Prince Doran Martell’s quill scritched across endless parchment like a family of rustling mice. “King Robert has announced that Queen Cersei is with child,” he informed his brother.
“I know.” Oberyn continued to stare out of the Spear Tower study’s thin north window with his hands clasped together behind his back.
“The maesters predict a son.” The younger prince did not answer, but kept on looking down at Dorne, as straight as his spear, and darker. He had worn black every day for over a year.
Doran sighed. He touched a small bundle of letters at the left of his teak writing desk. “The Citadel proclaims that spring has officially begun. A number of the Reach lords and marcher lords are staging events to celebrate the turn of the season and the fecundity of House Baratheon.” Oberyn hissed like the snake he was named, but said nothing. “Notably Lord Hightower. A tourney of some magnificence, I understand.” Doran drew another sheet of parchment out of the stand before him. “I have accepted on your behalf.”
“What?” Oberyn demanded. He swung round and stared at his brother. Black hair, black eyes, black chain at his throat: “I’ve no intention of commemorating the advent of a singularly joyless season – or the conception of an infant as royal as my under-groom.”
“Nonetheless...” The Prince of Dorne tapped his nose with his quill. “Oberyn, I hardly need remind you that we have next to no army and I have a six-year-old daughter. You will go.”
“I’ve already made my excuses to Lord Leyton.”
“I intercepted the letter.”
The silence between them was dark and tinged with blood. “If I go,” Oberyn said in the end, “– if, mind you – I’m taking the girls.”
“I would never attempt to prevent you from doing precisely what you want to do.” Doran’s stare was chilly. “Might I remind you that the atmosphere in the Reach may be negative?”
“I do not leave Dorne without them.”
“They will be safe at the Water Gardens.”
“I do not leave Dorne without them,” Oberyn repeated, jabbing a finger onto his brother’s desk.
Doran nodded. “Understood. You do not leave my demesne without your daughters.”
“Glad that’s settled.” Oberyn gave his shoulders a little shake. “Please tell me I won’t be the only Dornishman there.”
Oberyn shifted as if he were unsure which of them had won, and abruptly walked out of the room. Doran sighed again as the sun-carved door closed, and then wrote a second letter to Lord Leyton Hightower, a shorter one to his eldest son Ser Baelor, and a series of identical notes to the harbourmasters of every major port on the Summer Sea and the south coast of Westeros, containing an urgent message for the captain of the trader ship Saffron Summer.
“What’s wrong with Oldtown?” Nym asked Obara.
Oberyn looked across the deck. His elder daughters were leaning on their ship’s rail, staring at the town and towers on the horizon ahead of them. Both were barefoot and dressed in sleeveless linen gowns, just two Dornish girls on a creaking ship on a fine spring day.
Obara hunched her shoulders. “It’s just – horrid.”
“Is it – dirty, or smelly?”
“Some bits.” She absently kicked the deck, seeming more like a girl of nine, Nym’s age, than one who expected to flower within a year. “It’s the Hightower,” she said suddenly, and Oberyn recognised the anger in her voice: his temper, inherited. “It’s just too... there. It makes everyone feel small.” A seabird cawed above them as if in agreement.
“It can’t make us feel small when we’re inside it.”
“Wait and see.”
Tyene wriggled. Oberyn looked down at her fair head where she sat on his lap on their pile of plump cushions. “Pricked your finger, sweetling?”
“No.” She held up her embroidery, a startlingly detailed bird of paradise done in pink, red, yellow and orange. “I’ve finished.”
“It’s beautiful.” He kissed her forehead. “Are you going to start another, or shall we go and watch Oldtown get closer?”
“It isn’t getting closer. We’re getting closer to it.” She tugged at his black cummerbund. “I have lots of red thread, Father. I could put the sun on the end of your sash.”
His hands tightened around her. “No.” Nym and Obara looked back at him, dark of hair and eye and expression: Tyene’s little face, staring up into his, was woebegone. He forced himself to relax. He couldn’t fabricate a smile. “Thank you for offering, Tyene. It is very thoughtful of you. But it would not be appropriate.”
He didn’t miss the elder girls’ shared glance as they turned back towards Oldtown, but let it pass. Tyene stood up and wrapped her arms around him. “You used to be bright and pretty,” she whispered in his ear. “Now you dress like a priest of the Hooded Wayfarer. I want you to be pretty again.”
Oberyn held her against him and breathed in the sweat and sea-spray in her hair. Six. Nearly seven. She’ll be seven in a moon’s time. Rhaenys will never be seven. “Thank you,” he whispered back. “Thank you for wanting.”
Noise and stink flooded the Oldtown harbour. Oberyn looked back along his baggage train for the tenth time, counting horses, strong-boxes, servants, daughters. The girls were mounted on their own sand steeds, Tyene’s a pony and the others’ true horses, dressed in pleated Dornish riding habits. Wharf loiterers stared as they rode past in a string.
Oberyn had always been quite fond of Oldtown. He liked the stone streets, and the poky little temples that one could wander into and nod to any god there was. Then there were eateries, and taverns, and whorehouses... and the Citadel, which was a joy and a headache all in one.
If this trip doesn’t give me a distaste for the place, I’m Ibbenese. Three days of jousting – what was Leyton thinking? He fought for Aerys!
Oberyn blinked and looked back at Obara. She was squinting into a sunny wharf on the left. “That’s Saffron Summer.”
“It’s what?” Oberyn stood up in his stirrups and stared.
“It is, I’m sure.”
“You’re right.” He gestured to his head groom, riding just behind the girls. “Escort my daughters to the Hightower. With all this traffic I may catch you up before you get there.” He set his heels to his black sand steed’s sides and forced his way through fishwives and porters towards the wharf.
Saffron Summer was a long low sloop out of the Summer Islands, well-kept and neat, with a trade ship’s careful balance of speed and cargo space evident in her hull’s plump lines. Sailors were busy all along her deck, coiling ropes and stowing white sails: she must have docked very recently. As Oberyn dismounted by the gangplank and hooked his horse’s reins around a bollard, he heard an excited squeak from the heron-headed prow. He straightened up just as a small dark arrow launched itself at his chest, calling, “Aba!”
“Sarella,” he breathed, clutching his youngest daughter against him. Three years old. “Is my little armful happy to see me?”
“Yes!” She wriggled backwards in his arms and watched him with her head tilted to one side. “You’re not. You’re not happy!” Her face fell. She looked like she might cry. By all the gods, don’t let her cry. Never let her cry.
“I got seasick,” he lied. “All because I was on a different ship from you. Where’s your mother?”
“Up here.” Sarella wriggled till he put her down, then dashed up the gangplank calling for her Ama. Oberyn followed at a slower pace. He remembered Tyene at three and four: the boundless energy had made him feel old then, and it would surely be worse this time.
Three years old.
Just as he stepped onto the ship, Sarella skittered back across the deck, dodging sailors like the oceanborn child she was. “Ama is in the main cabin with the harbour clerk and won’t you come in and have some wine, she says.” She hopped from bare foot to bare foot. “She gave me a book. Would you like to see?”
If Kaija were busy cheating a harbour official, the last things she would need on hand were a small daughter and said daughter’s father. “Yes.” He took her little dark hand. “You show me now, and I’ll drink wine with Ama later.” The big smile shone again and Sarella led him across the deck into the companionway that led to the cabins.
A book was a rare treasure on a ship, and Sarella certainly treated hers as such: it was wrapped in oilcloth within a cedar chest beneath her bed. Even if the ship sank (do not think that, ever, she’s three years old) it would most likely be salvageable. Oberyn sat on Sarella’s low scarlet-cushioned bunk and let his little daughter clamber into his lap pulling the book after her. It was leather-bound, and almost as big as her torso.
How could he justify having this shaft of joy in a life marred by so much grief?
The book was probably intended for a child Tyene’s age; it was filled with illuminations of animals of Westeros and the lands around the Jade Sea and Summer Sea. Sarella turned it to a page ringed with sweat-marks left by extremely small fingers. “This is my favourite.”
“It’s an elephant,” Oberyn observed. He leant his chin on her head, cushioned in her thick black curls.
“Yes-yes, from Yi Ti, which is so far away I’ve never been. Ama says we’ll go some day.” Her index finger traced the words on the page. “Its nose is called a trunk, and it can use it to pull fruit off trees or break up branches to eat – Aba, why would it eat branches?”
“Because it... likes the taste?” Oberyn said faintly.
Sarella looked up at him and wrinkled her nose, then turned back to the book. “And it is – capable – of sucking water into its trunk and bathing with it. But I can’t get my bathwater up my nose, it hurts.”
“You’ve got a different kind of nose.” He rearranged his grip on her and turned the page. “Oh, this one’s fierce.”
“It’s a croc-o-dile, it has sixty-eight teeth – that’s too many! I only have twenty. I counted.”
“It’s got a bigger mouth than you have.” Oberyn squinted at a line further down the page. “‘Has been known to eat children.’”
“Not me! I’d run away. And you’d hit it with your spear till it was dead. ‘Sides,” and she pointed to the line immediately above the one he’d read – “its usual – diet is fish and waterfowl – Ama says that’s ducks – and ground – ground-dwelling rodents. That’s rats. It’s good that it eats rats.”
She’s three years old and she can read?
Outside Sarella’s cabin he heard another door open. Two pairs of footsteps retreated towards the deck and, a minute later, one came back towards them. Sarella smiled again. She closed the book, handed it to Oberyn and scurried out of the room. “Ama! I showed Aba my book.”
“Did he like it?” a laughing voice asked.
Oberyn laid the book on the bed, rose and went into the companionway. Kaija smiled at him as she straightened from their ecstatic daughter.
She normally dressed like any Summer Islander but had donned Westerosi garb, Westerosi men’s garb, for her meeting with the port official. She’d once told Oberyn that it was the only way to make the average port clerk treat her as anything other than a simpleton. Her plain grey tunic and breeches made her ebony skin seem even darker. With short, tight-curled black hair, trim hips and a slender chest, she could have passed for a man if she wanted to try – not that she ever did want to, or would.
“Will you step inside?” she invited. “I’ve a Salt Shore red you might like.”
Sarella scampered off at a word from her mother. Oberyn ducked under the main cabin door’s lintel and went inside, with Kaija following. As she closed the door behind them, he exclaimed, “She can read!”
“Yes.” Kaija retrieved two pewter goblets and a thickly cushioned bottle from a cupboard labelled CHARTS. “Common Westerosi rather better than the Summer Tongue, but she’s learning.”
She extracted the cork and poured each of them a good measure. “She’s your daughter; of course she’s clever.”
Nym and Tyene had learned to read at six, like any highborn girls. Obara had been seven or eight before she passed the basic rudiments: she’d spent her early childhood in a whorehouse lacking in educational amenities. But three...
He took his goblet with an abstracted air and barely tasted the wine as he drank. “This isn’t bad at all,” he belatedly realised. “Kaija – how did you come to be here?”
“Prince Doran wrote to me. He said you might not be back in Sunspear by the time it was your turn for Sarella, so I might do better to meet you in Oldtown.” She gestured to the door. “I told her to find her things.”
“Her sisters are with me. I –” He sat down on the edge of the charting table, as lost as a piece of driftwood.
Kaija’s dark brown eyes on him were grave. “Oberyn...”
“Sarella is three, Kaija.”
“I seem to recall birthing her about that long ago. But –”
“R –” He lost the name and tried again. “Rhaenys was three.”
She did not answer. Oberyn closed his eyes. “When – when I heard –” When I saw, he could not say.
Kaija sat down beside him and took his hand. “Oberyn, this depth of grief does you no credit. You ought to remember the good –”
“In what?” he hissed. “Two children dead before they lived? My loving, lovely sister – ending like that?”
“It is – I did not say it was easy.” He felt her look at him. “You know how I feel we should remember the dead.”
For a few seconds the offer seemed tempting, but then the subconscious nightmare moved in him again – the same nightmare that had led him to pay three Sunspear madams not for their whores’ services but for wasting their time, before he had moved to brothels that offered only men. “No. I thank you for your kindness, and Doran deserves credit for setting us up, but – no.” He stared at the dark beams in the ceiling. “I will not risk fathering another daughter.” Another Rhaenys. Another I cannot protect.
Oberyn, with Sarella seated in front of him on his horse and her belongings in his saddlebags, made good speed through the back alleys of the Oldtown wharfside district. He took dull note of landmarks as he passed. The dingy temple to the Black Goat and the open and bright one to the Lord of Light, two gods that actively frightened him. The more prepossessing flower-decked temples to the Lysene goddess Isha and the Lhazareen Great Shepherd. The drab whorehouse where he’d fathered Obara at the age of thirteen. On the island at the bend in the Honeywine, the Quill and Tankard, warm and welcoming: how long had it been since he’d last shared a bottle of wine and a good argument in there with Marwyn and Qyburn? Further on, winding left past the river bend, was Ell Street, home to a dozen dressmakers, and along on the right was Cross Gardens, the jewellers’ home –
And there, ahead and right, was the Starry Sept. Oberyn swung left and cantered into the plaza in front of the great pale bulk of the Hightower.
With the crush in the main streets, his cavalcade had made slower progress than him, and was only just entering the Hightower gate. He urged his horse towards the column. Sarella squeaked and waved to her sisters with both hands, almost falling off in the process. Oberyn handed her to a startled Obara before riding ahead to lead the line into the courtyard, where Ser Baelor Hightower was waiting to greet his father’s newest guests.
The fair knight bowed deeply as Oberyn dismounted. “Your presence honours our House, my prince.”
“As does your courtesy.” His returning bow was perfunctory, he knew. “We were becalmed at sea some days. Did we miss anything?”
“Barely. The melée was held earlier today; we feast tonight, and the jousting begins tomorrow.” Ser Baelor’s blue eyes drifted right. “I see all your daughters are here.”
“I’ll assume Doran asked you to engage me a nursemaid and a septa. At the Water Gardens they share personal attendants with the rest; I just brought a maid to look after their clothes.”
“Yes, yes. Everything is arranged.” His expression was grave, riddled with something Oberyn was not in a mood to unravel. “Prince Oberyn – the circumstances of this visit –”
“– could scarcely be less congenial. But men like you and I must put aside such considerations.” He ought to have smiled, but he’d practically forgotten how. “Let’s carouse and celebrate the new season and this – happy event for the Baratheons.” Yes. It is a happy event. For when I stab the brat half a hundred times in front of its adoring parents, by all the gods in Westeros and beyond, I’ll be happy.
Significance in the Hightower was measured in elevation. The uppermost floors were the preserve of the Hightower family, though history alleged a dragon-riding Targaryen had once stayed the night in the beacon chamber at the very top. Below lay the public receiving rooms and an entire floor reserved for the great hall. Oberyn and his retinue had been assigned guest chambers that took up the whole floor below that.
Oberyn stalked around the rooms, inspecting cushioned chairs, soft beds, Myrish carpets and rich tapestries, annoyed that he could find no fault. The Hightowers had clearly known Sarella would be coming before he did: the night nursery, with a sleeping cell for the nursemaid just off it, contained two small beds. Obara and Nym had chambers nearby. His own bedchamber was suitably magnificent, set with spring flowers and pale silk hangings and a bed that could have slept all five of them with room to spare. He stared off its balcony down to Oldtown and the sea, and felt trapped.
His three elder daughters were lounging around their solar in various approximations to half asleep, and seemed inclined to be fractious. He ordered food for them while his squire Arron Qorgyle was laying out fresh evening clothing for him. A few minutes’ searching uncovered Sarella in the bathing room, staring mystified at the round sunken marble bathtub.
“It’s so big, all of us could bathe at once,” she observed. “Or play like at the Water Gardens.”
“You’d enjoy that, I’m sure.” Only three; she’s too young.
She wrinkled her little nose. “It’s soo big. Lots and lots of buckets to fill it. There should be an elephant to carry the water up in its trunk. Or – or a special fountain.”
“An elephant would be useful,” he allowed. “You can’t have a fountain inside.”
She sucked her finger for a minute. “Why?”
He knelt to her level. “It’d wash the Hightower away.” And how I wish –
“An elephant is best.” She smiled. “But I like the bath anyway.”
“Good. I’ll expect a clean Sarella from now on.” He lifted her and carried her to the solar.
A Hightower servant was laying out a light dinner for the four girls; pork stewed with apples, endives with cheese and breadcrumbs, raisin-studded bread still hot from the ovens, a roasted bream caught in the harbour that morning. Oberyn sat Sarella on a chair piled high with cushions as her sisters, attended by their newly acquired septa, took their seats. Tyene looked suspicious of the food. She, of them all, was only used to Dornish fare.
“Enjoy your evening,” Oberyn wished them.
“Thank you, Father,” Nym answered. “We hope you enjoy yours.”
Oberyn bowed slightly to her and withdrew to his chamber. Enjoy my evening? No chance.
The great hall’s north and south fires were blazing and its east and west balconies’ doors were closed. The draught that roared up and down the central staircase still rendered it almost as chilly as Oberyn’s heart.
He sat at the high table on the daïs at the north of the near-round hall, watching dancers flit about like colourful butterflies. They circled the staircase and drew apart and back together, just so many noble swallows. Reach lords, marcher lords, some westerlands lords – and Dornish: plenty of the stony Dornish, fewer of the sandy, very few other salty Dornish like himself. He saw fair Lady Larra Blackmont in deep green silk that complemented her sunburn; the dark Uller men, Lord Harman and his brother Ser Ulwyck, sandy Dornishmen both; Dagos and Myles Manwoody; Delonne Allyrion and her son Ser Ryon; Ser Symon Santagar; Anders Yronwood, who glared whenever he met Oberyn’s eyes, which was rarely.
He knew fewer of the Reach highborn. Randyll Tarly, who’d won battles for Aerys, and his pale wife Melessa Florent chaperoning a maiden who looked like a sister. Mace Tyrell, who’d lost battles for Aerys; his sister Mina, her husband Paxter Redwyne. Endless, endless bloody Hightowers. Hightowers, who supported Aerys. Gods, how I hate these posturing pragmatists. He gestured to a servant to refill his wine goblet and drank half of it in one gulp. Sugary piss from the Arbor. Wine should not be sweet!
The rings on his fingers were jet bands set with black diamonds. Polished chips of obsidian studded his belt. He’d changed from robes into the fashionable garments of the north, as had the other Dornish attendees, but he still wore black, unlike the other – celebrants. Colours, gauzes, slashes, scallops, one woman all in white. Oberyn tried not to grind his teeth. He’d a headache already.
The musicians ended their latest dance and began to play an instrumental while the dancers changed partners. One of Hightower’s daughters – Mace Tyrell’s wife Alerie – dropped him a curtsey as she passed him on her way to the benches at the east side where the women sat when not dancing. He nodded back, unsmiling. Her eldest son, a boy of eleven, was in Oldtown in his capacity of squire to Ser Baelor, and her second was fostered at New Barrel, but she’d left her younger two in Highgarden. He couldn’t approve.
“You look like a thundercloud,” Lady Delonne murmured in his ear as she sat down beside him. “A man-shaped thundercloud bidding fair to blow us all away.”
“I regret that I lack the facility to unleash lightning upon the company.”
“I’m sure you would find a way if you tried for long enough.” Her smile was so gentle it hurt. Sandy Dornish, desert-born; she seemed more real than these pallid Reach folk. “You do not dance.”
“I’m not in a mood for dancing.”
“My prince, far be it from me to make a suggestion –”
“As well as I know you, I forgive it. But as well as I know you, I will not dance.” He knew her very well. He’d warmed her bed when he was a boy of fifteen and she a widow of twenty-six. That had been eleven years ago, before he’d started to feel jaded, before he’d known he had a daughter. “At least I’m not the only one who hasn’t acted the performing bear this evening. Half those women chattering away over there haven’t danced once either.”
“Septas and chaperones and children and old women like me – and Malora Hightower, who never dances, never has and never will.”
“The one in white on the end seems none of those.”
Delonne’s dark eyes grew troubled. “The comparison there, my prince, is inapt.” She curtsied and retreated. A few moments later she passed him in the opposite direction, on the arm of a Florent.
Curiosity pricked by her words, Oberyn looked at the woman on the north end of the row –sixteen or seventeen years old, he estimated, in white satin studded with moonstones. More of them sat in the silver net that confined her black hair. Dornish, for certain; she looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place her.
Ser Baelor Hightower mounted to the daïs and took Delonne’s vacated seat at Oberyn’s side. “How do you fare, my prince?”
“The wine displeases me, the occasion displeases me; what more would you have me say?” Oberyn shrugged. “At least I have so far successfully refused suggestions that I dance. It is a not altogether proper activity in a man still in mourning.” He tried to convey by a pointed glance that the Hightowers should have still been in mourning too, for Ser Gerold, Lord Leyton’s uncle and Ser Baelor’s great-uncle. It probably didn’t work.
Baelor returned his stare. “Will you joust in black armour?”
“No, for I couldn’t obtain a suit in time. Black ribbons, mind; they’re easy.” He sipped the appalling wine. He remembered the last tourney he’d attended; Rhaegar Targaryen jousting in black armour, and winning. “Jousting seems slight exercise after the exertions of soldiering, though. Compared to that... it’s almost farcical, though better as entertainment for one’s daughters.”
Baelor looked like Oberyn’d shoved a poker up his arse. “Such description of our festivity –”
That was more than enough. “You listen to me, Baelor Breakwind,” Oberyn hissed. “The Reach insults itself with this overblown celebration in honour of the House that killed so many of its men. The Hightowers insult themselves in this failure to remember their own dead.” He straightened in his chair and faced Ser Baelor, all his black battling the blond knight’s white-and-grey. “Do not pretend to me that you do not dishonour my sister as well.”
The silence between them was full of venom. “If that is the way you feel,” Hightower said at last, “I doubt I can change your mind.” He moved away towards the unpartnered ladies.
Lord Uller strode heavily onto the daïs. “Here, boy,” he called the cupbearer, who scurried across with a goblet. Uller took it and flung himself into the chair beside Oberyn. “Are you enjoying your evening, my prince?”
“My recent conversation with Ser Baelor enlivened it,” Oberyn allowed. “The wine’s awful.”
“If it’s wine, I’ll drink it. It’s a welcome cushion.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Something felt wrong. “I know my reasons for lurking at the back of this exceedingly draughty hall getting drunk. What are yours?”
His sun-dark face hardened. “Let’s just say, the Reach.” He swigged from his goblet. “Ugh. You’re right.”
Memory prickled and Oberyn looked back at the woman in white. He’d thought he’d seen her before. It must have been at Sunspear, at some event or other, though if they’d ever actually been introduced, he had no memory of it.
“That’s your daughter,” he checked, “– Ellaria, is it?”
“My daughter,” Lord Harman confirmed, “– my bastard daughter. In Sunspear I trumpeted the ‘daughter’ part, but here, it seems the Uller is hiding under the Sand.”
Significance in the Hightower was measured in elevation. Ellaria Sand’s apartment was on the second floor, several storeys below those of her father and her uncle, and she felt as if she had climbed a score of staircases to reach the great hall, each steeper than the last.
The child within her wanted to hide her shame inside her dark bedchamber, to escape the smirks of the Reach women and the pitying glances of her fellow Dornish. Baseless pride kept her in her seat, heart-sore, tired and in no little degree hungry, for she had had no appetite at the feast.
At least I’m not the only one not dancing, she consoled herself. Prince Oberyn, magnificent in black doublet and breeches, lounged at the high table like a restless demon. It was almost a surprise to see him. At Sunspear he had absented himself from festivity: the courtiers had said that his only pleasure since his sister had died was the company of his daughters.
The musicians were playing ‘Alysanne’. Alysanne Hightower, fourteen and recently flowered, sat two spaces from Ellaria with a rapturous glow in her eyes as if she believed herself the queen in the song. A young knight in a yellow doublet slashed to show its red lining captured her hand for the next dance; her smile of acceptance was full of spring and hope. Ellaria watched her go. One less woman on the daïs to whisper about Reach lords’ bastards serving as cupbearers and maids.
“Your daughter,” Oberyn murmured. “Sat below the salt at dinner?”
He wondered what would have happened had his own daughters not been several variations on too tired and too young to attend the public dinner. Even having to think like that was infuriating. “The atmosphere in the Reach may be negative” – why hadn’t he realised sooner what Doran had meant? “Why bring her?”
Uller sighed. “I’ve been married ten years. My wife’s never quickened, even once. Ellaria’s seven-and-ten, my only bastard who’s not baseborn.” Oberyn, three of whose bastards were baseborn, held his tongue. “If I can get her married, get some trueborn grandsons – well.”
“You won’t do it in the Reach.”
“I entirely agree with you, my prince.” He drank some more wine without even pulling a face. “Had I realised that earlier, I certainly wouldn’t have brought her.”
Malora Hightower, thirty years old, still a maid and by repute half mad, sat amid the dowagers glowering at every man brave enough to ask her to dance. Occasionally she exchanged comments with white-faced Melessa Tarly, who was allegedly pregnant for the third time in three years. What they said, what the dried-out old women and simpering girls around them said, Oberyn could not hear, but he saw Ellaria Sand stiffen a little more with every word. Once she closed her eyes, for no more than a second. Her expression, though, betrayed no distress.
The excruciating evening and the Hightowers and the sheer nonsensical impossibility of the situation shook Oberyn to the core. I cannot bear another second of this. He downed his wine, thumped the goblet onto the table and strode across the daïs.
The gaggle of unattached women sat up a little straighter and preened, just perceptibly, as he approached. He granted them a communal bow. “Ladies.” He turned to Ellaria, a white pillar in the shadows at the end of the row. “Ellaria Sand, may I have this dance?”
Her eyes widened and he heard her breath hitch, but she rose. “As my prince commands.” He took her hand and guided her onto the floor just as the musicians ended their incidental song and started the next dance.
Pipe and fiddle outlined a tune that felt like his mood; quick and restless and full of seething sorrow. “I apologise in advance for tripping over your feet,” he murmured to Ellaria as they joined the back of the set. “I’ve had too much to drink.”
His left hand rested on her waist as she led them into the first figures: his right lightly held hers. She was good, he could already tell. Though he was too light-headed to concentrate properly, she signposted her steps just enough for him to follow her.
“Why dance if you are disinclined?” she whispered.
“Misery loves company. You looked to be enjoying yourself as little as I was: I thought we could commiserate each other instead of moping alone.”
“I thank you for your kindness.”
“Kind?” He almost laughed beneath the fiddle’s wail. “Any man will tell you, I am never kind.”
“Am I then to trust to gossip or to experience?”
The dance drew them apart and back together. He bowed over her hand, in unison with a score of lords and sers; she and all the line of ladies bobbed a curtsey. “Trust to both,” he advised as they rejoined hands. “There’s a reason for my reputation.”
“As there is for mine, here.”
“That you are bastard-born or that you are Dornish?” Her eyes flickered downwards. Oberyn hissed through his teeth. “This is why I stay out of Westeros. In the Free Cities I don’t have to listen to the local ruling butterflies claiming all my countrywomen are whores.”
Ellaria’s lips bent into a tiny smile. “Spoken through a Dornish mask. In the land of sweet wine and chastity, how can anyone feel differently?”
“But by their conduct those women prove themselves as lacking in breeding as they accused you of being. Do you take yourself for less than you are?”
“Do you take me for more than I am?”
“I have far too many daughters to do that.” He dropped her hands, took those of the next woman in line – Lady Larra Blackmont – and relinquished Ellaria to Larra’s partner.
“What are you doing with that poor girl?” Larra whispered in Oberyn’s ear as they spun around the floor.
“Paying her some attention. Nobody else seemed likely to do it.” Baelor Hightower. It was upright, uptight Ser Baelor Hightower who was acting as Ellaria Sand’s temporary partner. That ought to make those Reach ‘ladies’ squirm in their seats.
“It may not do her many favours.”
“As I said to her, I am never kind.”
“What did Prince Oberyn say to discompose you?” Ser Baelor whispered in Ellaria’s ear as they spun around the floor.
“Nothing that discredits him, ser.” She had to pay attention to her steps. She couldn’t afford to look anywhere near the daïs and the unpartnered Reach ladies whispering to each other as the Dornish bastard danced with Hightower’s heir.
His hand tightened on hers. “I know the Viper of Dorne. He’s in a poisonous mood tonight. My lady, I beg you, tell me if he offers you any discourtesy.”
Prince Oberyn would have it that your sisters were the discourteous ones. “I am not a lady, but I shall.”
The musicians soared through the counter-melody and settled back into the dance’s main refrain. Oberyn passed the frowning Lady of Blackmont back to Ser Baelor – fairly scowling: at least he was too mindful of his dignity to drop an unwelcome partner in the middle of the floor – and took Ellaria’s hand again.
“Lady Blackmont does not look pleased,” Ellaria ventured when they had moved away from the two blondes.
“Trod on her toe.” She swallowed a squeak of surprise. “It was her fault. She put it in the wrong place. You dance better than she does.”
And because she danced better than Larra Blackmont, or most of the other women in the room, he shook the fog from his mind and, instead of forcing her to lead him, began to lead her. She followed with exquisite precision, always under his hand, always placing hers ready for him to catch it, always there, white satin brushing against his black.
It should not feel quite so right.
The musicians played the dance’s final cadence. Oberyn released Ellaria’s waist and bowed over her hand again. She dropped into a deep curtsey, graceful and supple and, just fractionally, wrong.
“Your dancing is perfection itself,” he told her in a chilly voice. Not so your etiquette, he longed to add. You curtsied as if to the Prince of Dorne, not his younger brother, lord of nothing, heir to no one. But as she rose and looked into his eyes he realised she’d made the slip in full knowledge of what she’d done and what it meant. The thought made him shiver.
Ser Baelor appeared at his shoulder. “Prince Oberyn –”
“Are the balcony doors unlocked?” he interrupted.
The fair knight blinked. “Yes, my prince.”
“Good. If you’ll excuse me, I need some air.” He walked away with the great hall spinning behind him.
“Are you all right?” Lady Blackmont whispered to Ellaria.
“Yes, thank you.” Even in retreat Prince Oberyn seemed dark enough to shroud the sun. Ellaria shivered. She felt as if she had barely escaped a mauling by an angry panther.
Lady Larra looked like she would have said more, but one of the Reach lords claimed her hand. A shy-looking landed knight hovered behind him. “My lady,” he said diffidently to Ellaria, “may I have the next dance?”
She smiled at him and pushed the encounter to the back of her mind. “I’m not a lady, but certainly, you may.”
True to form, Oberyn Nymeros Martell woke with a female in his bed. Further observation revealed a second. He stared up at the pale green canopy above him and explored the assorted aches in his head and heart.
Tyene wriggled against him in her sleep as if caught in dreaming. Nym, on her sister’s far side, seemed to cuddle closer to her. Oberyn clambered out of bed without waking either girl, pulled on the black silk robe that Arron had laid out for him and stared out of the tall window.
It was a beautiful day. A few puffy white clouds floated above the sunlit harbour. Spring tourney, gods help us all. His temples throbbed and he felt in no little degree sick. I knew there was something wrong with that wine.
He left his daughters asleep and went to the solar. Obara had ordered breakfast there and was just tucking in with the enthusiasm of a girl who had treated food as a precious commodity for the first half of her life. In the background he could hear Sarella splashing in the bathtub and chattering to the nursemaid.
“Good morning,” Oberyn greeted his eldest daughter. She’s only a year younger now than I was when I fathered her. How many more haven’t I found? How many of my girls are out there, suffering, dying?
Obara nodded a greeting to him and gestured to the breakfast fare. “I ordered you eggs and black bread. Eggs and black bread are good for the morning after a drinking session.”
He stared at her. “What makes you presume I was drunk last night?”
“Only that you fell over twice on your way in.” She looked sideways at him in a manner he remembered from years ago when she’d seemed afraid he might throw her onto the streets at any moment. It made him feel sick all over again.
“As it turns out, you’re correct.” He sat down and permitted his hovering squire to serve him. “I hope the black bread works, or I’ll be jousting with a sore head.”
“Must you joust on the first day?”
“The honour of House Martell dictates I make the tourney’s first challenge.”
Obara made a face around her pastry. “Three whole days in that armour. At least it isn’t hot here.” She swallowed a mouthful. “Sarella’ll never sit still to watch you for three days.” Oberyn didn’t answer. The previous night’s events seemed even uglier in daylight. “What’s wrong?” his daughter asked.
“There may be a... slight problem... with you coming along.”
“Because we’re bastards,” Obara said flatly.
Oberyn closed his eyes. His headache intensified. “Yes.”
“Well,” she said after a few moments, “Sarella wouldn’t have sat still for three days.” You’re assuming I’ll outlast the first tilt, he thought, but said nothing. “We don’t have to come.”
“I fully intend for you to watch at least the final day. I just don’t know how best to arrange it.” Oberyn chewed his black bread. “I take it we have a whole trunk of Sarella’s clothes that came with us all the way from Sunspear and remained unnoticed till it came time to unpack.”
So they all have silken finery worthy of a prince’s daughters. “That’s one detail Doran’s sorted out for me, then.”
The first day’s jousting passed Oberyn by in little more than a blur. Pounding hooves in tilt after tilt woke the headache that food had barely contained, and he once had to retreat within his sun-embroidered pavilion to be sick. He cursed himself the whole time. He found jousting enjoyable exercise, but preferred the song of sword and spear. Maybe it’s a good thing I missed the melée. There would have been protests if I’d poisoned my sword.
But sitting his war-horse at the head of the lists awoke something in him, a desire not only to compete with credibility but to win, to prove to Westeros that Dorne and the Martells were not to be derided. So he clamped the wine-sickness in his belly and rode on, and endured.
He unseated half a score of hedge knights, the green-apple Fossoway who was betrothed to Mace Tyrell’s sister Janna, Ser Garth Hightower and Lord Anders Yronwood, the latter in three increasingly animosity-filled tilts. Mace Tyrell’s prancing destrier actually took him to a single win in his first tilt, before Ryon Allyrion, Lady Delonne’s son, unseated him. He sulked in his pavilion thereafter. Beyond that, Oberyn kept no track of winners and losers.
It does not matter. All that matters is to win all day for two days, and then defeat the other champions on the third day.
It came as a surprise when the master of revels announced that the day’s competing was at an end. Oberyn let Arron divest him of his black-ribboned tourney armour and garb him in normal riding gear, but instead of handing his war-horse to a groom to cool down, rode him into the Hightowers’ tame wilderness himself.
Shorn of his barding, the nameless black courser ambled contentedly through the late afternoon. Oberyn sat back in the saddle and inhaled spring scents. All the trees were starting to bud, little green wisps at the end of twigs and branches, but here and there stood dead stumps or tree-corpses still in the ground – those that had begun to awaken during the false spring and, like so many knights (and others), had died when the winter returned.
He stopped under an apple tree and broke off a blossom spray. For my blossoms. Though Obara would not be pleased if I addressed her as such.
A daughter bold as a son; what will I do when she flowers? Answer: nothing. Let her be who she is.
Especially if it keeps her safe...
More horses’ hoof-beats disturbed the afternoon. Oberyn urged his courser into a gentle trot. He had no desire for company.
He cut left of a particularly dense thicket and pulled up short. Ellaria Sand was a dozen yards from him, astride a golden sand steed as graceful as its rider, inspecting a flowering cherry tree. She started and straightened in her saddle as he rode out of the shadows.
“Prince Oberyn.” She bowed over her steed’s head. “I had heard you exercised your own tourney horses.”
He bowed in return. “Invariably.” She wasn’t unattended, he noted; the second rider he’d heard was a Hellholt groom a discreet distance from her. “Then if my horse comes up lame, I know who to fault.”
“I dare say your horses are seldom lamed. You rode excellently today.”
“How, I don’t quite know. With the amount I drank last night I should have been unseated in the first tilt.” He drew his courser up next to her. “I didn’t see you in the stands.”
“I wasn’t there. My reports came by our old friend, gossip.”
He hadn’t been sure: the state he’d been in, he wouldn’t have noticed his mother and sister’s reanimated corpses in the stands, let alone anyone else. “Did you absent yourself out of deference for the Reach’s non-opinion, or did you have too enjoyable an evening after I left?”
Her dark eyes went a little frosty. “I enjoyed the second half of my evening a deal more than the first. Several Reach knights followed your example and danced with me, and Lady Blackmont had occasion to ask me to commiserate her on her bruised toe.”
It was almost funny. Oberyn looked her up and down again, dark green-clad within the pale green wood, and remembered her white gown of the previous night.
“You don’t look a thing like my sister.” She blinked. “Black hair, yes, and more of the salty than the sandy Dornish in you – but, no. Elia was always the first to admit she looked like a hag in white: she was too sallow. In cream or ivory or Martell orange she shone, though. You’d look washed out in them. Uller scarlet and dark yellow must suit you well.”
“I am not an Uller.”
“As has been made acutely obvious.” His horse twitched under him. Oberyn relaxed his hands. “You must have brought some appropriate gowns for the tourney – before you decided to go riding rather than inflict your presence on the company.”
“Given your propensity for wearing black, I am surprised that you pay so much attention to others’ clothing.”
“My six-year-old would have me put off my mourning garb. The time does not seem right, yet. Maybe once I’ve won it will be different.” He saw her face change. “Go on.”
“You – you are not the only man jousting.”
“If I were, I could not be said to have won.” He shrugged. “I’m far from the only jouster here, and far from the best, either – but the one with the most reason to win.”
“I wish I could be there to watch.”
“You should come.” He laughed. The sound was odd in his throat, as if it didn’t fit there any more. “If you aren’t there, how can I crown you queen of love and beauty?”
Ellaria started. Her horse’s ears pricked and she had to haul on her reins to keep the sand steed in place. “You can’t!” she exclaimed.
She brought herself and her steed under control. “I regret that I will be unable to attend, my prince, leaving your proposal impossible to perform.”
“No flowers for the fairest woman of the day?” He handed her the apple twig with a flourish. “I hope you will reconsider.” He touched his heels to his horse’s sides and trotted away.
He rode back to the Hightower and had just handed the horse over to his grooms when he saw his daughters and their attendants – septa, nursemaid and guards – re-entering the main courtyard. They had spent the day touring the booths and mummers’ shows that had sprouted around the tourney ground.
Nym curtsied as he came up to them. “Obara says we can go to the last day’s jousting,” she said with an excited air.
“It’s the current plan.” Yes, the septa had looked just faintly scandalised at the suggestion. He would have to dispose of the septa.
An idea suddenly came to him, one that almost had no business being thought – but the more he considered it the better he liked it. Suddenly the day seemed brighter.
“You will definitely go if I can complete certain prior tasks,” he said slowly, savouring his idea. A – jeweller? Most definitely. “I’ll meet you in the Hightower after I’ve addressed the first of them.” He looked at his other daughters. Tyene seemed happy as a cricket, clutching a swatch of new hair ribbons. Obara was quieter than usual, as if she were thinking hard. Sarella had fallen asleep and was being carried by the nursemaid.
He left them making their way back inside, obtained a fresh horse from the stables and rode into Oldtown, straight to Cross Street. The first three jewellers he tried came up blank but at the fourth, he triumphed.
“These are fine gems, indeed,” he said to the little grey proprietor as he peered through a lens at the matched set of three rubies and the intense yellow droplet-shaped diamond. “You’ve sufficient others for my needs?”
“Yes, my prince.” He drew out a tray of much smaller stones. “If I might be so bold – a mixture of gold and rose gold to hang them?”
“That sounds suitable.” Oberyn rubbed his nose. Against his will, he was starting to enjoy himself. “Can you get these to me at the Hightower by sunrise the day after tomorrow?”
“Of course, my prince.”
Perfect. Just one excruciating dinner with Lord Leyton, one more day’s competing, and then – the looks on the Hightowers’ faces will make it all worthwhile. “Excellent.”
The near-private supper with Lord Hightower was as bad as Oberyn had feared. He’d anticipated the presence of Mace Tyrell, Hightower’s overlord, but had forgotten quite how difficult he found it to stomach the man’s presence. An enquiry into the health of his destrier embarrassed him into near-silence, though.
That turned out to be almost worse. Doran, if you’d wanted me to talk politics with Hightower, you could at least have briefed me better than you did him. At least Tyrell contributed little to the rest of the conversation, except to voice satisfaction that he had a son not quite four and a daughter less than two years old, either of whom were of a suitable age to wed the unborn Baratheon parasite in time.
Oberyn made his excuses a couple of hours after midnight, on the grounds that he had competing to do in the morning. At that, Tyrell immediately insisted on another toast to his success. Somehow he managed not to fall over his feet on the stairs. A broken neck really would have damaged his chances in the joust.
He woke the next morning with Sarella curled on his pillow and far less of a headache than he’d expected. As he sat up, his youngest daughter opened her eyes and scrambled straight onto her knees with a happy smile on her face. “Is it getting-up time?” she asked.
“Good!” She stood up. “It’s going to be a nice day!”
Oberyn rubbed his forehead. “Don’t bounce on the bed, Sarella.”
She stopped. “Is your head hurt?”
She threw her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Better?” she said with a hopeful air.
No. “Much better.” He set her down on the ground; she scampered away while he dressed.
It really was going to be a nice day, he noted. The sun was out and even at this lofty elevation he felt warm. So why does that greater part of me feel so cold?
Kale and spinach (Nym’s prescription) were no better at relieving head-pain than eggs and black bread, but Oberyn faced the day’s jousting with reasonable equanimity nonetheless. As well as paying his own opponents more mind than before, he watched the others closely. If he completed the day he would face three of them in the morning for the champion’s purse.
A knight in a yellow surcoat strewn with red ants tilted bravely for half the morning before falling to Lord Harmen Uller, who was immediately unseated by Alekyne Florent. Florent in turn fell to Symon Santagar, the brilliant Knight of Spottswood. One of the Hightower maidens did more than her fair share of sighing over the ant knight, and he in turn was gracious in attendance upon her after he’d been extracted from his dented armour. Why does he bother? Her ‘fair prettiness’ is naught but insipid chaste vapidity.
Ser Ryon Allyrion, decked in his mother’s red and black gyronny, held his seat practically all day. ‘No foe may pass’, indeed. But as the afternoon drew in, a Reach knight of barely fifteen years, in an oak-leaf-set gold surcoat and spurs he’d only just earned, cantered into the lists – and the tightest battle of the day began.
Five sets of lances Ser Ryon and young Ser Arys broke against each other, with commons and nobles alike shouting louder on every pass, until they charged at each other with golden sunlight brushing the green trees behind the tilt and Arys Oakheart lifted the heir to Godsgrace clean from his saddle. Cheers split the air as the boy gravely accepted the crowd’s adulation. In short order he unseated another three knights who rode up to challenge him. The Reach has a new hero, and that boy has a future.
Baelor Hightower was at his majestic best, claiming a goodly set of scalps including that of his own father. Lord Leyton should by rights have never entered the lists: he was past fifty and his competing days were far behind him. But he broke a creditable lance against his heir, and upon defeat announced to the assembled company that he had entered so unexpectedly in order to give Ser Baelor one more chance to lose before the final day. Baelor only smiled.
Oberyn... Oberyn simply won. Dolphin knights, squirrel knights, a knight with the sun and stars on his chest: a knight of a golden tree, a weasel knight, a deer knight, a knight whose surcoat undulated in blue and white stripes. Randyll Tarly, both the Manwoody brothers, young Imry Florent. The Martell sun blazed on his arms as his black ribbons fluttered in the breeze. He fancied once he heard his sister cheering from the stands.
For you, Elia. I’ll win it for you.
He finished the day in a better frame of mind than he’d enjoyed for some time. Baelor Hightower, Symon Santagar, the Oakheart prodigy... he could do it. He would do it.
As he returned his horse to the Hightower stables he heard childish squeaks from the arboretum. Investigation led him to Sarella, playing at monsters-and-maidens with two small boys about her own age, with her nursemaid and a maid in Redwyne uniform in attendance. He watched her for a few minutes from the shadows and wondered again about the strange blend of fragility and indestructibility found in young children.
Tyene and Septa Dancille were pottering around the kitchen garden. The septa was instructing Tyene in the different uses of all the herbs growing there, so different from the ones common in Dorne. Oberyn restrained a smile: the septa was missing out a lot of the more interesting applications. He’d tell the girl later.
His daughter curtsied when she saw him, quite the little lady: Oberyn bowed over her hand. “Well met, Tyene Sand. Where are your sisters?”
“Sarella’s in the copse with the Redwyne twins. Nym and Obara are inside.”
“Inside, eh?” A distant herald was trumpeting an attack alarm.
Septa Dancille smiled rapturously beneath her white wimple. “Such studious girls. They heard that Maester Perestan had completed his history of the recent war – only three copies transcribed so far! – and nothing would do for them but that they should go and read it at once.”
“How... dedicated of Obara and Nymeria.”
Obara was an indifferent scholar at best; the only history she had ever been known to touch was military history. Nym had more taste for books, but preferred modern political discussion to tales of days dead and gone.
“I’ve a strong desire to see it myself.” He’d already read a decent chunk, which Perestan had sent to him in Sunspear copied in his own hand. “I believe I’ll go and join them.”
He took his leave of the septa and his deceptively angelic thirdborn and, once he was out of sight, picked up his pace as much as his dignity would allow. He took the Hightower’s stairs two at a time, paused on his landing to get his breath back, and stormed into his apartment.
Nym – thank the gods – peeked round the solar door into the receiving room. “It’s my fault,” she declared in a frightened voice.
Oberyn shook his head. “Nymeria Sand, you’re a dreadful liar.” He strode up to her. She was wrinkling her dress in her hands – and the dress was barely laced. Her hair was wet. Why would she bathe in the middle of the day? “Whatever you did was Obara’s doing. Wasn’t it?”
“No!” Nym insisted. “It was mine!”
She was trembling and seemed on the verge of tears. “Stop that: I’m not about to beat you. What happened?”
“We – we went out.”
“Into Oldtown.” She sniffled. “‘Bara lies even worse than I do; she needed me to make up something for Septa Dancille. She wanted to go on her own, but I wouldn’t let her. I said I’d tell if she didn’t take me.”
“No one saw us,” Nym assured him. “We wore our ship dresses, and no shoes, and we slipped out at the servants’ door.”
Some kind of dull hot rage was burning inside him. “Where did you go?”
She sat down on the solar couch and hugged her knees to her chest. “To the docks. ‘Bara was looking for something, but I don’t know what.” Oberyn, in the midst of his anger, wondered. “Then we went to the tourney ground. We saw you jousting, from the commons.”
My daughters are not just bastards, they are bastard princesses. They should not have to watch a tourney from the commons.
“And?” he said, more harshly than he should have.
“You jousted well,” she said tentatively.
“That’s not what I meant.” He knelt in front of her. “What upset you?”
Nym hugged herself tighter. “I – Obara saw – someone she knew. He was rude.”
“Was he?” Oh, dear gods –
“He – he asked who I was and – ‘Bara said it was none of his business. He – asked if she’d flowered yet and – she said no – and he said something I didn’t understand – and ‘Bara said to run. So we did. All through Oldtown.” She wriggled. “We tore our dresses. I’m sorry –”
“Never mind the dresses. Are you hurt?”
She waggled her left foot. “I banged my toe. Father –”
He pulled her dainty embroidered shoe off and studied her foot. Her big toe was swollen and purple but the rest of her toes were bruised too, and the sole of her foot was reddened and covered in scrapes and scuffs.
“I think my feet don’t like the Reach,” she ventured.
Oberyn tucked the shoe back onto Nym’s foot and stood up. The solar window looked out on the meadows, the bathroom overlooked the copse, the girls’ chambers faced the tourney ground... his own chamber was the only one with a view of the harbour.
He went into his room and out onto the balcony. For a minute or two he simply stared at the sunset on the sea and said nothing.
Eventually, the dark figure in the balcony’s far corner uncurled. “I’m sorry I took Nym.”
“I’m sorry you went.”
“I had to go. I had to see, again.”
Oberyn looked at Obara. She was staring at the docks as if part of her were still down there in a cheap whorehouse. “If I’d known you wanted to go I would have taken you.”
“You were upset. I didn’t want to bother you. I –”
“Obara, I’m your father.” She looked up at him at last. The stark misery on her face caught him in the stomach like a tourney lance, and he stared at her for a few mute seconds before she flung her arms around him.
He held her shaking figure against him. She didn’t cry: she’d never cried since the day he’d taken her from her mother, and sometimes he thought she didn’t know how. But something about the way she clung to him belied her age and temperament, until she seemed another Sarella, another child, another little snake in his vivarium whom he had to protect.
“I’m your father,” he whispered into her hair.
Ellaria sat silent beside Lady Blackmont in the second row of benches in the Hightower’s great hall. Fiddle music better than any she’d ever heard before wreathed the room and, just faintly, echoed into the deep stairwell.
The player was the seventh of eight major contestants in the musicians’ tourney that would be held the day after the jousting. He sang an unfamiliar folk tune from lands far to the north, the melody as haunting as the tale in the words. Disturbing images seemed to float in the shadows. Ellaria gripped the edge of the bench. She felt she might float away if she did not.
Out of the corner of her eye she watched the front row of spectators. Hightowers of varying ages sat on the flanks with Lord Leyton in the centre. He had Lord Tyrell on his right hand and Prince Oberyn on his left; the three of them, alone, sat on high-backed oaken chairs instead of benches. Ellaria could just see the left side of the prince’s face – as forbidding as he had looked during the feast, though perhaps a little more controlled.
The minstrel finished his song and bowed to decorous applause. “What do you think?” Lady Blackmont asked Ellaria as the fiddle player left the hall and a harpist entered in his place.
“The piece was... unusual, and powerful. But if he plays it again on the day, he won’t win, any more than the zither player will. It won’t sound good in the open air.”
“At least the zither has the advantage of novelty – well, in the Reach. Dorne would be another matter. My daughter is a devotee, and I understand you play well yourself.”
She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. “Tolerably. But I take your point. Even a harp appears to disadvantage on a tourney stage after hearing it in a chamber concert.”
“The harpist hasn’t played yet,” the fair Lady of Blackmont laughed. Ellaria smiled back. The lingering dark echo of the fiddle had faded, and the hall was bright and warm and happy.
The Hightowers in front of the Dornishwomen were discussing the music in low, animated voices. Lord Leyton leant back a little in his chair and regarded his youngest daughters with a fond smile: Alysanne and Lynesse, fourteen and eleven years old respectively. “The older I grow,” he murmured, “the more delight I take in my offspring.”
“If your bruises are paining you, I am sorry for it,” Ser Baelor offered.
“I did not speak in jest.”
Lord Tyrell smiled broadly. “Ser Baelor, your prowess brings glory to your House and honour to your father. I look forward to the day my sons are similarly great knights. Until then...” He laughed. “I must congratulate them on their small victories and commiserate them on their little crises.”
“I can sympathise,” Prince Oberyn murmured. “My two eldest lost themselves in Perestan’s new history this afternoon, right up to the part where their aunt got murdered. Practically had hysterics.”
Lady Blackmont was halfway through a comment to Lady Allyrion, but Ellaria saw her hands clench on her lap. Lord Tyrell’s smile vanished as if a wight had clutched his throat. Even Lord Hightower and Ser Baelor seemed to lose their composure. The hall’s conversation took on a shrill, frightened air.
Ellaria bit her tongue to stop herself from saying it out loud. He cannot forget, will not forget, will not let anyone else forget – did you have to poison the evening, Viper?
Wait – he brought some of his daughters? I haven’t seen them since his entourage arrived –
The last musician, the harpist, finished tuning his instrument and walked to the centre of the hall before the lords’ and prince’s chairs. Silence fell as he bowed. The fancifully cut sleeves of his deep green silk doublet flapped across his goldwood harp. “My prince, my lords, ladies and sers, tonight I play only a simple ballad, familiar to you all.” He plucked a long minor arpeggio, modulated to the diminished seventh and dropped into the first verse of ‘Jenny of Oldstones’.
Prince Oberyn’s left hand tightened on his chair arm so hard that it seemed he might snap it.
Ellaria stared at the prince’s tense face. That was far from the icy hauteur that had consumed him all evening. Cobra-like, he looked, and set to bite –
“Some snakes bite because they’re evil sons of marcher lords,” her uncle Ser Ulwyck had told her as a small child. “The rest bite because you startle them. Don’t bother a snake, and it won’t bother you.” He’d proceeded to crush the head of the snake she’d just bothered beneath his sturdy boot.
This snake was less easy to pacify. Ellaria twitched a hand an inch towards the prince but pulled it back to her lap just in time. She held herself as still as possible. She couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t have done anything whoever she was – couldn’t have gone to him, or asked him what was wrong.
She saw Prince Oberyn’s eyes flick towards her. Second by second he relaxed, so gradually that it was almost imperceptible, and his hand loosened its grip as the harpist sang of Jenny’s tragedy, Jenny who had once worn a crown of flowers, Jenny who had loved a prince.
The last soft chord sang into the hall and the harpist fell silent. The assembled company applauded him out of the room and, slowly and amid many inconsequential observations, began to drift apart. Ellaria kept to her seat. She would have said she felt faint, except that fainting was a condition reserved for Reach ladies and despised by the Dornish.
“He was excellent,” she heard Ser Baelor murmur to his father.
Prince Oberyn, at their side, nodded slowly. “Almost as good as Rhaegar Targaryen.” As Lord Tyrell claimed Lord Hightower for an urgent discussion about nothing in particular, the prince captured Ser Baelor’s arm and drew him aside.
Lady Blackmont and Lady Allyrion were continuing an earlier conversation but their eyes kept darting in the prince’s direction. Dornish lords and sers all around the hall asked each other what had happened in tiny wordless gestures.
“I was unable to speak to your master of revels earlier,” Prince Oberyn said to Ser Baelor. “If you could intervene on my behalf I would be most grateful.”
“Of course. What do you require?”
“Five front row seats setting aside for me for tomorrow. Black cushions, two of them high enough to support a child.”
The pressure suddenly felt too much to bear.
“Prince Oberyn –”
“Remember, ser, if you would, my devotion to my family, and do this for me.”
There was a short pause. “Of course, my prince.”
The nearby balcony door stood open. Ellaria slipped through it and inhaled fresh night air.
She leant on the stone balustrade and stared out at Oldtown. Lamps burned in windows all across the vale below her, down to the harbour and high in the Citadel. She felt like a bird, soaring over the world.
“Imagine you could douse them.”
She started and turned. Prince Oberyn had come onto the balcony behind her and stood staring at the town below, just as she had. “Imagine,” he pursued, “that you could put out any of those lights you chose. Or that you were the light, unable to stop yourself from dying – from being killed.”
Ellaria couldn’t answer.
“People praised Rhaegar for many things,” Prince Oberyn continued, “but few realised how good a performer he was. Oh, not for wild drinking songs or fast dances – they didn’t appeal to him enough for him to play them well at all – but lyrical ballads, anything melancholy, he wouldn’t just pluck a tune, he’d make you breathe the music.”
“When did he play you Jenny’s song?”
He half-laughed, mirthless and no less frightening than before. “At Harrenhal. The Harrenhal tourney – the greatest ever held.” He shook his head as he too leant on the balustrade. “Just before everything went wrong. Five days later – well. I nearly killed him.”
From any other man it would have seemed careless exaggeration, but Ellaria knew that this one meant it. “The Prince of Dragonstone,” she breathed. “Your good-brother.”
“My good-brother, who insulted my sister in front of half the realm.” He did not bother to keep his voice down, heedless of who might hear him. “Elia pleaded with me, afterwards: not to call him out, not to poison him, not to arrange him a messy accident. I was petulant, she was sensible, and if I’d done it, she’d be –” He stopped speaking very suddenly.
“You’d be dead,” she whispered.
“Elia wouldn’t. Nor Rhaenys. Nor Aegon – he wasn’t even old enough to walk!”
Now he was whispering – hissing. Viper. Ellaria held her ground. “You have daughters.” How many? Three, or three score? “Girls need their fathers’ protection. None more so than bastard girls.” He did not answer. His head was bowed over his steepled hands as he leant on the rail. Death and transfiguration are the same crumbling tower. “My father stands between me and a whorehouse. You – you are no less, to them.”
For a few minutes they stood together in silence. The hall stirred behind them and Ellaria remembered herself. She dropped him a deep curtsey and turned to the door.
As she moved, Prince Oberyn grabbed her left wrist. She gasped – he wasn’t even looking at her. But when he finally turned to her, the intensity in his eyes burnt her to the core.
“I will win this tourney,” Oberyn Nymeros Martell whispered beneath the faint voices in the hall behind them. “I will win it for my sister and her children. I will win it for the honour of Dorne. I will win it for myself. And I will win it for you.”
Oberyn couldn’t sleep. He stared at the dark ceiling and the window’s faint outline and the inside of his eyelids, and called on every scrap of campaign experience he’d ever gained, but still he hung on the edge, neither his mind nor his body quite tired enough to go under.
I have to sleep. I won’t win if I don’t sleep.
Elia’s lovely face floated in front of him, softly chiding. The little girl playing around her seemed a blend of her own Rhaenys and his Sarella. He dug his fingernails into his palms. What use were apologies made to the dead?
Baratheon had sent the bodies back to Dorne in lead-sealed caskets: had he thought that that would stop Oberyn from finding out exactly what had happened? Any fool could open a casket. The silent sisters had doubtless done their best, but... Oberyn turned over. Rhaenys was three. Sarella... if she... and –
He stared at the ceiling again. Elia suddenly became Ellaria Sand, no less censorious. Girls need their fathers’ protection. And what a marvellous job he was doing! Obara... “You were upset...”
His chamber door creaked. Small feet padded across the floor and someone clambered into his bed. He waited a few heartbeats before remarking, “I wonder who my visitor is.” He reached to his right and touched silky hair and a little face. “I think this is Tyene.” He knew it was Tyene; the footfalls hadn’t fitted any of the others.
She pressed his hand against her face. “Obara wanted Nym to sleep with her because she was upset, and Sarella went and got in the bed with them because she’s little and didn’t know what was happening, and there wasn’t enough room for me. I was lonely.”
He pulled her tight against him. Maybe fathers need their daughters. “Don’t worry, sweetling. I promise I will always have room for you.”
Ellaria stared from the black velvet-covered case to the note that had accompanied it. Beside her, on the dresser in her small chamber, a blossoming apple twig sat in a tiny vase, radiating springlike innocence.
Her maid, a Dornishwoman a year her junior, was laying out her clothes – a pale blue morning gown scalloped in green. “Not that one, Jeyne,” Ellaria told her. Her voice shook.
Jeyne looked up in surprise and some fear. “Mistress, you look faint. Are you unwell?”
“I – don’t know.” She looked back down at the note. “The red and yellow, please.”
“Certainly, mistress.” The maid cast her a doubtful glance as she stowed the first dress and shook out the second.
Ellaria re-read the note.
WEAR THESE, WITH A GOWN IN INVERTED ULLER COLOURS, AND COME TO MY APARTMENT FIRST THING. URGENT NEED OF YOUR ASSISTANCE.
She stood and let Jeyne dress her. Red silk trimmed with gold lace formed the bodice. The long sleeves were cut wide to show yellow Hellholt flames leaping up the lining, and red flames cascaded from her waist into the yellow skirt. Uller gown, upside down – a bastard Uller – what does he mean by it?
The case still sat on her dresser. Ellaria opened it and set the earrings into her ears as Jeyne oohed in delight. She studied the effect. Red rubies shone like fresh blood on her earlobes and the perfect yellow diamonds that hung below them glowed against her black hair.
The maid fitted her into the hairnet while she slowly looped the necklace around her neck. Rubies and yellow diamonds again – too perfect, mimicking the flames in her dress –
She dismissed Jeyne in half a stupor and walked up three flights of stairs without really considering what she was doing. She tried to think. She would go to his rooms, certainly, but to tell him that she couldn’t ‘assist’ him, that she must return his – princely – gifts.
“Ah, there you are.”
Ellaria looked up. Prince Oberyn was leaning over the banister a flight and a half above her. He beckoned. “Hurry. We haven’t long.”
She picked up her skirts and scurried up the stairs. I have to tell him – By the time she emerged onto the landing he was leaning on his apartment’s magnificently carved main door. “My prince –” she began.
He ran an appreciative gaze over her. “You look perfect. Extremely becoming. I knew you’d have a suitable gown.” He, for his part, was dressed in the padded and richly embroidered (black) tunic and hose that went beneath his tourney armour. “Come in.” He pushed open the door and vanished through it, leaving Ellaria helpless to protest.
She tentatively edged round the door. The receiving room on the other side opened onto what was evidently a solar. Prince Oberyn stood in its doorway, speaking to someone considerably shorter than himself.
“That depends on whether you can be a grown-up lady like your sisters.”
“Yes! I’ll be good, I –” A little dark face peeked round the prince’s legs. “Aba, see!” the child said, pulling on Oberyn’s hand.
He turned to Ellaria and in amazement she saw the smallest shadow of a smile on his face. “I need to make some introductions. Are you ready yet?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Yes,” a girl’s voice answered.
“No!” added another. “Obara, hold still. Your net’s slipped.”
“It keeps slipping,” grumbled the first girl. “Can’t I just take it off?”
“Of course not. There – fixed.”
Two girls rather larger than the first appeared behind Prince Oberyn. “It won’t stay,” the pessimistic one – the eldest, and brown-haired – opined to her black-haired junior.
“It will if you don’t fiddle – oh.” The second girl noticed Ellaria in the doorway and dropped a curtsey. The elder followed her example with slightly less grace. Two sets of black eyes – just like the prince’s eyes – watched her with open curiosity.
“Tyene?” called Oberyn.
“Here, Father.” A blonde child about midway in size between the black-haired girl and the dark-skinned one emerged from behind the rest. “I finished them.”
She handed him a knot of ribbons sewn together, which he accepted gravely. “Thank you.” He straightened and turned to Ellaria. “May I present my daughters: Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand, Tyene Sand and –” He looked down at the smallest girl, currently attached to his left leg. “– Sarella Sand. Girls, this is Ellaria Sand, Lord Uller’s daughter.”
The blonde Tyene made her curtsey as perfectly as Nymeria, the black-haired girl. Little Sarella let go of her father and copied her. It came out as a rather inelegant wobble. Ellaria curtsied to the quartet. “I am honoured to make your acquaintance,” she said formally. As she spoke, she thought.
All four girls wore red gowns trimmed in orange and embroidered with orange suns, though the two eldest’s were cut like maidens’ dresses whereas Tyene and Sarella’s were much more those of children. Their hair was confined by ribbons, while Nymeria and Obara wore theirs in nets – copper nets, studded with amber and tiger-eye.
The majority of women on the final day of a tourney would wear their house colours –
“Ellaria,” Prince Oberyn continued, “my daughters’ septa is indisposed, and as such they lack a chaperone.”
The inside of her stomach seemed to tighten on itself.
“I hope I can rely on you to escort them to the tourney.” His black eyes were bright. Again, the corners of his mouth didn’t quite bend into a smile, but they noticeably softened.
She ought to have refused him at once, made up some polite lie and escaped with what little pride she had, but the hopeful smile on Sarella’s tiny face and the odd air of gentleness in her normally ferocious father ensnared her. The Red Viper seemed a lot less fearsome with small girls surrounding him. She curtsied to Oberyn. “I would be glad to do so, my prince.”
The tourney stands were packed, as was the common hill opposite. Pennants flew at every corner of the awnings and bright House banners hung on the rails in front of the seating area. As the last spectators took their seats, Ser Symon and Ser Arys rode onto the field with all due pageantry. Ser Baelor, the first of the overnight champions to arrive, sat his dapple destrier before his pavilion, and wondered.
The five seats behind the Martell sun, on the right of the Hightowers, were still empty. While Oakheart and Santagar rode round the field making their bows to all comers, Baelor trotted to his father’s seat in the centre of the stands, opposite the middle of the lists. “Have you had word from the harbour, my lord?”
Lord Leyton shook his head fretfully. “Prince Doran cannot now arrive in time. We would have sighted his ship yesterday.” His fingers tapped the rail. “There is – another possibility.”
Baelor glanced at the black-cushioned seats and turned away, towards the seating on the left of the Hightowers’ benches, where his sister Alerie and her husband Lord Tyrell were smiling at each other fondly and somewhat fatuously. “I considered that, but it does not make sense. If he’d requested three seats – that would have been another matter.”
“Five died, not three. Princess Elia, Prince Rhaegar, their children, and King Aerys. Five.”
He shook his head. His grey armour creaked. “I’m sorry: I cannot credit it.”
“Credit what you will, ser,” Lord Leyton said dryly. “You have observed Prince Oberyn these past days.”
“I have,” he sighed.
He turned away from the stands and stared down the well-trodden slope to the Hightower’s stables. Empty seats or no empty seats, Prince Oberyn would have to arrive soon.
He couldn’t fail to attend –
Just down the rise he saw an orange banner flap. There’s one worry the less. Baelor rode forwards a few feet and stopped, staring.
Five horses were trotting up the rise together, with three grooms and the prince’s squire a little way behind. Prince Oberyn rode at the head on his black courser barded with the Martell sun. He wore his copper-plated tourney armour, but no helm, and his black ribbons of the previous two days had been replaced by a knot of multicoloured ones.
Two of his daughters flanked him, mounted on Dornish sand steeds almost the colour of their saddle-cloths – red field, orange sun pierced with a spear that formed a bend sinister; the Martell arms, reversed. His third daughter rode a pony slightly to one side: she was engaged in conversation with the fifth rider, Ellaria Sand, magnificent in scarlet and yellow silk. The prince’s youngest daughter, too small even for a pony, rode on her father’s pommel, proudly clutching his tourney helm as she chattered to him and her half-sisters.
Sand Snakes, Dorne had named them: bastard girls of a man who treated them like trueborn boys. What was it the Dornish smallfolk said? Obara Sand resembled the prince in her fierceness, Nymeria Sand in her courtly elegance, Tyene Sand in her grace – and then there was little Sarella, all a child and full of charm.
Nymeria and Obara dismounted by the stands and tossed their reins to one of the prince’s grooms. A second groom lifted Tyene from her saddle. Ellaria dismounted without aid and went to the prince’s side. He handed Sarella down to her: “Give your father his helm, sweetling,” she instructed.
“Yes, I’m going to need it,” the prince said with a hidden laugh in his voice. The child passed the copper-plated helm back up to him and, amazingly, he smiled down on her, and on Ellaria Sand. “Thank you for your kind assistance today,” he said to Ellaria in a voice that certainly carried a good way down the lists.
“It’s my pleasure.” She curtsied, still holding Sarella. “Ride well, my prince.”
“I always do.” He set the helm on his head and trotted away towards his pavilion as Ellaria and Sarella joined the other Sands in the stand.
Nymeria and Obara had taken their seats next to the youngest two Hightower girls. Lady Allyrion, on the row behind with Ser Ryon at her side, was performing the necessary introductions. All four girls appeared to be treating each other with exquisite politeness. Ellaria, whose acquaintance with the Sand Snakes encompassed less than an hour, was tolerably certain that Obara would not respond well to polite insults.
Sarella toddled up the stand’s steps and Ellaria helped her onto the highest cushion. “Can you see from here?”
“Yes.” She squeezed Ellaria’s hand. “This is fun.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
Tyene had taken the slightly less elevated seat on Sarella’s far side and was talking to Lady Blackmont, evidently an old acquaintance. Lord Harmen squeezed past several people on the upper row and sat down next to Ser Ryon Allyrion just behind them. “Ellaria –” he began.
“Good morning, father,” she said demurely. “I need to introduce you to my new friend, Sarella Sand.” Sarella swivelled on her cushion and smiled enthusiastically at him. He had looked just faintly forbidding but he softened and smiled back at the little girl.
“Good morning, Sarella. It’s nice to see you here now you’re old enough for tourneys.”
She nodded. “I’m three now.” She looked at her fingers. “I’m three, Tyene’s six, Nym’s nine, and Obara’s two-and-ten. Three plus three plus three plus three. Next after that is five-and-ten, but I haven’t got a sister who’s five-and-ten.”
Lord Harman was spared the necessity of replying when the first two jousters rode to the ends of the lists – Ser Baelor Hightower and Ser Symon Santagar. The crowd applauded. Sarella turned round and stared avidly at the knights.
The pair levelled their lances and charged down the tilt like converging thunderstorms. Lances scraped shields and both men swayed in their saddles as wood chips sprayed over the tilt. Sarella and Tyene squeaked, more in delight than alarm, and the crowd gasped.
Both knights rode to the end of the lists and took new lances. Ellaria watched them circle to face each other again. Which of them had the steadier seat and aim?
Ser Symon and Ser Baelor urged their horses into a canter, then a gallop. Ser Symon’s lance swung wide and Ser Baelor’s struck home. The Knight of Spottswood was hurled from his saddle and went tumbling to the ground.
Ser Baelor trotted round the lists to him as the crowd cheered for the local favourite. “Do you wish to continue?” he called.
“No, I yield.” Ser Symon slowly rose to his feet. He was limping more than a little. Down by the pavilions, his grooms were busy catching his horse.
Suddenly the excitement faded from Ellaria’s heart. He told me he wasn’t the best jouster here. Did he mean Ser Baelor?
If he loses –
But what if he wins? He said he’d –
Of all the other three finalists, Oberyn would have preferred not to have faced Arys Oakheart in the first tilt. He knew the others well, had jousted against them a score of times, but he doubted he’d so much as seen Ser Arys before. And the boy was good. Very good.
Nervous? Wake up, Oberyn. You have a dynasty’s honour to avenge.
Symon Santagar limped into his pavilion, the attendants brought out new racks of lances and Oberyn closed his visor. He couldn’t look at the girls. He set his shield, rode to the head of the lists and took his lance. Ser Arys faced him, fifty feet away. He hardly heard the master of revels announcing their names. The world had shrunk to the length of the field.
Lord Leyton’s handkerchief fell and Oberyn was away, his lance focused on the central green leaf on Ser Arys’s shield. Down the lists they flew and his lance crashed home. Just wrong. Oakheart almost fell, but just kept his seat – and the thundering blow three inches left of the sun on his own shield almost unseated him.
Jousting was easier when I had those drink-headaches. Another pain to focus on, and a strong disincentive to get knocked off.
He turned his horse at the end of the lists and bent to take a new lance from the steward. It seemed to level of its own accord, a long finger on the end of his arm. He’d be riding up the side of the tilt closest to the stands this time. Next to my girls – my girls and Ellaria.
Ser Arys drew up his destrier at the far end. The handkerchief fluttered again and the two riders loosed their horses, black and bay, into the lists. The green Oakheart leaves blazed like emeralds on that gold shield. Closer, closer; now!
Oberyn’s lance struck home and Ser Arys clattered to the ground. His lance went wide and glanced off Oberyn’s shield onto his upper left arm. The impact stung him but he held himself in his saddle and trotted round the head of the lists and back to the younger knight.
“Do you yield?” he enquired.
“Yes – yes, I do.” Ser Arys was sitting up on the ground and feeling his right leg.
“Can you stand?” Oberyn checked.
“I think so.” The boy knight pulled off his helm and looked around through a tangle of mid-brown hair. “My horse kicked me as I fell – where is he? Is he all right?”
Oberyn opened his visor and peered down the lists. “Yes – your grooms have him. He doesn’t look lamed.”
“Good.” Ser Arys hauled himself to his feet using the lists as leverage. “My greaves came off worst, I think.” He looked up at Oberyn with a shy smile. “Ride well in the last round, ser.”
“Thank you, ser.” Oberyn trotted back to his pavilion while Ser Arys staggered to his own. More concern for the horse than himself – the sign of a good knight, and one who is not too severely hurt. I’m glad of it: crippling enthusiastic boys isn’t one of my favourite activities.
While his grooms gave his horse a quick check, he watched Baelor Hightower re-mount outside his own pavilion. You and me now – the Reach and Dorne.
Ellaria scarcely heard the heralds’ announcement of the final tilt, or the cheers of the crowd, or the cries of touts and individual gamblers making and taking bets. Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne, the Red Viper. Why had he pulled her out of the shadows that night?
Sarella tugged on her arm. “May I sit on your lap?” she whispered. Ellaria nodded and lifted the little girl onto her knee. Tyene rose from her own seat, bobbed a curtsey to Lady Blackmont and hopped onto her sister’s vacated cushion. Ellaria switched Sarella to her left arm and embraced Tyene with her right. They hadn’t handled seeing their father nearly fall off his horse quite as well as they had the earlier bout between Ser Baelor and Ser Symon.
She hadn’t coped particularly well with seeing Oberyn come a hair from losing his seat.
Win, my prince. Win for Dorne and Elia – but don’t even think of crowning me! Words spoken in jest –
The two men saluted each other and Lord Leyton, and rode to the ends of the lists. Oberyn was on the far side, the right. Cheers and rhythmic claps roared around the tourney ground. Ellaria watched, tense and taut. Sand Snakes clutched her hands.
Visors and lances dropped. Ser Baelor looked like a wraith, all in grey and white with a dapple horse to match: Oberyn, majestic in orange on his black courser, seemed a demon come from hell to face him, fire against ice.
Lord Leyton dropped his hand and they charged down the lists towards each other. Clods flew up under their horses’ hooves. Two lances cracked simultaneously against two shields and both men almost fell. They forced themselves back into their seats to an accompaniment of oohs from the stands and the commons.
They discarded broken lances and turned to come back at each other. The crowd was clapping like a thousand drummers. Horses went into a gallop, lances levelled... and struck the lightest of blows. More gasps and sighs rolled around the throng.
More lances were brought out. “How many turns do they get?” Sarella asked.
“At least three, maybe seven. Maybe they’ll just go on until one of them wins.” Ellaria held the little girl tighter. Win quickly. Please.
Oberyn’s right arm was sore from repeated lance-breaks and his left ached from Baelor’s last glancing shot. It had to be as bad for the other man – he was six years Oberyn’s senior!
If only he hadn’t lost his line at the last moment on the previous pass – no. Oberyn shook himself. No more what-ifs. Stop thinking.
The third lance sat heavy in his hand. He levelled it at Baelor’s shield, watching the orange flame atop all that grey. Point control – and they were suddenly away.
Time slowed down in a jousting tilt. The thundering courser beneath him seemed as gentle a ride as a sand steed ambling in the desert. Closer – he braced for impact –
Hightower’s lance splintered into the Martell sun on his shield. The impact knocked his own lance out of line. In a moment of complete clarity he felt himself slip.
Sarella was a bit cold. Ellaria’s lap was warm, though. Ellaria was pretty and smelt nice, and was very good at cuddles: Sarella liked her.
Aba had knocked the knight in green and gold off his horse, but was having a lot of trouble with the knight in grey. He tried twice and couldn’t do it.
But then they had another turn. And Aba missed the grey knight’s shield. And the grey knight hit Aba’s shield. And Aba fell off.
Oberyn sailed off the back of his horse at an angle. In mute horror Ellaria saw him bounce off the lists and clatter to the ground.
Sarella wailed loudly over the erupting cheers around them. Ellaria roused herself and hugged the little girl. “Hush, sweetling,” she murmured. “It’s all right.” Sarella shook her head and tried to pull away, as if she wanted to run right onto the tilt ground: Ellaria held her tighter and jigged her up and down, trying to soothe her, realising she couldn’t.
Ser Baelor rode round the lists to Oberyn – who still hadn’t risen. Nymeria and Obara were on their feet, leaning over the stand to try to catch a glimpse of their father. Tyene’s left hand sneaked to Ellaria’s waist. Sarella stopped wriggling and threw her little arms round Ellaria’s neck: Ellaria shifted her into her left arm and Tyene crept into the circle of her right.
“There’s no need to cry, Sarella,” Nymeria said in a calm voice. “Father’s perfectly all right.”
“Fell off,” Sarella said indistinctly. Ellaria looked over Nymeria’s head at Obara, saw her very still face, and realised that Obara knew Nymeria was lying.
She bent her head to whisper in Sarella’s ear. “You told Father you’d be a grown-up lady. Didn’t you?” A little nod. “Well, now’s when you have to be that grown-up lady.” She kissed Sarella’s forehead. “Sit up and clap for Ser Baelor, who won.” Yes. Yes, he won, and Oberyn –
She looked up in time to see him stagger off the field supported by his squire. At least he’s moving – but how badly injured is he?
Sarella slowly uncurled – snakes? This one’s a constrictor – and looked up at Ellaria. She was far from happy. “Must I?”
“Yes.” Oberyn had completed his painful exit. Ellaria turned Sarella round on her lap till she could see the field. Ser Baelor was riding round the perimeter collecting smiles and plaudits. Sarella gave him a tentative wave. “Good girl,” Ellaria murmured. The child sniffled a bit but didn’t start crying again. Tyene passed her a handkerchief without being asked. “Oh, that’s pretty,” Ellaria marvelled, staring at the riot of tiny flowers along its border.
“Thank you,” Tyene answered, too quietly. “Father always says, don’t be bored, do something.”
Ser Baelor had ridden down to the far end of the spectators’ stand and given the queen of love and beauty’s crown to a gold-clad woman Ellaria did not recognise. Lynesse and Alysanne sighed happily at their splendid brother. “That’s his betrothed,” Alysanne explained to Obara and Nymeria.
“I’ll marry a champion when I’m older,” Lynesse declared. She looked as if she might have said more, but glanced at the bastards seated on her right and appeared to think better of it.
The first spectators in the stands began to drift away. Ellaria rocked Sarella against her. Wait. Wait. Don’t run to him. You can’t.
The words had felt like... nothing. Oberyn slumped on the folding stool inside his pavilion and wondered, in the middle of the dull ache in his left arm, why the shock of defeat was so muted.
Arron, struggling with the straps on his armour, touched his left hand, and Oberyn swore at the rush of pain. “I’m sorry, my prince,” the boy half-sobbed. “The buckles are stuck.”
“The other side. Other side first.”
His pavilion flap opened. “You always had the filthiest mouth in the Citadel,” a familiar voice remarked. “I hope you aren’t that crude around those charming children of yours.”
And oh, how charming. Oberyn squinted to his right at the short, muscular figure outlined against the light. “Marwyn. It’s been a while.”
“I forget the number of years.” Maester Marwyn bent over him and wrestled open the right side of his armour. “You made a mighty clatter coming off that horse. Hit your head?”
“No.” He winced as his breastplate loosened. Arron’s quick fingers finally opened its other side. “Just – felt like my back, or my shoulder. I can’t move my left arm.”
“Twitch your fingers for me.” He obeyed. He could – just – move all of them, but weakly, as if they weren’t quite part of him. The maester ran light hands over his padded upper body. “Your shoulder’s dislocated,” he observed, like he might say, ‘that sun on your shield is red’. “Let’s get this padding off and I’ll put it back in joint.”
The crowd noise outside his pavilion separated into individual voices, a distressing proportion of them high-pitched and feminine. “Wait a minute,” Oberyn hissed to Marwyn.
“The longer we leave it –”
His tent flap fluttered. “Father?” Obara said.
“Come in. Just you.” Obara slipped into the pavilion: Oberyn nodded in weary greeting. “Take your sisters and Ellaria back to the Hightower. Now.”
“Are you –”
“I’m fine. Just go.” Expressionless close-set black eyes regarded him for a few seconds, and then she dropped him a deep curtsey and retreated. Oberyn closed his eyes. In the background he heard his eldest daughter hauling Nym and Tyene off to their horses.
“Wait till they’re away,” he told the maester. Locked in his head was the sound of crying; this was not unusual, but for once it wasn’t Rhaenys and Aegon’s. Marwyn did not answer him, but laid a hand on his back for a few seconds.
Someone coughed at the tent flap. Oberyn opened his eyes. “Yes?”
His head groom peered inside. “Ser Baelor Hightower, my prince.”
“Baelor – send him in.”
The flap rippled. “Are you badly injured?” the tall fair knight asked as he entered.
“Shoulder took a knock on my way down. Nothing to signify.” Oberyn stared up at Baelor. “Congratulations. I was beaten by a better jouster.”
“A better jouster with a decent dose of luck.” His expression was grave in the dim pavilion. “You blazed like the sun out there for three days. You were exceptional.”
“I had to be.” Oberyn looked down at his hands, the right that moved like it always had, the left he could barely twitch. “I was so sure, you know. Sure that if I lost I’d hear Elia blaming me for failing her memory. But when you knocked me flat in the dirt, the only thing I could hear was Sarella shrieking.” Baelor didn’t answer. “Who did you crown queen of love and beauty?”
“Don’t think I know her.”
“Likely not that well. I’m recently betrothed to her.”
“The way Rhea Florent’s been preening herself these days, I thought it was going to be her.”
“No, she’s marrying my father.”
“You’re joking.” Oberyn stared. “She’s fifteen and he’s past fifty.”
“There’ve been more unequal matches.” Ser Baelor smiled. “Walder Frey’s latest comes to mind. But don’t tell my father I said that.”
“I won’t.” Oberyn relaxed and shook his head. “But it never ceases to amaze me what happens to trueborn girls sometimes.” He gestured in the direction of the lists. “You need ransom for my horse and armour.”
“I do, don’t I?” His lips were twitching again.
”Go on, then. What will you have from me?”
Baelor Brightsmile walked to the tent flap. “Come out of mourning. It’s spring and the flowers are blooming. Besides, all that black makes you look like you’ve taken vows – and Seven help the sect that tried to hold you to them.”
Oberyn felt himself smiling softly back at him. “A day’s grace to find a tailor?”
“Granted.” The brilliant smile shone and he ducked under the flap and out into the sun.
“His shoulder’s out,” Obara muttered to Ellaria.
She started. “Is –”
“Don’t; you’ll frighten the babies.” She glanced across the round ornamental iron table to her younger sisters, who were dutifully sharing their portion of the Hightower cook’s provender with each other; Nymeria’s blackberry pie, Tyene’s lemon cake, Sarella’s honey-cake. “He’d a maester with him. I hope he’s a good maester.”
Ellaria tried to hide her worry. “I’m sure he is.” Obara pulled a face that suggested the maester would have to answer to her if he failed to heal her father, then reapplied herself to her little bowl of caramelised vanilla custard.
As Ellaria sipped her summerwine, she looked around. They were on a small terrace at the head of the Hightower’s pleasure garden, surrounded by potted flowering shrubs that smelt of spring. The fountain in the ornamental pond burbled in the distance.
“Is that a... local sweet?” she asked, gesturing to Obara’s bowl.
“Yes.” She swallowed another spoonful. “Father took me to a tavern and bought me some the day he took me from Mother’s. I’d spent all my life watching other people eat toasted cream: suddenly I could do it too.” She waved her spoon. “And I didn’t eat myself sick, either. I was too busy listening to Father telling me about Dorne and my sisters. I thought he was the most magnificent person I’d ever seen. I still do.”
Something about the way she spoke... “Do you miss your mother?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I don’t think Nym does hers either.”
But Tyene and Sarella?
Hooves rattled pebbles round the corner near the stables. A minute later, Sarella looked past Ellaria and squeaked, and Oberyn emerged from behind a hedge and came onto the terrace. He wore a black silk tunic and fine black woollen breeches, but the medallion around his neck was a red gold sun, and his left arm dangled in a sling made from a Martell banner.
Tyene dropped her napkin next to her plate and dashed to her father. He bent to embrace her with his right arm, and had another hug for Nymeria, following. He straightened and looked at his youngest daughter. “Sarella?”
The tiny girl wriggled on her seat. “You fell off.”
“Yes, and what a loud crash I made when I hit the ground.” He lifted her in his right arm. “No more of that scowling. Hm?” She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his chest. He smiled down at her dark head with such tenderness that Ellaria looked away, suddenly aware that she was intruding.
“Sarella,” Nymeria said sweetly, “do you want the rest of your cake or should Tyene and I eat it?”
She jerked upright at once. “No, I want it.” She pursed her lips. “Unless you would like some, Aba.”
“No, thank you: you’ll appreciate it more than I will.” He set her back in her chair and took the spare one between her and Ellaria. Nymeria smiled at her father over Sarella’s head.
Tyene had hopped back onto her own chair and was polishing off her lemon cake. “Father, might I buy some plain handkerchiefs in Oldtown later?” she said between mouthfuls.
Oberyn shrugged, and winced. “Certainly. You’re not bored, are you?”
“No. But I gave mine to Sarella earlier, and I’d like to embroider one with the seven-symbols and send it to Septa Dancille.”
“What exactly happened to your septa?” Ellaria enquired.
”She got a stomach flux,” Obara said. She was scrutinising her bowl for the last tiny scrapings of toasted cream. “It was so bad the order had to see her back to the cloister to be treated.”
Ellaria blinked. “Something she ate?”
“It can’t have been,” Nymeria disagreed. “We all ate the same dishes yesterday.”
Tyene nodded. “We all drank the tea, too.”
“There were lots of starflowers in the kitchen garden, so I asked the head gardener if I could pick some to make tea.” The little girl swallowed the last of her cake. “Starflower tea’s very good for the digestion. All you do to make it is steep the flowers in hot water for five minutes.” She dabbed her lips with her napkin and laid it beside her empty plate. “But you shouldn’t ever use the leaves. They’re really bad for you.”
“Goodnight, Father,” Obara said from the solar doorway. Nym, dressed like her sister in a bedgown and a blue-green wrapper, came to hug Oberyn where he sat on the couch.
“Mind the shoulder,” he said reflexively as he returned the embrace.
“Of course.” She gave him a peck on the cheek. “Goodnight, Ellaria,” she added. Ellaria, sitting on the window seat with a goblet of hot spiced wine between her hands, smiled warmly at the two girls as they withdrew to their chambers.
Arron Qorgyle hovered in the doorway. “Your bath is drawn, my prince. Will you – need my assistance?”
“I think I can undress myself, thank you.”
The boy flushed. “I –”
“Just go away.” He spoke as gently as he could. An answering smile rewarded him as his squire bowed his way out.
“Do you normally eat your waiting men, or something?” Ellaria enquired as the door closed.
“I won’t pretend I’ve been easy company for the past year or so.” He collected his goblet from the low table beside him – seemed Arbor wine was good for something after all – and joined her by the window. “Not that I should abandon all the iciness. I’ve a feeling it’s becoming, in certain circumstances.” She grinned but did not answer.
They’d spent the whole day together, he, Ellaria and the girls: wandering around Oldtown and through the Hightower’s gardens, and then returning for a private meal for the six of them. Maybe it should have bothered him how easily Ellaria had fitted into their little unit, but somehow it did not. It simply felt as if she had always been there – that she knew all their private jokes without having to hear the explanations, and understood the interplay between the girls without having to be told.
This was the point at which she should withdraw to her own chambers; he had no desire to see her go, but now, alone with her, he felt tongue-tied in a way he never had before. He got the sudden impression that Elia was laughing at him. “We should drink a toast,” he said, and raised his goblet. “To glorious losses in final tilts of jousting tournaments, and other ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
She shivered. “My prince, please forgive me if I feel unable to drink to that.”
“What a loud crash I made when I hit the ground?” he enquired softly.
“Preceded by a dive that would have done a Naathi pearl fisher proud. When you didn’t get up afterwards, I thought you’d broken your neck.” She sipped her wine. The hand that held the goblet trembled. “I’d sooner drink to your daughters – even the six-year-old precocious enough to poison her septa.”
“My girls.” He sighed. “My wonderful girls and my inability to look after them.”
“Oberyn, you’re a marvellous father. They adore you.”
Oberyn; she never called me plain Oberyn before. “Adoration isn’t enough.” He stared down into his wine cup, at the golden liquid swirling within inlaid silver. “You were right, last night.”
She looked away. “I should not have been so blunt.”
“You should. It was the truth.” He drank some more of the wine, hoping it would settle his stomach. “Obara’s mother’s dead. She was one of my first whores – one night in Oldtown when I was scarcely a man and more of a boy. If I hadn’t found Obara, she’d have been whoring too the day after she flowered.”
He refilled his goblet. “Nym and Tyene are both – shall we say embarrassments to their mothers. Nym’s is from one of the highest families in Volantis, where, before you ask, highborn bastards often end up as concubines. Tyene’s where your theory breaks down, because Tyene’s mother is a septa.”
“I’d – er – heard the story of the Sisters of the Faithful Seven Penances. I didn’t know...”
“... that one of the sisters ended up doing more penance than she intended?” He shrugged, one-armed. “I tried a dozen pretexts to gain entrance, but they wouldn’t let anything with a cock through their gates. Even their ram they kept in a pen outside.” He felt a wry smile creep over his face. “I wound up setting fire to the sept roof and releasing the ram into the inner courtyard, and sneaking inside during all the fuss.”
“How ever did you get out again?”
Oberyn laughed. “Dressed as a silent sister.”
“They weren’t checking to see who left.” He shook his head. “Then nine months later I heard the scandal of the septa who gave birth, and insisted I took Tyene instead of leaving her to be raised to be a septa too.”
“That must have been a difficult task in itself.”
“Seduced the order’s elder sister,” he explained. “Then I convinced her a child born of such unbridled lusts didn’t belong in a cloister, and took Tyene away to the Water Gardens.” He stared at his injured arm in its sling. “She dictates a letter to her mother once a year, on her name day. This year she’ll be able to write it herself. She’s been embroidering an altar cloth to send along with it. I think she’s as happy as she can be.”
“And Sarella?” Ellaria said quietly after a minute.
He smiled. “Sarella’s mother is a thoroughly sensible Summer Islander named Kaija Qho, who looks after her for about half the time and is chiefly responsible for her delightfulness. Sarella has been heard to express that as she shares a father with her sisters, she should share her mother with them too, because hers is very nice and they must be lonely without.”
Ellaria laughed. “That’s the child who offered you her cake earlier.”
“I could have told her in advance, I’m not fond of the flavour.” He regarded her, giggling Dornish loveliness beside him with lips as red as the silk that confined her bosom. Resistance seemed too much to bear and he leant over and kissed her.
Her momentary surprise gave way and she kissed back. This was a flavour he appreciated: she tasted of spiced wine and Dorne, heady and hot and hard and perfect.
His right arm snaked around her; his left tried and failed to copy it. He pulled back, hissing at the pain and trying not to swear. “Are you all right?” Ellaria gasped.
“Just twitched it. I’m fine.” He stared at her. Her cheeks were flushed and she was breathing hard. “I wish I could tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that,” he murmured. “I can’t, for I don’t know. Maybe when I first saw you at the feast, or maybe when I handed Sarella to you at the tourney. I don’t know.”
She smiled. “I know exactly how long I’ve wanted to kiss you.”
She moved his wine goblet from the window seat and set it aside with her own. “Since I walked in here this morning and saw you with the girls.”
She scooted closer to him and drew her knee onto his lap, almost straddling him on the window seat. He traced around her lips with his index finger. He felt himself on the edge of something very special. “There’s a Lysene goddess called Isha,” he murmured, “whose devotees preach that love is sacred – and that one should always take it when it’s there, because it’s there, however unexpected its arrival.”
“That sounds like a thoroughly praiseworthy goddess.”
He realised he was kissing her again, or maybe she was kissing him, and her delicate hands traced his skin beneath his tunic. He lifted the ruby necklace and ran his fingers along her breasts. “It strikes me,” he observed between caresses, “that there’s a lovely tub of hot water a few rooms away. Would you, by any chance, like a bath?”
“Need someone to help you undress?”
Somewhere, somehow, his fear of fathering another child had evaporated. “My lady –”
“You forget.” She smiled down at him like the desert sun. “I’m not a lady.”
“My queen of love and beauty, then,” he breathed. Her hands were on him, gentle, exploratory. “Mind the shoulder...”
Ellaria woke to warmth and dawn-light. She lay still for a few moments, just being. Oberyn’s breath was gentle on the back of her neck where he nestled into her and his injured left arm was draped across her waist; she threaded her hand into his.
Dorne would count her as unusually fortunate if she were found in his bed, but she suspected that the Reach would see it as a terrible scandal. She had to leave and return to her rooms unobserved – comfortable and warm and happy though she felt with him lying beside her, in this golden morning after a thoroughly exhilarating night.
But the body-warmth seemed to be coming from both sides...
She looked down. Tyene lay beside her, snuggled into her chest, with Nym recumbent on her other side. She turned her head. Sarella was a little warm blanket sprawled across her and Oberyn both, and she just made out Obara curled against her father’s back.
“Good morning.” She looked over her shoulder and returned Oberyn’s smile. “Sleep well?” he murmured.
She nodded. “Is this normal?” She too spoke in an undertone as she gestured to the girls.
“Never happens when I have company, but it’s pretty common the rest of the time. It’s usually Sarella or Tyene; for Nym it’s rare, and for Obara it’s unheard of, but she’s been a bit clingy the past day or so.”
“‘M not clingy,” Obara mumbled from her father’s armpit.
“Why are we whispering?” Sarella asked.
“So we don’t wake your sisters. Hush.”
“I’m not asleep,” Nym hissed. “Tyene’s kicking me.”
“You woke me up,” Tyene protested. “You rolled onto my foot.”
“If everyone’s awake,” persisted Sarella, “why are we whispering?”
“No reason,” Oberyn answered. He tipped her onto Ellaria’s stomach and squirmed onto his back, slow and awkward with his bruises.
“Your shoulder’s purple,” Sarella observed. “It should be red. You’re the Red Viper.”
“You should tell it to change colour.”
She nodded. “I will. Why is Ellaria in the bed?”
He slid the injured arm around Obara. “Our bathtub’s a lot nicer than the one in her apartment,” he said over his eldest daughter’s stifled snort, “so she stayed to have a bath last night, and it got a bit late, so she decided to sleep here.”
“Oh.” She turned to Ellaria. “Aba should have lent you a bedgown. You’ll be cold.”
She stroked the little girl’s hair. “He kept me warm. So did all of you.”
Sarella knelt up on Ellaria’s stomach. “You’re really nice. May we keep you?”
Tyene giggled. “Sarella,” Nym chided.
Oberyn wrapped his good right arm around Ellaria. “Ingenuous as that request was – may we? Will you come back with us to the Water Gardens?”
She felt herself smiling softly at him. The simple words in morning sunlight seemed to reach even deeper than anything he’d said in the heat of the previous night. “I’d love to.” I love you, she hoped he knew she wanted to say.
His smile broadened and he pulled her tight against him. “I’m glad,” he breathed into her hair. She smiled into his shoulder, and felt it deepen as his daughters settled around them, with love enough for everyone.
“It’s the musicians’ tourney today,” Oberyn murmured. “Shall we all go together?”
“Yes,” Sarella decided. She stood up on his legs. “But don’t wear black.”
The Viper grinned. “I need to check whether your uncle Doran sneaked some coloured clothes into my baggage. It’s just the sort of thing he’d do.”