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Second Best

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Ashara pinned her gaze on him. “In earnest, are you betrothed, or not?”

The Dornish beauty was wont to flit from man to man: what did she want with him? Robert, or Brandon, were much more her type. After the dance, and what a graceful dancer was she, he had walked her out into the starry night for some private words; or rather, she had him to. Eddard marshaled his wits and groped for an answer, lest those violet eyes haunt him to the end of his days.

“Not yet, but I could be soon.” He was not really spoken for: he would not add his to the too many words – and much more - already passed with Barbrey Dustin.

“You are a most notable man, Eddard Stark.”

“There is nothing noticeable about me, lady Ashara.”

“A man who would not risk breaking a word yet to be given?” She tilted her head, as to study him better; in the moonlight, the silver streak on her hair shone as a star shooting through the pitch-dark sky. “I have met many a man; in my near experience, most make little of their wedding vows and less of betrothals, even when the buzz is all over Westeros.”

Brandon's words came suddenly to his mind.

“Come on, Ned: Barbrey wouldn't want Baelor the Blessed in her bed, I can tell: Ashara is every bit Dornish, if you get my meaning. ”

It was not for him to judge his older brother's who in his endeavour to bring him out of his shell would slight three women in one sentence: Catelyn Tully, Ashara Dayne and Barbrey Dustin.

Was it Brandon, or Robert? Lya might have a point, all in all... Ned felt the urge to apologize, on whose behalf he couldn't tell.

“I am sorry if you suffered any unwarranted for liberty.”

“No one did anything I didn't agree to.” She turned to him fiercely. “The man who tries is likely to find himself short a cock.”

Ned stopped in his tracks. He wasn't trying anything, was he?

To no avail, he had explained Brandon that hanging around with Ashara Dayne when already betrothed to Catelyn Tully was a bad idea, all the more when the Sword of the Morning was her brother. “I m no slouch with a sword either.” His brother had testily replied; Eddard had insisted Ser Arthur of the Kingsguard was no Paetyr Baelish, “Ice against Dawn; that would be a sight.” Brandon had laughed it off. “Take it easy, Ned, that's never going to happen: the Dornish don't care for sisters as we do.”

“Shocked? Arthur is not the only one who can wield a blade...”

Ned coughed.

“Don't put the blame on me, Eddard Stark. We are no longer in Nymeria's days, but in Dorne it's not unheard of girls getting some basic training.”

“Far from me to lay blame on anyone, my lady” Ned felt his tongue freeze: he didn't mean to be rude. Brandon would know what to say. “Neither my sister is foreign to swords.”

“Tell me more, would you?”

“Lyanna had to plead Brandon to teach her on the slink, but only because he likes to be pleaded. He is always all too glad to give in to her.”

“Our Prince here would do anything for Elia. Your brother reminds me of him.”

“Does he?” He didn't question his affection for the Dornish Princess, but he couldn't figure two men more different than the always thoughtful, melancholic Targaryen heir and his utterly wolf-blooded brother.

Ashara replied at his puzzled tone. “Please don't take it ill, Eddard.”

He would never learn how to talk to women: she was taking wrong everything he said. Why couldn't he be a lick more like Brandon?

“No one would take issue at the comparison to Prince Rhaegar, renowned for his prowess between the lists as well as his skill in the arts: his graciousness match his looks.”

“Northrons...” Her laughter rang cool as mountain waterfalls in a clear summer day. “Not only Dragonstone entitles to the name.”

Ned frowned, as he realized belatedly whom Ashara was referring to. The Red Viper of Dorne notoriety had likely passed the Wall, and the news he had sired a child on a Septa had shocked even who kept to the old gods. Brandon had fought for a lady and nearly killed his rival, but she was his betrothed and he had never poisoned his blade; he had never meant any harm, only a sharp lesson, but his brother had been carried away by the boy's unconsciounable stubbornness and Lord Hoster's ward had brought it upon himself.

“A rogue, but my Princess's is the sweetest brother, and when it comes to someone he is fond of, he has a big heart. I might have misjudged yours, all in all. Vouching for you, sword lessons to his little sister... Arthur let me hold Dawn once; did she Ice?”

He felt a less slippery ground under his feet, and let his tongue untie: Ashara was Dornish, which meant she wouldn't look down on Lyanna's unladylike pursuits. “Try as she might I doubt my sister could lift it: Ice a greatsword bigger than most, taller than Brandon himself.” Truth be told, Ned doubted even his brother would dare touch House Stark heirloom aforetime. “She can outride him whenever she pleases though, to his everlasting chagrin. My brother maintains it's because a slip of a girl is much lighter on the mount than a man grown. The plain truth is she is better ahorse than anyone I ever saw.”

“I owe you, Eddard Stark. You can ask anything of me.”

“What for?”

“At long last I found my Princess the perfect wedding gift for the Lady Lianna's wedding. “

“Too much of a honour.” Eddard demurred. “Princess Elias shouldn't bother herself.”

“No bother at all: her brother breeds the finest sand steeds, and he is not one to deny his sister." She tsked. "He could well cut out my tongue for giving away my Princess's secret plans about the marriage of the year: you won't spill the beans, will you?”

“You have my word.” Eddard promised solemnly: she looked peculiarly keen on the matter.

Ashara went on. “We trusted Dornish sour would do nicely for Lord Robert...”

“The stronger, the better.” He agreed.

“Yet we didn't know about the bride: you Starks are all ice, melt outside your snowy kingdom, and are never seen in King's Landing. My Princess fretted; Brandon does like to talk, mostly about himself I found out, and I thought I'd better try my luck with the Quiet Wolf.”

So, Ashara Dayne had been set on the Starks by Elia of Dorne, and she had turned to his brother not because smitten by his prowess, as Brandon would have it, but for his louder voice and effusive manners.

Ned felt more at ease. After all, Ashara - that is Elia, and likely Rhaegar – wanted just what he did: all the best for Lyanna and Robert, from their wedding very beginning.

“Nuptials gifts are due: in such time as ours, is pivotal to tighten the bonds between the Great Houses and the Iron Throne, all the more when the Lord of the Stormlands is cousin to Prince Rhaegar and third in line-”

He cut in. “We all pray for an heir.”

Ashara lowered her voice to a shaky whisper. “I pray for a safe delivery, Ned.”

He stepped forward to comfort her and stilled, startled by his own daring. Her perfume was headier than Winterfell glasshouse could ever hope to be.

“You are trembling.”

“I am afraid.”

“What of?”

“You. Your beauty.”

“A brave thing, admitting to our own fears.”

“Is it?”

“One can truly be brave only when afraid, so we say in the Mountains.”

“I am for you, too: my prospect might not be settled as of now, but I won't wed South.”

“What's your problem with Dorne, pray tell?”

“As it stands, I might be quite enamoured with it.” Eddard smiled shyly. “To a Northman, South is South of the Neck, and we Starks always married in the North.”

“Which in Dorne, is everything beyond the Red Mountains. Be it as it may, from a Northron viewpoint your siblings aren't keeping to House Stark tradition.”

“That's why I am expected to abide by it and take to wife one of our bannermen's daughter.”

“Your not-yet could-be-betrothed is a very lucky woman, whoever she might be.” Ashara Dayne closed the space between them. “That's my wedding present to her, Eddard.”

His heart skipped a beat when Ashara pressed her lips on his.

 

Chapter Text

Even their gods were wrong.

He was so deep in his thoughts he hardly followed the Septon's chanting words.

“... Jon, of House Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie, Defender of the Vale, Warden of the East...”

“... Eddard, of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North...”

He heard his own titles full list as they belonged someone else; he was still not used to them, and they were ill-fitting as a new pair of boots. He startled when realized both Lord Jon of the Eyre and Lord Hoster of Riverrun were staring at him, and faltered the unfamiliar southron vows, echoed by his wife clear voice.

Catelyn was just the kind of woman he found frightening, and not only for her dashing beauty: Ashara had to some extent cured his uneasiness about attractive ladies. He felt too below her expectations: Catelyn Tully was a woman men would duel for, but Ned did not even ride in joust, and was not the kind of man who would fight a duel for a woman. Brandon was, but not even he would do it for Ashara Dayne's or Barbrey Ryswell's honour, less wage a war for them. His brother would have drawn blood for Lyanna as well; but the Prince of Dragonstone was not the likes of Petyr Baelish.

If Lady Catelyn had wept for her late betrothed, she gave no sign of it. Everything in her poise displayed composure and effortless authority, from her head tilt to her back straightness, from her blue eyes to the curve of her lips, to her elegant hands. She had about her the same air of unquestioned command of Jon Arryn, who could have been Ned's grandfather and had been a Lord most of his life, even if she was just few years older than her sister Lysa, who, pale and with red-rimmed eyes, looked every bit the frightened child she was. She tried to copy Catelyn's countenance, as he was mimicking Jon's one: because Ned still felt a second son, rather than a High Lord.

For a moment he wished he was to wed Lysa instead, as if comforting her could allay his own misgivings. But he guessed that was the reason why Jon Arryn had insisted he married the eldest Tully girl. Catelyn had been raised to be the Lady of a Great House, she had indeed acted as the Lady of Riverrun since she was even younger than Lysa, and knew how to play the part better than he did. He had been trained to follow, rather than to lead; he could deploy men in battle, lay a siege, or run an attack, but was not adept at playing the big game. Ned had had no time to prepare himself to rule Winterfell, and Jon knew that, after the war, he would need someone by his side who could support him in the task. Rhaegar Targaryen's self-serving pursuit for happiness would tore the Seven Kingdoms apart; Lord Arryn could look ahead and was working at the seams.

Eddard Stark clasped his wife's bridal cloak. He knew he was not Brandon, he understood he could not compare to him, to his appeal, to his gallantry, to his bravery when he was alive: all the less now, when he had died a hero's death. He could only hope Lady Catelyn Tully would still consider him the second best.