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Free Cities (Nine Ways to Escape)

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VOLANTIS

Most of the sellswords of Volantis have tattooed faces. So do the slaves, but the designs for slaves are different. The blue-inked patterns have a hierarchy of traditional significances, showing the wearer's place in the world to those who know how to interpret them, like the sigil painted on a Westerosi man's shield.

Sandor doesn't care what the tattoos mean. He fights for whoever has the coin to pay, here at the end of the earth where there is sun and rum and merchant guilds with gold to buy protection. Second son of a minor house, he's always known he'd have to fight for his share of anything. Once, Robert Baratheon offered him a place at court, sworn sword to his heir, but Sandor turned him down and took ship. He could tell already what kind of king that Joffrey might grow to be.

People look at the marks on his face, and they think they know him too. They don't. He's a sellsword, but he's no man's slave. No man's dog.

 

NORVOS

Arianne watches the maids dress her mother's hair, oiling each strand, twisting it and pinning it high on her head. Mellario was younger than Arianne is now when she bore her. Her face is still unlined but there are strands of gray at her temples.

In the audience chamber outside, lords and ladies are already assembled, more than half of them of Dornish birth. They watch for the Prince's consort, waiting for her words to her wayward daughter. Lady Mellario has not set foot in Dorne for ten years, but the influence she wields is unmistakable. Arianne imagines her as a girl, taken from Norvos without her accord, linked to a man more clever than kind. She has found her way back to the Free Cities but has not relinquished her ties to the place where the father of her children rules.

There is more than one way, Arianne thinks, to wear one's power. Drey smiles at her behind his shield as she moves to sit at her mother's feet.

 

TYROSH

You fold, and then you fold again and again, hammering and applying heat until the metal is all of a piece. This is what Gendry dreamed of, what his master in King's Landing was so slow to teach him.

No one tries to tell him anything in Tyrosh. His success or failure is his own. The rush of discovery carries him through long days in the forge, ears attuned to the thud of the hammer, eyes never straying from the glowing edge.

Sometimes in the evenings he climbs up into the hills above the city to the ruins. None of the columns are still standing. They slump across each other like felled trees or drunk men sprawled out on the tavern rushes. Gendry scrambles up to stand on Old Valyria's bones. He's safer here, where you can never forget what happens to kings.

 

BRAAVOS

Loras is as light as the rapier belted at his side, skipping over the city's many bridges, dodging through the crowded colonnades, stepping from boat to quay and back again. Renly walks at his side when he can, or behind him, or sometimes ahead, waiting at the turnings as his companion stops to make conversation. Braavos after dark is like a party that has spilled out of doors and Loras seems to know everyone.

He cuts quite a figure, his bright checkered cape worn sideways over his sword-arm in the latest local fashion, one whose ridiculous impracticality only Renly seems to notice. The ostentatious new clothing is part of their disguise. No one is supposed to know them, and yet Renly is sure that their identities have been well-marked here, as far from Varys and the Small Council as they can go. Even with his curls cropped short, Loras is as handsome as ever. The possibility of discovery doesn't seem to be wearing very heavily on the young bravo. He is more relaxed than Renly has ever seen him.

A woman calls down to them from a balcony, two stories up. Loras obligingly blows her a kiss, but he does not remove his arm from where is is slung around Renly's shoulders.

 

LORATH

She was meant to be sold. That was bad enough, but when the boat on which she was captive was captured in its turn, she thought the waves of Ironman's Bay would surely close above her head before she ever felt dry land again. The Crow's Eye told her as much when he picked her out from the others in the dim hold and dragged her up to the heaving deck.

Yet here she is in Lorath, not the Iron Islands, not Westeros at all, and the shore is rocky beneath her feet. The houses on the outskirts of the city cling to cliffside, their walls covered with vines and flowers, and no man owns her, not even the one to whom she was given. The Crow's Eye once held her face in his hands and told her that his brother would use her in shame and throw her to the fishes afterwards, and she did not even have the power to reply, but after three days with Victarion Greyjoy, he turned his ship in an unexpected direction.

He left her here on the Street of Weavers and told her he would come back for her when he could. That's one thing the two brothers have in common. They tell her everything they're planning, never expecting obstacles or objections. So each day, she works at the loom with the Lorathi women. She can no longer speak, but she wants to leave him something for when he returns, something by which to remember her. Something like her name.

 

LYS

The people of Lys are fairer of skin than those of King's Landing. Surrounded in a market crowd, Prince Jalabhar sees how their odd pale eyes track him, take him in. He is strange to them, but their reaction is familiar. By now, he is used to being an exotic.

This city is renowned on both sides of the Narrow Sea for its prostitutes. In the long years of his exile in Westeros, Jalabhar sometimes met the daughters of Lys living side-by-side with his own sisters in the brothels that catered to uncommon tastes. He used to seek out Summer Islanders in those houses of pleasure, anyone whose time he could buy, just to hear a few words of conversation in his own language, to see a face that looked familiar. He used to wait his turn in the parlors and entry-chambers while the other customers shamelessly debated the advantages of darker flesh, as if they did not imagine he could understand the common tongue. He never took a Lysian to bed after those visits, nor any other woman. He never felt the appetite.

The girl underneath him now is as white as the sheet on the bed, the soft hair spread across the pillow as pale as the gold in his purse. This is the meanest whorehouse in Lys. Here, in her home, she is not a special dish. None of them are. She is plain fare.

 

MYR

Men call out to Beric from the dim shops on both sides of the ally, offering him tea and slices of honey cake in the shade, but he did not come to Myr to seek lace, no matter how fine. The novice garb he wears should tell them that he isn't a potential customer, but his rust-colored hair clashes with the red robe. Myrmen have tanned skin and dark hair, and the priests of R'hllor crop theirs short. The touts probably don't know what to make of him.

He has not yet broken his fast today. He wouldn't mind a cake, in truth, but he is on his way to the temple, where the sentries of the fire god sing out from the towers. Their ways of worship are strange to him, but he is trying to learn. Far away, Thoros stayed to harry the riverlands with the Brotherhood in the dead king's name while Beric walks the streets of this city where his friend was born. How it came to pass is a mystery, like the comet that hangs in the evening sky.

He owes his life to the Lord of Light. Run through the chest by the Mountain's lance, and still he breathes, wonders, craves honey. He is looking for truth in the world. That is a sweet thing, the best way he knows to repay a debt.

 

QOHOR

Twice a day as she passes through the city gates, Catelyn looks to the Unsullied on the wall and tries to memorize faces. There is some variety in body type and coloring, but trained together since childhood, each soldier's carriage is like enough to make it near impossible to distinguish one from the next.

When she is tortured by the choices she has made, she remembers this. One is like another. Eddard Stark once seemed to her as distinct from his brother as Brandon was from Petyr, but really they and she and all other men and women are seedlings reaching for the same sunlight, dependent on chance conditions of rain and soil for survival. In the face of the divine, acted upon by forces much larger than one individual's poor wants and hopes, what could she have done differently? What means duty? What is mercy?

The stands of trees in Qohor are no sacred grove, but the gods watch everywhere. They saw her kill Jaime Lannister. Mayhap they determined his death just as they did Bran's and Rickon's. In the forest, she prays for her dead sons and forgets, as well as she can, her lost daughters.

PENTOS

The sun strikes down hot in Pentos, brighter and more direct than it does across the Dothraki Sea. Jorah would gladly hold a parasol over her head if she would let him, but she won't. She walks proudly in the light and the delicate skin on her nose reddens and peels.

A skinny dog follows them up the steep street, a bitch with empty tits swinging. Dany looks back sadly and buys mango from a stand, leaves slices in the dust. She is quiet, and Jorah imagines she is mourning her babe, her Khal, maybe the whole khalasar. The memories trail her like ghosts. The dog sniffs at the mango distrustfully, hungering for meat.

Pentos is all hills, and they can see the harbor beyond the houses and courtyards, water blue as blue. He does not write to Varys any more, and sometimes, on better days than this one, she has smiled at him, spoken gentle words. He'd carry her in his arms, if she would consent. To keep her safe.

FIN.