This, this is desire.
The girl's mother has put her in white and scarlet, wedding Stark to Tully in her gown, just as the young prince's surcoat is blazoned in Lannister crimson and Baratheon black.
Fire and blood, Theon thinks, wondering at the odd choice of colours, as he takes his lady's arm. The colours of House Targaryen. She is in silver and blue, as though she would proclaim herself her father's daughter still, instead of the bride she has been for three moons past.
"How do you like this, Sansa?" He strokes her arm, the brush of his fingers as light as a summer draft. She shivers. He smiles.
"Well enough, my lord." She looks up at the blackened timbers of the Great Hall, down at the rushes and sweet herbs freshly strewn on the flagstones and all around at the beasts prowling on banners of bright silk. In short she looks everywhere but at him. "It is a very great honour for my lord father."
Prince Tommem is a boy of twelve, Bran's age. But where Bran is sturdy and straight-limbed, a son any father would be proud to own to, the cub prince is as round and red-cheeked as an autumn apple. It is the greatest of japes to see Lady Margaery, who tops him by a good half-foot, take him in to supper. Her husband, Robb, has the adoring little princess, with the bloom of her first flowering on her, on his arm.
"Not that, sweetling."
The girl is pale and willowy as a young weirwood, the boy golden and gallant. They are as lovely to look upon as a pair of matched coursers. They both look straight ahead though, she is very stiff on his arm and his eyes are firmly fixed on the Queen, his mother.
"This." Sansa is graceful, charming, amiable - and married. Everything that her sister is not. He is the last of the high lords to take his seat on the dais. "Following the hem of your sister's gown as she sweeps ahead of you for the rest of your life."
She finally turns to look at him, with those big blue eyes of hers that she keeps so carefully vacant. "I beg your pardon, my lord?"
They have put the little wolf-bitch on her mother's right hand, two places down from the Queen and just opposite Prince Joffrey. She has a face made for scowls, her smile is strained as she tries - and fails - to make small talk.
"I am happy in my sister's good fortune," Sansa says. She peels her carmine-touched lips back to smile, very prettily. A lady always minds her courtesies. He can see the wolf's snarl underneath it.
"Why, both of you in red. I wonder that no one has said a word of it yet," she says gaily, turning away. "You looked very well together when you walked down the hall, Your Grace, Arya. Everyone spoke of it."
But he has not finished with her. Under the table he bunches up the silk of her gown, pushing it up until he can caress her thighs, soft and pale. He luxuriates in the blankness of her smile as she turns to him. Such a sweet little wife. "Yes, my lord?"
"A moment of your time, Sansa." He bends forward to whisper in her ear so that from where Lord Eddard sits it looks as though he is whispering endearments into his daughter's ear. "I would call your attention to His Grace, our noble king. See where he looks."
It should be as plain as daylight but his wife is a lady. Ladies are taught to look and not see. "He must be pleased that Arya and the Prince are getting along so well," she says. "She has grown very lovely and he seems most gallant. They will be very happy together."
He gives a bark of laughter. "If you say so." He quaffs a goblet of sweet Arbor gold as a toast is called to Lady Margaery, who carries the heir of Winterfell's heir in her belly.
An ardent bridegroom, Theon kisses his young bride full on the lips and the men and women below the salt roar their approval. They have seen him grow from a boy to a man, their lord's ward. They like that he is young and fair to look upon and seems courteous and gentle to Lord Ned's daughter, that she seems to love him well. They like that he has not taken her away but is content to let her be happy for a while longer in her father's home, the only one she has ever known.
They never see the tears that she takes only to her mother's sept. They never notice that she is as cold as a corpse, a trout perhaps, pressed against him.
"I desire you," he whispers to her. "Look at me, my little love. Yes, into my eyes." He tilts her chin up so that she has no choice but to face him. "This, this is desire. Can you remember that?"
She nods jerkily, a bird with a broken wing that it pleases him to play with.
"And that on His Grace's face, can you tell me what that is? Not when he looks at his Queen, no, but when he looks on your pretty sister."
"He is charmed by her. He thinks he has chosen a worthy bride for his son."
He snorts. "Your mother trained you well, little bird. I wonder how well your pretty courtesies will serve you on Pyke."
"My lord?" There is a spark of... well, something in her eyes. He savours it.
"Why yes, dear heart. Your father will be the Hand of the King and your brother Robb will rule in his name here. Arya will learn the tricks of her trade in the southron courts and your mother will be there to whip her when she falls or flails. The younger boys will win their knighthoods but what room is there for me and my wife?"
My wife. She is chilled by the word, he sees. "I- I had thought we might accompany them to King's Landing-"
"So that you might wait on your sister, the princess?"
"It is my duty." She says it quite flatly. There is nothing to be done about it. Arya Horseface, Arya Underfoot will be the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. And Sansa, the pretty one, the loved one, will be forgotten as the Lady of a speck of grey rock tossed on Ironman's Bay.
"No." He shakes his head. "It is time I returned to mine own seat."
"Your father is still alive."
"A traitor. He can be put aside. His Grace would not deny it of me, so long as I have Ned Stark's daughter to hold me fast to the path of the straight and narrow."
She is clutching for straws. It makes him want to pet her, to kiss her, take her in his arms and fuck her on the great trestle tables where her father and all his men can see. "You might win greater honours at court. My father would be willing-"
"I am no man's servant, Lady Sansa. I have been your father's ward for too long, now I am a man grown and I will rule just as your brother will. And you, my sweet handmaid, will win no honours at a southron court. You will be my wife, cast as high or low as I choose. You will please me at bed and at board, as you promised me when we were wed, and bear me many, many sons to follow after me."
"Blithe and bonny at bed and at board," she whispers, quoting the words she had sworn to him in the godswood in her gown of ivory samite and Myrish lace as white as snowflakes. There are spots of colour burning in her cheeks, anger becomes her. "I have been all that and more but you have not kept your part of the bargain, Theon Greyjoy."
And with that she turns her face away and only laughs when Lady Margaery teases her and says that she has eyes only for her bridegroom. Theon lets his eyes run over the table.
Lord Eddard is as grim as his lady is merry. The royal appointments please Lady Stark who sees it as her children's chance to rise high in the world but he is wary of the lions. Robb and Margaery are as dull as lovers usually are, but Princess Myrcella has taken to flirting with Bran and Prince Tommem stuffs himself just like his father.
The Kingslayer smirks like a cat in the cream at his sister. The Queen's eyes blaze like wildfire as he looks at the sulky girl who will take precedence in her son's heart from now. Little Arya's sullenness has rubbed off on Prince Joffrey, he gazes at his mother haplessly like a child crossed in getting his own way.
She does not like the look of him, Theon thought. And she is not her sister, who would have covered it up under smiles and shallow courtesies. And he has never seen anyone who does not love him, none like our little wolf-bitch. They will burn together like ice and fire. It would be beautiful to see, if I had not already made up my mind.
But best of all to see was King Robert himself. It is though he is chained to the girl, his eyes over his pig's snout dart hither and thither and then, irresistably, back to her again. The old lecher is not wily, it is clear as springwater but nothing is said, nothing is done. The ladies pretend not to see, but for Queen Cersei who is no lady. Lord Eddard lives in his own world, he does not see what he does not care to, and his sons take after him.
Arya Underfoot was a babe in swaddling cloths when he first came to Winterfell, Lady Catelyn's gift to Lord Eddard who had been away at the wars since she was conceived. Theon remembered her as a wretched urchin, then growing into a wild pup who would play with swords, then flowering into a maiden with the face of a stone maiden in the crypts of Winterfell. Anyone could see it, she was Lyanna Stark all over again all the old servants said, from her beauty to her wilfulness, her wildness.
He wondered if they would both her, the father and the son who looked nothing alike. The king would kiss her and pretend she was his dead sweetheart, the prince would just fuck her and before her maiden's blood had dried take himself away to some golden-haired whore who would welcome him with open arms. Perhaps they would both take her at the same time. The thought of that excited him irrationally and underneath the table he squeezed Sansa's breast so hard that she winced. Briefly he wondered what she would do if she took Kyra into his bed and commanded her to service the kennelwench while he watched. He might even do that on Pyke, when she was far from her father.
Queen Arya would hate King Joffrey, just as his mother had hated the king, and Sansa would write long letters to her from Pyke, counselling her to keep good cheer. She would whet the swords that she could no longer play with in secret, by nights she would curse and rave in the godswood.
There would be princes, sons that she would love with all the love that was within her, and when the time came for them to be wed she would hate the brides. She would make their lives a living hell, she would bind her sons to her and teach them to hate their wives, just as Queen Cersei would do, of that he was sure.
He rose to his feet. "To the Lady Arya!" he roared. "Our Queen to be, whose beauty is as great as the fabled beauty of the Rose of Winterfell, the Lady Lyanna Stark!"
He could see the King start at the mention of the dead wolf-bitch's name. His eyes were clouded and he glanced once again at Arya, who caught his gaze and looked down, flushing. They said nothing, of course, as though they had neither eyes nor mouths.
Grinning like a boy, he pressed himself against Sansa, kissing her so hard that she would bruise. They would do nothing, she would do nothing. She could only smile and let herself be mauled by him, just as her sister would soon have to learn to do. It was a man's world and there was no place for women in it.
This, this was desire.
She is sewing in the solar.
She wears a stiff gown of ruby-red satin, intricate gold scrollwork running up and down the long, dagged sleeves. The livery of House Lannister, he thinks, noting how close she is positioned to the Queen.
The ladies' sunlit gallery is as divided as neatly as a battlefield, crimson-and-gold troops on one end, silver-and-white on the other clustered around Lady Catelyn and her younger girl. Septa Mordane and Septa Eglantine size eachother up like mastiffs ready for a fight, Lady Catelyn and Queen Cersei are as sweet as honey to eachother.
"Oh Arya, your stitches are too long," Sansa sighs. "Not again. You'll have to do them again, sister."
"My Lady Arya is to be Queen," Septa Mordane says primly and Theon wonders at how bad it has become that the quarrelsome old woman has taken sides against her former pet. "She will not devote much time to sewing shirts for the poor, I do believe, Lady Sansa."
"Perhaps you would care to redo them for Arya," Lady Margaery says pleasantly. A Tyrell by birth she is always quick to pick up the scent of opportunity. Lady Arya is to be the favoured daughter now and Lady Sansa is to be forgotten. "We all know how well you love to sew."
"On the contrary," the Queen says coldly, "A Queen is first a woman and a woman's place is sewing by the hearth and tending to her children. Lady Arya, I wish you would see to your needlework - it seems to be sadly lacking, in my opinion."
Lady Catelyn rises magnificently to her daughter's defense. "Arya has many other fine qualities," she says as serenely as though she had not deplored the same qualities only a few weeks before. "She is as clever as a maester and the finest horsewoman you have ever seen. Lady Margaery and she are so fond of the hunts-"
Queen Cersei turns away disdainfully. "Your work is near perfect, sweet Sansa," she says, favouring his wife with a genial smile. "A pity that you are already wed."
Sansa smiles blindly up at her. She even lets herself be petted, like a bitch. She is unused to being the favourite, it does not sit well with her. She is a docile pet but she bares her fangs when crossed. Beneath the silks and samites they are all wolves at heart, he thinks and wonders whether the girls will take their direwolves to court with them.
He coughs to announce his presence. Jeyne Poole, the steward's girl and Sansa's playmate, notices him first. She colours, as she always does when she sees him - she thinks him so handsome. He would rather have her pleasuring Sansa in the bedchamber than Kyra - two well-born young girls, innocent and gently-bred forced to play out his fantasies.
"My lord," Sansa murmurs, rising and curtseying. "Ladies, if you will excuse me?"
He pushes her against the wall as soon as they are out of earshot. Satin rustles against stone and she closes her eyes as though it hurts to look at him. "We might be seen, my lord," she says, very cold and correct. "You would not like it if word reached my father."
He snorts. "What can he do? You are mine, he unfastened your maiden's cloak himself and let me pin the kraken's colours and said nothing. You are mine and I will not be denied."
He takes her then and there in fury, shoved against the wall, mewling like a kitten. He wonders if the blood will show against her red gown and wonders how she will smile it away if anyone notices it. When he is spent, she says nothing. Very slowly, very carefully she tucks a strand of her coppery hair behind her ear.
"Will that be all?"
"And once you thought me so handsome too. Why as I recall it you were wet for me when Robb carried you up naked to my bed."
She slaps him then, her face all white and red and her eyes burning blue with hate. It hurts too, she has spent years grappling with Arya and that has to show. The sound of it echoes slowly and dimly down the stone corridor and she braces herself as though expecting him to hit her, hurt her.
Instead he cups her chin and presses a kiss tenderly to her forehead. "That was what it made it so fun. Breaking you, my little bird."
"So it is just a game to you." Her voice is very dull. She does not resist when he puts his arms around her waist, resting his chin on the top of her head. They are the right height for it. They are often told that they are a beautiful couple - he is as dark as a shadow, she is as bright as a flame.
"Yes, little wife. It looks like you have learnt to play it too. The King has commanded me to attend him at court in King's Landing. Naturally my wife is to accompany me as her sister's lady-in-waiting. But who commands the King, I wonder? His Queen or his Hand?"
He lets her go, smoothing the wrinkles of her gown, making sure that her laces are all still knotted. There is one a little loose, he bends and ties it deftly. "I suppose it doesn't matter. You are close to both of them."
She has to prattle the words she has been taught all over again then. "It will be a great honour for you, Theon. I thought of you when I-"
He strikes her. "You're prettier with your mouth shut, Sansa. Spare me your septa's words, they bore me and I like to be amused. You'll remember that if you know what's good for you, for you'll be my wife on King's Landing just as you'd be my wife on Pyke. The only difference is now that you can hurt your sister to your heart's delight and I can savour all the bonny southron wenches. Perhaps I'll bring one to our bed - you'd like that, wouldn't you? One with brown hair and grey eyes? You can pretend it's our little Arya. I'll even lend you a horsewhip."
She steps back from him. "I hate you," she spits.
He laughs. "And I love it when you get angry. Go now, little bird, back to your cage where they are all crows though they twitter like doves and peck at one another. You seem to flourish there."
She sweeps away as grandly as Queen Cersei sweeping away from King Robert. It is a measure of how angry she is that she does not curtsey. It amuses him.
"They used to have some very fine woven portraits here, I'm told." He brushes his hand over the dark square of stone in the apartments allotted to them in the Darry Place, where until recently, a tapestry must have hung. "Of the Targaryens so they must have been banished to the cellars when our noble king came calling, of course."
The look Lady Catelyn sends him is priceless. "My daughter is lost," she says through gritted teeth, "And you talk to me of tapestries."
"And Targaryens," he points out.
"Theon Greyjoy," she says, rising to her full height, very much on her dignity. "Do not play games with me."
"He was only trying to lighten the mood, Mother." Sansa is in black and gold - the colours of House Greyjoy, true, but they are also the colours of House Baratheon. Where her lady mother seems to wilt and fade, Sansa is in the full bloom of her youth and beauty today.
"Sansa Stark, you cannot possibly condone-"
"Sansa Greyjoy," she corrects Lady Catelyn and moves to stand beside him. "And it is not a wife's place to differ from her lord husband. You told me so yourself."
Lady Catelyn is caught in the trap of her words. "There is a difference from differing and knowing what is tactful and in good taste. Sansa, your sister is lost, lost in the woods and the gods only know-"
She takes a small, dainty bite of the little lemoncakes arranged on a tray. "It is better for Arya if she is lost now," she says. "From what Prince Joffrey says, she might well lose a hand for striking one of the blood royal and that too her betrothed. It is better for her to be lost now and for all this to blow over."
He could almost kiss her, kiss those rosy, lying little lips. You little bitch, he thinks, you delightful, cold-hearted little bitch. You know this won't blow over, you know he'll remember to the end of his days and you're savouring it now, aren't you?
"I cannot believe it of Arya," Lady Catelyn says sharply. "She is wild and wilful I grant you that but she would not forget herself so as to strike Prince Joffrey over a butcher's boy."
"You forget that I was there," Sansa reminds her. "I saw her. She did not strike him. She slashed at him with that Needle, the one Jon Snow gave her, and sicced Nymeria on him. She threw his own sword, Lion's Claw, into the stream and then ran away. Is not my word good enough, my lady mother?"
Lady Catelyn says nothing, she has not cut her older daughter out of her life yet, though she doubts her more and more with every passing day. "Why were you out riding with Prince Joffrey alone?" she finally asks. "You were to take Arya with you. You said you would chaperone them while they rode to see the spring flowers today. But here I find you were charming the prince all by yourself while you let your sister run off."
"She wanted to run off," Sansa says spitefully. "She's always running off while I'm expected to stay and do my duty."
"I beg your pardon, Lady Catelyn," he interrupts. "But it is not for you to set the standards of Sansa's behaviour now that she is my wife. I permitted it, there could be no impropriety since we all know how passionately the prince is in love with her sister."
"You are very quick to point out any defects in my behaviour," Sansa says sharply. "But when it comes to Arya, when the truth should be plain to you, you must look away and pretend that it is not her fault. And why is that? Is it because she is to be Queen and I am only to be one of the women in her rooms, sewing for her while she plays with her swords, getting her ready because she is too stupid and clumsy to know how to look like and behave like a queen?"
The woman cannot meet her daughter's eyes. The best she can summon up is, "Prince Joffrey is a man grown, he is seven-and-ten. Surely he could fend off a girl of fourteen-"
"Are you questioning the prince's courage?"
"Are you questioning his honesty? Will you say that the prince, who will be your king, is lying?"
Lady Catelyn, never the most sweet-tempered of women, is goaded. "I am questioning you, my daughter," she says flatly. "I am questioning your loyalty to your sister, to House Stark to whom you owe your first allegiance."
She rests her head against his shoulder. "My first allegiance," she says, very precisely. "Not my last. I owe my allegiance to House Greyjoy now."
He strokes her cheek. "We do not sow," he says drolly, his words dripping with double meanings.
Lady Catelyn turns flat on her heel and strides away.
There is much talk of the Dothraki screamers across the Narrow Sea, of a Targaryen girl brought to bed of a horselord's son who begs for an army to restore her father's throne.
It bores Theon to tears and makes him grateful that his lady wife's manipulations have not yet bought him a seat on the Small Council.
"Beautiful," Lady Arryn, the late Hand's widow, murmurs. Princess Myrcella is to be wed to her sickly son. Theon had wondered that the lioness queen had permitted it, before realizing that she would be able to keep her daughter close by her forever if the husband was weak. "My niece is a very beautiful bride, don't you think? Almost as lovely as I was on my wedding day."
"Mother says you wept floods of tears on your wedding day, Aunt Lysa," Sansa says. "A lake."
Lady Arryn gives a jerky nod. "So will she," she says, with sharp, sweet malice. "So will she, mark me well on that."
In cloth-of-silver and cloth-of-gold, the dowagers sit side by side, Lady Catelyn in ermine and Queen Cersei in emeralds. Sansa and the Lady Lysa hover somewhere in the middle, like carrion crows feasting on death.
Prince Joffrey is already at the altar, the bright light strikes him full in the face and he seems to glow, to gleam like the golden Warrior who stand in the niches. Behind him is his uncle, the Kingslayer all in white. Shades of eachother, Theon thinks. They could have been father and son. Not so the King himself, complaisant in his ignorance. There were words exchanged between him and his Hand at the Darry Place, Lord Eddard had begged him to reconsider the match but King Robert would have none of it. He wanted the girl in King's Landing to be put, howsoever unwilling, into his son's bed - and in time, perhaps his own.
"Arya will not be so tractable a bride as you were, I fear," Sansa sighs.
"Then it will go hard for her," her aunt says with relish. "She's not like you, eh?"
"I was deeply in love with my lord husband," Sansa says smoothly. Appearances must be maintained - in public they coo like turtledoves. She is careful to keep her side of the bargain, just as he is. "As I still am. It gave me pleasure to submit to his authority."
Lady Arryn snorts eloquently. There is a flutter at the back and there is Lord Eddard himself now, leading a bride who is anything but blushing. Her gown is stitched with thousands of crystal beads, it has all the glitter of fresh-fallen snow. Beneath a swirl of lace, her face is drained of all colour, the white roses in her hands tremble. She walks slowly, steadily, like a woman to the executioner's block. Lord Eddard's face is still and blank, there is none of the joy that he wore when he gave his other daughter away in his godswood.
Theon makes careful note of his lady's face - the flash of jealousy (that she is quick to hide) when she looks at the father and daughter. The vindictiveness. Lysa Arryn is a rice-pudding of a woman, soft, doughy and doubtful and Sansa is still a girl, slender and supple, but for a moment they look very much alike.
"How do you like this, Sansa?" He strokes her arm, the brush of his fingers as light as a summer draft. She does not shiver as she had in Winterfell's Great Hall, but he smiles all the same.
"You are a rare one for smiles, my husband," she murmurs, brushing off his hand as she would a troublesome fly. "I like it well enough - how can I not? My sweet sister is being wed. She is to be Queen."
He thinks of them as little girls, slamming doors in eachother's faces, screaming that they hated eachother, slaps and snaps, even docile Sansa lashing out like savage little wolf-pups. Summer's quarrels when they were both children. They are not children any longer. "Winter is coming," he says lightly.
She looks him full in the face. "No," she says flatly. "Winter has come and gone. This is to be my summer."
Tenderly, Lord Eddard unpins the wolf's head that holds up his daughter's maiden's cloak. The velvet, heavy with freshwater pearls, falls from her slim, white shoulders and she looks smaller than ever. So fragile. She is only fourteen, two years younger than Sansa was at her own wedding.
"How well you loved me that day," he whispers close to her ear. "How prettily you blushed."
"I loved where I was bidden to. I was always dutiful and well it served me. Perhaps Arya with her- her passion that Father loves so well, will do better with the prince."
"His Grace's hand lies heavy upon you two sisters then. He commanded your father to bind his ward, the traitor's son, closer to the realm with an alliance. But Lord Eddard had two daughters, didn't he? One would have served as well as the other and both of you had flowered. You might have begged your mother to put Arya in your place - you used to be the favourite, as I remember."
"I should have. But I was a fool for I was in love."
Prince Joffrey steps forward, a cloak of crimson silk bundled in his arms - the cloak Lord Tywin Lannister had thrown over his bride's shoulders. His lady mother's colours. Strange and stranger. Before he pins it on his bride, his gaze flies straight as an arrow to Queen Cersei, as though asking her permission. She gives him the tiniest of nods and then, as easily as that, she moves from her father's protection to her husband's.
But who will protect her from him?
As rough as a carter, he grabs the girl and smashes his mouth against hers. Theon is the first to rise and applaud and after a moment's hesitation, Sansa rises with him, a bright, brittle smile stitched on her lips.
Afterwards, there is dancing. Lady Catelyn's little princess slouches at the dais, nursing a cup of strong, sour Dornish red. The King eyes her as greedily as the lamprey pies he tucks into, he cannot wait for the bedding. Prince Joffrey lolls next to her, his thick, wormy lips scrunched into a child's pout. It is only when the Queen leads him into the circle of dancers that he truly smiles, as a joyous bridegroom should.
The Queen is beautiful and looks almost young as she dances with her son, laughter brimming in her eyes. She smiles limpidly up at her twin, who watches her coldly from the high table, and there is a streak of malice in that smile when she stands on tiptoe to kiss her prince's cheek and then his lips. Lord Littlefinger dances with three copper-haired women - Sansa, her mother and her aunt -, interchanging them as though they are but the same. Maiden, mother and crone.
Princess Myrcella giggles and twirls with Bran, she has no eyes for her betrothed - Sniffling Sweetrobin who shuffles and ducks behind his mother's skirts. Lord Stannis Baratheon, come from Dragonstone after many long years, grinds his teeth and his lady parades their ugly daughter, a shrinking violet, in front of eligible suitors.
Queen Cersei whispers something in her tall son's ear, her eyes sparkling wickedly. He nods and grins and lopes up to the high table to do his duty by his northern bride. Arya looks half-tipsy already, as though hoping that wine might fortify her for her ordeal. She puts her hand in his and lets him whisk her away, as though they are a prince and a princess in a fairytale, madly in love with eachother.
"Where is Lady anyway?" Theon asks Sansa, flushed after a dance with handsome Ser Loras Tyrell.
"Chained in the kennels," she says briefly. "With Summer and Shaggydog. Why?"
He brushes her hair off the nape of her neck, so that he might stroke it. "Pity about Nymeria. Strange to think that she's the first of those wolves of yours to die. You children have had them for five years."
"A lifetime." She tilts her head back and closes her eyes. All over the hall there are men watching her - from wily Lord Littlefinger to the Prince's Hound. How they must envy him. "But no less than Arya deserved."
"Pity that the butcher's boy had to pay for it. They've been friends for ears."
"Even princesses should know that they are not above the law." Sansa shrugs daintily. "She needed a sharp lesson. I hope she will learn from it."
"You feel that you should hope. But you don't. You'd rather like to see her repeat it again."
"She's a stubborn little fool," Sansa says sweetly, though she pitches her voice low enough that only he can hear. Appearances. "Of course she'll repeat it again."
And she does. Prince Joffrey sticks as close to the girl as a leech, he bends his golden head to kiss her sulky brow and then to whisper in her ear. She starts violently and then horror of horrors, she draws back her arm and slaps him.
"Talk about a blushing bride," Theon whispers into his wife's ear and she stuffs her fist into her mouth to keep from giggling.
"Oh now she's done it." Her eyes sparkle as she turns to him, for a moment they are comrades in their mirth and malice.
Prince Joffrey draws back his hand as though to strike his bride but then, catching the warning look in his mother's eyes, says nothing. He bows stiffly to her and stalks away. Arya is defiant enough for the both of them. She stands all alone in the centre of the hall, cheeks flaming, glaring everyone down like a baited wolf. He half-expects her to warg into some fearsome, yellow-eyed beast with blood dripping from fangs and claws, as they say the wildlings north of the South still do.
He cannot help but admire her nerve. "My Lady Princess," he says, taking her hand and bowing. "May I have this dance?"
She looks at him and then at Sansa, sitting so sweet and innocent on the high table. "No," she says flatly. "I don't need you to rescue me." She makes to move away, out of the hall, out of their lives perhaps if she could, but Queen Cersei blocks her path.
"Bed them," she says, with icy dignity. "It is time you were made truly a wife, Lady Arya."
She's planned all this, Theon thinks in amusement. She planned it at the right moment, she told him what to do because she knew how our little bitch would react. Gods, what a mess he'll make of her tonight.
And he does. When Sansa breaks her fast with him the next morning, she is pleased to report that the sheets were soaked with blood for her sister had been mauled, as though by a wild animal, by her loving husband.
This, thinks Theon stretching luxuriously out on Chataya's finest featherbed, is how a king should live. War, wine and women. Dancy and Alayaya are spent, they lie tousled and entwined with eachother by the fireplace. The pale Lyseni and the dusky Summer Islander, lovely as wild animals.
"Fit for a king," he tells them and thinks that King's Landing is worth it's name, truly.
Yaya peeps up at him. "Not us," she says, laughing. "That's Ami you mean, nine nights out of ten she's pleasuring the king."
It comes as no surprise to Theon that King Robert is a frequent patron of Chataya's. "Is she as good as all that?"
"And how'd we know since we haven't tasted her yet?" Dancy demands, pert as you please. "Unless m'lord would like to pay for all three of us together..."
"If she's a feisty little redhead I just might, sweetling. My lady wife has red hair."
"Nay, she has brown hair. Grey eyes too." Dancy smiles a secret smile. "Like the little northern princess."
"They're always asking for her," Yaya says. "Not that she's special but everyone knows His Grace took a fancy to her and then made a habit of her. Though he doesn't come here as often as that now, just once a week to quench his thirst, so's to speak. He seems busy at the castle now if you ask me."
"And to see that little girl of his," Dancy says. "Barra. She's a little princess with those big blue eyes of her's and those long black curls. Five years old now and he dotes on her."
"Even Lord Stannis came to see her," Yaya says giggling. "Ami and her baby. Lord Stick-in-the-Ass, he can't put it into his own lady and no wonder, I think he has a taste for the little ones."
"Lord Spider brought him," Dancy says. "All in pink silk, like a woman."
A morsel of juicy court gossip, perhaps. The Eunuch and Stannis Baratheon seeing King Robert's little bastard in the dead of the night. It does not interest Theon. He likes to leave the scandals to his wife - perhaps he will share this with her. It just might interest her royal patroness. "Turn over," he bids the girls.
"I should like to be like Her Grace."
She is standing in front of the window, bathed in the creamy pink-and-gold glow of dawn. Stark naked, as he keeps her whenever they are alone.
"What, a queen?"
She smiles at him over her shoulder, something crafty in her big blue eyes. "The Queen of Thorns is another queen. I think I would like to be like her too, when I am old and ugly." She yawns and stretches. Then pragmatically she adds, "We shall have to look for a husband for Jeyne. You have not left her her maidenhood, so her bartering value will be less but still... she is my friend."
"After all that?" he asks, amused. "After I've had her bouncing on you and-"
"Yes," she says simply. "After all that. Men will always cause women to suffer. It is inevitable, but it does not have to be painful, it does not have to tear us apart."
"Another of the Queen's pearls of wisdom?"
She picks up a hairbrush, silver set with sapphires. He cannot remember if it is a present or not. "Yes."
"You are not so good a friend to your sister."
She stretches and yawns. "She is only my sister. Just as Aunt Lysa is only Mother's sister. That is all."
"Does he ever let her go?" Theon asks, curious. It has been weeks since the wedding and he has scarce seen the girl, Arya Underfoot who used to go riding for hours every day, who'd hang around the training yards as long as her mother would let her.
"Sometimes." She shrugs. "She sews in the gallery with us. The Queen has been teaching her the satin stitch."
"She'll love that."
"She has to have an heir," Sansa says sharply. "The Prince sees to his duty by her in the bedchamber. If he wants her there, chained and naked, she'll have to stay there, won't she?"
"She won't give him an heir if he kills her."
"He won't. The Queen won't let him."
"Does he truly have his White Knights beat her when she misbehaves?"
"His Hound, yes. Not the others, I think."
"My, my, aren't we callous."
"She never thought of me. She never cared to ask me how my marriage fared. Why should I do the same for her?"
"She never thought to ask because you were too proud, little ninny."
"Oh well, so is she, in her way. We're sisters after all, aren't we?"
Yes, he thinks, watching her as she brushes her hair mechanically. Her little feet swing in time to the tune that she hums - she has always been fond of songs and singers. Yes, I can see that you two bitches are sisters.
"But she's to be Queen," he points out to her with relish. "And as soon as I whisk you off to Pyke as I shall someday, you're to be nothing at all."
"I'll savour the memories then. And now, my lord husband, shouldn't you be out hunting with the King?"
Theon makes a face. "A boar hunt. How appropriate for the bore."
"All the court will be there - Lord Stannis, Father... mind you take care of yourself though." She strokes her stomach, flat as a board. "I can't have you dying before you've planted a little kraken in my belly. Then all this will have been for nothing."
Baelor's bells are tolling, tolling, tolling for the king. The king is dead. Long live the king.
He thinks of Sansa's last words to him, uttered before he left for the hunt. I can't have you dying before you've planted a little kraken in my belly. Then all this will have been for nothing. For once, he is not smiling.
He stands at the top of the serpentine steps, shadows slashed by gilt bars of light. A long roll down, he thinks and steps back till he can feel the wall stolidly at his back. Sansa will be minstering to the Queen in her grief now, no doubt. He wonders whether Arya will be with her husband or with her father, whether they will leave her that choice. For a moment he thinks of Lady Arryn, widowed so recently.
An old man, he thinks. Lord Arryn was an old man and she seems a fool. But his wife is as pretty as a bird in a gilded cage, there was never a greater fool than her when she was first put into his bed. But now there is a hardness to her, a glazed coating that does not crack, velvety smiles that hide Valyrian steel. Just like the Queen. If ever there was a woman who hated her marriage, she was one.
He can hear low voices, a man and a woman, though he cannot see them and thankfully, they cannot see him. He slips back even further in his niche, half-ashamed at his cravenness before telling himself that discretion is the better part of valour.
"-will have to move quickly, my love. Varys says the Dothraki are rallying for war-"
"-savages. I could deal with them myself-"
"You will. We will. Now that we've dealt with Stark-"
"I trust Varys and Littlefinger more than I do that one."
"Fear not. We shall have a puppet to pull the strings and we shall rule together. I shall be your true queen. You'd like that wouldn't you, my sweet?"
The man laughs and Theon sees the flash of gold as he bends his head over the woman's. He sees the curve of her pale, sculpted cheek, the flash of emerald eyes as the hood drops from her face and he knows that it is Queen Cersei, as terrible as she is beautiful. But who is the man, he wonders, that tall man with golden hair so like her own?
Is it the Kingslayer or the young king?
She comes to him with a chain looped around her throat. The golden hands wink at him like bright-eyed conspirators. It is spring, it is a taste of the blazing summer to come but for a moment he can only feel dread. Sansa's summer, he remembers, though he smiles and bows to the Queen, as insouciantly as the boy who was raised at Winterfell. The wolf playing with the lions. It should be amusing but it is not.
"Why?" he asks simply, wondering whether the other widow, Lady Stark will take her boys back home with her. Bran will hate it, he decides. He's always dreamt of being a white knight.
Queen Cersei is a vision in mourning. Scalloped red rubies weep on her black velvet bodice. Lady Arryn, one of the greatest ladies of the court, is equally fashionable in taffeta and thick ropes of black pearls from Lys. Widowhood has turned her hair quite copper with grief and they whisper that she is the greatest flirt, now that widowhood has become fashionable. Lord Littlefinger, in particular, is said to be most enamoured. But her sister is a fool, all the years in the north have chilled her blood. She spends her hours on her knees at the sept, instead of feasting and dancing as Queen Cersei does with all the men of the court - and in particular with her brother and her son.
She flashes him a smile. "Who else could there be?" she asks him slyly. "You are the King's brother by marriage, beloved as a son to our late Hand, a brother in all but blood to the young Lord of Winterfell. As a traitor's son this should come as a great honour to you."
A kraken in the lion's den, he thinks and knows that he is even more powerless than Lord Eddard was, before him. They savaged him from groin to throat, he thinks, bile rising to his throat as he remembers the corpse that he was shown before the silent sisters stitched him up. They had wanted to spare Lady Catelyn the sight but she would not be spared. Sansa said that she had turned as silent as one of the grey sisters afterwards, as though she imagined that if she kept her vow of silence as they did theirs she might talk to the dead.
They savaged him without a second thought. What will they do to me? "To be the King's Hand is the greatest of honours, though I must be the most inexperienced man in history to wear the chain of office. Perhaps that was why I was chosen. Did Sansa ask it of you?"
Queen Cersei shakes her head. "She is alas, most distraught with her grief. But this ought to come as a pleasing surprise to her. She shall be the greatest lady in all the land now, second only to her sister and myself, of course. We must make the arrangements soon - perhaps after Lady Stark leaves."
You will let her go without a fight? He thinks but some stray, half-forgotten bond of loyalty makes him hold his tongue. He remembers the love that existed between Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn, he thinks of bastards and old books, of Lord Stannis who has already left for Dragonstone, of Dothraki screamers and the scheming eunuch. He holds his tongue. His lady wife might think him a fool. He is not.
"Lord Eddard was like a father to me," he says simply. "I have not seen my own for fifteen years."
"Then Lady Sansa must be like a sister to you," the Queen says sweetly. "A word of advice, Theon Greyjoy. I would advise you to treat your wife gently."
"As gently as my good brother, the King, treats our little queen?"
She smiles. "I say it only for your own good. Wives, not bound by love to their husbands, can be... difficult."
"Of course." He thinks of Arya Stark and this time his smile is genuine. "I shall take care to remember that."
He was blessed with salt, stone and steel as every child on the Iron Islands was. But that was a lifetime ago.
And so when he cannot sleep, he rises from the warmth of the bed he shares with his whores now. Sansa bars herself in her chamber most nights now and he knows well enough not to challenge her. Sometimes he wonder if she entertains King Joffrey, but something tells him that the boy has squirrelled away a secret lover, that he does not want Sansa as she wants him.
He rises and throws a cloak over himself and then he goes to the godswood. The air is sharp and sweet as a winter peach, he smells moss and damp and cold. It smells like a homecoming.
At first he does not see her for the night is black as pitch. Soft as a wolf padding over the leaves, he hears the sound and the good bowman's instincts kick in without a thought. He snatches at the heavy wool of her cloak and hears her muffled oath as she tries to squirm away. He reels her in, as he would a fish, and his dagger is at her throat before she can react.
"Why if it isn't the little wolf bitch," he says pleasantly and releases her before she can lash at out him.
He has not seen her up close for a long time. He has seen her at court certainly, a shrunken doll in silks and gems, a puppet for the King and his mother to play with. Worn out, faded while her sister shines even brighter by contrast. He has heard the ugly tales they say of the games it pleases them to play with her, though they keep her pretty face untouched. But he has noticed the way she moves, slowly, painfully like an old woman, the unexplained weeks she'd simply vanish from court.
She's only been playing dead, he thinks. He has never seen her face more alive than tonight.
"And if it isn't the wet squid," she says, just like she used to when she was nine and hated him because her bastard brother did. They've made him Lord Commander of the Night's Watch now, Theon remembers. They mutinied and killed the old one and named Snow because he was the Bastard of Winterfell. A puppet, I suppose. Just like him. The thought pleases him, oddly enough.
"So they let you out of your cage, little bird? Or did you pick the lock and fly away by yourself?"
She flashes him a grin. So she can still grin, can she, though she should be all but dead. "That's not me," she says. "That's Sansa. Only she's so stupid that she can't see the cage they've put her in."
"She's a clever bird now."
Arya shrugs. The scene is so surreal that he reaches out to hold her hand in his, to make sure that it is not a dream. Her hand is cold and clammy, but it is there. "Still a bird," she says dismissively. "Though they let her keep Lady. Not me. I'm a wolf."
He has always admired spunk. He squeezes her hand and slowly she responds. "I came here to pray," she says finally, withdrawing her hand. "For delieverance."
"Not you. I'll bet it was vengence."
"It's the same thing, Greyjoy." She looks up at him and smiles. "So should you. If you knew what was good for you, you would. But you don't. You twisted the chain around Sansa's throat but you never thought she'd have it in her to twist it around you too, someday."
"If she's only a bird, what do I have to fear?"
She laughs. It is Arya Stark who is laughing, she who used to be so bright and bonny as a girl at Winterfell. But when he hears her laugh now, that girl simply vanishes as though she had never been. "You should fear everyone," she says flatly. "It's the only way you can stay alive. It's the only one I have." And with that, she slips away, she disappears in the darkness like a wraith.