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 façades 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 self-flagellation?
Sansa had a glimpse of her workspace, 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 workspace 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 had 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. :-)
Chapter 5: Clean
She had planned for this. The campus felt almost deserted, even though she knew there were students in the other block. It was a breezy day. The air was neither too warm nor too cool, perfect for throwing open the windows. And Sansa was tired of eating cold sandwiches.
She had looked into how to clean an old electric stove, especially one as decrepit and neglected as hers had been. First, she had climbed on the sturdier of her two dining chairs to disable her smoke alarm. That had been easy enough to do. The ceiling was low and she was naturally tall, even taller than her mother had been.
The second part was more bothersome.
Sansa cranked all four burners on high, and then watched as they smoked like before. She had stripped down her bed and covered it as best as she could, anticipating the need to wash her bedlinen by the time she was through with the stove. It did not take long for the tiny bedsit to be filled with smoke, even with the doors and windows wide open. Sansa started to cough, glad she had the good sense to disable the alarm beforehand. She wandered outside to wait, hoping all the grease would burn off as promised on the website, and that the coils would be easy to remove and clean once they cooled.
The smoke was starting to drift out her kitchen window now, helped along by that light easterly wind the bureau of meteorology had promised yesterday. She would scrub those coils with baking powder. She hoped she had enough. She prayed to the gods she knew what she was doing. The website had not provided any pictures of the actual scrubbing, only the before and after photos. Was she supposed to make a paste with the baking powder or just coat the coils with it, she wondered.
The Japanese Maples up ahead rustled just then, though not in concert with the breeze.
“What in the gods…” Sansa started as Professor Baelish suddenly emerged, his hair uncharacteristically tousled as if he had broken into a run.
“Sansa, are you alright?”
“Then step away from the bloody door!”
Without fully registering how calm she was, Professor Baelish firmly pulled her to himself. She felt herself enveloped in a fierce embrace for a moment, then unceremoniously deposited in a corner of her unkempt front garden. Professor Baelish turned, as if contemplating whether to go in.
He was not listening.
“Prof-… PETYR!” she yelled, and this time he stopped and whipped his head around. He took in her appearance, the way her hair was done up in a high knot and wrapped in a scarf, her scruffiest T-shirt with the holes, rubber gloves scrunched in one hand, jeans rolled up. A spark of understanding finally touched his eyes and Sansa scrambled up from the grass as gracefully as she could.
“I’m cleaning the stove, Professor Baelish. The house isn’t on fire.”
He had the grace to look sheepish for once, and Sansa bit down a grin. They stared at each other before Sansa’s poker face began to waver. Sansa held the dishcloth she had been holding to her mouth to stifle the laugh that was threatening to erupt. Her eyes continued to dance, filled with mirth.
“I’ve been a goose, haven’t I.”
Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and nodded slowly.
She heard Professor Baelish chuckle, and that was her undoing. Sansa started to laugh. The more she tried to stop herself, the harder she laughed.
“I’m sorry!” she wheezed in between, a distant part of her rational mind horrified at her rudeness. What must he think of her, she scolded herself. But then a quick flashback to the way he had tossed her to the ground set off a fresh peal of laughter. Oh gods love him, but he meant well.
“Could you see the smoke all the way from your rooms?” Sansa asked finally, when the last of her mirth had been spent.
“I don’t know,” Professor Baelish admitted. “I wasn’t in my room.”
“Where were you?”
“On my way to you, actually. To install this.”
As if on cue, Sansa and Professor Baelish watched as a tradesman gingerly wheeled in a freestanding cooktop and oven over the bumpy flagstones to her bedsit. Sansa gasped.
“An oven!” She was delighted. Professor Baelish looked pleased.
“After Monday’s incident, I decided it was high time the University replaced this old cooktop. I’m only sorry that other pressing matters took me away this week so I couldn’t arrange this sooner.”
Sansa shook her head. “I was quite happy to clean out this one and try to use it.” She hesitated, suddenly remembering what he had told her yesterday. “I hope this isn’t yet another expense you’ve had to shoulder?”
“Please. Let that concern be between myself and the Board,” replied Professor Baelish firmly.
Professor Baelish watched silently as the tradesman he called Lothor made quick work of removing the old cooker and fitting the new one in. It was a snug fit, but when Lothor finally left with a generous tip from Professor Baelish, Sansa marvelled at how much better the entire kitchen area looked because of it. She shyly set the kettle on, and invited Professor Baelish to stay for a cup of tea. He acquiesced, settling on the rockier of the two dining room chairs to watch her.
“How do you have your tea?”
Sansa set his tea down, and he watched as she poured a generous amount of milk in her own before spooning in several heap spoons of sugar.
“Please don’t judge me,” she mumbled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he replied smoothly, grinning into his cup.
They sipped their steaming teas in companionable silence, the sun breaking through the clouds intermittently. Sansa stared out the door into her unruly garden, quietly planning what she might do to improve it given the time and, eventually, her salary. It’s so quiet in here, thought Sansa. So peaceful. And almost pretty,
She realised it was the first time she felt peace in quite a while.
“How did you know I would be home?” she asked suddenly.
“Just now, when you had the cooktop delivered. How did you know I would be here to let you in?”
“I made an educated guess.”
“I see.” She wondered if that meant he knew she had no friends, that she had nowhere to go. And he would be right, she realised with a jolt. She didn’t. She was still a prisoner of sorts, although not of his making.
“But what if I hadn’t been?” she pressed, curious. “What if I had gone for a walk somewhere, or chanced it and gone to the local village?”
Professor Baelish dug into the left pocket of his pants and fished out a key that looked familiar.
“You would have let yourself in?”
“As the official custodian of the grounds, one of the great staff perks is unfettered access to all rooms on this campus. I could let myself into any room if I needed to. And I have, from time to time.”
The fact should have unnerved Sansa more, but it didn’t. She was under no illusions. She was there purely because of their hospitality — and specifically his generosity, since Aunt Lysa was under the false impression that it was the University who had given Sansa a living. To be upset that he would help himself into the bedsit to improve her living conditions would be churlish indeed.
“About the phones…” he said suddenly, his mind clearly having drifted into other areas, “If you are to answer the phones for me, going forward, I think it’s best you pick a pseudonym. As much as I doubt anyone in this School would give you away, answering the phone as 'Sansa Stark' could be problematic, don’t you think?”
“I agree,” replied Sansa, but she suddenly stilled.
“What is it?”
“My email… my staff account,” she realised with horror. She had used her actual name. How careless! What must she be thinking? Was there now a whole roomful of IT nerds who knew exactly who and where she was?
But Professor Baelish seemed untroubled by the admission. “When you contacted tech support, did you only use the number that Jeyne had given you?”
“Good. Genna works for me, and if we were to decide to stick with a pseudonym for you out of pragmatism, it would be easy enough to change your settings without too much hassle.”
Sansa breathed a sigh of relief. Evidently, she was unused to subterfuge and also sucked at it. Even after five weeks of hounding from the press and the public, she couldn’t think fast or far ahead enough to get herself out of trouble. She could kick herself.
“Don’t worry about it,” he soothed, and Sansa flashed him a grateful smile. What is it about Professor Baelish that he could find just the right words to address her insecurity of the moment? Sansa wondered if all these years studying about the divine didn’t also give him preternatural insights on the human condition.
“Would you like more tea?” she offered, and was glad when he happily accepted. She wasn’t ready to see him go yet.
She had just set her kettle on when her phone buzzed on the dining table. Sansa turned and quickly crossed the room but it was too late. From the look on his face, she knew he had read the message as it popped up automatically on screen before disappearing.
“Sansa…” his voice was low, slightly strained. “How many of these do you get?”
“Not many,” she lied, but she could not look at him and that seemed to be all the answer he needed.
“Could you please show me the rest?” he asked. The tone was gentle and he had worded it as a request, but Sansa sensed that he brooked no argument on the matter. And suddenly, she didn’t feel like fighting him either. The weeks of abuse, of vitriol, of hate were only so much she could bear and it suddenly felt good to share it with someone perhaps stronger and wiser than her.
Wordlessly, she flicked on her phone and then passed it to Professor Baelish, who took it from her gravely and started to read.
She returned to the kitchen to finish making their teas, unwilling to watch his reaction, unwilling to see disgust and pity seep into his grey-green eyes.
When she returned to the table, he was angry.
“These cowards ought to be rounded and shot.”
“They’re scared,” Sansa explained pointlessly. “They’re scared and they’re angry, and they want someone to blame."
“Yeah? Well, hunting an innocent woman down and threatening to rape and kill her is still a federal crime, the last time I checked. This is not your fault!”
“They don’t see that. All they see is my name, and my blood. My father doesn’t have his phone anymore, but I do and so they text me."
He placed the phone down slowly, the careful control belying the white hot anger rippling under his bare skin like a viper.
“Have you tried changing your number?”
“Once,” she admitted. “But someone ratted me out soon after, and so I’m back to this again.”
He cursed and Sansa flinched at the strong language.
“What if you tried changing your number again?”
“I can’t…” she faltered, and she had to blink to keep the sudden tears at bay. Those stupid tears, she gritted her teeth in frustration. They came always at the most inopportune time. A silent mockery whenever she strove to look her very strongest.
“And why not?” he almost demanded, before comprehension dawned in his eyes. “Your father has no phone…”
“I think he still remembers my current number. If he ever has the chance to call me from whatever prison they’re hiding him in, at least I’ll know he can reach me.”
Professor Baelish stared at Sansa, the wheels in his head turning. Silence filled the room. Sansa gazed at him, the setting sun behind him now throwing a faint shadow on part of his face. He looked younger in a T-shirt, Sansa noted idly. It was harder now to remember he was a Head of School at a prestigious university, and gods know what else at King’s Landing. Here he was, in her bedsit, wearing a T-shirt and cargo pants, and brooding. He was not an exceptionally tall man, but she noted how his soft, seasoned T-shirt skimmed his lean, athletic figure, how the sleeves fitted snugly over the muscles in his upper arms. A hint of collarbone peeped through the small V in his neckline. Sansa looked away then, suddenly conscious of where her eyes and thoughts were travelling.
“Change your number tomorrow, if you can,” he said at last, and Sansa looked up in surprise. He reached across the table for her hand suddenly, and grasped it gently for emphasis. “If not for your own sake, then at least for my peace of mind. I cannot stand by and let you take any more of this abuse.”
“And my father?”
“I’ll find a way to get your new number to him,” he replied, staring at their hands, assiduously avoiding the look of curiosity and disbelief on her face.
How, she wanted to ask but instinct told her that he was unlikely to tell her anyway.
They sat in the shadows this way, her hand in his, the sun sinking low behind him. Neither of them felt the inclination to move as the shadows lengthened.
“I’d best be going,” he said eventually when the sun was all but home. He stood up, and she with him. Their hands parted naturally, but Sansa did not know what to think of it. She dared not question what she felt about it.
“I know what my pseudonym could be,” she said at last, picking up a broken strand from before.
“Alayne. I’ve always secretly wanted to be an Alayne.”
“Alayne…” She watched as he tasted the name, his mouth curving up in approval. “And what would be a suitable last name?”
“How about something generic, like Stone?” It was close enough to Stark, and had a weight to it that Sansa liked. At the very least, it was a constant reminder to toughen herself.
“Alayne Stone…” He tried out her name, and she decided she rather liked the sound of it even more. “Very well,” he agreed. “If you’re happy with that, you shall be Alayne on Monday. And if you like, you can contact Genna and get your email address changed as well. I can notify the staff at our meeting on Monday. They’ll be smart enough to catch on why we need the anonym.”
They were standing at the doorway now, each of them with hands shoved deep into their pockets. Sansa finally turned the light on in the room.
“Thank you for two excellent cups of black tea.”
“Thank you for the new cooktop and… everything, really.”
“Don’t mention it.”
He finally walked out the door and she watched as he made his way down the flagstones. Long after she heard the little gate creak shut, she stood there getting used to his absence.
It was the first day of the week, the traditional day of atonement and rest for those who worshipped the New God.
Sansa heard them making their way to the Sept this morning. She pictured the carpark steadily filling with worshippers from the university and the village nearby, imagined as they made their weekly pilgrimage up the steep drive to worship the God of Seven.
She stayed in bed, contemplating for ages whether she should go, wondering if the risk of someone recognising her was worth it. It had been ages since she had prayed to anyone — Old Gods, the Seven… The only words to leave her lips in the past weeks had been tortured half phrases, her soul pleading for the end of their torment far more eloquently than her lips ever could. There had been whispered confidences to her mother's spirit but they were mostly a keening of the heart, an endless chant that she missed her and if only, if only, if only she were here.
The God of Seven was the god of her mother. But the old gods were her gods — the gods of her father and her forefathers and their forefathers. Yet all of them remained silent thus far. Or perhaps the answer all along was a resounding no.
She missed Winterfell. She missed her godswood.
Unsurprisingly, the Faith of the Seven was the faith of the university as well. It was the faith of the land, and no doubt funded by deep pockets of many of the Faithful. Why else would there be two septs, instead of just the one? It would be overkill anywhere else, but completely fitting for a School of Religious Studies.
Their hymns wafted over like sweet incense. She could make out the tune but she did not know the lyrics. It was not one her mother had known, otherwise she would have heard her singing it before.
She imagined the seven-sided hall filled with worshippers, her learned colleagues, the Septas and Septon interspersed among them. Were any of them leading the prayer today? She wondered if Professor Baelish was a Septon. She wondered if her Aunt Lysa was with him in that hall.
She got up eventually when the singing had died and the bell tower had chimed a haunting seven times. She got dressed and had a late breakfast, taking her time. October was almost over and the chill was starting to set in. She felt the cool seeping in through the gap in her windows, her door, the naked floorboards. It could get grim when winter finally arrived, though she supposed she should be glad that winters now were no longer like how they had once been in antiquity — years long of bitter cold, barrenness and death until the Great Battle of the White Walkers had forced the Old Gods of the Forest to finally step in and right the earth so all seasons now took their turns politely, each allotting the other a fair amount of time in the year.
Or so they say.
She waited until she was sure the grounds were empty once more before she slipped out her gate and took a gander. She contemplated stepping into the Sept for a prayer but when she got there, the large doors were locked and so she continued on her way. There were plenty of nature walks on the grounds to lose herself in.
Eventually, she returned to her cottage just before dark to find newly installed solar garden lights dotting the flagstone path to her door.
She came early to work on Monday to find him already in his office.
“Good morning,” she greeted and tried not to sound shy.
“Good morning,” he smiled from behind his computer, his eyes glancing once to her. “You’re in early.”
“But not as early as you.”
“Just hold on a second…”
She waited at the door awkwardly while he finished up a thought, the sound of his fingers lightly tapping on the keyboard at a typing rate that far exceeded her own. The room looked complete with him in it now, his suit today a deep navy blue with a matching tie, perfectly knotted, crisp white shirt, tie pin in place.
“Thank you for waiting.” He beckoned her in and she walked in dutifully.
“Are we Alayne today?” he asked, leaning back in his chair to regard her.
“Yes, I think so.” She stood a little taller, as if mentally putting on a new cloak.
“We’ll let the staff know later. Staff meeting starts in an hour and a half and it’s weekly. I want you in on them, so put that in your calendar. Can you take minutes?”
They spent the next half hour going through the various tasks she would undertake, and by the time she left the room her head was spinning with information but her steps were light. Finally, actual work — and it looked as if he had spent some time thinking of how she could contribute in a variety of ways, as her responsibilities were not all menial. He had even passed along a few books — An Introduction to the Theology of the Seven, and Ancient Faiths, Contemporary Ethics.
“You don’t have to read them,” he assured her. “I just thought you'd want to know more about the world you’ve just entered into. No rush to return them to me,” he added. “When you’re done with them, you can return them to the shelf yourself. If anything else piques your interest in this room, all you have to do is ask."
She tried not to notice how he did not look at her, not properly. She tried not to think he was avoiding her gaze. She tried not to gaze.
He is a busy man. He has a lot on his mind.
The staff did not raise any objections to the duplicity. They seemed to barely blink. Sansa noted with relief that Dr Ellaria Sands was not in the room today. That probably helped her cause more than anything else.
Professor Baelish explained to all that they were welcome to call Sansa by her real name on campus, but just to be careful with official correspondence and to understand that as far as outsiders and students were concerned, she was Alayne.
“We are not hiding her, not as such. We are doing nothing wrong. We are just preserving the privacy of a member of our staff, like we have done before.” He looked pointedly at Tyrion, who tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement.
“Eventually, I expect others will find out — in this age of modern technology and a media that never sleeps, it would be surprising if someone didn't recognise her. But the Vale is fairly isolated and — dare I say it — insular enough to feel less… affected by recent events. By the time local gossip alerts the media of Sansa's presence here with us, hopefully the media have moved on to other things.”
Sansa marvelled at his calm, even as she felt a restlessness in the room at the Professor’s glib optimism. For everyone’s sakes, Sansa prayed to the olds gods that his confidence was not misplaced.
The rest of the meeting was a blur of directives and ideas that Sansa did not yet understand, much less minute intelligently, so she was thankful when Tyrion caught up with her afterwards as they left the room.
“You’re doing alright?”
She nodded, and gave a small smile.
“And still sticking around after a tedious Monday morning meeting. Very impressive. You know, I’ve always wondered about the necessity of starting the week with a big drone about priorities. I guess it can only get better from here. It’s a wonder we all don’t turn to drink.” He fished out a small silver hip flask from his back pocket and proferred it to Sansa. “Would you like some?”
“It’s ten o’clock in the morning!”
“It’s water,” he replied airily, but there was a twinkle in the eye and Sansa didn’t know what to say, so she smiled.
“Join me and Bronn at lunch this afternoon, if you’re not busy. We’re taking a short drive to the Song and Bird. They have decent gruel and terrible lighting.”
Professor Baelish disappeared into his office for a conference call and Sansa felt loathed to ask for his help. She tried for the next two hours or so to put together the meeting minutes on her own until she gave up and slunk downstairs to knock meekly on Tyrion’s door.
“Am I making any sense?”
“Uh… not really,” he answered kindly, and proceeded to take a red pen through her efforts. Most of her difficulties had surrounded the names of the courses and the theses they had been referring to.
“They all have such long titles, and I couldn’t catch most of them,” she explained sheepishly.
“You’ll get the hang of it. Theologians never know how to write or speak concisely. Why should three words suffice when you can say twenty? In that regard we're like lawyers, except we don’t know how to match our clothes.”
She got back to her desk to find a terse email from Septa Unella — who had missed the morning’s meeting because she was at the Sept — asking when she might expect the minutes. There were at least seven phone calls that she had also missed. Sansa had a hunch that Professor Baelish had thoughtfully redirected all his calls to his mobile during his time away last week, because the phone was now ringing hot for him.
She corrected her minutes from Tyrion’s notes and sent them out as soon as she could. And then she left an email with Professor Baelish with a list of phone messages and to let him know that she was having a quick lunch out with Tyrion and Bronn. “I’ll be careful,” she promised the Professor.
She flew down the stairs and ran to their waiting car, glad for their company.
The Song and Bird turned out to be a pub in a quiet street just outside the village. The babble of voices died the moment Sansa stepped into the door and she froze until Tyrion kindly led her by the small of her back through a side door into a private room that had been reserved for them.
“Do you think they recognise me?” she asked anxiously, twisting her hair like she used to do when she was sixteen.
“Doubt it,” Bronn replied, tone bored.
“In all likelihood, it was more the spectacle of seeing a dwarf next to a beautiful, statuesque woman,” reassured Tyrion and Sansa flushed and smiled, assuaged. Yes, she supposed the height difference between them would be eye-catching. She was even taller than Bronn.
They made quick work of the short menu and were soon tucking into lunch.
“So tell me,” Tyrion began, as if they had been talking about nothing else before. “Are you really an executive assistant, or just one of Baelish’s projects?”
Bronn made a sound like a short bark, before hastily shoving in another mouthful.
“He had others?” Sansa blurted before she could herself.
“It depends on what you mean by others,” Tyrion replied amiably, dipping his bread liberally into the oil. “Other women, not so much lately. But one could never tell what was going on in that mind of his, even back when I was in King’s Landing.”
“Were you a... project?” Sansa asked hesitantly, afraid to offend her new friend.
“I was never really sure,” the shorter man admitted, chewing thoughtfully. “He was new in the position at the time — his marriage to your aunt secured him the top job at the Vale within twenty-four months or less…?”
“Less,” agreed Bronn, tearing a chunk of sourdough.
"Scandalous business it was at the time, she carrying on with Petyr within the year of Jon Arryn’s death. Although there was never any talk of an actual affair while Jon was alive, but she was practically throwing off her widow weeds to wear a big white dress as soon as the hundred days were over. But the board was still loyal to the wife of the late Great Jon Arryn, Chairman of the Board and Protector of the Vale, and so when Petyr came waltzing in with his impressive credentials, his nice clothes, and his powerful new wife, he got the job.
"And then that whole business with me and Joffrey blew up around that time, and suddenly I get a call from Petyr Baelish and he’s offering me an out.”
“That is kind of him,”
“Perhaps,” Tyrion replied cautiously. “But I've always felt beholden to him. His reputation for quids pro quo precedes him, I’m afraid. He’s not a selfless man, but a shrewd one. The consummate businessman, which is why the university loves him. I’ve long wondered when he would come calling for me to pay my debt.”
“Has he ever?
Sansa mulled over his words, frowning slightly. She owed Professor Baelish — her Uncle Petyr — a debt of gratitude as well. But she had yet to feel that sense of resigned obligation or wariness that Tyrion seemed to carry. Was she being too naive not to feel the same?
“What happened between you and Joffrey?”
Tyrion gave a short laugh, but it was not filled with mirth.
“Oh, you know what happened.”
“I know what the media report, and what your sister and father said about you. I know that Cersei had placed a large bounty on your head.” And that your father had publicly disowned you, Sansa did not add. “I’m sorry… I was still at Winterfell then, and... didn’t pay much attention to the news.”
And her parents had shielded her from most of it anyway, eager to leave the past behind.
“I know that there are always other sides to the same story, though,” Sansa continued, her gaze at the dwarf unwavering.
“Of course you do,” Tyrion allowed, and raised his glass in acknowledgement to their shared fates. “So then, here is my version of things.
"Let’s just say that he had pushed the proverbial envelope one too many times, and that I may have sworn something along the lines of killing him in his sleep after slapping him about the face for being the spoilt, daft brat he was. That was very satisfying, I must admit. But then I also shoved him up against the wall, and he had bled a little. That was more unfortunate.
"Let’s also just say that I had been agitated, that I had more than my usual tipple of drink, and that I was acting to protect the honour of both my love and… well… you, really.”
Sansa’s eyebrows shot up, stunned to be part of this story.
“You had been promised to Joffrey at the time. And the… I want to say cunt, but I’m a respectable theologian of the Faith now.”
“I’ll say it for you then,” Bronn volunteered, dropping his chicken bone onto his plate and rubbing his oily finger tips on the napkin beside him. “I’ve got no academic airs. Joffrey was a cunt.”
“Thank you, Bronn. Because you are a lady and you took your vows of chastity so seriously, our frustrated Joffrey was chocking up frequent flyer points with the Ladies of the Night… and he had the bloody nerve to try and cuckold me.”
“He tried to seduce your girlfriend?”
“He couldn’t seduce a pillow with a hole in it, pardon my Dornish. No, he simply took what he would not be given. He tried to rape her.”
Sansa’s mouth fell open in dismay.
“I told you he was a…” Tyrion pointed to Bronn.
“Cunt,” Bronn supplied.
“What he said.”
Sansa shook her head, all food forgotten now, a hand to her mouth. She gazed at Tyrion and wondered at his calm. Except he was not calm, not really. The words were light and flippant, but in his retelling his eyes had grown darker and hooded, and she could see him clenching his right hand now and then as the memories replayed.
She had known none of this, not at all. What if they had gone through with the wedding when had she finally come of age? She would be married to Joffrey by now. What if he had picked up a disease while he was out whoring, and then given it to her?
“So that’s why you arranged for the… for the…”
“The cut brakes? No, sweetheart. That is not my style. It’s more Bronn’s style,” Tyrion qualified reflectively, “but he didn’t do it either.”
“I wish I had,” Bronn sighed. “Cunt.”
“But the media all reported that it was you!”
“Just like they reported that your father embezzled the empire's retirement fund to sponsor the rebellion of the usurper Daenarys Targaryen. When you effectively own ninety-percent of the media across the seven Kingdoms — and your father breakfasts and golfs with its mogul — you find anything you say quickly becomes national fact."
“They own the police too,” she added bitterly.
“And the courts.”
“And the good lawyers.”
“And probably,” added Tyrion quietly, “the Faith.”
Sansa’s head shot up. “No!”
“Maybe not directly,” Tyrion replied in a low voice. “But I know my family.”
“So why are you here, in the Vale, with the Faithful?” Sansa furrowed her brow, desperately trying to piece things together with new parts of a puzzle she never knew she was missing.
“Because the Faith is not a monolith, and they are an empire unto themselves. Because the Faith changes ever so slightly, depending on where you are and therefore what you care about. The Vale is very different from King’s Landing, and very sheltered. It is why, I suspect, Petyr is holing up here himself. It is why I’ve made my life here now, with Shae. It is why, I suspect, he has brought you here.”
A natural silence fell on the table, Sansa chewing her lower lip again. Professor Baelish was always going to King’s Landing. She thought about how he had effortlessly alighted from the helicopter as if he had done so a hundred times before. How he had said he wore many hats, not all of which the University knew about...
“So why…” she hesitated, struggling with the words. The implications of her unformed question were disturbing, but she had to know. “Why… do you think my aunt and uncle are really doing this for me? I mean, you don’t seem to trust Professor Baelish, or you’re second-guessing his motives, or… something. And he’s been so kind to me. But do you think it’s because we’re family, like he says, or that he wants something in return eventually?”
Bronn and Tyrion exchanged a look.
“I don’t know, Sansa,” was the eventual reply.
He was out of his office when she returned an hour later.
Sansa stood outside Professor Baelish's door, emotions warring within her. She had thoroughly enjoyed the lunch, especially the easy and genuine camaraderie between the two men. Tyrion the erudite, privileged intellectual and Bronn, the brusque, brawny janitor and Magna Cum Laude of the University of Hard Knocks — they had kept her in stitches for part of the afternoon. And yet Tyrion’s friendly warning nibbled at the corners of her mind. She could not shake them.
But Jeyne had already mentioned how private the Professor was. And Sansa was his executive assistant — the very person tasked to defend his privacy.
I have to know...
She stepped into his room and headed straight for the same bookcase — the one on the left of his mahogany desk, the one where the key to the key was. Her plan… she had no plan, only one barely formed. If she could find the key, perhaps she could slip away later to the post office. See what his box held. Find a clue, get some answers… Her eyes darted once more to the door before they returned to the floor-to-ceiling bookcase before her. If you look at it like a grid, it would be in cell B3…
She stood on tip-toe like the last time and felt about with her left hand, then her right. She checked underneath the shelf. She stood back, counted the shelves again. All the while, her sense of unease bloomed within; she could feel its cold tendrils start to snake through her insides. She made a small stepping stool out of a few tomes and finally gained direct eye-line to the shelf and its contents. She pulled back the books, searching behind them, inside them.
The key was not there.
She left the room as she found it, made her way back to her desk and forced herself to calm even as the implications sank in like a deadweight. He had moved the key. He did not trust her. And she did not trust him.
Curiouser and curiouser, as they say.
Sorry this has taken a while to update. Had a massive week at work and lots of late nights getting a project live. Writing has been the sweet reward at the end! Aahhh...
Not very much direct P&S action in this one, but you gotta wonder what the boy is up to.
More interaction between our favourite characters next chapter!
Chapter 7: Loyalty
The door was ajar and Sansa could hear everything. She wasn’t entirely sure that had not been the intention.
“She’s slow. I’ve given her as much time as she should need in a menial job like hers, but I’m sorry to say it’s been disappointing…”
Sansa flinched as Septa Unella gave a litany of her sins.
“… and she messed up my travel booking and — to add serious insult to injury — she won't even tell me where you are — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it's because she hasn’t worked out how to access your schedule yet. And she keeps changing the templates! Every time I open up a document from her, such as the staff meeting minutes or a powerpoint presentation, she’s changed the way it looks. Is she not capable of following previous examples set? If she can muck such simple things up, what happens when you finally decide to give her something important to do for the University?”
A movement. Sansa instantly sank back into her chair and started typing furiously.
Professor Baelish came to the door then. Their eyes locked for the briefest moment and he mercifully gave her a small smile before closing his door, Septa Unella’s railing now muffled behind the thick wood.
Sansa slumped back in her chair, dismayed.
Septa Unella only ever referred to herself as Septa Unella, the only academic to eschew her academic title and her last name as was custom at the University. But as much as Sansa found her inflexible and dogmatic, the accusations she levelled against Sansa were true. She was terribly inept at handling mechanical things, having little real life experience with such complex photocopiers or the knack for figuring them out. She didn’t know how to work a ring binding machine, or how to laminate posters without melting them, or create a three-way phone conversation, or any of the thousand basic office tasks that Jeyne seemed to juggle with ease.
And as for the templates… Sansa had never thought it would distress anyone to change those document templates. She only meant to improve the layout and categorise information to make it much quicker and easier to read. How was she to know that templates were sacrosanct too?
Just a stupid little girl with no life experience.
The door opened then and Septa Unella swept out of the room, glaring at Sansa as she passed her desk. Sansa returned the glare with a meek smile.
Professor Baelish was standing at the door, and his mouth was set in a thin line. Sansa opened her mouth to speak although she was unsure what to say. He spoke before her words came.
“Septa Unella will not be addressing your work performance again,” he said to Sansa, his gaze following the departing figure of Septa Unella until her austere figure disappeared down the stairs. His voice was soft and made of ice.
“Also, in future,” he continued, speaking still to the void, still not looking at her, “please let me know if any more of my staff think to use you as their personal administrative lackey. Is that understood?”
“Good.” He returned to his room, closing the door behind him.
She saw him again the next evening, quite by chance. He had been away all day, during which Sansa made sure to acquaint herself with the office equipment and dutifully transcribe the latest meeting minutes using an old template she had found.
He was back in casual clothes. This evening he wore a pair of smart chinos in mushroom with a thick navy henley pullover, the collar high and snug around his neck. The wind was starting to pick up in the last week, especially in the evenings.
The days were getting noticeably shorter now, and rather than squirrel away on her own in her room, Sansa tried to sneak in a walk before nightfall most evenings. She, too, was dressed for the weather; she wore her only pair of jeans without the fashionable rips, a white cable knit sweater and her longest, thickest wool scarf that she wrapped around her slender neck thrice. She wore her long, red hair down and loose and it cascaded down her back in waves, a stunning contrast to her sweater.
They noticed each other about the same time and met, wordlessly, in the centre.
“Making the most of the daylight?” he guessed, smiling. And after the incident with Septa Unella, she suddenly felt shy.
They started walking together without further preamble and in wordless accord, falling in step with each other naturally. The wind picked up then and she pulled the thick woollen scarf closer, burying her face in the folds. A peaceful silence fell between them and Sansa started to relax. The Professor seemed to know where he wanted to go and she was contented to follow.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” she finally said, and felt relief that the words were out.
He glanced at her and smiled softly, before turning back to stare ahead.
“Don’t be,” he replied evenly. “Septa Unella is passionate about a great many things that, frankly, should not trouble her. I’m sorry you had to hear so much of it yesterday.”
“She’s not wrong, though,” Sansa replied, frowning slightly. “All that she said… I can’t type fast, and I’m rubbish at working the photocopier, and I feel like I’m making all of this up as I’m going along. I know you gave me this job as a favour, as a way of helping me out… but I think the rest of the staff resent me for the nepotism in this bad economy — now worsened, of course, after the public fund collapsed.”
He said nothing for a while, and her words hung in the air like an indictment.
“Do you know why I chose you to be my assistant?”
Sansa blinked. The answer to that had seemed patently obvious before, but his very question suggested a new answer.
“Not because I’m family?”
He shook his head. “I mean… do you know why I chose you to be an assistant to me, instead of some other job like helping Jeyne out in the front office, or off working in the library? Why I specifically gave you the job of being my executive assistant, when I could easily have chosen an old hand like Jeyne or someone else with actual secretarial experience?”
Sansa flinched slightly at the last but shook her head, curious.
“Any monkey can learn to type. To do the filing. To master the flaming photocopier until it spat out books and made coffee on the side. These are just grunt skills. They don’t require anything extraordinary, just practice.
“But loyalty… now that’s a different thing altogether. And that one can be bought for a time, but never authentically manufactured. It is either there or not. You are either a faithful person or not. You are either a trustworthy person or not, a person of integrity or not, and Sansa Stark…”
He stopped suddenly and turned to look at her, his eyes serious and unblinking. She held her breath, unsure.
“I see that in you. I trust you. I saw the way you handled the media after the fallout, saw the way you carried yourself. Saw your core, your inner strength. I’m known to be an excellent judge of character, and I knew.”
She didn’t know how or when it happened but he was so close to her now, his face level with hers. Any closer, and she would feel his soft breath on her face, or graze his with hers. She stilled herself, the moment fragile and fraught. She was waiting, but she knew not what for.
“I saw what you went through,” his voice was almost a whisper, “and you were magnificent.”
He moved suddenly and her breath caught in her throat. For a blinding moment, she wondered if he was going to kiss her and her lips parted slightly, reflexively. But then he stretched his neck and she felt him drop a kiss on her forehead.
A thousand butterflies took flight within her, each an emotion fluttering and colliding. She willed herself not to react, to school her face so it remained placid.
They kept on walking beside each other, further away from the sandstone buildings, away from the car park, away from civilisation. They kept on walking until the footpaths ended and it was gravel, until the gravel ended and it was grass. The sun was starting to sink but there was still some daylight left, and he quickened his pace slightly now.
When the grasses got longer, she finally hesitated and he turned back to her, a hand outstretched in invitation. Beyond him, the trees were taller and thicker, the undergrowth wilder and unkept. If they walked in there, they would slip away in the darkness and no one would hear her cries.
“I want to show you something,” he said. “Do you trust me?”
And even though her heart hammered in her chest, she took his outstretched hand.
Eventually, the grasses thinned again and Sansa had a sense that she was approaching a forgotten garden.
He broke the silence then. The difficult parts of their walk were long behind them, and the ground was more even now. The jumble of butterflies was ever present but curiosity was the strongest motivator at present.
She tried not to dwell on the fact that her hand was still in his.
“Long ago, before the Faith of the Seven so dominated the world, we had more room in this School for other beliefs…” He turned to her and smiled sadly. “You must be feeling quite out of place and alone, even with the Faith of your mother to buoy you.”
And before Sansa could understand, they arrived. For there before them stood an ancient Weirwood tree, bleeding from its eyes and mouth.
Something like a strangled half cry escaped Sansa’s lips and she ran to the tree before stopping short of touching it, as if suddenly mindful of sacred ground. She reached out and touched its ancient bone-white bark gently, feeling its weeping gashes. Feeling its power and drawing from it much needed tranquility.
She stayed there for ten, fifteen minutes — maybe even longer. The sun was starting to sink quickly now. He stood at a distance, graciously giving her the space and watching over her like a self-appointed sentinel.
When she finally stood up, she felt stronger and more complete. She felt emptied of herself and filled again. Before they left the godswood, she whispered her thanks and softly kissed his cheek.
Chapter 8: Lysa
“Your mail for today, Professor Baelish.”
Sansa placed the stack on his desk and was about return to her own when he said, “Please open them, Sansa.”
“Right here?” she asked, hesitant. He had never asked her to open his mail before. She had sensed from the start that he wouldn’t have appreciated the breach of privacy, even if she was supposed to be his assistant.
He nodded and returned his attention to his screen, half keeping an eye on her as she slit each envelope open. “Read them out to me.”
Most of them, he had classed as unimportant with only a couple needing his immediate attention. In handling his phonecalls, Sansa was already privy to the surprising myriad of people wanting his attention, and his post was no different to that. Both the academic world and the business one craved patronage, or advice, or money — there was very little difference between them after a while.
But a letter caught her attention and she paused, which made Professor Baelish look up, suddenly attentive.
“It says here,” she read, eyes growing wide, “that you’ve been invited to be a keynote speaker at the Citadel at their annual theological conference.”
He waved his hand, as if brushing the invitation off impatiently.
“This is the second reminder,” she continued, looking at him curiously now. “They must really want you if they bothered sending you a second letter to ask for your time. It says here that they emailed you and have tried calling. I’m sorry, Professor Baelish, but I don’t recall getting any of their phonecalls. I’m sure I would have remembered something like this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he assured her, returning his attention to the screen. “They usually call my mobile.”
“And so you knew about this?”
“And you’re not going?” she asked incredulously. “It says here that they want no one else, that they very politely insist. Professor Baelish, this sounds like an incredible honour.”
He gave a small snort of derision. “Yes,” he replied drily, “they would think that.”
He sighed and turned to look at her. “They’re tedious affairs, conferences. I’ve been to quite a few of them this year already, and the same pompous people always turn up bellyaching about the same things. There’s usually an exhibition attached, and then there are the endless meetings in between. I’ve met them all. They are not where new business lies, not unless something truly innovative happens this year. Frankly, they’re a bore.”
Sansa nodded, feeling slightly crestfallen but not utterly convinced. “Who usually turns up to these events?”
“Other theologians, clergy from around the Seven Kingdoms, scholars and potential students… It’s the same crowd at other smaller theological conferences. The community is tiny and incestuous, at the end of the day.”
“And have we ever had a stand at their exhibition?”
“Not in recent memory. Previous attempts were a waste of time, according to Olenna. We don’t get much support from Marketing out here.”
Sansa chewed on her lower lip, thoughtful.
“You’re thinking of something,” he observed mildly but his eyes were sharp, missing nothing. “You think I might be wrong, that this is worth a shot?”
She hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Even I’ve heard of this event. And I’d never been interested in theology, prior to coming here."
He sat back in his chair and steepled his hands, considering her for what felt like an eternity. Finally he nodded.
“Come up with a proposal and we can talk further. But I’m promising nothing.”
She smiled and returned to her desk. There was work to do.
He was waiting at her gate that evening when she stepped out an hour before sundown. She didn't know how long he had been standing there, but there he was leaning against the nearest tree, one knee bent, his foot against the trunk for balance. When she walked towards him, he pushed off the tree with that foot and strolled towards her. She liked his natural grace, the ease in which his body seemed to move, always effortless no matter where he was or what he wore. They fell in step wordlessly, their easy silence all the hello they needed.
"Are you happy here?" he asked by and by as pavement turned to gravel.
She thought about her answer, not wanting to be flippant.
"I'm grateful," she acknowledged, "and people are kind here. But I'm lonely." She smiled at him then. "I'm not lonely when I'm with you. Thank you for taking the time to keep me company. It's very thoughtful. I appreciate it, I really do."
Something flickered across his face, but he bowed his head briefly before looking back up and into her eyes.
"The pleasure's mine." It came out slightly hoarse. He cleared his throat.
The gravel turned to dirt, then slowly turned to grass. When it got longer, he turned to her once more and offered his hand, his eyes not meeting hers. Her heart leapt slightly but she took his hand calmly. This time, when the long grasses gradually morphed into neglected paths once hewn for a much-loved garden, he tucked her hand in the crook of his arm as he led her to the Weirwood tree.
It had been a long time since anyone had watched her pray. Her parents used to, when she was much younger and they thought to form in her the habit. But by the time she was ten, she was taking herself to the godswood on her own — sometimes to unburden the heart, most of the time for the peace and quiet. And yet he was here, watching her from a respectful distance. Even as her back was turned to him as she clutched at the weeping tree, she could feel his gaze on her form, drinking in her solemn ritual. She should feel embarrassed or awkward that he should pay such close witness to her worship. That he should encroach on such an intimate, personal space. It was almost voyeuristic, and yet she did not mind. In fact, she liked it.
She liked his company. She liked to be near him. She liked it when they touched.
When she whispered her last prayer, she struggled to her feet only to find him at the ready, proffering a strong, steady hand to pull her up to standing. She turned towards the path leading out of the godswood, but with her hand still in his, he led her instead towards a flat tree stump that was large enough to seat them both. They made themselves comfortable and then he began to speak.
“What do you know about me and your Aunt Lysa?”
Sansa shook her head.
“My parents hardly mentioned her. And they mentioned you even less. I always assumed that my mother and Aunt Lysa were never close, or that something might have happened to keep them apart. But I only ever saw my Aunt a few times, and only when I was little. I think I can count the number of times on one hand. And you…” Sansa chose her words more carefully next. “My parents never seemed to mention you, even when they could. I was told once by my brother Robb that my mother knew you in her childhood. And I overheard my parents talking when you were engaged to my aunt.”
Talking was an understatement. It was the first time in a long time she ever heard her parents quarrel so badly.
He nodded slowly and she had the sense that the cogs of his mind were moving once again, that he was sifting through thoughts and words to shape what he was willing to share.
“I did know your mother once. And very well. I lived with your mother, your uncle and your aunt for nine years as your grandfather’s ward.”
Sansa’s eyes widened. She did not know this. Somehow she sensed, rather than knew, that this was important. That somehow this held the answer to a question she didn’t yet know to ask.
“What happened in the ninth year?”
He shrugged. “I moved away.”
It was a non-answer, and they both knew it. Sansa tried not to let her impatience and disappointment show. Her curiosity was piqued now. Who was he to her mother? Who was she to him?
But again he surprised her with his intuition, as if already reading and knowing her mind.
“I’m sorry I’m not answering your question more honestly. Some of this past, as you can probably guess, is unpleasant.” He gazed at her hair tumbling long and loose around her shoulders. She had worn it down today to warm her neck. She watched as he reached out to touch her hair. Watched as he picked a lock and felt it slip between his fingers, taking in the colour with a sense of wonder.
“That Tully red,” he mused, and he brought his hand up towards her face. She held her breath, but he only tucked her hair behind her ear. Even then, the feel of his fingers left a trail of goosebumps as they grazed her face.
She liked it when they touched. When he touched her. Even if he touched her like she were a child.
“Your aunt is back in town,” he said quietly but now he was watching her face. “She flies back tomorrow morning. And she has asked to see you. We would like to invite you over for dinner at our home this Wednesday evening. Would you be able to make it?”
Sansa smiled warmly. “I’d be delighted.”
“Good,” he replied absently and she sensed once again a kind of turmoil, as if he were holding thoughts at bay, words on a leash.
“Your aunt… can be changeable, Sansa. She is not calm like your mother. She can be excitable.”
Sansa nodded slowly, trying to read between the lines.
“Just… let it all wash over you. She says things now and then, but you don’t have to take it personally. I want you to remember this.”
She was five minutes early, but he opened the door before she knocked as if he had been expecting her.
Sansa smiled, although she was sure her nerves showed through. His caution in the godswood about her aunt had proved more haunting than she would have liked. When they parted that evening, he had leaned in to kiss her cheek. His breath had brushed her ear, and she had felt a warmth shoot right through her. Nightfall had hidden well the blush that crept up her neck involuntarily.
“Good night, little one,” he had said softly. He had given her a determined look that she did not understand, and then he had slipped away through the maples and into the dark.
They had returned to work the next day more distant than ever. He held most of his meetings out of the office and kept his door closed when he returned, asking not to be disturbed. For the next three days he did not meet her for her walks and she missed him. She went to the godswood on her own but found she couldn’t pray. It was emotional whiplash, she realised. The hot and cold between them was starting to make her feel unsteady, and she could not shake the feeling that her aunt had something to do with it.
“I baked something,” she offered shyly and held up her lemon currant loaf. His face softened visibly.
“Thank you,” he murmured and took the bread tin from her, still warm from the oven. His fingers brushed over hers for a full second and her heart smiled, drawing courage from him.
"Is that her? Is that San-sah?" she heard a voice thrill in the background and he bowed slightly, opening the door wider to reveal a thin and eerily familiar figure gliding swiftly towards the door.
“It IS! It is you, San-sah! But how big you’ve grown.” Her Aunt Lysa beamed at her, and Sansa’s fears dissipated like fog in the sun. All that worry and for nothing!
“Come in, come in!” she waved a bony hand and Sansa stepped through the door and into the light, taking in her surrounds with much interest. The apartment, their lodgings, was much larger than she had expected. Like the building itself, it was old but stately. The walls were exposed brick in that same sandstone colour that must have been all the rage about a century ago. The furnishings were simple but looked expensive — mostly dark lacquered wood that looked like they weighed a tonne each, the only pops of colour in the room from framed art pieces that hung from picture rails around the room. It was all beautifully put together, yet almost austere. Lifeless. Sansa wondered if his private study was anything different or more of the same.
“Isn’t it breathtaking?” her Aunt Lysa chirped, gesturing to a framed watercolour of a Dornish villa. “My Petyr has such an eye for beautiful things. He picks these pieces up on his travels here and there. And look at what else he brings me when I return!” Aunt Lysa leaned over, a heavy gold chain of linked flowers creasing over her bony collarbone. Cloying perfume snatched at Sansa’s nose. “Isn’t it exquisite? He misses me so.” She straightened her back again and slipped her hand easily into the crook of his arm, tip-toeing to plant a kiss on his cheek.
She smiled at Sansa almost smugly and Sansa smiled back at the both of them politely.
“Sansa brought us dessert,” he announced, holding up the loaf tin as proof. “Would you like me to bring this to the kitchen, Lysa?”
“You baked for us?” her aunt turned to look at her appraisingly. “What did you make?”
“Nothing very complicated,” Sansa replied diffidently. “I picked the simplest recipe I could find. I’m only just teaching myself, since Pr… Uncle Petyr bought me that new oven.” Uncle. The title tasted foreign on her tongue, like straw.
“He did, did he?” her Aunt Lysa’s voice was light but her eyes had narrowed. “And when did he bring the oven over?”
“Lysa…” he warned.
She ignored him. “Your mother used to bake, you know. All kinds of sweet things which your uncle could not get enough of…"
She stopped as if he had shot her. He coolly placed the loaf tin down on the nearest side table and wrapped his arm around his wife’s bony frame.
“My silly wife,” he soothed, rubbing his hand up and down her skinny arm. “No more of this. Let’s have dinner.”
Sansa watched as her Aunt Lysa leaned her head back into the crook of his arm to gaze adoringly at her husband. “Okay,” she cooed to only him. “Dinner.”
Sansa dipped her spoon in the soup, willing herself to take another mouthful. It was dreadful. Her aunt was not a gifted cook.
She watched as her Professor —her uncle — calmly finished his portion and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. Her aunt was watching his every move like a hawk. She even looked a little like a hawk, Sansa thought. Her long nose was slightly hooked and her eyes were sharp, bright and blue. Her ruddy hair — parted in the middle — was long and fell to her waist like her own, like how her mother’s had been, but the colour was dull and it lengthened her face, drawing unflattering attention to her high, blank forehead and the small, petulant mouth. She was wearing a long, fussy dress that reached to the floor. Its print was loud and much too young for her, the gossamer fabric of the sleeves revealing her long thin arms underneath, excess flesh hanging off the bone like wings. She might have been plump once, Sansa realised. But her weight, like a pendulum, had now swung to the other extreme so her aunt appeared almost skeletal and about ten years older than her own mother had looked before the gods claimed her.
“You’re finished!” she exclaimed, like a mother applauding the efforts of a toddler feeding himself. “Would you like another bowl?”
“No, my good wife,” he was quick to return. “I am quite full, thank you.” He patted his stomach for emphasis and Sansa hid a smile. Liar, she thought. I’ve caught you. And I don’t blame you. Soup was all that Lysa had offered for dinner — that, and two thin slices of overdone bread that could break teeth. It was hardly adequate as an entrée — let alone a whole meal — but perhaps that was how she kept her svelte figure.
“And you, San-sah?” her aunt Lysa asked pointedly. “Are you not well, child? You’ve hardly eaten.”
“I’m quite well, thank you Aunt Lysa,” replied Sansa truthfully and forced herself to finish the rest of her helping speedily. Her aunt did not offer her another round, which Sansa was thankful for.
The lemon currant loaf sat enticingly on the table, still ensconced in the tin. Sansa and her uncle cast sidelong glances at it longingly, but neither dared to broach the subject before her Aunt Lysa was ready to.
Meanwhile, Lysa had started chatting again.
"Petey and I were so sorry to have missed your mother’s funeral, dear,” she piped up suddenly, as if discussing the change in weather, as if her siblings were inconsequential collateral of the same tragedy. “We would have gone, you know, but it was messy, so messy.” She waved her hands vaguely as if that explained it all, but Sansa was still perplexed as to her meaning. “And Sweet Robin, you know… He was having exams and the poor dear was battling the flu again, and we had to be there for him. But I should have liked to have been there. Did many people come?”
“Yes,” Sansa replied simply. It had been a seven-day wake and they had all been exhausted by the end of it, wrung out by unspent grief and hosting fatigue. Their family used to be well-loved and respected. Literally thousands had come to pay their last respects, the upper echelons of business and government rocked by a needless car accident that succeeded in wiping out half a distinguished family.
She watched as her uncle clenched the napkin on the table briefly, but said nothing.
“And how are you finding work? Is the University keeping you busy?”
“I am happy where I am, Aunt Lysa. And I really want to thank you.” Sansa took the opportunity to open the loaf tin then. Inside it, she had hidden her small tokens of gratitude. To her aunt, she gave three white handkerchiefs with “Lysa" cross-stitched elegantly in the corner. To her Professor, her uncle, she gave the same except his kerchiefs were blue. He accepted the gift with a warm smile, his fingers brushing lightly across his name, admiring her fine handiwork.
“It’s a little old-fashioned, I know,” Sansa babbled, feeling slightly sheepish about the lameness of her gift. “But I just wanted to do something… give you something… to show my appreciation for all you’ve done for me. Aunt Lysa, your generosity has really touched me. I’m so grateful for your big heart, I truly am.”
“Oh, don’t thank me too much, child,” Aunt Lysa laughed. The sound was brittle. “Thank my husband, really. It was all his idea. From the very start.” She was staring at him again but this time her mouth was set in a thin line. “All his idea,” she repeated quietly.
“It is the least we could do for family,” her uncle replied, and he reached over to cover his wife’s clenched hand on the table. His smile was serene but his eyes were alert and trained on Lysa.
Sansa stood up. “Let me get a knife so I can cut this up,” she smiled brightly and fled to the kitchen before her aunt could think to say no.
Inside the kitchen, Sansa’s heart was pounding in her ears. The walls of the stark white kitchen seemed to close in on her. She ignored them, found a knife and took the loaf out of the tin, found a plate that was big enough and sliced the loaf on it deftly, one, two, three…
She brought the plate outside and prayed to the old gods that she would find her aunt amiable once more.
His eyes lit up when she entered the room, and his stomach rumbled loudly as if on cue.
“Oh Petyr, I should have known to have gotten you more soup!” Lysa lamented. “I can still heat it up, you know. It’s not too late.”
“You take such good care of me, wife,” he replied gently, a hand on her wrist beckoning her to sit back down. “But don’t let me spoil dessert for everyone else. Let’s have this first, and I’ll end the evening with another bowl of your broth, I promise.”
Not quite assuaged, she sat down nonetheless and watched beadily as Sansa served first her aunt and then her uncle.
He took a bite and pleasure spread across his face despite his best efforts to keep his expression neutral. He nodded his approval and Sansa flushed, pleased but slightly alarmed about her aunt.
Aunt Lysa took a bite and then made a face.
“Perfect, of course,” she smiled tensely. “Gifted, just like your mother. You say this is your first time? You must either be lying or a natural.”
“It’s just cake, Lysa,” he replied mildly. Sansa jumped when her aunt threw her fork on her plate. The sound of hard metal hitting porcelain sliced through the oppressive air like a guillotine.
Aunt Lysa stood up. “Look at her!” she shouted to her husband. She grabbed the knife and pointed it at Sansa, who jumped up immediately from her chair and shrank against the wall.
“Look at her!” she shrieked again at him, her blue Tully eyes bright and accusing. “She even looks like her! You never told me she would be this beautiful, Petyr. You lied, you lied! She is just like Cat! She is!”
He rose slowly from his chair. “Lysa,” he called, his voice dangerously low, “put the knife down, my wife. There’s a good girl.”
“Did you not tell me, because you secretly want her?” she cried, the knife still clenched tight. “All this time while I’m with Sweet Robin, have you been wanting her?”
“No, no my dear wife, of course not. She is a child, just a child…”
“I thought this was over,” she started to moan. “Cat died and that was all I could think of, that this was finally…”
He pulled her suddenly into a fierce embrace, his mouth on hers cutting off oxygen to her words. He kissed her deeply and thoroughly, and Sansa watched as her aunt froze for a second before going limp in his arms. The knife clattered to the floor as she snaked her fingers into his hair and sucked on his face like a vampire.
Sansa looked away, sickened and relieved, and then sickened once more.
She closed her eyes just when she heard him murmur to Lysa, “Oh silly wife… my silly wife. There is only one woman I have ever loved.” She heard his mouth claim hers again and heard her aunt sigh with relief and triumph and desire.
Sansa could take this no more.
“Please excuse me,” she mumbled, chucking the loaf back in the tin before closing it quickly. Husband and wife broke apart and her Aunt Lysa laughed coquettishly.
“I do beg your pardon, niece,” she simpered. “It can’t be very becoming watching your aunt and uncle behave like newlyweds.”
“It’s getting late anyway,” Sansa lied, forcing a smile on her face. “I should have been more thoughtful, and not trespassed on your hospitality so late in the evening.” It was only half past seven. Lies, all lies. She moved quickly to the door like a woman dying for breath.
Aunt Lysa smiled, both arms wrapped around her husband’s neck.
“Thank you for understanding, San-sah. I’ve been away for a long time, and it appears that my husband misses me just as much as I have missed him. We have much catching up to do.” Her meaning was clear as day. She nuzzled into Petyr’s neck and breathed him in unabashedly. Sansa turned away again, her insides twisting.
“Thank you for coming, Sansa.” She looked at him now. He stood there as if planted to the ground, one arm around his wife, her head pressed into his neck, her eyes shut as if in ecstasy.
“Thank you for the thoughtful gifts,” he added, his brogue heavy, his voice raspy.
“You’re welcome,” she managed to reply. The last thing she saw before she slipped out the door was the smile painted on his face. But his eyes were stone.
She made it down the stairs, round the corner of their block, past the spiral fire escape. She held herself together until she could just make out her little gate before the sobs came, shuddering through her.
Chapter 9: Sleep
He did not come in the rest of the week. The email to all staff explained that he was working from home and that his wife was unwell. Olenna had tutted and rolled her eyes but did not explain. Life continued. The staff continued marking as students started turning in their final assignments. The machinery of the School continued to hum as if there was nothing untoward. As if the Lady of the Vale wasn’t touched by a bit of madness.
He left for King’s Landing the week after. Aunt Lysa had left with him.
Sansa tried to throw herself into work. The opportunity to put together a plan for the conference at the Citadel should have consumed her attention, but the strange turn of events at That Dinner continued to haunt her. It played on repeat like a horror reel she couldn’t put away; she paled and cringed at the same moments, never growing immune. She wondered if there was anything she could have done to change the outcome, even as she knew the answer to her question. Her aunt was unhinged and there was clearly a terrible past shared by her mother, her aunt, and her uncle. Never did Sansa feel so ignorant and parochial, so childish and naïve about her family. And she wondered, she worried what she just allowed herself to walk into by accepting this offer of asylum.
You stupid girl. You stupid, stupid girl.
Every time her mind’s eye saw him kiss her mad aunt, remembered how he claimed her shrivelled mouth with a force that snapped her aunt’s head back like a hollow reed… Every time, she’d shut her eyes and blank her mind and force herself to breathe until her heart no longer felt like bursting.
The weekend finally came and Sansa fled to the safety of her cottage the moment her clock struck four. Winter was almost upon them now; the leaves were starting to fall in clumps, and the sun was sinking earlier and faster. Her home was no longer comfortable. As if the gods had flipped a switch, the temperature had plummeted one day — one of the cold snaps Jeyne kept talking about. Now the arctic air would seep through the gaps between the thin floor boards and the old wall radiator would struggle to counter its effects. She would wear layer upon layer, then freeze come laundry day.
No matter how cold Winterfell had been, she had never felt as exposed until now.
She used the oven often. Tonight, she had made a vegetarian quiche and the radiant warmth of the stove promised to keep the cold at bay, at least until she dived under her covers tonight and read until sleep overtook her. She was just about to set the table when she heard a soft knock on the door, and her heart stuttered as it swung open to reveal him.
“Hello,” he said softly and she took in his form. She had imagined this moment secretly, often, but now that he was here, words failed her. A five o’clock shadow darkened his cheeks and she realised he looked almost as haunted as she felt.
“I’m interrupting,” he realised, taking in the quiche beside her on the narrow kitchen bench beside the stove.
She shook her head and smiled unsteadily. “No you’re not,” she admitted. And then propriety kicked in. “Do come in,” she invited.
“Actually,” he replied, “I came to return this.” He handed her a familiar loaf tin. She took it from him wordlessly, even as a myriad memories flitted across her mind.
“And…” he continued before taking a deep breath, “I was hoping to invite you back for a meal. I’ve made a roast... and Lysa has gone away to be with her Robin.”
“I’ve already made a quiche.”
“Then bring that along. It smells wonderful. And I haven’t had a quiche in years. That’s if…” he hesitated, “you would like to join me for dinner.”
Her eyes met his and she searched for something familiar. Had things changed irrevocably? Whatever it was they had before? And his eyes searched hers, as if asking the same.
Her thoughts warred with her heart, and they both had valid needs. The mind wanted answers. The heart wasn’t sure it could cope.
Silently she found her oven mitts and placed them beside her dinner while she hunted around for her jacket. He carried the quiche while she locked up the cottage and they followed the dimly lit flagstones past the familiar wooden gate. They headed to his block wordlessly but she was surprised when he veered left instead of right and made for the old spiral staircase.
“It’s faster this way,” he beckoned with a tilt of his head and she ascended the metal twisted stair with him. It creaked and groaned in places but he didn’t seem perturbed, his steps sure and methodical as he carried her quiche with her oven mitts while she gripped the curved railing before him. The door was unlocked at the top of the stair and she opened it, stepping aside to let him through first before she walked in to find herself in his study.
It was similar to the one in the staff block. Solid walls of books lined the room and a cheerful fire was burning in the hearth at the end furthest from his desk. There was a sofa in front of the fire and Sansa guessed, by the lack of another chair or couch, that he did not entertain others in this space. More art dressed the room, not all of them hung. Small, neat stacks of papers and books dotted the floor and Sansa spied empty whisky glasses yet uncleared. She guessed that he lived in this part of the house more than any other, that this was truly his private abode, his sanctuary, his castle.
She followed him out the study back into the space where things had turned horribly strange. She watched as he placed her quiche on a table prepared for two, wine glasses at the ready next to two table settings. He had been prepared.
“Wine, please,” she croaked. She was suddenly nervous, as if she was standing on thin ice. She half expected Aunt Lysa to come bursting from one of the rooms, knife in her hand, accusations hot and stinging about her late mother. About her own intentions towards her treasured husband.
“Please, sit,” he beckoned as he brought out the roast. It smelled like Winterfell dinners and her mouth watered immediately. His home was so different to the depressing lack in her bedsit. She took off her layers and felt the warmth seep back into her fingertips, good cheer returning to the heart along with it.
“This is nice,” she admitted and closed her eyes as she inhaled those mouth-watering smells deeply. The bottle of red popped open easily and he poured her a glass before filling his own. She took a sip tentatively and then some more when she realised how easily it slipped down her throat.
“Would you like to pray?” he invited, and she startled. She never gave thanks in her household. That was not a child's place.
But he held out his hand and she took it, emboldened. Then she closed her eyes and prayed,
“We ask the Father to judge us with mercy, accepting our human frailty.
We ask the Mother to bless our bodies with the food she has so richly bestowed us tonight.
We ask the Warrior to give us courage, in these days of uncertainty and turmoil.
We ask the Smith to strengthen our hands and steel our wills so we may finish the work required of us.
We ask the Crone to guide us on our journey, that we may always choose the light…"
She paused for a moment, her heart suddenly quickening at what she knew was to come. But her voice remained steady even as every atom of her body stood aware of the way his thumb absently brushed across the tops of her fingers like a gentle caress.
"We ask the Maiden to... protect every virtue, to keep us from the clutches of depravity…”
His thumb slowed infinitesimally.
"And we ask the Stranger to keep my brothers safe. To remember my mother and her faithfulness.”
At the last, she felt his grip tighten and she squeezed his hand back briefly. She opened her eyes to find him looking at her.
“I didn’t expect you to pray to the Seven,” he said softly. “I was expecting just a minute of silence. But it was very considerate, and a lovely prayer. Thank you.”
She flushed red for misunderstanding, but he smiled so disarmingly that her embarrassment quickly ebbed. She cut into the meat easily and closed her eyes as it melted in her mouth. A tiny sound of pleasure escaped her throat.
“This is wonderful. Did you cook this?”
“It’s an old recipe of Olenna’s. Just followed the instructions.”
“You’re being modest. This is beautiful.”
They finally relaxed then and fell into companionable silence. She watched with pleasure as he took hearty helpings of her quiche. The wine disappeared easily and he topped up her glass when he refilled his own. And then just when both of them had their fill, she heard him say, “I want to explain what happened that night.”
She stopped. Quietly, she placed her cutlery down beside her plate, then placed her hands on her lap.
“Is my Aunt Lysa… alright?”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
“How long has she been this way?”
“A long, long time.”
Sansa frowned. The question that played most on her lips was also the one that was rudest. Was she like this before he married her? And if so, why did he take her as his wife? Was it to gain control of the Vale, like Tyrion suggested?
“Most of the time, she is able to be calm. A dose of Sweetsleep usually does the job when she’s awake and I have Dreamtime on the ready if she has fitful sleeps. But I’m starting to think her body has grown immune to the drug. The day you came over, I thought she was fine but her reaction to you was unexpected. I didn’t think she'd be as affected as she clearly was that evening.”
He sat back in his chair and folded his arms, his eyes taking on a faraway look as he remembered a time long before her.
“You already know now that I used to live with your mother and your aunt as a ward of your grandfather. He wasn’t the kindest man, but he gave me a headstart in my education and for that, at least, I was grateful. But your mother was my greatest comfort in those days.
“So I loved her. And she loved me. Except she loved me like a sister and I loved her like a man. And your aunt loved me like a sickness. It had been that way for years.
“Finally, things came to a head. It had to. We had been dancing around in circles like this for years and the tension had built to such a point. Both sisters hated each other by then, mostly because Lysa was deeply jealous of your mother who seemed, in every way, to be a superior specimen of femininity, breeding, and stature. It drove your aunt mad.
“And then one day, a suitable man came for your mother’s hand and your grandfather was keen for your mother to accept him. Except he was an arrogant boor. And I, deeply besotted and hoping against hope to be good enough, declared my intentions for your mother to your grandfather in desperation. I suspected he knew for years how I truly felt about your mother, but he was furious nonetheless.
“Lysa was crushed. She knew, of course, what your mother meant to me but by declaring my intention to marry her, that was the final straw. Both sisters had a terrible fight. Meanwhile, I was told in no uncertain terms how I did not have your grandfather’s blessings, and how I was ungrateful for seeking to ruin the life of his most precious child after he had given me a roof over my head and a good education. I was to pack my bags and leave my home and my heart’s desire forever.
“But if that wasn’t devastating enough, your mother’s triumphant suitor started taunting me. I wasn’t always a patient young man or a terribly bright one. And I was a man deeply disappointed in love. So I lost my temper one afternoon and challenged him to a fight and, well, I lost.”
Sansa’s eyes opened wider at that point as a vague recollection floated up from the depths of her memories. “I remember!” she said slowly. “Robb had mentioned once about my father’s brother — Uncle Brandon — beating… someone… to a pulp. Over honour. In a fight.”
“Is that the story?” he replied with a smirk that didn’t reach his eyes.
“I don’t know the details,” Sansa finished lamely. “They never tell me anything. But I did remember that they called you… Littlefinger?”
Something dark and fierce crossed his face just then, but he shrugged it off as quickly as it came. “History is always written by the victors,” he remarked blandly.
“So what happened?” Sansa pressed gently, mesmerised by the story that at once seemed so foreign yet familiar.
“Your aunt Lysa nursed me back to health,” he replied softly. “In the end, the woman I despised was the woman who was there when it counted. I was an ungrateful man and left as soon as I was able, and that broke her heart even as it brought your mother relief, I’m sure. But I never forgot your aunt’s faithfulness and kindness. Many years later, we met again — soon after your uncle Jon Arryn died. Your aunt never forgot how she felt about me. And I never forgot her kindness.”
“But was she sick like she is now?” Sansa wanted to know. “Surely you knew she was unwell?”
“She was much healthier then than she is now. Your mother’s death set off something in her that I hardly understand myself.”
Again Sansa’s eyes widened. “My mother’s death?”
“Lysa was always competing with her. I wonder if she feels she can never win, now that your mother is immortalised in death. We all know how we tend to make saints of the dead. Your aunt now has an impossible benchmark to surpass. And no matter how I strive to reassure her, it is never enough.
"And now she sees you. Except she doesn’t see you, only your mother. You, who are altogether lovelier than Catelyn ever was."
At the last, a strange mixture of pleasure and darkness bloomed within her but Sansa pressed on. “So why did you take me in?” Sansa needed to know, her face now tense with an urgent curiosity mingled with irrational guilt.
“Because you are the daughter of Catelyn,” he replied softly. “How could I not? Except even I never expected you to be… you.”
They gazed across the table and she longed to know what he was thinking, what he meant by the last. She searched his face for answers but as usual, he was inscrutable even as she sensed a roiling within him, a turbulence that she didn’t understand. His eyes were bright and penetrating and she was reminded once more of his arresting mien, even as she fought her frustration at always being kept in the dark, always protected like a frail thing.
“I’ll wash up,” she finally said, if only to break the hold of his gaze over her. Wordlessly, they cleared the dishes and brought them into the kitchen. He stacked the dishwasher while Sansa filled the sink with hot water, taking her cardigan off so she wouldn’t get the sleeves wet. She washed and he dried and put away. Together they made quick work of it, easily finding a rhythm that was disconcertingly natural and familiar.
“Come into the living room,” he beckoned, grabbing the bottle of wine on his way to the settees. He settled into a tall wingback chair and left the three-seater leather Chesterfield for her. Sansa thought it looked hard and uncomfortable but it was surprisingly yielding and she nestled into its depth, sweeping her long legs up and tucking them to the side. He poured another liberal helping of that fine wine and they both sank into their chairs in easy silence, the fire crackling before them, the warm buzz of alcohol spreading within.
“It’s so nice and warm in here,” she sighed and stifled a yawn. The food and wine were doing their work now; they settled within her like a comforting weight and she felt a sense of deep contentment and growing inertia. The wind was picking up outside and they both sat and listened as it howled against the sandstone and stirred up the leaves. Her eyelids started to close.
“Go to sleep, sweetling,” she thought she heard him murmur before slipping away into a dreamless sleep.
Sansa awoke suddenly, disoriented. She lay there for a moment as she retraced her steps before her eyes adjusted to the room in the near dark. The embers gave a faint glow in the fireplace, just enough for her to make out that she was alone in the expanse and he was no longer there with her. A thick, soft, velvety throw had been carefully laid over her during her slumber and as she sat up, she pulled it over her shoulders to keep them warm.
She could just make out the light under the door to his study. He was still awake. It was far too dark for her to make out the time, but she sensed they were in the wee hours of the morning.
She padded over to the room softly, the throw wrapped around her slight frame. The room had cooled down considerably now. She tapped lightly on the door before she pushed it open.
“What time is it?” she asked without preamble.
“It’s two in the morning, almost three,” he replied quietly. He was dressed in a robe tied firmly around his hips, a small tuft of salt and pepper hair peeking out just underneath. He stood up from behind the table and made his way around it.
“I should go…” she started, but he shook his head.
“The weather is foul out there. I won’t have you go out there alone, and I’m not keen to get out there myself either.” He placed both hands firmly on her shoulders. “Stay. Please. You can take my bed and I’ll sleep on the couch. Or take Robin’s room. It’s never used, but Lysa changes the sheets every week just in case, so I know it’s ready.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you.”
“Nonsense,” he replied quickly. “No trouble at all. As you can see, I was working in my study anyway. And I’m going to bed shortly.”
“Then let me sleep on your couch,” she insisted and he finally acquiesced. He found a thick feather pillow and she sank into it gratefully, pulling the covers over herself once more and snuggling in.
He stood watching her for a moment before suddenly bending to seat himself carefully beside her. His eyes brimmed with words unspoken and he moved his mouth as if to speak, yet all he did was to reach out and lightly brush her hair away from her forehead. The gesture was so unexpected, so tender that Sansa sucked in her breath. And then he bent down and kissed her, so softly between her furrowed, quizzical brows, before moving down slowly to drop the lightest of kisses on the tip of her nose.
He stopped there, his lips suspended over her nose, so precariously close to her mouth. The both of them scarcely breathed. And then with the smallest shake of his head, he rose from the settee and straightened his back.
“Goodnight,” he said and his voice sounded faint, hoarse, even though the tone was sure, final.
She did not trust herself to speak.
Time passed like a brisk winter wind marked by long moments of exquisite stillness.
Something changed the morning she awoke in his house to the smell of home-brewed coffee and warm toast. In the twilight, between sleeping and waking, their foundations had moved. Since then, the change was every day implied but never declared. She would touch her nose now and then in wonder.
It started with small favours and necessities. Much of it had involved the state of her ramshackle bedsit; he soon learnt how she froze in there and then froze even more during laundry days. On his insistence, she was to take her laundry to his place — a most practical solution. He had both a washer and a dryer, and because she separated her clothes according to colour, she soon whiled away whole afternoons waiting for two cycles of laundry to get done.
He would sit in his wingback chair and she would recline on the Chesterfield. They would talk unendingly, or not at all. Sometimes he would read from one of his theological tomes, his deep dulcet voice painting worlds on a canvas spanning time and disciplines. The driest subjects came alive with him; he looked for beauty in prose, in a profound thought phrased well. He was a polyhistor, obsessive about knowledge yet skeptical about truth. It was almost as if he saw the world four-dimensionally, almost as if his mind never slept. It seemed filled with dark energy, his universe ever-expanding, ideas exploding within at a dizzying, accelerating pace. And yet he was always controlled. Refined. The restless energy might prowl like a caged lion at times, but then he could be incredibly still. Watchful. Almost beautiful.
Sansa was equal parts fascinated and afraid. But the kind of terror she felt was nothing so sinister, only the sort borne from sitting in the presence of someone truly brilliant and therefore formidable.
He would not hurt her. She felt sure of it.
Other times, they would talk about the conference at the Citadel. She would bring up ideas and he would smile and nod slowly, yet never commit. She had found her watercolours and had started to paint again, the conference serving as her muse. One Saturday morning, he had walked into her bedsit just when she had finished a painting; a possible centrepiece for posters and brochures about the School — a montage of the many faiths of the world in dialogue, enshrined in the picturesque hilltop campus of the School.
“That is truly stunning,” he had pronounced, gazing at her handiwork with unmistakeable awe and even pride. “Both inspiring and allegorical. Clever.”
She had flushed with deep pleasure. “It’s hard to find the perfect image on the internet. I got frustrated and decided to create my own.” Emboldened, she shyly slipped him a prepared copy of her marketing plan, including rough mock-ups of all the collateral she proposed they should create.
“I’ll read it,” he had assured her, holding the plan in both hands as if it were ancient, brittle parchment. “But I make no promises."
Two days later, he had procured a top-of-the-line computer tablet that had won huge awards and rave reviews from graphic designers and artists the empire over. “Try this,” he had said nonchalantly, as if handing her a mere painting smock instead of a magic canvas that cost more than a month’s salary. “It will take a bit of getting used to, but it will help you in the long run.”
She would sit in his living room and practise painting him with it. She wondered if he knew. Sometimes she would look up only to find him watching her, his face shuttering as she met his gaze.
In the day, they would be just as they were. He would disappear into his room on countless phone conferences, or else walk over to the lecture hall to teach. She answered his calls and screened his emails with growing confidence, playing gatekeeper with a sagacity and grace that earned the approving nods she now craved. He no longer seemed to have any engagements in King’s Landing. Sometimes she would leave the office for her home before he did. Other times, he left before her. But invariably they would find each other soon after, when the carpark had emptied and the campus was hollow and still.
He left his study door unlocked now. She would wind up those stairs and he would hear her, timing it so he opened his door as soon as she reached the last step. His smile would be the first thing to warm her from the cold. Sometimes she brought a dish, other times groceries to cook. Sometimes she walked in to smell dinner waiting on the table. Whenever she cooked, it was a casual affair; a one-pot meal where she’d serve a bowl and a spoon each before padding over in her woolly slippers to the nearest settee by the fire. Sometimes, she would serve him at his desk before settling herself down in the love seat in his study. He would always abandon whatever task he had been mired in, picking up his bowl and spoon to come join her by the fire. The seat was just big enough for the both of them and no more; their arms and legs grazing each other's as they ate and stared into the flickering flames.
Whenever he cooked, it was almost a courtly affair with wine and a proper table setting. They would sit across each other and talk about their day thoughtfully, openly. If they had nothing to add, if one of them should be lost in thought, they would fall into a comfortable silence. There was purity in that quietness, an honesty. It was freeing.
Sansa found herself taking snapshots with her mind’s eye, keeping each one to revisit precious moments that had otherwise gone. They never brought up Lysa again, their bubble only consisting of work and current affairs, of life and questions about the eternal. That’s all they had air for, their conversations twining, private, enough. An elegant sufficiency.
He did not kiss her again, not the way he did in the twilight while she lay across his couch. For days after, they were stiff and aloof until good conversation and long walks into the godswood eventually relaxed them. Now if they happened to touch, it was always accidental. Unavoidable. A too-small couch. The passing of the bread basket. Narrow doorways.
She tried to ignore how her pulse would quicken. She tried to hide the way her body would shiver in the warmth.
Today, he had surprised her with new carpet. He had told her a full day beforehand that tradesmen were coming, and assured her she had nothing to prepare for. Her bedsit was spartan enough as it was. They laid thick insulation and glued the carpet down, taking hardly any time at all. But then the smell of the glue was overpowering with the windows closed, and the men told her she needed to let the floor set before moving her furniture back in.
“Come by tonight,” he had said after the carpet installer’s advice. It was the pragmatic solution, but her heart hammered in her chest all the same. He avoided her eyes. “You can sleep on my couch again, if you like. Or in Robin’s room. Or mine.”
Tonight he had made a succulent lamb roast. The vegetables were golden and perfect. Once more he uncorked a beautiful red that slid down her throat too easily, loosening her from within as it warmed her. He looked very handsome in the ambient light, his face perfectly symmetrical, his eyes dark and gleaming. Their feet barely touched underneath the table, but she was aware of where they were. She was aware of him. Every nerve ending was at attention and trained on him. Tonight felt different. She felt, rather than knew, that a change was afoot.
“Lysa returns soon,” he said lightly, but he drained his glass slowly. “Tomorrow afternoon, to be precise.”
A heaviness descended immediately, the air thickening with disappointment and apprehension. Oppressive.
“Come,” he said, standing up from the table. He stretched out his hand and she took it, letting him lead her back to the dark leather Chesterfield, only this time he settled in a corner and patted the seat beside him. She sank into it slowly while he found a cushion for his lap. Her long, thick hair covered him like a cloak when she lay her head down slowly, the rest of her body stretched out on her side across the length of the sofa. She turned her head to stare at the painting of the idyllic Dornish villa, still unhung. Silence dominated the room, save for the crackle and spit of the fire casting long, gothic shadows across the walls. He started to thread his fingers in her hair, brushing them out in long, languid strokes that were comforting even as goosebumps rippled across her body.
She desired him. There was no denying that now. It was a hopeless, twisted want and she was secretly ashamed.
“What’s in that remarkable head of yours?” she heard him say, his long, able fingers now finding her temple and giving it a gentle massage.
“Winter solstice is coming,” she supplied.
He continued kneading. “I remember. I remember the dinners, the wine, the gifts. Winterfell used to herald the solstice like no one else.”
“Not anymore,” she murmured. The kneading slowed, then stopped.
“I’m sorry. That was unthinking and unkind.” She felt the back of his fingers brush her cheek gently and she closed her eyes.
“Are you thinking of your father?”
She nodded and focused on not getting emotional. “I just want to know how he’s doing, you know?”
“Of course,” he soothed and his hands went back to kneading her temple.
They stayed like this for an age. She never wanted it to end. She started to dose, a little aware of her fragmenting consciousness, that tumbling between wakefulness and full sleep. She roused as soon as he moved, however; his legs were starting to tingle.
She sat up, shaking the sleep from her. He was staring at her once more, the silence between them crisscrossed by dozens of unformed sentences. He picked up her hand without warning, cradling it in his as if it could break. With his finger, he examined her callouses before tracing the full length of her lifeline. It was the softest of touches that went straight to her fluttering core.
“This is no longer a lady’s hand,” he observed. “But it is full of character now, and has all the marks of hard work.” He raised her hand to his mouth and hesitated, before pressing a slow kiss in her palm. She held her breath, not daring to move. Desire and confusion coursed through her once more, colliding and deafening and blinding.
“What do you want from me?” she heard herself whisper. She sounded terrified to her own ears.
“A great many things that I cannot say,” he replied quietly.
She left first thing in the morning, letting herself out through his front door. She had folded the throw neatly and left it on the couch, along with her feather pillow. His bedroom door had remained shut.
Lysa arrived that afternoon. The academic year ended. In the days after, the last remaining students made their way down the hilltop to their true homes far away. As the campus emptied, the Baelishes left for King’s Landing.
One Tuesday a few weeks later, she returned from the godswood to find a card in her letterbox. An invitation to dinner on Winter Solstice.
I wrestled and wrestled with this chapter. I loved writing whole chunks of it, but constantly worried I was over-indulging. So forgive me if I ended up "prose wanking" (wink). I'm just a fangirl after all. xx
Chapter 11: Solstice
It felt odd to enter from the front door now.
The first thing Sansa noticed were the two men stationed outside the Baelishes' residence like sentry. One of them was the man who brought and installed her stove not three months ago. They looked at her without so much as a nod or hello, but they opened the door for her all the same.
She was hesitant, half expecting her Aunt Lysa to come bearing down on her immediately. Whether she would find her aunt sweet or savage or simpering, Sansa was now certain it would all change again anyway, given a quarter hour.
Instead, her uncle Petyr met her at the door. His smile was warm and reassuring but guarded — the room was more crowded than she had anticipated. He was dressed for festivities in a deep black suit juxtaposed handsomely against the whitest shirt underneath, a mandarin collar gracing his neck perfectly. Hair swept to the side and combed, he looked immaculate, arresting, distinguished. And she only had eyes for him.
Standing about in the room stiffly were two others she didn’t know. They were dressed like the two men were outside — in form-fitting black long-sleeved T-shirts, tucked into dark corduroy pants that looked almost black. Their boots looked heavy and menacing, their faces like tough leather — weathered yet blank and uninviting. But one happened to move so she could see her Aunt Lysa slumped unnaturally in the high wingback chair, a glassy expression on her face. And when the other stepped aside, she finally saw him.
Sansa gasped, and it was loud enough to silence the room.
Eddard Stark got to his feet just as she ran to him, weaving past the men in black and straight into his arms. “My beautiful girl!” his whispered into her hair, stroking her head tenderly. Their embrace was tight, fierce, and long, neither quite believing this was happening. He smelled different, and Sansa guessed the faint cloud of cheap soap and sweaty men that clung around him was the odour of prison. And yet underneath it all, she could still detect his own musk — the smell of childhood, security, and unconditional love. Her eyes started to blur with tears she now hastily brushed away.
“How did you get here?”
Her father pointed his chin towards her uncle. “I am his prisoner.”
“You are my guest,” her uncle Petyr corrected smoothly. Yet something about his tone made her turn sharply to look at him.
“You organised this?” Sansa asked, incredulous. A thousand questions jostled for air. But how? she wanted to know chief of all. And who are you, really?
“You are both family,” he replied simply instead. “It’s not right for a man to sit alone in prison on Winter Solstice.”
Something dark and fierce crossed her father’s face, and Sansa broke away from his embrace to regard the looks that passed between her father and her uncle. She watched as her uncle smiled thinly.
“Shall we?” her uncle gestured to the dining table, resplendent now with an ornate table setting of flowers and candles nestled within a spread of delectables. The unmistakeable aroma of a succulent roast made her mouth water without warning. Her uncle Petyr had cooked tonight.
He crossed over to the wingback chair where her aunt Lysa sat. Her eyes were still glassy, unseeing. “Come my wife,” he coaxed gently and pulled her up to standing. She turned to look at him then, recognition and awareness suddenly pricking her eyes.
“Is it dinner?” she murmured, her voice low and sluggish, and he slipped her hand easily into the crook of his arm.
Ned stared at them both, questions pursed on his lips. But he too moved to the table mutely, placing a hand on the small of his daughter’s back gently. She smiled her brightest smile at him and tried not to notice the way her father’s feet shuffled, the sound of heavy cuffs clinking at his feet.
They sank into their seats, just the four of them. The chairs scraped the wooden floors, and then silence. The two men in black had entered the dining alcove soundlessly before and were now stationed on opposite ends of the room.
“Shall we say our own prayers, then?” invited her uncle Petyr, and her father agreed with a grunt. Silence filled the table for a good twenty seconds or so, and then dishes were passed around. Glasses were filled liberally and each recipient was thankful to imbibe some liquid courage.
Gradually, light, meaningless conversation seeped in. They covered the prosaic while assiduously avoiding the obvious. So no politics, then. Or mention of the National Fund, or the trial. No questions about the long stretches of solitary confinement and this puzzling temporary reprieve. And when they exhausted banal chat about travel conditions and the weather, her uncle Petyr chose a topic that would appease both men in the room: Sansa.
“She’s doing well, then?” asked her father, looking at her with pride. “My girl’s first real job in the real world, earning her own keep.”
“She is bright, self-motivated, and displays great initiative,” her uncle agreed.
“What does she do at the University?”
“She is my assistant.”
At that revelation, a shadow passed over her father’s face once more. He did not look pleased.
“Couldn’t you have found her some other kind of job?” he asked, his tone suspicious.
“And what’s wrong with this one?” returned her uncle congenially, even as his eyes narrowed. “It’s a senior position, and makes use of her fine mind. And this is the most effective way for me to ensure her safety,” her uncle pointed out. “Had I placed her in another area outside my direct influence, how can I protect her? She is safe where she is, and she has some power now. No one would dare make life difficult for the EA of the Head of School without expecting some sort of consequence to them.”
Sansa looked down at her plate. She had never thought herself as powerful but the more she reflected on his words, the more she realised it was true. The past few months had been her most peaceful in a twelve-month. Not even Dr Sands had attempted to raise hell since her first spirited interrogation at the staff meeting. And of course there was the incident with Septa Unella, which had also been swiftly dealt with by the Professor. Sansa had initially thought they had all left her well alone because of disinterest, but she was not so sure now.
“Are you happy, my girl?” Ned asked his daughter, his eyes searching for truth in hers.
“I am, Daddy,” she answered softly. “Uncle Petyr has been a good mentor.”
“And what’s the matter with Lysa,” her father asked, pointedly looking at her aunt who was staring off into the distance once again in mid-chew.
“You know how she suffers,” her uncle replied darkly. “We’re still adjusting to her new medication.”
Her father sniffed then, and it sounded like disbelief. “It seems she’s gone steadily downhill since you married her, Baelish.”
The silence following Sansa’s shocked reproof reverberated through the alcove. Aunt Lysa began to chew again.
“I’m sorry, Baelish,” her father sighed heavily after a time. “Winter Solstice is not a good time for our quarrel.”
Her uncle Petyr smirked. “I have no quarrel with you, Ned.”
Her father looked like he was about to sharply dispute that, and Sansa watched in growing alarm as he clenched his fist and then loosened it. But he bit his tongue and chose instead to say nothing, the great effort turning his own face red. A tense silence fell over the table once more, the tinkle and clinks of glass and metal the only sounds to fill the room. The meat had turned cold now, the gravy coagulating. Every bite felt difficult to swallow.
What was it about family dinners in this home, Sansa despaired inwardly. She had so many happy memories of this place, and yet they were now turning to ash.
“So tell me, what have you been busy doing, Sansa?” her father asked at length, the words falling awkwardly from his mouth. He never did manage small talk very well.
“It changes day to day,” Sansa replied, placing a hand over her father’s and squeezing it affectionately. “For instance, last month I was helping compile a large report for circulation to the Board. Lately, I’ve been working on a marketing plan for a conference in OldTown,” Sansa added proudly.
“Oh? What conference is this?”
“Oh, it’s not even like we’re going—”
“We?” Her father narrowed his eyes. He looked to her uncle accusingly. “What is this?”
“It’s the annual theological summit at the Citadel,” her uncle Petyr replied coolly. “I’ve been invited to be one of their speakers.”
“But what has Sansa got to do with it? Surely she wouldn’t need to go…”
“No of course not, Daddy…” she was quick to reassure. “When I said ‘we’, I meant the School—"
“She’s been leading the preparations for this event. Of course she would go.”
Her breath caught in her throat. What did she just hear, she wondered, her heart thumping wildly. He had given no indication of attending before, let alone speaking at the event less than a month away. And with her… Sansa glanced surreptitiously at her uncle — her Professor — to find him smiling amiably at her father. But his eyes held her father’s in a challenge, his cold stare unflinching.
“And who else would be going to this summit?”
Professor Baelish shrugged. “We are thin on staff,” he replied matter-of-factly. “We can’t possibly afford to send anyone else along, and they won’t be across the detail like Sansa. No, it will just be the two of us.”
“I forbid it!” Her father slammed the table with his open palm and the china shook. The two men in black instantly rushed in, but her uncle Petyr merely waved them away and they resumed their positions reluctantly.
“Don’t be irrational, Ned,” he reasoned. “Sansa is a grown woman. This is a work conference. I’m not sure what your misgivings are, but if it is her honour you wish to protect…”
“I don’t trust you, Baelish!” her father seethed.
“I have a wife, Ned!” Petyr’s tone was frosty, clipped. “She sits right here. She may be drugged up, but she can still hear you. And we both take offence.”
“I don’t mean you’ll… it’s not her virginity I worry about, but how you’ll corrupt her. In other ways.”
Her uncle’s eyes were glinting now, and his smile was anything but happy.
“In what ways, exactly?” he asked, his voice dangerously soft and low.
Her father glared at him. “Don’t act coy with me, Baelish. I should never have trusted you.”
A deathly silence took over the room, save the ticking of a clockwork somewhere in the distance. Sansa shook her head slowly. “Enough, the both of you.” She sighed wearily. “Can someone please tell me what’s going on?”
Her uncle arched his eyebrow at her father. “Go on then,” he taunted softly. “Tell her."
“I want to speak to my daughter alone.”
“If you think I’m going to let you conspire with your daughter in plain sight of two Kingsguards, you are either a fool or you mistake me for one, Ned. I have already put my neck on the line arranging this dinner. The least you could do is thank me, and not give cause for me to be suspected of treason.” Her uncle leaned in and Sansa could see an angry vein throbbing near his temple even as his tone remained neutral, his voice even.
“You’re on thin, brittle ice, Stark. But Sansa is safe here with me, and you know it. Think of her at least."
The fury in her father’s eyes was unmistakable, and yet Sansa watched in wonder as he forced himself to look away for ten whole seconds, his breath ragged as if he had been running. Finally, he looked at her.
“Promise you won’t stay with him if you ever smell a rat, my love.”
“Daddy, I —“
She nodded, bewildered. “I promise!”
Her father sighed heavily. Her uncle rolled his eyes.
“Honestly, Ned. If I were truly all the evil you think I am, don’t you think Sansa would be corrupted by now?” He sniffed. "And yet you see her as she is."
Sansa returned her hand to her father’s and squeezed it. She pasted on her sweetest smile to reassure him when he squeezed it back, even as her heart remained troubled.
“Daddy, don’t worry about me,” she said softly. “Just focus on getting out and clearing your name, okay?”
A look of pain filled his eyes anew, and Sansa fought down her alarm.
“Go help your uncle Petyr bring the dessert out, love,” he grunted at last. “A man of his standing shouldn’t have to fuss around the kitchen like he has the whole night.”
She nodded. “Of course, papa.” And she excused herself from the table. She was half surprised when she heard the scrape of another chair behind her, only to find her uncle Petyr making his way to her.
“It’s my bloody kitchen, Ned!” he retorted sharply to an accusation unmade, before following her into the kitchen. The door closed behind him.
“Right, where’s your dessert…” But his hands were on her face now, and his mouth covered hers, cutting off all oxygen and thought. He kissed her hard, his lips parted against hers and she felt herself sag against him as she felt his tongue tentatively taste her, seeking permission.
She parted her own lips and she felt his tongue enter her. A shudder racked her body when their tongues met. Boys had kissed her of course, but never like this. Blood rushing to her sex, a faint roar in her ears. Desire, desire, desire…
They both broke apart as suddenly as they came together, their gaze still hungry yet stricken now. His pupils were blown wide. They were dark and reflected all that she wanted and could not, should not have.
“What now?” she whispered, her breath shaky still.
He gave a tremulous smile. “Dessert.”