Her mother falls ill when Ashara is eight, her body weak from the stress of the latest stillborn; Father tells her to leave her mother be, but Ashara is lonely without her mother's company, especially now that her brothers are both being fostered away from Starfall. The servants try to keep her from her mother's rooms, but they fail, and her father shouts each and every time.
And then one day her father says she is being sent to Sunspear to keep Princess Elia company.
“For how long?” Ashara asks, eyes wet with the idea of leaving home.
“Until your mother is better.”
Ashara would never live with her parents again.
The Lady of Dorne greets Ashara upon her arrival at the Water Gardens, and Ashara tries to remember her courtesies, not wanting to embarrass herself before her mother's friend. Prince Doran escorts her to the pools while her father's men speak with the Lady, and Ashara wishes the prince would speak to her instead of being silent. Anxiety twists in her stomach, afraid Princess Elia will be as silent as her older brother, and Ashara wonders how long it will take her mother to recover, how long she will be forced to remain here.
Trees heavy with blood oranges shade the pools, which are full of children of all ages. There is laughter and shouts, and Ashara immediately smiles, the merriment so different from somber Starfall; even before her mother fell ill, there was little time for fun, especially once Arthur was sent to Godsgrace to squire. She looks around, trying to find the princess she is supposed to entertain, but there are so many girls, all splashing about in nothing but their skin, and there is no way to tell who is a princess and who is common.
Everyone is the same under their clothes; it is the first lesson Ashara learns here.
Doran escorts her to a chaise lounge beneath one of the trees, a pretty girl of an age with Ashara sitting upon it. She wears a light silk shift, her thick, dark hair falling in waves over her shoulders; Ashara thinks she is beautiful, mayhaps even more beautiful than Ashara herself, and the smile she bestows upon Doran and Ashara is unbearably kind.
“Elia, this is Ashara Dayne of Starfall,” Doran introduces, and Ashara begins to curtsy when Elia tells her to stop, to just sit down beside her. Uncertain, Ashara obeys, watching Doran depart; she is not sure what she is supposed to do with the princess.
“Would you like an orange?” Elia asks, holding up the slices of her own treat.
“I suppose - “
“Oberyn!” the princess calls, and a boy comes running, water dripping from his body, his hair slicked back. Ashara thinks he and Elia could pass for twins, but she knows from her lessons that Prince Oberyn is a year younger than the princess, a year younger than Ashara.
“This is Ashara; she is my new companion. She would like an orange.”
There is no question or request in her words, but Ashara watches with wide eyes as Oberyn scurries up one of the trees, plucking a ripe orange and hurrying back down. She thinks of her own brothers who would have laughed in her face if she ever asked them to climb a tree for her, and Ashara looks at Elia in equal parts confusion and awe.
As they eat their blood oranges, the juices making their hands and arms sticky, Ashara Dayne decides she may not mind being Elia Martell's companion.
There is a feast to celebrate Doran's return from the Free Cities and to honor his marriage to Mellario of Norvos, and Ashara is late. She is rushing from her rooms, trying to secure the pins in her hair even as she rushes, hoping no one has noticed her absence; with all the great houses of Dorne at Sunspear, Ashara found many handsome young men eager to keep her company, and one of the Sandstone squires kissed so very well.
“You're shameless,” Elia always laughs, flushing bright as she begs for kissing tales and then gasping at the scandal of it all.
“Why should I be ashamed?” she counters, tugging the ends of Elia's dark hair as if they were still children. “If the gods did not want us to kiss, they would not have given us lips.”
Ashara knows Elia is far too shy to ever kiss a man she does not know well; it is not as if men were not constantly trying, awed by the princess's beauty and pleasing manner, offers of marriage spilling from their lips. Elia wants to be married, wants to kiss the same man every night and bear his children, and Ashara sincerely prays to the Seven for Elia to get what it is she wants, for no one deserves it more than sweet Elia.
But Ashara wants fun, and absolutely nothing sounds fun about one man and a passel of brats tugging at her skirts for the rest of her days.
Let Elia have her romance; I much prefer passion.
The great hall is already bustling with activity when Ashara enters; she immediately finds Elia speaking to Mellario, and, for a moment, she thinks she has managed to enter unseen when hands settles low on her hips from behind, a firm, male chest pressing into her back.
“You seem out of breath, my lady?” a deep voice purrs into her ear. “What could have possibly gotten your blood so hot?”
“I knew you were in the castle,” she easily answers, twisting her head to look him in the eye, and Oberyn laughs as he releases her, spinning her around for an embrace.
It has been over a year since Oberyn's last visit to Sunspear, not since he returned from Volantis with another daughter in his arms. Elia adores her nieces, showering surly Obara and serene Nym with kisses, but Ashara finds she hasn't much patience for babies; while the other women of Sunspear cooed over their cradles and were eager to play with Oberyn's daughters, Ashara found herself wondering what was so extraordinary about creatures who did nothing but cry, eat, and shit.
Elia says she will feel differently one day when she has her own children; Ashara hasn't the heart to tell her best friend she has no desire whatsoever to bear a child of her own.
Oberyn is handsome as ever, and, much as he did a year earlier, when he moves to kiss her in greeting, his lips catch the corner of her mouth rather than her cheek. His bond with Elia has made Oberyn a consistent presence in Ashara's life as well, and she adores Elia's brother nearly as much as she adores Elia. Unlike most men who played at hiding their interest, Oberyn is blatant with his desire to bed her; before he left to squire at Sandstone, he begged kisses from her. When he returned from Oldtown and from Volantis, he did his very best to get Ashara to agree to giving him her maidenhead, and, when she said no, he declared she was breaking his heart before winking and disappearing with the lord and lady of his choosing.
“It would be like fucking my brother,” she had said upon their last meeting.
Without missing a beat, Oberyn retorted, “Then let's pretend to be Targaryens.”
Judging from the scent of his breath, wine has already passed through his lips, and she hopes he doesn't make a scene the way he did on the Lady's name day; Elia had been so upset for all parties, she worked herself into an illness. Ashara loves Oberyn well, but it can be exhausting sometimes, especially when he is in a foul mood.
“You look delicious,” he says, and, even though he has been praising her beauty since they were children, Ashara still feels that rush of pride as if it is the first time. There are dozens of beautiful women in Dorne, but Ashara revels in the way men whisper she is the prettiest, the most desirable; it certainly does not earn her friends amongst women, who all seem to believe she is scheming to bed their beloveds, but Ashara cares little what anyone thinks of her, especially strangers.
“That's because I am.”
Oberyn smirks. “And who has been tasting you this evening?”
“Whoever I feel deserves a sample.”
His laughter booms over the cacophony of the hall, and Ashara sees Elia watching them, an inscrutable expression on her face. As Oberyn slips his arm through hers under the guise of escorting her to her seat, he playfully growls into her ear, “You're a vicious tease, Ashara Dayne.”
“Only with you, my love,” she giggles.
The rest of the evening is spent dining and dancing, flitting between partners with grace; even Doran dances with her, though he never quite looks her in the eye. She isn't surprised, of course; Doran stopped looking her in the eye once she grew teats, and there have been whispers he doesn't think she is the most suitable companion for his sister. Under different circumstances, Ashara would have worried, but the rest of House Martell loves her, credits her with bringing Elia out of her shell and making her laugh. Even now, after all these years, everyone, even Oberyn, still thinks of Elia as the sickly little girl she was; none of them know Elia the way Ashara does.
Elia Martell may seem frail, but she is pure steel beneath her courtesies; her body may be weak, but Ashara would challenge any man or woman to best Elia when it came to wits.
Later, in Elia's chambers, as Ashara brushes out her friend's hair, Elia declares, “I think you and Oberyn would make a fine match.”
Ashara laughs, carefully working a tangle out of the obsidian strands. “Oh, I doubt that, my friend. We would kill each other in a fortnight.”
“How can you say that? You and he are so alike.”
“That is why I say that. I love your brother, that's true, and I am certain we could be a match for a night or two. But Oberyn has no want to settle down nor do I. What adventures could he have if he was saddled with a wife? And, more importantly, what adventures could I have if saddled with a husband?”
Elia sighs. “You are as stubborn as he is.”
“I'm not trying to be stubborn.” Setting the brush on her dressing table, Ashara struggles for a moment to find the right words before explaining, “Arthur is a member of the Kingsguard, Allyn will be Lord of Starfall, and I am, what, supposed to marry some man I do not love for some gold dragons and the promise of alliance? There is no fairness in that.”
Elia's mouth twists into an expression which is thoroughly Oberyn's as she drawls, “Who says life is fair?”
“That is my point. Life is not fair and is getting unfairer every minute, so why should I lie down and accept that?” Ashara smiles. “I would rather have a hundred lovers who want me than a single husband who weds me out of duty.”
“Matches are not made for love; the love comes later.”
“If Doran, the single most dutiful man in all seven realms, can throw caution to the wind and marry for love, then I believe it possible in every man.” Ashara leans forward, tucking a lock of Elia's hair behind her ear. “You deserve love, Elia, not duty.”
Elia's smile was kind even if her words were not. “Oh, Ashara...you cannot truly be this naïve.”
Ashara doesn't think she is being naïve, but, then again, she is not a princess of Dorne whose mother is actively attempting to marry her to another great house.
She sleeps in Elia's bed that night and, just when Ashara is straddling the line between sleep and awake, Elia whispers, “Is it so terrible I wish you to be my sister?”
Ashara reaches out blindly, finding Elia's hand and clasping it tightly. “I do not need to marry Oberyn to be your sister.”
Her blood may be that of the Daynes, but Ashara's loyalties will always lie with House Martell.
The Dragon Prince comes to Sunspear, and Ashara knows nothing is ever going to be the same again.
It is the first time she has seen Arthur since he joined the Kingsguard, and Ashara barely recognizes her brother in his white armor. He is tall and broad, golden-haired and more handsome than his brothers-in-arms, but he doesn't look like her brother anymore. His movements, his words, his manners, they are no longer Dornish; it is as if the Targaryens have turned him into someone else, and, were it not for Dawn upon his hip, Ashara would have thought this was not Arthur Dayne.
They were so close once that the strangeness of his bearing makes Ashara's heart ache; it was always Arthur who protected her, who took responsibility for her follies and shielded her from their brother's harsh tongue. When he was sent away to be fostered, Ashara felt as if she lost a part of herself and, unlike Oberyn, her brother never came back. The letters he used to send became far less frequent after he went to King's Landing, and, as she watches Prince Rhaegar dance with Elia, Arthur standing stoically against a wall, Ashara decides she hates Rhaegar Targaryen.
He takes everyone I love and claims them as his own.
Oberyn openly glares at the prince, and Ashara loves him for it, sitting beside him as they share a skin of sour wine. Men ask her to dance, but she continues to end up in Oberyn's arms, both of them stumbling over their feet, graceless and wine soaked. She is vaguely aware people are starting to stare, the members of court which accompanied Rhaegar gasping as she twists her hips to the rhythm of the drums, Oberyn following the movement with his hands; Ashara doesn't know much of other realms, but she remembers her lessons well enough to know dances from the Rhoyne are not performed in their castles.
She may be sheltered in some respects, but Ashara knows what the other realms say about Dornishmen, the accusations they throw. “The women are practically whores, and you cannot trust the men,” those were the whispers Ashara has heard, whispers which have only grown louder since Oberyn's duel with Lord Yronwood. The other realms spit on Dorne, calling it any variety of names, and it has never failed to infuriate Ashara.
Unbowed, unbent, unbroken may have been the words of House Martell, but they easily applied to all of Dorne. As Prince Rhaegar's people looked at her as if she is entirely beneath them, Ashara wanted to shout, We never knelt to the dragons, not like the rest of you! You couldn't beat us then and you won't cow us now!
But even drunk, Ashara knows the words are intemperate and will only embarrass Elia.
When Oberyn spins her, Ashara catches a glimpse of Arthur's face; his clenched jaw and blazing eyes are as disapproving as the rest of the men from the capitol, and it makes something petty and furious roar deep in her chest. How dare he look at her like he was one of them, like his blood wasn't hers, the blood of Starfall?
“You should escort me to my room,” she breathes to Oberyn, and his eyes flare hot as he agreesleading her from the hall as if there are not dozens of eyes following them. Ashara barely resists the urge to look back, to challenge the men and women who would judge her to say something to her face, but Oberyn's grip is tight, his pace quick.
His mouth tastes like wine and peppers, and Ashara idly recognizes he is a better kisser now than he was the first time he kissed her, when he was eleven and she was twelve; then Oberyn was just a boy begging a kiss before he was sent to Sandstone, and she was amused by her friend's little brother, a boy she considered to be a brother as well. As he presses her against the wall of her chamber, Ashara realizes he is a man-grown now, nothing hesitant or polite in the way he is devouring her mouth or palming her breast, and it is strange how she has known the stories of Oberyn's exploits and witnessed some firsthand without ever before arriving at this realization.
She is out of her gown and shift with remarkable speed, Oberyn's fingers working the laces better than she herself can, and it is on the tip of her tongue to ask how many women he has bedded when she realizes it doesn't matter. She is not going to marry Oberyn; this is not about love.
Ashara isn't sure what it is about but she is certain it is not love.
They stumble to the bed, and Ashara watches, curious and aroused, as Oberyn strips off his clothing; his golden brown skin is unblemished save for a small scar from Lord Yronwood's blade, his muscles well-defined, and, when he pushes his pants and smallclothes to the floor with one motion, she cannot help but stare at his cock. Oberyn smirks when he notices where her attention is directed, and Ashara gasps when he wraps a hand around it, pumping slowly; when she manages to meet his gaze, the look he gives her is positively obscene, and it makes her entire body clench with desire.
“How do you like to be fucked?” he asks, voice rough with want, and Ashara finds herself shaking her head, suddenly uncertain. Whenever she has indulged her passions before, it was she who set the speed, who remained in control; Ashara has always prided herself on her ability to remain levelheaded when it comes to men.
It is just Oberyn, she reminds herself, moving backwards on the bed, shaking out her hair so it partially covers her bare breasts. Stop acting like a fool.
“Thoroughly,” she finally answers, and Oberyn laughs as he takes hold of her ankles, pulling her back towards him, parting her thighs and using his tongue to make her moan. Ashara grasps his hair tightly, holding him in place, and every time he chuckles against her flesh, she tugs roughly to keep him on task. By the time she breaks apart, Oberyn's scalp must be aching, but he says nothing of complaint, smiling with lips which shine with her wetness. She is barely finished peaking when Oberyn slips inside her, and there is only a momentarily sting, nothing like the pain other girls have spoken of feeling.
“Don't finish inside me!” she orders when Oberyn's strokes become harder and shorter, and he nods minutely, his fingers stroking where she is most sensitive. When she begins to clench around him, Oberyn withdraws, spilling his seed upon her belly; they lie beside each other until their breathing regulates, the sheets sticking to their skin, and Ashara isn't sure why she waited so long to do something which feels so good.
She is genuinely surprised when Oberyn crosses to the basin, coming back with a wet cloth and cleaning the mess he made upon her. When he returns to bed, Ashara twists her face up, and he kisses her, but the urgency which existed between them only an hour earlier is gone now, replaced with something heavy and sad Ashara isn't sure she can identify.
It is Oberyn who names it. “He is going to take her away from us.”
Ashara knows instantly what he means; Elia has always been theirs, and, if she weds Rhaegar Targaryen, she will not just belong to the prince but to all of Westeros. “She will hate leaving Dorne.”
“You'll have to protect her in the Red Keep. You know how Elia is.”
Ashara says nothing.
Oberyn twists his head to look her in the eye, and Ashara thinks of the conversation she had with Elia weeks earlier about why she could never be her good-sister. “She's not like us.”
“No,” she easily agrees, “Elia is sweet.”
“Sweetness is well-and-good for a sister but not for a queen.” Oberyn sighs heavily. “And I fear she will be queen someday.”
“She does not love Rhaegar.”
“Since when has love ever mattered when a throne is at stake?” He rises from the bed, dressing far slower than he undressed. “My mother once tried to arrange a marriage between Elia and Jaime Lannister, and Lord Tywin said no. A dozen other suitors have come, and Elia has sent them away. But a prince...Even if she wanted to, our mother wouldn't let Elia send him away. And who ever tells the Mad King no?”
Ashara shivers at the mention of King Aerys, remembering the tales she has heard about him. “We cannot let her go, Oberyn.”
“We cannot stop it.” He leans down, brushes a parting kiss against her mouth. “Best brush up on your courtesies, my lady. You'll be in King's Landing in no time.”
The night before the prince is to depart for Summerhall, Ashara enters her chamber to find Arthur waiting. She freezes at the sight of her brother, uncertain why Arthur has chosen now to visit her, and, for a moment, Ashara feels like a child as Arthur scowls at her; she wishes she had spent more time straightening her appearance before leaving Oberyn's chambers.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting to speak to my sister.” Arthur gives her a once over before declaring, “You look a mess.”
Ashara bristles in anger. “I do not care what you think I look like, brother. Isn't there a dragon you have to tend to?”
Arthur's frown deepens, and she can see his own anger starting to rise. “Oberyn Martell beds every man and woman who crosses his path. He may whisper sweet words to you at night, but the morning will find you alone with a bastard in your belly.”
“Well, I'd hardly be the first woman in Dorne to bear a child with the name Sand.” Crossing to her dressing table, dropping her jeweled hair clip onto it, she adds, “And who says he will leave me? I grow bored very quickly.”
“Yes, I've heard the stories,” Arthur snipes, and Ashara spins on her heel, her hand itching to crash against his strong jaw.
“Don't you dare stand there and judge me! You, with your armor and vows, locked in the Keep, what do you know of my life? What do you know of life at all?”
“I do not see - “
“Precisely! You do not see. I am a woman-grown, and what right do you have to come to my home and judge the choices I make?”
“Because this is not your home,” Arthur states harshly, and there is something in his words which makes Ashara's voice disappear. “You are in service to the Martells as much as I am in service to the Targaryens, and you are forgetting yourself. How long do you think the Lady of Sunspear will keep you in Elia's service while you and Oberyn do as you please?”
“Elia would never let me be removed,” she manages.
“You think it will be her choice? You think the ruling princess will let you continue to be with her daughter, the future queen of the Seven Kingdoms, while you're swelling with Oberyn's bastard? He will not marry you; your birth is too low.”
“I am a lady of Starfall - “
“And he is a prince of Dorne. When he marries, it will not be to a lady whose house brings them nothing.” Arthur's hard expression cracks, and suddenly he is her brother again rather than the great Ser Arthur Dayne. “Your beauty is like a blade, Ashara; it can wound you as easily as it wounds your enemies. And if you are not more discreet in your...activities, it will get you banished back to Starfall.”
Tears of anger and frustration burn in Ashara's eyes; she is certain Arthur would not dare to lecture their brother about his affairs. “I do not care what you say. Elia will never allow that to happen.”
Arthur sighs, his face twisting in something akin to pity. “Just because they are kind to you does not mean you are one of them. At the end of the day, you serve Elia Martell the same way I serve the Iron Throne.” His face darkens as he intones, “And all servants can be dismissed when they displease their lords and ladies.”
“You know nothing about the Martells.”
“No,” Arthur agrees, “but I know the Targaryens, and Elia Martell will join their house.” There is something troubling in Arthur's eyes, as if he is recalling something terrible, and Ashara feels the warmth leave her body as he authoritatively states, “King Aerys does not tolerate brazenness, especially in women. Trust me when I say he would do more than banish you if he thought you brought shame upon his house.”
Ashara understands then what Arthur is trying to do, what this warning's purpose is. After a moment, she ventures, “I can be discreet.”
He does not look much like a great knight when he gently clasps her shoulders, looking into her eyes with sadness, exasperation, and affection. “If I thought it would do any good, I would tell you to stay as far from King's Landing as you can.”
“I cannot leave Elia.”
“And I cannot leave Rhaegar.” Cupping her face in his large hands, he asks, “You understand I cannot protect you there, that my vows are to the throne? No matter what happens, I cannot raise a hand or even my voice to the Targaryens.”
“Don't worry, brother. The only whispers you will hear is how fine a lady I am.”
Arthur embraces her too tightly, the way he has always has; he has never quite mastered his strength, and, when she hears of his prowess in tournaments or battle, it makes Ashara proud to claim such a man as her brother. But there is something in his unspoken words, in the shadows of his face, which makes Ashara wonder if he would not have been better off remaining at Starfall, living a life far from King Aerys, away from whatever it is which makes him so scared.
And Arthur is scared. For himself, for her, for the realm, Ashara isn't certain, but she can read fear in Arthur's eyes, and it terrifies her.
Elia is a beautiful bride; Ashara never doubted that she would be. As she walks down the aisle in the Great Sept of Baelor, Ashara sees how happy Elia is, beaming at Prince Rhaegar, who stands before the High Septon. Her gown is the finest purple silk, tailored specifically to accentuate her small bust and the gentle flare of her hips; Ashara herself did Elia's hair, carefully winding curls and pinning them atop her head using jeweled combs Oberyn brought from the Summer Islands. The Martell cloak around her shoulders is a brilliant burst of color amongst the subdued colors in the Sept, and, despite her reservations, Ashara feels such happiness for her friend.
“Pretty for a Dornishwoman,” some fat woman whispers to her Redwyne husband, and Ashara twists her head around so sharply, glaring with such unrestrained hatred, the woman instantly recoils, stammering an apology and justification before stilling her tongue.
She is worth a thousand of you, Ashara seethes as Elia and Rhaegar say their vows. She is a Martell of Sunspear, her blood is more noble than yours, and you should thank the Seven your fucking prince has been given the gift of her hand.
As Rhaegar fastens the Targaryen cloak around Elia's shoulders, Ashara prays Elia finds happiness in Rhaegar Targaryen's arms, that she never hears ignorant whispers about their heritage, and, most of all, that Elia has the children she so desperately wants.
If anyone deserves happiness, it is Elia.