Fire lapped at The Herald's path, quenched at each churn with a spray of brilliant white, but steadily swallowed by the darkening blue-greens of The Narrow Sea as the sun at their bow continued to set.
The Herald was backlit by the illusion of a roaring bonfire, a quiet delight to its crew who cheered at calm seas ahead, but, stood at the ship's prow, a lone watcher looked instead to the darkness ahead, through night to the dawn, and all the closer toward home: Essos.
It had been a long, long homecoming indeed.
Missandei had not, between the chaos of new dialects and the ubiquitous roar of war, had much time to think on Essos while away in The Sunset Lands. Mereen, Qath, and all the fears for cities freed of chains yet met, still, as Slaves. For too many, home was long lost to pillage or memory and the lack of Masters made little change to the cities they had been traded to.
Missandei herself had a quiet fear that, for all her dreams of warm sands and the gentle kiss of Naathi butterflies when Westeros was too strange, too lonesome, if - when - she returned to her island's shores she would prove alien, a stranger, and the sands would swallow her and a butterfly would greet her only with death.
She had, at the least, been recognised by a sole surviving brother amid Mhysa's Unsullied. He had heard tell of The White Queen's little wise woman, worked best to prove faithful in standing so as to safely approach, and queued, terrified, long months with those seeking Mhysa's ears until Missandei had chanced to see again a precious vision of family: a furrowed, familiar brow with a flurry of familiar hair (grown out carefully, deliberately, and plaited with wilting petals) and, most unprofessionally, broken mid-translation of Her Queen's Valyrian for a weary surgeon to breathe a cry.
Mhysa had stopped court at once - though, truly, Mhysa took every opportunity at doing so - and hurried to see Missandei's woes only to be met by a smile fit to bursting, unshed tears, and words entirely foreign to the Westerosi-born queen but known to some number of the petitioners before her: "Brother, my brother, oh mercy: please, mercy, my brother, I see my brother! Mercy, may we be living not a-dream!"
Their reunion had left Missandei with painless bruises, Brother with mild headstroke, and fussing from Mhysa at not knowing to inform Unsullied that their armour was not needful, always, as it had been before Her until Brother - Missandei could but speak endlessly of blessings upon blessings in her mother tongue - had begged Her leave to take audience with Her Herald in private.
Someone - the Westerosi, the greying one, or was it sun-lightening? - had managed the decorum required to leave the siblings be, convincing Mhysa she should stay a-court further, and arranged stand-ins to act the translator she was between them. It was after this - a week or so once Missandei could keep herself from beaming always at Brother, now assigned guardwork during the petitions - that Mhysa's Hand had taken Missandei aside and, with a toothed grin but furrowed brow, said that, were Missandei but older or man, the fist pinned to his breast would sit on hers instead.
In the end, that pin had doomed its wearer and Missandei had found herself relieved when it from one exiled Westerosi to another, and so on until the pin itself, and then its purpose, was lost as Mhysa (and so Missandei) had freed Free City upon Free City (then freed again the one before) and across The Narrow Sea from siege at whence Mhysa's own Mother had lost life to gift unto her... and the many, many cold and stony "cities" thereafter.
Dorne, at least, had been warm and almost familiar with its Rhyonish inheritance but The Sunset Lands, as politics and power changed hands and lands, were mostly damp and bitter in their climate. The words of The House Stark became something of a pained reminder to Missandei, what few Dothraki left of Mhysa's Khalasar after crossing a non-grass sea, the Unsullied, and those Unchained who sought to emulate their Unsullied protectors or to settle in the new, free kingdom Mhysa promised.
Few Unchained (or Unsullied) had chosen to settle in The Sunset Lands, in the end: The Long Night, after all, had proved to be Long indeed and the Dothraki had remembered their part in its first instance all too well to the Essosi migrants. The frenzied fanatacism of The Red God's cultists, hailing Mhysa their saviour born anew and hungry to dwell in the lands she held rule, had burnt out entirely by Winter's End through fighting and in-fighting and the cold, cold, cold.
The Herald's return voyage had even attracted some small number of Mhysa's mother-people: some sought only to port first at Braavos and onto Dorne but many would stay on (and much of the Unchained and the Unsullied sought Braavos itself: it was, after all, the first true home of those once-slaves).
But all this was memory. Scatterings of an adolescence spent announcing names and titles in language after language, spent growing out of her own humble dresses and into Mhysa's castoffs, spent with Mhysa brushing Missandei's hair out each night afore bed as they giggled together about which petitions of the day were most silly...
Missandei stood at the prow alone, now. No Masters. No Mhysa.
No, Missandei had her own people to care for - her brother's Unsullied Brothers who had adopted a sister with full hearts; the shy Westerosi "wildling", named for a flower, who had traded Valyrian for "Old Tongue" and her babes they had kept quiet, hiding below castles that grew warmer as you went deeper, as they waited for her Lord Husband's return (she was among those porting to Braavos though she was to the "Reach", not Dorne); Unchained, many short of toes and fingers or whole limbs, and all hopeful to find Essos kinder now they had saved them all; even the formerly-flighty former handmaids of Mhysa's court... all these men and women and children... they looked to The Herald and its namesake.
Little news had come to The Sunset Lands as years went on and Winter had kept ships freezed in dock: the Unchained had little knowing of what had become of Dragon's Bay when its dragons had flown away. Perhaps loyalty too, of those who stayed behind, had flown to the wind but, perhaps, the ice had warmed all to Mhysa's memory.
Missandei, at the least, as Herald and Council knew she could face challenge to herself and hers with the backings of both those who sailed with The Herald and the Queens and Kings of the cities still standing when Winter Felled: foreign as she was to The Sunset Lands, Missandei had been at every petition Mhysa had held (and most held when She was elsewhere) and had kept peace between the Unchained as the newness of freedom faded and uncertainty set in. The growing cold had, at least, killed the plague besetting the Freed Cities before The Crossing, so they feared not its onset nor the revolts it provoked.
And, though counted as but slaves only years passed, most every Unchained in the Homecoming had earned some wealth or skill in their travels to claim places for themselves where there once were none. All, for one, could speak confident Westerosi and knew exactly what was most sought by The Sunset Lands after decades of pillage and upheaval.
(The North sought glass and food - and it was The Unchained who carried the letters and coin seeking it: the loyalty built between Missandei's Essosi and Westeros was borne of shared tragedy and was thusly as fierce)
Missandei was a Mhysa, now, though she had no babe for her own... though she blushed, sometimes, when her eyes met one of not-her-brother's Unsullied and he held gaze with her: warm brown and dark fixed, breathlessly, in time unmoving... until both stumbled from a wave and back into duty, chased by smiling crew and the howling snorts of the True Northerners.
There had been so many children bereft of mothers, after being Unchained, after The Crossing, after The Wars... it was a dream, an idea, for "later". Spring, perhaps.
For now, Missandei kept her eyes to the darkening sea and sky before her; her ears catching the mishmashing of languages shared (and not) between her people - many yet one - as they talked amongst themselves. She and the Northern Flower had plans to gather together those ships following in The Herald's wake with young ones and teach them letters (East and West both) when the boats stopped to fish and trade between themselves. Undoubtedly fishermen and divers would idle near then be caught tracing the signs of the day's lessons by their giggling babes.
It would be good, Missandei thought, if she could tempt the shyer Unsullied to learning their names at least by sending excitable children their way. All Unchained should know their free names. She would ensure it, she decided. First on The Herald, with its Westerosi wayfarers and her Unsullied Brother's Brothers (and Unsullied Not-Brother), then its neighbouring vessels - The Sea-Wolf, their Ironborn Escort, hosted many of the older Unsullied and some Westerosi-born Unchained besides; The Sand-Serpent, with its mixed complement of Dornish and Essosi Rhonyar; The Good Egg, with its ex-mercenaries turned husbands, a mixing of the Unchained's peoples, though not themselves Unchained; The Silver, Dothraki and the children sired from their last sea voyage and another on the way to a short-haired Dothrak and his tall, "bear" bride who wore a thick, black braid for a necklàce...
So much to do, so much within her reach, and, for once, no urgent hunger for Naath. Yes, Missandei would visit, eventually, trusting the butterflies remembered the girl she had been, but there was work, teaching, settling to be done, first. With her Brother's Brothers who knew not life with armour set aside. With the war orphans, borne of Essos and Westeros and neither, and their careful Unsullied protectors. With the letters and ambassadors from the Sunset Queens and Kings. With the brave True Northerners who wished to see canals. With The Unchained, her people, who chose her to be among their Council of Elders even before she stood even to their heights...
Missandei was a child no more and she laughed as the last of the sun's fires sunk into the lands behind her and her heart soared with the stars in a moonless sky, all her hopes within reach, delighting in the dark: Missandei had survived a night longer and darker than this and she felt gloriously, wonderously free.