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A War in Miniature

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For a brief time, King’s Landing holds three queens.

Helaena wastes away, broken and empty-eyed. She has learned terrible truths about herself and she cannot face the world. The taint of Targaryen cruelty will not wash away, nor does she want to forget: it runs in her blood too.

Alicent bides her time, holding on to her dignity despite the chains. Others would finish the war she set in motion, and her fortunes would rise again: her sons lay waste to the countryside while the usurper is building her own pyre, a little higher every day. Soon it will begin to smoke; it cannot be long now.

And Rhaenyra bleeds. They whisper that it is a sign of her imminent demise, that a woman on the throne is an abomination, that her reign will be cursed, but they are wrong. The throne demands tribute, and while her kingdom is drenched in blood, she too must suffer. It attacks all Targaryens, payment for the perversion of absolute power, but most of them ignore the message. It reminds them that they are fallible, and what Valyrian wants to hear that?

She is no different. The throne is hers, of that she has never doubted, and every drop it takes from her binds them closer together. She runs her hands over the blades. Let them see the cuts. Let them see how she does not flinch.

That is what she convinces herself, but still – she had worn armour the day she took the throne.

It will not be enough.

*****

Rhaenyra is all sharp edges when she lands in the courtyard of the Red Keep, a thunderstorm blown in from the sea. The bells are tolling, eerie in the rain-crisp air. Yes, warn them all, she thinks; vengeance has come. Her teeth are bared in a savage grin. She is already picturing her brother’s head on a spike.

But it is Alicent who emerges from the keep to receive her, and by nightfall Rhaenyra’s gloating has turned to seething rage. She holds the capital, the throne, the conqueror’s crown, but with Aegon missing, she cannot be the triumphant victor. That does not stop her playing at one.

And so they are brought in to kneel before her, the weight of sentences yet to be passed hanging over their heads. She lets them stew in their fear; it makes them malleable. The self-preservation instinct is a powerful thing, stronger than any bonds of honour or loyalty. She is not going to pretend the legitimacy of her claim matters to them. Some of these lords had already sworn to defend her rights, and bent the knee to her brother without a second thought. Why should these vows be any different? Only dragons would keep them in line, dragons and the threat of the executioner’s axe.

She stages her accession by night, where the torchlight turns everything sinister. Syrax is still outside, but she is scarcely needed – Rhaenyra is fearsome enough. When at last she rises from the throne, those gathered part for her as if scalded. Daemon offers her his arm, the only one who knows that she is not impervious to the aches of the twisted chair. They pass through the mass like gods, beautiful and inhuman and untouchable.

Later, he will kiss the blood on her hands and suggest she use it to sign the death warrants.

“I have not bled nearly enough,” she replies.

*****

It takes six months for Helaena to fall, and only a night for Rhaenyra to follow. They blame her for her sister’s death and she laughs. Once, early in her reign, she had summoned the pretender’s queen, in the chance that behind the blank expression lay some hint of Aegon’s whereabouts. It took little time to dispel that notion. Helaena was harmless, her delicate crown hanging limply from her fingers like a wilted flower; she hadn’t even reacted when Rhaenyra snapped it in two. Her life had been just as fragile – snuffing it out could not have brought satisfaction to the most spiteful of people.

And yet, they have underestimated Rhaenyra once again. If she were responsible, Alicent would be dead too.

But it is Rhaenyra’s misjudgement which proves more fatal, her paranoia a self-fulfilling prophecy. She lashes out at everyone and rages when they desert, as if there is no correlation. Or perhaps it is Alicent’s curse, the wrath of a mother in chains who has nothing but her resolve to sustain her. (In this war of fire-forged women, do not forget the one who fights without a dragon. Do not forget the one who survives.)

The people riot. Whoever sits the throne is irrelevant when either side could reduce King’s Landing to a scorched graveyard on a whim. The smallfolk resent their powerlessness in the face of such monsters, until their resentment grows stronger than their fear and suddenly they hold the power. It’s a dangerous shift, and Rhaenyra’s regime is already resting on glass.

The dragons die, unmourned. Westeros is not Valyria, and dragons will only ever be a hated symbol of a dynasty that does not play by the rules. The Westerosi bend the knee to the Targaryens because they have no choice. This is just a levelling of the battlefield.

It’s a brutal realisation, to know that you are finished before your time. Rhaenyra denies it as long as she is able, snapping out orders as if she still has the ability to enforce them. When the Dragonpit crashes in on itself, so does her last line of defence. Without the dragons, she is reduced to nothing more than a hated tyrant, all too human. The security of the Red Keep is an illusion, useless when the rest of the city dances to the tune of anarchy. The hands that slew the dragons might as well have torn the crown from her head and trampled it into the dust. They have wrested from her any semblance of authority, although she has not yet woken to the new reality. It will take one more blow.

And then Joffrey and Syrax rise into the ash-filled sky, her son and her dragon going to their destruction together. This they do for themselves, a final act in a war that was all about her. Joffrey doesn’t feel the Stranger breathing down his neck until he is tumbling through the air like a broken-winged bird. Syrax knows, and Syrax chooses to land in what will become her grave. Rhaenyra can only watch, and howl, and, finally, run. I am not defeated, she insists. This is not a surrender.

The mechanical words fool nobody. Rhaenyra has burnt herself out.

(Is there another version of this story? Can it end any other way? Or is she always doomed to fail?

The only answer lies in more questions. This world is not ready for a woman like her. Will it ever be?)