my wife is the truer authority on the subject.”

 

W’kabi nodded, leaning forward in interest. “Yes, I have heard about your affinity with the horse people. Your sister tells me that amongst your many titles, you include their word for ‘queen’.”

 

“Yes,” Dany responded proudly. “They are my people and I am their khaleesi as much as I am queen of the Seven Kingdoms. And the horses of the Dothraki are not only the finest Westeros has to offer, but the world.”

 

Okoye’s eyebrow shot up at that. “That is a tall claim.”

 

“One I do not make lightly, my lady.” Okoye smiled at her, endeared by Dany’s confidence, it seemed. “Your rhinos may be fierce and powerful, but they are not easily transported,” she continued. “From what Arya has told me and my husband, large herds are not sustainable. I have also come to understand that only you and the thousand or so warriors under your command can successfully train and ride such beasts.”

 

W’kabi nodded slowly before leaning back into the cushions with a shrug. “If my rhinos have protected Wakanda for this long, I don’t see why we need a to bring a new creature to our assistance.”

 

Dany smirked, unamused. “Horses can do more than be one of the largest advantages to any army, my lord, but that is besides the point. Your king is the one who will decide if our gifts are of any use to him and his kingdom.”

 

Okoye threw her head back and laughed loudly. “Do not worry, Your Grace,” she gasped between giggles as W’kabi sat silently, looking very put upon. “W’kabi is simply jealous. There is nothing in this world he loves more than his rhinos.”

 

“Well, the journey is long, my friends,” W’kabi said as graciously as possible while giving Okoye a withering glare. “And I know you must be exhausted. Please, feel free to use the canopies and hammocks and relax.” He stood, giving them a bow. “If there is anything you need at all, my friends, please don’t hesitate.”

 

After him and Okoye had left them, Dany exchanged a look with her husband, who seemed so immensely relieved to finally be left alone to rest and perhaps even sleep, she thought that he might just collapse right then and there on the couch.

 

She stood up silently, took his hand, and lead him to the stern of the barge where the canopies-- and the plethora of cushions-- awaited them.

 

+++

 

Rhaella was practically vibrating with excitement next to him, twisting the end of her dark plait within both hands. “What do you think it will be like father?” she asked him breathlessly. “Do you think it will look like Old Valyria? With glowing stones and towers as tall as mountains?”

 

Jon laughed, shaking his head. “I know as much as you do, love,” he said, wrapping his arm about her shoulders to keep her from flying right out of her skin. “I have no idea what to expect.”

 

“It looks nothing like Old Valyria,” Arya answered thickly through a mouthful of mango. She had changed into a woven vest and a short dashiki, paired oddly with her doeskin trousers. “It’s more like Volantis, really… but much more impressive.”

 

Rhaella squealed in excitement. As much as Rhaella likened to her father in looks and temperament, she was much like her aunt Arya when it came to her wanderlust. Jon’s youngest sister now spent her days as his and Dany’s diplomatic envoy, crisscrossing the globe to forge alliances and dine with dignitaries. Rhaella had always been desperately envious and hung on Arya’s every word whenever she returned from a mission. The journey to Wakanda had been Arya’s idea and had been hotly contested. No one was quite sure if the legendary kingdom of wealth and prosperity to the west actually existed, after all. She had been gone nearly nine months and feared dead or captured before her triumphant return.

 

Their party had been stirred from their lazing by the call-and-answer of horn blasts. They were approaching the Pass of the Serpent, which would lead them directly to the feet of the great palace.

 

In front of them rose a mighty wall of verdant cliffs, threaded with countless waterfalls-- some nothing more than silvery wisps of water trickling through moss and brightly colored bromeliads, others roaring down from the precipice in a white, frothy torrent. The churning water was kicking up a thick, cooling mist as they drew nearer. It was a breathtaking sight, to be sure. Most everyone was gathered around the bow of the barge, silent and awestruck.

 

“This is the Lair of Sobek, the god of the crocodiles, and those are the Falls of the Warrior,” Shuri explained. “This is a holy place. Shobek and the spirits of slain warriors protect the way to Wakanda. Navigating these waters is exceedingly dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. There are countless whirlpools and hidden shoals. And then, of course, the man-eating crocodiles,” she added with a wicked grin.

 

Tormund blinked at her, as if under a spell, before leaning closer to Jon. “The fuck is a crocodile?” he muttered.

 

Jon shrugged and there was another horn blast from one of the many rocky perches next to the largest and mightiest of the waterfalls. Shuri pointed up to the top of the cliff with an excited smile. “Oh, this is good.”

 

The man who had blown the horn, as well as another on the opposite side of the fall, took great clubs in hand and swung them at stakes wedged in a crevice of the cliff. It took them three swings, but the stakes were finally knocked free, and with a great rumbling and the roar of disturbed water, the snarling, fearsome face of a panther carved from an enormous stone emerged from the cliff face and through the sheet of water, diverting the flow so the barge may float safely into the great cavern beyond.

 

“I’m working on something better,” Shuri said with a shake of her head. “The old girl is too hard to put back again-- too heavy. It’s a defensive nightmare. What if someone was tailing us?”

 

“Is that one of your gods, too?” Rhaella asked breathlessly, the excitement and stimulation nearly making her to forget how to breathe.

 

Shuri nodded at her. “That is Bast, the panther goddess and the strongest of them all. She blesses our king with her power and wisdom.”

 

Okoye snorted and Shuri laughed in response, but all those gathered quickly fell silent as the shadow of the cavern passed over them.

 

The Pass of the Serpent was well named, as the cave twisted and turned like the body of a great snake. The cavern ws blessedly cool and quiet. It took his eyes a good minute to adjust to the dimly lit passage, but when they did they, he gasped.

 

Carved into the limestone walls were countless etchings of animals-- the number too many to possibly count. Panthers and monkeys and others besides he could not begin to name. No lantern or torch lit their path-- instead the strange, purple glow from the animals’ eyes emmated through the wide tunnel and reflected eeirly from the black mirror of the stagnant river. It was as beautiful as it was chilling. “Fire Bugs,” Shuri supplied proudly. “I figured out how to make their purple fire into a… paint, of sorts.”

 

Dazed, Jon looked about the barge, noticing that the large, crystal lanterns that hung from brass poles at the bow had been illuminated with a soft purple light. Shuri plucked one from its perch and passed it to Rhaella. His daughter nearly squealed in delight as she held up the lantern for him to see. It was filled with fat, black beetles the size of his thumb, little bellies aglow with the strange violet light.

 

“It’s beautiful,” Daenerys said quietly from beside him, squeezing his hand in her own.

 

“You’ve seen nothing yet, Your Grace,” Shuri told her with a wink.

 

She had not been wrong.

 

They turned a bend in the tunnel and a bright, white light appeared before them. “This is it,” Arya whispered in his ear. Daenerys shifted closer to him, both excited and nervous. He disentangled their fingers and opted for twining an arm about her waist, which she leaned into gratefully. Aemon inched forward over the prow, eager.

 

They emerged from a curtain of vines, heavy with tiny purple blossoms, into a wide, crystalline lake and back into the glaring sun.

 

“I’ll be damned,” Tormund said with a low whistle.

 

To their left was a great mountain face, terraced with strange, geothermal pools that flowed in and out of each other like an enormous fountain. “The sacred mountain,” Shuri explained before nodding ahead of them, “and the Palace.”

 

Straight ahead was a conical structure made of stone, capped with what looked to be the biggest stalks of bamboo Jon had ever seen. It’s many palisades and balconies were shaded with grass roofs. Two statues of panthers sat stately and fearsome at the foot of the complex, guarding the large stone pier they were making their way towards.

 

The sound of drums could be heard echoing off the water, and the dark-skinned inhabitants of the city were packed onto the lake’s sloping banks, waving brightly colored kerchiefs and dancing and shouting in greeting. Some were gathered on tiny little fishing skiffs, or other, enormous trading barges much like the one they were on now.

 

Rhaella was bouncing on her feet, waving back to the people on the shore. “Hello!” she called over the clamor of drums and flutes. “Hello!”

 

Jon immediately noticed the diversity of dress and adornment from the people assembled on the beaches. Grass skirts, silk dashikis, linen robes, animal skins and jewel-bright gowns that reminded him of the tokars that were so popular in Mereen. He spotted women with so many golden bands around their necks, they seemed almost elongated. Men with their bottom lips stretched over a disk of wood or clay. Hair as red as rust, or as blue as the sea-- some long and dreaded, but most short shorn-- even the women. Arya had told them that although Wakanda was isolated and its borders encompassed a relatively small amount of land compared to Westeros, its tribes were numerous and diverse.

 

He looked to his wife, who seemed just as dumbstruck as he, and they both raised their hands to wave in greeting. Tormund followed suit, waving his arm like he was flagging down a rider on the road. Aemon also joined in, though more sedately. He was looking a bit pale, a bit overwhelmed. Jon could not well blame him.

 

After what seemed like an eternity, the barge bellied up to the stone dock between the fearsome panthers as tall as trees. The oarsmen leapt from the deck and busied themselves lashing the craft, before unfolding a gangplank from the side of it, the seams of it cleverly hidden within the wood.

 

They all clambered out of the barge and onto the pier as T’Challa and his retinue made their way toward them.

 

Shuri stepped before them, crossing her arms over her chest, pounding her fists on her shoulders and giving a shallow bow. T’Challa returned the gesture with a wide smile. “Sister!” he greeted as he enveloped her in a hug. “I am glad to see that you have not scared off our guests!”

 

“Not for want of trying,” Okoye declared as she walked forward. “As I’m sure you assumed.”

 

T’Challa laughed. “Quite right, yes.” He turned his attention to Jon and his company. “My honored guests!” he cried, bowing again. Jon, Dany, Aemon and Rhaella all returned the peculiar gesture, just as they had practiced. “I hope my friend W’kabi was most hospitable to you,” he said as the man in question approached.

 

“Most hospitable, thank you, Your Grace,” Daenerys returned with a nod.

 

T’Challa smiled, turning to Arya and folding her into a back-clapping hug. “And Arya Stark! It is a blessing to see you again.”

 

Arya grinned knowingly. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that before.” She waved a hand to Jon and Daenerys. “T’Challa, this is my brother, King Jon Targaryen-- but most still call him King Snow-- and his wife, Daenerys Targaryen.”

 

T’Challa stepped forward, taking Jon’s hand in both his own warmly as he kissed both his cheeks, Jon clumsily returning the gesture. “It is such an honor to have you here, Your Graces.” He turned to Daenerys to give her the proper greeting of a queen-- a kiss to the knuckles. Jon was quite surprised to see that the king was dressed in a long black dashiki that looked almost exactly like the one he now donned. He felt his heart, already hammering in his chest, jump up to a new pace.

 

A beautiful woman dressed in a seafoam gown approached just then and T’Challa indicated her with much flourish. “This is my wife and queen, Nakia.”

 

“Such and honor to finally meet both of you, Your Graces,” Jon managed to say through his overworked nerves as he took Nakia’s hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles.

 

“And who is this young man?” T’Challa asked, clapping Aemon on the shoulder as he shook his hand. “I thought you said in your letter that your son was not yet grown! He is nearly as tall as his father!”

 

Aemon looked positively elated at this praise. “I’m Aemon Targaryen, Your Grace.”

 

“Ah, we best keep an eye on this one,” Nakia said pointedly. “He seems a heartbreaker.”

 

“Not quite yet, Your Grace,” Daenerys said with a fond smile to their son. “But soon, I am sure.”

 

“And this must be Rhaella?” Nakia asked as she knelt in front of the girl in question. For all her eagerness to get here and see this place, his daughter seemed to have clammed up upon witnessing the majesty of the king and queen and their fierce cadre of warrior women. She was nearly hiding behind Daenerys’ skirt, blushing furiously.

 

“Rhaella, sweetling, don’t be rude,” Daenerys entreated, to no avail.

 

Nakia laughed, coming to her feet. “It’s quite alright. I have a daughter who is quite shy as well.”

 

“Which, I suppose is why she seems to be absent,” T’Challa pointed out with an exasperated breath. “I must apologize for my daughter’s rudeness. She disappeared not an hour ago.”

 

Jon shook his head. “No need for apologies. We often have to send out search parties for this one and her little brother.”

 

T’Challa grinned. “The joys of parenthood.” He rubbed his hands together, before waving to the palace behind him. “Well, come along, my friends. There is much feasting to be done this night!”

 

And with that, the party made their way up the pier and into the shadow of the great palace.

 

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