Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Today’s entry is Part 3 of “The Princess and the Queen, Or, The Blacks and the Greens: Being A History of the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of that Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown”, (wheeze) which originally appeared in the anthology Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Previous entries of the Read are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual section covered and for the material covered previous to this post. As for the comments, please note that the Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler thread here on Tor.com. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.
And now, the post!
[Note: This part covers pages 756 to the end in the Kindle ebook edition of the anthology, starting with the paragraph that begins “Back in King’s Landing, Queen Rhaenyra was finding herself ever more isolated with every new betrayal.” Sorry if that pagination doesn’t match your particular edition.]
The Princess and the Queen: Part 3
Queen Rhaenyra’s problems in King’s Landing continue to mount. The defection of accused traitor Addam Velaryon and the subsequent imprisonment of Lord Corlys Velaryon loses Rhaenyra the considerable support of that entire House, who abandon her cause in droves. Then Helaena Targaryen kills herself, and the rumor that she was murdered spreads like wildfire, and the city soon erupts in rioting. The City Watch mounts a valiant defense against the mob, but are overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and by dawn the city is burning.
The queen, enraged by her losses to the mob and the news of the Prince Daemon’s (and Lord Mooton’s) defection over the girl Nettles, refuses her son Joffrey’s plea to let him take his dragon Tyraxes up to pacify the city, fearing to lose him. The rioting worsens the following night, and a prophet called The Shepherd incites the crowds to madness, claiming that they must destroy all dragons everywhere to cleanse themselves of hellfire, and a mob of some ten thousand descends upon the Dragonpit. Rhaenyra refuses to send help, believing that surely the dragons could defend themselves, and Prince Joffrey tries to steal the Queen’s own dragon Syrax to take him to the Dragonpit and rescue his own dragon Tyraxes. Syrax, however, does not accept Joffrey as a rider, and flings him to his death.
The mob storms the Dragonpit, and though the four dragons there kill hundreds upon hundreds of them, the maddened cityfolk eventually bring them all down, in the same way hordes of starving rats can bring down “bulls and bears and lions”. After, the Queen’s dragon Syrax also attacks the mob even though she could have flown away, and is brought down as well. Stricken by the loss of Joffrey and her dragon, Rhaenyra acknowledges that King’s Landing is lost, and slips out of the city at dawn with her last surviving son, Aegon the Younger.
Meanwhile at Tumbleton, Prince Daeron’s supporters are conspiring to oust the Betrayers Ulf White and Hugh the Hammer, especially Hugh, who was claiming the throne by dint of being the rider of the oldest and largest surviving dragon, Vermithor. After Hugh kills Ser Roger Corne for mocking his claim to kingship, the conspirators want to kill Hugh and Ulf both, but hesitate to lose their dragons. The argument becomes moot, however, when Ser Addam Velaryon attacks the town, determined to redeem his name and prove that he is not a traitor like Ulf and Hugh. He has some four thousand men and his dragon Seasmoke. Daeron and Hightower’s host far outnumber Ser Addam’s, but have grown lax and diminished, and are taken completely by surprise to boot.
Ulf White cannot be roused from his drunken stupor, and sleeps through the entire battle; Hugh Hammer tries to make it to his dragon, but is murdered by Lord Jon Roxton, who is in turn killed by Hugh’s followers. There are conflicting reports of how Prince Daeron died, but some say he never even made it out of his tent before Seasmoke’s flame burned it down around him. But even without her rider, Daeron’s dragon Tessarion flies to attack Seasmoke anyway, and the two young dragons dance a battle in the sky. But then Vermithor joins the fight. Older and much larger than either Seasmoke or Tessarion, Vermithor should have beaten Seasmoke easily, but for unknown reasons Tessarion attacks Vermithor as well, and in the end all three dragons, and Ser Addam Velaryon, fall.
Though they wreaked great havoc, Ser Addam’s men fail to take Tumbleton, and are gone by morning. Silverwing is now the only dragon left, and Ulf White decides that therefore he is the only one left to take the throne. Ser Hobart Hightower, though, poisons Ulf with doctored wine, ending up having to sacrifice his own life to do so. Lord Unwin Peake, the ranking surviving conspirator, tries to find another rider for Sliverwing to no avail, and the remains of Hightower’s host is falling apart. In the end, Peake elects to retreat, making Ser Addam the ultimate savior of King’s Landing, though Queen Rhaenyra knew nothing of it.
With no coin and dwindling allies, Rhaenyra is forced to sell her crown to buy passage on a Braavosi ship to Dragonstone, where she assumes she will be safe, but she is betrayed one last time. Ser Alfred Broome, formerly one of her retainers but resentful that he was passed over for stewardship of Dragonstone, killed Ser Quince and captures Rhaenyra and her son Aegon. He brings her to the castle ward, where a greviously wounded Sunfyre and his rider Aegon II awaits her.
Unbeknownst to the queen, Lord Larys Strong had spirited Aegon II from King’s Landing, and sent his two surviving children away before bringing Aegon himself to the outlying lands of Dragonstone in disguise. It transpires that his dragon Sunfyre, though maimed by his earlier battles, was the one who had fought Grey Ghost, not Cannibal. When Sunfyre returned to Dragonstone, drawn perhaps by Aegon II’s presence, they began to recover together, and Aegon II secured the betrayal of Ser Broome.
However, their taking of the keep was marred by the escape of Prince Daemon’s daughter Lady Baela, who reached her young dragon Moondancer and fought Sunfyre. The fight was mostly even despite Moondancer’s youth owing to Sunfyre’s maiming and wounds, but in the end Sunfyre prevailed, killing the younger dragon (though Baela survived). The cost was high, however, shattering King Aegon’s legs and permanently crippling Sunfyre.
Rhaenyra laughs to see the maimed dragon at first, but then Aegon II appears, alive though unable to walk. Rhaenyra tells him her allies will rescue her, but Aegon II replies, “If they search the seven hells, mayhaps.” His men tear the queen away from her son, and entice Sunfyre to devour her alive; Rhaenyra dies shrieking one last curse against her half-brother.
Aegon II does not kill her son Aegon the Younger, but instead has him imprisoned as a hostage against the remainder of Rhaenyra’s allies. His hopes that Sunfyre will recover are dashed, however, and the dragon dies some days later. Grieved, King Aegon declares that Rhaenyra was never a queen, but that only Alicent and Helaena should be referred to so in the history books.
Yet Aegon’s triumph would prove to be as short-lived as it was bittersweet. Rhaenyra was dead, but her cause had not died with her, and new “black” armies were on the march even as the king returned to the Red Keep. Aegon II would sit the Iron Throne again, but he would never recover from his wounds, would know neither joy nor peace. His restoration would endure for only half a year.
The account of how of the Second Aegon fell and was succeeded by the Third is a tale for another time, however. The war for the throne would go on, but the rivalry that began at a court ball when a princess dressed in black and a queen in green has come to its red end, and with that concludes this portion of our history.
But—I wanna know what happened next! Tease.
So, by pure happenstance I was listening to Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” earlier today, and while it might not be the perfect musical representation of the Dance of the Dragons, it was kind of startlingly apropos from my point of view. If you want “crashing, beautiful despair at the fall of giants” in musical form, sez me, you pretty much have to go to the Russians. They did that so very well.
As do the Targaryens, too. This whole thing, in fact, has a sort of “fall of the Romanov dynasty” flavor to it to me, in atmosphere if not (obviously) in the specifics. Whether that perception is influenced by the fact that I’ve been down an extraordinarily Russian YouTube hole all day I will decline to speculate.
But yeah, I think the comparison holds. Even though the fall of the tsars was a revolution, as opposed to a civil war, there’s still that definite sense in both cases that it was a ruination of a once greatly-powerful (and kind of terrible) royal family that they more or less brought down upon themselves. (And down the line, Daenerys can even be the Targaryens’ answer to Anastasia, can’t she.)
But the possible Russian-ness of it all aside, it was certainly the fall of giants, both literally and otherwise. I feel even more bad for the dragons than I did last week. Such sad crap, y’all. And now there are, I think, two known dragons left alive, or at least not confirmed dead: Silverwing and Cannibal. No wait, three—Nettles’ dragon Sheepstealer is still out there somewhere. But, presumably even those three died at some point before the beginning of the series proper, so boo. Boo!
It does give, in retrospect, even more weight to the birth of Dany’s three dragons, though, doesn’t it. I mean, you get that it’s a big deal at the time, but this brings home even more just how momentous it was. The Targaryens were, by virtue of their dragon-power, virtually invulnerable to outside forces, and it was only because they ended up turning on each other and wrecking that advantage did anyone else’s bid for power have a shot in hell of succeeding.
So the reentrance of that power into the world, well, that was a pretty fucking huge deal, wasn’t it. I am now even more amazed that Dany got out of Qarth alive—or out of anyplace alive, for that matter, but especially then, when the dragons were little enough that someone could have theoretically restrained and/or stolen them without meeting poor Quentyn’s fate.
But back to ~200-ish years earlier, also boo that I was totally wrong about Prince Daeron winning out. Really, after all that, Aegon II kept the throne? Blarg. Though I suppose that’s better than Messieurs Rape-tastico Ulf White or Hugh Hammer getting it, but man. Daeron didn’t even have a… well, I was going to say “a good death” but ultimately that’s a stupid phrase, isn’t it. Nobody’s death in this was “good”. Of course, from a certain point of view nobody’s death anywhere ever is “good”, but the deaths here were especially not-good.
Most particularly, I must say, the death of one Queen Rhaenyra. Even if it’s certainly the most thematically appropriate death of any Targaryen in the story. Damn.
I both felt bad for her and didn’t at the same time. Like I said, I feel like a lot of it she brought on herself, but at the same time it’s really kind of impossible to not feel at least some sympathy watching someone lose their children one by one, all while bring betrayed over and over again at every turn.
One thing which stands out in this whole sorry business, though, is the (relative) gender egalitarianism of the Targaryens, enforced by the fact that dragons will take female riders just as readily as male and, thus, that the women are equally as vital in terms of military prowess to the family. And I enjoyed that it meant that in this particular dynasty more than any other in ASOIAF (or, really, anywhere in the real world thus far), the Targaryens on the distaff side of the aisle got to be just as major players as the men. That’s rare, and gratifying purely in a “God, yes, for once it’s not a total sausage fest!” sense.
Of course, that’s rather the point of the title of it all, not to mention its inclusion in this particular anthology in the first place. I think it’s probably oversimplifying things to say that this entire business came down to Rhaenyra’s rivalry with Alicent, but it was certainly the catalyst for it. But the inclusion of multiple other significant female characters in the story, who were heroic and brave and cowardly and idiots and clever by turns, just like the men, meant that the story avoided, at least in my eyes, the trap of making it about the flaws of women in power, and instead made it about the flaws of people in power. This may appear to be a subtle distinction, but it really isn’t.
So who’s left of the once-mighty Targaryens, of either gender? Well, Aegon II, obviously, though apparently not for long. And Lady Not Appearing Until The Very Last Minute Baela. And Alicent, I guess, though I don’t think she technically counts. And in lieu of anything to tell me I’m wrong, I’m going to assume Daemon goes off and lives somewhere nice with Nettles, so there.
Interestingly, the fact that Aegon II was succeeded by “the Third”, as the last paragraph teases, suggests that Rhaenyra’s son Aegon the Younger ended up taking the throne next, despite being a prisoner and the son of a hated rival at the moment. Though given the Targaryens’ apparent inability to give their children original names, who knows. Maybe it was one of the other three million Aegons littering the history of this damn continent.
But if it was Aegon the Younger who succeeded Aegon II, it also suggests that the king’s other surviving children, Maelor and Jaehaerys, didn’t, well, survive. Which is sad. And nobody ever says anything about little Viserys the Non-Horrible, so either he didn’t make it either, or just never returned to Westeros. Either is possible, but the former is more likely, because of course it is. Which is even more sad.
Sooo, yeah, the Targaryens are pretty well thinned out by the end of this, aren’t they. Whooooooo. So sad. And dumb.
Amid all the general sad dumbfuckery of this business, a special sad mention must be given to Ser Addam Velaryon, who like so many others did not get the memo that having honor in Westeros is like dipping yourself in honey and doing a swan dive into a swarm of army ants. Sorry, man. You shoulda oughta followed Nettles’s example and gotten the hell out while you could.
(Note: do not Google videos of swarming army ants if you want to sleep tonight.)
The surviving gold cloaks had retreated to their barracks, whilst gutter knights, mummer kings, and mad prophets ruled the streets.
I don’t have anything in particular to say about this, I just really appreciated the turn of phrase.
Who can know the heart of a dragon? Was it simple bloodlust that drove the Blue Queen to attack? Did the she-dragon come to help one of the combatants? If so, which? Some will claim that the bond between a dragon and dragonrider runs so deep that the beast shares his master’s loves and hates. But who was the ally here, and who the enemy? Does a riderless dragon know friend from foe?
Yeah, and also, even more coy teases in this last part here about the relative intelligence of dragons and how the whole link between them and their riders works, thanks a lot, Martin. FOR NOTHING.
Overall, pretty engrossing stuff, in that special ASOIAF watching-a-trainwreck-happen way, something of a DVD extra to the series proper—much more so than the Dunk & Egg stories, which could at least theoretically stand on their own, whereas this one really cannot. It left me wanting to know more, so in that respect it did its job well, and I appreciated that the ladies got an equal share of the spotlight. Maybe it was a little bit of cheating to present it in this style, but doing it in straight prose would have required making it into a full-length novel, and I’m pretty sure Martin has got quite enough on his plate in the novel arena already.
And thus concludes my Read of “The Princess and the Queen”! But fret not, there is one more post to come in the ROIAF before the end of the year. Come back next Thursday for my Read of “The Rogue Prince,” which appears, appropriately, in the anthology Rogues, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. See you then!