Jon found more guards outside the king's solar. "No arms are allowed in His Grace's presence, my lord," their serjeant said. "I'll need that sword. Your knives as well." It would do no good to protest, Jon knew. He handed them his weaponry.
Within the solar the air was warm. Lady Melisandre was seated near the fire, her ruby glimmering against the pale skin of her throat. Ygritte had been kissed by fire; the red priestess was fire, and her hair was blood and flame. Stannis stood behind the rough-hewn table where the Old Bear had once been wont to sit and take his meals. Covering the table was a large map of the north, painted on a ragged piece of hide. A tallow candle weighed down one end of it, a steel gauntlet the other.
The king wore lambswool breeches and a quilted doublet, yet somehow he looked as stiff and uncomfortable as if he had been clad in plate and mail. His skin was pale leather, his beard cropped so short that it might have been painted on. A fringe about his temples was all that remained of his black hair. In his hand was a parchment with a broken seal of dark green wax.
Jon took a knee. The king frowned at him, and rattled the parchment angrily. "Rise. Tell me, who is Lyanna Mormont?"
"One of Lady Maege's daughters. Sire. The youngest. She was named for my lord father's sister."
"To curry your lord father's favor, I don't doubt. How old is this wretched girl child?"
Jon had to think a moment. "Ten. Or near enough to make no matter. Might I know how she has offended Your Grace?"
Stannis read from the letter. "Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK. A girl of ten, you say, and she presumes to scold her lawful king." His close-cropped beard lay like a shadow over his hollow cheeks. "See that you keep these tiding to yourself, Lord Snow. Karhold is with me, that is all the men need know. I will not have your brothers trading tales of how this child spit on me."
"As you command, Sire." Maege Mormont had ridden south with Robb, Jon knew. Her eldest daughter had joined the Young Wolf's host as well. Even if both of them had died, however, Lady Maege had other daughters, younger than Dacey but older than Lyanna. He did not understand why the youngest Mormont should be writing Stannis, and part of him could not help but wonder if the girl's answer might have been different if the letter had been sealed with a direwolf instead of a crowned stag, and signed by Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell. It is too late for such misgivings, he reminded himself. You made your choice.
"Two score ravens were sent out," the king complained bitterly, "yet we get no response but silence and defiance. Homage is the duty every leal subject owes his king. Yet your lord father's bannermen turn their back on me, save the Karstarks. Is Arnolf Karstark the only man of honor in the north?"
Arnolf Karstark was the late Lord Rickard's uncle. He had been made the castellan of Karhold when his nephew and his sons went south with Robb, and he had been the first to send a raven in reply to Stannis's demand for homage, declaring his allegiance. The Karstarks have no other choice, Jon might have pointed out. Lord Rickard Karstark had betrayed the direwolf and spilled the blood of lions. The stag was Karhold's only hope, as Stannis knew as well as Jon.
"In times as confused as these even men of honor must wonder where their duty lies," he told the king. "Your Grace is not the only king in the realm demanding homage."
"Tell me, Lord Snow," said Lady Melisandre, "where were these other kings when the wild people stormed your Wall?"
"A thousand leagues away, and deaf to our need. I have not forgotten that. Nor will I. But my father's bannermen have wives and children to protect, and smallfolk who will die should they chose wrongly. You ask much of them, Sire. Give them time, and you will have your answers."
"Answers such as this?" Stannis crushed Lyanna's letter in his fist.
"Even in the north men fear the wroth of Tywin Lannister," said Jon. "The Boltons make bad enemies as well. It is not happenstance that put a flayed man on their banners. The north rode with Robb, bled with him, died for him. They have supped on grief and death, and now you come to offer them another serving. Do you blame them if they hang back? Forgive me, Your Grace, but some will look at you and see only another doomed pretender."
"If His Grace is doomed, your realm is doomed as well," said Lady Melisandre.
"Remember that, Lord Snow. It is the one true king of Westeros who stands before you."
Jon kept his face a mask. "As you say, my lady."
Stannis snorted. "You spend your words as if every one were a golden dragon. I wonder, how much gold do you have laid by?"
"Gold?" Are those the dragons the red woman means to wake? Dragons made of gold? "Such taxes as we collect are paid in kind, Your Grace. The Watch is rich in turnips, but poor in coin."
"Turnips are not like to appease Salladhor Saan. I require gold or silver."
"蕪菁不能安撫Salladhor Saan ，我需要金子或銀子。"
"For that, you need White Harbor. The city cannot compare to Oldtown or King's Landing, but it is still a thriving port. Lord Manderly is the richest of my lord father's bannermen."
"Lord Too-Fat-To-Sit-a-Horse." The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more. Stannis had commanded Jon not to speak of that one either.
"Perhaps his lordship would fancy a wildling wife," suggested Lady Melisandre. "Is this fat man married, Lord Snow?"
"His lady wife is long dead. Lord Wyman has two grown sons, and grandchildren by the elder. And he is too fat to sit a horse, thirty stone at least. Val would never have him."
"Just once you might try to give me an answer that would please me, Lord Snow," the king grumbled.
"I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king's dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want she is like to slit his throat for him on their wedding night, but even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder."
"I know that," Stannis said, unhappily. "I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is strength in him, I'll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. If I suffer one deserter to live, it will encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder's life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms."
"The law ends at the Wall, Your Grace. You could make good use of Mance."
"I will. I'll burn him, and show the north how I deal with turncoats and traitors. I have other men to lead the wildlings. And I have Rayder's son, do not forget. Once the father dies, his whelp will be the King-Beyond-the-Wall."
"Your Grace is mistaken." You know nothing, Jon Snow, Ygritte used to say, but he had learned. "The babe is no more a prince than Val is a princess. You don't become King-Beyond-the-Wall because your father was."
"Good," said Stannis, "for I will suffer no other kings in Westeros. Enough of Rayder. Have you signed the grant?"
And now it comes. Jon closed his burned fingers and opened them again. "No, Your Grace. You ask too much."
"Ask? I asked you to be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. I require these castles."
"We have ceded you the Nightfort," said Jon Snow.
"Rats and ruins. It is a niggard's gift that costs the giver nothing. Your own man Yarwyck says it will be half a year before the castle can be made fit for habitation."
"The other forts are no better."
"I know that. It makes no matter. They are all we have. There are nineteen forts along the Wall, and you have men in only three of them. I mean to have every one of them garrisoned again before the year is out."
"I have no quarrel with that, Sire, but it is being said that you also mean to grant these castles to your knights and lords, to hold as their own seats as vassals to Your Grace."
"Kings are expected to be open-handed to their followers. Did Lord Eddard teach his bastard nothing? Many of my knights and lords abandoned rich lands and stout castles in the south. Should their loyalty go unrewarded?"
"If Your Grace wishes to lose all of my lord father's bannermen, there is no more certain way than by giving northern halls to southron lords."
"How can I lose men I do not have? I had hoped to bestow Winterfell on a northman, you may recall. A son of Eddard Stark. He threw my offer in my face." Stannis Baratheon with a grievance was like a mastiff with a bone; he gnawed it down to splinters.
"By right Winterfell should go to my sister Sansa."
"Lady Lannister, you mean? Are you so eager to see the Imp perched on your father's seat?"
"No," said Jon.
"Good. It will not happen whilst I live, Lord Snow."
Jon knew better than to press the point. "Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn."
The king's eyes turned to hard blue stones. He ground his teeth and said, "Who told you that?"
"Does that matter?" The talk was all over Castle Black. "If you must know, I had the tale from Gilly."
"Who is Gilly?" the king demanded.
"The wet nurse," said Lady Melisandre. "Your Grace gave her freedom of the castle."
"Not for running tales. She's wanted for her teats, not for her tongue. I'll have more milk from her, and fewer messages."
"Castle Black needs no useless mouths," Jon agreed. "I am sending Gilly south on the next ship out of Eastwatch."
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck. "Gilly is giving suck to Dalla's son as well as her own. It seems cruel of you to part our little prince from his milk brother, my lord."
Careful now, careful. "Mother's milk is all they share. Gilly's son is larger and more robust. He kicks the prince and pinches him, and shoves him from the breast. Craster was his father, a cruel man and greedy, and blood tells."
Stannis furrowed his brow. "I was told that the wet nurse was this man Craster's wife."
"Wife and daughter both. Craster married all his daughters. Gilly's boy was the fruit of their union."
"Her own father got this child on her? We are well rid of her, then. I will not suffer such abominations here. This is not King's Landing."
"I can find another wet nurse. If there's none amongst the wildlings, I will send to the mountain clans. Until such time, goat's milk should suffice for the boy, if it please Your Grace."
"Poor fare for a prince... but better than whore's milk, aye." Stannis drummed his fingers on the map. "If we may return to the matter of these forts... "
"Your Grace," said Jon, with chilly courtesy, "I have housed your men and fed them, at dire cost to our winter stores. I have clothed them so they would not freeze."
Stannis was not appeased. "Aye, you've shared your salt pork and porridge, and you've thrown us some black rags to keep us warm. Rags the wildlings would have taken off your corpses if I had not come north."
Jon ignored that. "I have given you fodder for your horses, and once the stair is done I will lend you builders to restore the Nightfort. I have even agreed to allow you to settle wildlings on the Gift, which was given to the Night's Watch in perpetuity."
"You offer me empty lands and desolations, yet deny me the castles I require to reward my lords and bannermen."
"The Night's Watch built those castles... "
"And the Night's Watch abandoned them."
"... to defend the Wall," Jon finished stubbornly, "not as seats for wildlings and southron lords. The stones of those forts are mortared with the blood and bones of my brothers, long dead. I cannot give them to you."
"Cannot or will not?" The cords in the king's neck stood out sharp as swords. "And to think, I offered you a name."
"I have a name, Your Grace."
"Snow. Was ever a name more ill-omened?" Stannis touched his sword hilt. "Just who do you imagine that you are?"
"The watcher on the walls. The sword in the darkness."
"Don't prate your words at me." Stannis drew the longsword he called Lightbringer. "Here is your sword in the darkness." Light rippled up and down the blade, now red, now yellow, nor orange, painting the king's face in harsh, bright hues. "Even a green boy should be able to see that. Are you blind?"
"No, Sire. I agree these castles must be garrisoned - "
"The boy commander agrees. How fortunate."
" - by the Night's Watch," Jon finished.
"You do not have the men."
"Then give them to me, Sire. I will provide officers for each of the abandoned forts, seasoned men who know the Wall and the lands beyond, who know how best to survive the winter that is coming. In return for all we've given you, grant me the men to fill out the garrisons. Men-at-arms, crossbowmen, raw boys. I will even take your wounded and infirm."
Stannis stared at him incredulously, then gave a bark of laughter. "You are bold enough, Snow, I grant you that, but you're mad if you think my men will take the black."
"They can wear any color cloak they choose, so long as they obey my officers as they would your own."
The king was unmoved. "I have knights and lords in my service, the scions of noble Houses old in honor. They cannot be expected to serve under poachers, peasants, and murderers."
Or bastards, sire? "Your own Hand is a smuggler."
"Was a smuggler. I shortened his fingers for that. They tell me that you are the nine-hundred-ninety-eighth man to command the Night's Watch, Lord Snow. I wonder what the nine-hundred-ninety-ninth might say about these castles. The sight of your head on a spike might inspire him to be more helpful." The king lay his bright blade down on the map, along the Wall, its steel shimmering like sunlight on water.
"You are only lord commander by my sufferance. You would do well to remember that."
"I am lord commander because my brothers chose me."
"Did they?" The map lay between them like a battleground, drenched by the colors of the glowing sword. "Alliser Thorne complains about the manner of your choosing, and I cannot say he does not have a grievance. The count was done by a blind man with your fat friend by his elbow. And Slynt names you a turncoat."
And who would know one better than Slynt? "A turncloak would tell you what you wished to hear and betray you later. Your Grace knows that I was fairly chosen. My father always said you were a just man." Just but harsh had been Lord Eddard's exact words, but Jon did not think it would be wise to share that.
"Lord Eddard was no friend of mine, but he was not without some sense," said Stannis. "He would have given me these castles."
Never. "I cannot speak to what my father might have done. I took an oath, Your Grace. The Wall is mine."
"For now. We will see how well you hold it." Stannis pointed at him. "Keep your ruins, as they mean so much to you. I promise you, though, if any remain empty when the year is out, I will take them with your leave or without it. And if even one should fall to the foe, your head will soon follow. Now get out."
Lady Melisandre rose from her place near the hearth. "With your leave, Sire, I will show Lord Snow back to his chambers."
"Why? He knows the way." Stannis waved them both away. "Do what you will. Devan, food. Boiled eggs and lemon water."
After the warmth of the king's solar, the turnpike stair felt bone-chillingly cold. "Wind's rising, m'lady," the serjeant warned Melisandre as he handed Jon back his weapons. "You might want a warmer cloak."
"I have my faith to warm me." The red woman walked beside Jon down the steps. "His Grace is growing fond of you."
"I can tell. He only threatened to behead me twice."
Melisandre laughed. "It is his silences you should fear, not his words." As they stepped out into the yard, the wind filled Jon's cloak and sent it flapping against her. The red priestess brushed the black wool aside and slipped her arm through his. "It is may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall gaze into the flames and pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance. My fires show me much and more, Jon Snow. I can see through stone and earth, and find the truth in the darkness of men's souls. I can speak to kings long dead and children not yet born, and watch the years and seasons flicker past, until the end of days."
"Are your fires never wrong?"
"Never... though we priests are mortal and sometimes err, mistaking this must come from this may come."
Jon could feel her heat, even through his wool and boiled leather. The sight of them arm in arm was drawing curious looks. They will be whispering in the barracks tonight. "If you can truly see the morrow in your flames, tell me when and where the next wildling attack will come," he said, pulling free of her.
"R'hllor sends us what visions he will, but I shall seek for this man Tormund in the flames." Melisandre's red lips curled into a smile. "I have seen you in my fires, Jon Snow."
"Is that a threat, my lady? Do you mean to burn me too?"
"You mistake my meaning." She laughed. "I fear that I make you uneasy, Lord Snow."
Jon did not deny it. "The Wall is no place for a woman."
"You are wrong. I have dreamed of your Wall, Jon Snow. Great was the lore that raised it, and great the spells locked beneath its ice. We walk beneath one of the hinges of the world." Melisandre gazed up at it tenderly, her breath a warm moist cloud in the air. "This is my place as it is yours, and soon enough you may have grave need of me. Do not refuse my friendship, Jon. I have seen you in the storm, hard pressed, with enemies on every side. You have so many enemies. Shall I tell you their names?"
"I know their names."
"Do not be so certain." The ruby at Melisandre's throat gleamed redly. "It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back. You would do well to keep your wolf close beside you. Ice, I see, and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. It was very cold."
"It is always cold on the Wall."
"You think so?"
"I know so, my lady."
"Then you know nothing, Jon Snow," she whispered.
Excerpt from A DANCE WITH DRAGONS
by George R. R. Martin.