Tears are a foreign concept to Arya. She cried a lot as a baby, but then all babies do, and growing up among boys and arrows and swords, she learned to temper her discontent. Pinpricks and skinned knees feel like memories from a lifetime ago. The skid marks have remained, no doubt, buried in the stone of her father’s castle like hidden treasure.
Sibling scars lie engraved on the dark side of her soul – the side only Daenerys can see as they lie together, nose to nose and legs entwined in a bed of hard wood and rough furs.
“I could come with you,” Arya whispers. “You’ll have need of me.”
“So does your sister. You father.” Daenerys brings their joined hands to her lips, shaken but sure-footed on the edge of the precipice. “Your family needs you. And I owe it to them to give you back.”
This is a time for lies and heartbreak, each dealt in liberal amounts in the privacy of a rented room in a Dragonstone inn where women of the court should never be seen, let alone indulge in a night’s rest. Arya can’t bring herself to fear the consequences. “I don’t care about them. I can’t just let you go--”
“Oh, Arya.” A sob breaks along the fault lines of Dany's kiss. “Family is all that matters, my sweet.”
It’s her ankles. Arya glimpses them by accident one afternoon, just as the ladies are seeing their suitors off for the hunt. Daenerys picks up her skirts and darts out of a mocking kiss, light like a woodland bird skipping from branch to branch. She stops close enough to touch, braids swaying over narrow shoulders and caution utterly absent. It’s only when Arya’s horse gives a worrying huff that their eyes meet and ancient feud flares under a different guise.
“You ride with the men.” Daenerys doesn’t seem surprised. She has a soft voice, for a king’s daughter, but she’s not meek enough to be an extra-princess. She seems to have made her peace with the new order, this rescued symbol of Baratheon mercy – a feat Arya would never have managed, in her shoes.
A Stark through and through, Arya thrusts her chin forward, pulling on reins to avoid frightening either blonde woman or well-trained beast. Her stallion is used to a stern grip; he’s father’s horse, borrowed for the hunt by a restless daughter. Lady Stark would never have allowed it, but she’s far away in Winterfell and besides, Arya has never done what was proper. “As you see,” she retorts and feels the worse for it.
She means for her voice to come out strong, as though carved in stone. So many of her father’s captains have winter engraved on the marrow of their bones that when she hears them speak it’s as if blizzards are rolling through King’s Landing. But Arya is young, her sword is rightly called a needle and she can only manage to appear cross when she tries for sobriety. It is infuriating, but it’s far worse to be laughed at.
“Well,” Daenerys replies, grinning. “Please, don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you’ll take as much pleasure in killing things as the rest of them.”
The swish of her robes – pale yellow and embroidered silk – is the last Arya sees of her before the horn is sounded. Daenerys’ flighty friends are gaggling like geese as the trotting of horses becomes thunder and drumbeat, the king’s banner leading the chase though Robert himself remains absent and his son is left sulking in darkness somewhere. Arya should be worried, perhaps, that she is leaving her own sister behind to bear the prince’s temper, but it’s testament to youth and foolishness that her thoughts seem tethered to the slice of skin above a silk shoe, flesh so pale it might as well be quartz.
Her horse is restless all through the hunt and scares off the game. Arya blames the rider.
“You must start behaving like a proper woman.”
Arya may be too old for a nurse, but she’s deemed incapable of caring for herself, so their chambers are never lacking the advice of the old and the unmarried. It filters through at the most unpleasant moment of the day – often, just as Arya is stirring from her sleep – but it’s only on special occasions that an armful of tailored fabric is deposited onto her covers.
She has her father’s temper blazing in her veins as she sits up. “What’s this? My shroud?”
“Your dress for this evening’s banquet. Catching the stag was men’s work. Now you must set aside your pride and let the men receive the king’s praise.”
“But that’s not fair!” Eight years in the Red Keep and she is still unused to the wicked ways of its residents. “I shot the damn thing. It’s my arrows that lie buried in its tusk—“
The old crone will have none of it. “Lord Stark expects you to behave.”
It’s the magic word, really, because Arya may be defiant, but she’s not foolish. Her father is the only one to understand that she needs more than the pampered life so common in King’s Landing or the married bliss her sister seems to think is her due.
Arya kicks off the covers. Later, she’ll discover that her dress hides more than it bares, and she will know her father lover her, such as she is.
Blonde hair so light it’s nearly the white of bones picked clean registers long before Daenerys makes her voice heard. “I’ve heard tales of a female hand wielding the bow which felled the great beast. And as I know of no other huntress, I thought I’d verify these rumors with you.”
“My father says never to trust those who only speak in whispers.” Arya tries for haughtiness and confidence, though she feels neither. Somewhere in her chest, a ball of fire keeps growing and growing, scorching her innards.
The room is full of laughter and bawdy women with heaving bosoms, most of them fanned like hens around the king. Cersei Lannister sits much further, as frozen as an insect caught in amber. She wears a single smile and it’s not the sort that Arya might call friendly.
Daenerys seems to notice it, too. “Mine taught me the danger of voices carrying in this place. You, of course, know no such fear.” Her smile may be hidden by the broad rim of her cup, but Arya can sense it anyway.
It rankles to be spoken to with condescension.
“What do you mean?” With Cersei at her back and Daenerys to face her, Arya should know anxiety or self-doubt, but she is a Stark and she can only feel the blood thudding in her ears and in her chest, as sure as any clarion call.
Each time she meets Daenerys, it surprises her to find the woman far more placid than she thought the daughter of the Mad King to be. She makes no pretense as to her status, has no designs upon the prince. If she is plotting her enemies’ demise, then she is far better at it than all the ministers in the King’s retinue. This should not be surprising; women do not concern themselves with sycophantic gains. They will have the crown, the husband, or nothing at all.
“Only that you are by far one of the bravest women I know.” Daenerys inclines her head, whispering the compliment through rouged lips.
It does not occur to Arya to take the accolade with surface grace and polite gratitude. “Perhaps that is because you do not associate with the right people. I’d sooner face my enemies than hope they do not notice me.” Her cruelty is a child’s cruelty when faced with the thing they most fear; for what happened to Daenerys may yet happen to Lord Stark and then--
“Then it is fortunate,” Daenerys whispers, “that you and I are not enemies.”
Daenerys has no proper suitors, but she is constantly surrounded by gentlemen of the court. Arya uses the term as loosely as someone might use the word ‘dog’ to speak of a direwolf. She sees them falter in conversation when the blonde pariah comes into view, their lips peeling back into hungry, hungry smiles. It is face of beasts in the forest when they know they’ve cornered their prey, but either they’re too scared to launch themselves into the attack or they’re unsure of their success.
Foolishly, Arya takes to watching the spectacle like a scholar observes the sky; patiently and with no better sense of understanding the more time she spends in study. She stills complains about the dresses selected for her use while in the castle – and she still sneaks out to trek in breeches and tunics borrowed from her brothers on the open roads. She learns the beach by foot, marveling at the feel of soft sand between her toes, as gentle to the touch as snow, but hot like coals fresh from the hearth. She examines the forest and its tall trees with no footholds and no place to lay a hand. She often thinks of Bran and Snow and her mother, in Winterfell; of home.
Grief is not Arya’s sole companion on these outings. Once, in the marketplace, she finds herself contemplating the length of a ribbon so pale it might be a slice of hair. Her fingers skim the silky material without settling. She thinks of fine blonde hairs and a naked shoulder.
“Something for your lady friend, young master?” The merchant is fox-faced and grinning as if he can peer past Arya’s bound chest and straight into her soul. He speaks with a northern brogue, like the stable hands in Winterfell. “Pretty girls like pretty things,” he chortles, “and what would make your lady’s pleasure? Jewelry, hmm? Perfume as sweet as the flowers of Valyria?”
Arya loses herself into the crowd before another word is spoken. Her heart races as she imagines the merchant exposing her to the Queen – or worse, her father – and making of a foolish desire a sign of treason and conspiracy. But the merchant does not blow her cover and hours of ambling about the city without purpose prove as fruitless as they are tedious.
There are too many people in King’s Landing, too many voices pouring from brothels and taverns and temples, crowding the streets with petty concerns and little purpose. Between pickpockets and beggars, there is barely room to stop and catch one’s breath; there is certainly no space to think.
Later, as the merchandise thins on rickety tables and sellers pack their wares for the night, Arya pays a young boy to procure her the silk ribbon she thought might please Daenerys. It feels much colder in her hands, the pale shade dulled to a waning yellow tint.
Breakfast is a rare affair for the family, yet it is something or a relief to wake in the company of familiar faces, for all that Sansa yawns her way through pastries and finely sliced fish and the nurse keeps throwing Arya looks that suggest she knows just why her boots want for a shine. Her disproof is legendary by now and thus easily ignored.
“I hear there is to be another hunt,” Arya announces, far better pleased with the thought that she is her plate. Fish was rare in Winterfell and the taste strikes her as unusual the more she forces herself to endure it.
Her father tries to fashion a smile, but he is tired, wary and ill at ease in his new home. A lifetime would not be enough to cure him of his allegiance to the north or make him forget his love for Arya’s mother. “The court is to join in this time.”
“What, all of us?” Sansa perks up like a rabbit in the forest. “When? I must prepare my riding cloak--”
Too used to the fuss her sister makes over all the unimportant details, Arya pretends she does not hear. “Will you come, Father?” Will it be like the old days?
“I am the Hand of the King,” sighs Lord Stark and, for the first time in years, Arya is made keenly aware of how quickly he’s aged. “I must go where I am bid.”
“I will need new boots,” Sansa pursues, undaunted. “I cannot have Joffrey see me in those tattered old things. Will there be other ladies of the court there? Margaery Tyrell has been making eyes at him ever since the banquet, that vulgar little witch. And the Targaryen girl!”
It’s the way she says it, as if the very name was poison and ash, that has Arya’s eyes narrowing sharply. “What of her?” All Stark children have been raised on stories of the Mad King; their hatred for the Targaryens goes deep into the blood, but there is something manifestly vexing about the last surviving daughter of that godforsaken dynasty. Arya can’t put her out of her mind. “Will she be joining us, Father?”
Lord Stark has every reason to despise Daenerys, yet his nod is more wretched than vindictive. “You will behave, won’t you? She is the king’s ward, whatever her unfortunate ancestry.”
“I will.” In a feat of uncharacteristic affection, Arya takes her hand and places it upon her father’s veined wrist. They make a heavy burden for the wooden table to bear, these northern ghouls, but love rarely allows resistance. It surprises Arya to find she has every intention of obeying.
Such is the problem with good intentions; at their best, they are moral guides. At their worst, they leave hollows in the wake of insults.
Arya sits with her back to a heavy oak tree, keen to lose herself into the sturdy bark and wishing the ground weren’t quite so damp under her tunic. It crawls up her thighs like icy fingers and she can’t help wonder if this is what it’s like by the Wall; if this is what Snow feels ever since they parted. For a moment, her heart is clenched too tightly for breath.
“Thank you.” The voice is soft, feather light, pitched from high above Arya’s head. It’s an unmistakable whisper in a land of birdsong and crickets. Yet when she raises her gaze, Daenerys appears no surer of herself than timid blossoms on the cusp of spring.
“I shouldn’t have done that.” Arya rests her chin on her bent arms. “He will be king someday soon and I keep courting his wrath. I will be lucky if they do not send me to the gallows for this.” Two friends she has lost to Joffrey and his pretty crusades; she has no one left.
No one, perhaps, except for Daenerys.
The other woman is hardly any older than Arya’s seventeen years, but she carries herself as if she walks on water. When she glides closer to Arya, the very ground beneath her feet seems to whisper and sigh. She’s not dressed for a hunt, though her skirts are dark and heavy, fit for muddy paths and the odd fall. A rip in the hem is sign of a different sort of abuse.
“He won’t tell the King. He can’t. Scoot over--” An impatient gesture of the hand sees Arya crowded against a gnarled root, her shoulder pressed to warm flesh. “He can’t incriminate you and spare himself. And there are no other witnesses.”
Seen so close, Daenerys is as pale as the moon, but far less perfect. A fine constellation of freckles dusts her nose and cheeks. Her lips look bitten. Arya reaches a hand to brush a stray curl behind her ear, unsure of what she’s doing until her fingers have touched flesh. She jerks back almost instantly, though the crime has been committed and, really, of all days to do this, why has she chosen the hour of Daenerys’ greatest shame to—
“I’m not sorry,” Daenerys confesses. “He may be a prince, but I’ve known farmboys with gentler hands and better manners. Have you seen the state of my dress? He’s a vicious rodent with tantrums for charm. And to do this while betrothed to your sister—he has no shame.”
“Yes, but surely… to do it all…” To do it to someone who did not seek his attentions when so many whores wish for a tumble in fine silk sheets is reprehensible. Arya’s stomach churns at the flippant way in which the matter is brushed aside, as if it were common. Her jaw locks tight. “Has he done it before?”
“Joffrey?” Daenerys seems surprised at the question. “No. He doesn’t dare fool around under his father’s nose. Or I’m not to his taste.” Her fingers pluck stray leaves from her braided hair like ripping petals from a flower.
“But there have been others?” All those men who look at the prisoner princess as she walks the halls, friendless and without family, forced to outlive her father’s ghost like a cautionary tale for all other daughters caught up in the machinations of men – they do not look at her with admiration, but with lust.
Arya bites back the sudden desire to retch.
“I’ve shocked you. Did you think me alive, at twenty and still a maid? With my ancestry?” Daenerys has warm hands, but her palms are not absent the callouses of war. She turns Arya’s gaze to her with a gentle press of fingers to her cheek. “No, no, don’t look away. It will spoil my image of you as the bravest warrior I know.”
“I’m not—“ Brave, Arya means to say. She throws punches out of anger, not because she has her father’s sense of justice. “I’m not a warrior,” she says, instead. “I’m just a girl.” One who will not wear skirts or finery or sit still while the ladies of the court converse about husbands and children and aspire to nothing more than to one-up each other in fashion sense and gossip.
Daenerys doesn’t contradict her. “Yes. You’re that, as well.” Her eyes are not violet or blue, as Arya has heard it said; they’re liquid pools of black ink slicing deep into Arya’s soul. She may be a cautionary tale, but not of the sort that King expects.
Luckily, Arya has never been good at following orders. Before her rational mind can catch up to the moment, she’s slid forward, scraping her shoulder against the oak tree and folding a hand in silver hair, her lips finding Daenerys’ and swallowing any sound pleasure that might escape her.
Someone once said that it can be dangerous for voices to carry in this place.
The first time Arya kissed a boy, she was thirteen and playing with the butcher’s boy. They chased each other around trees felled by storms and scraped their knees along the hard soil. The boy fell into a patch of moss at the foot of a great big pine, breathing hard, calling her a coward.
So Arya set off to prove him wrong. Wrestling among dry leaves and broken twigs was no fit behavior for a girl, let alone one of noble blood, but she gave as good as she got, until—
His lips had proved plump and sweet-tasting beneath hers, like biting into a soft fruit only to find the inside just as tender. It hadn’t lasted longer than a second before the chase resumed, full of laughter and ease, a childish sense of victory hanging in the summer air.
Kissing Daenerys is nothing like that. Instead, it feels like falling.
The return to the Red Keep is uneventful, the proverbial calm before the storm. Mere minutes after their arrival, Lord Stark takes Arya aside with a hard grip on her bent elbow.
“You’re hurting me,” she protests, but her pride takes the harsher blow once they are behind closed doors.
“Joffrey’s black eye. He says a branch hit him. Are you to blame?” This is not the father she remembers from the rare meals they share or the days spent traipsing together through the forest, co-conspirators in a long dead world which no one else could enter. This is Lord Stark, Hand of the King, vassal and general in his own right.
Arya shakes him off with a vicious shrug. “I am.” It occurs to her to lie, to protect the virtue of a woman with none left, but the walls may have ears and she is conflicted enough about the king’s ward without tarnishing her reputation even further.
Her father has never hit her in anger, but now would be a good time to start. He has reason enough for it – and he might do it, were she Bran or Robb, or even Snow. She’s never one of the boys, for all her efforts to play by their rules.
“Why would you do this?” Lord Stark towers above her, his reddish mane and the fur cloak hung over his shoulders making him appear more animal than man. “You gave your word. He is the king’s heir—“
“A king who will force himself upon women is no king of mine.” Such a bold thing to say in such a small voice. Arya brings her chin up, fists locked tight at her sides. She’ll have no hope of fighting her way out of this with teeth and claws, but she’ll be damned if she’ll take the fall twice for that little ingrate.
What she does not expect is to see color drain from her father’s face or feel his hands upon her shoulders, big and warm, like the paws of bear. “He… forced himself upon you?”
“No. Not me.”
“Does it matter?” If she were Sansa, she’d lie, make herself the victim and play their father against the royal family. Maybe if she were clever like her elder sister, she could see them all returned to Winterfell, where they belong – she’s not. She’s simple little Arya, who’ll sooner speak with her fists than bend the truth.
Her father’s relief is evident. “If you’re certain.” He releases her as though she were fragile, as though he has only just remembered that his daughter is a woman in her own right; that King’s Landing is no haven for her gender.
“I am.” There is no hesitation. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
The image of Daenerys on her knees in the woods will take time to fade from memory, if such a thing is possible. For now, Arya nurses the evidence, polishes her testimony and knows that though she will never use it in judgment of the prince, she’ll have it ready when it’s time to deliver his execution.
It’s days before she sees her again, walking through the gardens with the capricious friends Arya despises as much as she does wasps and mosquitoes. They laugh and chat about the Great Hunt – and, most importantly, the men who participated in the actual chasing of wild animals – without appearing to note that Daenerys has fallen silent. When asked if she enjoyed herself, she merely nods and turns to cup her hand around a cloudblossom.
They’re too close for Arya to ignore and yet too far for her to call out without attracting attention. And for some odd reason, her heart seems to be pounding in her throat rather than her chest, as loud a drumbeat as anything she’s ever heard in the Hall. So much for being the maker of her own destiny, a role that may be delegated to Daenerys and her delicate hands as they unload a rose petal unto Arya’s thick tome. “I thought you might use this for a bookmark.”
Her friends are gone from view, off chatting someplace where Arya cannot see them. It’s at once a relief and a source of anxiety. What if they’re seen together, speaking in secret?
“May I sit?” How to refuse when Daenerys still gazes at her with those eyes?
Arya drags her feet towards her and folds them at the knee. “Please. I, uh… I saw you with your friends.” It’s an insipid thing to say, but it’s slightly better than talking about the patchy sunshine they’ve been enjoying all morning. She doesn’t think she could abide that level of dullness.
“I know.” There is a brief moment when Daenerys seems about to slouch, but then her posture recovers its perfect line and she is back to being the princess her father groomed her to be – the same one who is now passed from man to man like a collection plate. “Were you punished? I saw your father wrestle you indoors after the hunt.” She offers a lopsided grin that seems too awkward to be anything but genuine.
“You were worried.” Strange how such a simple detail can set alight the flame burning in Arya’s chest. “I’m flattered, but you don’t…”
“Your poor mother. Three boys and a daughter like you? I’d be at my wits’ end.” Daenerys tosses her head, blond curls spilling over bare shoulders. “Yes, I worried. Don’t sound so surprised. Targaryens are capable of concern for their fellow man. Especially repenting ones.”
If there’s a warning in her words, Arya elects to ignore it. “Am I allowed to thank you, then?”
Daenerys seems to consider this. “No. But you are allowed to read to me from your book. I long for an epic tale of heroic exploits.”
“This,” Arya holds up the dusty cover, “is a treatise on the evolution of armor and arms in the Seven Kingdoms in the past two hundred years.”
“What interesting things you read. Well, I’m sure it will broaden my horizons.” There’s no hiding the grin that twitches at Daenerys’ lips and she doesn’t seem very keen to try. Instead, she swivels around on the bench and lays her blonde head into Arya’s lap, a hand smoothing down the skirts that tangle around her ankles. “Educate away, my lady.”
As compromising positions go, this is one of the worst Arya could envision, yet to ask Daenerys to move or hide who she is seems insupportable. So Arya reads, though the words mean next to nothing and the age of which the author speaks is as alien as myth. She reads because Daenerys asks and their hands seem to join far easier when no one is paying any heed.
They meet in the stables while the knights joust for the king’s pleasure. It’s a barbaric spectacle, much like watching Joffrey court the ladies his mother deems worthy of his interest, yet the presence of swords and lances should attract Arya’s attention far more than the stallions groomed for the challenge. Were she in the stables to see to the horses, there might be truth to the argument.
But she’s not.
“Lord Tyrell has the most impressive armor, don’t you think?” Daenerys picks up her skirts, but she either does not notice or doesn’t seem to care that her shoes are gathering up dust and hay. “Your sister should be well pleased with his attentions, I think. He’s quite harmless.”
“No man is harmless,” Arya shoots back with uncanny confidence, reaching out a hand to support her staggering companion. “Don’t say I never take you anywhere nice.”
When Daenerys laughs, it’s almost as if she surprises herself with her own delight. Perhaps it’s a common feature for all those traumatized by death and abuse. “No, indeed. You treat me to the finest sights in all the Seven Kingdoms. And the finest gossip. What of your father?”
Arya hesitates and nearly brings them both down into the mire. “My father?”
“Yes.” Daenerys brings her fingers up Arya’s arm, her touch gentle, but steady, like the rushing pulse of a wild mare under a rider’s thighs. The thought is heady and Arya banishes it from her mind before her cheeks burn any hotter. If Daenerys sees her inner struggle, she lets nothing show. “Is he not a good man? I’m reluctant to call him harmless, but I can’t believe you’d have me fear him.”
This, they both know to be a lie. As daughter of the Mad King, Daenerys is ill-placed to enjoy the love of her father’s murderers, for they were also his victims and violence only breeds violence. She has no allies at court and it would be a great peril to claim otherwise. Arya keeps silent.
“Ah, so you agree.”
It’s a tricky thing, to be faced with Daenerys’ smile and the warmth of her hand and not think of lying to protect her. If Arya manages it, she does so with keen attention on leading them out of sight of stable boys and errant spies. “He’s the most honorable man I know. But he is family. I could never speak ill of him.”
Daenerys, she realizes, does not have that luxury.
They meet often enough in the gardens, with the sun at their backs and birds chirping in the hedgerow. There are too many eyes to allow for handholding, but Arya offers her arm anyway as they come to stone steps or small puddles of rainwater. The fresh smell of winter is everywhere around them.
“It will be a cold one,” Daenerys echoes, as if reading her mind. “About time, I think. Too many weeds have flourished this summer. It won’t take more than a hard frost to finish them.”
Arya has never been good at reading lips or chasing the truth past swift words and gentle hands, but she can hear the undercurrent of tension in her friend’s voice. “I had no idea you were so fond of botany.”
“I’m not.” And they’re not speaking of botany at all. “But one takes an interest in parasites when one is forced to live among them.”
Laborers look up from their toil as the ladies pass along the stone-paved walkways, canting their heads into bows and perking their ears. Who knows whose purse pays their consideration; the palace is nothing but whispers and suspicion, fears grafted onto every suit of armor and woven into tapestries like gold thread. The prudent thing would be to avoid associating with a persona non grata while in public, yet matters of the heart know nothing of prudence.
Arya drops her voice to a murmur, as soft as she can make it. “Where else would you go? You are protected here.”
“Only until the Queen decides I’m of no use to her anymore. She seems well-pleased with your sister.” Bitterness is a discordant note in Daenerys’ throat, but she can’t really be missing Joffrey’s attentions. Arya has seen how he used her; it’s enough to bring bile to her mouth. “Besides, I hear Pentos is lovely this time of year… that, or perhaps the stables.”
They laugh together, sharing in the private joke no spy will understand. At length, Arya sets caution aside and takes Daenerys by the hand. She tries very hard to pretend that she feels no disquiet.
“What are you thinking?” Sansa is surprisingly strong for a girl whose only exercise is embroidering cushions. “She’s a Tagaryen! Her father murdered our uncle, would have killed us all—“
Arya shakes her off. “She’s my friend.”
They are in Sansa’s room, with the door still open and their father’s heavy footsteps in the other room, so their voices must not carry. This isn’t a problem as Sansa has all too eagerly adopted the hissing speech of women of the court. “Have you lost your mind? She’s the spawn of a madman. The only reason she’s been kept alive is appease the people… What has she been telling you? That she’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne?”
A flash of hurt flares through Arya’s thoughts, as keen and sharp as any bow she might wield. “Why? Are you afraid she might marry Joffrey and steal your crown, Sister?”
“Of course not.” Sansa straightens her back, but doubt is in her voice. “Joffrey likes me. He could never love a Tagaryen, especially not one so--”
“So pathetic. Everyone wants her dead. It’s a miracle she’s survived this long… Be very careful, Arya. I won’t stand for you ruining my chances.”
They are called to supper too soon for Arya to construct an appropriate answer. Several variants come to her over the course of the evening, yet none seem to encompass the hurt and shock and fear that have suddenly taken hold. Her father’s eyes are on her throughout the meal, so she eats little. Her sleep is likewise troubled.
In the morning, the cracks in the marbled floor become a bottomless pit.
Daenerys is agitated, her hair uncombed and her hands shaking where they clasp Arya’s. “If I tell you something, will you promise not to share it with anyone? Not even your father?”
“Please, I don’t—“ There is no breath in Arya’s lungs to refuse her as she is enveloped in a warm, frantic embrace. Daenerys, she discovers, smells of the serrated snow that blows in from the north.
“My brother,” she breathes, “is alive.”
A raven in the night brings the message. Not to Daenerys, that wouldn’t be allowed, but like every other breathing creature in Robert’s court, she has her ways of finding out. Arya wonders if dogs and sparrows have spies of their own or if this is a purely human affliction. It doesn’t seem to matter much.
Daenerys laughs twice as loudly as she walks with her friends. She is twice as late to their rendezvous in the dungeons. And when she kisses Arya, it’s easy enough to tell that her mind is elsewhere.
“I wish we could take another stroll through the forest,” Arya sighs, “just you and I. I could teach you how to shoot a bow.” It’s not hard; if Bran could master it and Arya could mold her own skill on her brothers’ dexterity, then surely Daenerys could follow suit. The two of them in the forest, shoulder to shoulder against the rough bark of an oak tree – the world would tremble beneath their feet and they wouldn’t notice.
But Daenerys doesn’t care for daydreams. She presses a kiss to Arya’s cheek, distracted. Her fingers seem loath to part with the dragon skulls built into the very heart of the Keep. “I’d like to walk with you along the beach,” she breathes softly. “It’s a selfish thought.”
“We can. I know how we can leave the palace without being seen.” Desperation makes Arya forget herself and everything her father has taught her about trusting outsiders. Her weakness for Daenerys and her pretty smiles knows no reason and will not be silenced.
In the catacombs beneath the city, she clutches her fingers a little tighter and pulls her forward into the dirty tunnels. Daenerys laughs and yelps every time her foot slips, but she is patient about the scent of rotten algae and uncaring of the ashy stains on her fine dress. Arya wishes she could feel as free.
When they reach the cliffs and the rocks battered by the tide, they look like the fishermen in the harbor. They have no need for disguise.
“It’s not quite the beach,” Arya admits, watching Daenerys silhouetted against the evening sky. “But we’re still alone, you and I.”
“Yes.” Fingers curl in Arya’s hair, untangling her braids. “We have a whole world at our feet.”
No one bothers them on the seashore, no one looks around the rocks where they are sheltered, bodies entwined and hearts beating as one. Arya tastes sand and snow, breathes in the tide as it laps at their feet. She cries out with the last of the evening gulls, shuddering against pale hands made coarse with suffering.
In the Keep, her father rages and swears. Her cover is blown when Sansa confesses to their conversation. Later, in council, King Robert will utter ugly words that call for the execution of an innocent girl.
“If I’d have been born a peasant,” Daenerys whispers, “you and I might never have met each other.” She brushes her lips over Arya’s split knuckles, her kiss so lightly bestowed, it’s barely present. “I’m glad we did.”
Arya’s heart swells with quiet despair.
There is no way out of this without pain. Arya understands as much. She sits in trial before her father’s disappointed stare, silent when he demands answers and blind when he pleads with her to see sense. Her clothes are dirty from last night’s escapade, her mouth full with Daenerys’ words and moans and the soft sounds she made as her pleasure crested to a peak.
It’s not enough to love the soft caress of her skin or write poetry about the arch of her spine; Arya believes herself bound in loyalty to the woman she loves. So when her Lord Father asks her to promise that she won’t do this again, her smile is a crooked slice of truth.
“If you had fallen in Robert’s war,” Arya peels herself out of the chair on legs that feel as soft as seaweed, “I’d like to think someone would reach out a hand to me.”
“She has lost favor with the Queen. It’s not safe for you to be seen with an enemy of the throne—Arya!”
The latch in the door is so cold, so heavy under her hands. It must weigh a hundred pounds, like Lord Stark’s sword or the Hound’s battleax. Or maybe it’s Arya who has shrunk, weakened from within by a force far more powerful than loyalty. “Daenerys says you’re an honorable man. Did you know? She trusts you to do right by the throne, whatever lies you may hear.”
Lord Stark is a powerful man, but he has shrunk since coming to King’s Landing. Another month and he’ll be eye-level with his youngest daughter, a shell of the proud man who once ruled the north with integrity and fairness. He fixes Arya with a measuring glance, as disappointed as any man when his flesh betrays him. “And what does Daenerys Targaryen expect from you?”
Arya shrugs, but she knows the answer to be love; she believes that acts speak louder than words.
“There will be a boat by the shore,” Daenerys murmurs as they walk together, shoulder to shoulder through corridors lined with guards and spies and ugly glares. “Men loyal to my brother will get me out of the city at midnight tonight.”
Hours later, as the moon is appropriately high, Arya emerges onto the shore, bow slung over her shoulder and arrows clinking softly in their quiver. She still wears her dinner dress, the blue silk stained black by the dirt in the catacombs.
Daenerys seems surprised to see her approach. “I wasn’t counting on tearful goodbye.”
“I wasn’t counting on saying goodbye at all.” Arya tosses her bow and arrows into the longboat and picks up her skirts. She takes the hand offered as prop because she knows she needs the help. As a child of the north, the sea makes her nervous. Leaving her family behind is even worse. “Is it safe to cross the Narrow Sea in this nut shell?”
“Not hardly, young miss.” One of the fishermen picks up the oars, angling a toothy grin over his shoulder. “This will only take you as far as Dragonstone.”
“Is that where...”
“No,” Daenerys anticipates, “but it’s a start.”
The journey is far too quiet, the sea as still as a pond. Arya wishes she’d have sat with her back to the receding shadow of the Red Keep; as it is, her eyes are full with the sight of so much fear and betrayal, of lessons in sword play and fights with her sister. Of ribbons bought in crowded markets while their intended recipients plotted escape.
Slowly, the oars creep through the water, adding foot after foot of distance between Arya and the only life she’s ever known.
Inns are small, sordid affairs, but after hours on the seas, Arya welcomes the solid ground beneath her feet. She tells herself she will adjust to the anonymity. It is, after all, preferable to being watched constantly while in the palace.
Only Daenerys may watch her here. And she does, with fireglow in her eyes and hands gentle over Arya’s hips and flanks and shoulders and words perched on the tip of her tongue. She’s always been an attentive bedfellow, the only one Arya has ever known; the only one she cares to know. It’s strange to feel her pressed so close, her bare skin damp with sweat, and yet sense her so far.
This is what running away does; it hacks off every bond that’s ever held the softer parts of flesh and bone together, severing both the good and the bad, the strong and the frayed. They are no one in Dragonstone, two anonymous runaways like so many others travelers.
A door slams somewhere in the distance. Arya jerks herself out of her thoughts, loose-limbed and warmed by body heat and her own rushing adrenaline. She finds Daenerys watching her with those inky eyes, her blonde hair spilled like a halo upon coarse pillows. She finds her unsmiling, her handsome face carved and chiseled out of bluestone.
“What is it?” Arya’s voice cracks.
“I am waiting,” Daenerys replies slowly, “for you to take notice of your tears. And to realize that you are weeping, I think, because of me.”
There should be a violent argument, with broken things and shouted words. There should be accusations and haggling. Maybe the city guard should be called in to assess the damage. Yet one broken heart and another held together with loyalty and duty seem like small injuries in the scheme of things.
By morning, the evidence will have washed away with the tide, leaving behind a single yellow ribbon in an empty room.