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more than a creeping thing

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The way the sand shifts beneath her feet is unsettling. Sansa has never walked on a beach before. She’s grateful to the camouflage of her heavy skirts as she spreads her legs for balance, keeping her posture as upright as possible as she comes to a stop behind Brienne’s broad back. Brienne is nervous, though she’s trying to hide it; but Sansa can read the quick flicker of her eyes as five Dothraki men march away down the shore with their boat balanced atop their shoulders.

They have arrived at Dragonstone. It seems the Dragon Queen intends to keep them here.

For the hundredth time Sansa says a silent prayer of thanks that she and Davos had together managed to convince Jon to send her on this mission in his stead. She shudders to think how disastrous it would have been had the King in the North come himself to wait on the uncertain pleasure of this latest claimant to the Iron Throne. Jon’s hold on the loyalties of the Northern Lords is not so strong that he can afford any missteps, not now. She doesn’t like the idea of Petyr lingering on in Winterfell at her half-brother’s side, but she had given Davos instructions on how to deal with the Lord Protector of the Vale that hopefully will prevent Jon from doing anything too foolish in her absence.

Her stomach tightens as she sees the short figure making his way down the beach towards them, accompanied by guards and a lovely young woman in a foreign dress. Tyrion looks older than she remembers, with a full beard and a new formality to his movements she had never seen in King’s Landing. He stares at her openly as he draws near, and then, seeming to catch himself, makes a careful bow. “Lady Sansa.”

Curtsying on the soft sand is no easy task, but Sansa has done harder things in her life. “Lord Tyrion.”

“My dear wife.” His mouth quirks, eyes lighting up with that old familiar humor. “You’ve returned to me at last. Did you miss me terribly?”

At her side Brienne bristles visibly, hand going to the sword at her side. Sansa touches her arm to still her. “No doubt as much as you missed me, my lord.” Then she watches, waiting to see what he’ll do with this response.

After a moment, he he throws back his head and laughs, and a little of the tension leaves her body in return. She had not guessed wrong, thank the gods. Tyrion will not sabotage her or her mission; he had not been trapped in King’s Landing the way Sansa was trapped, but he’d been a kind of prisoner of their marriage nonetheless. It seems he remembers as well as she.

“It’s good to see you well,” he says, and this time the words are sincere.

“And you,” Sansa replies. If her voice is a touch warmer than courtesy requires, well, there’s no one to notice but Brienne, and Brienne is too wise to comment. “This is the Lady Brienne of Tarth, my sworn shield.”

“Lord Tyrion.” Brienne jerks her head stiffly and bobs her shoulders in an awkward little half-bow.

“Lady Brienne.” Tyrion bows back, rather more gracefully. “A pleasure.” Then he gestures to the woman beside him. “And may I introduce to you Missandei, the queen’s most trusted advisor.”

Missandei nods and smiles briefly. Sansa isn’t sure if she ought to call the woman lady or if there is some other, foreign title Tyrion has failed to provide, so she merely smiles back and curtsies again to hide her confusion. “I am honored to meet you.”

“As am I, Lady Sansa.”

Her loyal knight bristles again when it comes time to give up her weapons, but manages to do so with nothing but a long-suffering look in Sansa’s direction as Tyrion leads them towards the steps. Brienne had argued long and hard against Sansa’s coming. I’m sworn to protect you, not the North, she’d said. I am the North, Sansa had replied. To serve me is to serve it. If you are unhappy with that perhaps you should be more careful of your oaths in the future.

Brienne had not liked that at all. Still, she insisted on accompanying Sansa here. Sansa has not yet told her how grateful she is for the woman’s quiet presence at her side; she doesn’t quite have the words to explain how much it means to her to have a protector close by, after all her years alone and afraid.

The steps are long and winding, and the air is heavy with the taste of brine. Dragonstone is a dark, forbidding place to her eyes, all sharp cliffs and damp stone. A low screech makes her look up, and Sansa can’t quite keep the gasp from her lips when she raises her head to see the sinuous shapes of dragons soaring high above the castle rising in the distance.

Tyrion follows her gaze and smiles. “Glorious creatures, aren’t they?”

“Glorious,” she echoes. It was not the word she would have chosen.

“I’d say you get used to them, but you never really do.”

Sansa has no expectation of ever growing used to dragons. She thinks fleetingly of Arya, who so loved stories of the Targaryen dragon queens of old, then pushes the memory away before it can rise to choke her. Arya would thrill to the sight of dragons returned to Westeros, but Arya is dead and gone. Jon is all the family left to her now, and Sansa is here to keep him safe, not to marvel at these legends of her childhood come to life. Dragons were all very well in songs and stories. They were something else again as three living, breathing weapons in the service of another queen’s army.

Sansa remembers her history. Aegon the Conqueror had also had three dragons. Books recorded how he unleashed them all against the kings of the Westerlands and the Reach in the Field of Fire. Four thousand men burned alive that day.

Overhead the black dragon swoops and shrieks again. Sansa bites her lip, and looks determinedly down at the steps beneath her feet.

Tyrion makes a few attempts at conversation as they enter the castle and make their way through its dim stone halls. Sansa replies courteously each time, but her mind is too focussed on the meeting ahead to give the man’s nervous wit much thought. Seeing him again like this is strange, but no stranger than dragons or a Targaryen queen with a Dothraki army at her back.

At last they arrive before the doors of the throne room. Sansa is suddenly acutely aware that she is tired and sore from travel, that there is sand clinging to the hem of her skirts and her dress is crumpled, the collar skewed and her left sleeve stained with salt water. She wishes she had been allowed to rest and change her clothes before this meeting; in high stakes negotiation, appearances count, and she has never negotiated anything with higher stakes, not even on her quest to retake Winterfell with Jon. No doubt the Dragon Queen knows this too. Tyrion had said she insisted on meeting her guests immediately after their arrival; is this the power play of a clever aristocrat, or merely the impatience of a warlord who understands nothing of the subtleties of court? Sansa supposes she’ll learn soon.

The doors swing open. Sansa exchanges a glance with Brienne, then trains her eyes firmly ahead as she steps into the room.

The Dragon Queen awaits her on the huge jagged throne of Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of House Targaryen. Sansa bites back a flicker of surprise as she takes the woman in; she had heard the rumors calling Daenerys Targaryen the most beautiful woman in the world, but had dismissed them as little more than propaganda. This woman staring her down as she walks slowly forward, however—Sansa finds herself thinking that she might have a claim to the title after all. She is young and slim and heart-stoppingly lovely, her white-gold hair twisted into intricate braids down her back and her dark purple eyes fixed unblinkingly on Sansa as she stops a safe distance from the foot of her throne.

“You stand in the presence of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen,” the woman Missandei announces. The Dragon Queen looks on impassively as she speaks. “Rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.”

It’s an impressive list of titles. Sansa takes a moment to admire the Dragon Queen’s evident knack for presentation. It looks as if bringing the Northern delegation here immediately had been a power play after all.

But Sansa knows how to play as well, and she’s no novice to the game.

Brienne steps forward beside her, shoulders squared and head raised proudly. “I present to you Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark, sister to the King in the North and the Lady of Winterfell.”

Ignoring her sore muscles and stained skirts, Sansa sweeps into her lowest and most elaborate curtsy. “It is an honor to be admitted to your presence, Your Grace.” Though the pose makes her back scream in discomfort, she is careful to hold it for a full five seconds with her head bowed before she raises her eyes again. “Rumors of your great beauty have traveled even as far north as Winterfell, but they fail to do justice to the reality.”

The Dragon Queen grants her a small, amused smile. “You are too kind, my lady.” “I am rarely kind, Your Grace,” Sansa says, thinking of hunting dogs and a man’s dying scream. “Merely honest.” She smiles back the sweet liar’s smile she learned in King’s Landing and perfected at Petyr’s side. “But you must forgive my rough Northern manners. We are a simple people in the North, and prefer plainspoken speech.”

“So I see,” the queen murmurs. Her gaze grows more intent and she leans slightly forward in her seat. “I thank you for traveling so far from your people, my lady. I hope the seas weren’t too rough.”

“Not at all, Your Grace.”

“But I admit, I was a trifle confused when we received the raven informing us of your coming.”

“Confused, Your Grace?” Sansa knows she must step lightly. “Were you not the one to request my presence here?”

“I requested the presence of your brother,” the Dragon Queen says flatly. “Not you.”

She takes a careful breath. “My brother sends his compliments, Your Grace. But he is King in the North, and his duties require him to stay in the North. As the Lady of Winterfell and the only surviving member of his family, I have been entrusted with full authority to negotiate on behalf of the North in his stead.” Sansa Stark was a valuable hostage, not an insult. But she did not know if this queen was tutored enough to recognize it. “My presence here is a show of my brother’s trust in your honor.”

Do you plan to live to up it, Your Grace? Sansa doesn’t ask. She suspects she already knows the answer; it’s been a long time since she was foolish enough to trust in the honor of strangers.

“King in the North,” the queen repeats, her voice thoughtful. Sansa is instantly on alert. “I never did receive a formal education, but I was under the impression that the last King in the North was Torrhen Stark, who bent the knee to my ancestor Aegon Targaryen. Or was I misinformed?”

“My ancestor Torrhen Stark did indeed swear fealty to your House, Your Grace.” Sansa makes sure to keep her face smooth and her voice level as she replies. “But the King Who Knelt was not the last King in the North. That was my brother Robb Stark, who led the North in rebellion against King Joffrey after his execution of my father. Robb never lost the war; he was murdered by the Lannisters in violation of the laws of men and gods.” While you were reigning in some foreign city across the Narrow Sea, she thinks irritably. “Jon is his successor.”

“Your brother Robb fought against the Lannisters,” the Dragon Queen says. “But I am no Lannister. Joffrey was a pretender to my title, as Cersei is now, and the North was right to rebel against him. But I am the last Targaryen and the only rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Would the North deny its true queen as well as her false rivals?”

“The North wishes to deny you nothing,” Sansa says carefully. “But we have claimed independence since the Crown’s betrayal of our trust.”

“Joffrey’s betrayal was not the Targaryen’s.”

“It was not, Your Grace,” she concedes. “But with respect, Aerys Targaryen betrayed the trust of the North as well, when he unlawfully executed Lord Rickard and Brandon Stark in the throne room of the Red Keep. Robert’s Rebellion sprang from that act.”

Gone to demand the aid of a Southern king, just as Sansa has come to bargain for aid with the Southern queen before her now. She does not think this one plans to burn her alive like her uncle and grandfather before her…but she’s heard that all Targaryens go mad in the end. Who can say what this queen will do next?

Jon would not be afraid, so I must not be either. Still, Sansa doesn’t want to burn. Ramsey liked to use candles, sometimes, and once a glowing iron from the fire; there are still shiny red scars dotting her stomach and back from those games. But at least an execution by dragonfire would be quick. And she would not have to wake up swallowing screams from her dreams of it every night afterwards…

She gives her head a tiny shake and pushes the memory away before it can overwhelm her. There’s no time for that now.

The Dragon Queen is looking at her with a new expression, harder and more intense than before. “Aerys Targaryen was my father,” she says, and Sansa braces herself for what will come next. “And an evil man.” What? “On behalf of House Targaryen, I ask forgiveness for the crimes he committed against your family.”

She can’t help herself; she blinks, and her lips part in surprise at the words. Whatever she had expected Daenerys Targaryen to say next, it hadn’t been that. “I…thank you, Your Grace. That is…most kind.”

“I am rarely kind, Lady Sansa. Merely honest.” Next to her, Sansa can hear Brienne stifling an indignant cough at this mocking echo of her words. But Sansa is not offended. She is…confused. “I see that you are a student of history, my lady, so I ask you this: does history tell us it is wise to judge a daughter by the sins of her father?”

The Dragon Queen’s eyes are wide and serious, a shade of violet so dark they look nearly black as they pull Sansa’s gaze in. She cannot possibly know how Sansa suffered in King’s Landing as the Traitor’s Daughter, how it had felt to look at her beloved father’s rotting head and forswear all loyalty to his name in her struggle to survive. She cannot possibly know, and yet. “It…does not, Your Grace.”

There is that smile again, small and fierce against her delicate features. “Our Houses were allies once. And with a Targaryen on the throne and a Stark as Warden of the North, the realm prospered for centuries. I would have the King in the North bend the knee and swear fealty to my House once more. I will make a better future for our people by honoring the oaths that my father broke to the Starks and to the realm. You say that you speak for your brother, Lady Sansa. Can you pledge that he will do the same by honoring the oaths of House Stark to me?”

“I will be honored to deliver your gracious words to my brother, Your Grace. And I can speak for him in all manner of military and diplomatic negotiations.” Each word feels like picking her way across the thin ice of a frozen lake; one wrong step and she’ll fall through to her death below. Except of course, it won’t merely be Sansa who drowns if she fails here. She takes a deep breath, and keeps going. “But my brother is king by the choice of the Northern lords, and he is answerable to them in his decisions. Neither I nor Jon can deliver the North to you without their approval, and the Northern lords have earned their suspicion of Southern rulers at great personal cost to themselves and their men.”

Sansa pauses. She is strung tight as a bowstring and near to vibrating with the tension; she cannot afford a single misspoken word, not now. The Dragon Queen is frowning and opening her mouth as if to speak, so she pushes ahead quickly before she loses her opening. “But I have not come before you today to refuse you, Your Grace.” The queen’s mouth shuts, her eyes narrowing suspiciously as she watches Sansa speak. “I have come to offer you a means of gaining the allegiance of the North.”

“A means of gaining the allegiance that is my birthright?” the queen drawls. Her expression is skeptical, but her gaze is bright with interest. “I see. And what means might that be?”

“It is true that Cersei Lannister is a great threat to the realm, Your Grace. But in the North we face an even greater danger from beyond the Wall.”

“Beyond the Wall?” This time it’s Tyrion who speaks. He’s moved to stand a little to the right of the throne, and now he looks at her with confusion wrinkling his brow. “You mean the Wildlings are making incursions again?”

“Not the Wildlings, my lord. It is a…different kind of threat.” Sansa swallows uncomfortably, but there’s nothing else to do than say it. “A magical one.”

“Magic.” The Dragon Queen’s amusement has lost its warmth; now she looks merely annoyed.

But Sansa must push on. “Yes, Your Grace. In the North, we call them White Walkers. The Night’s Watch has protected the realms of men against them for centuries, but now—“

“Lady Sansa. Do you really mean to tell me that the North has sent you here to beg me for aid against a children’s story?”

Sansa straightens her back and meets the queen’s eyes with a hard look of her own. “I am no beggar, Your Grace,” she says plainly. “I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell, and I have come here to tell you the truth. An army of the dead marches on the North. My brother Jon has seen them.”

Infuriatingly, the Dragon Queen does nothing but raise a brow in response. “Then perhaps your brother Jon should have come himself, as I requested.”

“He remained in Winterfell to oversee the necessary military preparations for our people.” Sansa hears her words growing heated, and makes herself stop before she says something foolish. Anger has never yet won a man his argument. The voice sounds frighteningly like Petyr’s inside her head.

“Military preparations…against this army of the dead?”

“Yes, Your Grace.” The annoyance is still plain to read on the queen’s face; if there was ever a time for Sansa to lose her temper, this is not it. “Please understand, I know how it sounds.” She forces her voice to grow gentle once more, and lets a soft, pleading light enter her eyes. “When Jon first told me, I had trouble believing him myself. But it is the truth. Many men besides him have seen them and lived to tell of it.”

“Lady Sansa—“ Tyrion tries to intercede, but she ignores him.

“Your Grace, before you, no one believed that dragons would ever come to Westeros again. But now there are three of them flying in the skies above Dragonstone. Because of you, magic has returned to the world. Is it so impossible that there could be a darker kind of magic returning in the North as well?”

The Dragon Queen is silent for a moment after she listens to Sansa’s words. Then she rises from her throne to walk down the steps of her podium towards Sansa where she stands before her. Sansa is startled to realize she towers over the other woman by half a foot at least. It’s strange to think that anyone who looms so large over the realm and the future of the North could be so small in person, but this Daenerys Targaryen is as petite as Princess Myrcella or her little sister Arya once was.

“So this is what you would have me do to gain the allegiance of the North? Abandon my war against Cersei, abandon my war for the Seven Kingdoms, and ride off to save a realm in open rebellion against my rule from a horde of monsters on the proof of your word alone?”

From so close, the queen’s beauty is even greater, and the intensity of her presence even more unsettling. Sansa lets a shaky breath escape her throat and refuses to look away. “No, Your Grace.”

“No?”

“Those would be the actions of a fool, and I do not take you for one of those.”

The queen almost smiles; it’s a cold expression, and Sansa represses the urge to shiver at the sight of it. “Do you not?”

“I don’t,” she insists. “The news I have brought you is strange, I understand that. So I would have you discuss it with your advisors. I would have you send your own scouts North to learn the truth of it. Or even ride there yourself, on one of your dragons, to see the army that is coming for us. I have brought you a warning in good faith, Your Grace. The proof of my words is there in the North for you to find.”

And we are all doomed if you do not find it. But she doesn’t say it aloud. The Dragon Queen would think it a threat, and queens seldom reacted well to being threatened. Best to phrase it as a plea for salvation, not a promise that the queen herself will fall if she refuses to act. Both were true, but negotiations were best done by choosing the prettiest truth to present to your opponent, not the one she most needed to hear. Sansa had learned that the hard way in the Vale and again when retaking Winterfell; it isn’t a lesson she plans to soon forget.

The queen’s marvelous eyes are still fixed on hers, unnerving Sansa with their ferocity. She clasps her hands together to keep from fidgeting and waits for her reply. “That is what you have come all this way to ask of me?” The woman says at last, sounding genuinely puzzled. “That I send scouts North to investigate this supposed threat, and nothing more?”

The dragonglass, don’t forget the dragonglass! But just as Sansa is opening her mouth to speak, a new man enters the room. She feels a jolt of surprise as she recognizes Varys, the king’s old spymaster. She had not known his allegiances had changed as well as Tyrion’s. He hurries to the Dragon Queen’s side and whispers something in her ear that has her looking sharply at him in reply.

“Your Grace,” Sansa tries, but the queen holds up a hand to cut her off.

“You must forgive my manners,” she says coolly. “You will both be tired after your long journey. We’ll have baths drawn for you and suppers at your rooms.” Then she turns and speaks a few words in a foreign language to one of the Dothraki guards standing silent by her throne. “We will speak more on the morrow, when you have rested.”

Sansa would like to protest, but that would be a foolish thing to do. “Of course, Your Grace,” she says instead, biting her tongue. She curtsies again, just to be safe.

Are we prisoners here? she wants to ask. But she already knows the answer. It isn’t the first time Sansa has been a prisoner. It isn’t even the second or the third. And she remembers how to survive amongst royalty who could have her killed with a word. Daenerys Stormborn may not know what to make of her, but Sansa knows exactly what she thinks of this beautiful, power-hungry queen. Cersei was once destined to be her mother-in-law, after all.

She sweeps out of the room with Brienne at her heels, and she doesn’t look back.