We’re talking with medieval fantasy author George R. R. Martin, the writer behind HBO’s Game of Thrones and the epic series “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
*SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read the previous books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, this program contains spoilers.
George R. R. Martin started out in science fiction, moved to medieval fantasy, wrote the book behind the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” and was knighted “the American Tolkien” by Time magazine.
Then the bearded epic-spinner retreated to his New Mexico redoubt and took six years to produce the fifth installment in his great tale of kings and queens and flawed humanity. Impatient readers laid siege online.
Now, he’s thrown the book over the wall. “A Dance with Dragons.” It’s out today. And he’s with us.
This hour On Point: American Tolkien, George R. R. Martin.
Killing off beloved characters is hard.
Tom Ashbrook: Leia calling from Medford, MA. Leia, you’re on the air. Thanks for calling.
Leia: Hi Tom. Hi, Mr. Martin.
George R. R. Martin: Hi there.
Leia: I’m calling to ask how you are able to kill of characters if the plot merits it. These people live in your head in such a real way and have been with you for such a long time. How are you able to just off them whenever you need to?
Martin: Well, it is, it is hard actually.
Ashbrook: [laughing] You brutal, you brutal man!
Martin: In some sense…in some sense, these are the children of my mind and they’re characters whose skins I have lived inside—viewpoint characters in particular where you’re writing from inside your head and you’re seeing the world as they see it. While writing those chapters you actually sort of become those characters, and then to kill them off is difficult. There’s a chapter in the third book—which people who’ve read the books will know which I’m
referring to—where a number of characters die. And it was the hardest thing I ever wrote. When I wrote that third book, A Storm of Swords, I skipped over that particular chapter even though it occurs about two-thirds of the way through the book. And I wrote the rest of the book, and only when everything else was done could I force myself to go back and write that chapter since it was so emotionally wrenching.
So, why do I do it? Well, I think it’s necessary. I mean, I spoke earlier about how predictable stories bore me. And we’ve all, you know, seen the stories where the hero, you know, he seems to get in trouble—he’s all alone, he’s surrounded by twenty foes, but he’s the hero! You know he’s going to get out of it; you’re not really engaged. I want you to be engaged. I want you to feel what the viewpoint character is feeling. If the viewpoint character is in trouble, I want you to be afraid, I want you not to know whether he’s going to get out of it. And I think the only way to do that is establish very early in the books that you’re playing for real, that anyone can die, and if the character’s in a life or death situation that he might not survive it. That these are not superheroes, these are not Indiana Jones. These are fallible hu
man beings who are vulnerable to death and betrayal and all that. To my mind, that makes the stories much more suspenseful and gripping and emotionally involving.
The hero is the villain of the other side
Tom Ashbrook:Lev Grossman in TIME magazine called you—says your “skill as a crafter of narrative exceeds that of almost any literary novelist writing today.” He goes on to say this, and I wanted to put to you—he says, “the complexity” of your stories—“of Martin’s design ensures that we experience the struggle for Westeroros,” your fictional continent, “from all sides at once. It’s as if he’s trying to show us that every fight is both triumph and tragedy, depending on where you see it from, and everybody is both hero and villain at the same time.” What about that?
George R. R. Martin: Yeah, I think he’s accurate. Yes, that is something that I’m going for. You know, the fight between good and evil—which has been a hallmark of so much fantasy over the years, ever since Tolkien, and Tolkien did it brilliantly! But in the hands—
Ashbrook: And long before.
Martin: —in the hands of his imitators, it’s become kind of a cliché where you have the dark lord, and he has his evil minions. And his evil minions are very evil—you know they’re evil: they dress in black, they’re very ugly, they have no redeeming qualities.
I prefer gray characters. I prefer the philosophy that, you know, the hero is the villain of the other side. You know, there’s—yes, things like the fight between Gandalf and the witch king of Angmar is a great moment, but the fight between Achilles and Hector also, you know, resonates for me and is something that I wanted to draw upon where you have two heroes fighting. I also liked the idea of the story not being predictable. Too much of fantasy is too predictable, you know? They say we write the stories that we want to read. And I was a reader l
ong before I was a writer, and as a reader I love stories that take me to places that I don’t expect, and I hate stories where you read the first five pages and you know exactly what’s going to happen for the rest of the book. Those stories bore me very quickly, and I don’t want to bore my readers or indeed bore myself in writing, so I try to, you know, create a fairly complicated thing that’s full of twists and surprises and unexpected turns, but all of them rooted hopefully in human nature and arising out of the characters and the desires and wishes and dreams of those characters.
How did you end up writing fantasy?
Tom Ashbrook: You started out in the realm of, years ago now, in the realm of comic books and then very much in science fiction. What brought you over into kings and queens, and furs and daggers, and chainmail and horses in battledress. What pulled you in here?
George R. R. Martin: It was really not a change. When I was a kid growing up in Bayonne, NJ, where I was born and raised, I read a lot of comic books. I read science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, Eric Frank Russell, Andre Norton. But I also read horror stories. H.P. Lovecraft was one of my favorites. And I read
fantasy, by Robert E Howard, creator of Conan [the Barbarian], Fritz Leiber…and, of course, J. R.R. Tolkien, whom I read I think when I was 13. And it had a profound effect on me.
Ashbrook: Yes, we can see it and we’ll talk about it. But with all that reading you could have ended up in outer space or in some futuristic dystopia? You name it.
Martin: To tell the truth, I never saw distinctions between these two genres. They all seemed to me to be flavors, if you will, of imaginative fiction, romantic fiction The great romantic tradition as opposed to realistic tradition in literature. My father called it all ‘weird stuff.’ He said I liked weird stuff. He liked Westerns. So his taste was more grounded, at least in his view. I was always fighting a dragon or going off to the stars or something like that.
We heard a few songs from the HBO series Game of Thrones.
- “Main Title” Ramin Djawadi
- “The King’s Arrival” Ramin Djawadi
- “You Win or You Die” Ramin Djwadi
- “Finale” Ramin Djwadi
From Tom’s Reading List:
- Time: “Martin has produced — is producing, since the series isn’t over — the great fantasy epic of our era. It’s an epic for a more profane, more jaded, more ambivalent age than the one Tolkien lived in. Tolkien was a veteran of the Somme, and The Lord of the Rings was partly written during World War II. (It was published in 1954.) Tolkien wrote at a time when it really seemed as if a war was on for the fate of civilization.”
- The Atlantic: “Many will be relieved to know that A Dance With Dragons, the long-awaited fifth entry in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, is infinitely more satisfying than its predecessor, 2005’s bleak and plodding A Feast for Crows. “
- Entertainment Weekly: “It’s every fan’s nightmare: You wait six years for a book, and then a couple weeks before it finally hits bookstores, the spoilers start popping up on fansites. As Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin wrote on his personal not-a-blog blog, “Amazon Germany screwed up big time and started shipping A Dance with Dragons before they we’re supposed to. I am told that about 180 copies got out before they were made aware of their mistake and shut down shipping.” Martin’s response to the situation would make Tywin Lannister proud: “If we find out who is responsible, we will mount his head on a spike.”
- George R. R. Martin chats with employees from WBUR in the staff kitchen before heading into the studio and talking with Tom Ashbrook. (Alex Kingsbury / WBUR)
*SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read the previous books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, this excerpt contains spoilers. LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
From A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
He drank his way across the narrow sea.
The ship was small, his cabin smaller, but the captain would not allow him abovedecks. The rocking of the deck beneath his feet made his stomach heave, and the wretched food tasted even worse when retched back up. But why did he need salt beef, hard cheese, and bread crawling with worms when he had wine to nourish him? It was red and sour, very strong. Sometimes he heaved the wine up too, but there was always more.
“The world is full of wine,” he muttered in the dankness of his cabin. His father never had any use for drunkards, but what did that matter? His father was dead. He’d killed him. A bolt in the belly, my lord, and all for you. If only I was better with a crossbow, I would have put it through that cock you made me with, you bloody bastard.
Belowdecks there was neither night nor day. Tyrion marked time by the comings and goings of the cabin boy who brought the meals he did not eat. The boy always brought a brush and bucket too, to clean up. “Is this Dornish wine?” Tyrion asked him once, as he pulled a stopper from a skin. “It reminds me of a certain snake I knew. A droll fellow, till a mountain fell on him.”
The cabin boy did not answer. He was an ugly boy, though admittedly more comely than a certain dwarf with half a nose and a scar from eye to chin. “Have I offended you?” Tyrion asked, as the boy was scrubbing. “Were you commanded not to talk to me? Or did some dwarf diddle your mother?” That went unanswered too. “Where are we sailing? Tell me that.” Jaime had made mention of the Free Cities, but had never said which one. “Is it Braavos? Tyrosh? Myr?” Tyrion would sooner have gone to Dorne. Myrcella is older than Tommen, by Dornish law the Iron Throne is hers. I will help her claim her rights, as Prince Oberyn suggested.
Oberyn was dead, though, his head smashed to bloody ruin by the armored fist of Ser Gregor Clegane. And without the Red Viper to urge him on, would Doran Martell even consider such a chancy scheme? He may clap me in chains instead, and hand me back to my sweet sister. The Wall might be safer. Old Bear Mormont said the Night’s Watch had need of men like Tyrion. Mormont may be dead, though. By now Slynt may be the Lord Commander. That butcher’s son was not like to have forgotten who sent him to the Wall. Do I really want to spend the rest of my life eating salt beef and porridge with murderers and thieves? Not that the rest of his life would last very long. Janos Slynt would see to that.
The cabin boy wet his brush and scrubbed on manfully. “Have you ever visited the pleasure houses of Lys?” the dwarf inquired. “Might that be where whores go?” Tyrion could not seem to recall the Valyrian word for whore, and in any case it was too late. The boy tossed his brush back in his bucket and took his leave.
The wine has blurred my wits. He had learned to read High Valyrian at his maester’s knee, though what they spoke in the Nine Free Cities… well, it was not so much a dialect as nine dialects on the way to becoming separate tongues. Tyrion had some Braavosi and a smattering of Myrish. In Tyrosh he should be able to curse the gods, call a man a cheat, and order up an ale, thanks to a sellsword he had once known at the Rock. At least in Dorne they speak the Common Tongue. Like Dornish food and Dornish law, Dornish speech was spiced with the flavors of the Rhoyne, but a man could comprehend it. Dorne, yes, Dorne for me. He crawled into his bunk, clutching that thought like a child with a doll.
Sleep had never come easily to Tyrion Lannister. Aboard that ship it seldom came at all, though from time to time he managed to drink sufficient wine to pass out for a while. At least he did not dream. He had dreamt enough for one small life. And of such follies: love, justice, friendship, glory. As well dream of being tall. It was all beyond his reach, Tyrion knew now. But he did not know where whores go.
“Wherever whores go,” his father had said. His last words, and what words they were. The crossbow thrummed, Lord Tywin sat back down, and Tyrion Lannister found himself waddling through the darkness with Varys at his side. He must have clambered back down the shaft, two hundred and thirty rungs to where orange embers glowed in the mouth of an iron dragon. He remembered none of it. Only the sound the crossbow made, and the stink of his father’s bowels opening. Even in his dying, he found a way to shit on me.
Varys had escorted him through the tunnels, but they never spoke until they emerged beside the Blackwater, where Tyrion had won a famous victory and lost a nose. That was when the dwarf turned to the eunuch and said, “I’ve killed my father,” in the same tone a man might use to say, “I’ve stubbed my toe.”
The master of whisperers had been dressed as a begging brother, in a moth-eaten robe of brown roughspun with a cowl that shadowed his smooth fat cheeks and bald round head. “You should not have climbed that ladder,” he said reproachfully.
“Wherever whores go.” Tyrion warned his father not to say that word. If I had not loosed, he would have seen my threats were empty. He would have taken the crossbow from my hands, as once he took Tysha from my arms. He was rising when I killed him.
“I killed Shae too,” he confessed to Varys.
“You knew what she was.”
“I did. But I never knew what he was.”
Varys tittered. “And now you do.”
I should have killed the eunuch as well. A little more blood on his hands, what would it matter? He could not say what had stayed his dagger. Not gratitude. Varys had saved him from a headsman’s sword, but only because Jaime had compelled him. Jaime… no, better not to think of Jaime.
He found a fresh skin of wine instead, and sucked at it as if it were a woman’s breast. The sour red ran down his chin and soaked through his soiled tunic, the same one he had been wearing in his cell. The deck was swaying beneath his feet, and when he tried to rise it lifted sideways and smashed him hard against a bulkhead. A storm, he realized, or else I am even drunker than I knew. He retched the wine up and lay in it a while, wondering if the ship would sink. Is this your vengeance, Father? Has the Father Above made you his Hand? “Such are the wages of the kinslayer,” he said as the wind howled outside. It did not seem fair to drown the cabin boy and the captain and all the rest for something he had done, but when had the gods ever been fair? And around about then, the darkness gulped him down.
When he stirred again, his head felt like to burst and the ship was spinning round in dizzy circles, though the captain was insisting that they’d come to port. Tyrion told him to be quiet, and kicked feebly as a huge bald sailor tucked him under one arm and carried him squirming to the hold, where an empty wine cask awaited him. It was a squat little cask, and a tight fit even for a dwarf. Tyrion pissed himself in his struggles, for all the good it did. He was up crammed face first into the cask with his knees pushed up against his ears. The stub of his nose itched horribly, but his arms were pinned so tightly that he could not reach to scratch it. A palanquin fit for a man of my stature, he thought as they hammered shut the lid. He could hear voices shouting as he was hoisted up. Every bounce cracked his head against the bottom of the cask. The world went round and round as the cask rolled downward, then stopped with a crash that made him want to scream. Another cask slammed into his, and Tyrion bit his tongue.
That was the longest journey he had ever taken, though it could not have lasted more than half an hour. He was lifted and lowered, rolled and stacked, upended and righted and rolled again. Through the wooden staves he heard men shouting, and once a horse whickered nearby. His stunted legs began to cramp, and soon hurt so badly that he forgot the hammering in his head.
It ended as it had begun, with another roll that left him dizzy and more jouncing. Outside strange voices were speaking in a tongue he did not know. Someone started pounding on the top of the cask and the lid cracked open suddenly. Light came flooding in, and cool air as well. Tyrion gasped greedily and tried to stand, but only managed to knock the cask over sideways and spill himself out onto a hard-packed earthen floor.
Above him loomed a grotesque fat man with a forked yellow beard, holding a wooden mallet and an iron chisel. His bedrobe was large enough to serve as a tourney pavilion, but its loosely knotted belt had come undone, exposing a huge white belly and a pair of heavy breasts that sagged like sacks of suet covered with coarse yellow hair. He reminded Tyrion of a dead sea cow that had once washed up in the caverns under Casterly Rock.
The fat man looked down and smiled. “A drunken dwarf,” he said, in the Common Tongue of Westeros.
“A rotting sea cow.” Tyrion’s mouth was full of blood. He spat it at the fat man’s feet. They were in a long dim cellar with barrel-vaulted ceilings, its stone walls spotted with nitre. Casks of wine and ale surrounded them, more than enough drink to see a thirsty dwarf safely through the night. Or through a life.
“You are insolent. I like that in a dwarf.” When the fat man laughed, his flesh bounced so vigorously that Tyrion was afraid he might fall and crush him. “Are you hungry, my little friend? Weary?”
“Thirsty.” Tyrion struggled to his knees. “And filthy.”
The fat man sniffed. “A bath first, just so. Then food and a soft bed, yes? My servants shall see to it.” His host put the mallet and chisel aside. “My house is yours. Any friend of my friend across the water is a friend to Illyrio Mopatis, yes.”
And any friend of Varys the Spider is someone I will trust just as far as I can throw him.
The fat man made good on the promised bath, though. No sooner did Tyrion lower himself into the hot water and close his eyes than he was fast asleep. He woke naked on a goosedown featherbed so soft it felt as if he had been swallowed by a cloud. His tongue was growing hair and his throat was raw, but his cock was as hard as an iron bar. He rolled from the bed, found a chamberpot, and commenced to filling it, with a groan of pleasure.
The room was dim, but there were bars of yellow sunlight showing between the slats of the shutters. Tyrion shook the last drops off and waddled over patterned Myrish carpets as soft as new spring grass. Awkwardly he climbed the window seat and flung shudders open to see where Varys and the gods had sent him.
Beneath his window six cherry trees stood sentinel around a marble pool, their slender branches bare and brown. A naked boy stood on the water, poised to duel with a bravo’s blade in hand. He was lithe and handsome, no older than sixteen, with straight blond hair that brushed his shoulders. So lifelike did he seem that it took the dwarf a long moment to realize he was made of painted marble, though his sword shimmered like true steel.
Across the pool stood a brick wall twelve feet high, with iron spikes along its top. Beyond that was the city. A sea of tiled rooftops crowded close around a bay. He saw square brick towers, a great red temple, a distant manse upon a hill. In the far distance, sunlight shimmered off deep water. Fishing boats were moving across the bay, their sails rippling in the wind, and he could see the masts of larger ships poking up along the shore. Surely one is bound for Dorne, or for Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. He had no means to pay for passage, though, nor was he made to pull an oar. I suppose I could sign on as a cabin boy and earn my way by letting the crew bugger me up and down the narrow sea.
He wondered where he was. Even the air smells different here. Strange spices scented the chilly autumn wind, and he could hear faint cries drifting over the wall from the streets beyond. It sounded something like Valyrian, but he did not recognize more than one word in five. Not Braavos, he concluded, nor Tyrosh. Those bare branches and the chill in the air argued against Lys and Myr and Volantis as well.
When he heard the door opening behind him, Tyrion turned to confront his fat host. “This is Pentos, yes?”
“Just so. Where else?”
Pentos. Well, it was not King’s Landing, that much could be said for it. “Where do whores go?” he heard himself ask.
“Whores are found in brothels here, as in Westeros. You will have no need of such, my little friend. Choose from amongst my serving women. None will dare refuse you.”
“Slaves?” the dwarf asked pointedly.
The fat man stroked one of the prongs of his oiled yellow beard, a gesture Tyrion found remarkably obscene. “Slavery is forbidden in Pentos, by the terms of the treaty the Braavosi imposed on us a hundred years ago. Still, they will not refuse you.” Illyrio gave a ponderous half-bow. “But now my little friend must excuse me. I have the honor to be a magister of this great city, and the prince has summoned us to session.” He smiled, showing a mouth full of crooked yellow teeth.
“Explore the manse and grounds as you like, but on no account stray beyond the walls. It is best that no man knows that you were here.”
“Were? Have I gone somewhere?”
“Time enough to speak of that this evening. My little friend and I shall eat and drink and make great plans, yes?”
“Yes, my fat friend,” Tyrion replied. He thinks to use me for his profit. It was all profit with the merchant princes of the Free Cities. “Spice soldiers and cheese lords,” his lord father called them, with contempt. Should a day ever dawn when Illyrio Mopatis saw more profit in a dead dwarf than a live one, he would find himself packed into another wine cask by dusk. It would be well if I were gone before that day arrives. That it would arrive he did not doubt; Cersei was not like to forget him, and even Jaime might be vexed to find a quarrel in Father’s belly.
A light wind was riffling the waters of the pool below, all around the naked swordsman. It reminded him of how Tysha would riffle his hair during the false spring of their marriage, before he helped his father’s guardsmen rape her. He had been thinking of those guardsmen during his flight, trying to recall how many there had been. You would think he might remember that, but no. A dozen? A score? A hundred? He could not say. They had all been grown men, tall and strong… though all men were tall to a dwarf of thirteen years. Tysha knew their number. Each of them had given her a silver stag, so she would only need to count the coins. A silver for each and a gold for me. His father had insisted that he pay her too. A Lannister always pays his debts.
“Wherever whores go,” he heard Lord Tywin say once more, and once more the bowstring thrummed.
The magister had invited him to explore the manse. He found clean clothes in a cedar chest inlaid with lapis and mother-of-pearl. The clothes had been made for a small boy, he realized as he struggled into them. The fabrics were rich enough, if a little musty, but the cut was too long in the legs and too short in the arms, with a collar that would have turned his face as black as Joffrey’s had he somehow contrived to get it fastened. Moths had been at them too. At least they do not stink of vomit.
Tyrion began his explorations with the kitchen, where two fat women and a pot boy watched him warily as he helped himself to cheese, bread, and figs. “Good morrow to you, fair ladies,” he said with a bow. “Do you know where whores go?” When they did not respond, he repeated the question in High Valyrian, though he had to say courtesan in place of whore. The younger fatter cook gave him a shrug that time.
He wondered what they would do if he took them by the hand and dragged them to his bedchamber. None will dare refuse you, Illyrio claimed, but somehow Tyrion did not think he meant these two. The younger woman was old enough to be his mother, and the older was likely her mother. Both were near as fat as Illyrio, with teats that were larger than his head. I could smother myself in flesh. There were worse ways to die. The way his lord father had died, for one. I should have made him shit a little gold before expiring. Lord Tywin might have been niggardly with his approval and affection, but he had always been open-handed when it came to coin. The only thing more pitiful than a dwarf without a nose is a dwarf without a nose who has no gold.
Tyrion left the fat women to their loaves and kettles and went in search of the cellar where Illyrio had decanted him the night before. It was not hard to find. There was enough wine there to keep him drunk for a hundred years; sweet reds from the Reach and sour reds from Dorne, pale Pentoshi ambers, the green nectar of Myr, three score casks of Arbor gold, even wines from the fabled east, from Qarth and Yi Ti and Asshai by the Shadow. In the end, Tyrion chose a cask of strongwine marked as the private stock of Lord Runceford Redwyne, the grandfather of the present Lord of the Arbor. The taste of it was languorous and heady on the tongue, the color a purple so dark that it looked almost black in the dim-lit cellar. Tyrion filled a cup, and a flagon for good measure, and carried them up to the gardens to drink beneath those cherry trees he’d seen.
As it happened, he left by the wrong door and never found the pool he had spied from his window, but it made no matter. The gardens behind the manse were just as pleasant, and far more extensive. He wandered through them for a time, drinking. The walls would have shamed any proper castle, and the ornamental iron spikes along the top looked strangely naked without heads to adorn them. Tyrion pictured how his sister’s head might look up there, with tar in her golden hair and flies buzzing in and out of her mouth. Yes, and Jaime must have the spike beside her, he decided. No one must ever come between my brother and my sister.
With a rope and a grapnel he might be able to get over that wall. He had strong arms and he did not weigh much. He should be able to clamber over, if he did not impale himself on a spike. I will search for a rope on the morrow, he resolved.
He saw three gates during his wanderings; the main entrance with its gatehouse, a postern by the kennels, and a garden gate hidden behind a tangle of pale ivy. The last was chained, the others guarded. The guards were plump, their faces as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and every man of them wore a spiked bronze cap. Tyrion knew eunuchs when he saw them. He knew their sort by reputation. They feared nothing and felt no pain, it was said, and were loyal to their masters unto death. I could make good use of a few hundred of mine own, he reflected. A pity I did not think of that before I became a beggar.
He walked along a pillared gallery and through a pointed arch, and found himself in a tiled courtyard where a woman was washing clothes at a well. She looked to be his own age, with dull red hair and a broad face dotted by freckles. “Would you like some wine?” he asked her. She looked at him uncertainly. “I have no cup for you, we’ll have to share.” The washerwoman went back to wringing out tunics and hanging them to dry. Tyrion settled on a stone bench with his flagon. “Tell me, how far should I trust Magister Illyrio?” The name made her look up. “That far?” Chuckling, he crossed his stunted legs and took a drink. “I am loathe to play whatever part the cheesemonger has in mind for me, yet how can I refuse him? The gates are guarded. Perhaps you might smuggle me out under your skirts? I’d be so grateful, why, I’ll even wed you. I have two wives already, why not three? Ah, but where would we live?” He gave her as pleasant a smile as a man with half a nose could manage. “I have a niece in Sunspear, did I tell you? I could make rather a lot of mischief in Dorne with Myrcella. I could set my niece and nephew at war, wouldn’t that be droll?” The washerwoman pinned up one of Illyrio’s tunics, large enough to double as a sail. “I should be ashamed to think such evil thoughts, you’re quite right. Better if I sought the Wall instead. All crimes are wiped clean when a man joins the Night’s Watch, they say.
Though I fear they would not let me keep you, sweetling. No women in the Watch, no sweet freckly wives to warm your bed at night, only cold winds, salted cod, and small beer. Do you think I might stand taller in black, my lady?” He filled his cup again. “What do you say? North or south? Shall I atone for old sins or make some new ones?”
The washerwoman gave him one last glance, picked up her basket, and walked away. I cannot seem to hold a wife for very long, Tyrion reflected. Somehow his flagon had gone dry. Perhaps I should stumble back down to the cellars. The strongwine was making his head spin, though, and the cellar steps were very steep. “Where do whores go?” he asked the wash flapping on the line. Perhaps he should have asked the washerwoman. Not to imply that you’re a whore, my dear, but perhaps you know where they go. Or better yet, he should have asked his father. “Wherever whores go,” Lord Tywin said. She loved me. She was a crofter’s daughter, she loved me and she wed me, she put her trust in me.
The empty flagon slipped from his hand and rolled across the yard. Tyrion pushed himself off the bench and went to fetch it. As he did, he saw some mushrooms growing up from a cracked paving tile. Pale white they were, with speckles, and red ribbed undersides dark as blood. The dwarf snapped one off and sniffed it. Delicious, he thought, and deadly.
There were seven of the mushrooms. Perhaps the Seven were trying to tell him something. He picked them all, snatched a glove down from the line, wrapped them carefully, and stuffed them down his pocket. The effort made him dizzy, so afterward he crawled back onto the bench, curled up, and shut his eyes.
When he woke again, he was back in his bedchamber, drowning in the goosedown featherbed once more while a blond girl shook his shoulder. “My lord,” she said, “your bath awaits. Magister Illyrio expects you at table within the hour.”
Tyrion propped himself against the pillows, his head in his hands. “Do I dream, or do you speak the Common Tongue?”
“Yes, my lord. I was bought to please the king.” She was blue-eyed and fair, young and willowy
“I am sure you did. I need a cup of wine.”
She poured for him. “Magister Illyrio said that I am to scrub your back and warm your bed. My name — ”
” — is of no interest to me. Do you know where whores go?”
She flushed. “Whores sell themselves for coin.”
“Or jewels, or gowns, or castles. But where do they go?”
The girl could not grasp the question. “Is it a riddle, m’lord? I’m no good at riddles. Will you tell me the answer?”
No, he thought. I despise riddles, myself. “I will tell you nothing. Do me the same favor.” The only part of you that interests me is the part between your legs, he almost said. The words were on his tongue, but somehow never passed his lips. She is not Shae, the dwarf told himself, only some little fool who thinks I play at riddles. If truth be told, even her cunt did not interest him much. I must be sick, or dead. “You mentioned a bath? We must not keep the great cheesemonger waiting.”
As he bathed, the girl washed his feet, scrubbed his back, and brushed his hair. Afterward she rubbed sweet-smelling ointment into his calves to ease the aches, and dressed him once again in boy’s clothing, a musty pair of burgundy breeches and a blue velvet doublet lined with cloth-of-gold. “Will my lord want me after he has eaten?” she asked as she was lacing up his boots.
“No. I am done with women.” Whores.
The girl took that disappointment too well for his liking. “If m’lord would prefer a boy, I can have one waiting in his bed.”
M’lord would prefer his wife. M’lord would prefer a girl named Tysha. “Only if he knows where whores go.”
The girl’s mouth tightened. She despises me, he realized, but no more than I despise myself. That he had fucked many a woman who loathed the very sight of him, Tyrion Lannister had no doubt, but the others had at least the grace to feign affection. A little honest loathing might be refreshing, like a tart wine after too much sweet.
“I believe I have changed my mind,” he told her. “Wait for me abed. Naked, if you please, I’ll be a deal too drunk to fumble at your clothing. Keep your mouth shut and your thighs open and the two of us should get on splendidly.” He gave her a leer, hoping for a taste of fear, but all she gave him was revulsion. No one fears a dwarf. Even Lord Tywin had not been afraid, though Tyrion had held a crossbow in his hands. “Do you moan when you are being fucked?” he asked the bedwarmer.
“If it please m’lord.”
“It might please m’lord to strangle you. That’s how I served my last whore. Do you think your master would object? Surely not. He has a hundred more like you, but no one else like me.” This time, when he grinned, he got the fear he wanted.
Illyrio was reclining on a padded couch, gobbling hot peppers and pearl onions from a wooden bowl. His brow was dotted with beads of sweat, his pig’s eyes shining above his fat cheeks. Jewels danced when he moved his hands; onyx and opal, tiger’s eye and tourmeline, ruby, amethyst, sapphire, emerald, jet and jade, a black diamond and a green pearl. I could live for years on his rings, Tyrion mused, though I’d need a cleaver to claim them.
“Come sit, my little friend.” Illyrio waved him closer.
The dwarf clambered up onto a chair. It was much too big for him, a cushioned throne intended to accomodate the magister’s massive buttocks, with thick sturdy legs to bear his weight. Tyrion Lannister had lived all his life in a world that was too big for him, but in the manse of Illyrio Mopatis the sense of disproportion assumed grotesque dimensions. I am a mouse in a mammoth’s lair, he mused, though at least the mammoth keeps a good cellar. The thought made him thirsty. He called for wine.
“Did you enjoy the girl I sent you?” Illyrio asked.
“If I had wanted a girl I would have asked for one.”
“If she failed to please… ”
“She did all that was required of her.”
“I would hope so. She was trained in Lys, where they make an art of love. The king enjoyed her greatly.”
“I kill kings, hadn’t you heard?” Tyrion smiled evilly over his wine cup. “I want no royal leavings.”
“As you wish. Let us eat.” Illyrio clapped his hands together, and serving men came running.
They began with a broth of crab and monkfish, and cold egg lime soup as well. Then came quails in honey, a saddle of lamb, goose livers drowned in wine, buttered parsnips, and suckling pig. The sight of it all made Tyrion feel queasy, but he forced himself to try a spoon of soup for the sake of politeness, and once he had tasted he was lost. The cooks might be old and fat, but they knew their business. He had never eaten so well, even at court.
As he was sucking the meat off the bones of his quail, he asked Illyrio about the morning’s summons. The fat man shrugged. “There are troubles in the east. Astapor has fallen, and Meereen. Ghiscari slave cities that were old when the world was young.” The suckling pig was carved. Illyrio reached for a piece of the crackling, dipped it in a plum sauce, and ate it with his fingers.
“Slaver’s Bay is a long way from Pentos.” Tyrion speared a goose liver on the point of his knife. No man is as cursed as the kinslayer, he mused, but I could learn to like this hell.
“This is so,” Illyrio agreed, “but the world is one great web, and a man dare not touch a single strand lest all the others tremble. More wine?” Illyrio popped a pepper into his mouth. “No, something better.” He clapped his hands together.
At the sound a serving man entered with a covered dish. He placed it in front of Tyrion, and Illyrio leaned across the table to remove the lid. “Mushrooms,” the magister announced, as the smell wafted up. “Kissed with garlic and bathed in butter. I am told the taste is exquisite. Have one, my friend. Have two.”
Tyrion had a fat black mushroom halfway to his mouth, but something in Illyrio’s voice made him stop abruptly. “After you, my lord.” He pushed the dish toward his host.
“No, no.” Magister Illyrio pushed the mushrooms back. For a heartbeat it seemed as if a mischievious boy was peering out from inside the cheesemonger’s bloated flesh. “After you. I insist. Cook made them specially for you.”
“Did she indeed?” He remembered the cook, the flour on her hands, heavy breasts shot through with dark blue veins. “That was kind of her, but… no.” Tyrion eased the mushroom back into the lake of butter from which it had emerged.
“You are too suspicious.” Illyrio smiled through his forked yellow beard. Oiled every morning to make them gleam like gold, Tyrion suspected. “Are you craven? I had not heard that of you.”
“In the Seven Kingdoms it is considered a grave breach of hospitality to poison your guest at supper.”
“Here as well.” Illyrio Mopatis reached for his wine cup. “Yet when a guest plainly wishes to end his own life, why, his host must oblige him, no?” He took a gulp. “Magister Ordello was poisoned by a mushroom not half a year ago. The pain is not so much, I am told. Some cramping in the gut, a sudden ache behind the eyes, and it is done. Better a mushroom than a sword through your neck, is it not so? Why die with the taste of blood in your mouth, when it could be butter and garlic?”
The dwarf studied the dish before him. The smell of garlic and butter had his mouth watering. Some part of him wanted those mushrooms, even knowing what they were. He was not brave enough to take cold steel to his own belly, but a bite of mushroom would not be so hard. That frightened him more than he could say. “You mistake me,” he heard himself say.
“Is it so? I wonder. If you would sooner drown in wine, say the word and it shall be done, and quickly. Drowning cup by cup wastes time and wine both.”
“You mistake me,” Tyrion said again, more loudly. The buttered mushrooms glistened in the lamplight, dark and inviting. “I have no wish to die, I promise you. I have… ” His voice trailed off into uncertainly. What do I have? A life to live? Work to do? Children to raise, lands to rule, a woman to love?
“You have nothing,” finished Magister Illyrio, “but we can change that.” He plucked a mushroom from the butter, and chewed it lustily. “Delicious.”
“The mushrooms are not poisoned.” Tyrion was irritated.
“No. Why should I wish you ill?” Magister Illyrio ate another. “We must show a little trust, you and I. Come, eat.” He clapped his hands again. “We have work to do. My little friend must keep his strength up.”
The serving men brough out a heron stuffed with figs, veal cutlets blanched with almond milk, creamed herring, candied onions, foul-smelling cheeses, plates of snails and sweetbreads, and a black swan in her plumage. Tyrion refused the swan, which reminded him of a supper with his sister. He helped himself to heron and herring, though, and a few of the sweet onions. And the serving men filled his wine cup anew each time he emptied it.
“You drink a deal of wine for such a little man.”
“Kinslaying is dry work. It gives a man a thirst.”
The fat man’s eyes glittered like the gemstones on his fingers. “There are those in Westeros who would say that killing Lord Lannister was merely a good beginning.”
“They had best not say it in my sister’s hearing, or they will find themselves short a tongue.” The dwarf tore a loaf of bread in half. “And you had best be careful what you say of my family, magister. Kinslayer or no, I am a lion still.”
That seemed to amuse the lord of cheese no end. He slapped a meaty thigh and said, “You Westerosi are all the same. You sew some beast upon a scrap of silk, and suddenly you are all lions or dragons or eagles. I can bring you to a real lion, my little friend. The prince keeps a pride in his menagerie. Would you like to share a cage with them?”
The lords of the Seven Kingdoms did make rather much of their sigils, Tyrion had to admit. “Very well,” he conceded. “A Lannister is not a lion. Yet I am still my father’s son, and Jaime and Cersei are mine to kill.”
“How odd that you should mention your fair sister,” said Illyrio, between snails. “The queen has offered a lordship to the man who brings her your head, no matter how humble his birth.”
It was no more than Tyrion had expected. “If you mean to take her up on it, make her spread her legs for you as well. The best part of me for the best part of her, that’s a fair trade.”
“I would sooner have mine own weight in gold.” The cheesemonger laughed so hard that Tyrion feared he was about to rupture. “All the gold in Casterly Rock, why not?”
“The gold I grant you,” the dwarf said, relieved that he was not about to drown in a gout of half-digested eels and sweetmeats, “but the Rock is mine.”
“Just so.” The magister covered his mouth and belched a mighty belch. “Do you think King Stannis will give it to you? I am told he is a great one for the law. Your brother wears the white cloak, so you are heir by all the laws of Westeros.”
“Stannis might well grant me Casterly Rock,” said Tyrion, “but for the small matter of regicide and kinslaying. For those he would shorten me by a head, and I am short enough as I stand. But why would you think I mean to join Lord Stannis?”
“Why else would you go the Wall?”
“Stannis is at the Wall?” Tyrion rubbed at his nose. “What in seven bloody hells is Stannis doing at the Wall?”
“Shivering, I would think. It is warmer down in Dorne. Perhaps he should have sailed that way.”
Tyrion was beginning to suspect that a certain freckled washerwoman knew more of the Common Speech than she pretended. “My niece Myrcella is in Dorne, as it happens. And I have half a mind to make her a queen.”
Illyrio smiled as his serving men spooned out bowls of black cherries in sweetcream for them both. “What has this poor child done to you, that you would wish her dead?”
“Even a kinslayer is not required to slay all his kin,” said Tyrion, wounded. “Queen her, I said. Not kill her.”
The cheesemonger spooned up cherries. “In Volantis they use a coin with a crown on one face and a death’s head on the other. Yet it is the same coin. To queen her is to kill her. Dorne might rise for Mycella, but Dorne alone is not enough. If you are as clever as our friend insists, you know this.”
Tyrion looked at the fat man with new interest. He is right on both counts. To queen her is to kill her. And I knew that. “Futile gestures are all that remain to me. This one would make my sister weep bitter tears, at least.”
Magister Illyrio wiped sweetcream from his mouth with the back of a fat hand. “The road to Casterly Rock does not go through Dorne, my little friend. Nor does it run beneath the Wall. Yet there is such a road, I tell you.”
“I am an attainted traitor, a regicide and kinslayer.” This talk of roads annoyed him. Does he think this is a game?
“What one king does, another may undo. In Pentos we have a prince, my friend. He presides at ball and feast and rides about the city in a palanquin of ivory and gold. Three heralds go before him with the golden scales of trade, the iron sword of war, and the silver scourge of justice. On the first day of each new year he must deflower the maid of the fields and the maid of the seas.” Illyrio leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Yet should a crop fail or a war be lost, we cut his throat to appease the gods, and choose a new prince from amongst the forty families.”
“Remind me never to become the Prince of Pentos.”
“Are your Seven Kingdoms so different? There is no peace in Westeros, no justice, no faith… and soon enough no food. When men are starving and sick of fear, they look for a savior.”
“They may look, but if all they find is Stannis — ”
“Not Stannis. Nor Myrcella.” The yellow smile widened. “Another. Stronger than Tommen, gentler than Stannis, with a better claim than the girl Myrcella. A savior come from across the sea to bind up the wounds of bleeding Westeros.”
“Fine words.” Tyrion was unimpressed. “Words are wind. Who is this bloody savior?”
“A dragon.” The cheesemonger saw the look on his face at that, and laughed. “A dragon with three heads.”
Excerpted from A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Copyright © 2011 by George R. R. Martin. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.