The courtesans of Braavos were famed across the world. Singers sang of them, goldsmiths and jewelers showered them with gifts, craftsmen begged for the honor of their custom, merchant princes paid royal ransoms to have them on their arms at balls and feasts and mummer shows, and bravos slew each other in their names.
As she pushed her barrow along the canals, Cat would sometimes glimpse one of them floating by, on her way to an evening with some lover. Every courtesan had her own barge, and servants to pole her to her trysts. The Poetess always had a book to hand, the Moonshadow wore only white and silver, and the Merling Queen was never seen without her Mermaids, four young maidens in the blush of their first flowering who held her train and did her hair. Each courtesan was more beautiful than the last. Even the Veiled Lady was beautiful, though only those she took as lovers ever saw her face.
- A Feast For Crows
"The city watch is looking for a certain ugly girl, known to frequent the Purple Harbor, so best you have a new face as well." He cupped her chin, turned her head this way and that, nodded. "A pretty one this time, I think. As pretty as your own. Who are you, child?"
"No one," she replied.
- A Dance With Dragons
They bring the waif to her in the hour of the wolf.
Half her face is moonlit-gilded, the other half hatched and cross-hatched with shadows. She wears a robe of lambswool, particoloured. Black and white.
The Queen studies her. She cups the child's face as she would a crystal chalice or a rose of topaz. Something rare and fragile.
"What is your name, little one?"
The child's eyes are wintery and she wears her snarls as other maidens do their smiles. "No one." She speaks the purest high Valryian, her tongue flavored with the accents of Braavos but she could be anyone. Or no one. And then, "And don't call me little one."
She presses a coin flat into the Queen's palm. Honest iron, stamped with dead men's faces. This is the Queen's longstanding debt, to be paid now.
"No." The Queen shakes her head. "Not in this place, you are not. Stand in the light, child, that I may see you for what you are."
"I'm not a child," the waif says as she obeys. "I've had my blood." She is as slim and white as a weirwood sapling and her eyes are as alluring to a man as a bath of ice. But there is a catlike grace in her still childlike body, the bones in that pointed little face are delicately-molded and tell their own story - of bloodlines and breeding.
The Queen wonders if it is her own face she wears.
"Blossom," she decides, in a fit of mordant humor. "You shall be my little blossom."
"You know that you may leave this place. You are not one of us, not yet. You may go home anytime you wish."
"You told me that if I left, I couldn't come back."
Those words made her sad. Syrio used to say that too, Arya remembered. He said it all the time. Syrio Forel had taught her needlework and died for her. "I don't want to leave."
She keeps four maidens to attend her at all times. She calls them her mermaids but really they are like the caged songbirds that the city's bored goodwives, boxed up in their palazzos, keep for their amusement. Sometimes, for her own diversion, she releases them into the cat's maw. Sometimes. But by far she is a kinder mother to them than any that they have known.
From the first she shows a marked preference for Blossom.
"The other girls will hate you for it," she wears the waif. "But your time with me is shorter than theirs. Do as you please with them but bear this in mind - I will have no injuries under my roof."
The waif can walk on her hands, skin carcasses, speak in three tongues, throw a dagger blindfolded and never miss her target but this seems to be the hardest lesson that she has ever had to learn. Quite the animal, the Queen thinks and throws her with the other pretty little animals she is raising for the market, with not a little amusement.
They all have sugar-sweet names to match their daisy-fresh faces.
Pearl was the last-born of the late Volantene Triarch's bastards. Her mother was a well-loved mistress but when she died, her father replaced their six-year-old daughter in his bed. With the father's death when she was eight, she was sold as a child-whore by her trueborn half-brother.
When Pearl's smooth face is marred by a black eye and a torn lip, the Queen knows who to blame.
"I warned you, didn't I?" she says softly, letting the words drip in like melting ice. She sits straight-backed on her throne with Pearl smirking at her side like a trained snake.
"Yes, my lady."
"You know what your punishment is, don't you?"
"You'll throw me out," she says bluntly.
"Your patrons will not be... best pleased. You are not a child anymore, as you have been so kind as to tell me. What do you think they will do to you?"
"Nothing so bad as hasn't been done to me yet." The waif is stony-faced.
The Queen rests her cheek on her hand and smiles wanly. "They'll throw you out," she says simply. "Throw you out like the trash you are. Leave you as others have always left you."
The waif bites her lip. "I don't care," she says and for the first time that the Queen has seen, her courage begins to unravel like a skein of gossamer. She turns, as though to leave but the Queen laughs.
"Did I give you my permission to leave?"
"I don't care."
"I didn't," the Queen says. "Little Blossom, I will give you another chance."
The waif stares at her. In her world there are never second chances. "Why?" she asks at last, wary like a hunted animal. The child from the gutters fists up her hands in her pockets, ready for a fight.
"Because you remind me of someone." She lets tenderness seep into her voice, lets her eyes mist over until the waif's hands unbunch. Until the child believes that it is herself she was talking about, the Queen as a child. It is masterfully done - a lie planted in the child's hard heart with no words spoken.
The Queen has lived a thousand lives and been a thousand women. It might even be true.
"Ser Gregor," she chanted, as she crossed a stone bridge supported by four arches. From the center of its span she could see the masts of ships in the Ragman's Harbor. "Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei." Rain began to fall. Arya turned her face up to let the raindrops wash her cheeks, so happy she could dance. "Valar morghulis," she said, "valar morghulis, valar morghulis."
"Why do you murmur in your sleep?"
The girl stirs uneasily when she is asked. Every night, one of the Queen's mermaids sleep on a pallet at the foot of her bed, to attend her should need rise. The Queen is used to them muttering in their sleep though she trains them out of it nevertheless. Some cry for home, or whisper pleas to the gods in their dreams. Some like Blossom murmur names. But she doesn't expect the waif to tell her.
The Queen sighs and runs her fingers through the girl's long dark hair, lustrous as silk after its wash. "Well, never mind then." She combs gently through the snarls and tangles and inspite of herself, the girl cannot help but relax.
"You would have such a pretty face if only you would smile."
The girl scowls fiercely in return. "I'm not," she says bluntly.
"Did no one ever tell you that you were pretty, child?"
"Not unless they wanted to fuck me," Blossom says, as coarse as ever. "I made short work of them," she adds with grim relish.
"I can assure you that I would not care to er- fuck you," the Queen says, amused.
"You would if you thought it would help you in some way," the girl says. "You've fucked women before for coin and to get your own way."
"I would," the Queen says idly. "But there is nothing I need from you, is there, little Blossom? I only want to do what's best for you."
The girl snorts in contempt.
"Yes," the Queen says, "so that you can do the best for yourself as well. Its hard, child, for a woman to make her own way in the world. I know."
"You don't know anything," the girl says, suddenly fierce. "Don't pretend you do or I'll-" she never finishes the threat that's always hovering on her sullen lips. In a trice, there is a dagger as slim as a woman's finger poised under her ear.
"This is Valyrian steel," the Queen says, deadly calm. One hand is locked around the girl's throat, pinning her in place. She slides the dagger slowly under the girl's ear until a ribbon of blood coats steel and skin. "I don't take kindly to threats. You don't either. But you need me and I have a debt to pay. Am I understood?"
She doesn't wait for the girl's answer, she slips the dagger away. For a moment the girl is silent, but then her face splits into a brilliant smile. She is enchanted by violence.
"How winsome," the Queen says, picking up the comb. "You really are a pretty girl, my dear."
"You believe this is the only place for you." It was as if he'd heard her thoughts. "You are wrong in that. You would find softer service in the household of some merchant. Or would you sooner be a courtesan, and have songs sung of your beauty? Speak the word, and we will send you to the Black Pearl or the Daughter of the Dusk. You will sleep on rose petals and wear silken skirts that rustle when you walk, and great lords will beggar themselves for your maiden's blood."
The Daughter of the Dusk takes her she-wolf with her wherever she goes. She claims it is tame, but the Queen has doubts about the sleek white monster with its eyes the color of dried blood. Black and white. The Daughter is an ink-black Summer-Islander with honey-gold eyes, as wild and lissom as her pet.
But the waif takes to the beast like an old friend.
The Queen does not know whether to be amused or disturbed and so she says that the monsters are well-matched but she smiles indulgently as she says it. Just as a doting mother might smile upon a willful daughter.
"I like animals," the girl says, basking in that smile, melting enough to be truthful. "I've handled bigger."
The waif would have looked at her blankly, for the waif was no one and had no history to share. But the girl says, "When I was little. When I lived with my family and we were all together."
"Were you happy with your family?" The Queen does not expect her to answer. It is too intimate a question, too invasive. She knows all about the other girls' families, she knows just how happy they were.
But the girl answers. "Yes." It is a little word but it says volumes. I was happy then. I am happy now. I trusted them. I trust you.
The Queen strokes the girl's hair and the girl does not pull back. There is just as much impulsiveness as calculation in her caress, just as there is in all the caresses that she has ever bestowed.
"Stay, and the Many-Faced God will take your ears, your nose, your tongue. He will take your sad grey eyes that have seen so much. He will take your hands, your feet, your arms and legs, your private parts. He will take your hopes and dreams, your loves and hates. Those who enter His service must give up all that makes them who they are. Can you do that?"
"Are you hungry, child?"
Yes, she thought, but not for food.
The girl waits up for the Queen in her chamber when she arrives in the small hours from her trysts. In winter, she puts a hot brick at the foot of the bed and a fresh nightgown draped on the chair.
Wrapped in sable tippets and a fur pelisse, the Queen is still cold and irritable. She grumbles when the girl unlaces her thin satin slippers from her numb feet. She utters a plague on the snow as she sips her spiced mead.
"I like snow," the girl says mildly.
"You're hardly twelve," the Queen reminds her crossly. "Summer-born. What would you know of snow and winter?"
The girl gives her a wolfish smile. She has begun to relax her guard. She has begun to remember what she is. Perhaps it is her misfortune, perhaps it is her fortune - who can say? All the Queen knows, from a lifetime of shrewd judgment, is that the girl has reached a crossroads.
She lets the girl brush her hair, braided with beads of turquoise and coral. When loosened, it falls in silver mermaid waves to her knees. Not the silver-gold of high Valyria, but the steel-silver of old age.
"Would you like to stay with me, child?" she says, lulled into an old woman's ramblings by the girl's gentle hands and the applewood logs burning fragrantly in the hearth. "I could keep you with me for always. They might let me."
"To be a whore like you?" the girl scoffs but her voice wavers. "I'd never."
"Better a whore in silk and gold than a whore in particolored wool," she says pleasantly. "You would be their servant, no matter what you called yourself. You would bestow death on behalf of your masters, you would have no power of your own beyond what they permitted you. They would take all of you in their service, heart and soul and mind and yes, your body and limbs. Don't fool yourself."
The girl unlaces her from her robe of silver tissue, powdered with coral scorpions hiding amidst cerulean roses. She massages the Queen's feet with oil and hot water and applies a cream of powdered pearls and rosewater to her face. She blows out the candles in the room and then settles down on her pallet at the foot of the Queen's bed.
Then she whispers miserably into the darkness, "I can't. I want to but I can't."
She had expected this but still she is curious. "Not even for love of me, child?"
The girl doesn't disagree - she makes her love plain for all the world to see as if she has no fear of being hurt. The little fool. "No... I can't because I made a vow to myself."
"Oh, honor," sniffs the Queen and dozes off, weary. But for hours afterwards the girl lies awake, seeing ghosts in the embers and wolves in the snow.
The bear is all in black, Arya thought. Like Yoren. She filled Roose Bolton's cup, and did not spill a drop.
"You make a very good cupbearer."
"I've... had practice, my lady."
The Queen's mermaids wait on her guests during her fetes and salons. They act as cupbearers and escorts. They vie with each-other to be the most asked-for, for popularity brings with it privilege and the promise of patronage. Once she deems Blossom civilized enough to be trusted on her own for a while, she sets her loose.
She holds a grand gala in a paper palazzo, specially constructed for her on the river. Lit from within by colored lanterns, it glitters like a jewel on the waterfront and can be seen from the Purple Harbor to the Ragman's Harbor. Slim-prowed gondolas checkered with lights and mirrors approach it from all sides on the great night, like glowing beads bobbing on the water.
Blossom is dressed in a stola in the style of Ancient Ghis, made entirely of thousands of intersecting blue lace roses. Her milky shoulders and slender arms are left bare, her dark hair pulled back by a band of silver to emphasize her large, kohl-lined, startlingly grey eyes.
The Queen's gown is like sea-foam, the train and sleeves frothing to the ground like waves. It is embroidered with sea-creatures in pearls and emeralds, waves outlined with mirror-bright sequins. She leaves her hair loose and wears a coronet of diamonds on her brow - it is her right by seniority for she is the oldest of the courtesans of Braavos.
When she looks into the mirror, after she has been dressed, she sees the face of a marble carving - cold and beautiful and ancient. "I am dying," she says simply, as her mermaids perfume her with Eastern attars. Pearl and the others rush to offer meaningless lies and she soaks in the flattery because she has need of comfort.
Blossom's face is a mask and when she notices the Queen looking at her, she gives a mocking smile and a half-shrug. She traces a coin in the air with her fingers and the Queen agrees with her eyes. Valar morghulis. That night, she lives as only a woman with one foot in the grave can.
The Black Pearl, most desired and powerful of Braavos' ladies of the night, arrives that night clad in black velvet starred with diamonds. One lovely white breast is bared, in the fashion of Volantis, tattooed with a curling dragon of black and red. Her escort she laughingly calls 'cousin' and more giddily, when drunk on summerwine, 'coz' and kisses him on the mouth. She is a passionate lover of beauty and he is as beautiful as she. His hair is molten silver like hers, but where her eyes are inky violet, his are silver-green like a cat's.
His name is Aurane Waters, the bastard of Lord Montford Velaryon. "He is my kinsman," she announces, "for the Targaryens and Velaryons mated in the days of the dragons. Velena Velaryon carried the Conqueror and his sisters in her womb. He is a Bastard of Driftmark and I am a Bastard of Dragonstone."
The Queen knows him for the pirate he is. The Sunset Queen must have favored him for his looks for she made him her Master of Ships above all others, she thinks. And he repaid her as men always do heartsick women. With false coin and treachery. Not for the first time, she congratulates herself on never knowing love.
And that is why I have lived the longest of them all, she thinks, adjusting her crown of diamonds. I knew the Black Pearl when she was little Bellegere and they called her mother Bellonara Otherys the Black Pearl of Braavos. The mother lost her beauty and fame for love and so will the daughter, I can see it in the longing in her eyes. They all want love, all these women of the night. Even Blossom, a child of the night. She wants love and she thinks I will give it to her because she thinks I love her.
He calls himself the Lord of the Waters, a play on his father's traditional title as Lord of the Tides. He quaffs too much of the heady summerwine and brags of his warships, docked in Torturer's Deep and of the liberties the golden queen of Westeros had permitted him with her body.
Blossom edges closer and closer towards him, wide-eyed and breathing hard. "To Cersei's golden cunt," he yells, sloshing his wine and laughing. His broad-brimmed hat slips over one eye and he grins at Blossom. "Well aren't you a pretty little one," he says, catching her by the waist and slobbering a kiss on her cheek.
The Queen expects Blossom to slip out of his hold but she lets him hold her. "You know all about Queen Cersei?" she breathes.
"Oh every last thing!" He sniffs her hair like a dog. "But she never was half so sweet as you are. A winkled witch... and you're a maiden, aren't you?"
"One of our hostess's," the Black Pearl reminds him sharply. "She's too young for you anyway."
But Blossom only snuggles closer to the pirate and smiles at him as though he dazzles her. What does she want from him? the Queen wonders as she keeps a sharp eye on them the whole night.
The star of home. Arya stood at the prow, one hand resting on the gilded figurehead, a maiden with a bowl of fruit. For half a heartbeat she let herself pretend that it was her home ahead. But that was stupid. Her home was gone, her parents dead, and all her brothers slain but Jon Snow on the Wall.
A few weeks later a letter arrives. It is sealed with a blob of black wax and an iron coin falls out when she opens it. There is a single name on the letter and after she reads it, the Queen burns it and watches over the fire until there are only cinders in place of the paper.
She summons the girl to her chamber and tells her the name on the letter. "Your apprenticeship looks to be over now," she says, with a thin-lipped smile. "And now you must serve."
She sits down at her escritoire that morning, the girl leaning over her shoulder and watching her as she writes. The Queen offers the girl's maidenhead to the man she is to kill.
"He will be flattered of course," she says calmly, stamping the letter with her mermaid seal. "To be offered the maidenhead of one of my mermaids, without having to auction for it, is a signal token of my respect. Some men would pay a mountain of gold for such an honor."
The girl is excused from her lessons, she slips out in the morning to procure the tools of her trade. The Queen does not need to know what they are. At dusk, she arrives and is sent straight to the great bedchamber to be prepared for her assignation.
The Queen dresses her herself, as she has done for all her mermaids on the last nights of their maidenhood. She helps Blossom into a satin sheath the color of blood, and over that a swansdown cloak, as white as snow. She lines the child's lips with carmine and her vulnerable eyes with ink and glitter.
"Have you never wondered why I chose to call myself the Merling Queen?" she asks the girl as she brushes her thick hair. Without waiting for an answer, she says, "Because mermaids are monsters of the deep, child. Beautiful, yes, but monstrous and perilous cruel. What would you call yourself if you were to set yourself up as a lady of the night, as many of my old apprentices have done?"
"She-wolf," the girl says determinedly.
The Queen cups her chin tenderly, just as she had on their very first night. "No," she says. "No, that does not suit you at all. You would be the Lost One. What are you searching for, child?"
"Nothing," the girl snaps. She does not bite down on her lip as was her wont, she has learned to dissemble all her natural inclinations. To lie with her face and body as skilfully as she does with her tongue. "I'm not searching for anything. If anything I want-" she slants a look at the Queen and then mutters, "nothing."
"You said something about honor," the Queen reminds her softly. "What do you tell yourself, child? That you chose this path for honor, for vengeance perhaps? Let go of those lies, it is not what you seek. You fool yourself."
"And what do you think I'm looking for?"
"Home," the Queen says simply and lights the candles. She sends the girl down to the waterfront, she will be rowed to her assignation. She makes a pretty sight, her dark hair fanning out against her swansdown cloak, the colored lights of the gondola shimmering on the river. The Queen waves to her from her bedroom window and the girl waves back.
The snow will still fall when the ground cannot keep it, and so too will I.
It snows that night.
They send Blossom up to her in the middle of the night, just as she is dressing for one of her own trysts. Pearl, who is attending her, gasps to see the girl in mottled leathers, her hair bound like a peasant's. There is still the faintest trace of glitter around her eyes though.
"That will do," the Queen says calmly and dismisses Pearl. She sits at her dressing table, in her amethysts and green brocade, and speaks to the girl as though she is a stranger. "Why have you come back?"
"I did what I was told to," the girl says quietly, but there is no relish in her voice. "You told me that I was looking for something. Home." She hesitates, as though hoping the Queen will finish for her. Tenderness has made her soft, she has misjudged it for love.
"Did you think this was your home?" the Queen asks her. "Did you think to come back here and be my little Blossom again?" She gives a soft laugh.
Understanding dawns in the girl's wintery eyes. "You were playing with me," she says flatly. "You made me love you."
"Sometimes," she says. "Go back to where you came from, waif."
"Where?" the girl says, her voice hollow. "The House of Black and White?"
"If that is what you call home now. Or go back to the lands of summer snow where you were born. Go back to your happy family and your monstrous pets, if they are still alive." The Queen shrugs elegantly, as she would at a discarded lover who kisses the hem of her gown for her mercy. "It is all the same to me."
"I won't forget you." Her voice is so measured that it is hard to tell whether it is a threat.
The Queen gives her a faint smile. "And neither will I. Valar morghulis."
"Valar dohaeris," the girl says quietly and leaves like a winter wind.