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In the Twilight Kingdom

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There are whispers. Every king or queen is talked about, of course, but Shireen Baratheon, the First of her Name, attracts more talk than most. It's the hardened grey skin that marks her face as different, tainted. Cursed, some say, though not loudly, not if they want to continue to draw breath. Because that is another thing they whisper: that the queen has inherited her father's powers. That the shadow that killed King Renly haunts the halls of the Red Keep. That those who challenge the Queen disappear, or meet with strange accidents. These things they say furtively to each other, in taverns and winesinks and in the dark places, looking over their shoulders for hidden observers.

They will never see her, the shadow thinks. No, she is quiet. Calm as still water. But she hears them, and she smiles. Fear cuts deeper than swords, after all, and it is a weapon she understands well how to wield. She did not have to kill many of the queen's enemies before the rumours were enough to make the rest think twice about making any kind of move. She continues to listen, though, because Arya Stark knows the value of information. Each day she learns things she did not know the day before, and thinks of the kindly man, and what he would say if he could see her now, with her own name and her own face. She is no longer no one. She never really was.

It has been long years since Arya left that life behind her, since she returned to Westeros a lone wolf instead of a cat or a girl or a priest, since she went looking for her pack and found Shireen instead. She's not sure if she believes in the existence of a god with many faces who gives the gift of death to those who seek it. She's not sure she believes in anything at all, barring a temple full of priests who use magic to change their faces and the certainty of death.

And her. She is a good queen, Arya thinks, with her limited understanding of what queens should be. She had never been much for those stories that Sansa liked, the ones Shireen loves, the ones about good and kind and comely queens beloved of their people, like Queen Alysanne on her dragon.

Shireen Baratheon is not Good Queen Alysanne.

She is cold Baratheon steel, just like her father, or so they say, those men who whisper in winesinks. She is not beloved of the people, but she is respected. She is fair and just but she suffers no fools. It's how she was raised. The Queen's Hand, of course, is a constant reminder to them of that: the famous Onion Knight with his shortened fingers, her father's most trusted advisor and now Shireen's. She is sixteen, a woman grown and flowered, but no one speaks of betrothal. They do not dare.

Arya sits at the back of the hall and watches Shireen hold court with Ser Davos at her side. No one pays her much mind. Arya knows how to hide in plain sight, to make eyes slide right over her without seeing her. This is her favourite part of the day; she might not know much about queens, but she loves to watch Shireen. As the queen, she radiates power and competence, sitting coolly upright on the throne with an air of superiority. She allows the Hand to deal with the majority of the petitioners, nodding after most of his rulings and only intervening in the difficult cases. Arya watches her face, though, and sees the flicker of Shireen underneath. She's not quite as good at keeping her mask in place as Arya is, though perhaps no one else notices. They don't know Shireen the way Arya does, after all.

When the court session draws to a close, Arya slips away. She knows the secret passages of the Red Keep like the back of her hand, and so she knows exactly which ones to take to be able to step out unexpectedly from a darkened passage in front of Shireen, the two Queensguard knights who flank her, and Patchface, jingling along solemnly behind her.

"Arya!" Shireen scolds, all regal indignation, but there's a gleam in her eyes that makes Arya grin at her, wide and sharp. Shireen dismisses the Queensguard with a wave of her hand. The knights are used to this and turn on their heels. Patchface lingers, throwing an uncertain look at Arya, until Shireen says, kindly, "I will be perfectly safe with Lady Stark. Don't worry. We have boring things to talk about, you wouldn't like to listen to them." Arya and the fool have never quite seen eye to eye, but eventually Patchface turns away too, the way he always does.

Arya lets her fingers brush against Shireen's just briefly as they make their way to the royal bedchamber. They're always careful in public not to be more affectionate than is proper; it's not difficult, when Arya tries to avoid interaction with others as much as possible. But in private, when they're alone, it's a different matter. When the heavy wooden door closes behind them, Arya presses Shireen back against it and kisses her sweetly. When Arya pulls back, Shireen looks at her with her intense blue eyes, her dark hair framing her face. She is beautiful, Arya's stone queen. She runs her fingers over the square line of Shireen's jaw. Her skin is a riot of textures, with soft lips giving way to a hard and pitted cheek. Unlike the rest of the kingdom, Arya is not afraid to touch her.

Shireen shivers, though she cannot feel the sensation of Arya's fingers on her grey skin. This they have discovered through many enjoyable hours of experimentation with hands and tongues and the point of Arya's smallest knife, until they were both left panting and desperate. Arya follows the path of her fingers with her mouth, until Shireen makes a soft noise of protest and captures Arya's lips for another kiss. She's not sure how long they stay there. Arya pins her queen against the door, kisses her fiercely, their fingers tangling in each other's hair with all thought of sweetness abandoned. When Shireen surges forward, Arya allows herself to be flipped and pinned in her turn. This is them, this push and pull: now soft touches and gentle caresses, now fingers pulling at dark hair and kisses laced with teeth. Arya never wanted stories, never wanted romance, but she wants this.