Despite all of its majesty, despite the power it represents, despite its cleanliness, the most prominent trait of the Red Keep is its stink. It's not a distinct smell, or even particularly unpleasant, but it strikes Arya as sickly sour and distinctly southern. She hates it. Even the burning of the Riverlands and the rancid scent of death do not set her on edge as thoroughly as the memories of the stench in King's Landing. To remedy the sickness in her stomach, Arya hurries through the halls, a wooden practice sword, secretly borrowed from the training grounds, firmly in hand. She has no particular goal in mind, other than an empty passage at the far ends of the keep, with open windows and a cool breeze.
The sun shines brightly, but it’s late in the day and her quiet hallway is well shaded; Arya prefers it this way, as she's more comfortable in the darkness. After a quick glance down the hall, the young woman shifts her balance and draws her blade. It's a bit heavier and longer than her Needle was, but it fits comfortably in her hand as she tests a few thrusts and parries to warm her muscles before she eases into a prolonged training session. She slips into a trance, intimately aware of her body as she blocks out the distractions around her, the sights, the smells, her troubles, the -
"Girls shouldn't use swords." An obnoxious voice sounds from behind her. Arya immediately turns to face the unknown intruder, practice sword held laughably before her in self-defense. Her posture relaxes a moment later when she sees the disruption is of little import.
"Who says?" The young woman questions before she turns back around. She knows that the awkward Prince is little threat. The sword is a part of her arm in the next instant as she continues her practice, more fervently than before, not particularly caring to heed her new companion.
"Everyone!" The Prince is clearly displeased at Arya's apathetic treatment of such common knowledge and his already-high voice raises in pitch yet further, enhanced by his annoyance. Tommen says the words stubbornly as he approaches, but his steps are cautious and uncertain
"Can you use a sword?" Arya turns back to him in an instant, blade pointed in his direction. The motion is nowhere near threatening, given their distance, but he falls two steps back and inadvertently answers her question.
"Mother says -" He continues uncomfortably, his gaze wary.
"I don't care what your mother says." Arya interrupts. She almost feels bad for him; it’s painfully obvious that Cersei only dotes on her most beastly child and leaves the others to their fates. Perhaps it’s for the best, for the sweet boy is not tainted by his mother’s worst traits.
At the thought of Cersei, Arya swings her blade and shows the young Prince precisely what she thinks of ‘everyone’ and their ‘sayings.’ She feels Tommen’s eyes on her, shy and curious about the strange girl he encountered by happenstance. He does not approach, nor does he leave, but he makes his presence known, as if he seeks something from her, but doesn’t know how to obtain it. Arya is unsure how long it is before her companion breaks the silence with a barely-perceptible grumble; she focuses so thoroughly on her swings and balance that it could have been three hours or three minutes, but she cares little either way.
It is a few moments before Arya slows and returns her attention to the plump boy, her breaths suddenly very heavy, muscles pleasantly sore and loose. To her surprise, the Prince offers her a warm, open smile and wears a look of awe and respect on his features, one so bright and vivid that Arya can’t help but return it.
The welcoming expression seems to give him the courage to approach, more confidently, and looks down at her sword with hesitation. Arya’s smile widens yet further; Cersei’s claws will stay off this one.
Arya never quite understood what Sansa saw in Joffrey.
He reminds her much of a swan: all pretty and elegant, but far too loud and of very little practical use. Arya would very much like to roast him on a spit and eat him for supper - at least then he would serve some purpose. If he continues in that haughty, ignorant way of his, she might well go through with her fantasy; she clutches her left hand into a fist until her fingers are numb, pretending that it's Needle in her hand, that her pain is his.
She can barely stand to be at the same room as the King. His laughter grates deeply into her - he has no right to happiness when the North suffers at his hand - and her body tenses, like a serpent ready to strike, when the rest of the hall echoes him. Her eyes dart through the large chamber as she searches for guard patterns or an opening to reach the throne unhindered. Arya knows better than to waste her life with a direct attack on the king, so the young woman watches and waits in the shadows behind at least ten courtiers, her body burning, her head spinning, her breaths ragged, so angry that tears threaten to spill from her eyes, her tremors held back only by the deepest depths of her control.
"Tell me." Arya's reminiscence shatters at the interruption, only a whisper in her ear, but its demand is far louder than any discussion around her. Her body flinches instinctively at a touch to her shoulder and she does not need to look to recognize the presence of her new companion. Tywin's hand is meant to both calm and quell, but it does neither; she feels very much like the man attempts to tame an uncontrolled predator, as her fire only draws closer, her desire to lash out amplified. He does not move from that position as he watches the king. As Hand, Tywin should stand beside him, yet he will have no part of Joffrey’s stupidity. The man cleans up the boy’s mistakes and, for how efficiently he tackles the insurmountable task, it only deepens Arya’s respect for him.
"I hate him." Arya does not hesitate, but keeps her voice suitably low as she tilts her head very subtly in the King's direction. At the words, the rage in her mind clears and turns from a blizzard into a thunderstom – yes, far clearer, but equally powerful. She knows better than to openly speak of her plans and desires, so she continues with reasons rather than feelings, something she knows the man appreciates. "He killed my father." She finally turns up her left, where the man who will soon be he husband stands, severe and unreadable as he glances through the crowded chamber. "This war is his fault." Arya dares him to defy her - a bold and foolish move, as he always meets her word for word – almost desperately, as she seeks someone, anyone, who sees the King for what he is.
Contrary to her expectations, Tywin remains silent and his eyes turn down to her. It continually amazes her, the sheer power his gaze holds. Even as no words leave his lips, it feels as if she bends to his will and his demands for understanding; there were many factors that caused the war, to blame Joffrey solely is nothing but stupidity. Arya knows the truth and recognizes the rationality of the unspoken statement, but her resentment is so powerful that no logic can overcome her resentment. She hates him, hates his violence, hates what he's done to Father and Mycah and her family and Lady and even Sansa.
"You will make the same mistake." He finally speaks. Arya wishes she can say that no touch, no words will sate her, but his presence is assuring and confident, cool and placid, and, most of all, unquestionably powerful, much like a raging river over her inferno, overwhelming enough to dampen even her wildest of fires. "What happens to your sister?" There is no doubt what he implies and a thick sense of black dread fills her stomach at the emphasis. "You will destroy any hope for your family's safety, independence, and redemption if you act on your fool whim."
His assertion is harsh and critical, but not accusatory. The man she will soon call husband speaks an unpleasant truth and Arya’s wince proves it. It hurts, by all the Gods it hurts. Countless stubborn retorts fill her, but none leave her lips and her anger deflates, seeping out in any way it can. No matter what she wants to do in her desperation, it is what she needs that tells her otherwise. Father wouldn't want her to die for vengeance - a revenge that would kill Sansa and their family. Arya feels very small and very, very foolish at Tywin’s hard necessity and the understanding he awakens within her.
Arya's stance droops, her posture weak, and her entire body wilts away from its previous confidence. She longs to fall to her knees and cry, then to scream and rage and tear her at her hair, but nothing comes - no words, no tears, nothing but emptiness. Her hate is what sustains her and gives her strength, but now, as she stands within range of her goal, her purpose melts away, pointless, and her very meaning of existence shatters. It becomes objectively clear that a direct attack on Joffrey is a fool's errand. I won’t sit and do nothing – I’ll be stealthy. There must be another way.
No matter how persistently the words permeate through her or how desperately she wishes to make them reality, it is Arya’s wits and caution that keep her alive – to disregard her lessons in favor of irrationality and emotion after everything she’s faced is akin to throwing her life away.
Tywin says nothing and continues to stand beside her as she contemplates his words, hand on her shoulder as she looks to the floor in defeat, his glacial countenance sturdy and secure.
"I hear congratulations are in order." The queen's voice is as sweet as honey, but to Arya it is as sour as a lime.
"For you as well." The statement is meant to infuriate and, in that, it serves its purpose, but the words are poorly chosen and reveal more than Arya intends. By the time she realizes her mistake, it’s too late. Tywin tells her much – including his plans for Cersei, Joffrey, and Tyrion – and lets her see even more. Fortunately, the woman seems to ignore the young woman's slip, the diversion successful.
"Whatever Father's plan for my marriage is, I'll have no part of it. Lions are not wolves; we do not tame easily." Cersei hisses and Arya can not help but smile at her rage. Let the woman suffer, let her fume and scream, for no matter what happens, it will never be enough to move the Warden of the West. Arya makes no effort to correct or elaborate on her relationship with Tywin to her elder; she will wear the mask that is needed when it serves her purposes.
"I trust you know better than to go to your sister about what was discussed." The respectful farce returns as queen regains control and continues down the dark hallway. She seems to pretend the moment of hostility and weakness never occurred, but Arya’s satisfaction remains, an aftertaste of victory, no matter how small. The young woman is more than tempted to walk back to her room alone and leave Cersei to her business, but a rude grunt from one of the 'guards' behind her reminds Arya that, no matter how much she loathes the elder, she must still feign obedience - for now.
"I won’t." Arya had fought as hard as she could to stop her sister’s marriage. She did everything within her power short of screeching, threatening, raging, crying, and stomping out - Tywin would dismiss her for anything that resembles such childish antics - in attempt to earn her sister's freedom, to no avail. Even at the reminder of their own rapidly approaching wedding ceremony, the Hand had only coolly stated that Arya is the younger sibling; it is Sansa who is heir to Winterfell when Robb falls.
He had been quite firm with his use of the word "when."
The two continue in tense, pregnant silence. With the woman's back to her and only two guards, Arya recognizes her rare opportunity - she knows she should take advantage of it in any way she can – but she hesitates. She's not permitted to keep a blade yet – Tywin recognizes her desires all too well, even as she works to hide them – so Arya’s imagination to dances freely, a weak replacement, but a suitable, safer, one nonetheless. She sees a knife as it runs down the flesh between Cersei's breasts and a thick red smile, broader and broader as it forms across her neck. Her blood spurts until Arya's wedding dress is soaked with the sticky fluid, until the woman screams and begs and slowly quiets as she weakens, before she finally drifts into eternal sleep. The last sight she sees are Arya’s cold, satisfied Stark eyes. It seems too kind, when she muses on it as such; Cersei needs to feel the pain of loss that every Stark did when Father was beheaded, the fear Mycah felt when the Hound butchered him, and the despair that overwhelmed Sansa when Lady was killed.
By the time they reach Arya’s chambers, the secretive, subtle looks between females have turned into blatant stares with barely hidden hostility and disgust; the queen wears her masks, too, but they are not nearly as impenetrable as she believes. Cersei’s green eyes smolder with a variety of emotions, most of which Arya cannot define, but one remains prominent: curiosity. Just as Arya does, the elder searches for weaknesses, for any cracks in her armor that can be used to her advantage. Whatever it is she seeks, Cersei will not obtain it; Arya’s days are spent with Tywin, and he reads her as easily as he does parchment. After frequent, prolonged periods with men like the Hand, the young woman has become adept at hiding her thoughts from overconfident women like the queen.
"I do find it strange." Cersei breaks the silence between them as they continue their strange duel. "You are the younger, why would Father wed you instead of the heir? You'd be a much better fit for my younger brother." You should learn some subtlety. The thought is strange, coming from Arya, but such blatant attacks are easy to ignore and roll off her like dewdrops fall from leaves after a rain.
"Ask him for yourself." Arya walks ahead, disappointed, and opens the door to her chambers. "Sleep well, daughter." She speaks pleasantly and hopes beyond words that the queen has only nightmares.
As Arya slams the door in Cersei's face, she is unable to repress a burst of giggles. At that single word, the other woman's face turned redder, her reaction angrier, than she had seen from the elder all night - even moreso than Tywin's declaration that he has made preparations for her to marry again. Such hate simmers within the queen, almost as much as the young woman holds for Cersei. The thought of sharing any similarities with her makes the young woman ill.
For the first time in what seems to be years, Arya smiles as she strips off her clothes; Cersei might not sleep in a pool of blood after all, for there are worse fates far worse than death.
Arya stares at the short, loud man with flat, impassive, steel-grey eyes. "No."
The Imp shrugs and pours some for himself quite greedily, as if he never intended to give his guest any in the first place. The subtle exclusion is fine with her, as Arya cares little for the trivialities and formalities necessary for the dwarf’s games. She has one purpose and very little time to complete it.
"I want to know what you plan for Sansa." Tywin had only told her of his plans to marry Sansa the night before; her elder is to marry early in the day, to the Imp, while Arya’s ceremony will occur later in the evening - unquestionably larger, more formal, and not nearly so secretive. With the morning meal finished, no doubt the queen will soon arrive in her sister’s chambers to prepare Sansa for her wedding.If there's one lesson her time with Tywin has taught her, it is the necessity of self-control.
"It is not Lord Tywin who will be caring and providing for her." She points out, tone retrained. Sansa and Arya may have had their differences, they may not even have spoken, not truly, since Arya was returned to the Red Keep, but they are still sisters. Sisters did not let each other come to harm.
"What would you have me say? That I will love her and be the prince she dreams of?" Tyrion's mockery goes too far. He does not acknowledge the depth of the situation and how deeply the arrangement will wound Sansa, but before she speaks her mind, Arya hesitates. The dwarf is quite clearly miserable as he wallows in his cups, his gaze clouded and eyes despondent, and the young woman cautiously retracts her hasty judgement. "I offer nothing she desires, but I can promise you - sister? mother? -" His attempt at wit falls short, Arya doesn’t even blink, and he continues uncomfortably as if the light provocation never occurred. "I will treat her with respect and kindness."
She does not know why, be it his manner, his choice of words, or the solemn, miserable look he wears, but despite all of her caution and anger, Arya is almost tempted to believe him.
She should never have visited the Imp.
“You look. . .lovely.” Arya murmurs the empty words as examines over her sister, her arrival far later than she intended. She had sought to tell Sansa what was planned, but Cersei revealed her predicament first, and only because Arya was delayed with the bloody dwarf.
"I know." Her sister’s reply is equally empty, but her eyes waver for an instant, watery and wide, with a prominent redness outlining them. Sansa keeps her head high, her posture steady and Arya realizes just how much she’s missed. The gulf between them is wider than ever, as foreign to each other as the Summer Islander who resides at court. Their distance is only amplified by the presence of the Queen, who looms over them with her constant, overbearing, presence. She seems to believe that whatever is Sansa’s and Arya’s business happens to be hers as well; Arya tolerates it only because she knows it will stop soon enough.
"I'd like to speak with my sister." Arya restrains herself from making demands of the Queen when surrounded by guards who would no doubt kill her in an instant, but does not bother to hide the bitterness in her tone. Sansa’s wedding would be ruined if her younger sister’s blood stained her fine dress, after all.
“You are speaking with her.” Cersei’s tone is as clipped and annoyed as Arya’s, but there’s also anxiousness in her manner, as she knows full well the hour draws near – it will be midday soon, the scheduled time for the first wedding of the day. The young woman ignores the queen and very gently takes Sansa’s hand - so different from hers, soft and fine and small - into her own. In her mind are countless words and phrases and promises, so much she wants to say, but all meaningless. She almost wishes to lie, to tell her all will be well, that she’ll be happy, but can’t even bring herself to pretend, even for a moment. This will shatter Sansa; Arya might not particularly care about her marriage, but being a fine lady and mother has always been one of Sansa’s dreams – a dream that is crushed under the weight of reality and Tyrion Lannister.
They meet eyes for a moment, but no more. The young woman never feels more powerless than she does in that moment. Arya’s encountered so much, yet her inability to do anything for Sansa hurts. She should have helped in whatever way she could; perhaps it would have been better if, like Cersei said, the elder married Tywin and Arya be given to the Imp. That arrangement would never happen, of course, for Arya is peculiar and her relationship with the Warden of the West is steadily built, no matter its strange foundations.
As Arya’s hand slips from her sister’s and Sansa walks to her fate, unyielding, Arya, too, turns to hers. It’s all beyond her power, now.
“My lady, you must return to your chambers to prepare for –“ Arya’s maid - the Queen’s, to be accurate– pulls firmly at her arm and, in a rare moment of uncharacteristic submission, the young woman relents and follows her companion back to her room to prepare for her own union.
“I know.” Arya’s words mimic her sister’s, but she barely notices.