Petyr Baelish is a curious man.
Sansa has never quite met his like—the tongue of a singer masking the mind of a strategist. She thinks perhaps that every conversation, every gesture or address is a battle for him. She says as much, once, and he laughs at her, petting her hair and smiling in a way that Sansa hates.
"Not a battle, sweetling; an art. Conversation and deception can be learned, just as the needle or the sword. Perhaps I shall teach you."
There's naught that Sansa wishes to learn from Littlefinger. His hand cards through her hair, trailing down her temple and curling around her jaw. She wants to shudder, but she smiles prettily instead, and Alayne says, "If it please you, my lord father." She even leans in to kiss him lightly on the cheek without having been asked. That does please him; the hard smirk leaves his eyes, and he strokes her cheek.
There is naught she wants to learn, but there is much she feels she must. She is such a dutiful student already.
She may be Alayne from dawn to dusk, but when she closes her eyes at night and opens them to the cold sunlight of the Vale, she is a Stark of Winterfell.
It's always in her dreams. Her family is, sometimes, but only in echoes and glimpses: Lady Catelyn's voice leaking out from under doorways; Bran's foot, pushing up against a window ledge as he climbs as high as the walls will take him; the thud of Robb's blunted sword rising from the yards; even her bastard brother Jon is there, sometimes, half in shadow with Arya always pulling him into the light.
But the only constant is Winterfell. In her dreams, Sansa walks its halls once more, the warmth of the walls melting the chill that has settled into her bones since she arrived at the Vale. She sees the faces of the guardsmen and servants she has known all her life and smiles at them, but they walk past her, not noticing.
Sansa wakes with tears on her face, but there is no sadness in her. Winterfell is no place for Alayne.
Robert Arryn is going to die; of that she is very sure.
Nevertheless, Alayne is fond of her little lord. Once it had occurred to her that her father had no intentions of letting him live long enough to wed her, the loathing had flown out of her as though a window had opened inside her. Now she tends to him as a mother might. He loves her songs and stories, nearly as much as she does (did; Alayne is a practical girl, with no use for childish tales) and always holds his temper in her presence. He still likes to sneak to her bed in the night, but Alayne has grown accustomed to it; a warm body is a welcome bedmate in the Eyrie, and when his head droops too near her breasts, she simply rolls over and lets him lean against her back.
One drowsy afternoon, when Robert is reeling from sweetsleep ("It tastes horrid," he'd complained of his milk; Alayne feigned a sip and told him she thought it delightful), he leans against her arm and says, "I'm glad Mother's gone. She'd have never let you sing to me."
Alayne jerks away from him and grabs his shoulders sharply. "You mustn’t say that. You mustn’t ever say that. Swear to me you won't."
Robert's lower lip shakes, and she knows that she has overstepped herself. "I'm sorry, my lord," she murmurs, pulling him close before he starts shaking. "Please forgive me, Sweetrobin, I only meant to respect your dear mother's memory."
He sniffles, staring up at her with watery eyes and a runny nose. "Truly?" he asks her, holding tightly to her sleeve. "But Mother—"
"Your lady mother was a good woman and loved you dearly," she says smoothly. "Now, shall I sing you Florian and Jonquil?" That contents him, and he falls asleep as she strokes his brow and hums softly. She settles him into bed gently, pulling the covers tight around him and pretending she doesn't see the way his hands shake. It was only half a lie, anyway, she distracts herself.
"Well done," says Petyr from the doorway. She had known he was there. Littlefinger makes no effort to be sly around Lord Robert, who seldom takes notice of him in plain sight. Alayne dips her head in an abbreviated curtsy. Sansa Stark would be embarrassed to slight the formality, but Alayne is only bastard-born.
"Thank you, Father," she says, doing her best to keep the strain from her voice. "He's a good child, though frail."
"So it would seem," her father smiles, amused. "Perhaps I should send you all the young lords of the Seven Kingdoms, if they love you such. We might end these dreadful wars with a lullaby instead of a sword."
"I wouldn't presume, my lord—"
"I know you wouldn't, child," Lord Petyr says, striding across the room to stand in front of her. "You'll make a fine mother some day," he tells her, taking her gently by the chin and tipping her head back.
Not to yours, never to yours, Sansa screams. "I'm pleased that you think so, Father," Alayne replies with due gratitude.
"You look so like your mother," he murmurs, his eyes going far away. She's not sure if he means Lady Catelyn or the imaginary woman who had whelped his bastard daughter; Littlefinger makes no distinction between the truth and this mummer's game they play. Sometimes she wonders if he knows the difference.
She coughs to give herself a reason to turn away, then excuses herself to see to dinner.
She isn't in Winterfell now; it's some strange castle she's never seen before, but familiar voices soar past her and familiar faces walk by, patting her head gently. Some look down at her sadly; she takes no notice.
Hours pass, and she remains content to watch the day roll by her, head cocked curiously. Eddard Stark kneels in front of her, after a second or a decade, blocking her line of vision. He looks grim, but Lord Eddard is always grim. She makes a warm noise, somewhere between a whine and a yelp, but he just keeps looking at her with his sad wolf eyes. He scratches her behind the ear and kisses her between the eyes—she has to blink, because his scruff itches her face. He raises his sword.
"Lady," Sansa chokes, sitting up in bed. Her hands fly to her throat, and for a moment she can't breathe. "Father," she says, softer, looking around the darkened room.
"M'lady?" a voice calls, and for a moment Sansa hopes, but it's only a maidservant. "Are you well, m'lady? Shall I fetch your lord father?"
"You can't, he's—" Dead, they're all dead. "You mustn't disturb Lord Petyr," Alayne tells her, breathing heavily. "My poor father hardly rests at all. He needn't worry over my nightmares. You may go."
There is a servant boy, only a little older than herself, who tends to the kitchens and sometimes brings meals to Lord Robert. He isn't much to look at; thick-set and squat, with a face so full of pimples she sometimes wonders if he has skin underneath at all. But Sansa watches. On a snowy, frostbitten evening, she acts.
He collects Robert's leavings, platters of half-eaten meals, sometime between the sinking of the sun and the rising of the moon. She waits in an alcove until he makes his way out into the hall and, making toward Robert's rooms, she collides with him hard enough to knock them both down.
"My lady," he exclaims at once, kneeling down both as a courtesy and to pick up his dishes. "My apologies, my lady, I did not see you."
"I'm no lady," she says charmingly, noting the way he relaxes perceptibly when she crouches down next to him. "And it is I who must apologize, friend. My mind was elsewhere and I did not watch where I was walking." She gathers up the remaining plates and hands them to him.
"The fault is mine," he argues, but good-naturedly. "I hope you are unharmed, my—er—"
"Call me Alayne," she instructs, and he smiles at her.
Allies are most convenient when you know something they do not. She learned that from her father.
Littlefinger sends for her that night, when she's nearly asleep. She jolts awake when her maidservant enters, half-realized dreams swimming behind her eyes. She grasps for them to no avail, so she slips into a robe instead and hastens for Lord Petyr's chambers.
He always keeps his rooms warm. Even in the frozen heights of the Eyrie, his solar feels like King's Landing in the summertime. It suits him, she thinks; his home is in the Fingers, but he was made for the south; his sharp wit, sharper tongue, his stylish dress, his keen mind. His treachery. His scheming. Sansa rattles them off bitterly and silently as she edges into the room. Petyr looks up and smiles; he is deep in his cups tonight, she can tell. He beckons her forward and pours a second cup of wine.
“My dear Alayne,” he greets her warmly. “How do you fare tonight?”
“Well, Father,” she tells him. He gestures for her to sit and she does, perching gingerly on the edge of her chair. She does not touch the wine; he knew that she wouldn't, she can tell by his smile. Her cup sits untouched, a silent, private jape between them.
“We shall depart for the Gates of the Moon before the week is out,” he tells her. “I trust you will attend my stepson on the descent.” His eyes dance, but not with their usual precision. “He's a frail thing, and he does love you so.”
“Of course, my lord. I am always happy to care for him.” She hesitates but for a moment. “I fear for him, my lord. His health worsens by the day.”
“Truly?” Lord Petyr's facsimile of concern is a wonder to behold. “Have you told Maester Coleman of your worries?”
“I have. He seems to think that the sweetsleep will only harm Lord Robert, if he continues to drink it so often. He mentioned it was your command to strengthen the dose.” Her finger runs idly along the rim of her cup.
“That which cures may also kill,” Petyr says with a shrug. “I have faith. Perhaps these ills must get worse before they get better, my sweetling.” He smiles still. Did he grin so when he bought Lord Eddard's death, Sansa wonders. She isn't fool enough to say it aloud.
“I'm sure you're right, Father. May I be excused?”
Petyr doesn't answer her directly. He takes a long drink of wine and then stares out his window. “Would that it were not so dark,” he says finally. “I think I'd very much like to take a walk in the snow.”
Sansa thinks of her icy mock of Winterfell; of her aunt's fall, skirts billowing for a long moment and then silence. “I fear I can't abide the cold, as of late.”
“A pity,” says Littlefinger. “Surely it is warmer here than in your quarters. Perhaps you should stay.”
“If it please my lord,” Sansa says carefully, determined not to let him see her flinch, see her fists clenched in her lap.
He stares straight at her, eyes dark, in the way that makes her feel naked despite all her layers. “It does.”
Sansa is through with clever men.
She dreams instead of the Hound, inexplicably. She rides through the Riverlands by his side, a sword heavy at her hip and a wicked smile on her face. She is a warrior queen, strong and unflinching, beautiful and terrible. Sandor Clegane kneels before her, brings her Joffrey's head on a pike. She lets him kiss her feet, and then more. She lays a hand on his scarred cheek.
She wakes, flushed and smiling strangely. The Hound had frightened her once, when she still felt a child. But she knows her life has changed; Sansa Stark is all but dead. When she was still a highborn girl, people called her lady and that had pleased her; no one calls Alayne anything but for Petyr, who calls her sweetling and makes her shiver. She doesn't think the Hound would change his mind now that she wasn't Sansa any longer; he’d still see a little bird.
Nymeria was always Arya's favorite story, but Sansa had felt strong in her dream, and brave. She likes that feeling. “Give me an honest brute any day,” she decides, and wraps her arms around herself. She is not going to think of Littlefinger, of his hands or his mouth, not here in her bed, in her dreams where she is untouchable.
Alayne is in Petyr's study, burrowed deep in dusty books about kings and queens of old when her boy comes to find her. It is dull reading in truth, and when he taps her on the shoulder she jumps, having already let her eyes drift shut. She is glad for the intrusion—she doesn't want to fall asleep in Littlefinger's rooms—but she feels she must chastise him all the same. Any daughter would do well to protect her father, after all.
“You should not be here,” she scolds him. “Lord Petyr would be wroth to find you in his private rooms.”
“I only meant to—” but he doesn't tell her what he only meant to do, just trails off hesitantly. Sansa notices his eyes are trained on her lips and she smiles graciously.
“Can you spare a moment to walk with me, my friend?” she asks him, all sweetness.
“Of course, my la—Alayne.” He attempts a deep bow. “I would be honored.”
She thanks him when he opens the door for her and steers them toward the High Hall. It's a cold room, too bright and too pale, but the windows look out over everything; she fancies she can see all of Westeros laid out before her, castles and towns as small as their likenesses on a map. She likes the view. She wants to see it once more before she makes the trek down to the Gates. She says as much to him and he laughs.
“I hadn't thought you cared for the Eyrie,” he tells her when she looks at him quizzically.
Alayne purses her lips in thought. “I suppose I don't,” she reasons, “but there are things I will be sad to leave.”
The servant boy blushes an astonishing shade of red. “Are you worried about departing, my lady?” he says loudly, staring at his feet.
Alayne looks at him knowingly. “Not at all,” she replies, and casually links her arm through his. “I'm a fair rider, and the heights do not frighten me.”
“Mules aren't horses,” he argues. “Horses will obey. A mule is too stubborn to eat if somebody sets food in front of him.”
“And what know you of horses?” she laughs, a clear, tinkling sound. “I can't imagine there's much room for riding in the Eyrie.”
His chest puffs up proudly. “I used to be a stable boy at Stone,” he informs her.
“However did you come to serve here?”
“I got tired of life on the ground.” They've reach the Hall now, and his eyes stare far out the great windows. “I suppose I wanted to know what it meant to fly.”
Her boy is quite shocked to learn that approximately two hours after he leaves her at her quarters, he is to replace one of Lord Robert's attendants and accompany their party to the Gates of Moon.
Robert creeps to her chambers hours before dawn on the day they're meant to leave.
“Alayne,” he whispers. “Alayne, are you sleeping?”
She had been, but she sits up and draws the covers back for him. “What is it, sweet one?” she says, forcing the sleepiness out of her voice. He slides in beside her and curls around her body, presses his cold nose to her arm.
“I'm frightened, Alayne,” he tells her, shivering. She nearly gets up to call for the Maester but this is not his sickness; only a child's fear. “You always tell me that I am brave but I'm not.”
“Oh, my lord,” she tells him, pets his hair. “Listen: a man must be truly frightened before he can be brave. That is a truth my lord father says often.” She doesn't realize what she's said until she says it, and horror is etched on her face. The room is dark, though, and Robert cannot see it.
“Lord Petyr does not think I am brave,” he sniffs, clutching her tighter.
“Lord Petyr thinks many thinks and says few of them,” she says. “You mustn't judge so harshly. He has your interests at heart.” She wonders when lying became so natural to her; was it in King's Landing, surrounded by a siege of lions, or in the Eyrie, next to just one mockingbird?
“Will you sing to me, Alayne?” he asks her. “Florian and Jonquil?”
“No, little one,” she says. “A different song tonight, I think.”
After Robert is asleep, she calls out into the shadows. “One day he might see you, my lord. He mistrusts you greatly as it is.”
Petyr steps into the moonlight. “You have a lovely voice, Alayne. Would that I heard it more often.”
“You need only ask, Father.” Littlefinger smiles, threads his hand through her hair.
“Am I your father tonight, sweetling? Or were you dreaming of someone else?” His hand tightens. Sansa will not flinch.
“I shall remain your true and loyal daughter, my lord,” she tells him. Her arm is firm around Robert's sleeping body. Petyr releases her hair, lets his hand slide down to chuck her under the chin.
“Of course you are,” Petyr says and kisses her forehead. His lips linger more than she likes. “Rest now, dear one. You've a long journey ahead.”
“You've no idea how long,” Sansa whispers to an empty room.
Alayne has always admired her bed at the Eyrie. The mattress is softer than any other she's known, the blankets heavy, but the frame is a thing of beauty; wrought-iron and studded with miniscule moonstones, the rails curling up like so many grasping hands. She sits down gingerly and the corner of the bed and studies it, pushing up her sleeve as far as it will go. There are old scars covering her arms, the last of Joffrey's courtesies; she should be thanking him, really, she tells herself, and feels a hysterical laugh bubbling in her throat. She forces it down and breathes deeply.
Her breath hitches when she slams her arm against the bed rails, but she allows herself no more than that.
It has to be this way, she tells herself, pulling a cloak around her shoulders and hurrying to meet her party in High Hall.
He seeks her out when they stop at Snow for a rest, as she knew he would.
“You should not follow me so,” she scolds him halfheartedly, pushing her hair off her face. Her sleeve rides up as she does it; she'd picked a dress she'd almost outgrown for that very reason.
“Alayne,” her boy cries, eyes widening. He takes her by the elbow and stares at the bruises there: purple fingers blossoming against the white skin of her arm. He sees the old scars, too, and all but recoils.
“You mustn't,” she pleads weakly, “My lord father—“
“This is ungallant, my lady,” he tells her darkly. “Someone must be told.”
“To what avail?” she demands. “Even if someone believed the word of a bastard over that of Lord of the Eyrie, what would little Robert think? They'd send me away to a motherhouse, and there would be no one to care for him. My Sweetrobin is so fragile already, he could not bear it.” She takes him by the shoulders imploringly, stares up at him with frightened eyes. “My dearest friend, I beg you. Keep your silence.”
“As you wish,” he says stiffly. She knows he is unsatisfied. It's what she wanted. He gives a stunted bow and leaves her, and the ill feeling that has been brewing in her stomach drives her to her knees. She retches until her sides are sore, but nothing comes out and she is left only the taste of sick in the back of her throat.
Alayne is my story, she thinks, dusting off her skirts. I can do with her as I please.
She sits at Petyr's right.
The titters of the lords and ladies present at Stone make their way to her ears, but she pays them no mind. Littlefinger grows bolder by the day, but he is never sloppy. Perhaps he plans to produce a noble tale when he reveals her identity, how he couldn't bear to see her dishonored so. From the way his arm keeps brushing hers, Sansa knows that any such tale would be an afterthought, at best.
“What a charming girl,” says some little lordling.
“She is my every joy,” Petyr replies, smiling fondly. Sansa meets her boy's eyes from across the hall; he stares at her for a few hard moments before he slips out of the room.
“My lords are very kind,” she says demurely, “but I fear my journey has left me quite exhausted. Please excuse me.” She rises and exits the room quickly, before anyone can ask questions of her.
He is at the stables, waiting for her. A woman's weapon, Cersei had told her once. Sansa had learned well.
“I know you feel you can't leave,” he begins, cutting her off as she opens her mouth to speak, “but you must, Alayne, I can't bear to see you this way. I'll care for Robert if needs be. All I ask is that you go somewhere safe.”
“How am I to leave? I'll never pass through the Gates. You're dear, but there's no way I can.”
“There is a small path,” he tells her, eyes glinting. He's proud of himself for this. “Three leagues before you reach the Gates, you'll see it to the left. It's overgrown and a hard ride, but it will take you out of harm. You'll wind up on the mainroad and there will be an inn an hour's ride out.” He takes her hands in his. “Talk to the innkeep. Tell him why you've come. He has a good heart, he will keep you on as a serving maid.”
She cups his face. “You'll be punished.”
“I won't.” He looks at her shyly. “If my lady permits, I plan to join her later.”
“Nothing would make me gladder,” Alayne tells him, tears pricking her eyes.
“Good. Now tell me again, what path shall you take?”
“Three leagues before the Gates of the Moon on my left, and then an inn an hour's ride on the mainroad,” she recites.
“Perfect.” He lifts her up onto a horse, already saddled. “Ride hard, sweet Alayne.”
“My truest friend,” she says sweetly, and strokes his cheek once more. She snaps the reins and her horse whinnies, galloping swiftly out of the yard.
He will not be so loving when Littlefinger throws him into a sky cell, Sansa knows. Or even if he does make it out, surely he'll be loath to call her sweet Alayne when he finds her absent at that inn. She realizes she never knew his name. Perhaps it was better that way.
Idly, she wonders what sort of story Petyr will concoct to explain her absence. Perhaps Alayne Stone was kidnapped and sold to a pleasurehouse in Braavos. Maybe she is being held for ransom by the mountain tribes. Or perhaps she turned traitor. Traitor's blood. Sansa's face goes blank and she stops thinking about Alayne.
“It matters not,” she says to her horse. “I'll be back, soon enough.” Back with the fury of the north behind her. She pictures Petyr Baelish flailing and grasping for purchase as he leaves through the Moon Door. She shudders, but she cannot fight the smile, either.
Dawn is breaking by the time she reaches the mainroad. Sure enough, she's passed the Gates; they stand menacing, leagues behind her. She rides faster, and prays for empty roads.
Her prayers go unanswered. Barely a quarter-hour later, she hears hoofbeats, shortly followed by the silhouette of a rider. A knight, she notes, helmed and bearing an unfamiliar sigil. He comes upon her in a matter of moments.
“I bid you good morning, ser,” she says hesitantly. “Would I knew why you bar my path.”
“I mean you no ill, my lady,” the knight replies, bowing his head. “I am looking for a girl of three-and-ten, with auburn hair; my sister.”
Her heart nearly leaps with joy. But no, this isn't Robb; Robb lies dead in the ground, headless and defaced. “You lie, ser,” she says, fiercely quiet. “She is not your sister. What do you want of Sansa Stark?”
The knight's shock is palpable. “My lady requests that I deliver Sansa to her.”
“Who is your lady?” she demands. Not Cersei, she prays with all her heart.
“The Silent Sister, child. Lady Stoneheart.”
“And what does she intend to do with the girl when she has her?” She does her best to keep her voice even, though her fingers grip the reins so tightly her hands turn ghostly white and violent red. The knight stares at her knowingly, blue eyes penetrating even through the helm.
“Protect her. Hide her from those who wish her ill.” He dismounts and Sansa nearly screams, thinks, perhaps he will kill me quickly; but then, to her amazement, he kneels before her. “Lady Sansa, I pledge you my service, and I swear to you on this sword, I will keep you safe.”
The words seem to pass through her and she only hears their echoes from several feet behind her; even then, she has to bite her tongue to assure herself that she is awake. She swallows back bile and exhales a sigh of relief. “And what shall I call you?” she asks, straightening regally in her saddle. Anything but Florian would suffice, she muses darkly.
The knight looks up and smiles crookedly. “Brienne, my lady.”