Chapter 1: Myrcella
PLEASE STOP ASKING FOR COPIES OF THE ORIGINAL "ACTS OF TREASON"
I will not be sharing the original, so please, PLEASE stop asking me to!
Myrcella sat to Joffrey's left, hands folded in her lap, and waited for their father to finish. She could never remember their father showing such interest in their behaviour before, save when he needed to reprimand Joffie or use her against their lady mother, but now he cared more than anything about impressing his beloved friends in the North. Myrcella had grown up listening to drunken tales of her father's adventures with Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and living god, if the stories were to be believed, and so tiresome though this was, it was not wholly unexpected.
Myrcella's father loved easily, but not deeply, and not for long, so she was a little curious to meet Lord Stark - he must have been quite the man to inspire such intensity of feeling in the King. She had said as much, once, to her uncle Ser Jaime, and he had simply smiled and shook his head, and muttered something about Honourable Old Ned. Myrcella knew her father well, and did not think that someone truly honourable could be his closest friend - there was little honour to be found in Robert Baratheon, with his whores and his bastards and his drunken rages and his ill-treatment of her lady mother.
Myrcella was not supposed to know about those, but her rooms were close by her mother's since she had been allowed to move from what Uncle Renly called "the nursery wing," where Joffie and Tommen still had their rooms, and she heard more than she was supposed to. She never spoke of it to anyone, but she knew how her parents fought, knew how heavy her father's fists fell and how loud her mother could scream. She wondered how Jaime could stand it, to stand outside his own sister's room and hear her so abused, but had long since learned better than to ask him a serious question in expectation of a serious answer. Jaime Lannister was many things, but serious was not one of them. She might have asked her Ser Arys, but he would have denied ever hearing anything ill between his King and Queen, because he took his vows very seriously, and did his very best to shield Myrcella from the ugliness of the world besides.
As if she could be truly shielded, with a brother like Joffie. Ser Arys knew that, but still he tried, and she loved him for it even if she thought him a romantic fool. He had a sweetness in him, her knight, that seemed somehow out of place in King's Landing. Doubtless it was that gentleness of nature that had induced her father to set Ser Arys as her usual guard - her father liked to think of her as some sort of delicate blossom, unsuited to her uncles' company, much less that of Preston Greenfield or whoever else of the Kingsguard might be available to guard her. She hated that she needed a permanent guard at all, or at least that her father thought she needed such a blasted dedicated guard, because the redcloaks her lady mother had always set to mind her had never been so annoyingly involved as Ser Arys insisted on being. Rather they had lingered unobtrusively in the background, red cloaks against red stone, and they had never questioned her actions - not as Ser Arys did. Even now, he was frowning at her from his post at the wall, as if willing her to pay more attention to her father's ramblings. He often frowned at her when he thought she was behaving as anything other than the perfect princess, and such intense scrutiny was still strange to her - certainly her father never paid such close attention to her, and her lady mother was generally more concerned with Joffie than with Myrcella or with Tommen.
Uncle Tyrion sometimes paid such close mind to her and Joffie, or at least, he had while they were younger. That was before Joffie had become such a cancerous beast, of course, while they had still been close, for there was no real her-and-Joffie anymore. He was too often indulging himself with only the Hound for a guard, and seemed only to find true amusement in that great brute’s company.
Myrcella had a handful of ladies her own age for company - Elisa Santagar, daughter of Ser Aron, the master of arms, was her favourite, but did not often sit with them for she was frail, in constant poor health - and had Tommen and his little friends, too, but Joffie seemed to hold himself above the rest of the court. There was so much of their lady mother in him that sometimes, it made Myrcella nervous, but often, it just annoyed her. Did Joffie truly think that just because he would one day wear their father’s crown, he was too good to dance with his sister?
Ser Arys frowned at her again, so Myrcella straightened her back and folded her hands neatly in her lap once more. Her father had not noticed how little attention she was paying, lost as he was in tales of his youth in the Eyrie with Lords Stark and Arryn, but she could never be certain when he might suddenly remember that he had an audience and turn to one of them with a question.
Tommen was flagging, over beyond Joffie - they had been sitting on these uncomfortable chairs for near half an hour while their father paraded up and down before them and imparted precious morsels of adoration for Ned Stark, and Tommen was still only a boy, after all, a little thing of just ten, with a low tolerance for their father’s meandering stories, and he tired easily when he did not have anything interesting to occupy his mind.
Joffie, of course, tired quickly of anything not wholly about him. He was so abominably like Uncle Jaime in that, Uncle Jaime who always looked bored, Uncle Jaime who always made a spectacle of himself and laughed at others who tried to do the same. Myrcella thought that it was surely a Lannister thing, since both her father and Uncle Renly enjoyed entertainments and spectacles as well as anyone else without having to be in the middle of them.
Uncle Stannis, much like Myrcella's lord grandfather, did not seem to enjoy anything much, so neither of them were of much use in her determinations. Myrcella held the elder of her father's brothers in a sort of morbid curiosity, for there were days when it seemed simply impossible that someone so serious and sober as Stannis Baratheon might exist in a place such as King's Landing - at least Lord Tywin had a sense of occasion, and immaculate style in his dress. Uncle Stannis did not even have that, as far as she could tell, and would have rendered court a very dour place indeed had he had his way.
Myrcella’s lady mother seemed to prefer to be at the centre of things, too, now she thought about it. Cersei Lannister liked to be the focus of everyone’s attention, liked to be right in the middle of all happenings at court - and was more than beautiful enough to justify such a weight of attention, of course, and knew that she was beautiful enough for it.
“Myrcella,” their father said, and she snapped to attention, forcing her smile a little sweeter. He liked her best when she was sweet, she knew, liked when she was as little like her lady mother as possible, and her lady mother was anything but sweet. “You’ll have to be on your very best behaviour, girl, there are plans in place that you’ll have to be perfect for.”
“Your Grace?” She has been told nothing of any plans, particularly not plans for her - Uncle Tyrion had japed that the King would want one of Lord Stark’s daughters for Joffrey’s wife, if they were as pretty as their mother supposedly was, but that would have nothing to do with her, particularly.
“There’s a lad a year and a bit older than you up in Winterfell without even a betrothal to speak of,” he said, sitting down heavily on his great carved chair, fingers fitting between the polished ebony antlers decorating the arms - this, Myrcella had always felt, was more her father’s throne than the great monstrosity in the throne room, just as he had always seemed more himself in the great hall at Storm’s End when they went there with Uncle Renly than he ever did here in the Red Keep. “Ned’s eldest boy. You’d be Lady of Winterfell - a fine match for a Princess, don’t you think?”
“Your father thinks to marry you off to some savage from the wilds of the North?” her lady mother demanded, fury dripping from her every word. “How dare he condemn you to a fate such as that? You are a Lannister, a daughter of the Rock, you are worth far more than some sheepfucker from the depths of that snow-sodden hell!”
It was best, Myrcella had learned, to let her lady mother shout when her temper was up. Interrupting her only made her angrier, and prolonged her tantrums - and besides, Myrcella wasn’t entirely certain that she disagreed with her lady mother for being angry, for once.
“If His Grace the King has decided that this betrothal is for the best, I will agree to it,” she said, watching as her lady mother paced the room like a caged lioness. “He is my father, after all, I’m sure he would not choose a husband for me he thought would treat me ill.”
A lie, of course - Myrcella’s father treated her lady mother so poorly that she doubted he would know what it was for a man to treat his wife well, but even so, she did not think that he would ever condemn her to a man who would beat her as he did her mother. In his own way, Mycella did believe that her father loved her, perhaps more than he did her brothers. Even had Joffrey not been the beast he was, sons were a threat to a man such as Robert Baratheon in a way a daughter never could be - sons, just as brothers, could take a man’s throne, could want to see him dead in order to take his power. A daughter was a prize to be traded, worth more than her weight in gold if she was beautiful and accomplished, as Myrcella knew she was, and so it was an easy thing for a man such as her father to love her.
“And besides,” she said, hoping to calm her mother a little. “Better the Lady of Winterfell than be consigned to Griffin’s Roost or some other hovel, surely?”
“The North is barely part of the Seven Kingdoms,” her lady mother snapped. “It is almost as bad as Dorne - they are savages, with no sense of culture or-”
“Mother,” Myrcella cut in, crossing the room to take her lady mother’s hands. “Mother, please - if I am to wed Robb Stark, I must resign myself to that fate. It will do me no good to dwell on what hardships are ahead of me, surely?”
To her surprise, her lady mother gathered her into her arms - Myrcella’s mother was not a woman given to shows of affection, and Myrcella had long ago learned to treasure every embrace, every gentle caress of her cheek. They were so much sweeter, so much truer than her father’s more frequent sloppy kisses to her hand, or hair-ruffles.
“You deserve more than some frozen relic,” her lady mother said fiercely. “You are my daughter, a Lannister of Casterly Rock, and you are worth more, more than the son of your fool father’s old friend.”
Myrcella was used to her lady mother disparaging those her father valued, but even so, the vehemence with which she had spoken against the Starks had been troubling. Myrcella dwelt on it all the rest of the day and well into the next, while she was sitting with her companions in the Maidenvault.
It had been altered some, since the days of the Maidens in the Tower. The bars had been removed from the windows, on Myrcella’s request, and the hangings had been changed when her father had overthrown the Targaryens. Myrcella had changed the hangings again when she had been told to make it your own, girl, getting rid of her father’s elaborate hunting scenes in favour of pictures from her favourite tales and songs. Lann the Clever was prominent, because to ignore him was to offend her lady mother, but Durran and Elenei were in pride of place, opposite the door, above Myrcella’s chair - all in swirling, broiling blues and greens, with Storm’s End a glowing golden beacon protecting them from the shadowy wrath of the Storm God away over the wild seas. Myrcella’s father had commissioned it for her for her sixteenth nameday, an unusually thoughtful gift, and a more welcome one than the adult gowns her lady mother had given her the same day.
“You seem distracted, Princess,” sweet Margaery Tyrell said, head tilted to keep one eye on her typically perfect embroidery and one on Myrcella. “I would have thought that you would be excited to see the North - Winterfell is meant to be magnificent.”
“How can you know that it is not thoughts of my journey North that distract me, Lady Margaery?” Myrcella asked, her voice just as light as Margaery’s. Margaery was a year and a little more her senior, and composed and elegant in ways that Myrcella envied without truly understanding why. She had come to court with two of her cousins, Alla and Megga, half a year ago, and had assimilated well into Myrcella’s company of ladies. Myrcella liked her, but could not quite trust her, not with her lady mother’s warnings about the Tyrells ringing in her ears. “It is a vast undertaking, after all, and I am second of all the ladies of court, now that I am of age. It is a position I do not take lightly.”
And it wasn’t - Myrcella had spent more time than either of her parents would have liked with her uncle Renly, and knew the value of earning the esteem of others, as he did. He was beloved, whereas her father was tolerated and mocked behind his back, and her mother was disliked and feared. Myrcella was still able to pass unnoticed sometimes, if she wore something other than the luxuriant gowns her lady mother had made for her, if she wore her hair simply, and so she overheard the unkind words, the slanderous accusations.
Sometimes, she even overheard murmurs of treason, but she preferred not to think on those, given their source.
But she was liked well enough, she thought - she knew when to smile and when to simper, who wished for laughter and who for consideration, and she thought that such behaviour on her part might go some small way to smoothing the waves her parents left in their wakes. She hoped it would, anyhow, for if someone did not soothe the ruffled egos around court, then who knew what mischief could be made.
“I do wish we might all come with you, Princess,” Alla Tyrell sighed, tucking a curl of dark hair behind her ear. Alla was all things dainty, from her tiny hands to her neat little nose, and Myrcella often felt overlarge and ungainly beside her. “Imagine, a whole world of potential husbands that none of us have ever met! The fun we might have!”
“Oh, I’m sure no rose of the Reach would truly wish to wither away in the far, cold North,” Myrielle said, voice sweet and face scornful - Myrielle was one of Myrcella’s Lannister cousins, foisted on her by her lady mother despite a patent mutual dislike. “There are so many more suitable suitors for you in the Reach, after all. Such a wealth of fine young knights, don’t you think?”
Myrcella rolled her eyes, leaning toward Rosamund, who was biting down on a sigh. Rosamund was Myrcella’s only true friend at court, the only person aside from Tommen and her lady mother she felt she could truly trust. The might have been twins, had Rosa’s hair not been so straight, and had been close since the day Rosa had come to court to be Myrcella’s companion, near to eight years ago now.
Rosamund knew all of Myrcella’s secrets, and Myrcella all of Rosamund’s. It was the best way to ensure trust in a place like King’s Landing.
“Be kind, Myri,” she chided, tying off her thread and poking through her sewing basket for the smooth black satin thread great-aunt Genna had given her - it was a difficult colour to produce, and so expensive, and Genna delighted in gifting such trifles to Myrcella, if only because it seemed to irritate her lady mother. Myrcella suspected that Genna had never shown quite the same affection to her niece as she did her great-niece, and could not entirely blame her lady mother for any bitterness she held toward Genna. “Why, you were speaking only yesterday of how exciting you found the whole endeavour, and how you planned on finding some wealthy Northman to toy with.”
Myrielle’s face pinched, as it was wont to do, as though she had bitten down on something bitter. Myrcella delighted in annoying Myrielle, even if doing so did embarrass sweet, slightly innocent Cerenna, Myrielle's sister. Still, near anything was a price worth paying to crack Myri’s smug veneer.
The journey to Winterfell meant fittings for gowns more appropriate for the cold - silk over heavy wool, so it had the look of her southron gowns but the practicality of the kind of gowns women in the North wore. Myrcella stood as patiently as she could and let the seamstresses do their work.
She had Myrielle and Rosamund with her, of course, Myri hinting that she thought it only fair that Myrcella share some of the purse her father had given her and spend it on gowns for Myri and Rosa, while Rosa simply sighed every time Myri spoke and hummed to herself, turning whatever way the seamstress guided her without complaint, only offering murmured suggestions for a higher neckline here, a tighter sleeve there, a deeper cuff somewhere else.
Myri spent their entire appointment bickering and fussing, so like Myrcella’s lady mother that it stung, somewhere deep where Myrcella still wished to be more like the most beautiful woman in the realm. Rosamund, though, was a wonderful help, directing the seamstresses away from the cuts and colours she knew Myrcella loathed, in that quiet way that people listened to even when they wouldn’t listen to the King’s beloved daughter.
People always think they know better than the King’s beloved daughter, she thought bitterly, tugging her braids over her shoulders so Rosa could tighten her stays when finally they were done. What could a princess know, after all?
“I wish Alla was coming instead of Myri,” Rosa confided, once they were alone - Myrielle had probably gone to flirt with Joffrey, in her desperate attempt to win herself a crown. Myrcella liked it best when it was just her and Rosa, felt freer then than she did at any other time.
“I wish it was just you and I,” Myrcella admitted, settling at her dressing table to begin unwinding her hair - her lady mother insisted on heavy, elaborate hairstyles, which made her head itch and ache, and which left her with terrible pains in her shoulders and neck. Still, her lady mother insisted only on a few things, and only on those for Myrcella’s own sake, for her safety and her reputation, so she did not mind that awful much. “I don’t see why we need other companions - like as not, we shan’t be able to talk together much, not if we’re riding all day, and you know how my father gets when we’re travelling.”
Myrcella’s father liked to have her beside him when they were travelling, because being away from court caused him to tell stories, and she was the only one of his children who paid attention with any semblance of good humour. Myrcella had learned long ago to school her face into an expression of polite interest, something learned more from Jaime and Renly than from her mother, something Joffie had never bothered to learn, and it was enough to satisfy her father’s desire for an audience.
She pitied him, sometimes, her fat fool of a father. He had no idea how little respect his people had for him.
They departed in warm sunshine, Myrcella and Rosamund riding while Myrielle chose to remain in the wheelhouse with the Queen. Myrcella did not mind that in the least, and spent the first several days of the journey laughing with Rosa and Ser Arys, trying very hard to ignore cousin Lancel and Joffie, and begging their lady mother to let Tommen ride alongside her on his pony. Tommen loved to ride, but their lady mother was just so desperately overprotective of them all that it was next to impossible to do anything.
Why, it had taken a full blown argument the morning of their departure just to convince her to let Myrcella ride! The King had intervened, bellowed an order or two and pouted until he got his way, and as simple as that, Myrcella had his permission to ride the whole way to Winterfell, unless they encountered a snowstorm, or brigands, or some other danger.
And it was so simple - the days passed quickly, broken by evenings with her lady mother and Tommen, by afternoons spent laughing at uncle Tyrion’s filthy stories, told in hushed tones to avoid the King and Queen from overhearing. Life was good, on the road, free in a way court never was, for while there were plenty of eyes on her, there was not the same pressure to appear perfect - she could laugh freely, with her head thrown back, and it did not matter so much if the wind tugged her hair free of her braids, and if there was mud spattered on her gown, what of it? They were on the road, and everyone was filthy.
Myrcella could not remember ever feeling so light, so much herself.
“Tell me, girl,” the King said, beckoning Myrcella closer. It had taken them fifteen days to get from the southern end of the Neck to within sight of Winterfell, and Myrcella’s father had not sought her company in all that time - but of course he would now, when they were so close to meeting her husband-to-be. “Are you scared?”
In truth, she wasn’t. The North had a harsh sort of beauty, handsome in the way of her lord grandfather, and the cold was fresh and sweet just as the humid air of King’s Landing was rancid and cloying. Part of her was looking forward to seeing more of it, even though she was nervous of meeting the Starks.
“No, Your Grace,” she assured him. “I look forward to today, and to what time we will spend in the North.”
“Good,” he said, voice gruff. “Good. I have a gift for you.”
She blinked, stunned - he did not often give her gifts, did not often give gifts at all save those enormous shows of generosity to which he was so prone. She waited patiently as he rooted around under his furs, trying to find whatever this gift was, and was surprised when his hand emerged with something dainty, wrapped in pink satin and tied with a gold ribbon.
“You will be far from home,” he said, “and I know how you and young Tommen hate to be apart. This ought to help you bridge the gap some.”
She managed to keep hold of her reins and untie the ribbon, somehow, and was pleased beyond measure to find something so elegant - a seal, stags carved in rich golden-brown wood and topped with a chip of rich golden topaz, the Baratheon seal itself a round golden coin.
“Thank you, Papa,” she said gently, tucking it away in her pocket and reaching over to kiss his hairy cheek, resting one hand on his shoulder to keep her balance. Her lady mother, she knew, would disapprove of the risk to Myrcella’s hair and dress in such an endeavour, but it was worth risking the Queen’s wrath to reward a rare show of sweetness by the King.
Her gown for today was one of the finest she had had made for the trip, a beautiful shade of deep green that highlighted her eyes and set off her hair, just as the same colour always did for her lady mother when the Queen chose to wear aught else than Lannister crimson. The deep cuffs were tight to the elbow, and buttoned and embroidered in gold, as was the high collar, and the furs her father had sent to her were snowy-white around her shoulders. With her hair bound up in a crown of braids, she felt more regal than she did in any of the elaborate hairstyles and revealing gowns her mother encouraged her to wear.
Tommen, in his usual sweet way, had told her that she looked more beautiful than she ever had before, and she had been so overcome with love for her little brother than she had not been able to do more than take his face in her hands and kiss his milky curls.
“Joffrey!” the King bellowed then, casting about for her brother. “Where is the boy? Bring him here, where is he- Joffrey, here, you ride ahead, then your sister, come on now lad.”
Joffie rolled his eyes, but rode ahead all the same - with only a pair of guards to ride ahead, he would be the first of their party the Starks would see, and he would love such attention. Myrcella did not mind either way - she would have rathered have Tommen with her, but their lady mother had kept him in the wheelhouse with her, and since Rosa and even Myrielle were too unimportant to accompany her, it would be only Ser Arys at her side, just as Joffie had only the Hound.
“Come, Princess,” Ser Arys said, motioning her on ahead of him. “To Winterfell.”
Chapter 2: Arya
Their guests, according to Sansa, were late.
Arya didn’t think it made much difference, really - the King and his family would be staying with them for the same number of nights regardless of how long after noon they arrived, and the feast tonight would go ahead, too, stopped by nothing short of the royal party not arriving at all.
Of course, Mother was in agreement with Sansa - she thought it terribly rude, and Arya knew from the look on Father’s face that he thought so, too, and knew Robb was anxious to get the initial meeting over with. She could not blame Robb for that, though, not given the letter the King had sent to Father, offering his daughter as a wife for Robb.
A princess as lady of Winterfell was not something to take lightly, Sansa said, especially considering that Sansa would not be marrying into a Great House, that Bran and Rickon likely would marry in the North as well, so a tie to the crown was a great honour for House Stark.
Robb didn’t seem to have any great objections, of course - the princess’ mother was reputed to be very beautiful, and of course Robb was hoping that she took after the Queen, as Sansa took after Mother. Arya just hoped that the princess wasn’t a priss, like Sansa. She hoped that the princess was more like the tales Father told of the King, jovial and jolly and good-natured. Robb would be pleased with a wife like that, Arya thought, any man would.
The lace at Arya’s collar was itchy, but she couldn’t get at it to scratch, not with her furs in the way, and besides, the King and his party were finally outside the gates.
The two guards who rode in first wore bright crimson cloaks, which struck Arya as strange - the Queen was a Lannister, true, but the King was a Baratheon. Should his guardsmen not wear gold, or black? The guardsmen at Winterfell wore grey cloaks, and in her vague memories of Riverrun, she was sure the guards there wore blue.
Perhaps it was a concession from the King, to honour the Queen in some way. Arya would respect him more if that was the case.
The first of the royal party to enter could only be Prince Joffrey, the King’s heir - he was pretty like a girl, with heavy blonde curls and dainty features, but it was all marred by the smug arch of his eyebrows, the disgusted twist of his fat lips. More interesting by far, in Arya’s opinion, was the man behind him, with the great snarling dog’s head helm.
“The Hound,” Bran whispered, just loud enough for her to hear. “Did you know-”
Sansa shushed them both, the side of her hand snapping sharp against Arya’s hip as a warning, and all three of them forced their best smiles into place. The Prince remained ahorse, which struck Arya as much ruder than the royal party being late.
And then the Princess rode into the yard, and Arya, standing two people away from him, heard Robb gasp. She might have laughed, had Mother not shot her a look like steel behind Robb’s back.
The Princess was pretty, too, as pretty as Sansa, all golden and green with a shock of white fur around her shoulders, but didn’t have the same cruel twist to her mouth as the Prince. They might have been twins, but for that, their hair the same rich blonde, their skin the same golden-cream. The Princess remained ahorse as well, but it seemed she was only waiting for the knight in snowy white armour who followed her through the gates to dismount and offer her his hand.
“A knight of the Kingsguard,” Bran whispered reverently, a gleam of longing bright and sharp in his blue eyes. “Do you think he would take me as a squire, Arya? Do you think?”
“Ssh,” Sansa hissed, her smile never faltering. Mercifully, she kept her hands clasped in front of her rather than smacking Arya’s hip again, but Bran received one of those steel-sharp looks from Mother, and both of them face forward, smiles back in place, and watch the Princess smile as her knight hands her down from her horse.
Arya would love a ride on that horse - it was a beautiful animal, with long limbs and a delicate face, a wonderful bright chestnut, almost the colour of Mother’s hair. Arya’s own horse was dark brown, almost black, sturdy and steady, fast only when given considerable encouragement, but a horse like the Princess’ would be faster than any of the horses in Hullen’s stables, Arya just knew it.
Next through the gates should have been the elaborate wheelhouse, but it got stuck, which made it impossibly difficult for Arya not to laugh, and even Sansa’s mouth twitched at the sight of the Queen poking her head out so she could shout at some of the guardsmen. She was a beautiful woman, her golden hair bound in a circlet of braids the twin of the Princess’, but looking at her, it was clear where the Prince’s arrogance came from.
Truthfully, Arya thought Mother far more beautiful. Mother had kind eyes and a warmth in her face, even when she was angry with them, and the Queen had none of that, had nothing to recommend her save for her fine features.
Doubtless the boys would all think her the most beautiful woman in the world, especially when she emerged from the wheelhouse and swept back her cloak and furs to reveal the heavy, full swell of cleavage revealed by the deep dip of her neckline, but Arya did not like the look of her, no more than she liked the look of the Prince.
She assumed the pudgy boy with the girlish hair, who looked to be about Bran’s age or a little younger, to be Prince Tommen - she could not remember ever having seen such a shy smile, but recognised the way the fat boy drifted towards his sister almost without thinking. She did the same with Jon, and Bran with her, after all. Princess Myrcella smiled indulgently when Prince Tommen offered her his arm, and he flushed with pride when she took it and guided him to stand with their mother and brother.
All were distracted by the sudden rush of guards through the gate, though, redcloaks and a man in shining golden armour with a gleaming white cloak, and a fat old man in black with-
“Surely not,” Sansa whispered, looking criminally disappointed. Arya was in agreement, because this fat man with the scraggly beard and the crooked crown, surely this was not the King?
He needed a step to dismount his horse, his great big belly overhanging his belt grotesquely, his beard failing to hide the multiple chins and jowls hanging from his jaw. Even Father seemed shocked by the King’s appearance, by his great size and by the wheeze of his breath as he lumbered toward them.
“Ned,” he said, somehow making a bawdy jape of Father’s name. “You’ve gotten fat.”
Arya felt her jaw drop, and, when she spared them a glance, was gratified to see that the Princess and the Queen were visibly mortified.
Father laughed, though, and stepped forward to embrace the King, just as he would Uncle Benjen. Arya flinched a little at the predatory growl in the King’s voice when he greeted Mother as Cat, not Lady Stark, and wondered how the Queen would react if Father were to greet her as Cersei.
Not that he is given a chance to do such a thing, because once the King has greeted them all, lingering overlong with Arya’s chin caught in his great sausage fingers, something strange and years away in his dark blue eyes, he turned to Father, planting his hands on his hips.
“Ned!” he bellowed. “I want to see your crypts, come!”
Whatever sourness had been evident on the Queen’s face before paled in comparison to the horrible rage twisting her features now. It was obvious to everyone present why the King wanted to see the crypts, and to order Father to bring him to see Aunt Lyanna’s tomb so publicly was an insult to the Queen, a direct one, and Arya almost felt sorry for her.
Almost, but not truly, because that same rage cooled only a little when the Queen guided her children forward to introduce them, and was obvious in the sharp slap of her wrist when she held her hand out for Mother and Robb to kiss. Arya’s mother was Lady of Winterfell, was the Queen’s hostess, and was deserving of all respect.
“You are very welcome to Winterfell, Your Grace,” Mother said, only the tiniest hint of strain showing in the thin lines around her mouth. “As are all of you, Your Highnesses.”
“Prince Joffrey,” the Queen said, as if furiously bored. “Heir to the Iron Throne.”
The Prince bowed his head over Mother’s hand, just about, showing even less respect than his mother had, that same smugness twisting his mouth as Mother introduced them, one by one.
“My daughter, Princess Myrcella, and my younger son, Prince Tommen,” the Queen added, almost as though she had forgotten them. The Princess’ smile was strained as she curtsied so elegantly, and Prince Tommen’s strangely sad as he bowed, but both of them were courteous enough, murmuring thanks to Mother for having them in her home. “Tell me, Lady Stark, are there rooms prepared for us? It has been a long journey.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Mother said. “Please, come this way.”
As soon as Mother and Robb led the Queen and her children inside, Jon caught Arya and Bran by the shoulders - Arya thought it desperately unfair that he had stand behind them all, even if she half understood it. The King and Queen would take insult, to have a bastard boy given anything close to equal status to their children, but she still disliked it. He was Father’s son, after all, even if he was not Mother’s, and that was not Jon’s fault. He was still a Stark, after all.
Arya wondered if the King would even really find insult in Jon’s presence - she had heard that the King had a bastard son who was being raised by one of his brothers, so she thought he might not mind Jon being with the rest of them.
“Come to the godswood,” Jon said quietly, eyeing Robb’s back with something strange on his face. “We won’t be overheard there.”
The godswood was colder than the yard, shadowed and shaded as it was, but Arya did not mind. She always felt safe in the godswood, no matter how cold it was, and at least here she could speak freely, without fear of Mother’s disapproval or royal retribution.
Jon leaned one shoulder against the trunk of one of the great sentinels that surrounded the heart tree clearing, and Bran perched on one of the rocks by the pool, tugging off his gloves to hold his fingers in the steam that curled lazily from the water. Arya herself settled on the ground before the heart tree, smiling when Nymeria slunk out of the trees and curled her warm body around Arya’s back. Ghost and Bran’s wolf were quick to follow, both of them crossing to their masters without a sound.
Of course, Ghost never made a sound - Arya might have found it odd, if he were anyone’s wolf but Jon’s. Jon was quiet by nature, so it made sense that Ghost be so quiet.
“The King is not what I expected,” Bran said, ruffling the thick fur behind his wolf’s ears. “He is-”
“Fat,” Arya said. “And old.” She had never been less impressed with anyone in her life, and she could tell that Jon and Bran felt the same, from the way they laughed. “I cannot believe that he led armies - how could he have defeated anyone in single combat?”
“Father has gotten fatter too, you know,” Jon said, all teasing under his serious expression. “Not so much as the King, of course, but mayhaps it’s just a question of age. The King is a little older, after all.”
“And they do say the south is richer than the North,” Bran added, grinning over his wolf’s head. “Mayhaps Father would be just as fat as the King if we had richer lands.”
“Father would never-”
“Why is the King a fat man?” Rickon demanded, bounding into the clearing with Shaggydog on his heels. “He should be a warrior, like the golden man.”
“The Kingslayer,” Jon said, rolling the title on his tongue like a sweet, then catching Rickon around the shoulders and tugging him in close, ruffling his bright hair and grinning when their little brother struggled away. “No, Rickon, I do not think we would want a King like Jaime Lannister - he’s not a good man, brother.”
“But he looks a King,” Rickon argued. “He looks honourable, and good-”
“The Kingslayer is not a good man,” Jon said, in that easy voice he used when explaining things to Rickon. He had used it not so long ago on both Arya and Bran, but they had rebelled, and demanded that he treat them less like children - they were near grown now, after all. “How do you think he earned his name, Rickon?”
“I still say he looks a King,” Rickon grumped, folding his arms and leaning back against Jon’s legs. Rickon was taller for his age than Bran had been, all knobbly knees and elbows, with the long Stark jaw and nose on his handsome Tully face, but even so, he was still only to Jon’s breastbone - Jon was the tallest man of the family, taller than Father or Uncle Benjen, and just enough taller than Robb for it to be noticeable. Rickon made great use of Jon’s height, constantly begging him for piggy-backs and boosts to climb walls after Bran, especially since Robb was never about to play anymore, no more than Sansa seemed to be.
Of course, Robb was seven-and-ten, Sansa four-and-ten, and they each had more pressing concerns than climbing walls and throwing snowballs. Robb had to learn his role as Father’s heir, and Sansa had just two years left to learn all Mother could teach her before she left to wed the younger Jon Umber of Last Heart, the one people called Smalljon. Sansa never called him that, but Robb did, and considered him a great friend, and an ideal match for Sansa - Robb would never think anyone not his great friend a suitable match for Sansa, of course, but his enthusiasm for having Smalljon Umber for a goodbrother had taken even their own Jon by surprise.
Rickon complained about them all being too busy for him, sometimes, but Arya supposed that to be only fair - he was only six, after all, just a little boy, and he often did not understand things.
“The Queen is a fine woman,” Jon said. “Do you think she looks sufficiently queenly, Rickon? She is just as beautiful as the Kingslayer is handsome, since they are twins.”
“She did not smile for Mother,” Rickon said, as though that were all the opinion necessary on the matter, and Arya was pleased enough by Rickon’s sureness that she could forgive the downturn of Jon’s smile caused by Rickon’s words. Jon had a serious nature, and had been even less prone to smiling than ever lately. While Arya would usually take issue with anything that left him unhappy, she had long since given up on balancing things between Jon and her mother. It simply was not to be, and while it angered her - she still felt that Father was the one to blame, not Jon - she could not be angry with Mother. Not since Sansa had spoken with her about it, and explained why exactly Mother could not but resent Jon’s presence.
No other lord would expect his lady to watch a bastard raised alongside their trueborn children, Sansa had explained quietly, over their sewing, but Father asks it of Mother, and it is easier to be angry with Jon than with Father.
“She looks like something that smells bad is being held under her nose,” Bran opined, still scratching at his wolf’s ruff. “I am sure that Winterfell is not so grand as King’s Landing, but it is not so bad as she seemed to think.”
Arya thought Winterfell perfectly grand, and it rankled to think that the Queen would deem it otherwise - would Princess Myrcella also think so, and if so, would she seek to change it in the future? Arya could not bear to imagine Winterfell except as it was, could not see how it could stand without the Broken Tower and the First Keep and Mother’s sept.
Nymeria growled at Shaggy when he came snuffling toward her, and he snapped at the air by her muzzle before trotting over to Bran - Arya thought Rickon might have followed, had he not been caught under Jon’s arms, holding Jon’s wrists and smiling up at him. Jon was smiling down just as fondly, and Arya felt oddly guilty about that. Not so long ago, she would have been the one to stand there against Jon’s warmth, and let him shield her from the stiff breeze that managed to slice through the trees. Things had been different since she’d had that conversation with Sansa, though, since she’d found herself so unable to be angry with Mother on Jon’s behalf anymore.
“What did you think of the Princess?” Bran asked, leaning back on his hands to watch Shaggy and his wolf snap playfully at one another. “She’s very pretty. Just as pretty as Sansa, I think.”
“No one is as pretty as Sansa,” Rickon said without looking away from Jon. “Except you, of course, Arya,” he added loyally, which made her smile - Arya knew she wasn’t as pretty as Sansa, but her brothers jumping to her defence was sweet all the same. “I thought the Princess looked nicer than the Queen.”
The Princess’ gown had been beautiful - Arya supposed that Sansa had noted that as soon as the Princess had ridden through the gates, but she was only really recognising it now. It was the sort of gown that Arya and Sansa only had for very special occasions, beautifully made from expensive fabrics - perhaps that was the kind of thing princesses always wore, even while travelling, and if that was so, then Princess Myrcella would either ruin Robb if they wed, or be unhappy with what was seen as appropriate attire for a lady of Winterfell.
Arya always felt that Mother looked perfect in her heavy wools, warm and practical and richly dyed, but even she had to admit that the gowns the Princess and the Queen had been wearing were far, far lovelier than near anything in Mother’s wardrobe.
“She and Robb will be a handsome couple,” Jon said, something tense in his voice. “If indeed the King does wish to see a betrothal between them - Father seemed less sure of it than Lady Stark.”
“Father knows the King better than Mother does,” Bran pointed out reasonably. “Robb is nervous that the King doesn’t mean to follow through with his offer - he thinks Father won’t be able to refuse Lord Karstark’s offer of his daughter, if the King does not arrange for Robb to wed the Princess.”
Arya liked Alys Karstark enormously - she was as sensible and forthright a woman as Arya had ever met, with a wicked smile and no patience at all for Robb’s flirting. No matter how much she liked her, though, Arya would not wish for Alys Karstark as a goodsister for love nor money, if only because with Alys came her overbearing father. Arya would not wish him as a goodfather on anyone in the world, least of all Robb.
“The King looked Robb over hard enough that I can’t imagine him revoking the offer,” Bran said - Arya was pleased that he’d noticed, because she’d been too uncomfortable with the way the King had looked at her and Sansa to notice much else - with one of those thoughtful little smiles on his face. “I’ll bet he thinks Robb and the Princess would make a handsome couple, as well.”
“I doubt the Queen agreed,” Jon said, shaking his head. “But then, I doubt she thinks anyone good enough for her children.”
Arya was about to offer an opinion on that - Robb was more than worthy of some prissy princess from the south, no matter what her queenly mother thought - when they were interrupted by the arrival of Sansa and her betrothed.
Smalljon Umber peered at Jon with the strangest look on his face - challenging, maybe, because he kept hold of Sansa’s hand all the while - but Sansa just went bright pink, and started to giggle. She did that sometimes, when she was nervous or embarrassed, and Arya supposed that she was both, because she was not supposed to ever be alone with Smalljon Umber. Mother had been very clear on that point.
“Snow,” Umber said, and Arya could have sworn he was fighting back a smile. “Lord Rickon, Lady Arya, Lord Bran. Lady Sansa and I were just-”
“Sneaking off?” Arya said, rising to her feet and traipsing over to link her arm through Sansa’s. “Oh, sister, our lady mother would disapprove most strongly, don’t you think?”
Sansa’s cheeks went from pink to almost purple, but she kept her chin up and held tight to Smalljon’s hand all the same.
“We were only walking in the godswood,” she said primly. “Lady was with us, besides.”
True enough, Sansa’s wolf was sitting at Sansa’s side, neat and quiet and delicate as her name suggested - if a direwolf could be delicate. The collar of ribbons Sansa had twisted together helped that impression along, of course, and the way she nosed at Sansa’s finger for attention, but even with all that, she would never be a lapdog.
“I would never dishonour Sansa,” Smalljon added indignantly. “I have too much respect for her and for your parents-”
“Enough, Jon,” Sansa said, patting his arm. “They’re only teasing.”
They were teasing, but Mother would disapprove if she knew Sansa was spending time alone with Smalljon. Arya knew that Sansa had spent a great deal of time kissing him when last the Umbers visited - she had overheard Sansa telling Jeyne Poole - but she assumed that Mother knew nothing of that, and was certain that Father knew nothing of it, because he would be furious if he knew Sansa was risking her reputation.
Arya wondered if Father had had any requests for her hand - Sansa had been betrothed to Smalljon for three years now, since she was Arya’s age, but Sansa was beautiful and accomplished, and always made a wonderful impression on guests. Arya was not beautiful, and while she had improved recently at her sewing and dancing, she was not nearly so talented as Sansa, so she doubted anyone would be quite so eager to secure her as a bride for their son as the Greatjon had been, but even so, surely there had been some interest? She would have to ask Father when the King left.
“Mother is likely looking for us,” Bran said, before anyone else could tease any more. “I suppose she has shown the Queen and her children to their rooms - we ought to go inside before she comes out to find us.”
Chapter 3: Sweetrobin
The Eyrie was colder than he remembered.
Of course, Robert had not been home in years, not since long before he had gone to foster with Lord Lannister at the Rock, and he had been so sick then that it only made sense that he not really remember how things had been. He could hardly remember his lord father’s face, after all, or the precise auburn of his lady mother’s hair.
And now his lord father was dead, and he was Lord Arryn.
Lord Lannister had delivered the news as stoically as if he were commenting on the weather, his face and voice perfectly calm as he changed Robert’s whole world. The letter from Robert’s lady mother had been written in scrawling, scribbled hand, a mess of tear stains and inkblots, as close to hysteria as he’d ever seen short of one of his own screaming fits, but there had been an official-looking letter from the King, as well, expressing his condolences upon the death of “a man we both held as a father.”
Robert knew his namesake meant no harm by that, but still he could not find it in himself to have any sympathy for the King - he had only been a child when last he had seen the King, or his lord father, but he remembered well how heavy the burden of the King’s love had rested on his father’s shoulders.
It made no difference now, of course - Robert’s lord father had been an old man, with a tendency to catch every cough that passed through King’s Landing, and it seemed that his heart had finally given out. It was to be expected, everyone assured him, a man of his father’s years, with the stresses of his father’s work, but that was no comfort.
Oddly, Lord Tywin’s formal, cool-eyed expression of condolence was more comfort than any other he received, if only because it was sincere, lacking in any sort of false sorrow or grief. Joy’s, as well, was sincere, because Joy was his closest friend and understood that his own grief was a strange, oddly shallow thing. She had lost a father she hardly knew, too, and understood how difficult it was to sort grief from frustration and anger.
“You are lost in your head, my lord,” Joy said, clambering out of the basket behind him. She was taller than him by a good measure - Robert had never grown as well as other boys, because of his sickness, so the maesters all agreed, and while he had grown a great deal these past few years, Joy took after her father’s family, with long, strong limbs - but skinny, with a nose and cheekbones too broad for the rest of her face, and dark, dark skin that made her hair look fairer than it was, and Robert thought she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever known. “Come back here and show me your home, Robert.”
Robert smiled, and offered her his arm - he liked being close to Joy, who never minded when he had to walk slowly.
“So, little falcon,” she said, “this is your nest. It’s very fine.”
Robert blushed with pride - he had always been a little in awe of Casterly Rock, so for Joy to compliment the Eyrie felt almost a victory. She had spent most of her life in the splendour of the Rock, after all, in the magnificence and majesty that went hand in hand with the Lannisters’ wealth. The Eyrie had its own austere beauty, he knew, but none of the innate strength that went with Casterly Rock - yes, the Eyrie was impregnable, but could it host an army? Could he take the people of the Vale within his walls and guard them safe from harm in times of war?
Lord Tywin would disapprove of such thoughts, would dismiss them as sentimental and useless, would dismiss the smallfolk as next to useless as compared with the various Lannister kin and other highborn folk in the city below the Rock, but Robert had spent hours upon hours discussing such things with Joy, and thought differently. Mayhaps he would have thought more along the same lines as Lord Tywin had he not spent so much time with Joy over the years, but he had, and so he had his own thoughts, thoughts he knew his mother would likely disapprove of just as much as his foster-father would.
“Come back to me, Robert,” Joy said gently, squeezing his arm and smiling again. “You have made a habit of losing yourself in the mazes of your mind since we began our eastward journey, my friend.”
It was true, he supposed - his time at Casterly Rock had made a habit in him of introversion, of spending time in his own head, because it was safer not to voice your thoughts where they might be overheard. He had learned that quickly, under the weight of a septa’s sharp hands and a maester’s vile potions, one of which had fallen in reprimand every time he spoke out of turn, the other of which was poured down his throat whenever even the slightest hint of one of his fits appeared.
It had not been easy at Casterly Rock, Robert supposed, but looking back, it had not been easy in King’s Landing, either, nor at the Eyrie, during what little time he had spent here.
He was a disappointment to the Vale, he knew that well enough. He was frail and sick, and when last his lords bannermen had known him, he had been a spoiled brat with a ferocious temper quieted only by his father’s disappointment and displeasure. Now, he had a better hold of his temper than anyone he knew short of Lord Tywin himself, and he hoped that he had a chance to speak on his own behalf when it came to choosing who would stand as his regent. He thought he might surprise his lords bannermen, if they gave him a chance to do so.
The household was assembled to greet him, as was to be expected - stern-faced Ser Vardis, turkey-necked Maester Colemon, Gretchel and Fat Maddy and Mela, Gyles and Terrence who had come closest of anyone to being Robert’s friends before he went to the Rock.
And his lady mother. Gods, was that truly her? He didn’t remember her being quite so…
“Oh, my own Sweetrobin!” she trilled, rushing forward to gather him close to her - he was glad that he was too tall to end up with his face pressed to her breasts, and glad that he had remembered the shade of her hair, despite his fears.
But he wished beyond all wishing that she had not called him by that confounded nickname. Particularly not in front of the household. Particularly not in front of Joy.
She looked awful, her face swollen and her gown ill-suited to a woman of her figure, and she looked old. Robert did not remember his mother as an old woman - she had been so young, compared with his father, with her beautiful hair and her bright eyes, but here, now, she seemed frail, silver in her hair and deep lines settling around her eyes and the corners of her mouth, eyes that were overflowing with tears and a mouth that was trembling with emotion.
“It is good to see you, Mother,” Robert said, disentangling himself from her as carefully as he could - that seemed to upset her, too, although he couldn’t understand why.
“Mother,” he said, “this is my dearest friend, Lady Joy Hill. Joy, allow me to introduce my mother, Lady Lysa Arryn.”
Robert watched his mother’s face fall into a pout of such pronounced displeasure that Robert all but cringed back from it. Joy, at least, knew the proper forms and chose to observe them, dropping into a deep curtsy and bowing her head. Her hair was pinned back in a long, thick braid, and Robert could see the tight curls that had sprung loose, some of their own accord and others teased out by the high winds between Snow and Sky, bright against the dark skin of the back of her neck.
“It is an honour to meet you, my lady,” she said. “Lord Arryn has always spoken most highly of you - I am glad to have the opportunity to know you.”
Robert envied her ease of courtesy, envied that she never stumbled over her words or forgot a politeness. His lady mother seemed less impressed than he felt, still pouting, but she held out a much-beringed hand for Joy to kiss all the same. Robert recognised one of the rings as an Arryn signet, silver with the raised falcon in moonstone, but the others seemed new, and gaudy.
Gifts, mayhaps? But who would gift so new a widow with such ostentatious jewellery?
“You are welcome to the Eyrie, Mistress Hill,” his lady mother said grandly, her voice high and her tone sharp, all in a way that made Robert feel ill at ease. Why was his mother so wholly changed from his admittedly uncertain memory of her? Where was the gentleness, the sweetness, the affection without being overbearing?
He had missed his mother. But this woman was not his mother, not as she should have been.
“Tell me, my lord,” Maester Colemon said, watching Robert rather more keenly than he would have liked. He had not been left alone for a moment since his arrival, and Joy had been dragged away as soon as she had risen from her curtsy, presumably to bathe and dress, just as he had been, more or less. “How close are you to Mistress Hill?”
Even while he was in the damned bath, the maester had stood over him, inspecting his body from head to toe, as though in doubt of the ability of the maesters of the Rock to provide sufficient care. In truth, Robert already missed the Rock, where his limitations were as well known as his capabilities, and where no one thought to question his friendship with Joy!
“She is my dearest friend, maester, as I said while introducing her to my lady mother,” Robert said, rubbing a towel through his hair while one of the servants who had come with him from the Rock - vetted by Joy, who Robert trusted entirely, so as to be certain that he was not in Lord Tywin’s pay as a spy - rubbed ointment into his back. Robert’s childhood illnesses had left his chest weak, and Maester Creylen had prescribed this ointment to protect him somewhat against the thin, cold air of the Eyrie. He had grown used to the warmth and sea-salt richness of the air in the Westerlands during his fostering, and could already feel the pull deep in his lungs that usually came from pushing himself too hard on horseback, or on those days when the maesters allowed him to enter the practice yard.
“That’s as may be, my lord,” Colemon said, wringing his hands and frowning over Robert’s shoulder to the boy, who ignored him stoutly and kept rubbing the ointment in firm circles between Robert’s shoulders. “But you must see why certain of us are… Concerned by your closeness. She is, after all, a Lannister, and the Lannisters are a… Difficult family to gauge.”
“The Lannisters took me into their home these past years, maester,” Robert said firmly. “And Mistress Hill more than anyone sought to make me feel a part of their family, as my father did for Lord Stark and His Grace the King when they fostered here.”
Robert half remembered his father telling him tales of bold Robert Baratheon and quiet Ned Stark, when they had been his foster-sons, and knew that the closest he had come to such a companionship as had existed between the now-King and his uncle-by-marriage was his friendship with Joy. Robert loved Joy best of everyone in the world, as a friend and something more than a sister, which made his stomach sometimes feel muddled when she smiled at him, and would no more relinquish her company than he would the Weirwood Throne.
“Be that as it may, my lord,” Colemon said, and Robert bit the inside of his cheek to keep from snapping at the maester. “It might seem… Inappropriate for your closest companion to be a bastard girl, particularly one from outside the Vale.”
“Joy will remain a part of my household, Maester Colemon,” Robert said, hoping to instill some of the chill dread he so often felt in Lord Tywin’s presence in the fool maester. “She is to be made as welcome as though she were the Queen herself, am I clear?”
Joy always said that he went too far in her defence, but she had always leapt so readily into action as his champion, so how could he do any less for her?
“I missed you so during the funeral,” his lady mother said, clutching his hand so tightly that Robert could not free himself to eat his meal. “I was inconsolable, thinking of you receiving such news without me at your side, my Sweetrobin.”
“It was not to be helped, my lady,” Robert pointed out as evenly as he could - in truth, it stung more than he had expected, to be told upon his arrival at the Bloody Gate that his father’s funeral was long dealt with. His mother and her sensibilities aside, Robert had thought to have a chance to say a final goodbye to the father he had hardly known. To be denied that had hurt more than he had ever dreamed such a thing might, to a degree that Lord Tywin would have scorned - Lord Tywin was scornful of any emotional excesses, which was mayhaps part of why he so loathed the Imp.
That, of course, was a tangle best left knotted up in itself.
“I do so wish you would not call me my lady,” his mother lamented, drawing him from his considerations. “Do you remember, my darling, that you used call me-”
“I am the Lord of the Eyrie now, my lady,” Robert cut in, mortified at the idea of her asking him to call her Mummy before his household, before Joy, before Gyles and Terrence, who he hoped to befriend. “It would be inappropriate for me to show you anything less than the utmost respect, would it not?”
Her face fell, her lower lip pouting and wobbling, and Robert bit down on a sigh. He was tired enough from all the travelling, and from the extra effort required to breathe the damnable thin air in the High Hall, and he was drowsy from the tincture he had taken to quell the tremors that had started in his hands. He lived in fear of those tremors, for they were the only advance warning he ever seemed to receive of one of his fits.
His shaking fits did not seem so terrible as they had when he was a child, in Robert’s private opinion. Now, he was more likely to shit himself than to bite through his tongue, and while that was horribly embarrassing, it was unlikely to be fatal. He dreaded them all the same, for the loss of control, for the chance that this one would prove to be fatal.
Maester Creylen, with a matter-of-factness that Lord Tywin expected of all his personal staff and attendants, had explained that it was only a matter of time, really. Some children outgrew the shaking sickness, but the frequency and severity of Robert’s fits even after he turned ten left the maester and his colleagues inclined to think that Robert was not one of the lucky few.
“As High as Honour,” his lady mother said, something sharp and bitter in her tear-soaked voice that took Robert by surprise. “Worse even than Family, Duty, Honour. Fine lies to live by, all of them!”
She tore away from the table before Robert could open his mouth to offer her some comfort, or even just to ask what in the gods’ names she meant by all that venom, leaving him off-balance in a way that made him anxious, left his hands shaking in a way wholly different from the warning of his fits.
He loathed being embarrassed.
“I won’t have it!” his mother shrieked, finally letting loose almost two weeks following his return to the Eyrie. “I won’t have a funny-coloured Lannister bastard sullying my castle!”
“I think, my lady, you will find that it is my castle,” Robert said furiously, “and Joy is my guest. She is nothing to you, and I will thank you to hold your tongue if you are of a mind to cast insults at my friends!”
Joy had charmed everyone else in the castle as easily as she had Robert, when first he had arrived at the Rock, trailing in Lord Tywin’s wake, tied to his pony because Lord Tywin did not care to stop to collect him if he suffered a fit while riding and fell from the saddle. Joy, of course, had soothed him when he wept in the face of Lord Tywin’s cruelty, had sung strange songs in a language he knew now to be Qohorik, her mother’s legacy as much as the colour of her skin.
Personally, Robert thought the contrast Joy’s fair hair and bright eyes made with her dark skin was part of what made her so beautiful, but he should have known his lady mother would come to this pass eventually. She had been intolerably rude to Joy since their arrival, and Robert simply was not going to tolerate it any longer. He was one-and-ten, almost a man, and he would not stand for his mother’s histrionics a moment longer!
“I am not given to believe that my lord father allowed you to speak so, my lady, from what I know and have been told of him,” he said coldly, “and I am not given to grant you such a liberty, either - if you wish to keep claim to the title of Lady of the Eyrie, act your part.”
Tears flooded her eyes, of course - Robert had eyes not unlike hers, or at least how he assumed hers must have been before she became so fat. His eyes sat too big in his face, and bright Arryn blue, or so Joy said, while his mother’s seemed lost over her overfull cheeks, of a deeper blue than his own but of a similar shape. Perhaps it was the similarity between them that caused him such irritation every time she started to weep, which was distressingly often.
“Enough,” he said, before she could even begin complaining. “The Eyrie is mine, is it not? I am the lord of House Arryn, am I not? If this is true, then why should I not have my own friends as guests, regardless of the whims of my mother, who is not even my lady regent?”
“Why must you vex me so, Sweetrobin?” she complained. “I seek only to do my best by you, my darling, surely you must know that, and there are worthier companions by far than some foreign bastard to be found!”
“I have Gyles and Terrence, Valemen as true as myself,” he said shortly. “And once my lords bannermen arrive, we will sort the business of my regency quickly enough, I am sure.”
He watched his mother’s face carefully then - every time there was a mention made of the regency, there came to her mouth an odd twist, and to her eyes a queer sort of brightness that made him wary. He sensed some plan afoot, one which would leave him an infant in her clutches once more, if she had her way.
Chapter 4: Sansa
Sansa had a new gown for the feast.
She had sewn it herself, of course, just as she had sewn the silk flowers onto Arya's gown as a gift, and embroidered Robb's fine white doublet, and she was proud of it - she knew she was skilled with a needle, a skill that Arya belittled and misliked as useless and too fiddly, but Sansa knew otherwise. She had sewn up more than one cut from a misplaced blade of live steel on the practice yard so Mother need not know that Robb and the others had been disregarding Ser Rodrick's rules, or gashes in Bran's hands and feet from jagged stones and splintered beams, so Mother would not know that he had been climbing.
The others bemoaned Mother's worrying, but Sansa understood - Robb was the heir to Winterfell, too valuable to Father and to the North to risk himself playing at swordsmanship when blunted tourney swords would serve the same purpose as shining live steel, and Bran was Mother's special favourite, something they all knew to be true despite Mother's denials, and she would be lost should anything happen to him. Mother only worried because they needed to be worried for, just as she only fretted over Arya's wild behaviour because she knew that Arya needed a place in the world the same as her own, or the place that would be Sansa's once she married her Jon.
Jon had complimented her on her gown - he had told her that the pretty blue ribbons she had woven through the neckline brought out the colour of her eyes, and that the pale silvery-white showed up her hair beautifully, and then he had kissed her hand and winked just right to make her blush. He took as much pride in her as she did in him, her fine betrothed, who had dressed his beard for the feast just because he knew she preferred it shorter than he usually wore it.
"I feel for Arya," he murmured as they entered the hall, behind Father and the Queen, and Mother and the King, and Robb and Princess Myrcella, and Prince Joffrey and Arya. "Had it not been for my presence here, she would have been spared the walk with the Prince."
Sansa shushed him, but she feared that he was not wrong - the Prince had loudly found fault in everything since the arrival of the royal family earlier that afternoon, and was even know scowling in open displeasure. Princess Myrcella, by contrast, was chatting brightly with Robb, who was smiling as he only did at particularly pretty girls, and Prince Tommen seemed to be getting along well enough with Bran and Rickon, who seemed awfully skinny beside him.
"I am glad that you are here," Sansa assured Jon, smiling as he handed her down into her seat before taking his own at her side. "I fear we do not see one another nearly enough."
"The distance between Last Hearth and Winterfell is longer than I would like, I admit," he said, pouring a cup of sweetened milk for her, "but I will do my best to visit more often, my lady, if that would please you."
"It would please me enormously," Sansa assured him, resting her hand over his on the table and smiling as wide as she dared, here before all of Winterfell and all of court - it would be unseemly for her to show the true depth of her happiness at having Jon beside her, if only because it would seem as though she cared more for his visit than the King's. She did not know if that was true, for she had always so longed to see the southron court of King's Landing, but most of her pleasure tonight did come from Jon's company, rather than that of any of their other visitors. "I am glad you could come for this, though, and I know that my lord father is pleased at your presence as well. He likes having you here while there are so many strange men about."
Jon grinned, his teeth blindingly white against the dark tawny-brown of his beard, and turned his hand under hers to squeeze her fingers.
"I am pleased indeed to be here, then," he promised her, "for I would never wish to see another man putting himself forward as a suitor to you, my lady."
Sansa flushed and shushed him, and turned in her seat as the first course of the feast was served. She was the second lady of Winterfell, and with Mother preoccupied by the Queen, it would fall at least in part to Sansa to ensure that the feast went well - she did not mean to fail in her duty.
She was laughing when she left Jon's arms, her arms above her head as the dance demanded, laughing and smiling as she expected to turn into Robb's hold, but instead found herself with Prince Joffrey's hands too tight and too low on her waist.
"You are a rare flower, to bloom this far from court," he said, catching her hand and stepping smoothly into the next set. He was handsome enough, she supposed, fine-boned and lovely in an almost girlish way, especially with the tumble of silky blonde curls around his bright green eyes, but there was something sharp in his face that she did not like, something greedy in the way his gaze strayed too often to the slight swell of her bosom that made her uncomfortable. "How is it that you were never sent to court? My mother would have welcomed one such as you in her household."
Looking at the Queen, Sansa was not so sure of that - the Queen had made it quite plain that she found everything about the North objectionable, and Sansa was of the North, no matter how much she looked like her lady mother. It was rude to disagree with a Prince on such matters, though, so rather than argue, she smiled.
"I am to wed further north yet, your highness," she said brightly. "I am betrothed to Lord Jon Umber the younger, of Last Hearth-"
"I know that," the Prince said, rolling his eyes and pouting. "But just because you are to wed another man does not mean that you could not come to court. There have been many women who spent time at court without their husbands or betrotheds, over the years."
She was not sure, but surely he could not be-
"Just think of all the women Aegon the Unworthy kept about his court," Prince Joffrey said, leering and staring directly down her gown. "You are at least pretty enough for that, even if my mother would never allow us to be wed. You are far too northern for that."
How dare he! How dare he proposition her, particularly so blatantly! Particularly in her own home, with her father and brothers and betrothed looking on! Oh, how would she hide this from Jon? He would challenge the Prince for her honour, and surely the Prince would not fight himself - what if he elected the Kingslayer as his champion? Jon would die, and Sansa would not be able to bear it!
"I would rather not come to court at all, if it bears resemblance to that of Aegon the Fourth," Sansa said carefully. "Tales are told of how unsafe and unwholesome a place that was for maidens of all births, and I will remain here instead, where there are those who I might trust to protect my virtue."
The Prince laughed aloud at that, tipping back his hair in a tumble of bright curls and cruel eyes.
"Everyone knows you Northern girls are half-wild," he said, tugging her a little closer. "Surely you would not object to being shown such favour?"
"She might object very much," Robb said, his voice stern as he slipped his arm between Sansa and the Prince and pushed her carefully behind himself. "My sister is in need of some rest, your highness - forgive us, but we will leave the dance for a time. Please, do enjoy yourself."
Sansa let Robb guide her away to where Bran was sitting with Arya, locked in a fierce discussion over something that was doubtless unimportant, and it was not until they stopped arguing that Sansa noticed her hands were shaking.
"No man has ever spoken to me like that," she whispered to Robb, who was crouched before her with a cup of sweetened milk held out to her. "Why did the Prince...?"
"Myrcella says he is often uncouth in such a manner," Robb said, frowning as grimly as Father ever had. "She believes that he meant no true harm-"
"He all but asked me to be his mistress," Sansa hissed, angry rather than upset. "I ought to tell Father, he will go to the King-"
"And cause a terrible fuss," Robb pointed out. "Come now, Sansa, surely we can do without causing such an upset?"
Sansa was hurt that he did not think her honour worthy of causing an upset, but she understood him all the same. It would not do to spoil the visit of the royal family so soon into their time at Winterfell by causing a fight with the Prince, after all, and he had not overtly insulted her to such a degree that she could not forgive him, if only for the sake of peace.
"Why are you calling the Princess by her name?" Bran asked, leaning over Arya's shoulder with a grin. "Isn't that terribly improper?"
Robb's face faded from serious to mortified, his ears pinkening and his eyes more than a little panicked. At least one of us is getting along well with the royal family, Sansa thought, casting a glance over her shoulder to the high table. Mother and Father looked equally bored, albeit for different reasons - the King was as boisterous and drunk as the Queen was icily sober. Prince Joffrey was dancing with some court girl that Sansa did not recognise, a fair-haired girl who might have been pretty if her mouth hadn't been so pinched, and a gown too summer-light for Winterfell, Prince Tommen sitting with another fat little blonde boy, and Princess Myrcella...
Was dancing with the Kingslayer, in all his Lannister crimson, laughing at some jape of his. She, at least, looked happy, looked as though she was enjoying the feast rather than just the wine, and had seemed happy while dancing with Robb, too.
"The Princess insisted I call her by her name," Robb said, surging to his feet and folding his arms. "She is... Quite lovely."
Arya hooted with laughter, Bran the same, but Sansa knew how that felt, that pleasure at someone's company right from the off. She had felt the same after she and Jon had first danced together, him so big and strong and tall. The Princess was near the same height as Robb, who was not so tall as they had all believed he would be, and she was more readily beautiful than the Queen, if only because she was so ready to smile.
"Tell me, Lord Robb," the Princess said, appearing suddenly at Robb's elbow with the Kingsguard knight who followed her like a pale shadow at her shoulder. "Is it the custom this far north to abandon a lady in the middle of a dance?"
Robb was bright red around the ears now, and smiling like a fool. "I must beg your pardons, your highness-"
"It is of no matter," the Princess said brightly. "Come, dance another round with me and all will be forgiven."
Robb shrugged helplessly, following the Princess out onto the floor as she dragged him by the hand.
"She has him well in hand," Arya said, obviously delighted by how sweet Robb seemed on the Princess already. "And where is your sweetling, Sansa? Is he not waiting on you hand and foot?"
Jon was across the room, laughing with Jory Cassell, and she wished suddenly for his company - had she danced with him a little more, she might have avoided Prince Joffrey and his insults, and besides, she enjoyed Jon's company, more than she ever had that of any man save sometimes Robb or Father.
"He will come to me when he has need of me," Sansa said primly, not wanting to indulge Arya's sometimes filthy sense of humour. "Or if I have need of him, I shall seek him out. Until then, I am quite fine here, and he there."
Rickon appeared before Arya could say any more, taking Sansa's hand with a determined look on his round little face as he led her out onto the dancefloor again.
"Arya won't dance with me," he said, "because she says I am too small, but you are much taller than her, Sansa. Will you dance with me?"
Rickon only just came to her breastbone, tall for his age but not so tall as she was for her age, but she smiled and settled a hand on his shoulder all the same - he struggled so hard to keep up with them all that she felt terribly as if they left him out much of the time, and tried her best to include him, when she remembered.
"I should be honoured, little brother," she assured him, nodding for him to begin dancing when the music hit the proper beat, and he beamed up at her, leading her about the floor in a more haphazard spin than was correct, but which made him so obviously pleased that she could not help but smile all the while.
The following morning, Robb was terribly quiet at breakfast, squinting against the light just enough that it drew Arya and Bran's attention - Sansa was glad of it, for it left her free to talk quietly with Jon without being teased.
"The Prince ought be punished for this," Jon said seriously, one arm around the back of her chair and the other hand in a fist by his cup. "He has insulted you most grievously, my lady-"
"I would not disturb this visit, my lord," she cut in, resting her hand over his on the table. "That the King is here, with so much of his court, implies some question of great import will be brought to my father."
"Your brother and the Princess," Jon agreed. "Sansa, I know this, but I cannot allow such an insult to your person to pass without remark!"
"And I know that," she promised him, grateful that her parents were not at table when she leaned in close enough to kiss him, or whisper a secret just between the two of them. "But I have a plan, and I need your help to see it through."
Jon's frown slid slowly into a smile, the sort of smile he usually reserved for their escapes to the godswood, and Sansa felt warm to see it, even with Arya and Bran teasing Robb behind her and Rickon half-asleep in his porridge across the table.
"I should be honoured to be in your service, my lady," he said, uncurling his fingers to lace them through hers. "Tell me of this plan of yours, then, Stark, and we shall see what can be done."
Sansa had shared some of her plan with Arya, just enough to encourage her sister to behave for the morning, and together, they convinced Septa Mordane and the Princess' septa that the antechambers overlooking the practice yard, the ones with the broad windowseats, would be brighter for sewing.
Sansa often sewed there herself, when Jeyne was away helping her father with work and Arya had slipped away to play at swords with Bran in the godswood, just so she was not quite so far away from everyone else in the sewing room, and knew that the light was reasonable enough, but it was the view she most desired this morning, and not just because her Jon would be on the yard.
Oh, that was not to say that she did not look forward to seeing Jon on the yard - she always did, if only because he was so strong compared to all the others, and moved so differently because of it - but this morning, she had other motivations.
The Prince stepped onto the yard long after all the others had arrived, his brutish guard haunting his every step. He was dressed in rich velvets such as Sansa thought should have been saved for special occasions, and had a sword with a heavily-jewelled pommel hanging at his hip.
She had not thought to worry that he might carry live steel - the others, Jon included, would all be practising with blunted tourney swords, and Ser Rodrick had beaten it into every boy who had passed through his tutelage that live steel had no place in a practice yard.
"Oh, dear," the Princess sighed, setting down her embroidery with a frown. "Myrielle, be a darling and carry word to my lord father that my brother has brought live steel to the practice yard again, won't you? And Rosamund, the same to my uncle Jaime, please. Be quick about it, ladies."
Both of the Princess' Lannister companions - one the pinched-face girl from the night before, and the other uncannily like the Princess save for her satiny sheet of pale blonde hair, counterpoint to the Princess' heavy curls - rose from their seats, curtsying and rushing away before the septas had even seemed to notice the disturbance.
"Is this a common occurrence, Princess?" Sansa asked, worried now - even if Jon convinced Ser Rodrick to allow him his own sword, everyone said that there was a difference between live and tourney steel, and if the Prince was practiced with a sharp blade, then he would have an advantage of skill over Jon. "That His Highness chooses to practice with a sharp blade, I mean?"
"Joffie rarely actually takes to the yard, my lady," the Princess said, peering out into the yard with a sharpness reminiscent of her mother's displeasure on her face. "But I fear he might feel the need to challenge your brother, or-"
Prince Joffrey drew his sword with a flourish, and Sansa lamented that they were too far away to hear what was being said - she could see Robb's face, though, see the irritation and concern setting his jaw and making him frown. That was not a good sign.
"Shall I run for Father?" Arya asked. "Or Jon - he might be able to help."
Sansa did not know what their half-brother might be able to do to help, but Father might be able to intercede - even a Prince of the realm could not defy the Lord of Winterfell in his own home, not without serious repercussions.
Her plan was falling apart, but provided that live steel was not drawn against her Jon, Sansa did not mind. There would be other chances to see the Prince brought down for his insult to her-
"Is that not your betrothed, Lady Sansa?" the Princess asked, and Sansa hardly noticed the clatter of her hoop as it fell from her lap - she was too busy clambering to her knees, the better to watch as the yard cleared to leave room enough for Jon and Joffrey to face one another. "He surely does not mean to challenge my brother, does he?"
It would not be much of a challenge, Sansa thought - she had seen Jon fight in the yard often enough to know that unless his opponent was particularly skilled or deathly quick, it was next to impossible for them to overcome his sheer size and strength, but a blade so sharp as the Prince's was a threat she had never seen him come up against before.
"I believe he does," Sansa said, feeling terribly stupid for having asked this of him. What if he was hurt? What if he was killed? And all for her, for the sake of her honour! "Is your brother a skilled swordsman, Your Highness?"
"Not at all," the Princess said, sounding almost grim, "and given your lack of surprise at this challenge, I must assume that this has something to do with whatever insult he dealt you last night. I only pray that my uncle will arrive before Joffie is too badly injured, for if any true harm comes to my brother, my mother's ire will be something to behold, I assure you."
Sansa had a sneaking suspicion that the Princess' ire would be quite something, too, if roused, and worried that she may have done some damage to their relationship to the King's family in pressing this matter with Jon.
"I daresay my uncle's wrath might be something to behold," the Princess said, almost to herself. "He has quite the temper, and takes insult to his family very poorly."
Sansa could not imagine how it might look, her Jon facing the Kingslayer's golden blade with only a tourney sword, but she knew how it might end - it might end with Jon's blood staining her skirts red, and something like a war which could not be allowed to pass churning its way through Winterfell.
What have I done?
A great roar of laughter from the yard drew her from her misery, and she almost fell back from the windowseat in surprise to see the Prince on his back, his fine, shining sword away from his hand, and her Jon standing over him with the point of his tourney sword to the Prince's chest.
"Oh my," the Princess said mildly. "This shall be terribly interesting, I think."
Chapter 5: Quentyn
Nym's gown was the same shade of blue as the sea, her hair the same black as the tar on the ship's hull, her skin burnished gold under the sun.
Quentyn felt achingly plain beside her, and wished for a moment that Obara had been sent with him instead. Of all the Sand Snakes, it was Obara who would have shown him to his best advantage by comparison, and it was Obara with whom he got along best.
Obara had no time for the awkward little games in which her sisters so delighted, a plainness Quentyn appreciated in her manner leaving her much easier to deal with than any other woman of their House. Brusque and forthright and rude, yes, but Obara was easy to understand, once you had her trust, and Quentyn preferred that to Nym's games, as plentiful and seeming-transparent as her endless parade of half-sheer gowns and veils.
Quent's simple linen tunic seemed especially plain next to Nym's silken gown, even edged in thread-of-gold stitching as it was. Perhaps it was because he was the one wearing it that it seemed so plain.
No matter - plain of face or not, he had the weight of Dorne and the purses of Norvos behind him, and, with the captives in his hold, the promise of the Golden Company. A fine dowry for any woman, even a Dragon Queen such as had not been seen in centuries.
"Thinking of your blushing bride, little cousin?" Nym teased, lolling over the railings in precisely the right way to make every man aboard stare. "Wondering if mayhaps she has some sense of the great destiny coming toward her?"
"I daresay that I am the one moving toward a great destiny, Nymeria," Quentyn said easily, leaning back against the rail, the better to look her in her viper's eyes. "It is not to be sniffed at, from forgotten second child to Prince Consort."
"If she is ever crowned by an authority recognised in Westeros," Nym agreed, grinning now as only she and Uncle could. "Dearest cousin-"
"Arianne is your dearest cousin, Nym," Quent cautioned her. "Do not overplay your hand."
She laughed at that, and Quentyn was surprised by the honesty of her reaction - Nym's usual laugh was a delicate, trilling thing, but this was the laugh she saved mostly for Arianne, or for her Fowlers, low and uneven and musical.
"Quite so, Quent," she admitted, shaking her head. "Tell me then, how you plan on wooing her."
"I don't," he said, smiling himself when Nym's grin froze, turned jagged. "This is not to be a love match, cousin - I will present myself as an ally, first and foremost, and a suitor second."
"I've heard rumour that she is to wed a slaver prince," Nym warned him, serious now as she so rarely was. "You will need more than an alliance if you are to win her away from such as that."
"Perhaps not so much," he said with a shrug, pushing away from the railing. "I have heard rumour that she abhors slavery, and has sought to do away with it, even in Slaver's Bay."
He moved to cross the deck to where Arch and Drink were playing cyvasse, intent on ruining their game just to see the look of betrayal that would doubtless flood Arch's face, when Nym caught him by the wrist.
"Let me help," she said. "That is why the Prince sent me with you, Quent - let me guide you. I know better than you how to talk to a woman, after all."
The captives in the hold...
They had come upon them by chance, and realised their worth by pure luck. Had it not been for one of Quentyn's guards having served in his aunt's retinue during her time in King's Landing, they might never have recognised Lord Connington for who he was, and had it not been for that, the rest of the story might not have come out.
It was the Lady who had revealed it, of course. Her hair was not so dark as it had been, Nym said, speaking as though remembering a dream, and with her skin browned dark by the sun and her hair faded, her bright eyes were not so striking as they had been against her once-soft face.
Quent had no reason to doubt her identity - he knew others of her House, after all, saw the same sort of resemblance between her and them as he sometimes did between himself and his brother and sister - beyond her questionable company, but even that only leant credence to her madness.
"Cousin," Quentyn said, sitting on a box so as to put himself more on the other man's level - another reason for Quent to feel plain. Tall and slim and pretty as a girl, the man who claimed to be Aegon Targaryen looked well even in shackles.
"Well met," he said, serious as the grave, leaning forward to hold onto the bars of his cage. Lord Connington was watching, as he always did, from his own cell, but the Lady was sleeping, or at least giving the appearance of it, and Quentyn saw no cause to worry about her. "Have you decided to release us, then?"
"Not yet," Quent said, shrugging off Lord Connington's curses as though they were nothing. "While we have men who can vouch for your companions - or at least, for some of your companions - we have none who might vouch for you, save Lord Connington and the Lady, who are... Biased. I am sure you understand."
"If you did not come to release us," he-who-might-be-Aegon said, all suspicion now, "then why come at all? You are hardly here to bring us meals, your highness - that would be below your dignity, I am sure."
"I spent half my life as a squire, cousin," Quent said. "Serving food is a habit by now, I assure you - but no, that is not why I am here."
"The Golden Company, then," Connington rasped, thudding to his knees against the bars of his own cell. He was an old man, now, or looked it at least, worn by years of hardship and secrecy, but his eyes were as shrewd as Quent's father's, and for that alone Quentyn held him in the deepest of suspicion. "You would have their word?"
"And the truth of why they have thrown their lot in behind a would-be conqueror without a single groat to his name," Quent agreed, clasping his hands and smiling a little. Oberyn had told him that he looked like his father when he did that, and while Quent didn't believe that he had any of the charm his father must have had in his youth, he had accepted the compliment and taken it to heart. "They are Blackfyres to the bone, when the Iron Throne is in question - why would they choose to support a true-born Targaryen, when there are doubtless Blackfyres yet in Pentos and Tyrosh?"
Oberyn had shared his suspicions of such things over a cup of wine, only the night before Quent and Nym had departed on their journey - he had travelled more widely than most men, and had heard rumours of the heirs of Blackfyre and Bittersteel yet living, yet thriving, in the cities of the east. It seemed strange to him that the Golden Company, who had been founded by Bittersteel, would throw in behind the heirs of the men Bittersteel had so hated, the men Bittersteel had fought war after war to see gone from the throne.
"No Blackfyres," Connington snapped. "We searched, and hunted, in hopes of uniting the claims, but all for naught - they are dead, Prince, deader than your aunt."
"Perhaps," Quent agreed easily, glad of his unremarkable face and how easily it hid his feelings. "Even so, I am told that the Golden Company are supposedly contracted elsewhere - what makes you so certain that they will raise their banners under yours, cousin?"
"Fire and blood," maybe-Aegon said, serious and dreamy all at once. "We are all heirs to Aegon the Unworthy, cousin, and my aunt has woken dragons from stone. A contract writ in ink is nothing against a contract writ in fire and blood, I promise you that."
"You think to subjugate your aunt, then?" Quent asked, genuinely curious - he had heard enough tales of Daenerys Targaryen to find the notion of her being subjugated by any man deeply amusing, but he held that back for fear of offending the men before him. "Her dragons may object."
"She will be my bride, and together we will conquer the Seven Kingdoms, as Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives did, so long ago."
Quentyn gave that a moment, amazed by Aegon's certainty, and then nodded, but said nothing.
"I am sure she will be thrilled by an offer made by a beggar of uncertain provenance, with only an undefined promise made by sellswords and a face that might as easily be Lysene as Valyrian to recommend him," Nym said, appearing at the stairs and slinking into the light, coming to a sinuous sort of halt with one hand on Quent's shoulder. "I may be a bastard to two Houses, but at least I know for certain which Houses, and can offer my mother and father as proof. What proof have you, boy-who-would-be-king?"
"You did very well," Nym assured him as they ate, later that evening. "You are a far more talented mummer than I ever dreamed, little cousin - if this plan falls through, you might make a living on the stages of Braavos!"
"My father would be thrilled by such a prospect, I am sure," he said, rolling his eyes at Nym's habitual theatrics. She had been sent with him for this as much as anything else, to coax him into at least pretending enough charm to convince Daenerys Targaryen to marry him, if it were possible.
Quentyn was still unconvinced of this grand scheme of his father's. It seemed to him that restoring the Targaryens could well lead to a war great enough to consume even impervious Dorne, especially since they didn't yet know how much of her father lived on in the new dragon queen, and he couldn't see how they were to actually overcome Robert Baratheon's hold on the Seven Kingdoms. The Usurper, against all sense, was a popular King, with friends in every corner of the realm save for Dorne, and the daughter of a madman was not likely to prove more popular than him just for being a Targaryen.
Not everyone had been sorry to see the Targaryens fall, after all. Even the Tyrells, who owed so much to House Targaryen, had been quick to turn their cloaks when the day was won, and had escaped without so much as censure despite having half-killed their new King's brothers.
No, Quent was unsure of this, but Nym was right - he was a more talented mummer than any of them had ever dreamed, had spent these last years at Sunspear since his knighthood learning to hide himself away, and so no one knew of his misgivings, save for Cletus.
"When we arrive in Meereen," Quent said, "we will be arriving in the middle of a war - I would have you stay close, Nymeria, and not disappear on one of your little errands, at least until we are safely within whatever of the city the Queen controls. I would not return to Dorne with word of your death - my uncle would never forgive me."
"Nor would your sister," Nym agreed, sipping her wine and grinning. The wine seemed to cling to her teeth a moment, staining them red, but Quentyn blinked and it was gone - a trick of the light, but a fitting one, to turn Nym's viper's smile bloody. "Worry not, Quentyn, I will be tied to your side until I must relinquish you to the care of the Mother of Dragons. Doubtless she will be a more amusing companion for you than I am."
Quent did not have to work to conceal his blushes anymore, not usually, but it was a struggle then, with Nym waggling her eyebrows and licking her lips at him. She had teased and tormented him all the way here with talk of his - hopefully - impending wedding night, never saying outright that she thought him as much a maid as little Trystane, and as her teases had become more overt, his ability to hide his embarrassment had failed him more often than not.
Not that he would ever quiet Nym's obvious curiosity by detailing any of his... exploits in her hearing. He had known his share of women, although perhaps a woman of the Viper's line would think he had known too small a share of pleasure.
"You will need to perfect your act before you are alone with her," Nym said, determinedly serious as only she could be. "There will be pillowhouses and whores, even on a battlefield - we will find a fine one for you, so you might practice your technique before unleashing it on the Queen."
The Lady Belowdecks, as the shiphands had taken to calling her, had requested that Quent allow her a word in private - had it not been for how peaceably she had taken her imprisonment, how much Quent admired her sister, he would have refused, but as it was he agreed, and even offered her the use of his berth to refresh herself, as much as such things were possible on a ship.
How he missed proper baths.
The Lady, though, with her black-and-grey hair damp around her shoulders, her soft face smiling, her bright eyes tired, seemed undisturbed by the sparsity of luxuries afforded her, almost beatific in her captivity, sitting before him as though the fine steel shackles around her wrists were instead fine silver bracelets.
"Prince Quentyn," she said, in an accent that had not faded, even after twenty years abroad. "I am grateful to you for this, your highness - had you chosen not to grant me an audience, I would have understood."
"You are one of our own, my lady," he said, trying for the diplomatic neutrality of tone his father always employed in difficult situations. "Of all people, you I could least refuse."
She blushed, something which surprised Quentyn - his uncle had known her well, before the world had gone to hell, and had spoken of her often while in his cups, of the great love she had borne Quent's aunt, of her beauty, of her fearlessness and her kindness. The woman of Oberyn's stories was not the sort of woman who blushed at half a compliment.
But then, if she had spent all her time away with Lord Connington, Quent doubted she had had even that much since last she had been in Dorne. Jon Connington was not a man given to such frivolities as kindness or gentleness or manners.
"I only wish to offer you proof of Prince Aegon's identity, such as it is," she said, folding her hands in her lap and tucking her feet underneath her little stool, as Quent had so often seen Arianne do when she wanted something from their father. "I know that you doubt him, and I would as well, in your position, but-"
"But you believe him to be who he has been taught he is," Quent guessed, leaning forward over his knees. "I know, my lady, that it might be a comfort to you-"
"No comfort, your highness," the lady said, shaking her head, and the bittersweet smile that curled her lip just then hinted at the storied beauty of her youth, and Quent wished, briefly, that he might have known her in all her glory, known her fierceness and fire as much as her lovely face. "I took him from his mother's arms myself, and watched as Lord Varys laid a whore's child in his place. I nursed him myself, and kept him hidden at Starfall until after it was all over, until I'd seen my brother's sword returned home in his killer's hands and my daughter into her grave. I have had Aegon Targaryen since he was less than half a year old, Prince Quentyn, nursed him from my own breast, held him in my own two arms when he cried the whole of Pentos awake every night until he was near two and a half years old, raised him hidden away from the world until Jon Connington was thrown at us and we were thrown out. He is who he says he is, my prince, I swear it to you, on my brother's memory."
Quent's head was spinning, as it had when Arch had caught him on helm with the flat of his sword in the practice yard, so long ago.
"Who was your daughter's father, my lady?" he asked, so confused that this was all the sense he could make of everything. "Some say Lord Stark, some his brother, some your brother."
She laughed, and there was another flash of her former beauty, and Quent felt something that he refused to name fear coil small in his belly.
"That, Prince Quentyn," she said, meeting his eyes, and yes, there was the ferocity Oberyn had sighed over, "is a secret just for me, for now, and it matters little. What matters is that you believe me."
Ashara Dayne, risen from the dead, vouching for Aegon Targaryen, son of Elia Martell, who had never had a chance to live. How could Quentyn disbelieve her?
Chapter 6: Arya
Bran thought he knew Winterfell better than anyone, and perhaps from a height, that was true.
But no one knew the belly of Winterfell as well as Arya Underfoot.
Arya had made a game of it, almost, had learned to hide away in the cellars and crypts so that not even Father could find her. She knew everyone else's hiding places, of course, knew that Sansa always hid in the disused storerooms that overlooked the sept, where the sun lingered longest of all the rooms in the castle save for Mother's solar and where she could see the light dancing on the crystalline windows below, that Robb preferred the tiny loft above Mikken's forge, where it was warm and quiet and where no one would notice if he brought a woman or a book and candle.
Bran, of course, climbed, escaped to the rooftops and shinned down trees into the darkest parts of the godswood, where even Father rarely ventured, where Arya suspected only their wolves otherwise went except in dire circumstances, and Rickon hid near the wolfswood gate, in a hollow below the wall with Shaggydog on guard. Jon, though, was almost as difficult to find as Arya herself could be - because Jon had never quite settled on a single hiding place.
Arya had begun to suspect, over the past year or so, that Jon had purposely refused to allow himself to claim any part of Winterfell as his own, partly because he believed that Mother might take issue with it, and partly because he had been distancing himself from them all, even her, for some time now.
"I've looked everywhere else," she said, slumping down beside him at their grandfather's feet. It was bitterly cold, here in the crypts, but with Nymeria and Ghost wrapped around them, Arya hardly noticed. "You've been coming down here more often, of late."
"It's quiet here," he said. "I can think more clearly, here."
Jon had been thinking an awful lot of late, Arya thought, and suddenly it worried her - he had always been quieter and more contemplative than any of their brothers, more like Father in that regard than any of them, but he had never been quite so turned in on himself.
"Are you thinking of the King?" she asked, nudging her shoulder against his arm. The King had given the whole of Winterfell little choice but to think of him, these past days, bellowing and booming about the castle as he tried to appease both his wife and Father. The Queen had demanded blood from Smalljon, for daring to strike down the Prince, but when the truth of why Smalljon had fought the Prince had come out, Father had been so livid that he had shouted the Queen down, red in the face and shaking, angrier than Arya had ever seen him before.
No daughter of mine will be forced to tolerate such an insult he had said, arm over Sansa's shoulders, and no daughter of mine will ever be made a victim of a prince's lust.
Of course, everyone had whispered of long-dead Lyanna after that, and Arya supposed that she had been on Father's mind then, too, which made sense. Father rarely spoke of his father or elder brother or his sister, but what little he had told them of his family had made it clear that he had loved them fiercely, and the very idea of Sansa being hurt by a Prince of the realm must have terrified him, just a little.
"Some," Jon admitted, shaking his head. "But of myself, too. Of what I am to do with myself. Of what paths are open to a bastard who has never sought to do anything with himself until he was a man, and suddenly had no choice but to find a life outside of his father's home."
"Father would never put you out!" Arya exclaimed, turning onto her knees and thumping him hard in the chest. "He loves you, has made sure that there is always a place in Winterfell for you!"
"Despite your lady mother's objections," Jon agreed, shaking his head again. "Surely you see I cannot remain here forever, little sister - Robb will wed the Princess, Sansa will leave for Last Hearth, and even you will leave someday. Bran and Rickon might have a place here, but they are Starks. I am only a Snow, Arya."
"You are as much a Stark as any of us, name or not," she protested. "There will always be a place here for any of us, you know that. Father has said so."
He had, to Arya and Sansa, to Robb and Bran and Rickon, but not, she realised suddenly, to Jon, not in her hearing. It made her sad to think of all that Jon might be denied, all that he was denied, simply for being the son of a woman other than her mother.
It was difficult to be angry at Mother, when Arya saw how other women looked at her over Jon's presence in Winterfell, but it was difficult to be anything but angry with her when Jon was here before her, biting his lip and looking so impossibly defeated that Arya wished to fight the whole world on his behalf.
"Let's go for a walk," she said, springing to her feet and tugging his hands, to make him follow. "Come, let's go to the godswood, no one will disturb us there, and it will likely be warmer there than it is here."
He followed, because he always did, but she could see on his face that he wished to do otherwise - she could not let him wallow, though, because she had seen how disastrously that could turn out. She and Sansa had agreed to let Robb wallow after Alys Karstark laughed in his face when he tried to woo her just last year, and it had resulted in his bedding one of Theon's favourite whores and nearly getting caught in the act by Mother, and while she did not think that Jon would turn to a whorehouse for comfort, she did not doubt that he could be just as foolish as Robb when he wanted to be.
The godswood was dark, as it often was, and Nymeria and Ghost disappeared into the gloom as soon as they were through the gate, but Jon remained, letting Arya link her arm through his and steal his warmth.
"What do you think of the Princess?" she asked, in the hopes of distracting him from his worries. "Robb is half in love with her already, I think."
"He dreams of her every night, I think," Jon agreed with a smile. "And in the bath, and during every spare moment - but I don't think that love is in mind for him, at least."
He laughed aloud at her face then, because thinking of Robb dreaming of the Princess was not something Arya wished to waste time on.
"She seems... Sensible, though," Jon said, tugging her closer. "Less a fool than her brother. Less..."
"Arrogant than her mother?" Arya guessed, drawing another laugh for her efforts. "She is vain, I think, almost as vain as Sansa, and is very careful of what she says, even when we are simply talking over sewing."
"The Prince is her opposite, then," Jon said. "I, of course, am not permitted to spar with him in the yard, but I have seen him, and I have most certainly heard him. He never ceases to speak of his own prowess, and the strength of his family and their superiority to all of Westeros, most particularly to Houses Stark and Umber."
The Prince, Arya knew, had not taken his father's reprimand for his treatment of Sansa well - the whole of Winterfell knew it, because the Prince and the Queen had complained about it incessantly, that the King had dared to side with Father over his son and heir.
"He will make a poor King," Arya said, lowering her voice just to be safe. "He is so rude."
Jon laughed again, long and loud, his chest and shoulders shaking and his cheeks going pink under his beard.
"Oh, little sister," he said, "if only we could disqualify Kings simply for being rude."
Screams in the godswood were so rare that for a moment, Arya did not know what it was that they had heard.
Jon looked as confused as she felt, but then the wolves howled, and they ran.
Bran looked so small, under the Broken Tower.
Jon carried Bran from the base of the Broken Tower into the main hall, cradling Bran's head to his shoulder.
Arya walked with them, holding Bran's furs and boots, which they had found not far from him, tucked neatly behind a stone at the foot of the tower.
People looked, and while none of the royal family's entourage batted an eyelid, Arya saw Mikken go running, and Harwin, and Old Nan's face appeared and disappeared from a window above the yard. The wolves bounded ahead of them, Nymeria snarling and Ghost's lip curling and Bran's wolf howling, a lament for the whole of the North to hear.
Mother screamed, when they crossed the threshold, pushing her way through the crowds between them and the high table where she had been sitting between Father and the King - not that Father was far behind her, of course, pushing off the King's hand and near knocking the whitecloak behind them from his feet.
Arya felt a thousand miles away, somehow, as Father took Bran from Jon's arms, as he and Mother fell to their knees in the doorway, Mother covering Bran with her body, her hair, wailing his name, Father simply holding him, staring into his face.
Sansa, Robb, Rickon, they arrived from somewhere, Vayon Poole and Jeyne behind them, Old Nan hobbling in with Hodor at her heels, Hullen and Harwin and Farlen, Mikken and his apprentice, even Gage and Barth.
All of Winterfell, all of court, gathered together, but Arya did not care. Not when Bran looked so small.
Chapter 7: Myrcella
Mother had warned against her doing this, but Myrcella had long ago learned that her mother was not an example to follow in this regard.
It was inappropriate for her to be here without an escort, she knew that, but Ser Arys was with Uncle Jaime, discussing plans for their return to King's Landing, Myrielle was fawning over Joff somewhere, and Rosamund was doing her best to ease things over with the Stark girls, which meant that, for once, Myrcella was alone.
Despite it all, she felt strange, without Ser Arys at her shoulder or one of her ladies at her side. She missed Elisa terribly, for her solid sense, for her help in hiding what schemes Myrcella wished to set in motion.
Such as this. If Father discovered this, he would likely assume that Robb Stark was more like him than Myrcella believed him to be, and would force a wedding immediately, a wedding that would shame them both and which would only put one more weight on Lord and Lady Stark's already burdened shoulders - and Father had done enough of that already, with his invitation for Lord Stark to become his new Hand.
As though any man could refuse an invitation from the King.
Robb's door looked much as all the other doors in Winterfell, but no door had ever seemed quite so significant to Myrcella - behind this door was the man she would marry within the year, the man who would be her partner for all of her life. She had so few examples of a happy marriage that she thought that perhaps it would be best to act differently to her mother, or to Aunt Selyse, in the hopes of creating a better life for herself than either one of them endured.
And so she lifted her hand, and knocked, hoping that Robb Stark liked almond tarts as much as she did.
"He never falls," Robb said, sitting sideways on his bed, one leg tucked underneath himself. "He climbs the whole of Winterfell, every day, and he never falls."
Myrcella wondered what it would be like to be so certain of something about one of her brothers, and did not know what to say.
"He once climbed up onto the roof and stayed there for so long that we thought he had run away," he said, shaking his head. "It started to snow, and we had to convince Mother that he was in the library, with Maester Luwin, until we could find him - and then he climbed in through Sansa's window, hair full of snow and blue with the cold, and told us that he had found a nest of redwing hawks tucked under the roof of the maester's turret. He..."
She dared to reach over and press her hand to his, shifting just a little closer, so that the basket of almond tarts was pressed to both their knees.
"He will recover," she said, surprised to find that she wished it. "The whole of Winterfell is praying for him, to your gods and to mine. They will see him well, Robb, I am sure of it."
She was not sure of it, of course, and knew from overhearing her father speak of it that the maester believed quite firmly that Bran Stark would never walk again, even if he did wake, but that was not what needed to be said. What needed to be said, in this moment, was that Bran would wake, and be himself once more, because Myrcella wished with all her heart to see Bran's brother smile at her as he had on her first night at Winterfell.
She had entertained so many suitors, over the years, but none of them had ever smiled at her like that, like she was just a pretty girl whose company they were enjoying. Like she was more than just a princess, whose hand might bring influence to whomsoever caught it.
Perhaps it was just because he did not need any more influence - he was heir to Winterfell, heir to one of the greatest powers in the Seven Kingdoms on his own, with no need of any sway becoming the King's goodson (and eventually, the King's goodbrother, because unfortunately Father would die someday) might give him.
And, perhaps, he was used to people looking at him and seeing Winterfell, and was pleased that Myrcella saw something else. He never needed to know that mostly she saw an escape, just so long as he believed that she saw him for something other than his inheritances.
She squeezed his hand, and tried for a smile. He returned it as best he could, given the circumstances, and for a brief instant, it was as if they were simply any other courting couple, and Myrcella wondered if this was what normal people felt like.
"It would be a mercy if the boy were to die," Uncle Jaime said over breakfast. "Better dead than a cripple."
Mother's mouth went terribly thin, then, but Uncle Tyrion smiled.
"We cripples are not so hard up as you seem to think, brother," he said, butting his shoulder against Jaime's arm. "I daresay that I manage well enough. Don't you agree, sweet sister?"
"Shut up," Mother said sharply, sipping her wine - of course it was wine, it was always wine - and scowling. Myrcella shifted a little, as if she could shield Tommen from any further unpleasantness, and smiled. "The boy will live, the maester says. His mother must be delighted."
"I am sure that Lady Stark is deeply thankful that the gods heard her prayers," Myrcella put in, before Mother or Jaime could sneer any more than they already had, at Lady Stark's expense. In truth, Myrcella admired Lady Stark immensely for how she had handled her grief, and wondered why Mother loathed her so.
Mother loathed most women, it was true, but Lady Stark had been nothing but courteous and welcoming since the day they arrived in Winterfell, excepting the three days since her son's injury, and she did not deserve the disdain of the Queen.
"She and Lord Stark have a great deal to be thankful for," Tyrion agreed around a mouthful of bread - not the soft white bread Myrcella was used to, but a heavier, coarser sample, of a darker colour. Lady Sansa had explained that it was because the grain here was different to that which grew in the south, and had laughed a little while recounting her brothers' distaste for the meals that had been prepared for them while visiting their grandfather at Riverrun.
Of course, she had turned pale and solemn again almost immediately, turning into the comforting embrace of her betrothed, but Myrcella had appreciated the effort Robb's sister had made, to create some semblance of normality.
"It is a miracle that the boy survived a fall from such a height," Tyrion went on, looking thoughtful. "I wonder what he might have seen, that shocked such a reportedly seasoned climber from his perch."
"It's obscene that children of such supposedly exalted birth are allowed to run so wild," Mother grit out. "Climbing walls and making pets of direwolves - nonsense. Filthy nonsense."
Myrcella thought that the Starks had all seemed wonderfully happy, before Bran's fall, but felt it best to keep that to herself. Her parents never seemed happy, not truly, and she suspected that neither of them cared much whether or not she and her brothers were happy or not, so it would do her no good to share such an opinion.
But then, it did no good for Jaime to share the opinion that Bran Stark would be better off dead, and he did so regardless.
Myrcella saw her first true Northern snowfall fifteen days into her stay in Winterfell, and something in her heart ached to see it.
Bran Stark was still sleeping, his mother still by his bedside, his father still resisting the request of Myrcella's father, that he come south with them. None of the Starks or their household seemed to even notice the snow, which she thought fair enough, but none of her own family or their household noticed, either, and that left her sad. She had never seen snow until they were two thirds the way to Winterfell, and had never seen it fall until now, and she felt that the others ought to be more amazed by the quietness and the beauty of it.
Robb laughed, when she said as much. Ser Arys was a little behind them, so their conversation was polite, almost idle, and they kept the proper distance between their almost-touching elbows, but only just, and Myrcella wondered how she was ever to come to know him without the odd intimacy they had shared just a few days before.
"I suppose we are all so used to the snow that we don't even think of it anymore," Robb said with a shrug. His hood was lined in dark silver-grey fur, and it made the russet of his hair burn redder, the blue of his eyes seem sharper, and Myrcella was glad of the cold pinking her cheeks, for it hid her blushes. "I cannot imagine being without it, in truth."
Myrcella tugged her own furs closer around her shoulders, and near jumped out of her skin when Robb reached over with a chilly, gloveless hand to tuck a stray curl under her hood. He was oddly free with touches - never inappropriate, not that, but simply easy in whatever company he found himself in, and Myrcella was jealous of him for it, just a little.
"It must seem very strange for you, though, Princess," he said carefully, as though aware of her surprise, of how uncertain she was of a proper reaction to what felt, to her at least, to have been a very intimate gesture. "I imagine that you are not used to it?"
"To put it mildly," she admitted, ducking her head against the wind and his laughter. "But I do not think it would be any hardship to become used to it - it is so... Clean."
The view from atop the walls was shockingly uniform, and Myrcella paused a moment to admire it, only half aware of Robb drawing to a halt beside her, of the clank of Ser Arys' plate as he shuffled closer to her.
"I've never seen so much space before," she said quietly, clutching her arms tight around herself under her cloak and furs. "It would not be any hardship to be here. I could become used to the snow very easily, for all this space."
Myrcella tried very hard to like both of the Stark girls, but found it next to impossible on both counts.
Sansa was simply too sweet - sensible enough, in her way, but painfully naive and desperately eager to please in a way that set Myrcella's teeth on edge. She was like Rosamund, except Rosamund's sweetness was cultivated, and under that sweetness lay a Lannister, and no Lannister could ever be called sweet.
Arya, meanwhile, seemed to mistrust every word Myrcella spoke, and since Myrcella had not actually told a single lie since her arrival in Winterfell - an unprecedented amount of time spent in pure honesty, she admitted ruefully, and that only to herself - she could not help but take offence to that. She had not given the little Stark any reason to mislike her, and since Myrcella prided herself on being likeable before all else, save for presentable, it hurt her feelings to be so obviously unliked, childish as that was.
As for the boys, well.
She got on better than she had dared to hope with Robb - he was charming, and flirted as easily as he breathed and near as often, and went out of his way to ensure that she was shown Winterfell at its best advantage. He was also exceedingly handsome without the associated vanity she had come to expect of pretty boys, and taller than her, even if only a little, which was a pleasant surprise.
Bran, before he had been laid low, had seemed more like Robb than either of them had realised - Sansa's sweetness cooled a little by a wry sense of humour that seemed almost out of place in a boy only a year older than Tommen, Robb's charm balanced by a shyness that Myrcella found utterly endearing, if only because it reminded her of Tommen. Little Rickon was half-wild, as only little boys could be, particularly athletic little boys who were spoiled and indulged not just by their parents but by their older siblings as well. Myrcella had seen it with some of her cousins, and thought it boded well for the general disposition of House Stark, if they all were so good to their youngest.
As for the bastard, he seemed to share Lady Arya's dislike of her, but Myrcella wondered if that was less personal and more a question of status - her bastard brother, Edric, was said to be the very soul of charm and grace, but Myrcella had never known him to be anything but a sullen bully who delighted in showing her and her brothers up, for anything from not knowing some minutiae of Storm's End to Joffie's endless incompetence with a sword.
Jon Snow's dislike of her did not worry her one bit - he would not be at Winterfell if, no, when she and Robb wed, she was sure, and even if he was, he was only Robb's bastard brother, and would rank far below his lawful wife.
Her own dislike of Sansa and Arya's dislike of her did worry her, though, and so she set about changing all of their minds as best she could, after her walk on the walls with Robb.
They always seemed to sew in the afternoons, which was not precisely unexpected, even if it was a little boring - Myrcella would have to enquire about other entertainments, in the future - and they always seemed to do so in the same room, a beautifully appointed chamber that made the best of the thin sunlight, with a view out across the practice yard.
Lady Sansa always took a seat by the window, and her perfect stitches never faltered, even when she spent most of the time staring down at her betrothed.
"Have you been betrothed to Lord Umber long, my lady?" Myrcella asked, settling into the seat on the opposite side of the window and smiling - in this, at least, she could not dislike Sansa's bottomless sincerity, because her affection for Jon Umber was so obviously returned hundredfold, and Myrcella was charmed by the pretty picture they made despite herself. Their children would be impossibly tall, of course, but that did little to take away from the fact that Sansa and Jon Umber made a terribly handsome couple, a couple who were patently smitten with one another, who could not wait to be wed.
"Since I was eleven, your highness," Sansa said, pale cheeks flooding rose-pink. "Jon was seventeen at the time - I think he thought me a silly little girl, at first."
Myrcella, despite only being two years Sansa's senior, half thought her a silly little girl now, but to say so would be terribly rude, so instead she laughed.
"His opinion is much changed since then, if that was the case," she teased, and was rewarded by Sansa's blush deepening to a sudden, shocking purple-red. "He looks at you as if you hung the moon, my lady - and don't deny it, it's plain for the whole world to see!"
Sansa made a point of clearing her throat then, much to Myrcella's genuine amusement, and dipped her head toward her sewing.
"Jon and I are much closer now than we were then," she conceded. "And will hopefully only grow closer - our wedding is yet two years away, after all. We have such an awful lot of time to learn one another."
Myrcella caught the wistful note in Sansa's voice, and almost blushed herself - she had never wanted anyone enough to long for them, not for friendship or company, and certainly not for love or sex, and Sansa Stark being so head-over-heels for the giant she was to wed made her seem less irritatingly sweet.
"I am sure your father could be convinced to move the wedding forward a little," Myrcella offered. "And even if he cannot, you are right, my lady - the journey between Winterfell and Last Hearth is at least direct, if not short, and I am sure that Lord Umber will spend near as much time here as he does there over the coming months."
"He already spends near as much time here as there," Lady Arya piped up, not looking away from her sewing - her stitches were not immaculate, as Sansa's were, but they were precise and regular, practised to a functional sort of perfection that Myrcella could appreciate, because it reminded her of endless dancing classes when she was small.
She had hated them near as much as Arya so clearly hated sewing, and had it not been for Uncle Renly's twinkle-eyed intervention, she suspected that she would hate dancing even now - but it was impossible to hate anything when Uncle Renly made a game of it, and Myrcella and Shireen had taken turns to stand on his boots as he guided them through the complex, adult dances they had been expected to know, when they were little.
"He does not," Sansa said hotly, sewing and view both forgotten in favour of defending her betrothed. "Jon would never neglect his duties so much!"
"Well," Arya said, something in her tone so reminiscent of Uncle Tyrion on the verge of a filthy jape that Myrcella felt a smile growing before Arya could say another word. "Mayhaps it's that he sees tending to you as a duty, one that he would rather die than neglect."
"Ladies," their septa called, a warning in her face despite the mildness of her tone. "Remember, we have company."
Myrielle, lip curled in disgust rolled her pale eyes, but Rosamund was smiling a little, looking thoughtful, and Myrcella hoped she would remember to ask what was making Rosa think so hard, when they were alone later on.
"Would that we were all so lucky, Lady Sansa," Myrcella said, pointedly not looking at either the sisters Stark or her own ever-watchful Septa Eglatine. "To have such a dedicated betrothed is the dream of near every girl, I imagine."
Despite turning purple-faced once more, Sansa laughed, although not so loud nor so long as Arya did, and Myrcella felt that perhaps, she had made some headway in smoothing relations with her future sisters.
At least, so she hoped. The thought of being so at odds with her husband's siblings as Mother was with Uncle Renly and, particularly, with Uncle Stannis, made her stomach twist.
"I'm told," the King said, more focused on the pretty girl pouring his ale than on Myrcella, "that you are enjoying Winterfell. Oakheart thinks you quite settled."
"Winterfell is so different from anything to which I am used, Your Grace," she said lightly, refusing a cup of ale in favour of the honeyed milk only Tommen usually drank at dinner. "It is interesting, and I have been made very welcome, as have we all."
Mother, at the opposite end of the table, with Joffie to her right and Tommen to her left, scoffed loudly at that, but Myrcella followed her father's lead and ignored her mother.
"You know that I have been pursuing a match for you with young Robb," her father said, dragging himself away from the serving girl's breasts, meeting Myrcella's eyes as he so rarely did. His eyes were the same dark blue as Uncle Stannis', depthless and sharp, but Father's were brightened with laughter as Stannis' never were, and reddened with drink - again, as Stannis' never were. "Well, I've convinced Ned of the sense of it, and we'll be announcing it at the morning meal tomorrow. Does that please you?"
Myrcella wondered if her father would have been easier with her brothers had they, too, been girls, if they presented no threat to him, as Joffie and Tommen did simply for being male. He had always been his best with her, more readily affectionate and, sometimes, more aware of her than he ever seemed of her brothers.
"It pleases me because it pleases you, Your Grace," she offered, blushing when he began to grin, and blushing harder when he slipped into outright laughter - but not at her expense. Myrcella's father, for all his failings, never laughed at her expense.
"I want to see you happy," he said, one massive hand suddenly folding over hers atop the table. "You are a good girl, Myrcella, and you will do well here, away from all the squabbling and scrambling in King's Landing. Young Robb is a good lad, and handsome enough to balance even your pretty face, and I think you will be good for one another."
He seemed even more embarrassed than she was by his utterly unexpected outburst, and Myrcella had never loved him so fiercely as she did in that moment.
So of course, Joff had to ruin it.
"You're going to leave her here?" he demanded, lip curled in a frightening reflection of Myrielle's earlier disgust. "With these savages?!"
"These savages are the oldest House in Westeros, boy," the King said, leaning forward in his chair, so that his face was half in shadow and half aflame. "You would do well to remember that they are our hosts, and that you are not King yet. You have already shamed yourself and, by extension, me, with your conduct since we arrived here. Do not make me regret abiding by your mother's insistence that I not beat some manners into you."
"So," Robb said, hoodless and gloveless and lovely, in the dappled light of the godswood, near his heart tree. "We are to be married, then."
Myrcella blushed, harder than she ever remembered blushing in her life, and let him take her hands, let him tug off her gloves and fold his fingers through hers. His hands were so much bigger than hers, as dappled as the sunlight by freckles and tiny scars from swords and play, broad and strong and calloused, and she felt a million miles away from him as their palms pressed together.
She wished to feel closer, but did not dare try anything daring while Ser Arys was so close by.
"We are to be married," she said, her smile feeling tremulous and small, smaller still when he smiled and seemed, for a moment, like the sun. "Are you pleased?"
"Very," he said, the light in his eyes belying his serious expression. "I believe the King will prove a more amenable goodfather than Lord Karstark ever would."
Her nervousness fled, as did her fear, and she pressed so close that the backs of her hands were against his chest, his against her collarbones, and she could feel his warmth all along her front.
"I am sure," she said, matching his seriousness, "that my father would be glad to hear such a magnificent compliment."
And they laughed, and Myrcella wondered if this was how normal people felt, when they became betrothed.
Chapter 8: Asha
Solid ground always felt odd for a time, after any great length spent at sea, and so Asha was glad that Pyke never felt wholly steady when she stepped onto the dock.
"Well met, nuncle," she hailed Aeron, who was already beetling forward to bless the Black Wind's prow in thanks of a successful journey. He seemed even less sane than he had when last she had seen him, his always-wild hair and eyes absolutely mad now, gleaming with a fervour she knew best from her father's face, when he spoke of conquest, of reaving.
Like as not he would disapprove of Asha's methods on her latest journey, but Asha was a woman grown and then some, and had travelled widely enough to know that her father's methods - the old methods - would not survive long in the world as it stood now. It amused her a little, to think of how the Summer Islanders or the Tyroshi or even just the Oldtowners would react to Ironborn longships spilling bands of reavers onto their shores, and that smile carried her from dock to saddle to the great doors of her father's castle.
Pyke was not a place for smiling, however - Asha had smiled her share and more on this island, and on all the islands, but she had grown to womanhood in the shadow of war and bitterness. It had not stunted her growth, never that, but it had made her wary, had helped her understand the power of a smile.
She wondered, sometimes, if her little brother had ever learned that lesson. Winterfell was said to be the hardest place in Westeros, but only by greenlanders, who knew nothing of the Islands. Life as a hostage could not have been pleasant for Theon, especially not under the watch of a man of such grim reputation as Eddard Stark. Theon would be a man grown by now, three-and-twenty and doubtless as roguish and handsome as Rodrick had ever been, but hopefully without the vicious streak their father had fostered in both him and Maron.
"My mother is yet at Harlaw?" she asked by way of greeting, sweeping a bow like a man's before stepping closer to the Seastone Chair so that she could press a kiss to her father's weathered, withered cheek - a rare show of softness, from such a hardened man. "And you are yet here."
He snapped a glare at her for that, which surprised her - he tended to be made uncomfortable by mentions of her mother, but his anger was a rare thing when Alannys Harlaw haunted the air.
"Your mother is best where she is," he growled, launching himself to his feet and setting to striding the length of the hall, up and down like a failing pendulum. His step was uneven, a weakness showing that Asha had never noticed before, and she wondered how so much had changed in her time abroad. True enough, she had been gone for close to a year, and had not been in any great hurry to return home, but she had not expected her father to become an old man while she was away. "You were best where you were, like as not!"
Asha said nothing in response - this seemed more Aeron's sort of bluster than her father's, or even Victarion's, but it did not surprise her as much as it might have done a year ago. Distance had allowed her to see that mayhaps her father was not the man she had allowed herself to believe of him, that perhaps he was not so secure and eternal as she had convinced herself.
What was odd was his sudden decision that she was best gone from the Isles - he had protested her departure more severely than anyone else, and had refused her the funds to refurbish the Black Wind for such a journey. She had turned to the Reader for help, because while Asha was a wealthy woman in her own right, she had had a crew to pay, tolls and taxes to meet if she wished to avoid undue notice, and a ship to maintain, never mind refurbish.
The Reader had asked only for a handful of books in return, and she had all he had requested locked safely in her personal chests, as well as half a hundred trinkets she knew he would find interesting and amusing, and gifts for her mother and Gwynesse both. That would please him as much and more as her repaying his kind loan with a hold full of Ghiscari silver, traded and tricked from a team of would-be slavers in the Basilisk Isles.
"And here I thought you would be glad to see at least one of your children returned to you," she said, light as a zephyr, and was pleased by the sudden straightness of his spine. At least there was a little sense left in him, if he could be distracted by the insult he felt at Theon's continuing absence.
"Aye," was all he said, though, as he returned to the Seastone Chair, and to his sudden old age. "At least you've not lost your way home."
"There's something queer in the air," Qarl said as soon as she stepped back aboard the ship. He had never been one to mince words, but his obvious discomfort took her aback - Asha had felt something changed at Pyke, true, but she had put it down to the time she had spent away, nothing more. That Qarl was noticing it made her uneasy, and she wished to be once more at sea, away from Pyke and her father and her disapproving uncles. Aboard the Black Wind the only authority she had to mind was her own, and that of the Drowned God - and he seemed to favour her, more often than not, so his will was no great imposition.
"There's something queer with my father," Asha agreed, beckoning for him to follow her to her quarters. "And the Damphair, too, did you notice him to be changed?"
"A little madder, if anything," Qarl said uneasily, "and frightened, now that you say it, as if he was being chased. I hadn't thought anything of it, truth be told, because the Damphair is always mad."
That was true enough that Asha wondered if it was just that she was becoming paranoid, already tiring of the restraints of Pyke after so long at sea, but she doubted it. She was not her mother, jumping at ghosts, or her aunt, lost in dreams of grandeur, or even the Damphair, drowning in piety. There was no reason for the sinking feeling in her belly, but it was there, and its twin was in Qarl, she could see it on his smooth face.
"We will stay until the morning," she decided, wondering if her dreams would be as cold as the wind blowing in from the Sunset Sea.
All her crew were uneasy the following morning, but Asha left them to prepare the ship for sailing all the same, determined to take her leave of her father and, in doing so, to find what it was that had rendered him such a wreck.
"You are early," the Damphair said in his sonorous voice, like the bells of Volantis against the high ceiling above the Seastone Chair. "Lord Balon will be with us presently."
"I am sure," Asha said easily, settling on the end of the long bench nearest the throne. "He is not a man to be late."
Her father had never given a single shit as to whether or not he kept others waiting, but Aeron seemed to take Asha's words as seriously meant, and began nodding emphatically. Asha was too tired for one of his lectures on the superiority of the Ironborn and of her father, as their lord and rightful king, having slept poorly the night before. Her whole crew had slept badly, despite never having had a bad night aboard the Wind before - but that queerness that rotted the air over Pyke had infested the very boards of the ship, or so it had felt. Her dreams had been filled with shadows of things, things that had frightened her but which she couldn't remember fully.
"There are shadows on your father's shoulders which you cannot understand," Aeron said, which surprised her - such a declaration was unusually forthright for the Damphair, who so delighted in speaking in riddles and false prophecies. "The weight of the Isles is not an easy weight to bear, child. You should think more kindly of him."
"The weight of the Isles seems to have increased in my absence," Asha said lightly, not looking him in the eye. "Is there some trouble I should know of, nuncle? Might be that I can be of help to my father if there is."
"There is no weight I cannot carry," her father said, emerging from behind the Chair with a face like thunder. "Be gone, Aeron, and take your portents and dreads with you - there is no place for them here. Be gone! Back to Great Wyk with you, and may your shadows follow you there!"
The flash of genuine fear on Aeron's face surprised Asha all the more, since she had thought that the Damphair feared nothing at all, but she did not object to his departure.
"And you!" her father boomed, throwing himself against the hard lines of the Seastone Chair and glowering from beneath his tangled hair. "I suppose you are for Ten Towers, to have tea with the old bitch and to talk fairy-stories with the Reader?"
"And to visit my lady mother," Asha agreed, glad that the mention of her mother seemed to shame him, at least a little. "I have not seen her in too long, and suspect the same could be said of you."
"I will not be spoken to in such a manner," he said, short and sharp, "or you will find no welcome here on your return."
"If I return at all," Asha said, smiling at the freeze of his face. "The foul stench over Pyke is enough to keep any ship away, I think."
"There is no stench!" he roared, bolting from the Chair with such vigour that Asha scrambled back along the bench, fearing him for the first time since she was a child. "Be gone, foolish girl, and do not come back until you have emptied your head of your uncle's stories!"
As the doors of the hall closed behind her, Asha wondered which uncle's stories were the problem - the Reader, or the Damphair? Which would scare her father more, that she consider a more peaceful path such as the Reader pushed her toward, or that she would follow the Damphair into madness and fear?
She could not say, but she knew one thing for a certainty. If the unshakeable Damphair was afraid, the whole of the Isles ought to be the same.
Chapter 9: Sansa
"Father needs someone to run his household, and it will be good for you to practice before you go to Last Hearth."
No matter how often Robb said it, it never made more sense to Sansa. Why did she have to go to King's Landing with Father? Arya going made all the sense in the world, since she was unbetrothed and had a better chance of making a good match, with a wider selection of young men available in the city, but Sansa had Jon, and she had Last Hearth, and with Mother caring for Bran she would have all the practice she might need for Last Hearth in running Winterfell.
"Please, Sansa," Robb pleaded. "I know that you want to go - you've always wished to see court, I know you have, and Father will need you to maintain order while he is doing the King's business."
"And you think Arya incapable of such things," Sansa said, annoyed on Arya's behalf. True, she had always wanted to see court, and she did not think Arya would have the patience to run a household in faraway King's Landing, not even for Father, but she wanted to help Mother more than she wanted to see coutt, and Arya certainly had the capability to run a household, even if Robb did not realise it. Arya was much more capable than Robb ever gave her credit for being. "She is not a child anymore, Robb. She is near a woman-"
"She is three-and-ten," Robb said, "and will have your company in King's Landing. You are both to be assigned to the Princess' household, but since you will have other duties you are not expected to room in the maidenvault-"
"And neither am I," Arya said, appearing at the door with Father behind her. "Tell him, Father."
Father sighed, nudging Arya properly into the room so he could close the door behind them. None of them spoke as he settled himself in the chair nearest the fire, looking older than he ever had before.
"Arya will remain here, at Winterfell," he said. "Sansa, you will accompany me to King's Landing - Robb is right, it will stand in your favour to gain some experience in running a household, even if the Tower of the Hand is a far cry from Last Hearth. Arya needs more guidance to do the same, and so she will stay here, under your mother's care, and will learn all that you have already learned."
There was praise in there, and usually Sansa would have been thrilled by it, but now she was just annoyed.
"And the year after next, when I am to wed Jon?" she asked, folding her arms and not caring that she looked terribly petulant. "Am I to return north and leave you to run your own affairs, proving my presence in King's Landing unnecessary?"
"Father plans on bringing me south when you come north," Arya said, looking less pleased by this than by getting to stay in Winterfell for the time being. "He believes I will be more than practised enough by then."
Sansa knew from the look on Father's face that he doubted very much that Arya would be practised enough to run a household in two years time, but in two years time, Arya would be five-and-ten, and overdue a betrothal. That was the main reason she would be brought south.
She knew from the look on Arya's face that her sister knew the same, and hated it.
"I know that you wish to stay here," Father said. "I know that well, Sansa - I would rather remain at Winterfell too, but I am bound to serve the King now, and the King wants me at King's Landing. I would feel better about leaving for the capital if I had you with me." He hesitated a moment, as though weighing his words. "I would feel safer with a member of our family in my household, among all the Lannisters."
Sansa wished that she could press to remain behind still, but how could she, when Father seemed so genuinely uncomfortable at the idea of going south?
Of course he is uncomfortable, she told herself. He will be forced to walk across the room where his father and brother died whenever the King calls for him.
"Then I will be glad to accompany you, Father," Sansa said, forcing a smile, hoping it would draw Father from his worries a little. "Who else will be in our household?"
"I don't like it," Jon said, massive shoulders hunched over his plate at table that evening. "I understand Lord Stark's reasoning, of course I do, but I dislike that you'll be so far away without my protection."
"My father will be with me," Sansa reminded him, nudging against the bulk of his arm with her shoulder. "And Jory, and half the men of Winterfell - I will be safe enough, Jon. I promise."
His hair was bronze in the candlelight, his eyes the colour of honey, and Sansa wished that she could promise simply to be safe, rather than safe enough, but she was not stupid. She saw the way Prince Joffrey looked at her, even in the days since Bran's fall, never mind since the King knocked him right across Father's study with a slap to the face as punishment for his behaviour toward her.
It had chilled her a little, to see how casually violent the King was, but Father had seemed to think the thing well done, and so she had said nothing. She had been more pleased than she had liked by seeing the Prince brought low, after all, and had not felt that she had any right to say anything, since all the violence was being done in her name, in defence of her honour.
And still the Prince looked on her as though he might yet lay claim to her. Sansa held herself apart from him as much as she could, since she had to spend so much time with the Princess, but she did not trust him, and the Queen's outrage at his having been punished had made Sansa think twice of trusting in Cersei Lannister's beautiful face.
"Even so," Jon said, turning to face her, "I'd rather be with you myself. I know it's impossible, but at least I'd sleep better knowing I was only a room away from you, rather than a realm."
She dared to lean up and press a kiss to his cheek, above his beard where he blushed, and settled back into her seat before anyone noticed - Arya was grinning across the way, though, and would doubtless tease her relentlessly for it, but Sansa didn't care. Sometimes Jon was so unbearably sweet that she couldn't help but kiss him, and since she could not kiss him properly at dinner in the great hall, well, a kiss on the cheek would have to suffice.
"Your father will have my head if you don't stop, Stark," he warned her with a grin. "Because if you don't stop, I'll get started, and we both know that it's best we don't do that where we might get caught, don't we?"
When Jon got started, he always ended up kissing her and kissing her and kissing her, sometimes for what felt like hours, holding her firm against one of the moss-softened trees deep in the godswood, so big and powerful that she never felt anything but safe in his arms.
She knew, after all, that he'd never press further than kissing her, not before they were wed, or at least, not before she was a little older, and even if she sometimes wished he would do more, she was glad of it.
"Well," she said, blushing so hard her cheeks felt as though they were burning right away, "I suppose I'd best restrain myself, then, Lord Umber."
Jon's laughter boomed to the ceiling, drawing looks from all about the hall, and Sansa didn't care at all, she didn't, because come the end of the week it would be the better part of two years before she heard him laugh again, and she was sure that this was what heartbreak felt like.
Bran hadn't woken yet, not nearly two weeks since his fall, and Sansa was beginning to doubt that he ever would.
She hadn't dared to say as much to anyone, not even to Jon or to Arya, but she thought it, worried over it at night while Lady snuffled on the foot of her bed, turned it over in her mind while she sewed new shirts for Rickon or a fine doublet for Father to wear at court. There was always sewing to be done, after all, so much sewing, and it was easier to simply do it between herself and Arya and Jeyne and Beth than to send to the winter town every time Rickon outgrew his sleeves.
Mother would never forgive her for doubting Bran, Sansa knew, and Father would likely feel much the same, but she could not help but worry. He was so still and small and frail, kept alive only by the honey water and goat's milk Mother and Old Nan dribbled through his lips, and Sansa couldn't believe that so little would be enough to support him for as long as he might need to wake up.
"Father and I are leaving in the morning," she told his pale face. Mother had been convinced to sleep a while, but only if one of them sat with Bran while she was away. Sansa had offered gladly, thankful for any opportunity to help Mother before her departure, and had taken her sewing and some honeyed milk with her into Bran's room.
Lady and Bran's wolf lay quietly under the window, blinking bright golden eyes at her from the shadows, and Sansa wondered if Jon had remembered just how dangerous Lady could be, if anyone in King's Landing threatened her - sweet nature or not, Lady was a direwolf, and would kill anyone who dared to harm Sansa.
Bran did not stir, though, and his wolf simply blinked slowly when Sansa spoke, so she sighed, and tried again.
"We're to be in King's Landing for as long as the King wants Father as his Hand," she said. "We might return for Robb's wedding to the Princess, but I'm not sure - it might be years before Father sees Winterfell again. Don't you think you ought to be awake to see him off, Bran?"
It seemed so strange, for Bran to be so still. He was always the worst of them at sitting still, even worse than Arya. Mother had despaired of them both sometimes, while they were at prayers in the sept, or at lessons with Maester Luwin, or even just sitting through some formal thing or other of Father's. Bran was always moving, even if it was just one knee bouncing under the table, or his fingers tapping against the bench, or that he was worrying at his lip because he wanted to be away.
"Even if you don't think Father would like to see you awake," she said, setting aside her sewing so that she could concentrate, so that she could look at Bran and see him, "surely you must see that you're breaking Mother's heart by sleeping so long. She hardly sleeps, Bran, she's so worried for you, and Rickon is making himself sick because he's afraid that everyone is wrong and that you won't wake up."
"It's not Bran's fault that he isn't awake, Sansa."
Jon - not her Jon, not Jon Umber, but Jon Snow - was standing in the door of Bran's room, obviously taking advantage of Mother's rare absence to check on their brother. He looked dismayed, whether by her presence or her words she didn't know, but she was mortified either way.
"I know that," she snipped back, pursing her mouth and looking away from him again, back to Bran. "But I wish he would wake up, all the same."
Sansa wondered, sometimes, if she ought to have made it her business to be kinder to Jon, since he had no mother and no name, but it felt disloyal to Mother to think such things. She'd spoken about it with her Jon, once or twice, and Jon had helped her see the difference between Jon Snow and his own half-brother, Aron, who was near old enough to have fathered Jon - her Jon, gods but it was confusing to think of the two of them at once - himself.
"The way I see it," Jon Umber had said, rolling his shoulders thoughtfully, the third time he'd visited Winterfell after they were betrothed, "my lord father sired Aron as a youth of six-and-ten - younger than I am now, sweetling, and without even a betrothal to speak of, much less a wife. But your lord father sired Jon Snow while your lady mother was carrying your Robb in her belly, after they'd been wed. It makes it harder for anyone to accept Jon Snow, I think, but especially your mother, and I can't blame her for that. He's more a threat to your Robb than if he'd been sired when your father was barely more than a lad - a more likely Daemon Blackfyre than any woman could like to see in her home."
Sansa had liked the image of her mother as the saintly Queen Naerys more than she liked to admit, and had liked Jon showing that he knew his history as well as she did, despite Robb's teasing that a wild Umber likely wouldn't be educated enough to please her, enormously, so his words had lingered in her mind long past Jon's departure.
Jon Snow settled on the other side of Bran's bed, frowning as he so often did. He surprised her by taking Bran's hand in his own, and surprised her again when he smiled, just a little.
"I haven't told anyone else this yet, Bran, except for Arya," he said, voice hushed and teasing, "but you'd best wake up in a hurry, else it'll be a long time before you see me again - longer even than it'll be before you see Sansa and Father."
Bran remained as he was, still and pale and small, and Jon kept speaking.
"I'm leaving with Uncle Benjen the day after tomorrow," Jon said, "and I'll be taking the black, to serve as a brother of the Night's Watch, as plenty of Starks and Snows before me have. So you'd best wake before then, else you might not see me until you've children of your own to fret over. What do you say to that?"
Sansa waited a heartbeat, then two, but Bran remained as he was.
"But Jon," she said, "surely you can't really mean to join the Watch?"
His smile faded, and he shrugged.
"Arya said much the same," he said, "although she cursed more, and called me stupid."
"But Winterfell is your home!" Sansa insisted. "Robb will always have a place here for you, even after Father's day is done-"
"Robb will inherit Winterfell," Jon cut in, "and will sire a brace of fine, half-royal sons on his pretty princess. Bran, when he wakes, and Rickon, when he grows up, will be paired off with fine Northern girls, and given holdfasts to keep. You'll wed the Smalljon, and Arya will wed some southron lordling who doesn't mind her running a little wild. What place is there for me in the midst of all that, Sansa? Best I remove myself before I have a chance to resent any of it, don't you think? Before I have a chance to want it so badly I think to take it for myself, as a real bastard would."
It was snowing the following morning, and the Princess was once more in rich green, with her white furs around her slim shoulders.
Sansa's furs were silver-grey, the same colour as Lady's coat, held in place with twinned brooches as gold as Lady's eyes. Father's furs were the same colour, as were Vayon and Jeyne Poole's - good, hard-wearing furs, that kept the warmth in and the cold out.
Sansa's were shinier and softer than anyone else's, she was pleased to note, because she cared for them as she did her own hair, which was braided away from her face and hanging in three heavy plaits down her back. Jon - her Jon, not Jon Snow who had caused her such concern the evening before - had wound one of those plaits around his hand and tugged it in tease, making her laugh so hard that she hadn't even noticed him leaning in to kiss her until his whiskers brushed her face.
"You send word to me the minute you aren't safe," he said to her, holding her hands in his, hiding her between himself and her horse. "I might not be so quick to get to you as I'd like, but I will get to you, Sansa. I will always come for you."
She leaned right up on her toes and pressed another quick kiss to his warm mouth, darting a glance over her shoulder to be sure Father hadn't seen them.
"I know you will," she assured him. "I know, Jon. I know."
She wanted to tell him that she loved him, because she knew he was about to say the same thing, but Father was calling her, and the King was shouting about wanting to get on, and so she had to satisfy herself with one more fleeting kiss and the feel of his massive hands on her waist as he lifted her up into the saddle, and the sight of him waving her off when she glanced back over her shoulder.
It would keep her satisfied, until she could come home.
Chapter 10: Robert
Maester Colemon pressed a cup of sweetsleep into Robert's hand every night while bidding him sweet dreams, and every night Robert worked open the rusted, wind-worn clasps and hinges of his bedchamber window to toss the potion into the sky below. He'd been half poisoned by sweetsleep by the time he was sent to the Rock, and the gods themselves would not convince him to drink it ever again.
The part of him that was still that little baby who had cried all the way to Casterly Rock, who had had to be strapped to his pony because he threw himself off in temper so often, was afraid that Maester Creylen would know, and would tell Lord Tywin. Robert had learned long ago that Lord Tywin was always told, and was always disappointed.
Still, he would not have minded something to ease the shaking in his hands, or the sting of sunlight through thin mountain air on his eyes and in his chest, now that Maester Creylen's tinctures were used up. Joy had teased him, suggesting he send to Myr for tinted eye-glasses, like the lenses the goldsmiths sometimes used when doing very fine work with still-hot gold, and his lady mother had snapped at Joy, shrill with fury that someone was daring to mock her little Sweetrobin.
He had begged, and pleaded, and outright ordered, and still she persisted with that stupid nickname! He was Lord of the Vale now, the last true scion of House Arryn, and on his way to being a man, but still she refused to accept that he was not the little boy she had screamed after, when his lord father had sent him away. He dreaded to think what he might have become, left in her care unchecked, and felt guilty for it. His mother had suffered many losses during her marriage to his father, and his father had not been the sort of man who might ease her pain. Comfort and compassion had not been Jon Arryn's way, and such were things that Lysa Tully needed in staggering abundance.
Robert had been the same, until Lord Tywin frightened it out of him. Lord Tyrion had once told Robert and Joy that Robert's mother had almost married the Kingslayer, before he wore a white cloak, and Robert could not help but wonder how different a woman his mother might have been, had she had Lord Tywin's cool influence - and a chance at healthier children, and more of them, since the Lannisters were abundantly fertile and Robert's father had been anything but.
A knock on his door heralded Gyles' arrival, and Robert smiled. He liked Gyles and Terrance very much, and was grateful that Joy's teasing was allowing them to see that he was not the brat he had been, that he was a man they might wish to have as a friend for something other than his title.
Gyles was tall and skinny, with the round face of a much fatter lad, and a cloudy fringe of pale red hair that reminded Robert of one of Lady Genna's sons. He was as easily offended as he was amused, but had a decent heart, as far as Robert could tell, and seemed fiercely loyal - although to whom, Joy had reminded him, Robert could not be sure.
"Pardon my saying so, my lord," Gyles said, closing the door behind him, "but it might be best if you visit your mother for a little, before you find your rest - she's been caterwauling and wailing like a demon for near an hour now, and a visit from you might quiet her where nothing else has."
Robert groaned to hear it, furious with his mother once more - she had flooded the table with tears when he had refused to call her Mummy at dinner, and he had been desperately thankful that only Joy and Lord Nestor had been there to see her. She was always upset over something, either his refusals to allow her to baby him or the continued absence of whomever she had agreed to marry - forgetting, of course, that she could not marry without Robert's permission, or at least that of Lord Nestor, as his regent.
He had been so relieved to maintain Lord Nestor as Steward, to install him as regent! The promise of a good marriage for each of his children and an inheritance for Albar, and Lord Nestor had been Robert's to the bone. Joy had spoken with Mya Stone, who was friends with Lady Myranda, and Robert had already sent word for his cousin Harrold to come from Coldoaks to court her.
He had only been in the Eyrie less than a full moon's turn, and already felt that he better understood Lord Tywin - to have all this power, safe in even Robert's shaking fingers simply because none would dare challenge his right to it, was intoxicating.
But his mother - she was becoming impossible. He half wished that he might send her away, but could not imagine inflicting her in her current state on anyone else. Besides, she was his mother and therefore his responsibility. Lord Tywin had always made sure that Robert understood the importance of responsibility, and he was not about to dishonour such a cardinal lesson.
"I will go to her," he said to Gyles, who slumped just slightly in relief. Robert half felt that he ought to reprimand his almost-friend, but did not wish to make a hypocrite of himself. "Go to bed, Gyles, doubtless we will have another long day tomorrow."
Gyles bowed on his way out, and Robert sighed again. It was hard enough, to convince the Vale to let him rule, without his bloody mother acting like a spoiled child.
"You!" she shrieked as soon as he stepped through the door of his bedchamber. "You are the cruelest of sons, neglecting me so terribly-"
"I am not being neglectful, my lady," he said firmly, glad for Maester Colemon's usually unwelcome presence. At least the maester would provide some distraction if his lady mother truly lost her temper. "I am trying to rule the Eyrie, and have not time for your coddling."
"It is not coddling-"
"Pardon me, my lady," Robert said, aware that his tone was clipped but uncaring, "but it is. Whether you are attempting to coddle me, or demanding that we all coddle you, it makes no difference. It is an interference that I will not stand for either way."
"So cruel!" she wept, turning her back on him. "So very cruel, just like your father-"
"Speaking of my father," he said, suddenly angry on behalf of the man he had hardly known. "Your haste to remarry is unseemly, my lady, and I will not stand for it. I will not suffer any more suitors to visit you, not until at least a full year has passed since my lord father's death. Perhaps once that time has elapsed, we might speak of finding a suitable husband for you-"
"It has already been decided who I shall marry," she said, spinning to face him again, trembling chin up in defiance. "It has been agreed-"
"Not by me," Robert snapped. "You are of House Arryn until you wed another, my lady, and so I am your lord. I will not see you wed to some lickspittle who will shame me."
Her chin stopped trembling, her hands stopped shaking, and her eyes were so bloodshot with tears that the blue was truly shocking.
"You are just as cruel as your father and mine both," she said, voice thin with anger in a way alien to all Robert knew of her. "I see now that my Sweetrobin is gone - just as your father wished, when he tore you from my arms."
"I am glad that you recognise it, my lady," he said. "But remember, when next you call me cruel, just who it is controls your expenses. It is not your secret betrothed. It is me."
And he left, Maester Colemon on his heels, and made it to his own bedchamber before the coughing started. It was a painful thing, a ragged sort of hacking that left his whole chest aching and his throat raw and his hand bloodied, and he decided he would send to the Rock, asking Maester Creylen for more of the tincture for that and for his shaking hands.
Perhaps, he thought as he climbed into bed, Maester Creylen would have something to calm his mother. It could not hurt to ask.
Gyles and Terrance had taken Joy's presence in stride, and so it was that the four of them sat together for the morning meal every day. It was always the nicest part of Robert's day, just as his meals with Joy had been at the Rock, and had made the transition a little easier.
"I've been hearing unfortunate tales of this heir of yours," Joy said, spooning honey into her porridge. "Very unfortunate tales indeed, my lord."
"Hardly surprising," Terrance rumbled, in that shockingly deep voice of his. "He has an unfortunate reputation, does Harry Hardyng. The only ones who see naught but good of him are Lady Randa and old Anya Waynwood, although for different reasons."
Joy has been collecting rumours and hearsay since their arrival, just as she used in the Rock, and there has been such an awful lot of hearsay about Cousin Harry. Father of three and husband of none, generous to his lovers until he finds that pregnancy has changed their bodies, arrogant and cruel when he feels himself superior, unforgiving of anything he views as weakness. Robert already dislikes him, but Harry is his heir, and must be managed and, if possible, moulded. Lord Tywin would say that any man can be moulded, given the proper motivation, but Robert did not have Lord Tywin's towering reputation, never mind his presence. He had a long way ahead of him before Harry the Heir was fit for purpose.
"Wally Waynwood sees to it that Harry's girls don't starve," Gyles said, not looking away from the ledgers he'd wheedled from Lord Nestor's accounts man. Gyles had an eye for numbers, just as Terrance had an ear for lies, and Joy a way with people. Robert could not imagine a better inner circle, unless he could prevail upon the Citadel to replace Maester Colemon with someone more capable. "He's a good egg, Wally, even if he does stammer shockingly and can't swing a sword for love nor money - no offence meant, my lord."
Robert waved it away - Gyles had meant no harm by it, and Robert knew that there was no lie in it. He had not been well enough to take to the yard since his arrival at the Eyrie, strained as his lungs were by the thin air. He wondered if descending to the Gates of the Moon when winter came in would help, but doubted it. Even if the air below was not so thin, it would still be sharp and cold, without the weight of salt and sea in it that had made breathing so much easier for him at the Rock.
"Speaking of money, my lord," Gyles said, frowning over his cup - the mulled berry cordial that Robert had missed at the Rock, when he had missed so little else about home - and tapping the ledgers. "Why in the Father's name did your lady mother withdraw enough gold from the vault here to fund a small army just before your arrival?"
Gyles lifted his head to meet the stunned silence he had left in his wake, looking a touch sheepish.
"Ah," he said. "I assumed that you knew, Robin. I am so sorry."
"Do not be," Robert said, frowning a little at being called Robin before deciding it was better than Sweetrobin, and somehow friendlier than Robert, and certainly than my lord. "It is best I know now, before she can have had much chance to throw away good gold on whatever fancies have taken her."
Gyles' frown deepened, and he heaved another ledger from near the bottom of the heap. Joy rose to stand behind him, hand on his shoulder, and read along with him, her eyes sharp as they followed the trail of Gyles' finger.
"It seems, Robin," she said, flashing him a wink so quick the others surely missed it at the name, "that she has already begun spending."
Gyles passed the ledger of Robert's mother's household accounts across the table for Robert and Terrance to inspect, and Robert felt his hands begin to shake - not from sickness, but from fury.
"I threatened last night to revoke her expenses," he said, throwing aside his napkin and pushing back from the table as quickly as he could. "How could she be so stupid!"
As if Lord Littlefinger, so despised by Lord Tywin and by everyone else who had ever met him, it seemed, needed his mother's money - no, not Lady Lysa's! Robert's money!
The others flocked around him as he departed his solar, and by the time they reached his mother's day room they had gathered Maester Colemon, Lord Nestor, Ser Albar, Vardis Egen, and Fat Hugh who had been Robert's lord father's squire, once. Robert could feel the colour flushing his cheeks and neck and ears, and could not hear much above the thudding of his heart in his ears. How dare she! What right had she to take money not hers and give it to a man who ought to be nothing to her!
"My lord," Maester Colemon was saying, "my lord, perhaps it is simply that your lady mother sent money to Lord Baelish so that he might pay off bills in her name-"
"Unlikely, maester," Lord Nestor said, "since Lord Arryn - my apologies, my lord, the previous Lord Arryn had arranged in his will for the steward of his household in King's Landing to pay off any outstanding bills in the city before the household moved home to the Eyrie. Besides, who would trust Littlefinger with coin not his own?"
Robert's chest was heaving, anger and strain both taking their tole, by the time he reached his mother's day room. Joy laid a hand on his arm, fingertips to the inside of his wrist, and he took it as the suggestion it was - a moment, to catch his breath, before nodding for Terrance to throw open the doors.
His mother startled to her feet, with her wittering ladies all around her - Robert did not know their names, but knew that Joy would, and made a note to ask her later.
"Sweetrobin!" she crowed, as though she had not set herself against him just last night. "You know how I hate it when you come unannounced, sweetling, but do send the others away so that we might have-"
She jumped when he slammed the ledgers down on her little reading table, a hand to her throat.
"You," he hissed, pointing a finger that shook shamefully into her swollen face, "have been stealing from me."
Her face, always pale, was white as bone, but Robert could not show her any mercy now. He could not be kind, could not be gentle, not when she was taking money from his treasury to throw it at some, some whoremonger who by all reports had money enough to buy the whole realm!
"I was not stealing," she said, drawing herself up - how bothersome that she was taller than him! "I am Lady of the Eyrie, it is my money as much as yours-"
"As it happens, my lady," Lord Nestor said, moving remarkably delicately for such a big man, "it is not your money. Your lord husband was quite clear in his will that you were not to be Lord Arryn's regent, and so his coin is not yours to spend. You have an expenses account-"
"I am his mother!" she shrieked, pushing Lord Nestor aside, pushing Robert aside, so she could poke Joy hard in the chest. "This is all your doing, you little slut! Turning my boy away from me so you can sink your claws into him."
"How dare you," Robert said, fury boiling his eyes in his head now, "Lady Joy is my guest-"
"And a filthy, half-foreign Lannister whore!" Mother shrieked, so vicious that Joy, fearless Joy, stepped back. Terrance and Gyles were with Robert, one at either of his shoulders, and Robert opened his mouth to reprimand his mother when the shaking spread from his hands.
"Robert?" Joy said, fearless once more. "Robert, give me your hands-"
"Too late," he said, because he could feel his chest going hollow, which meant the shaking had spread too deep. "Don't let me bite through my-"
And it spread all the way, and he knew no more.
"Your mother is having a lie down," Joy said, as he began to stir. "And you did not shit yourself, so there are two things for which you can be thankful, little falcon."
She was sitting on the side of his bed in a clean, plain gown of green wool, and he had never seen anything lovelier, not with the way the late sun spilling through his windows and catching on the pale of her hair, the gold in her green eyes, the smooth brown of her cheekbones and the round curve of her nose.
"You shook for a very long time, though," she said, her smile falling away. She brushed his hair back from his face, and he felt clammy and sticky and altogether disgusting, and wished that he might bathe. "Longer than I have seen you shake in a very long while."
"I've sent to Maester Creylen for more of my tinctures," he said, wincing to speak because his throat was so sore. "It will be some time before they arrive, though, and the air here is so thin - Maester Colemon's only treatment for my shakes is sweetsleep, and I cannot drink that if I am to do my duty, can I?"
Joy was chewing her lip, as she only did when she was truly worried, and ran her fingers through his hair again.
"Perhaps a little dreamwine in your cup before bed," she said. "You shake less when you're well rested, I know - but it is not only your shaking that worries me, Robert. What about this?"
Her other hand held one of his handkerchiefs, sewn by her with a sky-blue falcon and muddied all over with blood.
"Your lungs, Robert," she said, and there were tears in her lovely eyes. "Your lungs are failing, aren't they?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But I think they will be better, when we move to the Gates of the Moon for the winter. The air is not so thin there."
Her smile was watery, but it was a smile, and so he counted it a victory. He had so few of them that every one counted.
He would deal with his mother in the morning, when his chest no longer ached and his throat was not raw. Lord Nestor would hardly let her run rampant in his absence.
Chapter 11: Myrcella
Darry was upon them before they knew it, and the river spread broad and shining alongside the road as they drew close to the town.
Myrcella was glad of it - she was as seasoned a horsewoman as existed in King's Landing, with an ease in the saddle that even Uncle Jaime had commented on, but her thighs and backside were aching from such long hours ahorse. The only alternative was travelling with her mother in the wheelhouse, though, and such had been the Queen's foul mood since their departure from Winterfell that Myrcella could hardly stand to be in her lady mother's company for more than an hour at a time.
Riding also had the advantage of leaving her with such company as she chose herself - she was sorry that Uncle Tyrion had chosen to ride further north, away to the Wall at the end of the civilised world, and sorrier still that whenever Rosamund chose to ride along with her, so too did Myrielle. Still, she had Lady Sansa who was so charmed by Ser Arys, and she had Rosamund when they could get away from Myrielle.
Always, always, she had Ser Arys, who though a little staid and a little boring was kind and charming and listened intently to everything Myrcella had to say, and discussed things with her that no other man save Uncle Tyrion would.
Sometimes Uncle Renly would talk of politics and war and the danger posed to their rule by the Targaryens in Essos - a slight danger indeed, from what Myrcella could gather - but it was a rarity. No one seemed to think she had any need to know such things, not even when Joffie refused to learn about them.
"Tell me, Lady Sansa," she said, turning to her companion. "Have you ever been so far south?"
Lady Sansa flushed prettily, ever embarrassed by what she saw as a lack of sophistication. Others would view it similarly, of course, and until Myrcella had discussed it with Ser Arys, she had done so, too. Not everyone had Tywin Lannister's vast reserves of gold behind them, after all, to facilitate travel and splendour. House Stark had graver concerns than Myrish lace and Qohorik steel and kingdom-spanning travel.
"I've been twice to Riverrun, Your Highness," Lady Sansa said, easier now in her saddle than she had been when they set out from Winterfell. "And to White Harbour several times, and- and to Last Hearth, of course."
"Ah," Myrcella said, unable to keep from smiling at that. "To visit your future home?"
Lady Sansa's blush turned from pink to puce, but her smile was the brightest Myrcella had seen since their very first night at Winterfell, a moon's turn ago and more. She was a lovely girl, but Myrcella only wished that she might be a little fiercer. She would not survive court if she was as sweet and trusting as she had been even just with Myrcella and her companions.
Rosamund had been kind, even though Myrcella knew her almost-twin was taking careful note of each and every weakness Lady Sansa displayed, but Myrielle had been Myrielle. From her very first hour as part of Myrcella's household, Myrielle had been cold, acerbic, and calculating, but worse than any of that, she had been obvious about it all. Myrcella's lord grandfather encouraged ambition and greed in his family, but Myrielle's lust for power was tasteless in a way that even Tywin Lannister would surely not condone.
Especially when it manifested as unkind teasing to a girl as innocent as Lady Sansa.
"Lord Umber has been very encouraging to Jon and I," Lady Sansa said, with a sort of delicate confidence that spoke of a lack of female friends. Myrcella was unsurprised, considering what she had come to know of little Mistress Poole, Sansa's dearest friend - a frail little slip of a thing, like an insipid reflection of Myrielle, complete with the transparent ambition, in her case attached to an infatuation with the Greyjoy boy at Winterfell. "He has been most... Accommodating."
"More so than your parents?" Myrcella teased, laughing when Lady Sansa turned her face away. "I mean no harm, my lady, and if you are worried that I might report any improprieties to your lord father, you need not worry."
"Jon has never been anything but perfectly respectful," Lady Sansa said stoutly. "He is a truly good man. He is."
"I believe you," Myrcella assured her, wondering who had been speaking out of turn - Lady Sansa seemed to hear a great deal more than she ought, and doubtless there had been some less than complimentary discussion of the wild-looking Northman betrothed to Lord Stark's delicate, oh-so-southron daughter.
Myrcella had wondered at it, a little, she could not deny it. It seemed odd that Lord and Lady Stark should choose to betroth Lady Sansa so far north, especially when Lady Arya was so obviously better suited to life above the Neck, or so it seemed from what Myrcella had seen of them both. That said, she couldn't deny that Lady Sansa and her massive betrothed seemed well suited, nor could she deny that they visibly doted on one another. Mayhaps Lord and Lady Stark knew their daughters better than Myrcella's parents knew her - that, after all, would not be difficult. Myrcella sometimes marvelled that her father remembered that he had any children at all, much less that he had three.
"What's he like, your Lord Jon?" she asked, for want of something better. "Tell me about him."
And maybe, once Lady Sansa had talked her fill of Lord Jon, Myrcella could ask her more about Lord Robb. They had spoken more than she had expected they would be able to, but he was still a mystery, still a stranger, and she wished to change that.
Her lord father wished to remain at Darry only one night, and then arrive at King's Landing in splendour the following evening - Lord Lyman gave up his own rooms for the King's use, and pushed aside his household and retainers to make way for the King's. Myrcella would have gone mad at all the ceremony and grovelling had it not been for the surprise awaiting them within the Great Hall.
"Uncle!" she called, darting away ahead of her parents to spring into Uncle Renly's waiting embrace. "How wonderful to see you!"
"Such a lovely welcome, golden girl," Renly teased, kissing her forehead and smiling. "Has the road truly been so long?"
"You have no understanding of just how long that road was," she said, low down so only he would hear. He glanced to her mother and to Myrielle and then to Joffie, and she smiled in confirmation - she may not have trusted him in all things, but in this, at least, he was her ally. He loathed her mother more even than her father did, after all. "What brings you to Darry?"
"It was felt that the King ought to be welcomed on his return to the Crownlands," Renly said, "and since I am the brother least likely to insult our new Lord Hand, it was agreed that I should be the one to come - I and Ser Barristan, of course."
Myrcella had not even noticed the Lord Commander behind Renly, too relieved by the sight of a new face to look beyond it. Ser Barristan did not seem to mind, of course, content as always to be a pale shadow one step behind those under his guard.
"Ser Barristan," she said, nodding to acknowledge him, forcing down a wave of embarrassment - she was, after all, the second woman of the realm, and given her lady mother's temperament, she was often the hostess in all but name at the Red Keep. It was her duty to notice everyone present, and it felt unforgivable to miss Ser Barristan of all men.
Myrcella liked the Lord Commander, inasmuch as he could be liked - he was aloof and noble, not in word alone but in deed, too, like Symeon Star-Eyes come forward in time to shame them all for their failings. He was a man made more for admiration than liking, she thought, and had said as much to Rosa more than once - sometimes, when the screaming and bellowing from her lord father's rooms was too much, Myrcella wished that the King had seen fit to mould himself a little more in Ser Barristan's image, upon assuming the throne.
"Princess," Ser Barristan returned with one of his polite, almost demure smiles - never overly friendly, but never even slightly rude. He abhorred rudeness, in her experience, and had, on those extremely rare occasions when he had been set to guard her, taken umbrage with the ruder boys about court and the way they called after Myrcella and her ladies. "Your journey went well, I hope?"
"Exceedingly so, ser," she agreed. "But I am sure you would rather speak to my lord father...?"
"And leave you in your uncle's able care," he agreed with another cool smile. "Ser Arys, well met."
She left the two whitecloaks together, looping her arm through Renly's and allowing him to lead her aside with their heads bowed together. It irked her lady mother terribly when she and Renly whispered together, far more so than when she did the same with Rosa or Elisa or even with Margaery, because her lady mother always assumed that Renly was conspiring about something. He never was, not with Myrcella at least, but things remained tense between them all no matter how she tried to sooth tempers and egos.
"I'm told there's been some disturbance," he said softly, cocking his shoulder to hide both their faces from her parents. "My brother sent word of a disaster at Winterfell, but wouldn't commit detail to a letter."
"Brandon, the middle Stark boy," she said, tugging off her gloves and doing everything in her power to make their conversation seem casual. "He suffered a terrible fall - he was climbing the walls and fell from high up one of the towers."
"Barbaric," Renly said, sounding surprised, and Myrcella half agreed - she hadn't thought of it while at Winterfell, confronted with the grief and fear of Bran's family, but his habits were more than a little wild, and would certainly never have been tolerated in King's Landing. "He lived, though?"
"He was still sleeping when we left," she said, "but he lived - their maester thinks he will never walk, even if he does wake. A shame. He is only ten years old."
"A shame indeed," Renly agreed, frowning now as he so rarely did. "And yet Robert still insisted on Ned Stark coming south? That seems unkind, even for my kingly brother."
"What the King wants, the King must have," she said, keeping most of the bitterness out of her voice - Renly was not Tyrion, and would never notice anyway, but it would not do to let her disappointment with her father show so publicly. "What news of King's Landing, then? I cannot imagine that everything was quiet while we were away."
"Quieter since Stannis retreated to Dragonstone," Renly said, something thoughtful lighting his bright eyes. "But as full of scandal as can be expected - my betrothed and I have done our best to maintain order."
Even had Margaery not been Renly's betrothed, set to marry him before the end of the year, she would have been the first lady of court in the absence of Myrcella and her mother - she was first among Myrcella's ladies, after all, and since the Queen could not tolerate any woman long enough to establish a proper household, Myrcella's ladies were the heart of the court.
So it seemed, anyhow - neither her father nor Joffie had even transitory households, only occasional hangers on who were raised and dropped in esteem as fit the King and Joff's moods. Myrcella alone of them had a true household, since Tommen was too young, and used her ladies as best she could to keep the peace. She was glad that Margaery had stepped in to aid Renly in her absence - she had done it in her mother's absence more times than she could count, and knew it was not an easy duty, but she thought that it might be a duty Margaery would relish.
"I shall shoulder your burdens upon our return," she teased, which made him laugh - it did not take much to make Renly laugh, truth be told, but she still enjoyed doing so, uncertain trust or not. "Did Uncle Stannis take Shireen with him?"
"Unfortunately," Renly said. "I tried to convince him otherwise, golden girl, but you know how he is - nothing will change his mind once it's set."
A shame - Shireen was almost as inconstant a fixture in the maidenvault as Elisa, but Myrcella was sure that time spent with other young women did her good. She was young and shy, but she was clever, too, and insightful in a way that often made Myrielle's short temper snap.
"What do you think of your betrothed?" he asked, a transparent attempt to lighten her mood. "Is he the twin of his terribly honourable father?"
"More like his mother, I think," she said, rolling her eyes and tucking her gloves into her belt. "He is very handsome, and very courteous, and I think that there are a great many worse men I could have been sold off to."
"So cynical," Renly murmured, taking the weight of her cloak as she unclasped her brooches. "You are pleased, though?"
"As I can be," she promised him, because now, with distance between herself and Winterfell, between herself and Robb Stark, it was easier to be concerned with what her life in that far-distant castle would be like. "There are few enough who are wholly pleased with their impending marriages, uncle."
Lady Sansa was bobbing a neat, dainty curtsy to Ser Barristan, smiling that honey-sweet smile of hers, and Myrcella loathed her for a heartbeat. It was pure jealousy, she knew, a sickly, bitter thing borne of desperate envy over the innocence that clung to Lady Sansa like a veil, of the joy that radiated off her at even the mention of her giant, of the happiness she obviously found in her family's company, and it was beneath Myrcella - she was a Princess of the Iron Throne, after all, and it was absurd that she be jealous of anyone.
"Come, then, golden girl," Renly said, uncharacteristically gentle. "Bring me to greet my brother."
He kept her cloak over his arm, kept her on his other arm, and was so gregarious that no one at all noticed that her smiles, for once, had disappeared.
Chapter 12: Myrcella
Myrcella was sitting with Renly, Tommen half-asleep under her arm and Rosa pink-cheeked with sweetwine across the table from them, when Joffie slammed into the great hall.
His tunic, previously a splendid golden velvet, was almost black in the arm and flank, torn to shreds around his left elbow, and he had that infernal sword of his clutched in his right hand - the blade was clean, of course, because Joffie would never be so brave as to raise arms against anyone he thought might beat him, and was too clever to wield his blade against a weaker victim if he stood a chance of being found out and punished.
"I want that monster murdered!" he shrieked, striding right the length of the hall to stand before their parents. "I want it skinned!"
Their lord father began to boom and bluster, their mother to rage and scream, and Lord Stark rose very slowly, unassuming for his plain face and quiet manner, and raised a hand.
Everyone in the hall but Mother went quiet.
"This monster of which you speak, Your Highness," he said, "is, I presume, my daughter's direwolf?"
"That bitch's pet, yes!" Joffie snarled, and Myrcella wished that she could press her face into her hands at his arrogance, his stupidity - but everyone was watching the top table, watching them, and so she had to remain calm. A counterpoint to her parents, as even a balance for them as she could manage.
"Might I ask, Your Highness," Lord Stark said, his voice quiet and calm and deadly cold, "where my daughter might be?"
"I'm here, Father," Lady Sansa called from the doors, still open after Joffie's absurd entrance. Her pretty blue gown was a ruin, stained with muck and with what had to be blood, and torn along the hem - was that the wreckage, tied tight around Joff's arm, high up near the shoulder? That was a maester's trick, to slow bleeding, and Myrcella wondered where a lady like Sansa Stark would have learned such a thing. "Please, Father, Lady isn't a monster, she isn't!"
Lord Stark was around the table and down to Lady Sansa before anyone could react, wrapping her in his cloak and gathering her close, his solid hands gentle on her beautiful hair - Myrcella felt that evil jealousy twisting in her belly again, this time not over Jon Umber but over Ned Stark, who loved his daughter in a way Myrcella's lord father had never loved her.
"Lady is not a monster," he said, just loud enough to carry to the high table. "I would like to know what happened to provoke this display - Sansa?"
"We- we were in the woods, by the river, and, and Jeyne had come back to fetch a shawl, and Prince Joffrey- and she bit him! She didn't even bite him hard, Father, look!"
Myrcella looked at Joff, who was tugging at the sticky, bloodied cloth of his tunic, rounded on Lady Sansa.
"I've been savaged!" he shrieked, voice cracking as if newly broken. "Look at this! Look at it, you little-"
"Enough," the King boomed, a roll of thunder that silenced the whole hall, save for Lady Sansa's sniffles. "Where is the wolf now?"
"She ran away," Lady Sansa sobbed, "Prince Joffrey called her a filthy dog and she ran away along the river, I don't know where she went!"
Lord Stark gathered Lady Sansa close once more, and Joffie looked fit to burst when Father cursed, just loud enough for it to carry - a sure sign of defeat.
"If the wolf is gone, there can be no punishment," he said. "Joffrey, get yourself to a maester - go with him, woman, if it will keep you from caterwauling," he added, this to the Queen, and Myrcella winced at the twist of her lady mother's face.
Renly put his arm around her, tugging both her and a now-alert Tommen closer, and Rosa reached across the table to take her hand. Myrcella's stomach felt as twisted as her mother's face, with fear and with annoyance and with shame - as ever, Joffie had behaved a fool. He must have attacked Lady Sansa to raise her dog's ire, because the animal was near as sweet and eager-to-please as its mistress, and had never raised objection to Tommen's presence, or Myrcella's and Ser Arys'.
"What a mess," Renly said bitterly, watching the King thump down into his grand chair with unconcealed scorn. Myrcella barely spared her lord father a glance, more concerned with the gentle way Lord Stark herded Lady Sansa from the hall, chased by Lady Sansa's bland little friend and Lord Stark's captain, all of them frowning, all of them concerned.
Myrcella had never been given such careful consideration by anyone at all, not in all her life. Was that what awaited her in Winterfell, when she became its lady?
She could not decide if it looked wonderful or smothering.
Tommen refused to settle for his maids, so Myrcella went to him herself.
He was such a bright, clever boy - she loathed that their lady mother treated him as an idiot, because once he overcame his shyness, he was as brilliant as Uncle Tyrion, Myrcella firmly believed that. When she went to him, he had a dusty old book of some sort in his lap, and when she lifted it and closed it, she saw that the cover was so worn that the title had rubbed away.
"Surely there is something else you ought to be doing," she said, pointedly leaning across him to blow out the lamp on the far side of his bed. He smiled shamelessly, likely aware that she would never truly scold him. Even when he was unruly or rude, she could never bring herself to speak harshly to him, knowing as she did just how unkind their lady mother could be when she wanted.
"I cannot sleep, Cella," he said, rising up onto his knees when she sat on the bed. "I keep thinking of what Joffie must have done to Lady Sansa - did she seem hurt, Cella?"
"No, Tom, she didn't," Myrcella assured him, gently guiding him to lie down against the pillows, and then settling alongside him - but over the covers, for their lady mother would surely rage if she thought Myrcella had spent the night with Tommen again. It was only that Tommen had such trouble sleeping in strange beds, and the whole journey to and from Winterfell had been difficult for him - especially, she thought, since he had gotten along so well with Bran Stark, only to have that rare chance for friendship so brutally swept away. "Shaken and scared, but not hurt."
She didn't know what precisely Joffie had done to Lady Sansa, and did not think that she would find out - she had gone to Lady Sansa's room after all the hubbub had subsided, and plain little Jeyne had turned her away, saying that Lady Sansa is unwell. Joffie would never admit to any wrongdoing, of course, and even if he did, their lady mother would cover it all up so no one would ever find the truth of things. All she could tell was that Joff likely hadn't struck Lady Sansa, and he hadn't raped her. That, at least, was a mercy, after the mess he'd created by propositioning her during their stay at Winterfell.
"Do you think, Cella," Tommen said, looking far too fearful for a boy of ten, "that I might be allowed to come and stay with you at Winterfell when Joffie becomes king?"
"Oh, sweetling," Myrcella sighed, smoothing his lovely, soft hair away from his face and smiling as warmly as she could. "You will always be welcome with me - never doubt that."
She'd rather die than see Joff welcomed into her home as King, but it would not do to say such a thing aloud. Who knew who might be listening, after all? Ser Arys had always warned her of that, even more sternly than her mother.
"You realise," she said, settling beside Joff at table the next morning, "that every time you insult or attack Lady Sansa, you push the Starks further from loyalty?"
He scoffed, biting into a Highgarden peach - brought by Renly, in a basket wound with the golden hair ribbons Margaery favoured - and watching the juice trickle over his fingers. He was so painfully arrogant sometimes that it made her want to tear at her hair, but there was no reasoning with him. She could only wait.
"That bitch is ripe for the plucking," he said, looking at her sidelong, as if forgetting that she was not one of his many transitory cronies. "If that savage of hers hasn't fucked her already, I guarantee I'll have her maidenhead before the year is out - she wants it, she's just afraid of what her fool father will say."
Myrcella laughed at that, so long and so hard that even Uncle Jaime's arrival did not halt her.
"What jape has my least favourite nephew shared to make you laugh so, niece?" he said, pouring himself a cup of ale and taking the place directly opposite Joff. "Something vulgar and ugly, I presume?"
"What would a white cloak know of vulgarity?" Joff asked, snickering as if he'd made the wittiest jest in the world. Myrcella rolled her eyes, her own laughter dying a short death, and turned to Uncle Jaime, who was ignoring Joff with an expression of polite, razor-sharp curiosity on his face.
"Joffrey is of the opinion that Lady Sansa and her betrothed are rather closer than is proper," she said, "and even if they are not, he believes that he will have her for a mistress by the end of the year."
There was a heartbeat of silence, and then laughter ripped from Jaime like a roar.
Joff stormed away, crimson-faced and fuming, but hopefully diminished - let him remain so, so he might leave her alone.
Myrcella did not think it likely, but she had to pray for it regardless. Once Joff had set his sights on Lady Sansa, he had decided to lay claim to her, and there would be no dissuading him until she was removed from his company. There was naught else Myrcella could do but pray.
Chapter 13: Quentyn
Here, at least, Quentyn did not come up short.
“If you do one another harm,” Maester Kedry called from under his canopy by the mast, “you will sew up your own wounds.”
“Your concern does you credit, maester,” Cletus laughed, sun flashing off his bright sword and white teeth. “His Highness and I are as brothers, though - we will do no harm, I promise you.”
Quent said nothing, choosing instead to watch Cletus, a little pleased to notice that his friend had still not learned to lower his shield when fighting a man of Quent’s lesser height.
“Your silence on the matter gives me little comfort, Quent,” Cletus teased, stepping left, starting to circle. Quent remained calm, used to Cletus’ japes and jesting, and chose instead to watch Cletus’ footwork. It was smooth, steady, and as perfect as ever, even with the gentle sway of the ship beneath him. Quentyn did not have even half Cletus’ natural grace, but he had the sea-legs of House Nymeros Martell, and had taken to sailing and seafaring with greater ease than he had anything else in his life. His mother had once told him that her mother’s family, Volantene nobles, had been seafarers - smugglers, once, turned princes of trade but not princes in truth, because none who did not have pure Valyrian blood were considered such in Volantis - and so he supposed it was in his blood twice over, as nothing else was. Perhaps that was why this alone seemed to fit him, when nothing else ever had.
Cletus’ sword snapped up, and Quent caught it easily on his shield - a testing blow, without any real speed or strength behind it.
“Perhaps you should meet the Queen without a shirt, cousin,” Nym called from her place beside Kedry, and Quent did not need to look to know she was grinning her best, sharpest viper’s smile. “It might distract her so much you need not flirt.”
He did not look, but he did flush with embarrassment - it was simply too hot to spar in armour, and even their padded gambesons left them all over-hot and incapable of proper fighting. Kedry was not wrong in being concerned that they would hurt one another, although he perhaps should have been more concerned with Gerris and Arch, already hammering at one another just on the far side of the mast, taking advantage of the spacious deck.
Did Nym mean it, though? Quent had never thought himself much to look upon, not with Cletus and Gerris for comparison, but he supposed his arms and chest were fine enough, well muscled from so many years of hard work in the yard, and his stomach was flat, his hips narrow-
He only just caught Cletus’ second blow, this one with his own sword, and scowled to hear Nym laughing - a ruse, then. He wondered for a moment if she and Cletus were sharing a bed, for it was unlike Nym to show even the slightest favour without good cause, and then forgot to wonder when Cletus spun and came at him again, fast and vicious and with his shield just a little too high.
“I still do not know what to do with our visitors,” Quent said, later on, when it was him and Nymeria alone over the cyvasse board. “The lady at least I am sure of-”
“Sure only that she is who she claims,” Nym pointed out, sweeping two of his elephants aside with a well-placed trebuchet hit. “Not sure that anything else she says is true. Do not be swayed by your pity, Quentyn - she is beautiful, and sorrowful, but she is dangerous. My father would not remember her so fondly otherwise.”
That was true, Quent had to admit - while his own father found many people who might be considered boring to be worth great esteem, his uncle was easily bored, and needed companions of a similarly reckless bent. It was a major cause of strife between the sons of Loreza Martell, and would surely always be so.
“And I would doubt even her identity, if not for the fact that I remember the Lady Belowdecks in her previous life. She was our aunt’s closest companion, aside from my father.”
Quent was surprised by that - Nym spoke of their aunt as rarely as their fathers did, even though she was doubtless the one with the best recollection of her. Obara had yet been at Oldtown when their aunt died, Tyene yet in the motherhouse, Sarella yet in her mother’s belly. Nymeria had been there, though, clinging to Oberyn’s fingertips and watching, with those same wide, dark eyes Quentyn found himself arrested by just now.
“And she is so unchanged that you do not doubt her?”
“She is,” Nym said, toying with her butter knife, thoughtful and concerned. “Which is a concern all on its own, I suppose, but we have other concerns which weigh more heavily on me just now - I wish I could write to my father, or even to yours, and ask their advice.”
He was as stunned as if Cletus had knocked him overboard - Nym was never so uncertain and unsure that she admitted to needing advice. Hells, she was usually the one teasing everyone else for being less than absolutely confident!
“We are sailing into unknown waters, little cousin,” she said, “in this and in a thousand other things. We must be as careful as your father, and as brave as mine.”
Quentyn thought his own father a tremendously brave man, for facing his courtiers and bannermen every day despite knowing how they laughed behind their hands at his infirmity, but he did not say so aloud. Nym was melancholy in a way he had never seen before, and it seemed wisest to bite his tongue just for now.
He knocked aside one of her dragons, and she cursed in brilliant Volantene - that, at least, was more usual.
“You fight well, cousin.”
Quentyn lowered the waterskin, wary now, and watching. The man-who-would-be-King was shackled in the shade, not far from where Kedry and Nym were pouring over their maps. Volantis was next on the horizon, where they would dock and gather supplies and perhaps seek out Nym’s mother, who was sister to a triarch and might be of use to them. Nym had not seen her mother in over twenty years, and seemed uncertain as to what sort of reception she might expect, but determined to seek it out nonetheless.
“I am capable with a blade,” he said, wondering now if it had been wise to practice their swordsmanship in sight of such an uncertain companion - too late to wonder, really, but he did so all the same. “Such things are necessary.”
“I have not had the chance to practice since we met, cousin,” Aegon-in-name said, beseeching and charming and a thousand other things Quent would never be. “Might I be allowed-”
“No,” Quentyn said. “No, I am afraid not. Perhaps another time.”
He scrubbed the linen one of his attendants handed him through his hair and over his neck and chest, rubbing away the worst of the sweat - they would be in Volantis the day after next, and when there, he could bathe properly, but for now he had to make do with scant water rations and copious layers of scent - and taking a moment, with his face hidden, to consider his next words.
“I wish things could be different,” he said, accepting a loose linen shirt with a smile of thanks. “But you must understand why they are not.”
“Your doubt and suspicion do you credit,” Aegon said, dipping his head in what seemed to be admiration. “And yet, much and all as I admire it, I still resent it. I wish for us to become friends, cousin.”
“And we may, in time,” Quent said, shrugging into the long jacket of plain red silk his attendants held out behind him. “But for now, we must be cautious. Were our roles reversed, doubtless you would do the same.”
Connington, sitting just behind Aegon, snorted in obvious annoyance, but the Lady trilled a laugh, sitting beyond Connington with her face almost hidden in shadow.
“My dear Prince Quentyn,” she said, “were our roles reversed, there would be no need for caution.”
Quent watched her, the sliver of tired face visible to him, and wondered if perhaps he and Nym had been wrong to consider her their best chance of an ally among the maybe-prince’s company. It seemed, in flashes and starts, that she was more dangerous than Connington or the big knight in the hold could ever be.
Chapter 14: Arya
The howling of the wolves was what woke her - Shaggy and Bran’s wolf, piercing the quiet of the night, driving them all from their beds.
Bran’s wolf. Bran’s room.
She ran, not caring that Mother would scold her for being about the castle in just her nightgown and bed stockings, but Nymeria was at her heels, so no one would dare impede her.
Nymeria joined the howling when they rounded the corner before Bran’s door, and Arya stumbled to a stop, kept from falling only by Ser Rodrick’s suddenly outstretched arm.
“Peace, girl,” he said, pale-faced and older than usual, in the queer light. “Tread carefully.”
She tiptoed into the room, eyes always on the shifting shadows by the bed - Bran, Mother, Rickon - and stopped only when she noticed what lay beyond the bed, between the wolves.
“Gods be good,” she said, watching Nymeria crouch by Shaggy and Bran’s wolf, jumping half a foot in the air when Grey Wind glided past her to join them - it was so strange, to see the four of them without Ghost and Lady, and would have been so even without the dead man on the floor.
“What happened?” Robb demanded, bare-chested and long dagger in hand. “Ser Rodrick, what-”
“This man was going to kill me,” Bran said, stunning them all - his voice was deeper now, as if it had broken half-way in his slumber, and his eyes seemed heavy in his head, but most of all, he was awake. “Mother held the blade, and Summer killed him.”
Arya was already at Mother’s side, taking the lengths of cloth Rickon was tearing from Bran’s sheets and wrapping them carefully around Mother’s beautiful, bloodied hands. Robb moved to lean over the end of the bed, bracing himself near to Bran’s feet.
“Who is Summer?” he asked, for want of anything else - what else was there to be said, after all? Who would want to kill Bran? Why?
“My wolf,” Bran said, patting the bed and smiling when his wolf clambered up to lie alongside him, rumbling like a purring cat through his bloody muzzle. “It’s high time I named him, don’t you think?”
Mother barked a sharp laugh, sudden and short, and then they all fell silent. Arya carefully tied the strips of sheet as tight as she could, wincing to hurt Mother but afraid of letting the bleeding continue unfettered - Mother’s long fingers were twitching, as if damaged, and Arya could not clear the blood well enough to properly see where the cuts were, never mind where they were deepest.
“Send for Maester Luwin,” she said, “and send someone for my robe, and a shirt for Robb. Rickon, were you sleeping here? Get under the blankets beside Bran, stay warm. Mother? Mother?”
Mother blinked, as if coming awake, and smiled thinly.
“Are you warm enough, Mother?” Arya asked, keeping her eyes firmly on Mother’s for fear of her going distant again - she had heard Father tell tales of men going distant after suffering grave injuries in battle, and it never boded well. “Would you like a blanket?”
Robb wrapped the old woven blanket from the foot of Bran’s bed around Mother’s shoulders without being asked. Now that the first shock had worn off, he was scowling, the sort of deep scowl that belonged more on Father’s face than on Robb’s, and his shoulders had gone tense. Arya supposed she would be tense, if this were the first problem she faced as Winterfell’s keeper, and wished she had some pretty words to ease him. Sansa would know what to say, and would likely have stitched Mother’s hands back together by now, too, but Arya would make do with what skills she had, and keep quiet - Maester Luwin would come quickly, and would tend to Mother, and Ser Rodrick would help Robb choose his path over this mess.
Arya tied a thin strip of cloth around each of Mother’s wrists, just to be sure, and while she did that, Robb took a blanket from the chest behind the door and tossed it over the body, to hide it from view. Arya felt something in her back loosen when the man’s face disappeared - she could not remember ever seeing a corpse before, or at least, not one so brutally slain.
Ser Rodrick knocked on the doorframe just as Robb settled alongside Bran, behind Arya, wrapping an arm over his skinny shoulders and kissing the tangle of his hair - all five of them looked up, startled, but Mother offered another of those thin smiles.
“Maester Luwin, my lady,” Ser Rodrick said, “and some men, to move the body, if you permit it.”
“Of course, ser,” Mother said, nodding despite the tremor in her voice, “please send Maester Luwin in.”
Maester Luwin hardly blinked to see Bran sitting up, awake, and instead sat beside Arya on the edge of the bed, in front of Mother.
“Did you wrap these, Lady Arya?” he asked quietly, setting his case to his other side and taking Mother’s hands into his lap. “Fine work indeed, I think.”
Arya watched what he was doing carefully, only a little aware that the boys were murmuring between themselves, and mirrored his cautious touch on Mother’s other hand - the sooner they had her wounds tended the better, surely?
“Lord Rickon,” Maester Luwin said over his shoulder, not looking away from Mother’s hands, “run down to the kitchens, ask Gage for a tot of Barth’s small beer for your lady mother, to sooth her nerves, good lad.”
Rickon bounced off the bed, jostling all of them, and whistled for Shaggy to follow him as he went - they hurtled off together, Robb settled more comfortably beside Bran, and Arya kept watching Maester Luwin’s work.
It did not look so very difficult, in truth.
“Now comes the difficult part,” he said, and Arya felt her face grow hot - she hadn’t realised that the maester was watching her as close as she was watching him! “Mind me now, my lady, see how I go.”
She watched hard as he carefully uncoiled Mother’s slightly clenched fingers, ignoring her hiss of discomfort, and held it to the light of the little glass-cased lantern Robb was holding out - Mother’s sewing lantern, now she looked - to examine it.
“Ah,” the maester said, sounding relieved. “Well, at least you will keep all your fingers, my lady - come, Lady Arya, look here.”
Arya came, and looked, and saw Mother’s bone shining pale in more places than one.
“These sinews here,” Luwin said, pointing out the stringy parts sort of visible between the meat of Mother’s fingers and palm, “are still connected, and so your lady mother will still have movement in her hands if we sew her wounds properly - would you like to help me?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Arya said, retreating to her previous spot and ducking her head, to hide behind her hair. “My stitches-”
“Are straight and even,” Luwin said. “I have seen them, my lady, and they are precisely as they should be for work such as this. Here, this is the needle you will be using, and this the thread. Thread the needle for me, and we will decide what to do then.”
Arya’s hands shook as she fiddled at the eye of the needle, but she managed to thread it, and passed it back to Maester Luwin without incident. He seemed to realise how little she wished to aid in this, and instead passed her a glass bottle, and a cloth.
“Wash your lady mother’s other hand with this,” he said. “The cuts on that hand are not quite so deep, but I must be able to see them clearly all the same. I will stitch if you wash.”
Arya nodded, and carefully daubed away the blood caking and clinging to Mother’s hand while the maester went about his work. Underneath the blood, Mother’s fingers were blue with cold, and Arya wished she could hold onto them to warm them - but surely that would hurt.
“Are you cold, Arya?” Mother asked. “Come here, sweetling, sit under my blanket with me.”
Arya had not noticed that she was shivering, but when she curled under Mother’s outstretched arm, under the heavy blanket, she was surprised by just how cold she felt.
“Why would anyone wish to kill Bran, Mother?” she asked, barely daring to even whisper the words. “He has never done anything that anyone should want him dead.”
“No, sweetling, he has not,” Mother said, the foggy distance gone from her eyes, replaced by fury. “But I shall find out who sent that man, and I will make certain they pay for this, you can be sure of that.”
They all slept in Bran’s room that night, piling onto his bed and sharing the extra blankets to keep warm - even Mother, although she remained in her chair, and Rickon abandoned the bed to curl up on the rug with Shaggy at some stage.
“My legs aren’t working,” Bran said, when Robb moved to help him up from bed. “What am I to do? I cannot stay in bed all the time.”
Mother was gone to bathe and dress, and to wash her hair - she had washed it only once in the three weeks since Bran’s fall, and Arya’s stomach had dropped in sympathy when Mother’s maid had come and suggested it. She could not imagine how horrible it would feel, and how much soap it would take.
But Bran’s legs were a more pressing issue than Mother’s hair, she knew - what were they going to do?
“For now,” Robb said, “I will carry you down to the hall, and back up-”
“You have the whole of Winterfell to run,” Bran pointed out, looking more embarrassed than anything else, which Arya could not understand. Were she in his position, she would be raging, cursing the gods both old and new. “Perhaps- no, Ser Rodrick has other duties, and Rickon is not big enough-”
“I could!” Rickon put in, bouncing on the bed as though this were a normal morning. “I could carry you if you needed me to, Bran, I could!”
“I don’t doubt it, little brother,” Bran promised him, “but I will need to be carried everywhere, unless some other solution is found, and then you would never have time for anything else.”
Rickon stopped bouncing, pouting in annoyance - torn, obviously, between standing by Bran and acting his age. Arya might have laughed, in other circumstances.
“What are we to do, then?” she asked, tying a ribbon around the end of her braid - a plain ribbon, brown and unremarkable, but a concession to Mother, who was so angry and scared that Arya would have done a great deal more to offer her comfort than just wear a ribbon in her hair. “I cannot carry you, and as you say, Robb has duties to attend to.”
“Hodor could carry you, if you don’t mind his company, Bran,” Robb said thoughtfully. “Just until we find some better solution - perhaps we could move you into chambers on the ground floor, too? Rickon might like to move as well, to keep you company - and it would suit the wolves better, no doubt.”
“Me and Shaggy will move,” Rickon said firmly, beaming at Bran. “We can have chambers alongside one another!”
“Maester Luwin hasn’t said you can leave bed just yet, so it will be a few days before we must think too hard on this,” Robb said, quiet and gentle and bizarrely like Father, considering how little he had of Father’s look. “Perhaps in that time, we shall find a better solution.”
Bran smiled, as thin and pained as Mother’s smiles from the night before, and Robb left them, trailed by Rickon and Shaggy and Grey Wind.
Bran’s smile fell as soon as the door closed.
“I’ll bring you books,” she said, “and anything else you might want - we’ll find some way of helping, Bran, I know we will-”
“Nothing will help,” he said, turning to look out the window. “I flew, Arya, and I fell, and I shall never even stand again. You should go, attend to your own duties. I will be fine.”
He would not be, she knew, but she did not want to upset him - so she left, Nymeria behind her, and hoped that they could find something, anything , to help.
Before Bran was even out of bed, Mother was wrapping herself in her travelling cloak.
“You must be brave, my darlings,” she said, touching Robb’s face with one bandaged hand and Arya’s face with the other. “I will be home as soon as I may - heed Maester Luwin, and Gage and the others.”
“We will, Mother,” Arya said, painfully aware that she was no fit replacement for their mother, not as Robb was for their father. “We will do our best to keep Winterfell standing for your return.”
Mother smiled once more, and then turned away, accepting Ser Rodrick’s help in mounting her horse. It was a long road to King’s Landing, and they would be best served to leave now, early in the day, to give themselves their best start.
Arya wished more than anything that they would stay, or that she could go with them.
“Is it brave,” Robb asked on a whisper, “to admit that I wish she was not leaving?”
Arya shook her head, linked her arm through Robb’s, and turned back to the keep - it was starting to rain, after all, and there was much to be done.
Chapter 15: Asha
“Welcome though you always are at Ten Towers, niece, I do wonder what has kept you here so long on this visit.”
Asha lifted her head from the book she had chosen from the Reader’s library, a little ashamed at having been called on what felt like cowardice.
“There’s madness afoot on Pyke, nuncle,” she said, closing her book but keeping it in her hand - a book on dragonlore, in a time of dragons, if the rumours she had heard during her stop in Volantis were to be believed - as she rose to speak with Rodrick, eye to eye. He was not a tall man, her mother’s brother, and she was a tall woman, so they were matched, more or less. “I worry, and wish to spy it from afar - I was too close when I docked to see my father, but from here, I think I can see the shape of it.”
“And is that shape a black ship with a red deck?” he asked, “captained by a dangerous fool?”
The most scandalous of her father’s brothers had visited the Isles for the first time in years not long before Asha’s departure, The Crow’s Eye was a fascinating man, but a terrible one, and Asha had not trusted a word from his blued lips - the Reader had shared her doubts, as had no few of her friends among her father’s bannermen.
“What fools he thinks us,” she said, looking away to hide her rage. The Reader did not approve of such extremes as she sometimes felt, but that did not make her feel them any less. “Expecting us to believe that he has journeyed to Valyria of old, as though it is not known the world over that such a journey guarantees death!”
“Mayhaps he has been to Valyria,” the Reader said, surprising her - he had been more sceptical of Euron’s wild claims than anyone! “But I know for certain that he has dabbled in sorcery. I have looked into him quite closely in your absence, and have heard… Disquieting things in response to my enquiries.”
“What enquiries are these?”
“A reader may find friends all across the known world, niece,” he said, eyes twinkling in amusement, “and am I not the Reader?”
“Tell me of these enquiries,” Asha pressed. “Will your revelations keep the Crow’s Eye from my father if shared with our people?”
The sway Euron exercised over her father frightened Asha, particularly now that she had seen her father for herself - it seemed to her that they were in genuine danger, that he would return them all to the Old Way if given a weak leader to guide.
A weak leader like her long-missing baby brother, for example.
“He will remain at your father’s side for as long as your father will have him, regardless of what the people think,” the Reader said, all laughter gone from his sharp eyes. “He must have a worthy opponent, an alternative more enticing than Victarion or the Damphair.”
Victarion would never entice anyone to anything, save his men to their deaths in battle - he was a fanatic, just as deep in lunacy as Aeron, but directed differently. Victarion believed in the Old Way as some men believed in gods, and was dangerous for his close-mindedness, his certainty.
Aeron was something else altogether, a zealot but a peaceful man, a man not given to excess in anything save his devotion to the Drowned God. His fear had sparked something in Asha’s heart, a fear of her own, a fear that followed the same shape as the shadow looming over Pyke.
All of it came down to the Crow’s Eye. She wondered how much of their fears Euron saw, with his bright blue eye, and with the black.
“Whatever nonsense my fool brother has put in your head of being his heir, you can forget it!” Gwynesse said, imperious and proud, as she poured tea into delicate cups. “I am the rightful ruler of Ten Towers, and I will have my rights!”
“I’m sure you think so, sister,” the Reader said, rolling his eyes to Asha over Gwynesse’s shoulder. “But that is not for you to decide - now pour the tea, and show Asha some affection, hmm?”
Asha smiled, accepting Gwynesse’s scowling offer of tea, and glanced about.
Her mother was absent again. Unsurprising, but no less worrying for it. Alannys Harlaw was absent as much from the real world as from meal times, and Asha worried constantly for her mother - in that, at least, she was not concerned for her father. He still loved his wife deeply, even if he did seem to resent Asha for reminding him of her mother’s plight, and that boded well for Asha’s hopes to lever herself between him and the Crow’s Eye.
“And that boy of yours,” Gwynesse said, staring harder at Asha now. “He flirted with me! How dare he! I am his host!”
“I think you’ll find that I am his host, sister,” Lord Rodrick said cheerfully, sipping at his tea and smiling. Asha had gifted him with a pair of Myrish seeing-glasses, found on her travels, and he wore them constantly - they made him look an owl, his eyes huge and staring behind them, but he loved them, so Asha hid her laughter. “And our niece has her crew well in hand - I am sure no harm will come to anyone as a result of their presence here.”
Asha knew that for a fact, because her crew knew the penalty for causing harm - there had been incidents, early in their long journey, when some of her men had tried to take women who were less than willing, or to pillage when they had stock to trade, and each infringement had cost them a finger, or an ear, or a toe. They had not been long about coming into line.
“I will skin any man who harms you alive, aunty,” she said, swallowing her bitter tea. “Worry not on that front - they are good boys, so long as they continue to fear me.”
Gwynesse looked less pleased by that than Asha felt she ought, but it would do - anything that quelled Gwynesse’s razored tongue would do.
“Your fool mother has been trouble enough, without your crew, ” Gwynesse grumbled, “always wailing and moaning about her absent babes.”
“Not so absent now,” Asha said, “and yet she can hardly stand to look upon my face - are you sure that my brothers and me are the cause of her pain?”
“You four, and your rotten-smelling father,” Gwynesse hissed, fists clenched tight on the table top. “My sister has known nothing but pain from the day she took Balon Greyjoy’s name.”
Rotten-smelling, she had called Lord Balon. Like the stench Qarl had noticed over Pyke, like the greasy shadows that permeated the hall around the Seastone Chair, like the shadows that infested her dreams, trailing the ghost of the Silence.
Qarl looked surprised when Asha stormed aboard, weighed down by a case of books from her uncle’s library and more worries than she had borne in a long while.
“My mother is losing her mind,” she said, “and my father is not far behind her. My uncles are at war, and the winner is plain from here - what kind of Isles will we have if Euron rises to the throne?”
Qarl spat over the side of the ship, quiet as he so rarely was, and turned to look her in the eye after a long, thoughtful silence.
“Not the sort of Isles for the likes of us, I think,” he said. “What heading, captain?”
“I think,” Asha said, “that we ought seek out the Damphair, and seek his counsel - two uncles who see beyond these islands of ours have I, and I would have wisdom from each of them.”
“Great Wyk, then,” Qarl said, offering her half a bow before turning for the helm.
Asha waited there, at the top of the gang plank, and turned to look back up at the heights of Ten Towers.
There, a pale ghost that might have been her mother.
Beyond, a dark shadow that was likely her aunt.
And here, waving down at her in farewell, with his ridiculous Myrish lenses perched on his nose, was the Reader, as constant as the salt in the sea.
“Great Wyk, then,” she said, and gestured for two of the lads to come forward and lift the plank. Best to set off with this fine wind behind them, and hope for the best ahead of them.
Perhaps it was time to write to Theon, far inland at Winterfell, and tell him that he ought to seek home - he would doubtless be next to useless after so long so far from the sea, but he might work as a symbol, or as a support.
Because it was clear now, as clear as the sun in the sky above her - if Balon Greyjoy fell, Asha herself could well be all that stood between the Crow’s Eye and the Seastone Chair.