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No Middle Ground

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Queen's Landing was a glimmering ruby. A smelly one, Pearl thought, but a ruby nonetheless. With the sun burning off the last mists over the Blackwater and the flower petals slowly drifting in the morning air, the Red Keep far away on Aegon's Hill could almost be seen as beautiful. Of course, the Keep was a long ways from Visenya's Hill, and the mists were still thick enough to hide the grime growing between the sandstone bricks. Queen's Landing might never be described as beautiful, but it could certainly clean up well when it had want to.

And there was certainly want today. Outside the Great Sept of Baelor, Pearl stood with a score of other soon-to-knights on the white marble plaza, her sword tip held straight and touching the stone, her back straight and chin up. Even though her armor was simple undyed steel, it still shone brilliantly in the morning light.

But it was not her armor nor her sword she was most proud of. No, it was the weight on her left arm, the shield that was nearly as tall as she was. It had been newly painted the day before with a pink rose and curling thorns on a field of lighter pink; the sigil of House Quartz with all the power of Highgarden behind it.

Today is the day. Pearl trembled beneath her breast plate. She longed to glance at the other two dozen odd women who stood in a line beside her. Were they trembling too? Highgarden, she thought. I'm going to Highgarden. It seemed a hundred thousand leagues away. Even though she had heard endless tales of its beauty, Pearl still couldn't imagine how any building could possibly muster up more grandeur than even the Great Sept of Baelor. After all, her entire life had been spent in Queen's Landing. Endless days of training beneath the sandstone bricks and the baking sun felt like they had baked her mind as well.

That was, until Lady Quartz found her.

"Squires." The High Septa's thin voice stretched itself over the plaza. Pearl snapped her already immaculate figure to attention. The Septa was a wizened old woman, her face gray and sagging with age. The tall crystal crown that sat on her head seemed like too much weight for a neck as thin as hers. Even so, she looked resplendent in white robes trimmed with golden scrollwork, her sleeves flowing all the way to his slippers. "Kneel before the Warrior."

There was a clatter of steel as the squires dropped to their knees. Pearl bent her head and studied a speck on the ground.

"The squires before me have come from all corners of the world," the High Septa drolled. "Brought to us by the mysterious hands of the Seven. And today, they in turn devote their lives to their gods."

Pearl bit her lip, trying to focus on the words, but it was no good. She knew them too well, had studied the knighting ceremony for hours in candlelight; the words were so familiar they were almost boring. Instead, her mind wandered back to the muddy day in the fields, the solid stick in her hands, and the horses on the horizon.

It had been before her duties for the day had begun. The day had been so fresh that the even innkeep himself hadn't expected her to light the breakfast cook fires or scrub down the tables. No, she had made sure to rise early so she could venture into the woods to find a stick suitable for training.

Out there in the mud fields, Pearl had swung at imaginary foes, sweat beading on her forehead despite the summer chill. The mud had seeped into her boots but she didn't notice, so focused was she on her work. The world spun around her as she danced. She had seen the men practicing outside the inn enough times to know what a proper sword stance was, how to hold it in her hands and how to swing.

She was surrounded by a field of dark and icy enemies. The Others closed in, their distant star eyes intent on extinguishing her life and those she protected.

"I will not let you have them," Pearl whispered, and swung. Her stick sword cut through the Other like hot iron, but there were already others taking its place. Her foot stepped back in anticipation, ready, waiting. The Others lunged with their swords of frost, but their frozen bones were slow and Pearl was air. She sliced through one's chest and stabbed another in the eye with barely a flick of her wrist. "As long as I stand, you will never lay a finger on them!" she screamed. "I will destroy you all! I'll-"

The snorting of a horse broke Pearl from her spell. Slowly, she turned, and found that a an army had materialized on the road beyond the field. This time, however, the army was made of flesh and blood and banners sodden with rain, not creatures from beyond the Wall. All the blood went to her face, and she dropped the stick in the mud.

"You there!" A knight in dyed purple and red armor raised her hand in greeting. "Do you know the way north?"

Another look at the new arrivals told Pearl that they were no army. This grouping was much too small for any reasonable host, and too ornate besides. There were dozens of carts laden with food, and knights in pink armor and at least half a dozen wheelhouses, the biggest of which was nearly the size of an entire room back at the inn. Pearl eyed the riders warily; there were maybe two or three hundred on the road. How had they managed to sneak up on her like that? Had she really been so caught up in her daydream?

"Everyone knows the way north." Pearl stayed standing in her mud, a good ways away from the column. The banners were too wet to make out their sigil, but even so she could tell that this was the court of some lord or lady, and a powerful one at that. The lords and ladies whom she served on rare occasion could be especially kind or cold, there was never telling.

The knight lifted the shield of her helm. Underneath, her skin was dark as the black stones in the river by the inn, her grin whiter than the moon. A Summer Islander, Pearl thought. Years ago, a group of them had passed by on their way south to the Arbor, and had filled the inn with gold and drink for almost a fortnight. "Come here, child."

"Why?"

A booming laugh echoed out across the field. For a moment Pearl thought there was another storm overhead, but then the curtains of one of the wheelhouses fluttered and drew back, and she saw that it was a woman's laugh, not thunder. The lady, for she was surely the lady, had strawberry blond hair so strawberry it was almost pink overflowing from her shoulders and out the window of the wheelhouse. Through all of the shiny hair, Pearl could make out a white dress with delicate pink lacework, billowing slightly in the breeze.

"We've been found out, Garnet." The door to the wheelhouse swung open and the lady stepped down onto the road. To Pearl's surprise, she was both barefoot and the tallest woman she had ever seen, standing almost at a height with her carriage. "What is your name, child?"

"Pearl," Pearl said, feeling the blood rush to her face. The lady was intensely beautiful, but big and soft too, in a way she couldn't quite describe.

"Pearl." The lady murmured, rolling the name around in her mouth like a sweet. "Pearl. What a beautiful name." She smiled. "Pearl, I am Rose Quartz, though if nobody had told me I would think my name is 'Lady Quartz'." She laughed, and Pearl found herself smiling too. "You see, us foolish southerners don't know much about your lands, and I fear that we have gotten ourselves a little lost on our way to Queen's Landing."

"Oh."

Lady Quartz offered a powdered hand. "I would be ever so grateful if you could point us in the right direction. Maybe with that shining sword of yours?"

Somehow, Pearl had walked several steps forward; the lady no longer had to shout for Pearl to hear her. "I-It's just a stick, milady."

"Oh, don't be modest." Lady Quartz laughed again. Pearl took another few steps. She liked the way the woman laughed. It was deep and free, unlike anything she had heard from her master at the inn. "I saw you practicing in the field. You fight like a knight."

"Really? Do you mean it?"

"I do. 'Me'em Pearl' has a pleasant ring to it, wouldn't you agree."

"Me'em." The words were gold on Pearl's tongue. Of course she had dreamed of becoming a knight, of riding on Westeros' back and scourging it of evil with a sword and shield, but she had kept those dreams hidden. After all, that was why she was in the mud field. "Me'em" was the knight's title she whispered to herself at night after her hands were bleeding from the scrubbing. "Me'em" was the balm she used to sooth the bruises that came from men pinching her breasts and behind when she carried drinks. "Me'em" was the fire she used to fend off their groping hands when they sought to draw her into their laps.

"Well, perhaps I can strike a deal with you. If you show us the way to Queen's Landing, I'll see to it that you become Me'em Pearl." Lady Quartz smiled. Pearl didn't quite understand what she said next, but it sounded noble and grand and full of honor, which was good enough. "And if you're as good with a sword as you are with a stick, you can help me win my kingdom."

 

Pearl closed her eyes as the High Septa poured the oils over her head. She could feel them running down her neck and cheeks and dripping into the silver bowl below where she knelt. She could feel the Seven smiling down at her. She could feel the mud in her boots and the splinters in her hands.

When she opened her eyes, Lady Quartz was standing in place of the High Septa, a heavy silver blade in her hand. Pearl grinned up at her, and the lady smiled just as broadly at her. She raised the blade and touched Pearl on a shoulder.

"Rise, Pearl, and rise as Me'em Pearl, a sworn knight of Westeros and of House Quartz and Highgarden." The blade touched Pearl's other shoulder, though she couldn't feel it through her armor. She did as she was bid and rose to her feet, the last of the oils still dripping down her face. Whether they were tears of happiness or exhaustion, Pearl didn't know, but in that moment, it didn't matter. She longed to wrap her arms around Lady Quartz, but she stopped herself. There would be time for celebration later.

The Lady Quartz leaned in close to Pearl, her lips touching Pearl's ear. "I'm so proud of you, my Pearl."

"Thank you, Lady." Behind them, stretching back in a long line, there were more women waiting to be anointed. Pearl expected Lady Quartz to draw back and return to her place in the crowd, but instead, the lady bent in even closer.

"Now, my Pearl, we must act quickly. It seems our game has begun. Don't react."

Pearl had to force herself not to bite her lip. What was Lady Quartz talking about? If they didn't move away from each other, the others outside the Great Sept would begin to wonder just how long a conversation they were having.

"Queen Lannister and her Yellow Guard have sealed off Visenya's Hill." Quartz's breath was hot on Pearl's ear. "And most of my household guard seems to have gotten lost on their way up to the Sept. There is blood between the Queen and I. I promise you, I will explain everything later. But right now the only way out is through the Sept." The Lady Quartz drew back, and Pearl noticed her knuckles were white on the hilt of the massive knighting sword. Rose Quartz smiled, her eyes sad. "It's not fair of me to ask this of you. If we lose, we'll be killed. But if we win, we get to go home. Be brave, my Pearl. And fight well."

And then everything seemed to happen at once. Garnet, the purple-armored knight, materialized behind Lady Quartz just in time to block a longsword that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Pearl lost sight of Garnet as Lady Quartz pulled her back towards the Sept, but she heard the scream as Garnet's sword fell in turn.

There was no time to think, only to act. Pearl surged ahead of Rose, drawing her sword from its sheath and shoving her shield into Rose's hands. The doors to the Great Sept of Baelor were across the plaza, and between them and Pearl stood what seemed an army of household guards decked out in yellow armor and streaming banners of a lion on a yellow diamond field.

"Seize the Lady Quartz! She has committed treason against the crown! Jasper! Seize her!" Pearl turned as she ran and almost cried out in despair. The Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, the First Women and Lady of the Seven Kingdoms was standing in the center of a ring of her household guard with murder in her eyes, her outstretched finger pointing accusingly at Lady Quartz. Queen Lannister, Pearl thought. She had seen the Queen from time to time while living in the Red Keep, and she knew what the smallfolk called her: the Diamond. "As beautiful and hard and cold" was the common saying. And now the Diamond was calling for their heads.

Pearl lost track of time after that. Her world became a blur of whirling steel and glittering blood. The knighting ceremony, the glorious sunrise, they all burned in tatters. Blood washed over the white marble of the plaza, but Pearl couldn't tell whose it was. All that mattered was that Lady Quartz' hand was in hers and Garnet was in front of her, then beside her, a phantom of death, a fusion of deadly calm and anger.

Pearl slashed at an outstretched hand, not even stopping to identify it as Lannister or smallfolk. She wondered for a moment if it mattered. How had she ended up here? Only a moment ago the world had been crystal and sunlight. What treason had Lady Quartz committed?

Whatever it is, it is for the good of the realm. It had to be. If Lady Quartz had defied the crown, surely there was just cause. Surely.

Pearl glanced back at Lady Quartz to check that she was still safe, and when she looked back again, she found the doors of the Sept blocked by the biggest woman she had ever seen. Dressed all in yellow-orange armor, the woman stood wearing a great ugly lion helmet holding a naked greatsword in just one hand like it was a toy. Pearl wondered for a moment, just a moment, if the woman had giant blood in her.

"You stupid knights are all the same." The lion-warrior's sneer was visible even from beneath her helm. The long white hair flowing out from behind her helm eerily resembled a lion's mane. "You think you fight for a cause, something honorable. I'll shove your honor right up you arse." And then she was rushing towards Pearl like an aurochs, a moving mountain.

The woman was strong, so strong she wielded the greatsword with seeming ease, so strong that even with the massive blade, she was quick. But Pearl was quicker. She had become known for her speed and agility while squiring for Me'em Tarth at Queen's Landing, often knocking much larger girls onto their bottoms at tourneys and melees.

It soon became obvious that she would need all of her fabled speed. Her own sword was too thin to block any one of the Lannister guardswoman's blows, else it snap in two like a twig. Instead, she was forced to dodge and duck and weave through her steel, always keeping her back to Lady Quartz. Sweat beaded on her forehead next to the dried oils. The marble was slick with blood, making for unsure footing at best.

"Wench!" The woman laughed and brought her blade down in a savage arc, but Pearl sidestepped it easily and jabbed her sword at a chink in the the guardswoman's armor. She was rewarded with a grunt and small stream of blood, but her armor was so thick that when she pulled away, Pearl's blade was ripped from her hands. She dove into a roll and came up behind her opponent, grabbed her sword-

-but the move had cost her time. The larger woman twisted around and struck her with the back of her lobstered glove. Something cracked inside Pearl's mouth. The world exploded into white stars and pain and throbbing and the taste of copper under her tongue. Why was Visenya's Hill spinning?

Get up, you have to get up. You stupid fool of a knight, get up!

What if I'm not strong enough?

Pearl forced her eyes open just in time to see that greatsword racing towards her, coming down, down, down.

I am strong. In the real way.

She screamed at the sword. Blood flew from her mouth. Pearl threw all of her weight to one side and the blade bit into the marble. The tip of the metal sparked on stone, but that was all the time Pearl needed.

"Lady Quartz! Go with Garnet! I'll buy us time!" She heard herself yell the words. The voice didn't sound like hers; it was stronger, unafraid.

"My Pearl!"

"Go!" Pearl staggered to her feet, sword in hand. The doors of the Sept were so close, if Garnet could get Lady Quartz to them, they would have a chance of escape through the lower passageways.

"Pearl!" Pearl looked over to see Lady Quartz being pulled away by Garnet. The Lady threw her shield to Pearl, and she caught it just in time to block a blow from the Lannister woman. "I can't ask you to do this!"

"You don't have to." Pearl turned tail from the woman and ran with Garnet and Lady Quartz up the steps leading to the Sept. Lady Quartz turned to Pearl, tears in her eyes. Is she crying for me?

"This isn't fair. This isn't your war."

Pearl made herself smile. "My lady, you've always been my war."

And then Garnet was pulling Rose Quartz away through the doors, swinging them shut behind them. A boom sounded as a heavy bar fell into place. Pearl felt herself trembling. There was no going back now.

Shaking, bleeding, she turned her back to the Great Sept of Baelor. Blood dripped from the corner of her mouth and leaked from her armor. The plaza of the Sept was in chaos, Lannister guards pushed through fleeing spectators and bodies of the dead and dying. What few Quartz house guard there were left were scattered and outnumbered. Many of the knights-to-be, Pearl's friends, lay shattered on the ground. Their glazed eyes stared up at the sky, their new armor dented and broken. In the center of the carnage was the Diamond, her eyes glittering with malice, her perfect lips twisted in fury.

Pearl felt the mud seeping into her boots. Or was it blood? She felt the wooden stick in her hand and the smell of rain after the storm had passed.

It's the Others, she realized. The Lannister guards were forming up into a small arrowhead, advancing on her, stepping carefully towards the Sept doors. Only this time they were more real than any husband's tale or her imagination. The lion-warrior with her orange armor was at the point of the arrow, grinning a red-stained smile.

"I will not let you have them," Pearl said, whether it was to herself or to the Others or to the Lannisters, she could not say. "As long as I stand, you will never lay a finger on them!"

The Diamond's voice rang across the plaza. "Then you shall not stand for long."

Pearl raised her sword, her shield with the pink rose and thorns.

The great cluster of Diamond's guards charged.

A hand wrapped around Pearl's wrist from behind and pulled her hard.

Pearl thought she tried resist, she had to stay and hold the doors, she had to, but she watched herself be tugged away from the steps and behind a pillar of the Sept. She watched as a tiny girl pulled her through a small opening in the side of the white crystal wall and into complete darkness. What was going on? She had to fight-

"Follow me. Keep up." The tiny voice echoed in the cramped space. Pearl had no choice but to crawl forward after it. Outside, she could hear the sound of the Lannister guard breaking upon the doors of the Sept like a tide smashing a rock. It wouldn't be long before they were through. Before they were after her Rose.

She had failed.

"Be quiet, will you? They'll hear you cry! It's just a little farther."

"Who are you?" Pearl talked as she inched along on her hands and knees, talked to keep herself from spilling more tears. The ceiling scraping her back, the walls pressing in on her sides, it all made her felt as though she was making her way down into the earth, squeezing herself in so tight she would never make it out again.

The girl was silent for a few moments. When she spoke, her voice was raspy but high, as if it were not accustomed to being used. "A little bird, to some people."

There was the sound of stone sliding on stone, and suddenly soft light flooded their passageway. Pearl followed the girl out into a wider space. The room was circular, with seven doors leading away in different directions, a flaming torch lit above each and the likeness of each of the Seven carved into their wood.

The girl turned to face Pearl. She was small, no taller than Pearl's waist and dressed in ragged black and white robes. Wide eyes and a round nose dominated her pudgy face, along with lips and skin stained purple. Pearl frowned.

"Your skin-"

"Shade of the Evening." The girl turned away from Pearl and began working on the lock on one of the doors, carved with the Crone. "It was a test."

"For what?" Pearl slumped against the wall and slid to her bottom. Exhaustion flooded through her bones and there was a pounding behind her eyes that she couldn't seem to stop. "How did you know about this passageway?"

"You ask too many questions."

"You don't answer enough."

The Crone's door swung open. Beyond was blackness, still and impenetrable. The girl glanced back at Pearl. "Have you heard of the House of Black and White?"

"Yes." Pearl recognized the name, though it took her a second to place it. "It's the home of the Faceless Women." Assassins.

"We're not what you think we are." The girl's purple eyes seemed to know Pearl's thoughts before they entered her head. A chill traveled down Pearl's spine. Nothing in the world made sense anymore. Everything had been cut to pieces outside on the white marble.

Pearl forced herself to her feet. She began unclasping her armor; it was too heavy to carry in her state, and besides, if she had to fight again, there was no way she was going to be able to move in it with any skill. All the armor would do would serve as a pretty decoration for her death. "Than what are you?"

"Mercy." There was something strange in the girl's voice and she started through the Crone's door. Pearl was forced to follow, else she lose the girl entirely.

"Death is not mercy," Pearl said, shrugging off her breastplate. She sighed in relief as her chest was allowed to breath once again. "I want no part of you Faceless Women. I want to-" What? Go back out there to die?

"It is not you who's going to die today, stupid." How could the girl see in the utter darkness? They must have been some ways below the Great Sept, though how far, Pearl couldn't tell. The floor slanted down, though there were no steps, only smooth stone. "I was paid to take a life and to save one."

"By whom?" Pearl wanted desperately to hear the words, wanted so badly. But the girl said nothing. The thought had been there since Pearl had pushed herself to her feet outside the Sept, eating away like a dark worm. It didn't take much convincing for her to leave you there, the worm said. She threw you away.

No, she wouldn't think like that. She refused to. Rose Quartz had sent the Waif. She had to have.

What would that make her? A gambler? How many lives does it cost to win a game?

For a while, there was only the sound of their footsteps on the stone. Pearl had to hold one of the girl's hands to make sure she didn't become lost. Their passage twisted and turned, though at least this time they were able to walk upright.

Something else was niggling at Pearl. The girl. She was so young to be a part of anything, let alone the Faceless Women. Just a child, Pearl thought. Like I was. Like I am.

Finally, the silence became more than Pearl could take. "You still haven't told me who you are."

A slant of light appeared on the floor before them. The girl stopped and fumbled for a few moments within her robe. The clanking of metal on metal signaled that she had found a set of keys.

"Whose life were you paid to take? The Queen's?"

"Some people call me Waif." The girl turned around to give Pearl a wry smile. "I turned out smaller than I was supposed to. And who I kill and kill for is none of your business. Also, you talk too much."

The door behind the Waif swung open to the empty open air of Queen's Landing. Pearl could have walked right out and fallen to her death if she hadn't been paying attention. She wondered just how many secret ways there were beneath Visenya's Hill, how many doors cut into the cliffsides.

The Waif motioned to the door. "There's a ladder below here that'll lead you to safety. I have to go."

Pearl paused, biting her lip. There was something about the girl. She couldn't just leave her to grow up a monster Faceless Woman. What kind of knight would that make her? She was supposed to save people, to rescue them from misery and death. Not abandon them; she knew what that felt like already. "Wait!" She caught the Waif's wrist as she was turning to go. "Come with me."

The Waif's eyes narrowed. "What?"

"I want you to come with me." Pearl set her jaw. "My Lady Quartz helps people." Look how much she helped you. That's what she does." It has to be. She can help you too."

"What makes you think I need help?" The Waif yanked her arm out of Pearl's grasp. "Do I look defenseless to you?"

"No! I just-"

"You think you know what mercy is? I work for the god of mercy. Do you think you're better than me because you can swing a sword and you have fancy armor?" The girl laughed in Pearl's face, but there was no joy in it. Pearl flinched back. "Go. Just go."

"Fine." Fire burned in Pearl's chest. Why couldn't this girl see she was just trying to help? "Fine, I'll go." Pearl turned, but instead of the door leading out into air, she saw a girl, standing in the misting rain in a field of mud. She saw a girl in a tattered dress with bruised skin clutching a stick in one grimy hand, a girl with bruises under her dress, too, secret bruises that she could tell none about save the silent gods.

She watched as the roses appeared on the horizon to save the girl.

"Please, take this." Pearl reached inside her mail shirt and unclasped the pin she wore over her heart. She had worn it since the day she had arrived at Queen's Landing. Always, always the rose had sat close to her skin. Day and night, the quartz had protected her.

She tore it away.

Pearl held the crystal rose out to the Waif in her outstretched palm. "If you ever need me, or Lady Rose...don't forget about us." Please, Rose. Did you forget?

For a moment, Pearl thought the Waif would refuse her. But then, quick as a snake, the girl's purple-tinged hand snatched the pin away. Her eyes met Pearl's for the space of a shared heartbeat, and then she turned and fled into the darkness. Her feet made no sound on the stone.

Pearl's body ached. She had no idea where she was injured or how badly, or whose blood it was on her chainmail and breeches. But the sweet, stinking, beautiful wind of Queen's Landing was tugging at her hair, and below her, down the ladder, waited her Lady Rose. Or so she hoped.

But did she? The worm wiggled deeper. She could run. Turn back, find some other way through the passages, go through some other gods' door in the circular room. She could abandon her Lady Rose as she had abandoned Pearl. Maybe she had sent the Waif, but even if she had, Lady Quartz had still gambled with Pearl's life. Quartz had known that Pearl would sacrifice herself for her. She had weighed Pearl's life and found it cheap.

She wouldn't get anywhere by staying here, however. Whatever game Lady Quartz was playing, whatever rebellion she had started, Pearl was tied to her now. She was a knight of House Quartz, sworn to Highgarden in front of all Queen's Landing and Westeros. She had sworn herself to Rose, and she couldn't turn her back on her, not now. It didn't matter if she cared, because care or not, Pearl's life was a piece on Rose's board.

This is what she had wanted. This was what it was to serve her lady.

Maybe I am nothing, Pearl realized. Maybe have to be nothing, if I am to protect my lady.

Rose Quartz had sent the Waif to save Pearl; that was more than any other lord or lady would have done for a single knight smelling of summer. Perhaps she should content herself with that, and wish for nothing more.

Gritting her teeth, Pearl set a foot on the first rung of the stone ladder began her descent. She felt the hole where the rose pin had rested on her breast. Would she ever see it again?

Everything was a piece moving on a board she couldn't see, playing a game she didn't understand. Her world was no longer as simple as a field of mud. Now the playing board was made of blood and service and sacrifice.

Rose is playing the game of thrones. The thought jumped into Pearl's mind and she had to stop on the ladder to let it run its course. There was going to be war. This was already war. If the war involved the Diamond, than of course it was about the Iron Throne. Rose is playing the game of thrones, she thought again. House Highgarden was going to have to do whatever it took to win.

Because in this game, you had to win or die. Pearl saw that now. What if that meant she she could not expect to be anything more than a tool, to have to give herself completely to Rose Quartz? Would she do that? Could she?

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.

On the stone ladder, hundreds of feet above the earth, Pearl hardened her heart.

There was no room to play the middle ground.

And she wouldn't.