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Figli Di Nessuno

Chapter Text

aesthetic

 

 

It was always a pleasure for Ermal to read the starting line of an adventure, to read atlases packed with a wealth of reference information, to read time-worn chronicles of illustrious figures...well, just to read.

That day, it was late in the afternoon when Ermal seemed to be occupied with reading a rather interesting historical book, dealing with anecdotes of old wars and descriptions of different cultures. He was comfortably sitting alone by the window, an arm rested on his knee, while the other held the book; the small hearth in the corner of his room warmed his bare feet, but it did not stop the cold air from freezing his hands. From up there, Ermal could easily let his eyes gaze in the far distance from his chambers, high in the tower of the castle, so he temporarily ignored his reading and watched the foam-covered waves topple over each other and then slide back into sea. The crashing water competed with the loud screeches of the seagulls. Eventually, his book turned out to be even more appealing than his beloved and wayward sea, and Ermal’s full attention was reserved to the vivid illustrations of exotic costumes and primitive maps of distante lands.

As he was idly flicking through the pages, the sudden barking of a dog caused Ermal to flinch slightly. Such a sound wasn’t, by no means, ordinary to hear in the Iron Islands, dogs were actually atypical creatures for that territory and only few of them lived there. Driven by curiosity, Ermal took a look outside the window to see what was happening, and what he saw left him completely dazed: a sinewy man with a hunting hound was crossing the swaying rope bridge connecting the towers of the castle. At first, by the way he was adorned, Ermal ingenuously assumed the man was a sort of common delegate from a nearby region, for the dispatch of ambassadors was not that uncommon in those days, due to the rising tensions between the Houses in Westeros. With a more careful look, however, it became clear that the man wasn’t an ordinary man. And if the hound alone weren’t a sufficient hint, the man was clearly wearing on his chest a sigil with a red flayed man on a pink strewn. He was an envoy of the Boltons.

 

***

 

The pale moonlight cast a soft white glow on the reflective water, providing just enough light to reveal the general shape of Pyke Castle, offering Ermal sufficient visibility to be able to escape.

He was running fervently, cold sweat rolling down his skin in thick, salty beads. His skin shuddered and he could feel his brain starting to defocus, searching for a possible way out. The castle, its towers, and the walls were made of the same grey-black stone of which the rest of the island was composed, and although it wasn’t a night covered in pitch darkness, Ermal struggled to define the dark lines, to see something more than his own feet.

Ermal had seen darkness before, the kind of gloomy darkness that robbed you of your best sense and replaced it with a paralysing fear. He had learnt to dread it and then to tame it. He was familiar with it. But this time, he felt like a prey in this utter black, his dilated pupils scanning for the best gateaway.

One after the other, shouts erupted from within the massive Great Keep, the same place Ermal was escaping from. A particularly too close and distinctive voice reached his ears, allowing him to grasp what they all were yelling “The king is dead! Block the gates!”. Ermal suddenly stopped and grimaced bitterly, the weight of what he had just done swept over him, it sloppily insinuated inside his mind, making his skin crawl, and his body shudder. Nevertheless, he forced himself to pick up his pace, because the shouting was gradually coming closer and closer, and remaining where he was meant a guaranteed death sentence, and not a painless one either.

The walls and his surroundings began to blur as he raced, running frantically to avoid his pursuers. He still had to cross the great stone bridge before arriving to the mainland; he could feel his heart throbbing inside his chest as he slowly passed over the last bridge of the castle. The long bridge curled away coldly into infinite dark, the dim light that showed the rough stones dwindling as it snaked away behind Ermal. The walls of Pyke ran in a crescent moon from cliff to cliff, with the gatehouse, located in the central portion of the wall, just a few steps from Ermal’s sight. He hastened, not caring about the ache in his tired legs and the hammering of his heart, until he finally reached the gate and ran down the cliff, leaving his home behind his shoulders. Yet, he neither stopped nor turned around, with eyes fixed in front of him, he kept on running faster and faster. His feet dragged noisily on the ground, the deafening sound of them teasingly echoing in his head, he wanted to stop it, but all he could do was keep on stepping on twigs and kicking stones.

It was only when he thought he wouldn’t make it, when the exhaustion crept over him and he was certain he would be found, that Ermal finally reached his destination: the dock of Pyke.

 

Nestled among giant rough rocks, right near the dock, there was a small wooden cottage with the dark shutters closed and a tall oaken door at the entry. Ermal approached the door and took himself a moment to catch his breath before knocking twice. The yelling from the castle was still audible though not so close anymore, and Ermal felt anxiety mercilessly lingering on his stomach as he waited for the door to open. Few minutes later, a bearded man came to open the door. He looked like he had just woken up and not exactly happy to ha ve visitors in the middle of the night.

The instant the door was yanked open, both surprise and confusion were painted on the older man’s face. His visit was wholly unexpected, yet Ermal wasted no time, not waiting for the other to ask him inevitable questions but spitting words out, impatient to eradicate them from his own mind where they had been taking root, “Dino, I need your help!”

Ermal was speaking, though Dino was not paying attention, for he was observing him with rapt attention, his gaze trained on Ermal’s clothing. His shocked expression engendered a shade of momentary dismay in Ermal’s eyes: in the rush of his urgent escape he hadn’t noticed the blood smearing his elegant shirt. Not only were his clothes covered in fresh blood, expanding blood stains dirtied even his right forearm up to his wrist. Instinctively, he pressed a hand against the stains, in a worthless attempt to hide the blood and clean it away.

“Are you injured?”

Ermal lowered his gaze, taken aback by the abrupt question, focusing on an insignificant point somewhere between his feet. “No...it-it’s not mine.” He was perfectly aware that it was a scarce explanation, and a very poor one indeed, but if nothing else, he managed to reassure Dino a little by making him understand that the blood on him wasn’t his own.

Dino sighed, noticing the anxiety and the panic rising in the younger’s brown eyes, thus uttering in a calm and slow tone, “Ermal, tell me what happened”.

“No no...Dino I can’t explain right now, I really need to get out of the Iron Islands.” Truth be told, the young fugitive did not get to Dino’s abode casually; on the contrary, he had a good reason: the man was actually the watchman of the dock of Pyke Isle, so he was supposed to keep and take care of the smaller boats and, above all, to check who had the right to set foot on the island and who instead could leave it. Such a role obviously brought along the blind trust on the part of the lords and of the Lord of the Iron Islands himself, for this reason Ermal wouldn’t run the risk to be looked for in that place because no one would suspect and doubt the guardian’s loyalty. The both of them were taken by surprise when the sweet voice of a drowsy little girl filled the air.

“Daddy, who’s there..?”

Thanks to the kind sound of his beloved daughter’s voice, Dino relaxed visibly, an easy smile appeared on his face before he answered as calmly as possible. “It’s a friend, Aurora, go back to sleep”. Dino didn’t miss the way Ermal’s lips almost imperceptibly curved at the child presence, but he neither missed the way his hands were trembling uncontrollably and how the tendons in his neck were standing out, with a visible pulse...

“Please...Dino, help me. I can’t do this alone”. Ermal was in the verge of tears, hopelessness now encumbering over him.

Just the mere thought of seeing Ermal crying was enough for Dino’s expression to soften, “It’s alright Ermal. You don’t have to tell me anything, I know you well enough to trust you. You can count on me, my friend.” The idea of giving him a hug of encouragement nearly touched his mind, but it withdrew as soon as he realised how nervous and shaken Ermal was.

A shy “Thank you” was all Ermal managed to say.

From the rock upon which stood Pyke Castle, came not only enraged shouts but also the threatening sound of feet rapidly stamping on the ground, running in search of the traitor regicide, which meant that Dino had little time to let Ermal escape before the guards finally came and found him. He quickly left the house, closing the door behind him, and ordered Ermal to follow him as silent as possible. In a matter of few minutes, they reached the small dock situated next to the house. It was evident that there weren’t really a lot of boats due to the limited dimensions of the small dock, in fact, since there was no safe anchorage at Pyke, bigger ships sailed to nearby Lordsport, the large town located near a wooded point with pine-clad bluffs, whose main benefit was to provide safe anchor for those who wished to reach the castle of Pyke. Nevertheless, Ermal found what he was so desperately looking for: a decent small boat useful enough to reach the opposite shore.

Dino gently helped him to get in a boat with a lateen sail and proceeded to attend to the adjustment of the mooring lines, releasing the knot from the dock. A bit far away, the ocean lapped at the sand leaving its lacy foam to trail the waves as they retreated. Just when Ermal thought it was time to go, Dino unexpectedly took his upper long shirt off and threw it in the boat, towards a perplexed Ermal.

“You can’t go around with bloodstained clothes...especially if it’s the dead king’s blood we’re talking about. Just wear that and you will, at least, avoid some over-suspicious troublesome looks.”

Ermal gave him a watery smile in response and gave him a quick nod.

“Good luck, my friend. What is dead may never die.

“What is dead may never die. Goodbye, Dino.”

At last, Ermal succeeded in abandoning the dock, leaving a worried Dino behind his back. He was adamant to flee from those islands as soon as possible, though with tight shoulders and dizziness, weakness in his legs and knees.

The total lack of sound was soon able to soothe his nerves a little, steadying his breath. However, the eerie darkness coerced Ermal into coming to terms with the deprecable action he committed. A sudden and overwhelming sensation of dread floated all over him, clenching his jaw and making him blink rapidly. But Ermal was used to being under constant assault from fear, he was basically grown up with fear and that meant that he had at least learnt to cope with it.

His next move was to grip the board of the boat, knuckles going white, and to do what made him always feel better: staring at the stars above him. The stars were visible somewhere behind the haze of black cloud that was stretched thinly above, and the transitory moonlight bleached the grey-scale world momentarily. In that black serenade, the waves came, transient yet always there, rising and falling in a sweet rhythm, like music to Ermal’s ears. And scattered all above them, the stars were a choir; mesmerizing lights that sung in infinite patterns.

Sometimes, Ermal needed this kind of music, he needed to lose himself in that paper horizon.

And the clearer was the night the sweeter was the song.

 

Fortunately, that night the wind was fair, there were small wavelets, crests of glassy appearance, so the sail was moving regularly. After many hours on the boat, Ermal finally managed to cross Ironman’s Bay and reached his destination: the shore of Banefort.

Banefort was actually situated near the Iron Islands, and was only half a day's sail from Pyke. Its castle was the seat of House Banefort, a noble house sworn to House Lannister.

Although Ermal’s highest priority was to escape without any idea whatsoever of what he would do once left the Iron Islands, during those long sailing hours he had had a lot of time to think and clear his head. And he did think about his next moves: for starters, he had to get to Banefort without being caught, then he would search an efficient hiding place and, hopefully, he would be able to hide and embark on some departing ship.

It was late in the morning when Ermal got out of his little boat and set foot on the ground, elated to finally feel earth below his feet. Dino’s boat was carelessly abandoned on the shore, on a well-hidden corner of the dock, so that no one might have seen him arriving. Despite the cold weather, the sun was peering through the clouds, and cheerful voices could be heard from the center of the small town. Ermal soon found out that the voices hailed from the town square, where people of every age were attending the daily market. Taking a look wouldn’t certainly harm him, after all, the guards were probably still looking for him in the Iron Islands. Besides, Ermal had to admit that he was starving since he hadn't eaten in a day, maybe more.

The market was crowded with so many people that Ermal, at first, felt out of place, used as he was to spending time alone or with the few people in the castle. Among chattering young girls and playing kids, there were dozens of counters selling fresh fruits , imported vegetables, and fish, and Ermal eyed up a stall full of red apples, sold by an old man. He had always been averse to any form of theft, but, admittedly, he was truly hungry and those apples looked way too tempting. With a careful movement, he managed to grab an apple and cast it under Dino’s large tunic. Still, even after taking the first bite of the piece of fruit, Ermal couldn’t help but feel terribly guilty about it.

He was hiding in a narrow alley near the town square so that he could eat his apple in peace, away from prying eyes. He was limply leaned against the wall of a disheveled building, left without energy from the events of the previous night and the exhausting crossing of Ironman’s Bay. He needed to exploit these calm moments to gather his thoughts and decide how to proceed thereafter.

On his way back to the market, Ermal was withdrawn from his thoughts the second he heard two young women talking about how Banefort port would be soon full of ships ready to depart for some far away places. The blonde woman was cheerily describing the wonderful, exotic products which could be found on those ships, soon to be sold and traded in exchange for local ones.

An abrupt realisation struck Ermal: the wisest thing to do was definitely embark and hide in one of those leaving ships, optimistically the one whose destination was as far away as possible from his homeland. He headed towards the port with haste, fearing to be caught up by some Ironborn guards. Between some huge sailing ships decorated with the Lannister sigil and a handful of poorer boats with little amount of goods, not for a moment had Ermal thought he would find a ship he was quite familiar with.

Indeed, he knew the captain of the ship and it wasn’t long before Ermal found out that the ship was directed towards Sunspear, the capital of Dorne. Being the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms, it consequently turned out to be the perfect destination for Ermal to start a new life; as a matter of fact, Dorne was located too far south from the Iron Islands and, surely, no Ironborn would dare to venture into such a distant kingdom, even when it came to the their king's murderer.

He cleverly mingled among the crewmen and managed to get on the ship when the sun was still up, and the men were starting to load the ship with goods to sell. Ermal went below deck and found the place reserved for the merchandising. He was aware that the most sensible thing to do was blending among the selling products. Therefore, when he saw a big trunk filled with a wide selection o f fascinating fabrics and textiles stacked one above the other, he didn’t think twice before throwing himself inside the cozy trunk, trying to become as small as possible in order to put the fabrics all over him, so that he was wholly hidden by them.

 

In the meantime, on the deck of the ship, the sailmen were getting everything ready for the departure and a very stressed captain was scattering orders here and there. He was a rather old man, though outstandingly witty and lively for his age. His trustworthy quartermaster walked towards him, holding a too long list with the goods to check for the last time before finally leaving the port. Just the mere sight of it scared the captain, who started to grumble and sigh. “I know, Antonello, it’s boring for me, too. But at least we should check on the most precious ones just to be sure that there is everything. Like those expensive-looking fabrics, for example.”

As much as he didn’t want to, Antonello knew that his fellow was right, therefore he went down the stairs and slowly walked towards the trunk full of fabrics. As soon as he was right in front of it, he started to count the charming pieces one by one, quickly yet with caution. Once he reached the eighteenth layer, though, his hands suddenly felt something very soft to the touch, even softer that those rich textiles...it was indeed Ermal’s dark curls.

Silently cursing himself, Ermal decided to get out from his ridiculous hiding place: at this point, pretending not to be there was completely absurd. At the sight of the young man rising up from beneath his precious fabrics, Antonello widened his eyes, feeling utterly shocked.

However, the initial shock vanished the moment he realized that the intruder hidden in his ship was actually Ermal Greyjoy, the prince of the Iron Islands.

“Bloody hell, Ermal! You were about to give me a heart attack, lad! What the hell are you doing here?”, the captain exclaimed, staring at his face in bewilderment.

Ermal scratched his head sheepishly, not meeting the other’s eyes. Before he could even think about something to say, he felt a hand grabbing him roughly and touching his right hip, and he flinched out of reflex. Evidently, while he positioned himself inside the wooden trunk, Dino’s tunic moved and at some point tore, being way too large for Ermal’s size, thus revealing some of the bloodstaines on the shirt underneath. Antonello didn’t move his hand from the other’s hip. “Word gets around real fast out here, you know that. Basically everyone knows the Lord of the iron Islands was murdered last night. I suspected it was you right away. I wasn’t wrong, I guess”, he uttered lowly, weighing up each word.

Ermal raised his gaze and finally looked at the older man, he then took a deep breath, “You weren’t wrong. I killed him. I killed my father, Antonello”, he whispered, quivering slightly. A moment of thick tension followed Ermal’s straightforward confession. Antonello removed his hand and was the first to break the silence, gently smiling at the young man, “Well, all I can say, it’s about damn time!”

Reluctantly, Ermal gave him a sad smile in response and relaxed his shoulders; now that he told the captain what he did, he inevitably felt a little better, as if he got a huge burden off his chest.

“So, what are you going to do from now on?” Ermal thought about it for awhile. H e realized to be entangled in a very advantageous position for him, since he was found out, he might as well have exploited it to reach Dorne enjoying the company of Antonello on his ship. “Well, I was thinking...would you mind if I stayed here with you so that I can get to Sunspear?”

He might at least spend some time with him: only after gaining much distance from this dangerous area, would he figure out what to do next.

“Ah, you hurt my feelings if you feel like you need to ask for it. You are welcome to stay with me as long as you desire, Ermal, and you just-”, Antonello pressed his lips tightly, “well, let’s pretend you are not who you are and you’ll be fine.” The captain then turned and started to leave. While Ermal was busy fixing his unkempt clothes and messy long curls, Antonello spoke again, making Ermal smile a little. “Now take off that bloodied piece of cloth though. You can’t walk around here clad in a bloodstained shirt, don’t you think?”

 

Antonello Venditti had been commanding a big sailing ship of smugglers for several years now. Its name, Under the Sign of Pisces, wasn’t chosen by chance, on the contrary it was a good omen, indicating prosperity for a fair wind and utopian freedom but also the constant desire to achieve stability by fighting for those ideals.

It was notably common for its ship to dock at Pyke port, due to the recurrent blackmarket deals with the Iron Islands. As a matter of fact, Capitan Venditti used to benefit from the Ironborn’s recurrent raids: they pillaged and took whatever they fancied, especially slaves and gold, and the Lord was more than willing to sell to Antonello everything he didn’t need, in exchange for luxury goods from the South, otherwise nowhere to be found in his territory.

 

***

 

It was a particularly rainy and cold evening, even for the Iron Islands, when the prince of the Iron Islands hid himself in his chambers in order to spend some of his leisure time alone. He inhaled deeply, grabbed the black ink on his desk, and started to write a letter:

Dear Antonello,

today is..

As soon as he finished to write it and just put down the quill, Ermal heard men shouting and yelling from the local dock and he peered out of the window to see what was happening. Happily, he realised that Antonello’s ship had just docked at Pyke.

No matter if he was just arrived and probably very tired, the captain would surely be glad to see him after so much time.

“Antonello!” Ermal rushed outside towards the captain, waving his hands quickly in order to catch his attention. Eventually, Venditti noticed him and grinned back at him: “Ermal! How have you been?”

Meanwhile, some of his fellow men were fastening the ship to the dock and the others were slowly offloading its cargo. This time, the Under the Sign of Pisces carrried colorful, luxury fabrics according to the Lord’s personal taste. And, in addition to that, Antonello was holding a special small case, carried till there specifically for the prince. “Well, take a look at this.” Antonello motioned him to come closer and Ermal visibly lit up with pure joy at the sight of all those wondeful books arranged inside the case. He couldn’t help but rapidly wrest the whole case from Antonello’s hands, eager to admire each one of those interesting volumes.

“Whoa, easy!”, Antonello laughed, happy to see the prince finally joyous for once. “This time I must have come across something really special: look, this one is terribly time-worn, it must be extremely refined, no?”

Ermal took the book in his hands with loving care, and stared at it in amazement.

“Thank you so much, Antonello!”

 

***

 

Next morning a strong wind was blowing, and the sea was gray and white, with long breaking waves. It was hard to tell where the grey skies ended and the grey seas began.

The sailing ship pitched and rolled franticly, thrashing about in the waters of the choppy and wallowing sea. It was fashioned from ancient oak, with masts that stood as tall, and adorned by sails of white to dove grey.

Here and there tall crests topped with white froth charged through the sea. Very few of the crew were on deck to enjoy the wild scenery. One of them was Ermal. Holding on the bulwark, he was looking at the sea in a relaxed manner, clearing his mind. He turned around and saw Antonello speaking loudly with the quartermaster. The captain didmissed him once he had finished telling him what to do. He then came towards Ermal and started to complain with him about the quartrmaster: “Trust me, he's a mess, that man! Three times I told him to clean up the deck and put in order the most fragile objects, and only now does he do that.”

Ermal chuckled lowly, and he vaguely found himself thinkining about the Ironborn: he recalled the waves they used to run into when they were at sea, how they engulfed them before they pillaged and spread fear, and he also thought about how different it was to be here instead, on Antonello’s ship with his men.

In the breeze his hand was cold as he put a rebelliuous curl behind his ear. “You, my friend, who sail the seas, have seen more sun rays than waves and corsairs.”

 

After more than three weeks at sea, the golden domes of the city of Sunspear were finally visible on the horizon.

Chapter Text

The slowly setting sun painted the yellowish walls with a faint brush of red, the shadows from the few yet tall palm trees reaching down the low hill towards the town of Sunspear.

Fabrizio had finally arrived at the feet of the huge gates after a draining long journey. Besides, the weather wasn’t absolutely of any help: the Kingdom of Dorne had indeed a harsh desert climate. As a result of having to pass through the only desert on the entire continent of Westeros, Fabrizio and his young travelling companion were wearing a big turban on their head and they both felt like dying from the extreme heat. Fortunately, they chose to travel on horse, which, at least, had made the journey a bit easier and surely faster.

“Getting late, fellows”, the guard at the town gate said, walking forwards to question the tired-looking foreigners. “The gate closes at sundown.”

“Long day on the desert”, Fabrizio answered calmly, finally getting down from his horse. His back and legs were sore and he was hoping to handle with the guard as quickly as possible. “But we finally have a cozy place to rest.”

“Of course. Lost are we?” the guard asked with a sigh, tired to have to deal with the usual wanderers, gotten lost during their journeys.

“Oh, no, not at all. We’re glad we didn’t get lost.” Fabrizio managed to fake a relieved smile in an impeccable way. “My nephew and I are merchants. We came up to here in order to find a job, am I right, Nico?”

Niccolò, in turn, was having trouble getting off his horse, the animal kept on struggling against his moves and Niccolò swore back at it. He was withdrawn from his movement as soon as he heard the other man calling his name, and, by the way Fabrizio was scowling at him, he realised that he was probably supposed to say something, “Oh, yes. We come from far away. I hope to find a job here...maybe at the market.”

The guard eyed them for a moment, but looked quite convinced: after all, he had seen many travellers over his years at this gate and considered himself to be a good judge.

“Alright. If you’re looking for an inn and provisions, then the best taverns are up by the square.”

Fabrizio nodded and motioned Niccolò to come closer to him before politely saying, “Thank you, that sounds perfect.”

The old guard finally stood aside, letting the two men enter through the sturdy walls and disappear into the warren of stone housing.

It took only few seconds before Niccolò started to exhale forcefully. He shook his head and struggled to take off that insufferable turban on his head. As soon as he was free from it, he shook his head and begin to grumble, “Ahh, finally! I was boiling with that thing!”

Fabrizio enjoyed the whole scene and laughed, particularly amused by the way Niccolò was complaining for the umpteenth time.

The instant Fabrizio recrossed the gates of Sunspear he did so accompanied by a long-buried sense of melancholy. Walking down the city streets, he was reminded of long time before, of his childhood and the little house where he was grown up with his parents. They had been poor and his father had made a living selling local products at the big market while his mother had taken care of the house; better off than some, perhaps. Certainly, their little, humble home on the corner of the narrow lane was in stark contrast to the proud stone buildings that Fabrizio used to see in the distance as he walked towards the town centre, when he was young. It was a happy childhood, nonetheless, and they managed to live well enough without huge sacrifices.

 

Fabrizio and Niccolò had enough coin to pay for a cheap room and the Barabba Inn certain had an air of economy about it. Without giving it a second thought, they approached the inn and left the horses steadily fastened on the outside. They entered the inn as two very weary men, exhausted from the journey and way too upset with the hot dry weather of the region. Evidently, the landlord of the inn didn’t take much to notice their miserable state because he reserved them a long look as soon as the door was opened.

“Hello, fellows. Just serving the other guests and I will be with you,” the landlord called as he poured a glass full of delicious red wine to an old man sprawled on the rough seat, next to the open windows. Niccolò sank on the seat, finally feeling comfortable and relaxed, and stretched a little. “Wine?” the white haired owner asked, squeezing behind the small counter and wiping the dust away with an old rag.

Fabrizio joined the younger man and settled himself across a table. “That will be fine. Thank you”.

Two filled glasses were soon taken to them, along with some fish and fresh fruit. Niccolò looked askance at the fruit, disappointed not to find substantial food waiting for him. Then he decided to go for the fish.

“The local is good enough for us here.” started Fabrizio, “we’ll stay here and look for a job in the morning, do you agree?”

, sounds good to me, Fabbrì,” came the spontaneous answer.

The two ate their dinner almost in complete silence, exchanging some vague words every now and then.

Looking in from the outside, the whole situation could have been easily misinterpreted as a typical dinner between two friends, maybe reunited after a long time, or even about to start a new life, ready to put a turbulent past behind. But they were here for a precise reason, instead. Fabrizio whipped the food off his plate, so he rested his head on the back of his hand and starting th inking about how nice it would have be en to be there just for some time off with Niccolò like two common travellers, but he knew he had some important work to do. He had a mission to accomplish.

 

***

 

Braavos was the strangest. A labyrinth of illusion and deceit. It emerged from the shadows, and shadows were also its citizens’ real identities.

Braavos was unique because, unlike the other Free Cities, it was never part of the Valyrian Freehold. The city was founded by a large group of escaped slaves, who overpowered their Valyrian captors, fled their grasp and took finally control of the ships that were transporting them. Knowing they would be severely punished for such a terrible act of rebellion, the slaves sought a refuge as far away from the Freehold as possible, thus turning north instead of south.

A defining trait of Braavosi culture was actually its hatred of slavery, a direct relic of the city's founding; as a matter of fact, its founders had risked their lives for freedom, therefore they swore a vow that, no matter what, no one in their city would ever be subjected to slavery. This vow became the First Law of Braavos, engraved on the arch risen above the Long Canal. It decreed that no man, woman, or child was ever to be made a slave.

It represented a belief Fabrizio could strongly relate to. He identified completely with such ideal, since for a man like him, freedom was an unyielding presence in his life, he considered freedom to be as sacred as bread.

 

Fabrizio walked over the bridge connecting the city of Braavos to the small island of The House of Black and White, the temple dedicated to the Many-Faced God. It served as the headquarters of the Faceless Men. Although it could be easily reached, the island was usually deserted.

Fabrizio entered the House and faced the central sanctuary with a large pool. Its water was poisoned, and was given out as a gift to those who were suffering and came voluntarily to the temple to seek the release of death.

Right across the pool, there was the atrium, lined with statues of many gods representing death from many different faiths, from across both Essos and Westeros, which Fabrizio had found fascinating as well as deeply macabre since the first moment he stepped into the House.

However, he had to proceed in the depths of the temple, he was supposed to show up in the Hall of Faces, where the faces of the ones who drank the poisoned water were jealously kept in small alcoves to be employed as the basis for the face-changing abilities of the Faceless Men. Fabrizio eventually set foot on the enormous vault and all those faces seemed to be staring at his figure, like a giant misshapen hawk about to tear him limb from limb.

In the centre of the great Hall there was no-one but a tall man covered by a white hood. Claudio, one of the major leaders of the guild of assassins, was patiently waiting for Fabrizio to come closer. “Fabrizio Mobrici, Valar morghulis

“Valar dohaeris”, Fabrizio replied, lowering his head a moment in sign of respect.

It was clear that Claudio was holding a letter between his hands, carefully folded as to appear as small as possible. They only assassinated targets they had been hired to kill and were not in the position to choose who was worthy of the gift by themselves.

“You’ve been called here for a reason. You have been assigned to a urgent and delicate mission”. Fabrizo was then handed the letter, he knew the rules by now: on that paper there was written the name, the details and a sort of drawn sketch of the target he was expected to execute according to someone’s will. The letter was strangely difficult to unfold, Fabrizio reasoned, it was as if the paper itself were aware of the noteworthy position of the target and hence of the secrecy of the mission.

Fabrizio’s thoughts were directed to the analysis of the target’s personal information:

 

Ermal Greyjoy

26 years old

Prince and first in line to inherit the title of Lord of the Iron Islands.

Guilty of regicide.

 

What presented itself to him was quite a contrast to the look Fabrizio imagined for a man accused of committing such a serious crime: the young man in question had dark big eyes and his beardless thin face was framed by shoulder-long wavy curls.

That sketch conveyed the idea of a kind young man, sweet-tempered even, certainly it was not the features Fabrizio was used to see when having to deal with violent, cruel men.

But Fabrizio knew it very well: looks can be deceiving. Notwithstanding the young and calm appearance, this man had murdered the Lord of the Ironborn, but most importantly, he had killed his own father, and that’s all Fabrizio needed to know in order to accept the mission.

“The Ironborn promised a high reward,” Claudio explained, “the deceased Lord must have been really important for his people. I presume he was highly respected, considering how the Ironborn acted immediately to find and have the Prince killed.”

Fabrizio found himself to agree with Claudio, the Faceless Men commanded exorbitant fees, but had a reputation for success which was unparalleled by any comparable organization. And the asking cost increased relative to the importance of the target and the difficulty of the killing, so they did wanted their prince dead, apparently.

“Alright, I’ll handle it”, Fabrizio answered before leaving the House of Black and White.

He went back to the city, leaving the small island behind. He thought about the mission. His target was supposed to be in the Kingdom of Dorne, because, as Claudio explained just before, once the Ironborn realised that he no longer was in their territory, they sought in Banefort and found out that most of the departing ships were directed to Dorne. Hence, the prince could very likely be found there. Luckily Fabrizio knew the place very well, having spent the most of his life there, but it promised to be a very long journey; besides, he wouldn’t mind to have some company on the road. So, Fabrizio figured that he might surely count on Niccolò, his young loyal assistant, who could also help him to find the prince in Dorne.

There were no trees to be found within the city, making Braavos a sort of flat city of stone architecture and granite monuments. The streets Fabrizio was passing through to get to Niccolò’s were lined with houses made of grey stone, built so close that they leaned upon one another. Some houses were even built above waterways. They were usually slim buildings with peaked tile roofs, raised four to five stories tall, and Niccolò’s house was one of them.

Fabrizio smiled softly at the sight: Niccolò was outside, down on his knees all caught up in stroking the fur on his cat’s neck. He had always been a bit different from the others, a bit more inclined to deeper kind of thoughts, surely more mature and sensitive than most. Despite his young age, he often lived with his mind in the clouds, with hanging dreams, always longing for something he didn’t have yet. His natural disposition of being on the side of the outcasts got him interested in the deeper ideals of the Faceless Men, especially in helping others with the gift, when truly needed. As a result of his allure of the guild, Niccolò joined them, without assassinating people for hire though, his major task was in fact helping the other members and, above all, dealing with poorer, abandoned people and donating the gift to the worthy ones. Unmistakably, one of the major reasons he joined the guild was that Fabrizio Mobrici was one of them. The young man had made his acquaintance just a few weeks after Fabrizio had arrived in Braavos, he had admired him since he met him, and the other, in turn, was very fond of Niccolò.

Fabrizio cleared his throat, coughing twice to get the other’s attention, “Hey Nico, listen...I was just given a mission to accomplish in Dorne, what about you come with me?”

Niccolò grinned, clearly happy with the proposal, “Certo, Fabbrì, let me just get a few things and we can leave even today if you want”.

 

***

 

The next morning, Fabrizio and Niccolò paid the old landlord and left the cheap cozy inn.

It was a brash change stepping out from the dimly lit interior of the inn to be suddenly overwhelmed by the blinding light of Sunspear, many sun rays already warming the faces of the two men. They had to pass through the area of the poor quarter to cross the lane into the stone solidity of the streets, but it was a subtler change to where the buildings became gradually grander as the two made their way into where the money and influence of the Kingdom lived. Yellowish walls were so replaced by finely cut sandstone blocks, some even carved with intricate geometrical designs and symbols, perhaps a note of arrogance, Niccolò couldn’t help but think, by those who had succeeded or were simply born into success.

After weaving through the labyrinth of roads, the paths eventually converged and unveiled the main square of the town.

This wealthy quarter felt older and more lively to Fabrizio, the lower stones of the buildings worn smooth by the passing of people, rubbing and stroking the cool surfaces as they fought their way into the bustling noisiness and crowdedness of the large square, home to the day's market. Fabrizio and his assistant stepped over the ancient granite cobbles, a specific type of stone Niccolò had never seen in his travels and Fabrizio had not seen in a long time, instead.

“I think I could manage to get a job at the market here where there’s lots of people. So I can see if your curly guy walks around here,” Niccolò pointed out.

Fabrizio nodded in agreement, “You’re right, see what you can find here, I’ll go look for something at the port” he put an arm around the other’s neck and then patted him affectionately on the head.

Niccolò turned away from him and pushed his way through the open stalls, looking for the many oranges and lemon sellers, any selling fruit, fish or tomatoes; the common products of the Dornishmen.

Meanwhile, the mid-morning sun warmed Fabrizio's back as he crossed the market square and made his way along the dusty road before turning up a lesser known way and heading back into the alleyways to continue his walk unobserved.

As Fabrizio headed towards the dock of Sunspear, he did so using his own face; it almost felt like coming home, supposing that a Faceless Man could still pretend to have a home to call his own.

Before becoming a Faceless Man, he had lived a blissful, intense life in an outlying village near Sunspear. A life made up of a nice home filled with few belongings for himself, warm meals, and the happy, sparkling presence of his son, Libero.

 

***

 

Fabrizio worked as a cook in a small inn at the borders of the village, always crowded with guests eager to taste his delicious meals. Libero was a child of seven years old, and although Fabrizio had him when he was little more than a boy himself, he had loved him with all his heart, nonetheless. Those years, House Martell was not in such good terms with the Lannisters, hence it wasn’t uncommon for the people living in Dorne to experience unexpected attacks and raids at the hands of some of their soldiers. One night, occurred that a small group of Lannisters pillaged the poor village where Fabrizio lived, right when Fabrizio was late to finish his turn at the inn. For those men, it was merely a random raid in a random village, but for that village it meant a slaughter . The village was utterly destroyed and all of its occupants killed.

On his way back home, Fabrizio came across the lifeless bodies of the people he knew, with whom he had spoken just some hours before. With horror, he started to assume the worst, so he began to run faster and faster in order to reach his home and finally hug his beloved son. A harsh shiver went down his spine the moment he noticed a small body lying on the ground, just outside his house. Fabrizio hastened, forgetting all the fatigue in his swaying legs from the rush run, desperate to find any remaining flickers of life in his child’s body, but was met with cold silence. His son was gone, stolen from him. Without a shred of reason.

 

That nameless tragedy left Fabrizio with nothing but a lacerating pain and an unbridgeable hole in his entire being.

At first, there was wrath and a consequent sharp need of vengeance: he craved to murder each man who had slaughtered his son and the whole village one by one. His sleepless nights were spent meandering about their deaths, yearning for it as if he nearly had it on his fingertips. And he was angry, constantly angry at everyone. But Fabrizio had always been a man of faith, and in spite of what had happened to him, he still was. He prayed, but now he prayed fervently for the merciless death of those men.

As second uninvited guest, Fabrizio opened the door to a subjugating sadness and a deep loss. This time he spent his nights mulling over his lost child, mourning him, calling to his mind every possible detail and memory he could vaguely remember, to seal every fathomable image to his heart, to be always beside him. And never risking to fail him, even in this case his faith promptly provided assistance to his soul. He prayed, but now he prayed for his son to be fine wherever he was, for himself to be able to remember him forever, and although he prayed to silence, Fabrizio settled for having faith in silences.

After his son’s death, Fabrizio felt the urgent need to escape, to go away and tire his mind. He travelled a lot through Westeros and even further away, and during his long journeys, Fabrizio realised that thousands of men from a hundred different lands faced death on a daily basis, and over time, such realisation developed into the belief that while they came from many different places and followed different religions, all of these religions were fundamentally the same because they all worshipped death in some way. And death was the same for every man.

In time, he arrived in the free city of Braavos and heard about the guild of the Faceless Men; he found out that this new awareness of him, was none other than the religion and the ideals followed by that group.

In fact, they believed in a syncretic belief system worshipping the Many-Faced God of Death: they claimed that Death had appeared to humans under many different faces as many different gods, but they were all basically the same one god.

Fabrizio wanted to find out more, and was soon taught that their society had originated by a slave working in the mines of Valyria who, having heard the prayers of the slaves to their various gods, had come to conclude that they all prayed to the same god, only with a hundred different faces. Later, the first Faceless Man had discovered another slave praying for his master's death and he had granted the prayer in exchange for that slave to join him in serving the Many-Faced God.

Fabrizio figured he could easily relate to the Faceless men, their ideals being very similar to his new concept of faith.

As an initiation rite he was forced to forsake his name and become a nobody’s son, simply one of the many devotees to the Many-Faced God.

“Who are you?”

No one”, Fabrizio answered.

In addition to that, he was supposed to kill people for hire and, truth be told, Fabrizio didn’t mind the idea of murdering guilty people, as a sort of small act of revenge for his son’s death. However, killing someone they knew, for personal gain or out of anger was forbidden to Faceless Men.

No matter what, Fabrizio had made a vow to himself when he became one of them: before killing anyone, he would judge by himself if the target would fairly be a sacrament to their god. In the meantime, he would use his faith like a weapon, like a conductor between a doubt and that immense, when everything lost its meaning.

 

***

 

Eventually, after asking around all the afternoon to no avail, Niccolò found himself reaching the port. The port of Sunspear was rather big and a gathering place for merchants, sellers and was enough to attract the curiosity of passers-by .

Dorne was separated from the Stormlands by the Sea of Dorne and was surrounded by water on three sides. However, the coast of Dorne was rocky and mostly consisted of towering cliffs. The only notable port was the one at Sunspear, and even that was poor compared to Oldtown to the west or King's Landing to the north.

And yet, in spite of everything, there was a dock for the merchant ships next to which Niccolò saw a market, smaller than the one in the square but still crawling with people. Obtaining a job there, revealed to be easier than he ever imagined: an old man needed someone to help him with the stall of fruits and his expensive turnips. Due to its arid climate Sunspear had one of the smallest overall populations, but that had also meant that it was the only part of Westeros where citrus fruits and spices grew. Dornish fruit as well as its wine were highly prized throughout all of Westeros, and considered to be among the best imports available.

In this lucky way, Niccolò managed to get the job and pretended to be selling those fresh products, whereas he watchfully observed the people at the port, focused on spotting the prince the Ironborn wanted to see dead.

Fabrizio, on the other hand, found a job as carpenter at the port. He was expected to sound the ships, repair both the broken parts of the dock and some devices which didn’t work. He had the qualities of a sort of handyman, and was fine with that, the only inconvenience he met was the dry, parched weather, annoyingly hot even for him, who was born in that same region.

 

One evening, Fabrizio was busy repairing a wrecked roof of a house, he glanced back at the smaller buildings near the docked ships, feeling grateful for the only cool night after days of sweltering heat, for it would probably be the last for who knew how long. He was peacefully resting when he suddenly glimpsed what seemed to be a young man with unmistakable curly hair coming back from the dock; Fabrizio sat straight up trying to distinguish the stranger’s features. Looking at him properly, Fabrizio was quite certain to recognize him as the target described and drawn in his missive.

For the next several days, Fabrizio’s main task was keeping a close eye on that mysterious young man, who soon proved to be definitely his target, Ermal Greyjoy. Even so, since he couldn’t afford to be constantly distracted at work, unless he wanted to loose his place, Fabrizio obviously employed his young assistant's help for his mission. While selling fruit and turnips, Niccolò made mental notes of Ermal’s movements. They both pursued the aim of never letting Ermal out of their sight, and they did succeed. As a matter of fact, they soon found out that the prince worked together with captain Antonello Venditti. Fabrizio had heard that the captain was the head of a well-organized group of smugglers profusely operating in most kingdoms, and he even held the reputation of being one of the best around, his goods being of rare beauty and quality. During his attentive observations, Fabrizio followed Ermal’s occupation, and he noticed that he worked at the dock as Venditti’s personal bookkeeper, keeping accounts of both departing and arriving ships. Apparently, Ermal also dealt with the list of the merchandising, checking how many goods had been sold and at which price. It wasn’t long before Fabrizio decided it was time to talk to him, to exchange a few words, at least. So, he approached the little place where his target carried out his duties every day, he came closer and closer towards him while thinking about what to say. As soon as he was basically in front of him, Fabrizio abruptly realised to feel oddly agitated and at loss of words. He removed all his doubts and unusual anxiety by shaking his head, and then cleared his throat, “Hey, I couldn’t help but notice you and your merchant ships have docked at Sunspear only recently. Where were you before coming here, if you don’t mind me asking?” Fabrizio tried to speak in a casual, gentle way, politely but not too much, so as not to sound suspiciously curious.

Ermal had clearly listened to him, yet kept on working on his paper before giving a dull reply, “We come from Banefort, a town loyal to the Lannisters”.

“Oh, I know Banefort, I’ve been there once actually”, he said trying to keep the conversation going, “ah, I’m Fabrizio, by the way”, extending his hand towards Ermal.

Ermal finally raised his gaze from his paper, he met Fabrizio’s eyes and reluctantly proceeded to shake the other’s hand, more out of civil good manners than anything.

“I’m Ermal, nice to meet you”.

 

Chapter Text

“And with those sets of crystal glasses we get to thirty-eight,” Ermal sighed and folded the list he had been completing basically for the entire day. The man standing next to him was patiently waiting for Ermal to finish the whole check of the goods he had carried in his ship.

“Alright, the numbers match. You’re free to go, now,” he dismissed the man with a polite wave of his hand.

“Thank you, Sir Meta,” the man replied.

Ermal nodded and then watched as the other finally walked away from the dock.

Almost three weeks were by now passed since Ermal’s arrival in the Kingdom of Dorne. In the beginning he had felt deeply bewildered and, needless to say, he was also constantly afraid, for the fear of being found and caught for his crime was still present, although considerably less vivid than before. But Ermal soon had come to the conclusion that Dorne was quite a contrast to the place he had grown up: the two kingdoms were actually completely different under several aspects. The weather, for starters, for many foreigners perhaps it was not such big deal, but for Ermal it was a detail not to be underestimated. In his first days here, he had actually felt like the sun was melting his skin, the dry heat almost intolerable for him, used as he was to the cold, rainy weather of the Iron Islands. But, as days went by, he had learnt to cope with it in a rather practical though not very permanent way: whenever he felt like the wave of unbearable heat was affecting, not only himself, but his ability to carry out his tasks effectively too, he solved the problem by tying his curls in a short ponytail.

A further truly baffling aspect Ermal was immediately forced to face was Dorne’s culture, which, he soon found out, was radically opposed to his own. In fact, the Dornishmen were ethnically distinct from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. As a result, they had very different customs and traditions compared to the other regions of Westeros.

As a consequence of joining through marriage rather than conquest, Dorne was allowed the advantage to keep most of its local customs and laws, such as equal inheritance laws for male and female heirs. Ermal was indeed pleasantly surprised by the level of open-mindedness of these people and especially by the recognition of equal rights for both men and women, which, on the contrary, was nearly inconceivable for the Ironborn, with the exception, of course, of female captains.

Due to these different ethnic, legal, and political factors, the Dornishmen were very independently minded, with a stronger sense of loyalty to their Kingdom compared to many of the other Seven Kingdoms.

Ermal was beginning to appreciate a lot Sunspear and its culture and, albeit with slight, minor difficulties, he started to finally adapt to his new life. To everyone, except Antonello, he was known as Ermal Meta, Venditti’s personal bookkeeper, working on behalf of all his smuggling company.

His job proceeded very well and he considered himself the right choice for such role: having received a remarkable education during all his life in the castle, he not only was more learned than most, but could also boast of having a vast culture and of being particularly good at calculus. With Antonello around, Ermal felt at ease, could let his guard down. No one who knew Antonello well enough would ever go so far as to say that one of the captain’s main virtues was niceness, he was actually a grumpy type of man, constantly complaining about everything and nothing in particular. However, he did have a special consideration for the prince of the Ironborn: with Ermal, Antonello was unusually kinder, behaving in a more patient, gentle way towards him. It was evident that he cared for the young prince and, somehow, he did felt some responsibility for him, and Ermal, on the other hand, was extremely grateful to him for allowing him to get to Sunspear.

However, besides Antonello, there was someone else particularly kind towards Ermal: Fabrizio Mobrici. By chance, Ermal had recently had the opportunity to get acquainted with the carpenter of the dock and, since then, it wasn’t at all uncommon for the two of them to exchange a few words here and there. Almost every day, Fabrizio would go to greet Ermal at sunrise, when his turn was finally over; he would ask him some questions about the merchandising he was all intent on checking and then he would leave him after exchanging few more words. One day, Ermal was trying to concentrate on the check of the goods on his account book, but the lively life at the dock kept diverting his thoughts. He casually looked at Fabrizio and the way he worked to repair broken parts of ships and he found himself thinking that Antonello’s ship would probably stay docked there for several weeks, maybe months. This put him upon thinking that on that ship there would surely be some material which was unnecessary for the time being, but perhaps might be rather useful for the carpenter. Therefore he asked Fabrizio if maybe he happened to be in need of some supplies, and the other man accepted gladly, ending up taking some wooden boards and some tar.

 

All considered, if Ermal had to be truly honest with himself, he didn’t really mind Fabrizio’s presence - he did interrupt him from his work, of course and he did tend to intrude a little too much sometimes, but still, it was nice to have someone to speak to besides Venditti.

Thus, the days flew by quite monotonously, and Sunspear began to be almost like a home to the new bookkeeper. He was almost happy.

Yet, no matter how far he was from the Iron Islands and how much time had passed since that terrible night, Ermal still didn’t feel utterly safe. To be honest, he had never felt completely safe in his whole life, but this particular feeling was a bit different this time. It was like a sort of misgiving, he somehow sensed that he was in danger but could not understand why or when he’d have to face that danger. And to make matters worse, Ermal didn’t know the city well enough, let alone its citizens, so he didn’t know how to move, where to hide if necessary, and most importantly, from whom he should escape.

 

That stifling sense of oppression increased considerably during a specific day, never leaving him for a moment. As soon as he started his daily tasks at work, he could perceive someone’s eyes staring at him, giving him chills. Thoughts about what the Ironborn might do to him if he’d get caught started to appear vividly in his mind; a part of him imagined that it could easily be that some soldiers on behalf of the Ironborn had found him and now wanted revenge for the Lord’s death.

Nevertheless he knew, rationally, that he had fortunately managed to escape too far from Pyke and arguably no Ironborn, even the most loyal ones to his father, would look for him this far south.

When his work was done, he made his way to the lodging where he stayed and suddenly the feeling of being followed increased even more than before. It was as if someone were secretly following him, lurking in the streets, near him. As he turned the corner onto the narrow alley, his lodging in sight up ahead, Ermal was able to hear light footsteps behind him that seemed to have approached out of nowhere and were picking up pace. He was being followed. Now, at least, he had the certainty of not being just overly paranoid.

With every steps he took, there were as many steps from somewhere behind his figure.

His breath came in small spurts, hot and nervous. At his sides, pale long fingers curled into sweaty fists, swinging forward in tension. He walked rather fast, but didn’t run, so as not to appear even more suspicious to his chaser. Besides, if he had started to run, he would have probably been caught up in a matter of few minutes. His senses were heightened, more things tended to become more echoing, the scuffing of his shoes seemed too loud to him, so he tried to make himself quieter. As he rounded the corner, more noises echoed from behind him, closer and closer. At a certain point, Ermal began to focus on a possible wayout, there was no chance that the footsteps would slow down, therefore the smartest move he could do was try to trap his own chaser and be the one to stop him, somehow.

It was true that Ermal wasn’t very familiar with the city: after all, he had been here for no more than few weeks, so he was not aware of its streets and minor alleys like he would have liked to in this specific moment, though he did know that a pintoresque building near his lodging had a dead end passageway. So he quickly hastened to reach that narrow alley, his heart beating frantically, all or nothing. As soon as he entered the alley, he hid himself using a small recess of the building right next to the oaken door, pretending instead to have continued down the alley.

It was, by now, late in the evening and the inn was closed at that hour, so Ermal didn’t run the risk to be seen by someone. Meanwhile, the footsteps became louder but slower, which meant that the chaser had probably gotten really close to him, but had lost sight of the target.

Then, all of a sudden, a figure appeared at the begin of the alley, Ermal leapt out from his hiding place and found himself face to face with an astonished young man. Ermal blinked, he certainly had expected to have been followed by a grown man, whereas it turned out that his pursuer was barely more than boy. Anyway, he knew that age didn’t constitute an excuse, for in the Iron Islands it wasn’t so unusual to see men committing crimes at a very young age, even younger than Ermal.

Instinctively, Ermal grabbed the lad and blocked him against the wall. The other widened his eyes, visibly confused due to the too rapid reversal of the situation. Ermal pinned his right wrist, keeping him from running away, all the while trying to calm himself down a little and inhale but he wanted answers, he needed to know why that young man had been following him, at the very least, the whole day. “Who the hell are you? Why were you following me?” he intoned instead, eyes steady.

The other didn’t know what to do and even less what to say: he hadn’t even taken in consideration the possibility that the prince might notice him. “Ehm, beh... I…” was all escaped his lips.

Thankfully for him, though, Fabrizio happened to be nearby, having been ordered to repair a broken roof in the afternoon. He was now going finally back home when right in front of his eyes he saw the curly prince grabbing a young man’s wrist. He got closer to better understand what was happening and his eyes widened the moment he recognized the person in front of him, “Niccolò..?” he said, voice soaked with puzzlement and his dark eyebrows knitted together. But apparently the words didn’t come out as whispered as Fabrizio had expected them to, because Niccolò noticed him immediately, his own eyes widening in surprise, “Hey Fabbrì...” he murmured sheepishly.

Ermal turned around abruptly and he flicked his eyes back open, finding himself staring into Fabrizio’s darker ones, “What!? You two know each other?”

Fabrizio found himself taken aback by the direct question, as well as by the whole situation in general, realizing to be terribly short on words. Hesitantly, he glanced at Niccolò in search of an explanation, but it was a question the other couldn’t answer, all he managed to do was convey a silent “sorry ” with his parted lips. Then again, he had the duty to keep an eye on Prince Greyjoy, to follow him and study the way he behaved, but this situation was an outcome that he had not foreseen.

Fabrizio was beginning to waver a bit about coming up with an excuse or saying nothing at all, but then he figured it would be far better and useful if he were able to go along with it a bit longer. That was when a cunning idea struck him. “Yes, we do!” he hastened to say, “I wanted to ask you something, but unfortunately today I had to work a bit far from the dock, so I asked Niccolò to do it for me,” he paused a moment, and from Ermal’s expression he grasped that he could continue, “I wanted to ask you if you would like to come to lunch with me, you know, to return the favour you did for me some days ago.”

Ermal released Niccolò’s wrist and parted from him rapidly, like his skin had been burning from the touch. “Oh… so you were following me just for letting me know Fabrizio’s invitation?”

Although he was undoubtedly talking, the firm expression on his face didn’t quite match the tone of what he had just said. His eyes lingering on Niccolò’s wrist, which now had no more than a small, light sign left by Ermal’s grasp.

“I’m so sorry...” he whispered so quietly that he was hardly audible.

Niccolò and Fabrizio locked eyes. The young assistant shoot a questioning look to Fabrizio, but the older’s face mirrored his own, therefore he chose to wisely forget about the prince’s weird behaviour. “Actually, I’m the one who should be apologizing for scaring you in the first place.” Niccolò added a smile and hoped to be convincing enough.

Ermal still looked upset but, tentatively, the corner of his lips twitched in the tiniest hint of a smile. He then turned, so as to face Fabrizio, “Alright, I’ll go to lunch with you, Fabrizio.”

 

 

Fabrizio didn’t take long to fulfil his offer: just the morning after he scorted Ermal towards the place he himself had chosen for their lunch. The inn of his choice was a peculiar building not too distant from the dock. Just by standing outside, Ermal could notice that it was a rather crowded place, due to the loud voices echoing right from the inside; he assumed it represented a common meeting point for local Dornishmen. The instant they entered, Ermal was able to grasp a few details: for starters, he saw that there were some customers though non so many as to result too noisy, the local also looked quite rustic, yet not dishevelled. In short, Fabrizio had hoped it conveyed the idea to be the perfect balance for their lunch, not wanting to appear too formal but not too easygoing either. The invitation to lunch wasn’t just a mere excuse made up by the urgency of the moment, but actually it should have been a means to get to know the prince a little better. Fabrizio’s aim was to induce him to talk a bit about himself, in order to have a more concrete idea of his target.

They were gently showed a table near the window and sat one in front of the other.

“So,” Ermal cleared his throat to break the ice, “do you come here very often?”

Fabrizio shrugged, “Well, I wouldn’t say that. I ate here with Nico just two or three times.”

Ermal nodded but preferred to focus his attention in the attempt to take a glimpse of the dishes on the other customers’ tables. Honestly, having been in Sunspear for only few weeks, he had no idea whatsoever of what to order. The food had an odd aspect, Ermal had to admit, but he didn’t want to make a bad impression on Fabrizio, so he would have done better to order the same thing the others were eating, well, the most appealing one, at least. Fabrizio giggled a little, noticing the other’s embarrassment with amusement, “May I suggest the one with seafood?”

Ermal relaxed, watching him somewhat sheepishly, “Of course, thank you. It’s just that I haven’t been here that long and the only things I ate are cooked by one of Antonello’s men, and I’m not sure whether it’s proper traditional food or not,” he chuckled.

Fabrizio smiled at that, “Oh, I get it, don’t worry. Whenever I’m not in Dorne, the thing I always miss the most is good food.” He laughed, his soft smile reaching his eyes, but he quickly covered his eyes with a hand out of shyness, his fingers brushing against his short beard, “And I mean real Dornish good food.”

“Oh, so you travel often?” Ermal asked, genuinely curious.

“Yeah, both Niccolò and I are travelling merchants, but we do whatever we find, that’s why now we’re settled here for awhile.” He interrupted for ordering the two dishes and a pitcher of Dornish red wine, “So, as I was saying, I travelled through all Westeros, basically.”

Ermal’s eyebrows raised in amazement, this definitely got his full attention, “Wow, how I envy you!” he exclaimed, a shimmer of wonder lighted his brown irises, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see other kingdoms, but I… I’ve never had the chance, actually.” A shadow had now overcome that shimmer of light. “Anyways, I’d like to travel through Westeros, and obviously to see the lands overseas, too. They seem somehow fascinating.

Fabrizio shook his head a little in disagreement.

“Mh? Did I say something wrong?” Ermal asked perplexed.

“No, fact is that I don’t really appreciate the regions in Essos.” Fabrizio then proceeded to explain himself better, “I mean, as much as Westeros is full of flaws, issues and social injustices, at least we don’t have those levels of slavery. Slaver’s Bay is disgusting. Their economy is essentially driven by slavery. Some of them were born ignoring the meaning of the word freedom.”

Ermal sighed slowly. He did know about the inhuman situation of slaves in Essos, of course, and honestly he abhorred slavery in every form, but did not expected Fabrizio to be a man of such liberal values. It truly was a pleasant discovery. Maybe, getting to know him somewhat better wouldn’t be a bad idea, after all. Thus, Ermal took the bold decision to tell him something more about himself, to trust him a little and take the risk of it. “Yeah, I agree with you...” He put a curl behind his ear to earn some time, “To be frank, I’m not stranger to slavery. In fact I come from the Iron Islands and although slavery is strictly forbidden in Westeros, it does take place there - at a more moderate level though. The Ironborn keep thralls and salt wives. Neither are slaves in the literal sense, but they are still subject to forced labour and low status, and not really far from enslavement.”

Fabrizio had listened very carefully to him, pretending surprise while inwardly exulting: the prince was slowly opening up with him, finally speaking candidly about the region he came from. “Yes, I’ve heard about this sort of thing. It’s not as grave as in Essos but horrible nonetheless.”

“Yeah, personally I find any sort of slavery utterly revolting,” Ermal proclaimed, letting a drop of hatred for his homeland’s traditions seeping through his words.

Fabrizio certainly did not fail to notice that expression of disdain, and felt relieved that the young prince did not share the mentality of his people; on the contrary, Fabrizio had the impression that the young prince was truly different from the other Ironborn, his open mindness seemed to be pretty dangerous as well as unfavourable for someone living in the Iron Islands. The faceless man could not help but think that the fact that one of the most brute regions had a Prince of such bold ideals was really an ironic contradiction. This thought led him to wanting to know more of him. “So, you said you’re originally from the Iron Islands, how did you end up here? I mean, Dorne is not really close to the Greyjoys’ kingdom.”

Ermal’s shoulders tensed at the mention of his family’s name. It was an involuntary reaction, which would have been basically imperceptible, if it wasn’t that Fabrizio boasted a remarkable ability of noticing such little changes, barely noticeable to others, yet salient for him to read other people. “Well, I used to live there, but I couldn’t stay anymore. I had to leave.” Ermal bit his lower lip, hoping that Fabrizio wouldn’t insist any further.

Of course Fabrizio hadn’t expected him to confess him everything straightforwardly, but at least Ermal hadn’t lied about being forced to leave the Iron Islands, “Oh, I see…well, at least you got the chance to see Dorne. Do you enjoy the city?”

The tension then left Ermal’s body: he was highly thankful to Fabrizio for changing the topic. “Oh, I sure do! There is so much light in Sunspear, it’s amazing! And people here are really nice, too...everything is so much different from Pyke. The only thing I’m still not used to is the weather, it’s too hot here!” he exclaimed, laughing a bit.

“Oh, I believe you! Although I’ve grown up here, sometimes the heat is too much even for me!”

For the next minutes, the air was filled almost uniquely by the younger’s voice, enthusiastically talking about his first impression once arrived in Dorne, and describing both some nice aspects of Dornish culture he had discovered and how friendly some people had been to him. He used his hands to enhance what he was saying, shaping ideas in the air.

Right in the middle of their conversation, they were interrupted by a man bringing their dishes of seafood. Ermal marvelled at the sight, widening his eyes. After thanking the waiter, Fabrizio saw the way Ermal was hungrily admiring the food in front of him and broke into a smile, “You know, in the place I was before coming back to Dorne, in one of the free cities, they say Buon appetito before eating together.”

Ermal looked at him showing interest, “Oh, is that so? Well, then… buon appetito!” he replied, trying his best to mirror Fabrizio’s accent.

Ermal started to eat greedily. It truly did look appealing, after all.

“So,” Fabrizio said after awhile, “how’s your seafood?”

Ermal nodded repeatedly, eyes still glued on the food, “You were right, Fabrizio, it’s delicious!”

Fabrizio’s lips curved delighted, and Ermal smiled back at him. He really did have a lovely smile. Fabrizio wondered why he’d never noticed that before. The lunch proceeded nearly in complete silence, with the two of them exchanging words every now and then. However, this way Fabrizio used the opportunity to observe the younger man in front of him a little bettter; his dark eyes were large and bold, framed with long light lashes, and generally speaking, he was very refined, from the way he ate to the way he spoke. Once again Fabrizio frowned, thinking that he definitely wasn’t the type of prince one would expect for the Ironborn. But than again, Fabrizio was pretty sure it might take him by surprise because what appeared simple and elegant with this man could be suddenly translated into something absolutely horrendous. As a Faceless Man, Fabrizio was well aware that a man who had killed the King, his own father, surely had his real self lurking under this mask of nice appearance.

Notwithstanding Fabrizio’s thoughts flowing through his head, the time passed pleasantly chattering about trivial things and they soon finished their lunch. Out of the corner of his eye, Fabrizio noticed the landlord stepping forward with a friendly grin starting to spread on his lips, stopping then behind the prince’s back. Ermal flinched visibly when a hand suddenly touched his shoulder with no warning. The hand was pressing down a little, and he gasped, jumping inward instinctively.

“So, did you enjoy your meal?” the landlord gently asked the both of them.

Fabrizio took a while before answering, “Yes… it all tasted very good, thank you.”

He hadn’t been lying when saying that they had liked the food, the point was that Fabrizio was too busy noticing how Ermal was shrinking back. He had a white-knuckled grip on his glass, his face turned ashen. As soon as the landlord went away, Fabrizio noticed that Ermal was trying to pull himself together: he blinked rapidly, staring but not seeing. Just a mere glance at Ermal would have been enough to tell Fabrizio that he wasn’t fine. Something wasn’t right at all.

He waited a moment to give him the time to breathe a little, and then, “Ermal, are you all right?”

Slowly, the other raised his gaze, staring up at Fabrizio. There was a hesitant nod now, “Y-yes, I’m fine.” His mouth was dry.

He looked far from fine, though. His tone had sounded a little too upset to him, and his hands were trembling slightly. Fabrizio did not seem fully satisfied, but did not pursue the matter further.

Chapter Text

After their lunch together, some days passed during which Ermal still checked the merchandising at the dock, and Fabrizio never failed to go and see him during his short breaks from work. Fabrizio felt only a fleeting moment of regret at the barrier previously standing between them, before pure, unadulterated satisfaction overwhelmed him when he realized that things had improved since their lunch together: now Ermal talked to him more and seemed happy to do so. Though Fabrizio had to acknowledge that he too didn’t mind the other’s company - on the contrary he had begun to go to Ermal without any particular reason, just for talking with him.

One evening, he had finished his duties earlier than he expected, so he decided to go and greet Ermal as usual. Seeing that he wasn’t at the dock, he assumed he had already gone to his lodging, where Venditti lived, too. As the house got closer and closer, Fabrizio could hear someone in the house speaking with a rather loud voice, “Ermal, tomorrow I need you to go and take this piece of fabric to the man who came before. He lives near the market square.”

“I can try, Antonello, but I don’t know the town very well, yet,” the man Fabrizio recognized to be Ermal replied a bit hesitantly. The door was left half open, therefore it wasn’t difficult for Fabrizio to go inside, following the voices until he faced the two men. “Oh, I’d be happy to show you around, if you want,” he said, looking at the younger.

Ermal smiled as soon as he glimpsed Fabrizio standing on the doorway. “Are you sure it’s not too boring for you, Fabbrì?” He narrowed his eyes, waiting for an honest reply from the other man.

In the meantime, neither Ermal nor Fabrizio had noticed the way Venditti was staring at Fabrizio. “And who might you be, then?”

Ermal was about to introduce him to Antonello but Fabrizio was quicker, “I’m Fabrizio, I work at the dock as carpenter,” he held his hand out towards the older man, “I’ve grown up here, so I can show Ermal the city.”

Venditti studied him for awhile, looking at him with mistrust and a hint of worry, he then shook his hand though, deciding that as long as Ermal trusted this man, he might as well trust him, too. “Yeah, whatever. You can show him the main places at least.”

 

The following day, they exploited the fact Ermal was supposed to do what Venditti had asked in order to visit at least some parts of Sunspear.

Ermal patiently stood outside his house, waiting for Fabrizio to arrive; minutes went by and still wasn’t he there. Finally, a figure could be seen coming towards him.

“Fabbrì, you’re always late!” Ermal sighed, deliberately faking an annoying tone. Fabrizio laughed, absent-mindedly pulling at his own hair, like he did whenever he was embarrassed. “Let’s go, then.” It was one of those days where the blinding light yielded everything wavy. The sun seemed to be trapped in narrow streets, its heat radiating outwards into the bright day. And in the haze of the morning, Ermal could feel his loose blue shirt start to cling to his arms, so he rolled up the sleeves, exhaling.

Their first destination was the main square, for it was compulsory that the bookkeeper learnt at least where the centre of the city was situated.

Aò, e compra n’arancia!

No matter if there were so many people in the square that they could hardly see further than few steps from themselves, Fabrizio couldn’t have mistaken that voice for anyone else’s.

“Ermal, I’ll go say hi to Nico. I’ll be back in a minute!”

Ermal nodded and walked towards the closest stall. The scene presenting itself before Fabrizio was quite hilarious: Niccolò was behind the stall, thrashing about uncoordinatedly towards the crowd, unsuccessfully trying to sell his fresh fruit in vain. No one would stop or buy something, though. Fabrizio took mental note to tell Nico that his attitude wasn’t really convincing if his aim was actually selling something.

“No, eh? Too plebeian for you, right?” Niccolò was shouting to someone who had the look of belonging to the upper class.

“How are you doing, Nic?” Fabrizio said once he was in front of him.

“Whoa, Fabbrì! Con questa faccia!” Niccolò exclaimed vaguely too loudly to Fabrizio’s liking, “Sorry, sorry, it’s just that I’m still not used to seeing you always wearing your own face!” He scratched his head sheepishly. To be frank, he couldn’t be blamed after all, Fabrizio’s missions had always been shorter and he usually wore masks, faces, like the others Faceless Men. Now though he was in his own city and had chosen to carry out the mission with his own face.

“Yes, but apparently it’s my own face, so watch out, someone might hear you…” Fabrizio warned him.

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Nic got closer to speak right into Fabrizio’s ear, but on the contrary he resulted to be even more suspicious than before, “So…what about the curly prince?”

Fabrizio pulled away a little, “Ermal is down there, I told him I’d come to you.” With a finger, he pointed at a stall not far from them. The assistant was now staring at him, visibly puzzled and confused. He blinked a few times, “Ehm, Fabbrì, I meant the mission… Have you found out anything yet?”

Fabrizio needed some time to process the mistake he had just committed, completely misunderstanding Niccolò’s question. What struck him was the fact that he hadn’t even thought about the mission, his first thought had been only Ermal, as if it were perfectly normal that Nico would ask him where the other was now. “Ah, well… he did tell me he was forced to flee from the Iron Islands, but I still don’t have a full idea of him.”

But unfortunately for him, his earlier reaction wasn’t forgotten and Nic didn’t waste the occasion to tease him, “I see…but since when you’re so close to him? Are you friends now?”

Fabrizio blushed, embarrassed, “Ma figurati! I only offered to show him the city, since he didn’t even know this is the main square.”

Eventually, a woman approached Nico’s stall, eyeing the turnips with interest. Therefore, the young man had to go back to work, glad to finally have one of his first customers of the whole day. Fabrizio then went back to Ermal, looking for a curly head among the crowd. He glimpsed him near the same stall where he had seen him earlier. Ermal had been standing still before a stall which sold books for the last ten minutes. He seemed to be so absorbed in observing the books that he didn’t even notice Fabrizio’s presence. In his hands he held a decayed volume which he turned over and over, with rapt attention. Getting closer, Fabrizio was able to see that it consisted of a book about history and traditions of Dorne. He smiled at the thought that Ermal wanted to learn more about Sunspear since it had now become his home; he really seemed a curious and clever person. The book was then put back in its place, in the end Ermal had resisted the urge to satisfy that little whim of his.

Fabrizio reached him, pretending not to have seen anything, “Hey! Did you find something interesting?”

Ermal then turned towards him, facing him, “Uhm, no. I was just looking around. We can go.”

Once crossed the square, there was the house where Venditti’s client lived. The expensive fabric he had bought was a riot of red and orange and matched very nicely with the dappled red shirt Fabrizio was wearing. Ermal completed his task in the blink of an eye, and then they were free to wander around the city as long as they wanted.

At a certain point, Fabrizio stopped.

“Oh come on, we’re lost, just admit it!” Ermal said, looking at him. Fabrizio’s eyed scanned his surroundings, trying to remember the right way. He wanted to take Ermal to see one of his personal favourite parts of Sunspear, a collapsed old temple, erected so long before that no one could rightly remember which God it originally was destined for. Each citizen had their own god to pray to in that temple. However, it had been very long since Fabrizio had gone there; therefore it was safe to assume he didn’t currently remember the right way.

“Well, I haven’t been here for a very long time, so I might have forgotten the way, yes.” Fabrizio gave up with a sigh.

“Ohh, be careful, I think you’re slipping, old man,” Ermal smirked, mocking him light-heartedly. Fabrizio’s brown eyes widened a little, momentarily taken aback by Ermal’s teasing. There was stunned silence, until Fabrizio just burst out laughing, sincerely entertained. Used as he was to be together with Niccolò, he acted without thinking, his immediate reaction being raising his hand to gently touch Ermal’s hair, in an affectionate way. But as soon as his fingers brushed against his curls, he felt Ermal tensing up perceptibly; the younger man got nervous all of a sudden. The realisation of what he had just done hit Fabrizio, who immediately pulled his hand away without thinking twice. Wrongly, he had given for granted that it was a gesture he was allowed to do, just because he sometimes did that with Niccolò. But Ermal was different from Niccolò. The memory of Ermal flinching and wincing at the inn passed through his eyes one more time, and he realised that even this time Ermal was tense, though obviously far less than that one.

Ermal stayed silent and Fabrizio feared to have completely ruined their time together. Everything had been perfect up to that moment, but now there was a thick tension palpable in the air. It took a few seconds, in which Fabrizio looked at him expectantly, but then Ermal didn’t disappoint: he continued to walk, pretending that nothing had happened.

“So? Are you coming or not?” he said.

A little smile appeared on Fabrizio’s face, he then quickly reached the younger man, glad that he had just let it go.

After aimlessly wandering around Sunspear for awhile, Fabrizio had the idea to take Ermal to see the Old Palace, the principal stronghold of House Martell. It was located on the far-eastern coast of Dorne, and the Threefold Gate, where the gates were lined up one behind the other, allowed straight passage on a brick path to the Old Palace. It consisted of a strong, fortified castle and two towers, standing tall over the city.

The first thing Ermal noticed was the fact that the castle walls were sand-colored, thus setting it apart from the other major castles of Westeros. He couldn’t help but think it was a strong contrast to Pyke Castle. Rising from the Old Palace was the slender Spear Tower, a massive tower of stone. It thrust up from the surrounding community, stretching tall, with a spear of gilded steel atop which added a further height. There was also the Tower of the Sun, with a rich dome of gold and leaded glass. Right beneath the dome sat the throne room, a large round room with thick windows and splendid glasses of the most flamboyant colours.

Truth be told, Fabrizio had decided to show Ermal the palace in order to see how he’d have reacted once surrounded by all that richness. Dealing with a prince, he thought the other would appreciate more this area of the city. On the other hand, Ermal seemed not impressed at all.

“What is it? Don’t you like it?” Fabrizio asked him.

“Well, it’s undoubtedly beautiful, Fabbrì, but I find it without particular charm. I prefer the urban parts of Sunspear, where the population lives, rather than some banal noblemen,” Ermal stated bitterly. Surely, Fabrizio hadn’t imagined he’d talk like that. For someone who had spent his entire life in a castle with all luxuries and never needing a thing, it really was peculiar that he preferred the town over the Old Palace. This young prince never stopped to surprise him.

For the rest of the day, Fabrizio and Ermal enjoyed exploring miles of narrow alleys, hidden courts, and noisy bazaars; totally unknown to the Ironborn Prince, and in part to the faceless man, too. It was in that way, with such calmness of souls, content to dwell in the ever onwards moment, that they truly felt the joy of each other’s company.

 

 

It was only two days later that, while working at the dock as usual, Ermal noticed a familiar figure slowly walking towards him looking oddly satisfied. Fabrizio finally arrived in front of Ermal, a hand leaning on the desk which the younger used to write while the other was in all likelihood hiding something behind his back.

“Hi Fabbrì, I just have to check those last trunks down there and I’ll be done,” he stated, continuing to fill his paper. He waited for a response from Fabrizio, but when he realized it wouldn’t come he raised his gaze a little, noticing Fabrizio standing still in front of him. “Mh? What’s wrong, Bizio?” In the spur of the moment, he didn’t realise he had called Fabrizio loudly with the nickname he had already been using for quite some time in his own mind. Fabrizio, for his part, blinked a few times at the mention of such a nickname, yet he didn’t give it much importance for the time being. On the contrary, he smiled and finally spoke to him, “Well, yesterday I happened to see something and I had a hunch that you might like it.”

Slowly, Ermal blinked his eyes open, staring up at the other man. Then, suddenly, something was laid on the desk and Ermal’s glance inevitably came across a thin leather book. His eyes widened in surprise, “And this?”

Fabrizio blinked, amused by the other’s surprise, “Well, as I just said, I brought it for you,” he giggled.

The book was a wonderful volume with an expensive look, bound in blue leather and on the front side was carved the title Customs and Traditions of the Kingdom of Dorne. The prince admired it with glowing eyes, he tentatively brushed against the cover, as if he didn’t want to risk to ruin it. The leather felt soft and delicate as he ran his fingers over the faded blue bindings. He fingered the gold lettering carefully before he opened the cover, paper rustled as he thumbed through the book to find what he was looking for. Words appeared and disappeared as his eyes flitted across the pages. “I love reading… how did you know it?” he asked, never stopping to stare at the book.

“Honestly, when we went to the market, I saw you standing before the same stall of books for the whole time, so I thought you really must love them!” Fabrizio chuckled, his full lips quivering slightly, “And I also glimpsed that you were holding a book about Dornish history. This is not the same book but I’m pretty sure it’ll be alright.”

Ermal was now looking at him, “Of course…of course, it’s absolutely perfect. But, can I keep it?” He asked in disbelief, unsure if the book was actually for him.

Fabrizio tried not to laugh, but failed miserably, Ermal’s enthusiasm was outstanding. “Yes, Ermal, it’s all yours. And I saw that it also contains some Dornish typical recipes, so next time you’ll know the name of some traditional dishes,” he said smiling, pointing at the book.

“Well thank you. It’s amazing, Fabbrì!”

Fabrizio couldn’t have imagined that his little gift would be appreciate this much. But Ermal was sincere. As a matter of fact, he was now looking at his book with utter rapture, skimming through the pages like it undoubtedly was the most precious gift.

“You know, I’ve always thought art means making you feel in company when you are alone. The characters of books make you think they are real. Because ultimately what is real? What we see or what we imagine? If what we imagine fuels us more than what we see, then what is real? I don’t know, but whenever I read I forget to be hungry, Fabbrì.”

Fabrizio stared at him the whole time. He observed the delicate way his long fingers slowly turned the pages as he talked and also the way his brown eyes were gleaming with bliss, occasionally covered by the shield of his eyelashes. He didn’t miss any detail. That is why now a glance at Ermal was sufficient to tell him that his expression had changed. His enthusiasm had smothered, taking away all his joy with itself. His eyes narrowed as his gaze got lost somewhere beyond the sea, a burden of melancholy and worry encumbering over him.

“And now, who knows what occurred to all my books…” he whispered softly.

Fabrizio was able to hear him though, and raised his eyebrows, curious. Actually, he hadn’t foreseen that Ermal would start talking about his past merely thanks to the book, it hadn’t been his intention. But, maybe, he could exploit the moment just to dig a bit further, leading him to confess something voluntarily, without pressing him. “Mh? You mean you used to have many books when you were in the Iron Islands?” he asked curious.

A heavy long sigh was then let out by Ermal. “I have to tell you something, Fabrizio. Truth be told, I haven’t been completely sincere with you.” He started, moving his gaze off the sea and back to Fabrizio with a frail hesitation, “I didn’t only live in the Iron Islands, I was the Prince. Prince Greyjoy.” He stopped, seeing that Fabrizio was listening to him very carefully. He bit his lower lip, torturing it all the while, unsure whether speaking further or not, but then, “I had to leave. I had to leave as soon as possible because I… I killed my father,” he confessed flatly, his voice trembling yet leaking no expression. Words were turned into a deafening silence, in which Ermal waited for a reaction from Fabrizio, who instead didn’t quite know what to say this time. Fact was that, although Fabrizio surely hadn’t expected him to be so straightforward, after spending quite some time in his company, he hadn’t fail to grasp some particular little things, hints which had gradually led him to believe that there was something big and serious lurking behind Ermal’s outspoken confession. At least, he now had the certainty that Ermal had indeed committed the crime he was accused of. However, he somehow felt the urge to understand why, to find out the reason which had driven Ermal to act. Even so, Ermal’s reluctance to explain anything more was rather evident. And Fabrizio didn’t want to make him haste, preferring to let him the time he needed without making him feel in discomfort. By now he had taken enough time keeping silent as to make it seem like he was processing what Ermal told him. “It’s ok, Ermal, I get it. Everyone has secrets, after all…” he said, trying to sound surprised yet not too upset. Ermal relaxed slightly, though there still was that greedy shadow smothering his smile; therefore, Fabrizio thought he should cheer him up a bit somehow. He reasoned that he might as well change the topic to something lighter. “So you’re a Greyjoy…can I ask you why you chose Meta as new surname?” Actually, it was something he had always wondered about and, if nothing else, now he had the chance to find it out.

“Well…I’d like to tell you a long and interesting story about it, but unfortunately it would be a lie,” his lips finally curved into a smile, “the truth is that one day, while I was checking the goods at the dock, I spoke with the captain of a foreign ship who told me he originally came from a very small town among the free cities, Meta. I liked the fact it is a small free city which is unknown to most, somehow hidden from the world… Besides I thought it sounded nicely matched with my name, and hence I chose it. It happened pretty casually, I guess,” Ermal explained, the sadness from early before nearly disappeared altogether.

 

A week later, the calmness of a lazy late afternoon was disturbed by the sudden noise of someone knocking at a door. Ermal rushed to open it, coming face to face with Fabrizio. “Hi Fabbrì, come inside.” After letting the man step in, he disappeared again into the other room.

Antonello wasn’t at home with Ermal: a week before he had left, sailing with the Under the sign of Pisces towards the Lannisters’ territory in order to get some needful supplies, new merchandising and, most importantly, Ermal had asked him to gather some information about the current situation in the Iron Islands. As result, Ermal was left the task to watch over both the house and Venditti’s goods left in Sunspear.

Fabrizio found himself staring at an open door, before he heard Ermal shouting at him from the other room, “I’ll just get changed and I’ll be ready in a minute. Stay there!”

The same morning Fabrizio had approached him with a big smile. When asked the reason of his good humour, he had replied that there was something new in the city, something he wanted to show Ermal at any cost. As much as Fabrizio would have wanted to keep it a surprise, after having insisted for hours, Ermal managed to get him to tell him that they were building an innovative fountain, near the Old Palace, in the other side of Sunspear. It was actually Nic who had told him about the fountain, of which he had heard thanks to the chattering of people at the market. Therefore, Fabrizio was now waiting for Ermal to get ready in order to take him to see that newest piece of technology.

In no more than two minutes, Ermal arrived at the door, clad in a white shirt, light and comfortable due to the overwhelming heat. “Shall we go?”

A selected group of clever inventors had been commissioned by none other than House Martell itself to elaborate both water distribution systems and fountains in their Palace and gardens.

Fabrizio and Ermal took some time to arrive in the garden and the sun was just set. As soon as they got there, it was blatantly obvious that the new fountain was still under construction; in fact, several men were currently working on it to build it. Nevertheless, Ermal was very excited to see it, he was grateful to Fabrizio for taking him there and they both walked around the fountain, eager to understand how it worked. Having only read about these kinds of things in his books, Ermal had but a scarce knowledge of their function and the way they were built. On the other hand, Fabrizio had had the occasion to see new inventions many times during his journeys. He had often talked to whom was building them, thus learning more and more in each place he had visited. So, Fabrizio explained willingly to Ermal everything he knew. He started by telling him that water was carried by a pipe into the fountain from a source at a higher elevation, hidden from view somewhere next to the palace. The reason, Fabrizio explained, was that most fountains operated by gravity, thus they needed a source of water higher than the fountain itself, such as an aqueduct, to make the water flow. Although fountains were originally purely functional and used to provide drinking water and water for bathing and washing to the residents of cities and villages, recently they had started to serve multiple purposes. As a matter of fact, they were also used for decoration and to celebrate deities. For instance, it was obvious that this specific fountain was meant to glorify the deity of the Faith of the Seven: it consisted of a large vasque mounted on seven stone statues of the New Gods. In addition to that there were many basins where the water flew high upwards.

Three men were busy fixing the last two statues, but Ermal presumed that water was supposed to pour from one statue to the other. At a certain point, he came closer to the fountain, so as to better see every piece. Intrigued by the whole thing, he drew near the centre of the fountain, that is when a central, essential big stone moved a little. It moved slightly yet enough to cause the main jet of water to divert his flow, thus soaking Ermal’s body almost completely. Ermal withdrew immediately, cursing and blinking rapidly, totally taken by surprise by the incident. As he got away from the fountain, he could hear Fabrizio laughing behind him. But Ermal couldn’t blame him, all in all, it must have been really funny, seen from the outside. So, his mouth twisted into a sneer and he laughed, too.

“You’re soaked!” Fabrizio was unable to suppress a laugh, now covering his eyes with a hand. Admittedly, Ermal was soaked from hair to waist. “Yeah, I noticed. They probably need to work on it a little bit longer,” he laughed with a pinch of irony.

Notwithstanding the amusing inconvenience, Ermal’s shirt was indeed soaked; it was by now evening and the weather at this time wasn’t at all as hot as it was during the day. Although the sun was still up, it was now almost chilly and crisp, a cool breeze cutting air.

“Ermal, aren’t you too cold?” Fabrizio eyed him worryingly. They were going home, but the fountain wasn’t anywhere near their houses, so it would take them lots of time before getting there.

“No, I’m fine,” Ermal’s reply came softly. He had started to act weird since they left the fountain, he walked quickly, and seemed to be willing to go home as soon as possible.

“I’ll give you my upper shirt, so you won’t freeze,” Fabrizio offered sincerely. After all, he was wearing a long shirt over a lighter one, so he couldn’t be cold. On the contrary, Ermal was visibly cold, covering his chest with his arms and breathing heavily.

“Oh thanks, Fabbrì, but there’s no need to,” he replied with a faint smile.

They continued to walk for awhile, Ermal spoke less and less, somehow nervous.

“Oh come on, Ermal, don’t be ridiculous!” Fabrizio suddenly snapped, losing his patience as he saw Ermal shivering slightly for the umpteenth time in few minutes. “You’ll get sick!”

Ermal murmured a barely audible “I’m fine” but slowed down his pace.

Fabrizio had already taken off his upper shirt and was handing it towards him. “We still are a bit far from home. Just take yours off and wear this, please,” he said, gentler this time.

Ermal stopped walking and sighed. He knew, as his eyes shifted from Fabrizio’s face to the shirt he was holding, that Fabrizio was right. In spite of his stubbornness, he knew that his lodging was still far from there and, admittedly, he was already cold. So he gave up, sighing.

He grabbed the shirt Fabrizio was handing out, “Thank you, Fabbrì.”

Slowly, Ermal proceeded to take off his wet shirt, “So, how much further do you think?” he asked, looking at the street continuing beyond his gaze.

However, the other man remained silent. When no answer came, Ermal turned his head towards him, “Bizio?”

But Fabrizio was fixedly staring in front of him, or more specifically at Ermal’s back.

Several scars snaked down the upper side of his back.

Light, thin lines spreading on his skin like a spider web.

 

Chapter Text

Fabrizio stood as if paralysed. His brain stuttered for a moment, his eyes harshly taking in more light than he expected. Every part of him went on pause while his thoughts tried to catch up with great difficulty.

His pupils narrowed and a glistening shimmer blurred his vision slightly as he stared at Ermal's scarred back. He gawked the way fainter, broken lines marred his skin from various angles, and wider, deeper ones branched out across the middle of his back, and his heart fell silent.

As soon as Ermal turned his head, he met Fabrizio's expression. A delusional part of him had hoped that, somehow, Fabrizio simply wouldn't have noticed them, be it for the speed with which he took off his wet shirt, or for the mere fact that the sun was setting, thus bringing along much light. However, he was not so naïve as not to perfectly know that he wouldn't manage to keep them hidden from Fabrizio's sight, especially not when he stood so close to him. Nevertheless, deeply within he also felt inevitably relieved now. It was a strange, mixed feeling the one floating through him right now: in fact if on one hand it was definitely something he didn’t like to show, on the other hand he was secretly glad that finally someone had seen them, used as he always had been to keep them hidden, invisibly concealed for years under thick layers of pretences, secrets and fake smiles.

He pressed his lips together before proceeding to put on Fabrizio’s shirt in a swift movement. With unsteady and slow steps, he began to walk further, continuing the street they had been following shortly before. He did not speed up though.

“Let’s go...” falteringly made its way out of his mouth.

As if stuck underwater, everything to Fabrizio appeared slow and giddy, yet when he heard him speak he came somewhat to his senses. Thus, he averted his gaze from Ermal but started to follow him nonetheless, walking slowly right behind him.

They walked in utter silence great part of the way and passed one alley after another which looked all the same. Words had left Fabrizio. His brain was desperately scrambling to make sense of it all, to try to put all pieces fit together. He wanted to understand, because this time he could not decide to just overlook what he had just seen, choosing to ignore it like he had already done with certain facts before. This time, he knew there was no way he could just pretend not to have seen what he'd seen.

After awhile, Fabrizio took a deep breath thus managing to refocus, and didn’t walk any further.

He then bit his lower lip. “Ermal...” he finally brought himself to say.

Ermal turned around, by no means caught off guard by the indirect question but, on the contrary, selfishly hoping it would come. To be frank, he was highly sick of pretending, it was a burden he had always carried just by himself, with no one else knowing what had been happening. But now he had had enough to keep silent. A veiled part of his soul, the most damaged one, actually regretted not having told someone, not having acted earlier regardless of the consequences. Dwelling on it was of no use since he couldn’t obviously change what had happened, however now he had the chance to finally speak freely, to tell someone the real truth, for at this point it was pointless to keep it secret. He could feel the weight of Fabrizio's gaze on him with the same palpable certainty with which he could feel the cobbled road under his shoes or the cold air of the approaching night - and yet. And yet, all those sensations paled in comparison to the acute awareness of his scars, almost crawling between the fabric of the shirt and his soul. And it wasn't sadness what overcame him in that moment, no. It was anger.

With white knuckles from clenching his fist too hard, and gritted teeth from the previous effort to remain silent, Ermal’s quivering figure exuded an animosity leaking out of him like acid - burning, slicing. His face was pale with suppressed rage, he locked eyes with Fabrizio, trying his best to keep his gaze from faltering.

“It was my father,” he spat like venom. His eyes had warped into a miserable black, widening a bit.

His voice was so filled with hatred, so bitter, that Fabrizio blinked rapidly and shrank back a little, taken back by Ermal’s unexpected rage. He couldn’t help but think he had become a different person.

Realization hit Fabrizio hard and he couldn’t will his lips to move, finding himself speechless. His mind was blank and his eyes wide as he stared at him in horror. Never would he have taken into consideration such a possibility.

He drew his lower lip between his teeth, “Is that why you killed him?” he asked him straightforwardly.

Ermal’s eyes shifted to the side, he waited some instants before answering, “No. It was a whole other reason,” he uttered, loathing getting the better of him.

By dint of walking, they had already reached the main dock of the city. Ermal took a few more steps and then suddenly sat on the ground, positioning himself right before the sea. He looked at Fabrizio and motioned to him to come and join him there. Fabrizio did it, reaching him and sitting next to him.

Ermal gave a sigh, taking a deep breath. “I’ll tell you the whole truth, Fabbrì,” his voice lowered almost to a whisper.

With a shaking hand, he hid a long curl behind his ear, diving into the view of the calm sea before finally starting to talk.

 

***

 

Once reached the last line of the page, Ermal's eyes had to go back to some paragraphs. He was staring at the book, without actually catching the meaning of the words. Phrases began then to look like mere signs, and such signs turned out to blurr together, becoming nothing more than incomprehensible lines. At this point, Ermal gave up and closed the thick book he was unsuccessfully attempting to read.

Since the very moment he had glimpsed that man with the hound crossing the main bridge, he had lost concentration on everything else. Of course, he had endeavoured not to think too much about it, focusing instead on one of the many books with which his library was furnished, but no dice. His mind went always back to that man because, honestly, what could a Bolton do at the castle? Ermal came to the conclusion that his father was surely up to something and, whatever he was planning, he had no doubt it was nothing good. There was this acute misgiving which had insinuated itself into his mind, suggesting that he should watch out for whatever Lord Greyjoy was secretly conspiring to do. Tired of thoughts ceaselessly afflicting his mind, Ermal stood up quickly. Firstly, it seemed fair to investigate a little and see if he managed to find out something before jumping to any conclusion.

Therefore, he decided to go and look for anything suspicious in his father's private room, the cabinet sited adjacent to the Lord’s bedchamber.

Setting foot in the small room, Ermal could make out the dim light seeping through the window.
His father was probably gone to bid welcome to the Bolton envoy at the gates; luckily for Ermal, he'd be too busy entertaining his guest to come to his cabinet.

Promptly, Ermal started to look around the room, scanning his surroundings to see if something appeared out of the ordinary at first sight. Then, he proceeded to try with the desk where his father used to keep his papers and some old letters.

So, Ermal opened the lowest drawer and started to examine the numerous documents one by one.

But he knew that the Lord of the Iron Islands wasn't by no means the kind of man who displayed his secrets in plain sight for everyone to see, on the contrary, he'd rather disguise them somehow.
That is when his gaze fell on a book looking weirdly out of place among the others, as if put there casually. While all the other books were orderly lined with their spines facing outward, the spine of this specific book stuck out visibly from the others, thus seeming to be terribly misplaced. Ermal took it and as soon as it was open, a folded letter fell on the slanted desk. It was marked by the Greyjoy's official sigil and addressed to Lord Bolton himself. To his surprise, Ermal noticed that it bore the king's seal, but strangely not the signatures of the council of captains, a sign that the letter had inevitably passed through his father's hands alone.

At once Ermal began to read it, his eyes widening more and more in horror and disbelief the further he read. He then read it a second time, this time more slowly, half murmuring the words to himself and letting each word gradually establish its meaning as though he were seeing it for the first time.

With shaking hands he folded the paper and put it inside the book where it was before.
Dangerous, frightening hints were now connecting in Ermal's mind and he finally gained knowledge of something so shocking and serious that he absolutely hadn't anticipated before this moment.

He decided to go back to his chambers in order to ponder over what he had found out and think about what to do next.

However, it didn't take long for Ermal to come to know that on that same evening it'd be given a banquet in honour of the Lord's special guest.

 

As first Prince of the Iron Islands, Ermal was expected to wear his most embellished clothing, namely a lavish long tunic made of the finest silk and of the same shade as the darkest, deepest grapes before the dust is rinsed away. It undoubtedly gave prominence to Ermal's refined features and its colour created a beautiful contrast with his dark curly hair. In addition to that, right under his shoulder it was finely embroided a golden kraken, the Greyjoys' heraldry, while a thick golden belt girdled his narrow waist.

Now that he was properly dressed for the formal occasion, Ermal finally left his chambers. He crossed a small bridge connecting the two parts of the castle and then arrived in front of a closed door. And then, not long after he had knocked just twice, a boy erupted from the room, opening the door.
"Ermal!" The boy exclaimed happily, almost jumping on the other.

"Hi Rinald!" Ermal smiled softly as soon as he saw his younger brother. He ran a hand through his hair fondly before wrapping his arms loosely around him, hugging him. Rinald was at first slightly surprised by Ermal's sudden display of affection, but then hugged him back. Ermal's hands leaned on the younger's shoulders and let go of him. He blinked rapidly a few times before asking him, "So, are you ready? We have to go to the Dining Hall now."

Rinald nodded and a hand went to fix his blue tunic along his right sleeve where it had fallen slightly.
On their way to the Hall, the boy couldn't help but notice that his brother was oddly silent. In fact, whenever they were together they usually spoke at least a little bit, but now Ermal was extremely quiet, as if his mind were elsewhere. Yet, they soon reached the room and that is when Ermal leaned down a bit towards him telling him, "Here we are, Rinald. Just stay near me, mh?"

Rinald wasn't sure why, but Ermal's voice had sounded unmistakably worried, and this time the boy couldn't suppress a confused expression. His eyebrows knitted together as he looked up at his brother's face, "Is something wrong, Ermal?"

The older shook his head quickly, finally regaining control of himself. "No, everything will be fine. Let's go", he said firmly. It seemed like such words escaped his lips more to convince himself, though.
The smoky Great Hall was adorned in an opulent way and the finest foods, wines and ales were served in abundance, all due to the feast held for the Bolton guest. A very long and narrow table was disposed right in the middle, the walls were furnished with sumptuous pieces of art, while two rows of torches and a big chandelier carrying a circle of about twenty white candles provided enough light to the whole hall. Long tables were laden with various meats, stuffed birds and pastries; though vegetables were vastly outnumbered by a parade of fish of all kinds, and more elaborate dishes. Ale, mead, spiceless goat, and onion pie were served as typical food of Pyke.

The whole picture proudly manifested itself in all its lavishness, but Ermal’s eyes didn’t fail to capture the actual hollowness and falsehood just below the surface. He knew full well that such richness was just an act, a mere farce put on to mirror his father’s prestige, the more the opulence the more his arrogance.

Just by thinking about him, Ermal was able to perceive his father’s gaze on himself. And there he was. The Lord of the Ironborn was sitting on an ornate chair under a rich tapestry displaying his coat of arms and the emblems of the territory. Next to him, on his left, was a tall, middle-aged man that Ermal assumed to be none other than the envoy of the Bolton. The moment Ermal and Rinald stepped into the hall, his father was the first to stand up abruptly, making the chair creak noisily. Standing tall with good posture, he approached them with large steps followed by the nobleman of the Bolton.

“Lord Ryswell, allow me to introduce you to my son, Rinald Greyjoy,” he proclaimed, putting his hand on the younger’s shoulder, “he’ll turn fifteen in few weeks.”

A confused expression painted in the Bolton’s face, he had given for granted that the Lord would introduce the heir first and the younger son later.

He frowned, knitting his brows together, “So, is this your heir, Lord Greyjoy?” he asked perplexed, moving his eyes quickly from a brother to the other one.

An amused gleam arose in the other’s eyes.

“Oh no. This is my firstborn, Ermal,” he clarified, gesturing towards Ermal with his hand.

At the table, the participants to the banquet were seated strictly according to their rank, hence the King of the Ironborn was the only one sitting at the head of the table, with Ermal just on his right side. As honoured guest, Lord Ryswell was offered the place opposite to Ermal, on the king’s left. His loyal black hound was with him, lying meekly under the table waiting for some leftover to be thrown at him.

The banquet began and soon the hall was filled by loud voices talking one over the other. Among them it was easy for Ermal to distinguish the king talking with the foreign lord, and although they both were discussing about political matters, his father was unequivocally steering the conversation.

In the meantime, Rinald was enjoying the banquet but he also tried to exchange a few words with his older brother, wondering why he seemed to be so lost in thought this evening.

At a certain point, Ermal felt lord Ryswell’s pressing gaze on him. He was in fact leering maliciously at him with a glint of desire. Even his father didn’t miss the blatant way the Bolton man was lustfully looking at his eldest son since the moment he first saw him, yet he didn’t intrude, simply watching Ermal, interested to see how he’d react. Still, Ermal pretended not to have seen it. He wisely chose to ignore it, preferring instead to focus his attention on Rinald, talking with him.

Time was passing frustratingly slowly during which Ermal kept on ruminating on the content of that letter, anxiety and worry getting the upper hand. He struggled to avoid thinking about it, to focus on something else, but it was absolutely pointless for his mind kept going back there.

In front of him, the foreign lord still hadn’t stopped laying his gaze on him every now and then, so he also did notice that the prince was very quiet and had barely touched food the whole dinner.

“Your son is not really the sociable type, is he?”, he whispered to the Iron Lord.

“Yeah, let’s just say I’m lucky I have two heirs,” the other said loud enough for Ermal to hear, too. A superficial glance, at least initially, would betray nothing out of the ordinary about Ermal’s demeanour, yet the way his shoulders stiffened did not escape his father.

The guests had by now eaten and drunk in abundance and a pale moon was visible through the narrow windows, which suggested that the sumptuous banquet was finally coming to an end. What signalled its definitive end was indeed the Iron King slowly raising from his seat.

“Lord Ryswell, you must be surely tired from your journey. I suggest that we postpone our political affairs until tomorrow morning,” the king proposed.

After all, the foreign noble still didn’t know the real reason why he had been sent there, having only had sufficient time to be welcomed at Pyke Castle and then to attend the dinner in his honour, he still was completely oblivious to the Lord’s intentions.

Lord Ryswell made an affirmative sign with his head, “I’m too tired for discussing important issues right now. I find myself agreeing with you, Lord Reaper.”

Every time Ermal heard that title he could feel the tingling sensation of a shiver running down his spine. Lord Reaper was a title held specifically by the head of House Greyjoy but, contrary to what was often commonly believed, it didn't necessarily signify sovereign status, it was rather a mirror of the King’s personality as well as the Ironborn’ motto, we don’t sow. As a matter of fact, his father had earned such title, gaining the respect of all his subjects after years of pillaging and raiding, first as Captain until his reputation had started to precede him. Gradually, he had then built his kingship with blood and iron, becoming the Iron King whose name was now feared throughout nearby villages. He took what was his by force, seizing whatever he wanted from those ones he had defeated. He took pride in paying the iron price, and as a result his men showed him respect and absolute obedience.

Having spoken to lord Ryswell one last time, the Iron King took leave of his guests and finally retired to his private chambers. Even though Ermal had spent the last hours incessantly thinking about what he had found out, he had come to no conclusion. He let hope flutter in his chest that his worry and fear were perhaps unfair, that maybe it was just a mistake of some sort; after all there may well have been numerous explanations leading to an incorrect understanding. Yet, there was absolutely nothing he could do except talking directly to his father and that’s why he decided to go to his cabinet to shed light on the matter. Once arrived in front of the door, though, the prince felt his heart clenching nearly imperceptibly with tension. He then took a deep breath before finally knocking.

The reply wasn't long in coming. “Yes?”

“It’s Ermal.”

This time the answer wasn’t immediate, a few seconds went by before the other spoke again.

“Come in.”

Ermal couldn't help the grimace forming on his face as he quietly shut the thick door at his back, never once taking his eyes off the man in front of him.

“So, why are you here?” his father asked him rapidly, making no effort to mask his annoyance.

Ermal knew that hesitating was pointless, besides he needed to have answers, thus wanting to conclude this as quickly as possible. Therefore, he was determined to come straight to the point.

“I found the letter addressed to the Lord of House Bolton some hours ago,” Ermal said straightforwardly. He was tense. He stood straight and studied the man through narrowed eyes, ready to see his reaction.

His father’s dark eyes glinted at that. “I see. So eventually, you did find out. I guess I should’ve expected that.” he was not impressed though. His lips had deformed into a grin, a grin which conveyed secret knowledge.

“But that doesn’t answer my question, son. Why are you here?” He repeated. His voice was dangerously low and he kept intense eye contact with Ermal the whole time.

Ermal blinked, his eyes narrowing in a thin line as he watched his father tentatively.

“I came to hear the truth from you. I want to know if what I’ve read is true.” He didn’t realize he was nervously clutching his fist while talking, rapidly opening and closing his palm unconsciously.

The amusement in the Lord’s expression grew as he observed Ermal.

“Well, my letter is perfectly comprehensible, I think,” he was speaking in a patronizing way, “but yes, I’ll send Rinald to the Boltons to live with them as a form of insurance. If that’s what you’re asking.”
That blatant statement engendered a shade of momentary dismay in Ermal's eyes. Horror and disgust gnawed at his insides. They hung in the air. Poisonous in their coldness, cruelly underscoring how appalling his father's words had become. In spite of everything, in his heart laid still a faint, tiny hope which persuaded him to think that even his father wouldn’t go that far, that he wasn’t disposed to giving Rinald away to the Boltons in order to fulfill his political plans.

In fact, the King of the Ironborn knew that giving his younger son as hostage to the Boltons was a certain, easy way to strengthen the alliance between House Bolton and House Greyjoy. He would obviously benefit from the arrangement with a strong northern territory, since it would entail the achievement of more power among the other regions in Westeros. And it was evident that letting Rinald live with the Bolton was a condition he was more than willing to grant for the purpose of facilitating his plans.

“You can’t be serious,” Ermal uttered shocked, still in denial.

“Oh, can’t I?” His tone was cold, meant to tease and provoke. It sent a spark of ice running down Ermal’s back.

Since Rinald was born, Ermal had always taken care of him, protecting him in every way he could and doing his utmost to ensure that he’d grow up with a kind and gentle soul. And the famished helplessness he felt now filled him with rage and despair. The Boltons were well known for being one of the most barbarian peoples in both Westeros and Essos and the mere thought of sending his younger brother among them made his blood ran cold. It was like throwing him to the wolves. They would surely bring him up as one of them, instilling their cruel values and traditions in him. He would be irreversibly changed.

Ermal shook his hand almost imperceptibly as though dispelling those frightening thoughts. That is when it hit him. There was actually one option, an alternative which would be preferable to this horrid possibility. He didn’t hesitate.

“Send me, instead. I’ll go in his place.”

The words came out rapidly, boldly. Ermal would give his own life for the life of his brother. He was certain of that, he would do it for real, without thinking twice.

A booming laugh echoed in the room.

“Are you really sure you want to do it?” his father asked, evidently amused by the younger’s proposal.

Ermal held his father’s stare without faltering but remaining adamant in his offer to exchange his own life for Rinald’s.

“I won’t let you anyway,” the king drawled slowly, “I need you here.”

Tightness constricted the prince’s chest as his eyes flashed with indignation and anger.

The Iron King then leaned casually against the desk. There was a moment of silence where he watched his son haughtily, knowing the younger was rallying his courage and doing his best to keep a level head. Ermal’s back was rigid, his expression fearless.

“So, don't you wish to congratulate me, Ermal?" he asserted, something sinister glittering in his eyes.

“Congratulate you?” echoed the prince, sounding indignant. He stared at him in irritation, taking in the lazy grin and aloof posture.

“Yes. Even you have to admit that an alliance with the Boltons is rather advantageous. Now I’m a step closer to sitting on the Iron Throne, and soon I’ll be the first Greyjoy to rule over the Seven Kingdoms,” he proclaimed, not bothering to hide his smugness.

With a swift movement he took the book hiding the letter in its inside. The precious letter was then taken and carefully placed in the drawer below.

It appeared as though he had finished talking, but then, “Tomorrow I’ll give the letter to lord Ryswell. Soon, your brother will live with the Boltons to keep our alliance somewhat stable. I’m sure Rinald’ ll live up to his family’s reputation.”

Ermal furrowed his brow with fear and alarm.

His father’s hand went then to grab some documents put in disorder on the desk. Something he had been probably dealing with before Ermal’s interruption.

“Now go back to your chambers. I have work to do,” he dismissed him with a hand, not even bothering to look at him. On the contrary, he swiftly turned away from his son, turning his back on him in order to concentrate on his affairs.

Ermal squeezed his eyes shut, shaken to the core. An acute loathing welled up inside of him, consuming him slowly. Panic and desperation mixed together and made it impossible for Ermal to see past anything other than the horror that was about to befall his young brother. Initially, he had gone to his father to make things clear, just because he needed to get a clarification of the situation. He had been under the illusion that it was no more than a misunderstanding and once he had realized it was the truth, a tiny part of him had even thought he could talk some sense into him.

But he was wrong. A sudden sense of absolute hopelessness kindled inside the prince’s chest. Then Ermal took a decision. His gaze fell on the paper knife his father always kept on his desk and, with a shaky hand, he took it. His feet were near silent as they slid across the ground, drawing nearer and nearer to his father’s figure. His heart raced faster. His grip on the handle tightened further, though it felt impossible, and his breathing hitched. As soon as he came right behind him, he did not hesitate and abruptly stabbed his father repeatedly in the side.

A sudden dread hit him at the core as he proceeded to pull the knife out. The lifeless body thudded on the ground and a small yelp escaped Ermal’s lips. He carelessly dropped the knife on the stone floor and, with a heavy feeling in his stomach, heard as it noisily hit the ground echoing together with the sound of the crackling fire. He threw the letter in the fireplace and left the room immediately after watching the last corner burn.

 

***

 

At a certain point Ermal went still and quiet. Fabrizio wasn’t looking straight at him but could hear him letting out a slight sigh. Since the moment Claudio had assigned him the mission, Fabrizio had obviously made some suppositions, trying to form an overall picture of the situation; however, he had never imagined things might have gone that way. Of course lately he had suspected that Ermal must evidently have had his own reasons for going that far, but now everything was finally clear to Fabrizio. And clear was also the idea that Fabrizio now had of Ermal. By now, the achievement of his mission was beyond doubt out of the question. What deeply upset him was the shameful awareness of having actually thought about killing Ermal.

It was night already and the light of the moon scarcely penetrated the extreme thickness of the clouds. Fabrizio and Ermal stood up and, after a last glance at the sea, the younger started to walk towards his home. Fabrizio didn’t take long to reach him and they continued the road side by side. Silence kept them company for awhile then. Every now and then, Fabrizio looked at Ermal, observing him for a little while. He couldn’t help but continue thinking about everything he had just told him, and given his tense frame and downcast eyes, it was fair to assume that Ermal was keeping to muse on it, too, reliving once again what had happened.

Fabrizio thought about it for a long moment, considering whether or not to do it, and then he simply reached out and, with the slightest hesitation, took Ermal’s hand, gently entwining their fingers.

Strange how such a simple, kind gesture could instill such warmth inside Ermal. A warm tingling sensation quickly spread through his body and his lips curved into a mild smile.

 

Chapter Text

The book about Dornish legends and traditions Fabrizio had given to Ermal really piqued the prince’s interest. Fabrizio couldn’t imagine how happy he had managed to make him with his little gift, how much it had meant to Ermal. He couldn’t imagine that, every day, Ermal would go back home after finishing his work at the dock, smiling at the mere thought of reading some new legends and anecdots about his new home. Fabrizio surely did not know that Ermal would usually read a bit of it whenever he had some spare time, curious and eager as he always had been to discover new things. Reading was actually something he would never get tired of, and Dornish culture and traditions were no exception. Having spent almost all his life in company of his beloved books, Ermal could easily spend hours completely lost in the blurry lines. Before leaving the Iron Islands, reading was a cozy, soothing way to evade from his reality, his harsh reality were fear used to gnaw at his days. Books invited a conversation with his thoughts, one unspoken and kind, they knew how to hold him without enchaining him. Therefore he was always fond of reading new stories and hence, Fabrizio’s gift turned out to be truly fascinating as well as entertaining, since it kept him busy in his evenings, his brown eyes widening as he flicked through the yellowish pages.

That specific late afternoon, Ermal was wholly into the legend of the heroine Nymeria, the warrior queen who managed to cross into Dorne from Essos. Apparently, she was able to flee the dragonlords of Valyria and led more than 10,000 ships across the narrow sea to land at Dorne, where she finally married Mors Martell, thus forever unifying the realm under Martell rule.

What a woman, Ermal couldn’t help but acknowledge, Dornish in spirit before she ever was in flesh.

He read the last lines of her story with admiration in his eyes. It didn’t surprise him that she was held in high esteem throughout Dorne.

Then he turned the page along with his thoughts. But once he had just concluded the legend, the sound of someone knocking on the door diverted him from his book. His first thought was that Fabrizio had forgotten to tell him something or had just come to say goodbye after finishing his work, so he went to open the door absent-mindedly.

“Fabbrì…?” he started but stopped as soon as he realized to be face to face with Venditti. “Antonello!” he exclaimed happily, without noticing the bewildered look on the older man’s face, who was actually momentarily dazed by the situation. However, Venditti did no more than raise his eyebrows slightly before relaxing in a little smile, relieved to find the younger clearly safe and sound after those weeks in his absence.

“Hi, lad,” he said warmly.

“I wasn't expecting you before some days,” Ermal replied, pleasently surprised to find him there.

“Yes, well, the wind was surprisingly fair so we luckily managed to arrive a bit earlier than expected. I left the crew at the dock to unload the ship’s cargo. Well, I hope they can at least deal with that,” he grumbled.

For a moment, Ermal chuckled to himself. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed the old man’s irritable temper until now. At this point, he moved aside so as to let the man step inside. Antonello didn’t wait a minute before entering and taking a seat at the kitchen table, and Ermal followed him right after, already knowing that the captain had a lot to tell him.

“So, first things first,” the Captain started, “as you asked me, I come bearing news from the Iron Islands.”

Ermal took a deep breath, tensing slightly. “Tell me.”

“Well, actually, I have to admit that the situation is generally better than what I imagined. Lords and nobles are currently looking for a suitable regent until the young prince comes of age.”

Ermal was listening very attentively to him.

“It would be a matter of few weeks, I believe, before they find someone to look after your brother and rule over the Iron Islands.” He didn’t miss the worried expression on the younger’s face, though. “Anyway, this regent would only rule for some years. Besides, I doubt he’d be worse than your father,” he hastened to add with a low tone.

Ermal gave a weak nod in agreement. “So they want another Greyjoy to rule the Iron Islands,” he pointed out matter-of-factly, like he was simply confirming something he was already certain of.

In fact, rather uniquely, the Ironborn elected their king through the ancient ceremony of Kingsmoot. Following the death of the previous King, all the available captains of longships from the various islands of the region came together to make the choosing. Even if House Greyjoy had been the dominant house in the land for a while, Ermal knew that though the power tended to stay within the family, nothing was legal without the Kingsmoot. Therefore, though the heir of the previous King may feel to be the rightful King of the Ironborn, no one was legally entitled to the Salt Throne unless chosen by the Kingsmoot. Even Venditti was aware of this tradition.

“They do. Apparently, they respected the dead king so much that they chose to give directly the Salt Throne to another Greyjoy, in his honour. Someone with the same blood as your father to continue the dynasty.” His words were low but deliberate and distinct.

“Well, that was to be expected, I suppose,” Ermal answered flatly. “Anyway, how is Rinald? Do you know if he’s alright?” he asked with some urgency.

Venditti pressed his lips together and took some moments before anwering, “Well, your brother is… confused.”

Ermal just gave him a sad smile in response.

Venditti drew in a long breath and spoke, “Actually, there’s something else I think you really should know.”

“What is it?”

He paused, seeming to search for the right words. “Well, they haven’t given up looking for you. Apparently, the Ironborn still want you dead, lad.”

“I'd be surprised if they didn't...” Ermal replied bitterly.

The captain’s gaze was flitting around the room, never settling on Ermal for long.

“Just-” he passed a hand through his hair, “just be careful, Ermal,” he pleaded earnestly.

“I will.”

Antonello watched him for a long moment, seeing how serious and resolute the younger’s expression had become. Then, he sensibly decided to change the topic to something lighter. “Anyway,” he began, “I brought you something.” He quickly reached into the left pocket of his coat and pulled out something. Ermal didn’t even have the time to utter a word, that he immediately saw Antonello handing him a small book. The older man raised his gaze and met a very surprised prince.

“Honestly, I have no idea what it is about. I saw it the moment we were about to leave the dock and I just took it for you. After all, it’s time you start to have your own library even here in Sunspear, don’t you think?”

Happiness radiated suddenly through Ermal, his mood lightening considerably thanks to Venditti’s words.

“Thank you, really,” he said with joy as he took the book in his hands.

It was in a terrible state though, the corners of the pages had clearly been watered somehow and it smelled faintly of salt and dust. The pages within were brittle and what remained of the book’s original stitching was barely holding it together. Moreover, the first page began in the middle of a sentence, suggesting that there were probably some pages missing. And from what he read at the moment, Ermal assumed it was most likely a children’s book. He smiled, thinking that it was a great piece to start a private library.

However, his attention turned away from the book as soon as he heard Venditti letting out a long yawn.

“You look exhausted, Antonello. You should rest a bit,” he suggested, chuckling lightly.

“Yeah yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too,” replied the captain, standing up.

Ermal rose from his chair, taking the book with him, and started to go towards his room.

“Ah, Ermal?”

A mass of dark curls peeked out from the door, “Mh?”

“Where you--where you waiting for someone else before I arrived?” he asked calmly.

Only now did Ermal remember saying Fabrizio’s name while opening the door, since he was pretty sure it was him and, as it appeared, Antonello had heard it. “Oh, not exactly. I only assumed it was Fabrizio since he often comes here either for talking for awhile or for going for a walk,” he explained easily.

There was a short silence and then Antonello spoke again. “Do you trust him?”

“Yes,” Ermal stated with no hesitation.

 

That day, numerous new goods arrived at the dock together with Venditti and his ship, and that meant that the crew was still busy finishing to unload all the cargo since the previous night. One after the other, men proceeded to cross the wooden bridge carrying the merchandising from the Under the Sign of Pisces to their warehouse. As it soon turned out, the dock was pretty crowded and busy already, and it was clear that Ermal would’ve been of no use there. For this reason, Antonello gave him some time off, telling him to come back in a couple of days considering that his men were nothing but lazy good-for-nothings. Delighted as he was to have some time for himself, Ermal quickly walked away from the dock, deciding to wander around the city for awhile.

 

And there it was again, that silence. The kind of silence which was eerily unnatural, like a dawn devoid of birdsong. Ermal had walked all morning around the lost alleys of Sunspear, choosing to avoid the most crowded areas where masses of people always shuffled through the ancient streets. And in that calmness the houses of the town glistened indistinctly, it was all a light dream, pleasant, vast and silent. Now it seemed to him like a wavy sea, now like a delicate cloud, then again like something infinitely clear, becoming clear all of a sudden.

Afterwards, he arrived along the edge of the water, letting the warm salty air blow his hair away from his shoulders as the cool water lapped over his toes. It was as if the sea suffered and remained silent with whom was gazing at it. Ermal often found himself wondering where the sea would end, where you didn’t have to close your eyes in order to dream.

There was silence, endless silence except for sporadic absurd brushstroke moments. No noise now consumed his weak senses, gray skies melted away leaving him engrossed in his candid silence full of everything and void of himself. He walked quietly, with his pockets full of syllables and letter shavings that he had gathered over the past couple of days. He had been thinking a lot and the thoughts were louder and louder. But he could not find the words. He’d whittled away fragments that never found cohesion, put them in his pockets so as to figure out later, when his mind wasn’t running so hot. And now, that drowning silence became him as he stopped at the dock edge, took all the jagged slivers which would be sentences out with his hands, and scattered them on the dusty ground where he decided to crouch. It was early in the morning against a background of sea and sky and Ermal could feel the panting of the seagulls flying overhead to the north but he didn’t strain to listen. To the West, the onshore breeze was blowing hard enough to whip the rabbit ears of his inside out pockets, but he didn’t feel it yet. Looking down at all those fragmented thoughts, he stopped himself from piecing together a coherent sentence, from structuring what the architecture of that breeze had started to. No, he simply stood there with his head down focused on the dried, fragrant mixture of what before might have been an understanding.

He watched it as if he was still in the castle during that night, standing just outside Rinald’s bedroom to call him to dinner, knowing that soon there wouldn’t be another word that he could hear uttered from his cheerful mouth. He reached down, picked up a grunt or a laugh, or it might have been a ka or a tion. Only now did he feel the cool wind. He vividly remembered the warmth radiating from the small earth in his private room being sucked out of the open window overlooking the sea, lost in that white, dreamy blue panorama. He thought of the happiest of smiles appearing on his little brother’s face as soon as he had managed to read a full coherent sentence for the first time in his life, after long afternoons spent indoors with Ermal patiently teaching him how to read and write. His beloved mother had died giving birth to Rinald, her second son, but he was the person Ermal loved the most nonetheless. The distant memories when Rinald was no more than a young child still hovered around him, when he had uttered his very first words and when later on he had begun to get curious about everything surrounding him.

Then Ermal sat down on the dirt and kept shuffling the sounds: The child’s laughter shook in him so violently that he couldn’t help but laugh back. He put his younger brother on his shoulders, Rinald holding intertwined hands across his forehead, and they walked around the younger’s room. The child merrily calling his older brother’s name and touching lightly his curly hair from above as they walked... was as far as he got when he looked up, saw a lonely seagull pass by, heard a wave break below, then went right back into it, word by infant word.

Rinald was the mirth bringing a sparkle of light to Ermal’s white and dirty soul, and the idea of him growing up without him by his side filled Ermal with deep sadness and apprehension. However, even though they were now separated by a great distance, Ermal knew that Rinald would always be in an unexpected smile, in a weary step, in a high jump giving chills, a slow breath scanning time that no one would ever stop.

He would always be with him in his top right pocket.

 

 

It was already late in the afternoon when Ermal decided to go back to the dock in order to look for Fabrizio. He had quietly lingered near the sea for quite some time, completely losing track of time of the passing hours. Time was always in abeyance whenever he was intently gazing at the sea, utterly rapt and looking almost expressionless. Nevertheless, he really felt a sudden flare of joy coming back the moment he glimpsed Fabrizio waving towards him with a smile from afar. And, honestly, his delight could barely be concealed when Fabrizio proposed going to see an ancient temple, the same temple they hadn’t managed to see some days before, because Fabrizio couldn’t remember the right way.

“This time I know how to get there, I promise!” Fabrizio ensured sheepishly.

“Well, I wouldn’t be so sure, old man… we’ll see...” Ermal teased him, smiling as the other chuckled amused.

“And there’s something I want to show you once we get there,” he said simply.

Ermal smiled watching him with the corner of his eye but didn’t insist, preferring to keep it a surprise.

As it turned out, it was undeniable that this time Fabrizio actually remembered how to get to the temple; however, neither of them had expected it would take them so long. As a matter of fact, the sun was just going down and the entire valley was shimmering in the light, but they didn’t arrive yet.

“I’m sorry we won’t arrive in time to see the sunset from there...” Ermal sighed.

“Oh, but that’s not what I wanted to show you,” he smirked.

This time Ermal was unable to hide his surprise, so he looked at him, tilting his head curiously, “Mh? I thought so.”

“Ahah, come on come on, we’re almost there,” Fabrizio said, pleased with himself for having succeeded in keeping it a surprise until the end.

Just by walking through the beautiful alley of cypresses towards the temple, the whole place emanated a sense of undying enchantment. And as soon as they found the temple right before their eyes, Ermal marvelled at the sight. At last, he too was a silent witness of the unique mystic and mysterious atmosphere of the place and of the many legends it had inspired through the years.

It was true that of the original temple remained only a magnificent shell among the huge valley but, perhaps, the impoverished and decaying ruins could boast of captivating its visitors even more than the original structure. Ermal quickened his pace, almost running until he stopped once arrived at the center of the abandoned temple. It was completely roofless, thus allowing a magnificient view of the sky above, which was now darker since the sunset.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Fabrizio asked him once he had reached him.

“Now I understand why this is your favourite place in Sunspear. It’s breathtaking, Bizio.”

Fabrizio could see the unmistakable amazement wihin his dark eyes and remembered that Ermal actually hadn’t seen much more than the Iron Islands in his whole life, no doubt he had always wanted to travel to visit different regions and no wonder he was now so mesmerized by this place.

“Yes, it truly is. Even if it is now roofless, they say it once was high and majestic. Some rivalries among old regions condemned the temple to a slow but irreversible decline, and at some point the upper part collapsed destroying the greatest part of the roof. The temple was eventually abandoned and the bricks and stones were used by the people of the area to build houses and other small temples.”

“Oh, I see. But, personally, I find it more fascinating this way. I think true beauty isn’t subject to wear,” Ermal said. “To which deity was it dedicated?”

“Well, there are numerous legends which surround its origins and history, so it is not known with certainty. But with time people started to come here for personal reasons. I believe that although no one really knows to which god it originally was, everyone simply comes here to pray, regardless to which kind of faith. It depends on what you see in this place, I think,” Fabrizio stated sincerely.

“And you? What do you see in this place, Fabbrì?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Fabrizio raised his gaze, biting his lower lip. “To me, faith is like an invisible hand. It’s energy that builds up, like an illuminating space that gives a purpose to this life.”

When he realised Ermal had become suddenly silent, he decided to ask him the same thing, “What about you, Ermal? Do you believe in some deity?”

Ermal shook his head, “As Ironman I’d be supposed to worship the sea deity of the Drowned God, but the truth is I don’t believe in any god. I believe in humans and their ability to survive, to thrive.” Then he sat on the ground, waiting for Fabrizio to do the same before continuing to speak. “You know, the Drowned God is said to have made the Ironborn in his own likeness, and that means to pillage, rape, carve out kingdoms, make their names known in fire and blood and hold dominion over all the waters of the earth. And since its religion supports the Ironmen's pirate culture, my father was obviously the most faithful believer.” His delicate featurs hardened. “But it was only on the surface. Everything about him was about appearances and reputation. He had nothing but scorn for deities.” In just a split second, Ermal had turned from relaxed to guarded and nervous.

“I would expect so,” Fabrizio uttered lowly, letting out a long breath.

And then Ermal looked up and saw the stars. They illuminated the darkness and his tension crumbled to dust beneath his feet. The lies, the hatred, the apprehension--they now lingered at a distance.

“Here’s what I wanted to show you. The view of the starry sky is unbelievable from down here,” the words came out as a whisper, almost timidly as though Fabrizio didn’t want to disturb the marvelous spectacle.

Ermal tilted his head, gazing upward, eyes more open than they could be in the fullness of day, not looking at one star, yet somehow seeing them all at once.

“Yeah, it’s indeed wonderful.”

And just like that, they lazily lay down on the ground looking up at the sky and started talking of this and that, simply enjoying each other’s presence under a flood of stars. Every now and then, Ermal would look at Fabrizio with a curious expression on his face due to something particularly interesting the other had said, his head tilted in a myriad of silent questions reflected in his dusky eyes like many little stars.

“--but, now that I think about it, maybe you happen to know that book,” when he received no answer, Fabrizio tried again, “Mh? Ermal...?” the instant he turned his head to the side towards the younger man he couldn’t stop a soft smile from spreading across his face, Ermal’s eyes were closed and his breath was slow and regular. At a certain point he must have fallen asleep, out of nowhere, gently lulled by the night sky and Fabrizio’s calm voice. The tenderness of the sleeping young man next to him was enough to fill Fabrizio with warmth. He looked at him with a soft smile, then decided to let him sleep peacefully. Fabrizio turned his head to face the sky again. He didn’t sleep though, preferring instead to stare at the stars above him quietly, with his mind able to meander freely in random thoughts.

 

Trapped. Ermal felt trapped. He could hear his heart rate speeding up increasingly and his mind was blank white. He couldn't think properly, only anxiety, fear and loathing were gradually taking over his consciousness. His head whipped violently side to side, searching for a brushstroke of light. His breathing getting more erratic, his heart beating so loud it echoed in his ears.

The soft pitter-patter sound of rain colliding with the outside stone walls of the castle slowly became distant as Ermal's thoughts became dazed and his eyes unfocused.

The dark walls of the room seemed to shrink more and more in his mind, only serving him to panic even more. His eyes darted around, scanning the room desperately.

He saw flashes of a sneering man at the edges of his vision, tentatively crawling into his peripheral vision.

This blood running through your veins will wrap around you like a chain.”

Ermal jumped; the voice echoed in his head much louder than it should have and simultaneously as a whisper from just behind his neck. He spun, looking around; only darkness met him.

Albeit against your will, it will always remind you of what you are.”

His trembling figure stayed as silent as possible in the cold room, he closed his ebony eyes shut, scared to open them in case he would see something there… or rather someone lurking in the dark moist room.

For honor, for legacy.”

He winced visibly. Curling up, he tried to place his arms over his curly hair, as if trying to protect himself. His breathing was heavy and eager to feed his starving lungs.

And mostly, for your family.”

Ermal swallowed hard and cowered as sharp anxiety and stinging fear surrounded him. He could hear that dreaded voice echoing in his mind and his hands went to cover his ears, as if he could block it out that easily.

You will become...”

He closed his eyes shut tightly, waiting for the voice in his head to leave him alone.

Me.”

An unwilling tear ran now shamefully down his cheek and he wiped it off with a trembling hand.

But, unexpectedly, that voice was replaced by another one. Undoubtedly less well-known, yet definetely sweeter, softer.

 

Ermal..? Ermal..!

 

Ermal felt someone grabbing him by the shoulders, urgently calling his name over and over again.

He waked up suddenly in the middle of the night panting heavily. His thoughts disordered and confused, and for a moment he wasn't even sure where he was but then he met with a pair of warm brown eyes. And although they weren’t actually looking right back at him, the acute worry deep within them was so visible, so evident, that Ermal was able to clear his mind a bit, finally understanding where he was and, most importantly, where he was not anymore.

His mind had drifted to a hazy place from his adolescence, cruelly messing up with his locked memories.

But Fabrizio was awake, lost in his thoughts and gazing at the sky above him, when he had felt Ermal suddenly agitating in his sleep next to him. He had then looked closely at him and seen how his eyelids trembled slightly. And while that certainly was unpleasant and caused him to look at him with concern, it wasn’t the worst thing. Because at some point Ermal had started to toss nervously in his sleep, the rhythm of his breathing had increased considerably and he looked utterly unease and upset, eyes closed tightly and a grimace on his face. What was concern turned then into palpable worry, therefore Fabrizio decided to wake him somehow from whatever nightmare he was having.

Now Ermal could feel the other man's hands on his shoulders. This time, though, Fabrizio was the one to search eye contact and Ermal the one to flee from it.

Fear was always there. Ermal usually considered himself decent at hiding it, masking it. But it ruthlessly hid everywhere, this fear, in his memories, in his dreams. It thrived in the darkness with fine winding tendrils strangling his heart. Even though he had escaped from it once and for all, could it be that, maybe, there wasn’t actually any getting away from it?

“Ermal… Ermal, please. Look at me,” Fabrizio whispered gently, trying desperately to make him calm down yet giving him all the time he needed. His eyes frantically searched Ermal’s… waiting. Eventually, Ermal looked back at him, the fear within his widened eyes mirroring the grave concern in Fabrizio’s.

“I-I was… he...” he began, yet what followed was engulfed in tremors. Then suddenly a tear fell down and he believed he was drowning. He was gasping and was so visibly frightened that Fabrizio’s heart clenched painfully. I'd like to hold you tight and tell you everything’s fine, was all Fabrizio could think in that moment.

“Ermal, listen to me. Just because you feel it, doesn't mean it's there,” Fabrizio told him calmly, marking each word slowly. With that, Ermal seemed to recover a bit, his heart rate slowed down while he forced himself to breathe more regularly. He sat back straight, taking long deep breaths.

Fabrizio waited a few seconds for him to calm down before reaching his hand out towards Ermal’s back. He was about to touch him, to just stroke his back gently, but he stopped an instant before doing so. His hand ended up brushing almost imperceptedly against the other’s back until it barely ghosted over Ermal’s shirt. It then closed in a fist and sadness clouded his features. Fabrizio withdrew his hand in a heartbeat and emitted a trembling sigh.

Fabbrì… I can hear you thinking,” Ermal said lowly with a sad smile.

Fabrizio let out an even heavier and shakier sigh. “It’s just… I can’t imagine how a father could do something like that ...” he stated bitterly.

The corners of Ermal’s eyes crinkled and his hand nervously opened and closed repeatedly .

“My father has always been a monster,” he said with vehemence, torturing his closed fist all the while. His nightmare came back to his mind and this time everything was more vivid, however he was much calmer now, well aware of his surroundings. The content of it flashed through him, even so, with half-closed eyes the world was far away and he could think clearly now. And this blood of his which tasted a bit of monster and a bit of himself made him think he’d have liked to thank him. To thank him because he wasn’t there.

Fabrizio looked at him and wondered what Ermal was thinking, what exactly had upset him so much. But he did not ask. With time, he had learnt to know him well enough to understand that if Ermal wanted to, he would talk to him without holding back.

Ermal, on the other hand, couldn’t help but ask himself how much strength was it needed to become weak, to destroy the shield that had always protected him. But two eyes looking at him, so close and so real, made him forget wavering words and confused his thoughts.

And so Ermal started to talk, a bit hesitant at first, but quickly let his words flow without constraint.
It was clear that Ermal did not want to look him in the eye, so Fabrizio turned slightly with his shoulder brushing against him and his gaze firm somewhere in front of them. He thought that it probably would be easier that way, without looking at each other, with only the calm wind stealing Ermal’s occasional unsteady gasps and filling the silence instead of Fabrizio. Biting his lip and falling momentarily silent every now and then, Ermal told him everything, unveiling every part of his soul to Fabrizio.

Fabrizio knew tears would lead to sympathy, hence he merely listened to him without interrupting him, clenching his fists several times during Ermal’s transparent, candid talking.

And even though he remained silent and chose to avoid any kind of physical contact between them, the mere presence of Fabrizio close to him embraced Ermal like a blanket of safety.

 

Only after understanding that Ermal had finished talking, did Fabrizio finally find the lost words.

“Being such a monster to your own son is truly unfathomable to me,” he sighed loud and looked sorrowfully at the younger man next to him. While talking, Ermal had unconsciously brought his legs closer to his chest and now his head was carelessly laid between his knees, his face totally hidden by messy curls.

“You know...” Fabrizio faltered for a moment, “I was a father once...”

No sooner had he said that, than Ermal raised his head immediately, his eyes widening in astonishment.

“Really...?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, I had a son, his name was Libero,” Fabrizio said in a low tone.

Ermal’s eyebrows furrowed, for he couldn’t help but notice Fabrizio kept talking in the past tense.

“May I ask you what happened?”

Fabrizio nodded in agreement, “Some years ago, the two of us lived in a small village near Sunspear. During that time there were several raids at the hands of the Lannisters. In a town of blood, among so many wonders, between lemons and seashells they slaughtered sons and daughters. One night--” he hesitated, as his face twisted with an unpleasant memory, “one night, while I was at work, after a random raid a group of men slaughtered the entire village. My son included. He wasn’t even eight years old.”

His words came as a complete shock to Ermal, who was now gazing at Fabrizio with glistening eyes.

“Before becoming a father, I was a much more fragile man. Being a father gives you strength, I’m sure of that,” Fabrizio continued, his voice firmer now, “because, in the end, love always saves.

You know, back then I used to work in a small inn as a cook and I often went through hellish days: cooking meals for so many people all at once and working insane shifts... sometimes I was under a lot of pressure, even though I had been doing that job for a long time. But then I just came home and simple gestures were more than enough, like taking Libero’s hand or playing with him for awhile, to feel a charge of energy that made me feel ten years younger. The most beautiful sound was surely the noise of my son playing happily in his room, a noise which tasted of life! And although I knew we weren't rich, I didn't feel like we were missing anything.”

The firmness in his voice lessened slightly then. “Since that night, I feel like a part of me is always missing. He was the best part of me. But although I miss him, I do know I’ll never let his memory die, he’s constantly with me,” he revealed bluntly.

Ermal heard him out, giving him his undivided attention. Never would he have immagined that Fabrizio had undergone such a tragedy, let alone the fact he had been a father. It was strange, he thought, how little you can know about someone even when you spoke to them basically every day.

He reached out and, only after having gently placed his hand over Fabrizio’s, did he manage to say, “I’m sure you were a great father, Fabrizio.”

 

That night they had trusted each other with a sky full of stars being their only witness. Their souls had gotten closer, had smelled each other… it was true, they were two survivors.

Chapter Text

Fabrizio awoke earlier than expected and was momentarily blinded by the sudden bright light filling his room. His long, dark eyelashes fluttered due to the hued rays impertinently seeping through the windows. Moving as quietly as possible, Fabrizio managed to sneak out of the bed and slowly dragged his feet towards a small basin next to the door. His hands were soon dipped in the fresh water and then he proceeded to wash his face before eventually running a wet hand through his messy hair. With a long yawn, he banished the residue of his drowsiness and blinked, finally able to see clearly. His unkempt shirt was soon replaced by a light, blue tunic decorated with pale grayish details. Then it was with a swift, yet silent movement that he opened the door, but didn’t leave the room without first having cast a glance at the curly haired young man sleeping in his bed. Fabrizio smiled softly as he watched how peacefully the younger was sleeping, glad that he was finally able to rest for awhile.

Given everything that had happened the night before, it had turned out that neither of them wanted to remain alone, they really didn’t feel like going home and miserably pretending to sleep. So, as a result, Fabrizio had offered to share his bedroom with Ermal, reasoning it would be easier that way for the both of them. And, apparently, he was right.

With a last look at Ermal, Fabrizio turned and left the room, quietly closing the door so as not to wake him up. The moment he set foot outside his doorway, his senses were overwhelmed by light seeping through the clouds, igniting the rich hues with such great variation. Every colour was brighter under the light, in this flowing of fast images. What also hit him, though, was the dry heat of a typical mid-morning in Sunspear, therefore he immediately rolled his sleeves up to his forearms and then headed towards the big market in order to buy what he needed. As a matter of fact, it was taken for granted that he would have lunch with Ermal and, needless to say he’d be the one to prepare something to eat. Besides, if Fabrizio had to be honest, something told him he’d better not particularly trust Ermal’s culinary skills. But even considering how good Fabrizio was at cooking, coming up with something with the few supplies he had left would be challenging even for him. That’s why he was heading towards the market, walking at a brisk pace because he wanted to go back in time before Ermal would wake up. And it went without saying that he was also very eager to greet Niccolò, since he hadn’t seen him in a while.

Fabrizio arrived at the market and started to scan his surroundings, looking for Niccolò in that sea of people. Just before it happened, there was this vague sense of familiarity which washed over Fabrizio as he continued to walk further. It was as if what he was experiencing had already happened because once again he could hear Niccolo’s loud voice from behind the stand, and he was shouting, almost yelling to whom should have been his potential customers. A knowing smile made its way across Fabrizio’s face as he quickly walked over other stalls, just to finish right in front of Niccolò. And Nico’s eyes lightened visibly when he noticed him.

“Oh, Fabbrì! It’s been a while!”

Fabrizio got closer and didn’t wait a moment longer before wrapping his arms over Nic and pulling him into an embrace. He quickly patted his back affectionately, before replying, “I know, sorry. I’ve been around, lately.”

With the corner of an eye he grasped that there was still plenty of fruit inside Nico’s stall, a sign suggesting him that he hadn’t managed to sell many goods.

“Why is it that I hear you basically shouting at people whenever I come here at the market?” he told him, forcing himself to sound at least somewhat serious.

Niccolò grimaced slightly and crossed his arms, “It’s just that sometimes some men of the upper class happen to come this way with that smirk of those who believe they're right… I speak with gestures, I don't know their language, you know me, Fabbrì” he simply shrugged.

Fabrizio found it extremely hard to suppress a chuckle, “Yeah, I sure do. But I’m of the view that if you shout less, you’ll have more customers,” he said warmly.

The younger laughed a bit and guided a hand to his hair sheepishly. “You’re right, I’ll try, I’ll try.” Then he looked around, ensuring that no one else was listening, and lowered his voice.

“Anyway, how’s it going with the mission? Did you make sure that the prince is actually guilty?”

Fabrizio swallowed hard and went pale for a moment. The truth was that he had stopped thinking about the mission altogether since the accident with the fountain, and as soon as he had found out the whole truth, in his mind there was only Ermal, with no shadow whatsoever of his mission. And, regardless of the fact that he hadn’t seen Nic much lately, Niccolò deserved to know the truth, he needed to know once and for all that the mission was out of the question.

“Yes well, about that, I just want you to know that we won’t accomplish the mission anymore.”

Niccolò looked puzzled at that, but Fabrizio was quick to continue right away, “I certainly won’t kill Ermal. But we’ll talk about this with more time, don’t worry.”

Whenever Niccolò wanted or needed to talk, Fabrizio had always given him some precious advice, he had always known exactly how to be close to him, without judging him. Without making comments. Because sometimes “I understand” was so much stronger than some easy, moral teachings. And Nic knew he was lucky to have him as a friend. Therefore, the least he could do was trust him, believe in him no matter what. So, he blinked, taking the time to process what the other had told him, and then nodded slowly.

“It’s all right, Fabbrì. If you say so, I believe you. You’ll explain to me better some other time.”

“Thank you, Nico.”

Fabrizio took a long breath, now finally releaved, and while doing so he noticed a bunch of yellow flowers carefully lying near the fruit.

“What about these?” he asked with a lightened heart, pointing at them.

There was an unusual kind of sparkle within Nico’s eyes.

“Oh, they are dandelions,” he said simply. He looked up at a confused Fabrizio while shifting weight from side to side.

“Well, actually, there’s this pretty girl selling flowers just over there and we talk rather often… well, basically every time we can,” he explained with a smile, “And when she sings quietly those refrains of her and twirls her hair in her fingers, I can’t help thinking that the flowers she sells are of the same shade as her hair. And this morning she came here and just gave those flowers to me.”

He scratched the back of his head. He had talked like he had his head high in the clouds with pure joy and looked so visibly happy that Fabrizio acknowledged he had never seen him like this. He was undoubtedly in love with the flower girl.

“Well, she seems really special. Then, don’t let her go,” he said warmly. He just smirked and winked at Niccolò. “Listen to the advice of someone who has put a lot of road in store,” he concluded, putting a hand on the younger’s shoulder. In that moment, Fabrizio’s eyes laid on the lovely flowers, thus taking a closer look at them.

The petals of the humble dandelions were the gold amid the green, a little sunshine. It was a radiant sun, bringing sudden flashes of perfect dark, long curls and bright eyes in his mind. He could see him without any image at all, only an infusion of joy.

“Well, I really should go back home now,” he said moving away from Nico. “I’ll take this one with me, bye!” he exclaimed as he grabbed a single dandelion with his hand.

Niccolò observed him in silence for a brief moment, his mouth opening and closing in surprise.

“B-but, Fabbri, wait--!” he shouted.

But Fabrizio was already blending into the crowd, his back now turned to Niccolò. He raised his arm, the yellow flower dangling playfully between his fingers, so as to repeatedly wave at Nic with his hand. “See you soon, Nico!”

With time, Fabrizio had learnt that whenever he spent time with Niccolò, he inevitably tended to lose track of time, and this time was obviously no exception. Actually, talking with him had taken more time than he had imagined, therefore he had now to rush to get what he needed and then go back home as soon as possible. To tell the truth, from the moment he had taken that yellow dandelion, Fabrizio had almost forgotten why he had come to the market in the first place, lost as he was in his thoughts. However, he did remember as soon as he saw the stall he was looking for right in front of his eyes. He couldn’t deny that lately he had been in lack of several supplies at home, but since Ermal was his guest for that day, he wanted to prepare him a proper Dornish lunch. And in order to do that he indeed needed to buy some rice and a few spices.

Once he had gotten everything he needed, Fabrizio finally left the market square and headed home with a smile, hoping that Ermal was still sleeping.

 

Fabrizio arrived home in few minutes and didn’t wait a second longer before dropping his purchases in the kitchen and finally opening the door of his bedroom as quietly as he could manage, taking care not to wake Ermal. He entered the room and suddenly a warm smile spread across his lips.

Ermal was still sleeping peacefully, even though a band of bright sunlight illuminated the side of his face. An arm was hidden under the pillow while his face gently rested near the other. Long curls caressed his neck sweetly, his breathing calm and regular.

Looking at him, Fabrizio felt a rush of pure undeniable tenderness. He took a step nearer the bed and lowered himself down while his smile widened as he prepared to do what he had planned since the moment he had taken away that flower from Nico’s bunch. So, he grabbed the lovely dandelion and immediately drew it nearer and nearer to Ermal’s figure, until he could have very easily brushed his ear with the lemony petals. And that’s exactly what Fabrizio did. Holding the flower carefully by the stem, his hand leaned closer, ending up gently touching Ermal’s ear with such floral mildness, the soft petals delicately tickling his ear before moving sweetly among his dark curls. After few instants, the younger’s body started to move just barely, waking up languidly. Fabrizio didn’t withdraw his hand right away, though, continuing to tickle him lightly a few more seconds. It was only once he had made sure Ermal had definitely woken up that he stopped, leaving the flower gently placed on his ear. Ermal’s eyes opened marginally, his light eyelashes faintly batting against his lids as he blinked repeatedly. Fabrizio’s smile was the first thing Ermal was able to distinguish through his drowsy eyes.

“Fabbrì… what..?”

He tried to raise his head slightly, so as to better face Fabrizio, but as soon as his head raised just barely, he felt something lightweight falling rapidly from his hair just to end up lying on the bed. Ermal let out a gasp of wonder and his lips parted slightly when his gaze focused on the yellow flower. He tilted his head to the side, observing it with curiosity. Shortly after, an unexpected sense of delight filled him when he realized that some tiny soft petals were falling from his hair.

Fabrizio watched him the whole time, capturing with great care each and every vibrant expression decorating Ermal’s face. And he smiled, thinking that their life was basically nothing but an eternal moment, a moment, between the two of them.

“And this?” Ermal asked simply, picking up the flower and staring at it more closely with a surprised yet delighted look.

“Well, I’ve just been at the market and that flower was so beautiful that I couldn’t help but take it for you,” Fabrizio answered, and his smile was unmistakably a little shy now.

“It’s so lovely, thank you,” came the quiet reply. Ermal didn’t avert his gaze from the flower, though. He held the dandelion as if it was joy fashioned into delicate petals.

Fabrizio smiled, watching him in silence for a while, until he slowly straightened up and took a step towards the door.

“So,” he said, turning his head towards Ermal, “I’m going to prepare us something to eat for lunch. In the meantime you can get ready unhurriedly, and in the closet there are clean clothes, you can obviously wear whatever you like. I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”

Ermal ignored his flower for a moment and nodded, thanking Fabrizio with a smile before the other left the room.

Only after stretching out with ease and letting out a small yawn, did Ermal get out of bed. And once he had washed himself, he went to open the closet and finally wore one of Fabrizio’s plain white shirt. When he walked into the kitchen, Fabrizio was already so busy with taking all the stuff he needed, that he didn’t notice Ermal entering the room.

“Wow, Bizio, this room is so clean and tidy, it’d easily pass for the Martell’s kitchen,” he stated, visibly impressed.

Fabrizio turned to look at him and let out a light laughter.

“Well, the kitchen is the heart of the home, Ermal. It’s the only room that will be always clean and tidy, no matter what,” he smirked.

And, indeed, Ermal was right: everything in the kitchen was well ordered.

An assortment of pots, pans, skillets and cauldrons, important tools, they were all put in their proper place.

Ermal went to sit on top of the table, from where he was easily able to see what Fabrizio was doing.

“So, can I help you with something, Fabbrì?”

Fabrizio shook his head. “No, don’t worry. There’s no need to.” He then noticed the curious expression painted on the younger’s face and the way he was studying his movements as if trying to understand what exactly he was cooking. “Besides, I'm not sure how much I trust your cooking skills,” he teased.

Ermal’s lips automatically curved into a small smile, “Well, I may not be a cook, but I’m here in case you need help with something. You never know, at a certain age...” he shrugged and smirked playfully.

Nevertheless, it was true that Ermal didn’t know that much about cooking. Since he was a child, he had clearly been used to opulent banquets and good meals, but he had never really had the chance to try to cook something himself. And that’s the reason why he was now sitting on the table, looking attentively at Fabrizio, with his legs dangling and an interested expression on his face.

Large cauldrons were hooked into place over the fire, in which most of the food was cooked. And as Ermal soon noticed, Fabrizio was adjusting the amount of heat desired by simply moving the hook, closer to the fire to increase heat and further away to decrease it.

Like any respectable cook, Fabrizio was wearing a black apron above his shirt, just like he used to do when he worked at the inn. He prepared some water with salt and then heated it over a very low heat while another small pot was reserved to the melting of the butter and olive oil.

“I hope you’re hungry, Ermal, because today I want you to taste a traditional Dornish dish,” he grinned.

“Oh, I am, actually. So, what exactly are you cooking?” Ermal asked, tilting his body towards Fabrizio with curiosity.

The other allowed himself some seconds to really look at him and the sight of Ermal sitting on top of the table, brown eyes gleaming with curiosity and swinging his feet like a child, was more than enough to melt Fabrizio’s face into a warm smile.

“Well, there are several spices and other sauces, but it’s nothing more than saffron rice”.

“You said saffron?” he said rising his eyebrows.

“Yes, saffron. Why do you seem so surprised?”

“Well, I’ve always known saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world. I’ve read about it in some books many years ago and I’ve always wondered what it tasted like because the Iron Islands are too far north and such spices aren’t easy to find there, even at the Castle,” he explained.

Considering that Fabrizio had basically quit cooking Dornish food since he had left Sunspear some years before, he had momentarily forgotten that saffron was such an expensive spice for all the other lands except for Dorne.

“Oh, yes, it’s actually very expensive anywhere but here in Sunspear. It derives from a flower which blooms for only one week each year and only in Dorne, so no wonder it’s considered so precious,” he said simply.

“I see. Now that I think about it, I knew that most saffron found in Westeros is imported, but I never understood where it exactly came from,” Ermal reasoned.

Fabrizio smiled at that, “Well, now that you live here you finally have the chance to taste it and if you’ll like it it’s also rather easy to find around here.”

The younger man nodded happily in response.

At this point, Fabrizio continued to prepare their lunch, adding sliced onion and a large pinch of salt. He then proceeded to cook everything, stirring all the ingredients together with a wooden spoon for some minutes. All the rice was then added and coated in oil and butter until it began to toast.

Meanwhile, Ermal was watching him with interest, catching sight of both what he did and the expressions he made. Here in the kitchen Fabrizio was at one with all this, the food, the spices, the flames, just like a feeling of music even when none was playing. Needless to say, Ermal would sit there on the table all day just to watch him, to feel his smiles more than see them.

 

After a few minutes, Fabrizio added the saffron and begin to pour the hot water very gradually, a spoon at a time, stirring continually. Several minutes passed in which Ermal started to feel very hungry and, honestly, the inviting aroma spreading in the whole kitchen wasn’t really helpful.

“Does it always take so long to cook saffron?” he whispered more to himself than to Fabrizio.

The other chuckled softly, “Well, actually, you’re not supposed to cook saffron. Saffron is a spice.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Ermal swung his feet faster under the table in a playful, almost child-like way.

“Anyway, it’s the rice which has to cook longer,” Fabrizio continued, “But it’ll be ready in few minutes, I promise.”

After a little while, all the water with salt was absorbed and the rice looked rather creamy. Fabrizio added an egg yolk in order to give a lovely silky richness to the whole thing, a personal trick he had learnt after months of experience at the inn.

All of a sudden, he took a spoonful of sauce and then walked towards Ermal, moving carefully as not to spill it. The spoon was put near Ermal’s mouth.

“Tell me how it is, please,” he said seeing that the look on his face was a combination of perplexity and amusement. Finally, Ermal opened his mouth and tasted the sauce.

“So? How’s it?” Fabrizio asked raising his eyebrows just slightly.

“Hot.” Ermal blinked twice. “But neither tasteless nor too savory. I like it,” he concluded, nodding.

His spontaneity made Fabrizio laugh, “Great! It’s almost ready, then. Just be patient for a little longer, okay?”

“Of course! Are you really sure there’s nothing I can do?”

Fabrizio thought about it for some seconds, that it hit him. “Yes, actually. You could get us two glasses of water. They’re on the top shelf, right there.”

The younger man smiled and got off the table, and went towards the shelf Fabrizio was pointing at.

Meanwhile, Fabrizio simply added a pinch of salt and then served it on the dishes. He finished the recipe by garnishing each with some cheese. As soon as he turned to put the dishes on the table, he saw that his guest had managed to find also two smaller spoons for the both of them.

“Let’s eat then!” he exclaimed before sitting in front of Ermal. “I hope you won’t be disappointed with our special saffron,” he winked.

Slowly, Ermal tried with the first spoonful, savoring the taste of it on his tongue for some moments.

Fabrizio found himself unable to read the other’s expression right now. “Well?”

“Its—it’s different.” He licked his lower lip, thinking.

Fabrizio wouldn’t expect such an answer, for sure, so he couldn’t hold back a giggle. “Different in what way?”

Ermal’s lips curved amused, “I mean that it tastes different from anything I used to eat at Pyke”.

At this point, Fabrizio started to eat too, before continuing their conversation. “I see. And so, what do the Ironborn usually eat?” he asked out of curiosity.

“Well, the seven islands that make up the Iron Islands are barely-fertile rocks, therefore fish is the basis of most cuisine. But, generally speaking, cream, eggs, and bacon come together for a decent meal. And the sweetest thing to eat there is a sort of cake made with cheese and honey.”

“Oh, it does sound pretty boring,” Fabrizio thought out loud.

And Ermal couldn’t blame him, though. “It is. Now that I live here I can confirm that everything is far less tasty in the Iron Islands, it’s as if the food lacked something,” he explained.

They kept on talking cheerfully the whole time and Fabrizio was so relieved that the deep fear he had seen filling Ermal’s eyes the night before was disappeared altogether.

A few minutes and some spoonfuls of rice later, Ermal couldn’t deny he was actually beginning to enjoy the taste of saffron. So, once he had basically eaten most of his rice, Ermal decided it was time he informed Fabrizio that he had had a change of heart about the taste of saffron.

“You really are an excellent cook, Bizio,” he said sincerely.

As time slowly went by, Fabrizio abruptly realised how much he had missed these precious little things, just staying home and cooking something special for someone other than himself, and eating together laughing and chattering. He was well aware that sometimes he just needed to take life for what it was. And right now, it truly felt like home.

 

A few days later, Ermal awoke with a feeling of overwhelming melancholy. It was as if he craved something… or rather, as if he missed something. And it wasn’t until he reached the dock to work, that he realized he missed the sea.

Having grown up in the Iron Islands, he had been used to see the sea every day – even if only from his windows, it was a constant in his life. He remembered there were days when he felt a longing for the sea and thus he spent many hours, high in the tower of the castle, just gazing at it. Even though Sunspear was considered a city of sea and he worked at the dock, arriving here and not being able to see the sea whenever he wanted made him feel somewhat unsteady. He felt the lack of the sea's constant and pervasive presence. It instilled a sense of calm in him, of freedom and now he simply missed the gentle breezing of the wind, the harder crash of waves on the rocks, the distant sqwaks of seagulls surrounding him, and he took a deep shuddering breath. He immediately made up his mind to ask Antonello for one of his smaller ships, something which would allow him to go out to sea for some hours, and just stay there with no buildings or streets in sight. Knowing the young man’s love for the sea, Venditti agreed to it right away and lent him a small boat with a single mast and only one sail, a simple boat he used to load and unload cargo. Elated to finally spend some hours in the sea, Ermal immediately decided to ask Fabrizio to come with him, for he knew that with his company the afternoon would have been even better.

Needless to say, Fabrizio accepted straight away, more than happy to spend time just with the curly young man.

 

Soon after, Ermal was watching the sea, lost in the rhythmic movement of the calm water gently rocking their boat back and forth between the waves. His eyes were steady on the horizon, face aglow with the warm golden rays coming from a cloudless sky. His lips bore the semblance of a relaxed smile, just enough to show that he was enjoying his thoughts, whatever they were. Fabrizio moved closer to him as to make him feel his presence, yet stayed quiet, allowing him to stay lost in the moment a while longer. Ermal turned his head towards him for a moment, before whispering, “How I missed this...”

“It’s really beautiful here,” Fabrizio said leaning over the side of the boat, thus letting the wind play with his messy black hair. “Besides, I must confess that this boat is really nicer than I thought,” he continued, “When you asked me to come with you in the sea, I imagined something different,” he chuckled.

Ermal turned his back to the sea in order to face the other man. “You’re right, it is in good condition because Antonello doesn’t use it very often, really. This boat is just a sort of potential support to load the cargo into the main ship, in case the dock isn’t big enough,” he explained. “Anyway, did you really think I’d invite you to go out to sea on a tiny wreck?” he joked amused.

At that, Fabrizio just burst out laughing, taken aback by Ermal’s teasing answer. Hearing his warm, hearty laughter, a spontaneous smile appeared on Ermal’s face and he looked at the way Fabrizio brought his hand to cover his eyes while continuing to laugh. And then, Ermal realized that Fabrizio was like the sea, he hid the best part, and smiled softly at the sudden thought.

“Maybe next time Venditti will be so kind as to lend this boat to Nico for some hours,” Fabrizio thought aloud.

“To Niccolò, your friend? Yeah, I could ask him, of course, but why?” he wondered.

“Apparently Nico fell in love with a girl. The other day he was all agitated and so happy like he had his head in the clouds,” he sighed softly, “It seems something serious and taking her out to the sea for a date may be a way to impress her, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely! Tell me, did you meet this girl?” Ermal asked curious.

Fabrizio shook his head. “I only know she sells flowers at the market. But if Nico says she’s special, then it must be so.”

After a few silent seconds, Ermal cocked his head and looked at Fabrizio quizzically. “You never told me how you met each other,” he said.

There was a brief, invisible hesitation and then Fabrizio replied, “We met in Bravos some years ago , where I used to live before coming back here. Nico lived alone with his cat and his many dreams; the moment I met him I recognized a part of myself in him and we got along immediately. H e’s been my assistant since then and we were merchants until we decided to come to Sunspear to see what the city had to offer.”

“ Oh, I see. Niccolò must be very fond of you, then. He seems like a nice guy,” Ermal said sincerely.

As they talked, the boat continued to be driven by the gentle wind, thus managing to get closer to a small bay, now fully visible on the horizon. Judging by the view, Ermal supposed they were now somewhere beyond Sunspear.

The bay curved as if drawn by an artist’s hand, the golden sands making a thick band between the waves and the little vegetation beyond.

“Shall we stop there for a while? How about that?” Fabrizio asked him.

“Yes!” he replied enthusiastically.

When they came close enough, they got off the boat and started to slowly pull the boat out of the water. Then, Ermal motioned with his hand in invitation to sit and so they sat together on the sand , staring out upon the surrounding sea. The bay was brilliant in the afternoon sun and waves were gently drenching the sand.

“It’s so peaceful here,” he said with a soft sigh. He shifted his gaze to Fabrizio, who stood up all of a sudden. “Mh? What are you doing, Bizio?”

Fabrizio grinned and started to take off his shirt. “Well, since half our clothes are already soaked, we might as well have a swim, don’t you think?”

“Mh, okay,” Ermal said, a little surprised.

Fabrizio took off his shirt, throwing it carelessly on the sand and Ermal’s gaze fell inevitably on Fabrizio’s chest.

“What about those tattoos?” he asked, taken by surprise. Only now did he see that Fabrizio’s chest and the upper part of his arms were decorated with some blackish tattoos, the first ones Ermal noticed were a small sun and a skull with some roses.

Fabrizio lowered his eyes to his tattoos, realizing that it was the first time that Ermal saw them. “Oh, right, I got them during my journeys in the last years. This, for example, I got it in honor of my son,” he said pointing at Libero, a small writing that Ermal hadn’t seen at first. “While this sun here refers to the Dornish emblem, a gold spear piercing a red sun on an orange field.”

“And what about this one? What’s its meaning?” Ermal asked pointing at a small black question mark on his arm.

“Well, this dates back to my years of wandering before coming to Bravos, when everything was somewhat uncertain,” he explained.

With a hand, he lightly brushed against the tattoo and then looked back at Ermal.

“Come on now, let's go in the water!” he exclaimed, urging the other to haste.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming,” the younger man said, his voice lowering a little.

But he was somehow slow, averting his gaze and taking his time, still hesitating slightly to take off his shirt. He seemed lost in memories now, memories Fabrizio thought he rather should be called up from.

“Ermal, let’s go!” he said coming close to him, “And don’t forget that every wound only serves to remind us that we live.”

Ermal smiled at that and finally threw rapidly his clothes on the sand, not far from Fabrizio’s.

Fabrizio didn't waste another moment before taking gently Ermal by the wrist and dragging him quickly in the water.

“Hey, I’m here! I’m here!” the younger repeated with amusement.

They reached the water almost running, and then slid feet first into the cold water.

Fabrizio took some steps further and waded out until he was knee deep in the fresh water, while Ermal remained slightly behind. The silvery blue sea stretched off into a distant fog that clothed the horizon and Ermal stopped a moment to enjoy everything he had been missing so much. He watched the gentle waves swirl, mesmerized, as if the movement of the water was in perfect synchrony with his thoughts.

“But-- hey!” he exclaimed all of a sudden, as soon as he felt Fabrizio deliberately splashing water at him. His surprised expression was immediately replaced by a growing smile. “Fabrizio, come here!”

He had sand in his hands and his name between his fingers.

Fabrizio was laughing, continuing to distance himself from the younger, without ceasing to splash water in his direction.

Ermal kept on laughing as he came closer and closer, “Bizio, stop it or I’ll just--”

“You’ll just what?”

And Fabrizio had, or rather felt his answer when a splash of water arrived right on his face. As a result, Ermal burst out laughing, while the other shook his wet black hair. The younger man could barely conceal his amusement, as he noticed Fabrizio coming towards him with a wide grin and sparkling eyes. Once he was close enough, Fabrizio took some water in his hand and aimed precisely at Ermal. Instead of getting caught, though, Ermal unexpectedly avoided the splash by disappearing completely under the water. No more than a moment later, Ermal quickly resurfaced from the water, with an amused smile spreading on his face.

“Nice try, Bizio, but you missed me,” he said grinning.

The sight before Fabrizio’s eyes instantly kindled pure happiness in his chest, warming him with the same intensity with which the rays of sunshine were warming his skin. Ermal was smiling broadly, his brown eyes sparkling with boyish excitement, his hair soaked with rebel curls playfully brushing his shoulders.

Fabrizio came close to him and, before he could withdraw his mind from that thought, his hand touched Ermal’s cheek, caressing it gently. Ermal felt again that peculiar surging tide of warmth that left him somehow dizzy, before seeing Fabrizio closing his eyes and drawing his lips close to his own. Fabrizio gently pressed his lips around the rim of his mouth and kissed him. His eyelashes softly brushed the other’s cheek while his hands went to rest lightly on Ermal’s waist.

And the moment Ermal placed his hands around Fabrizio’s neck, he knew that he was kissing him back. It was soft at first, and then with a slow gradation of intensity that made Ermal cling to him as the only solid thing in an illusory, deceiving life.

When Fabrizio parted from his lips, he stared intently into Ermal’s eyes for a moment and the depths of that deep hazel brown reflected all the radiance of his smile. With a sweet movement, he pushed a wet curl behind Ermal’s ear, his fingers lingering on his cheek.

Only now did they realise that the waves weren’t really as calm as before, on the contrary, the wind was rising more and more.

“Ermal, do you think we will make it back?” Fabrizio chuckled a little.

“Sure, sure,” Ermal said, laughing lightheartedly, “let’s go back to the boat.”