Chapter 1: Home
So this was to be her new home.
Sansa hesitated, wondering if she should take her luggage out of the trunk now or wait until she was directed to do so. In the end, she opted for the latter and retrieved her handbag and her folder of personal documents from the small hand-carry beside her. She locked her car, and then she faced those old brown stonewall buildings standing gravely before her like ancient sages in silent conference, the even older trees around them marbling their facades with dappled sunlight.
She told herself to breathe. She told herself to still. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, her mask was on and she was ready.
The University of Arryn Vale was one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the Seven Kingdoms — second, perhaps, only to the Citadel in Oldtown in her heritage and reputation. Indeed, many of the empire's best and brightest commonly boasted of the Vale as their alma mater. It had been a huge relief to Sansa to learn that this campus was, in relative terms, considered the runt of the litter. For one thing, it was an absolute pill to get to, with its stingy, twisty roads and no rail access. It had been uphill for most of the drive, and Sansa had been thankful that, in The Fallout, she at least got to keep her car. One of the small blessings she supposed she was now expected to count and be grateful for.
Because, they kept telling her, you are nothing now. You are worse than nothing.
She took it all in silently, feeling the weight of the place, its gravitas, its seriousness. She felt the collective history of the place, and immediately felt small, insignificant. And then, as she ventured towards the campus map for directions, she caught a glimpse of what must be the outdoor sept, a giant gilded star hanging in the middle of a modest atrium like a dream catcher, as if suspended from the heavens by invisible threads. She didn't have to count to know that there were seven points on that star.
She glanced at the discreet directional signs, then turned right to head towards reception. For a fraction of a moment, she sensed, rather than saw, a dark figure staring down at her from the top storey window, but when she turned fully to look, she realised she was mistaken. There was no one there.
“You must be Sansa.” It was a declaration, not a question. The older woman was already confident of the answer. “I am Septa and Doctor Olenna Tyrell. I am the Deputy Head of School here. Is your luggage in the car?”
“Yes, I — “
“Good. Leave it there, we’ll get to your room later. Come with me.”
Jeyne Poole, the kindly, mousy receptionist, nodded in encouragement and flashed Sansa a small smile which Sansa gratefully returned before hurrying behind Dr Tyrell. The elder woman looked to be in her mid-seventies, although her speed and acuity belied her actual age. Together, crone and maiden took a whirlwind tour through the campus. Here is the main kitchen, although the staff mostly use the modest kitchenette within the staff room. Here are our lecture halls, and break-out rooms, and bathrooms, and common areas. Here is the indoor sept where everyone is welcome to evening prayers on their own. They have chapel daily, but Wednesdays are when they frock up and do the whole shebang from start to finish. Here is the outdoor sept, where the devout have their morning prayers while freezing to death from the icy north wind, but what good is devotion without some semblance of self flagellation?
Sansa had a glimpse of her work space, which turned out to be essentially a single wooden desk parked outside the biggest office in the staff building on the top floor. This surprised Sansa, who had initially assumed she would be working alongside Jeyne in the bright and busy reception area. Sansa was initially crestfallen, but she soon cheered herself up when she realised how much privacy her actual work space would afford her. The less people saw of her, the more she could disappear. And the more she disappeared, the less everyone would remember...
“Now, your lodgings,” Olenna Tyrell finally paused, before pushing past a small wooden gate. They were stepping into a different world now. The bushes were overgrown and took over much of the path so Sansa could barely make out the flagstones. Drooping Japanese maples pregnant with leaves hung heavy on each side like dozing sentry. Eventually, Dr Tyrell fished out a small key and opened the door to the bedsit at the end of their path. The air inside was cold and musty, and Sansa took great care not to make a face even as her skin crawled slightly.
“I’m sorry we can’t offer you better,” she bristled defensively, and Sansa was quick to assure her of her gratitude. “Your accommodation needs were… unexpected, and we need to keep our other guest quarters available at all times for visiting lecturers. This flat is old, but it should do you nicely. You have your own toilet and bathroom, which is more than what most students get.”
“This is wonderful,” Sansa assured the older lady once again. “I cannot thank you enough.”
Seemingly satisfied for now, Dr Tyrell turned and took her leave. “I’ll give you an hour to settle in, and then you can come in and meet the rest of the staff. Most of them should be arriving in the next half hour except the Professor, which is unfortunate, seeing how you’ll be mostly working for him. He took the red eye from King’s Landing and arrived before dawn this morning, so I expect him to be coming in around lunch time, if not after.”
“I’ll see you in an hour,” Sansa promised. And then the door finally closed and she was alone.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket once again. She sighed heavily, and closed her eyes. When she reopened them, there was a shard of steel in her gaze.
She flicked on her phone, and scrolled through the messages. Twenty-three this morning.
I’ll find you and cut off your tits, you cunt.
I’ll find you and rape you.
I’ll kill you, slowly. I’ll find out where you live. You’ll never be safe.
I want to slice up your stupid, pretty face, you good for nothing. You worthless piece of shit.
I hate you. You’ve ruined our lives, you and your father.
My mother will die from her cancer now, because of you.
My grandmother is crying. Because of you.
Daughter of a traitor.
Whore. I hope you die from a thousand painful diseases.
I hate you. I hate all of you. Go to hell, Sansa Stark, you and your fucking traitorous father.
“I’d like to introduce you all to Miss Sansa Stark.”
At her name, those who had not recognised her before — or were doing their level best to look nonchalant — now sat up a little straighter. She felt at least fifteen pairs of eyes train on her with curiosity, and cursed herself silently as she felt the colour rise up her neck to rival the red of her hair. After all these weeks, she thought she'd be used to the staring. That blossoming from recognition, to gawping, to judgement as knowledge trickled down from eyes, to mouth, to heart.
All men were the same. All people were the same.
She was disappointed in herself for allowing her emotions to still be affected so easily.
“Miss Stark is here to assist in the foreseeable future. As you know, Jeyne has been needing help for some time and so Miss Stark comes to us at a time of need...”
Olenna glanced then at Sansa, sealing the full meaning of her equivoque with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Sansa flushed angrily now, smarting at the fact that they all saw her as their charity case. She raised her chin a fraction in defiance, her blue eyes cooling to azure.
“Welcome,” said a voice towards the middle of the room, and bodies moved aside as if a small sea were parted to reveal a short man, a dwarf, Sansa realised with a start. “Don’t mind us,” the voice and the eyes both smiled up at her, which was how Sansa knew he was genuine. “We’re not used to new faces, and especially not a lovely young one such as yours.”
“Really, Tyrion? Flirting with the new girl already?…” scolded someone else half in jest, but Sansa suddenly stilled. Tyrion, the dwarf. Tyrion Lannister. Here with her, in gods-know-where. Of all the gin joints in the world… How could this even be possible!
As if reading her mind, Tyrion’s thick, expressive eyebrows furrowed slightly.
“You don’t have to worry, Miss Stark.” His voice was soft and full of warmth. “None of us is interested in throwing stones. In this School, we understand that genetics is not destiny… and so we try not to punish the child for the wrongs of her father. Or the sins of the entire blooming family, in my case.”
He gave a wry smile again, and Sansa found herself relaxing a fraction. She forced herself to breathe, to nod, and even to smile wanly although her heart was still hammering against her ribcage. Would he tell his family about her whereabouts? Would Joffrey know? They all despised Tyrion, she knew. They derided him; he was as good as disowned by their father. How did she never learn that he, too, was hiding out here? But was blood always thicker than water.
Sansa’s head buzzed while the rest of the introductions went by in a haze. She was vaguely aware of Septa Dr Lemore, a handsome woman in her forties who specialises in the healing arts. She learnt that Olenna teaches liturgical theology, that Tyrion holds a fascination with other world religions, sects and cults. There were others — a retired Maester and Faith historian by the name of Gormon; a rather vain Musicology lecturer with long, flowing locks who insisted on only being called “Marillion”; a thin and twitchy Maester named Colemon who lectured regularly on ancient tongues, and an almost ridiculously gorgeous Spaniard lecturer on contemporary ethics named Dr Ellaria Sands.
It was Dr Sands who took it upon herself to cut to the quick.
“How many people know you are here? Are we going to be swamped by the media now?”
“Ellaria, really now…” Olenna censured half-heartedly.
“Yes really, Olenna. We all know who she is, and how the media have hounded her…”
“They’ve been rather quiet in the last week…” Sansa volunteered weakly.
Ellaria Sand snorted.
“A week. That’s until something else happens with you and yours. Suppose the Lannister government finds more damning evidence of this Ponzi scheme of your father’s — “
“My father is innocent!”
“ — we’re going to have press at our door, and they’re going to run another stack of stories about the number of lives ruined. Except this time, our School will be complicit in hiding a national traitor and getting her life back in order when so many others are so much more deserving, so many whose lives have been irrevocably ruined because of the greed of this family. Tell me,” Ellaria’s eyes flashed, bold, hurt, and spiteful, “How many lives has your family ruined, Sansa? Do you know? Do you even care? Do you even have a clue what people really think of you?”
The silence that followed was deafening. Sansa felt the full weight of their accusation, felt the colour drain from her face, her hands clasped tightly behind her back trembling despite her best efforts. And then, as if to answer the rhetorical, a series of text messages buzzed obnoxiously in her pocket. One. Two. Three.
“Why are you even here!” Ellaria finally spat out.
“Because my Faithful wife understands that compassion is not ours to take away, only to give,” drawled a low voice from the back, "And I happen to agree with her."
All heads turned then to the back of the room and Sansa watched as a man, no taller than herself, pushed himself off the edge of the table he had been casually leaning against to make his unhurried way to the front of the room. The staff parted for him wordlessly, and Sansa noted his elegant three-piece suit, his polished leather boots that made no sound when he walked. the side-swept salt and pepper hair that ended with a distinguished pair of greying temples, and which complemented an impeccable moustache and goatee. His eyes were dark grey, or were they green? She couldn’t tell from this distance, only that they were trained on no one else but her. He never blinked as he made his way to the front, to her side, and it was only when she thought as much that she realised how his eyes had held hers like a magnet, like a predator. She felt her treacherous neck heat up, and thanked the gods she chose to wear a high collar today.
“Sorry I’m late,” he murmurred only to her, before turning to address the room.
“Professor Baelish,” chirped Olenna, as if Ellaria hadn’t just thrown a hissy fit about his latest recruitment choice, “We didn’t expect you to come down this morning!"
“And yet here I am,” Professor Baelish replied drily, as Sansa regarded the man beside her in wonderment. Her estranged-aunt’s husband. Her new benefactor. The Head of School, Professor Petyr Baelish.
He was nothing like Sansa had imagined.
“I know you are all concerned about the recent events involving our government and House Stark,” Professor Baelish began in a quiet voice, eyeing each and every one of his colleagues before him. He stopped to stare at Ellaria until she looked away unhappily. “I can assure you that we have thought things through, and there are measures in place for most… scenarios.
“Until matters between our government and Sansa’s father are resolved, Sansa will remain under the protection of both myself and her aunt — my wife, Lysa. We are the only family she has near her in these trying times, and we feel it is our duty as her kinfolk and as one of the Faithful that we shower her with our compassion and grace.
“As to her appointment in this School, I want to give you every assurance that Sansa brings to this new position her unique abilities and a strong work ethic. She has earned this place on her own merit,” he affirmed coolly without a trace of irony, even as Sansa squirmed uncomfortably beside him.
"I ask that you extend to her the full measure of courtesy and grace you extend to me. After all,” Professor Baelish smirked, his voice now silky, “if we cannot model grace and compassion in a School of Religious Studies, then we cannot dare to call ourselves learned teachers, now can we?”
Satisfied that his veiled threat had made its mark, Professor Baelish turned on his heel and left the room through the door behind Sansa. No one moved until the door clicked close behind him.
Thought I'd start with the first two chapters in the one hit. I'd love your feedback, and hope you'll stick around for more.
Professor Baelish did not come back to his office after that, and she did not know where he went nor did she dare ask. She was shown to her desk and for the rest of the day, spent much of it on the phone with a girl named Genna from tech support to get her staff profile and file access set up on her work station. Everything was slow and ponderous. There were always forms to fill, always signatures and approvals to seek. It struck Sansa that they had been ill prepared for her arrival, as it seemed nothing much had been arranged beforehand. She didn’t even have stationary.
The kindly receptionist from the morning, Jeyne Poole, had been most helpful at the beginning of the day, until the matter of Sansa's past work experience came up.
“You must be so excited, to be working as Professor Baelish’s executive assistant,” Jeyne had started, eyeing Sansa curiously. “We were all so, SO amazed when he suddenly announced he was going to have one —after all, even Dr Tyrell nagging him these years didn’t work neither. We thought he was going to do a recruitment round, but he said he already found the perfect one. You must be very good!”
Sansa had winced inwardly, both at the crass fishing expedition and at Jeyne’s forwardness. But to the girl, she had smiled and given a noncommittal shrug.
“No seriously!” pressed Jeyne, “You must have some awesome résumé to have changed his mind. Professor Baelish is such a private man. And he definitely doesn’t suffer any fools, and between you and me…" Jeyne had lowered her gaze and her voice conspiringly so Sansa had to bend down to hear, “… Professor Baelish is never one to hand out somethin' for nothin'. Just my observation.” She then tapped the side of her nose meaningfully and Sansa had to suppress the sudden urge to laugh, even as a small part of her turned to ice at Jeyne's meaning.
“So! Who else have you clerked for before? You must have some awesome stories!”
“Nothing worth retelling, I can assure you!” laughed Sansa, desperate to move this topic along as her mind raced. Should she try to make something up about her past? Or admit the truth: that she was just as perplexed as to the recent turn of events as everyone in that room earlier in the day had been? I have nothing special except my name, and even that is gone.
“What about you?” Sansa had deflected, knowing full well that the easiest conversation turner was to ask an individual to talk about herself. “How long have you worked here?”
“Long enough,” admitted Jeyne. “I’ve been manning the reception area for about five years now, and I guess you can kinda call me the office manager — although no one will ever admit to that. Sounds too senior for their liking, that’s what I think. I would have loved a job like yours, though. Executive Assistant sounds so much better than Receptionist, don’t you think?”
Again, Sansa winced inwardly even as she marvelled at Jeyne’s forwardness. Either the girl was really that obtuse as to not see how inappropriate she was being, or she hid her motives well — hiding in plain sight, so no one could take her barbs seriously. The ultimate passive aggression. Sansa couldn’t figure her out, but she sensed rather than knew that she’d be wise to keep her distance from Jeyne Poole.
“So you won’t tell me who you clerked for before?” Jeyne harrumphed, as Sansa smiled coyly and shook her head. “What a spoilsport. But it’s alright. You’re real famous anyway, and it’s a small world at the end of the day. I guess I’ll be able to find out one of these days.”
She had said it with a beam, but Sansa heard the threat in every one of her words.
As the sun sank low and the shadows grew long, so the staff thinned in number. Sansa knew better than to be one of the first few to leave, and so she waited until Olenna popped her head upstairs and shooed her home, teaching her how to arm the building on the way out.
“You’re one of the few staff members to be living on campus, so you will at least need to learn how to arm and disarm the building. Have Jeyne set you up with your code tomorrow morning.”
“Do you not live here?” Sansa asked in surprise.
“No, I most certainly do not,” Olenna replied, as if that were a most ludicrous thing to suggest. “Most of us live off-campus in our own homes. Only Professor Baelish and his wife live here on the grounds, as part of his stipend and Lysa’s long connections to the Vale. But if you’re feeling lonely, there’s always the students living in that block over there.” Olenna pointed to the nearest building perpendicular to theirs. “Although with your current infamy…” thought Olenna aloud, “perhaps it’s still best to keep to yourself for now, girl.”
Mercifully, Sansa found her way back to her little cottage, having acquainted herself with the lay of the land through the course of her day. The little wooden gate creaked open and she gingerly walked the meandering path to her doorway, noting how the dark overgrowth seemed to swallow her whole the further in she went. Great for privacy, thought Sansa, but a part of her gut twisted with unease. If anyone should think to attack her here, she wondered how far her cries would carry and who would even hear her at this time of day. Would anyone think to look here, in this long-forgotten shack at the back of the university?
She had to use her phone to shine a light on the door so she could work the key in, and when she stepped into her home and whiffed the musty air, a part of her finally broke inside and she started to cry.
She should be so grateful, she knew. Yet the weeks had been nothing short of a nightmare she could not wake from and the trials, unrelenting. She had no idea how cushioned her life had been until the last month, even after suffering the great loss of her mother and brothers two years ago. That had been heartbreaking, but at least her family name had still meant something. They still had friends, they still had dignity, they still a standing in the world.
She still had her father. She still had her home. Her wolf.
But then the national fund collapsed and her father was fingered and now she was made to live like a fugitive. Where once she would be the one to dispense kindness and mercy at will, she was now begging for it. And she was already learning quickly how far removed the world was from her microcosm. How cocooned and privileged she had been, living as a Stark. Bouts of unconditional kindness and mercy in this world were few and far between. The world was much too cynical and avaricious for sentiment. And how it delights in the fall of man! How quick everyone is to bring down the high and mighty, to trample the downtrodden, to pour salt on wounds and then point and laugh some more. The greater the height, the harder and further the fall, they say.
Her phone buzzed again, and she fished it out of her pocket in anger. For a split second, she thought to throw it across the room until she remembered the state of her savings account, and realised she could not even afford a temper tantrum.
She smiled to herself sardonically, and dried her eyes.
In the end, the room was not so bad. There was a small attached bathroom and toilet, and a space for a washing machine next to a sink within an alcove behind a sliding door. The main living space housed the kitchenette, a double bed, a study desk, and a small dining table for two.
Sansa spent the next two hours making this ramshackle house a home. She dusted out the closet and hung up her clothes. She found a broom and started sweeping, then found a mop and a pail. She started a list of things to get — a brighter lightbulb so she wouldn’t go blind, for instance. Perhaps a pretty light fitting, if she could afford one down the track. A small rug for the kitchen. And even a Japanese screen to separate the living area from her sleeping quarter. She didn’t think she could afford a washing machine, so she would have to research how to hand wash her clothes. She was glad, at least, that she had free wifi as a staff member living on campus. That was one less bill to worry about.
She never had to cook and clean for herself in her life. She had been schooled in such useless things, she thought ruefully. How to paint and sing and cross stitch. How to walk elegantly into a room, and dress up for the opera. How to organise a household of servants to host a roomful of diplomats. How to make ladylike conversation. What good were any of these skills now, she wondered.
After she had aired the room until the mustiness no longer assaulted her nose, she looked around her new home with a growing sense of satisfaction and excitement. She had never lived away from home before; even her university education had been done online with the oversight of Septa Mordane from the comfort of Winterfell. She had been homeschooled by a governess like all the girls of her ilk, her virginity and religiosity held up as the pearl of great price to be auctioned off eventually to the highest bidder or to the most powerful ally. Male headship was the way of their world, and under her father’s rule she had known only kindness and love so she never thought to question its implications to her life until she was matched to Joffrey Baratheon...
No matter. That was old history now. Sansa was hungry. Maybe she was secretly a dab hand at the stove as well.
She was not a dab hand at the stove at all.
Sansa coughed and pushed open the windows. Smoke was curling up thick and fast from the stove, and soon the thin insistent shriek of an alarm was sounding out obnoxiously, damn well near taking over the rest of her senses with its volume. She had turned the stove off, but to no avail. Smoke was still coming off that gods-forsaken burner and there wasn’t enough time to consult the internet on what to do next.
And then the pan caught fire.
With a squeak and an uncharacteristic curse, Sansa grabbed the biggest pot she could find and filled it up with water at the sink. But just as she was about to throw the pot of water onto the pan, she felt a firm hand still her.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” commanded a deep voice, and Sansa whirled in fright to find grey-green eyes staring straight at her. She stopped, and then watched as Professor Baelish smoothly fished out a metal cover from the cupboard under the sink to place on top of the pan, before moving the pan to the sink. There was a hiss of steam as water met heated metal, and they watched as the fire, eventually starved of air, died a natural death. The shrieking from the alarm soon died as well, and Sansa was left to stand awkwardly in her room, a sheepish look on her face.
“I really don’t know what happened there,” she admitted finally. “I’ve never used a stove like that before.” Or any other stove, but Sansa was even more loathed to admit that to Professor Baelish.
He smirked slightly. “It’s an old electric stove, that’s for sure. My guess for the smoke is that old grease had caked the burner you used. As for the fire… How long did you leave the oil in the pan?”
“I don’t know… I was too caught up with the smoking burners.”
“Grease fires happen when your oil is too hot. When you see your oil smoking, it’s time to turn down the heat.”
“But I had turned the burner off!”
“Doesn’t matter. This is a very old electric stove. The latent heat in the coil would have still heated up your pan for a good long time after you turned the stove off.”
Sansa felt like a fool. As if reading her thoughts, Professor Baelish’s eyes softened and he turned to look around the room approvingly.
“You’ve classed up this place at least,” he murmured, walking over to one of the wall hangings with interest. “Did you paint this?”
Sansa nodded numbly.
“This is Winterfell,” he pronounced, sounding impressed. “You have a great eye for detail.”
She flushed with pleasure and smiled. “You know it then?”
“Mmm,” was all he said, as he moved to her other two paintings. Her beloved wolf stared back soulfully at Professor Baelish as he gazed at her with unmasked appreciation. But as he stared at the portrait of her mother and brothers, his face was a blank, inscrutable.
She noticed then that he was worrying a part of his left hand and as she stared harder, she realised why.
“You’re hurt!” she exclaimed and without thinking, she reached for his hurt hand and gently led him by it to the kitchen sink.
“You’ll need to run burns like these under a cold running tap for a while…” She turned the tap on, and placed his left hand underneath the steady stream of cool water. “Leave it here for now, while I go prepare the warm water.”
“It’s alright, really,” he started to demur, but Sansa was already busying herself with the hot water kettle and the firm set of her lips discouraged any further protest. When she returned, she turned the tap off and gently submerged his hand into a shallow pail of warm water.
Professor Baelish was intrigued.
“Warm water seems… counterintuitive for burns treatment,” he observed.
“It does, but you’ll find that while cold water will take the sting away, it’s the warm water that will help minimise tissue damage and restore your blood circulation.”
Professor Baelish smiled then. It was the briefest of smiles, with a flash of teeth and a spark of energy that lit up the eyes. It occurred then to Sansa that he was quite handsome.
“Many unique talents,” he said softly, and Sansa found herself flushing once more with pleasure at the praise, glad for once that the wattage of her lightbulb was too low to show up the colour creeping up her neck. She felt, rather than saw, him staring at her with something akin to wonderment. When she finally looked up, his eyes held hers with the same magnetism that held them that morning. She held her breath, waiting for something to happen, unsure of what she wanted to happen. He raised his free right hand and, for a moment, looked as if he might hold her face with it. She watched as he stilled it, forcing it to drop to his side.
“You look so much like her,” he almost whispered in awe, his eyes searching hers, transfixed. “It’s uncanny.”
Sansa stilled, her breath caught in her throat. There was only one person in the world he could have been referring to. Professor Baelish was talking about her mother.
“I’m so sorry she died.”
Sansa breathed out again, and dropped her eyes. “So am I,” she whispered, more to herself than for him. The first year since their death had been devastating for their family. Losing her mother, Robb, and Rickon in the one traffic accident was horrendous enough. But in this last month and at her spiritual and emotional lowest, she had felt a yearning for her mother like nothing before. A keening sense of loss and wishing that was utterly new as it was agonising.
She turned abruptly away from him then, anxious to recollect herself and put some distance between them. She wondered vaguely if they had somehow stepped outside the bounds of propriety. Yet, theirs was already a complicated relationship, that of employer and employee, newly acquainted uncle and niece, protector and ward. Where did familial feelings end and professional behaviour begin? Would they change by the clock? Colleagues by day, family by night? She was simultaneously grateful for, intrigued by, and apprehensive of him. He was perfectly polite and helpful, yet somehow there was a layer beneath it all with an intensity that almost scared her.
“I’d better get back,” she heard him say eventually, and she turned to find him at her doorway.
“No wait,” she heard herself say, and saw him still. “I need to say something.”
She crossed the room to him and looked him in the eyes, hoping he could read the depth of gratitude in hers because she knew words were not enough.
“Thank you,” she said simply. “Not just for today with the stove and the pan, but for… this.” She gestured at the bedsit lamely. “Thank you.”
He bowed slightly, stiffly. His voice was gravelly as he said, “Don’t mention it. We’re family.”
She shook her head, refusing to buy the casualness of his remark. “No. I can only guess what this might have cost you. You took a risk taking me in. Our family ignored yours for decades, and yet you and Aunt Lysa were the only ones willing to walk in when everyone else checked out.”
He looked away then, uncomfortable. Sansa was touched by his humility.
“Is there any chance for me to meet my Aunt Lysa soon? So I may thank her in person?”
He looked at her again then, and this time his mouth was set into a thin line.
“Your aunt can be reclusive.”
“It doesn’t have to be a long visit. Just to say thank you, that’s all the time I need. From everything I’ve heard, I know that she fought hard to have me welcomed here. And that I couldn’t have this all without your support also, of course,” Sansa added hastily.
Professor Baelish stared at Sansa as if calculating within his mind, before he finally acquiesced with a curt nod.
“Very well, I shall arrange a meeting when she next returns home.”
She watched as his elegant form made its way down the flagstone path before disappearing into the bowing trees overhead. And she wondered why she felt lonelier now than ever before.
As basic as her little bedsit/granny flat/cottage sounds, I've always wanted to have a place all to myself. I went from a shared house at Uni to getting married and sharing a house with a man. I kinda wish I went solo for a little while, y'know? So here's a bit of escapism. Also, I started out an atrocious cook so there you go — real life, bleeding on to the page.
Hope you enjoyed the slow burn. (Boom boom!)
Would love to hear from you. xx
The next few days passed with little incident. After the excitement of her introduction to the staff on her first day, most of them took pains to give her a wide berth. She bolstered their efforts by sticking to her corner of the building, perched outside Professor Baelish’s office like the proverbial white elephant with flaming red hair.
There was absolutely nothing to do.
After troubleshooting every last issue to do with her computer, Sansa had sat and waited for further instructions from Professor Baelish, but none came. The academic year was almost over and everyone, including the sharp-eyed Dr Tyrell, was too busy with exams and marking to check in. By logical deduction and eavesdropping, she had worked out that he had been called away suddenly to King’s Landing on a matter of urgent business, although what a Head of School for religious education had to do in the empire’s jewel that was so very important bemused Sansa.
She had no formal job description, no tasks, no responsibilities. No wonder they all hated her. She was practically a kept woman at this rate.
She looked up what being an executive assistant entailed, and found several websites with many handy templates. Some of these assistants, she soon discovered, were practically glorified house maids, getting the dry-cleaning done and ensuring the flowers got ordered for the wife. Professor Baelish didn’t look like the sort of man who would outsource the procurement of gifts for his wife, Sansa decided. It somehow felt beneath him.
And then one afternoon, more out of boredom than anything else, she decided to try the knob on Professor Baelish’s door and was stunned when it actually turned.
The heavy door swung in slowly and Sansa gazed into the room, taking in everything, suddenly hungry for information about the enigma that was her absent and neglectful boss. She took in the masculine elegance of the room, so much like his habiliment, the effortless blend of modernity with an almost romantic homage to the bygone. Everything was immaculate, including the pride of the room — a large mahogany desk that looked too stately and expensive to be store bought. It was set diagonal to the room, so Professor Baelish could face whomever came through the door as soon as they entered, the two walls of windows meeting in a thin seam at the corner behind him. On either side of the room sat floor to ceiling bookcases in matching mahogany and filled to the brim, and a small sitting area next to an original fireplace that had since been modernised to pipe in natural gas heating. Sansa imagined him sitting in his armchair reading late into the night, or lounging across the leather couch, eyes closed and face relaxed as sleep overtook him.
She took one tentative step inside, and then another. She gazed at his books, fascinated. She wondered if there was a system of cataloguing since he did not seem to alphabetise, and soon found there was. By topic, his books covered a dizzying raft of subjects: religion, politics, ethics, history, physics, mathematics, literature, geography, botany, economics, finance… There were new releases and seemingly ancient tomes, reaching as far back and as far ahead in time as she could see. She read the jackets on some of them for their gist and found that some volumes would wholly contradict others in their theology.
He even had a section on fiction — classics such as Voltaire, Dickens, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. She was delighted to find he had the Bronte sisters, and a couple of love stories in this year’s Highgarden’s bestsellers list.
Curiouser and curiouser...
And then his phone rang.
Or rather, hers did. Sansa quickly returned the book she was browsing back to its slot before dashing outside to pick up her receiver.
“Good… afternoon, Professor Baelish’s office, this is…” She faltered, suddenly realising her quandary of revealing her real name to a complete stranger.
“Sansa, it’s me Pet-... Professor Baelish.”
“Yes!” She blinked in surprise. “Yes, hello!”
“Yes, listen. I’m sorry I haven’t been in the office these couple of days. I’m in King’s Landing.”
“Yes, yes I heard.”
“Good. I need your assistance with something.”
Sansa brightened up. Finally, an official assignment. A chance to be useful.
“Have you been in my office yet?”
“No.” The lie was instinctive and instant.
“Well, that’s surprising, considering it’s not locked.” His voice was neutral, calm, but Sansa wondered if there was also a gentle mocking in his tone. She wisely chose to stay silent and not take the bait.
“Are you still there?”
“Yes, Professor Baelish.”
“I’ve got a patchy connection here, so I need to be quick. There is a key stuck under of one of the bookshelves in my room. If you were to look at the shelves on the left of my desk as a grid, it would be in cell B3.
“The key opens the top right drawer of my desk. In that drawer, there is a double sawtooth key. I want you to take it to the post office on twenty-second and third, and open box number nine-oh-three. And then I want you to call me back on this other number. Please.”
Sansa quickly jotted down his mobile number as he rattled it off. She could barely hear the last two numbers as his voice started dipping in and out.
“I’m about to lose you because I’ve stepped into an elevator,” he offered, as if reading her mind.
“I’ll go right away,” Sansa promised. Even though he had not pressed on her the urgency of the matter, it was clear that he could not wait and Sansa was like a coiled spring, all bundled energy waiting for release.
“Thank you,” he returned sincerely, before the line went dead.
Sansa found the post office easily enough. She paused outside the box he had named, and pondered her next step. In her haste she had neglected to grab the piece of paper on which she had scribbled his number, but found she had committed it to memory anyway. Decision made, she whipped out her phone and tapped it in.
He answered within the first ring.
“Is it you?”
“Yes it is,” she replied, taken aback by his abrupt manner and the suddenness of his answer.
“Have you opened the box?”
“Alright.” He paused.
“Sansa, before you open the box, there is something you need to understand about the terms of your employment. And I need you to listen carefully, to… understand.”
“I’m listening, Professor Baelish.”
“Good.” Another pause.
“When… your aunt Lysa and I approached the University with the proposal to take you in as an employee, the University was understandably concerned about the ramifications. There were several members on the board who had strong reservations. As a result, there were a few conditions put in place, one of which was that they would provide affordable lodging for you, while I funded your employment... privately."
He stopped then, to let the weight of his words sink in.
“So technically… I'm not an employee of the University?” clarified Sansa.
“For all intents and purposes to everyone else on our campus, you are. And when I say everyone on our campus, Sansa, I mean everyone.”
Sansa blinked, her mind whirring.
“You mean Aunt Lysa…”
“Does not know,” finished Professor Baelish.
Sansa chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. If Professor Baelish had meant to spare his wife the discomfiting news that the University was reluctant to take her niece in, that was entirely between him and her aunt. In some ways, Sansa found the revelation heartwarming; here was a man who loved his wife enough to carry out an expensive lie to ease her mind and champion her cause. Perhaps there were true gentlemen in the world after all.
And yet, Sansa felt a twinge of something else. A small kind of sickening warred within her heart. Sansa tamped down its ugliness and returned to the phone, voice bright.
“Don’t worry,” she assured Professor Baelish. “Your secret rests with me.”
And then something else dawned on Sansa, and she understood finally the full implication of his disclosure.
“So what you’re also telling me, Professor Baelish, is that my final loyalties may not necessarily lie with the University but with… you?”
“If it ever came to that, then yes,” returned Professor Baelish, tone cautious. “Will that be a problem?”
“You’re asking me to trust you.”
“I am, yes. Do you trust me, Sansa?”
She stopped. Five weeks ago, her world was different. Her problems were pettier and humanity, on the whole, was kind and good.
“I don’t trust anyone, Professor. Not anymore. I’m sorry.”
She was surprised to hear him chuckle. It sounded like warm honey.
“What’s so funny?”
“Only that... I’ve just told you who’s paying your bills, and you tell me what you really think anyway. Oh Sansa. I once asked a noble man the exact same question, and his answer was not half as wise as yours.”
Sansa did not know what to say to that, but she smiled to herself at the faint praise.
“I think you may have guessed by now that this box is a private one?”
“What you’re about to see… its contents… they might be surprising to you. Just understand that I wear several hats in my life, only some of which the University is aware of. I need your utmost discretion. Can you give me that?”
“Yes I can, Professor Baelish. And... I will.”
If Sansa had been curious about the contents within this box before, she was dying to find out now. She clipped her phone between her cheek and her left shoulder as she inserted the key, giving it a wriggle before she felt the mechanism give so she could turn.
In it were three letters in white, nondescript envelopes. Two of them were addressed to Petyr Baelish, no titles, no post nominals. The last one surprised her the most, as it was addressed to Lord Petyr Baelish. She knew next to nothing about him from her family, except that he was lowborn. He must have come by the title later in life, but how?
“Do any of them bear a wax seal?”
“No, they don’t. I can take a picture of the letters for you, if you like.”
“There is no need.” He sounded distant, and Sansa sensed that his mind was racing.
“Would you like me to open any of them for you?”
“Not right now, Sansa. You can take them back with you and leave them on my desk. I hope to be catching a ride back to the Vale soon. Thank, you, Sansa.”
“My pleasure, Professor Baelish.”
Sansa hung up, her feelings jumbled and warring with one another although in the end, her disappointment won through. What had started out as such a promising adventure had turned out to be nothing more than a quick postal run. She was no better to him than those house maids she had read about earlier in the week, after all.
In the light of the moon, a helicopter sailed across the clear night sky. When it spotted a clearing, it started to descend, pushing the trees around the edges low until some of them kissed the ground.
Sansa had almost reached the cottage when she heard the thump-thump-thump overhead, the slapping sound increasing to a roar as it started to land. She had turned back and ran towards it, curious and a little bewildered. She passed two mature-aged students enjoying an after-dinner smoke, nonplussed.
“Ay, that would be the Head return’d fancy-style,” she heard one say to the other.
She slowed to a stop when she saw it. The sleek black chopper had landed in the middle of the near-empty car park in front of the reception building, barely thirty feet from where her own car was parked. It was too far away for her to make out any distinctive marks, any logos that might indicate whose it was. The propellers were still moving when she saw him step off the helicopter easily, briefcase in one hand, a dark business trench coat making him seem taller from the distance. He waved to the pilot like they were old friends, then made his way to his residential building as the rotors picked up speed again.
Who was this man that a helicopter would drop him off at his doorstep, Sansa wondered, slipping further into the shadows.
A bit of a light one for now. Just peeling the Baelish onion one layer at a time. :-)