The room was shabby and filthy. Acrid pitch had stained the hearth and black smoke layered the walls and ceiling. Iris could tell she was near the tanneries. It was obvious by the tang in the air. The sell-sword that sat across from her, his feet up on the rickety table, ignored her completely and continued to clean his nails with his knife. Another sell-sword stood behind her, his arms crossed, while a third stood by the door. The fourth, though dressed in better armor than the others, was obviously not the leader. He paced back and forth, staring at her on every other pass.
Iris had given up struggling with the bonds that tied her to the chair. She had given up the protests, threats and beseeching as well. Except for the leering man, they had all ignored her. After everything she had gone through, after thinking that everything was over, it was all happening again.
“I don’t see why we can’t just have a taste.” said the pacing man, not for the first time.
“I telled ya. We has orders. If yas want a taste ya can have it latter once shees safe where shees needs a be.” replied the man with the knife, not looking up. “There be coin enough. Maysbe they even gives a freebe as a bonus.” A rapping came at the door, three short knocks, followed by two, then three. “See. That’ll be em now.”
The large man by the door answered the coded knock, careful to open it only a crack to peer out. He made a muffled sound and then stumbled back a few steps. It took the man behind Iris a moment to notice the stiletto protruding from his friends left eye and draw his sword.
His friend at the table was faster. He leaped to his feet and threw his knife at the man entering the doorway. Unfortunately his aim was off and the knife buried itself in the doorjamb; probably due to the arrows that had flown past the figure and were now buried in his chest. Coughing twice, he slumped back into his chair and onto the table, in front of Iris; his open mouth leaking blood that pooled on its surface.
The man in the doorway, with almost casual disdain, pulled the sell-swords knife from the doorjamb and threw it at the swordsman behind Iris. His newly drawn sword clattered to the floor as the knife pinned him to the wall through the throat.
The man in the doorway was tall, with fine features. It took only moments for Iris to realize who he was. Gareth features were sharper than Aaron’s, and his eyes were piercing, much like his name and the falcons for which his stronghold was renowned. Those eyes were looking at the final sell-sword, only now freeing his sword from it sheath. As Gareth stepped towards him, apparently unarmed, the trembling man dropped his weapon and fell to knees.
“I surrender.” He shouted.
Gareth arched an eyebrow as two men in black entered the doorway behind him. “I’m sorry.” he said politely. “You must be under the mistaken impression that I am taking prisoners.” The man fell over dead. Two falcon fletched arrows embedded in his body.
“Marcus, would you kindly release the lady. Alexander, bring in our guest if you wouldn’t mind.” One of the men drew a knife and moved to cut Iris’ bonds while the other signaled to others outside. “I am terribly sorry to interrupt your abduction milady, but I felt we should talk. I’m sure you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all, Lord Pierce.” replied Iris, wary and still shocked, but summoning her ingrained training and courtesy.
He casually tipped the body from the chair and took a seat, removing his black doeskin gloves and placing them on the table, careful to not get any blood on the soft leather. “So, I understand that you’ve blackmailed my son into marrying you.”
“My Lord, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.” replied Iris a little testily.
“Oh?” smiled Gareth. “What would you call prevailing on his good nature, his honor and his duty to his House in exchange for supposed evidence of my families’ innocence?”
Iris was about to answer when two more men dragged a third into the room. The last she recognized. He was a minor lordling from some House she couldn’t remember, and one of her regular clients. Whatever words she might have said were lost. “I believe you know each other milady?”
“We are acquainted.” Iris replied evenly.
“A poor acquaintance at best, milady.” said Gareth as he stood and walked up to the man. “Would you care to tell the young lady why she is here, or should I?” The man stammered incoherently. He was obviously terrified. Iris could smell the urine from where she sat, even over the tannery.
“No?” continued Gareth, “Very well.” He turned to Iris. “It would seem, milady, that you have made quite the impression on Kings Landing. Neither the brothel owners, nor your noble customers wished to lose you. They abducted you with the intent of installing you in a more private venue. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to be seen in public any longer, and your customers would be restricted to some very well paying regulars, but the fact you come from a noble House has only served to increase your desirability, and potential profitability. This noble young man, along with a group of his friends, collectively put up the staggering sum of thirty gold dragons in order to ensure their continued access to your charms. One might almost consider it a complement, if it wasn’t so disgusting.”
While Gareth was speaking, Iris had risen and walked up to the quaking man. Looking into Iris’ malevolent glare, the man tried to justify his actions. “You don’t understand Lady Dannett. I love-“
Iris slapped the man so hard his teeth rattled, then returned calmly to her chair. “What will you do with him?”
“Oh, I’m going to kill him of course.” The fact the room was littered with corpses emphasising the point.
Immediately the young man began to cry, slobber and beg. Gareth watched with mild boredom as he tried to buy his life with the names of the others, promises of vast sums of money, or offer vague threats of Gareth’s doom.
“Calm yourself.” Gareth finally interrupted. “I’m not going to kill you today.”
“You’re not?” replied the man, sniveling and confused.
“No, of course not. I’m going to kill you the day after tomorrow. Well, maybe by the end of the week. Unless I get busy, then it will be the end of the month sometime. Certainly by next harvest. Within the next year at the outside. Maybe two.” Gareth stepped towards the man, nose to nose, staring directly into those terrified eyes. “But I am going to kill you. Maybe it will be a bar fight, or an arrow in the back when you are out hunting. Perhaps it will be poison in your food. It might even be a whore dragging a dagger across your throat just when you are at your most vulnerable.
I am going to kill you; you and your friends. You won’t know when, and you won’t know where, and you won’t know how, but it will happen, and I want you to know, every sunrise you see from this point on, every breath you take, every beat of your heart will be by my will. I want the joy of every morning you wake up to be crushed by the thought that today may be the day; and I want you knowing whenever you lay down your head to sleep that you may never wake again.”
By this point, the two silent guards were holding up the man or he would have been a puddle on the floor otherwise. “Take this trash out and dump it on his doorstep. Make sure no harm comes to him. Wouldn’t want him dying prematurely.”
“Like everything else he does.” muttered Iris to herself.
Gareth smiled softly and waved the guards off, closing the door behind them.
“Will you really kill him?” asked Iris.
“Probably not.” replied Gareth absently. “I’ll probably kill one or two of the others, unless someone or something else gets to them first. Paranoia can be wonderfully contagious when given the opportunity to grow. However, I expect he will kill himself over the next couple of months and save me the trouble.”
“You’re not like your son, are you?”
“Am I not? I was under the impression you were there when Aaron chopped off Orten’s head.”
“That was different.” said Iris fiercely.
“Was it? Aaron wore padding under his clothes. He went there with the intention of killing Orten. He did everything in his power to ensure he would be the one to kill Orten, and most importantly, he enjoyed killing Orten.”
“Aaron is a good, kind and honorable man.”
“I do not dispute that milady,” replied Gareth, “but it changes nothing. Call it vengeance or call it removing blight from society, whatever the reason, never doubt that one of them was not going to survive the night.”
The pair of them sat in silence across from each other for a long moment. “I assume you disapprove of my marrying Aaron.”
Gareth smiled and ignored her question. “I would applaud the skill in which you engineered it, if it were anyone other than my son. Still, there are a number of things you are unaware of or have not considered.”
“And I presume you will enlighten me?” replied Iris, a little more icy than she intended. It was a mistake.
Gareth’s eyes narrowed. “I presume you wish to be enlightened milady, or am I wasting my time.”
“No my Lord.” quickly realizing her mistake. “I’m sorry. The events of the evening and the last week have disturbed me greatly.” She glanced about the room at the corpses.
“I understand, and I’m afraid that I must add to your worries.” smiled Gareth. “For starters, there is your House. You have been away for some time. I’m afraid the Dannett financial situation has gotten desperate. It was much worse than you were lead to believe when you left, and now it is on the verge of complete collapse. Your brother has been shielded from this knowledge, but I fear it cannot be hidden much longer.
To complicate things, Master Piper advanced your Father a considerable sum to meet your House’s debts. Since you have chosen not to marry the merchant, you will understand that he will want his money back. Money your Father does not have. He even, out of desperation, took on more debt to purchase your brother’s armor in a foolish attempt to gain coin and glory at the tournament. While Lord Arryn will be forcing House Lugas to pay compensation to House Dannett…and House Pierce, it is unlikely it will be enough to stave off the wolves for very long.”
“Oh Father!” sighed Iris
“And, unfortunately, it gets worse, milady. Your Father’s health has not been good, and the family debts, the pressure of Ruben Piper and your loss have all served to erode his health to critical levels. I am sorry he was called to King’s Landing. The trip could be more than he can handle.”
Iris began to cry, but Gareth was unmoved. The tears appeared genuine, but it wouldn’t be the first time a woman had used them to gain sympathy. In any case, she would need to be stronger if she was to save her House. Producing a handkerchief, he handed it to Iris. “I do not tell you this to upset you milady, as upsetting as it is. I tell you this because you have a number of decisions to make and you need to know the truth.”
Iris tried to wipe her tears. “You could help couldn’t you? You could save our House.”
“With all due respect milady, why would I do that?”
“I helped preserve your family name!” she blurted.
Gareth crossed his arms on the table and leaned forward, staring Iris straight in the eye. “And you wish to take credit for that, milady? Would you like my accounting? First, my family name was largely damaged because your brother chose to slander the name of Pierce across half of Westeros without either proof or common sense. It was only my son’s intervention that kept him from doing further damage.
Next, my son had the good sense to take the poison dagger to the Maesters and convince your brother of the danger he may be in. Then, after Orten lead my son to the Fox Knight with the obvious intention of having the man killed, he managed to return the deluded Knight to the Hand, alive and unharmed. Add to that the fact that, without my Maester and the knowledge of what poison was used, your brother would be a corpse.
Of course, then there was you. If my information is correct, it was only Aaron’s gut instinct that identified you at all, and even then he had to practically drag you from the brothel to protect you, at the cost of four gold dragons. Last, but certainly not least, Aaron put his life on the line in order to champion you, your brother and your House, and succeeded in removing Orten’s head, forked tongue and all.”
Gareth’s voice became more venomous with each passing sentence, and he was not finished. “Shall I tell you what would have happened without my son? Your brother would be dead. You, milady Dannett, with Orten whispering lies in your ear, would have stood before the King and accused my family of poisoning your brother. Then, after Orten married you, your Father would have followed his son, because of a broken heart if not with Orten’s help.”
Gareth sat back in his chair, still glaring. “Because of my son, your brother is alive, you will not spend the rest of our life in a brothel, you probably won’t have to marry a man you hate, and you didn’t end up married to your brother’s poisoner. It would seem to me, mi-la-dy, that my son and my family have done very well by you and your House so far.”
Silence filled the room. Iris wiped the last of her tears, her head bowed. Finally, she looked up, but still would not meet Gareth’s eyes. “Your right, of course. I’m sorry. Aaron has been very kind and I haven’t treated him as he deserves.”
Gareth sighed. “You must understand, milady, even if none of this had happened and you had never left your lands, you wouldn’t be suitable match for my son, unless he loved you, which he doesn’t.”
“He could come to love me.” said Iris grasping for hope.
“I know my son, milady. He will marry you if he must, because he gave his word and his honor demands it, but if you hold him to it, he will never love you. He will begin to resent you and eventually, he may come to hate you.”
Iris nodded. She had seen it, but she had wanted to be rescued so badly, for a white Knight to whisk her away so badly, she had refused to look. The one thing that would compel Aaron to marry her was the one thing that would eventually make him hate her. ‘I will not lie for you’ was what he had said. But he would lie for her. The marriage would be a lie, and the lie would kill what she admired most in him.
“I can’t marry him, can I?” she said, finally meeting Gareth’s gaze.
“Not this way.” Gareth sighed. “Not if you want Aaron to stay Aaron. He would end up being me, or something far, far worse.”
They both sat in silence for a long moment. Finally, Gareth continued. “I am not without sympathy, Lady Dannett. I may be able to save your House.”
“Well, for starters, I can probably deal with Ruben Piper. He wants a noble wife. I’ll find him one; if he forgives the money he’s given to your Father.” Gareth looked up toward the ceiling, thinking. “The Freys usually have a couple dozen daughters they want rid of at any particular time, and a connection to House Frey trumps a connection to House Dannett.
Your Father’s money problems generally stem from a lack of manpower and any discernible ability in household finance. I suppose it didn’t help that the Fox Knight killed fifteen of his smallfolk. Luckily I have a large number of miners on downtime right now while we deal with an underground stream. I’ll send them over to help with the planting and then send them back when the harvest is ready.
“Miners? Why send miners?”
“Because right now they are just sitting around, and there is no appreciable difference between digging above ground and digging below it. You and your brother will have to step up and start managing the finances. Your Father is just not capable of it anymore. The debts your father owes can be put on a schedule and I am sure House Lugas can cough up some ready cash to keep them from your door for a while. You will also need a good Steward to help you both. I would lend you mine but he is no longer with me.”
“I am surprised anyone would leave your service.”
“He was too. He tried to poison Aaron so I had Gerbold chop of his head. In any case, since I am here in this cesspool of a city anyway, I will hire one for both our Houses and you can either take him on or find your own once your finances are more stable.”
Iris looked wide-eyed at the man systematically solving all the Dannetts problems as if he were deciding what he would have for dinner that night. Her eyes narrowed. “And what would you expect in return for this help?”
“Well,” Gareth smiled, “let’s begin with you releasing Aaron from his obligation to you.”
Iris nodded. “Of course.” she replied with a sigh.
“You need not fear, my dear. Once the Dannett finances are stable, there will be any number of handsome bastards, knights, and minor nobles tripping over themselves to get to you. To many, your background, should they ever learn it, will be a plus. Just make sure I check them out first. We wouldn’t want history to repeat itself.”
Iris smiled softy. “Anything else?”
“Your Father retiring would be extremely helpful, or, at the very least, not constantly making frivolous and annoying claims against my House in a desperate bid for money. You might also send Adham to Falconcliff for a little while. Maester Jonys will want to monitor his continuing recovery; and if he still is capable of becoming a Knight, I have any number of people that can train him well.
Finally, House Dannett will turn Stanage Crag over to House Pierce.”
“Why would you want Stanage Crag?” asked Iris warily. “It’s just a pile of rock.”
“Do not make the same mistake others make of you, milady. You cannot always judge a thing by what lays upon the surface. Stanage Crag borders my lands, has an excellent vantage and is strategically desirable. It also has a fairly large deposit of iron.”
“Why tell me this? Wouldn’t it be more in your interests to keep this information to yourself?”
“Ordinarily, yes.” smiled Gareth “but Aaron values your brother’s friendship and may soon value yours, so I must value it. If I try to swindle you, you will eventually discover it, and more than likely it will be Aaron that will pay the price.
It may be years or decades before House Dannett recovers sufficiently to take advantage of what lays there. If it is turned over to me, I will mine the Crag and should your House require steel or weapons I will sell them to you at a substantial discount.
So, milady, do we have an agreement?”
Iris sat pondering Lord Pierce’s offer. There was probably more to this deal than he was letting on, but even if that were true, the Dannetts were getting off cheap. Rescinding her agreement with Aaron, the retirement of her Father, and a pile of rock that until this moment they never knew was valuable: a very small price to pay to prevent the destruction of her House.
“It would seem I don’t have a choice. However, my Father may not agree to this.”
“You are mistaken, milady. You have a choice. It is your Father that has used all of his.”
Iris rose and Gareth with her. “Very well, if it can be managed, I agree. However Adham is the heir. It is he who should be the one to make this agreement.”
Gareth extended his arm to the young lady and opened the door. “Marcus, have a quiet word with Lord Arryn for me. Let him know we’ve had to handle some disreputable people and I will be ready to deal with that matter we spoke of in about an hour. Alexander, arrange for some of the Gold Cloaks to take care of this mess.”
The pair continued up the street at a casual walk. “Milady, I would ask that you consider something. I am sure that Alfric has raised you to think that a good marriage is all you can expect, but that need not be the case. There are many strong women who run estates much larger than yours. Most of the ones that do so in their own right are in Dorne, but there are a few here as well. I might also remind you that Lords tend to run around trying to beat each other up with sharp pieces of steel, either in war or in tournaments. Who do you think runs their estates in their absence?”
“What about Adham?”
“What about him? From what I can see, the boy desires nothing more than to be a great knight. After his poisoning he may never be the best, but with training and help regaining his strength, he could do quite well. Besides, if he is doing what he loves, he doesn’t need to be the best. He might even find a place on the Kingsguard eventually. A great honor for him, if I read the boy right.”
Iris was silent for a long moment as she pondered Gareth’s words. “Do you really think I could run House Dannett?”
“I don’t see why not. After all, you’ve been in a brothel for the last year.”
Iris’ jaw practically hit the cobblestones. “My Lord?”
“Milady, contrary to popular belief, there is very little difference between the running of a brothel and the running of a House. You flatter the right people. You manage your finances judiciously. You take care of those who work for you while ensuring discipline and you hire enough security to enforce your rules and protect your investment. How is what Madam Forel does any different than what your Father does, other than doing it better.” Iris stood looking at the man, eyes wide, stunned. “Ah well. Something to think about. In any case, I must leave you here. Two of my guards will escort you back to your tent. You may tell Aaron I am here if you like, but do not mention it to anyone else. I still have a few things to take care of before my ‘official’ arrival. It was a pleasure to meet you Lady Dannnett.”
Iris stood, still looking a bit dazed as Lord Pierce raised her hand to his lips and kissed it lightly. “It has certainly been an experience, my Lord. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you.”
Gareth smiled and pulled on his gloves. “In fairness, milady, have you ever met anyone like Aaron?”
“No, my Lord.” replied Iris with a wry smile. “I suppose it must run in the family.”
“You should meet my sister, milady. She once poisoned a Knight after he beat a tavern girl. Then she married the girl to the Knight’s son. As far as I know, they are now blissfully happy on a farm in the Riverlands. Till we meet again.”
Iris simply stared at the Lord as he gave her one last bow and strode off.
“Is he always like that?” she remarked absently.
“No, milady.” answered one of the guards beside her. “But it would seem that he likes you. Count yourself lucky.”
Iris could not help but shiver slightly.