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The Black Prince

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In the depths of the Kingswood, Prince Harry was hunting his own. He was cloaked in shadow, oaks and elms towering over him like so many giants, silent and unmoving. The knobbly branches twisted about each other like gnarled, broken fingers, and arrow thin wisps of sunlight pierced through the brush to strike the ground below.

He would rather there was more light. The forest was silent around him, save for the clattering of cicadas hiding in the leaves, the far off warble of a bird's song whistling through the boughs. This was his first real hunt. He had escaped the attentions of his minder for the day, Ser Meryn, and slipped away to the city, and from there to the Kingswood. His queenly mother would be wroth for his recklessness, he knew, but he was a boy of adventure and daring, a prince, and he would accept her rage for a chance at glory, however small.

The stag stood in a meadow beyond the thicket, and what a magnificent stag it was, as tall as a horse, with great jagged antlers that branched off into a dozen bone barbs. Harry nocked and aimed as he stepped away from the tree, drawing his bow in a well practiced motion. The stag paused, jerked its massive head towards him, and stamped the ground once, then twice, then thrice. Harry inhaled deeply and held his breath in his chest. The beast charged.

Harry exhaled as he loosed the arrow. TWANG. The bow thrummed, broadhead arcing through the air to cut a deep red gash across the stag's snout. Blood spurted across the grass. The stag let out a sound half mewl and half snort, then jerked away and dashed off into the dense wood across the meadow. Harry loosed a second arrow. It sunk deep into the beast's muscled flank, but the stag did not fall. So stubborn, he thought. Truly a fitting sign for his House.

He gave chase through the brush, ducking beneath low hanging branches, dodging aside brambles and briers, following the crash of hoof to earth and rustling leaves, and there, painted in bright red swaths through the undergrowth, a trail of blood. He came upon the stag in time to see it collapse to the ground with a pitiful grunt, saw it kick and writhe, trying and failing to fight off the inevitable. He counted the seconds as he drew nearer. In the breath between his eleventh and twelfth count, the stag was dead.

Harry grinned from ear to ear. Joffrey had tried and failed to bring down a stag only the week before, and earned naught but scorn from their father in the attempt. Harry hoped to earn his praise instead, even though he was forbidden from venturing into the Kingswood alone. Not without a guard, and not at the expense of his lessons. Maester Pycelle, the old toad, would be terribly disappointed. He probably has half the castle looking for me by now. If his mother had her way he would be locked up in the Red Keep all day just like little Myrcella, playing at court with the sons and daughters of the lords who visited his father, or worse, with Joffrey and his cruel games. No, better to hunt in the Kingswood, even if it meant a punishment. And since he had managed to bring down a stag, all the better.

The young prince stared down at the stag. It was even bigger up close, much too large to carry without help, and he was alone. He reached for the magic in his blood and willed it into being, shaping his intent with his thoughts. It was like an extra limb or a sixth sense, and was sometimes hard to grasp, like oil slipping through fingers, at other times easy to manipulate, easy to guide, like a knife through cheese. The more complex the magic, the more difficult it was to control. This was simple.

Rise, he thought.

The corpse climbed slowly into the air, limbs and head dangling limply. Follow. He started his trek back to the copse of trees where he had tied his horse. The corpse followed, floating along behind him at head height, dripping blood onto the grass and weeds.

His thoughts turned to wands as he walked. If he ever wanted to use greater, more powerful magic consistently, he would need one. He had yet to find the right ingredients to craft a lasting, working wand. Some of the trees in the godswood were almost decent enough, if a bit weak and faulty, but the most important component, a core, continued to elude him. He had tried to use his blood, but it made for too volatile a conduit. His hair didn't work either. He still had the blisters on his hand from when a poorly crafted wand had exploded in his grip after he'd tried to cast a spell.

If he could get his hands on some sort of magical creature then he might have better luck, but as far as he knew, there weren't any such beasts in his father's lands. He would have to venture to Essos to find such, and he didn't think he would be allowed to journey across the Narrow Sea until he was a man grown.

Last year the menagerie in Pentos had come to King's Landing, with their singers and mummers and strange, exotic creatures. They'd had a unicorn, more goat than horse he had been told, and a basilisk, described to him as the queerest creature one would ever see. But Harry hadn't been allowed to see them. He had only learned of the creatures from his uncle Jaime, the golden knight of the Kingsguard. Hopefully, if the menagerie came west again, he would be allowed to go and speak to the men who handled the animals and maybe solve his dilemma.

His existence was a strange thing. In his waking hours he lived as Prince Harrold Baratheon, the second son of King Robert and Queen Cersei. But at night, when he lay his head to rest, he dreamed of a wondrous world, too fantastical to believe, rife with adventure and riddled with magic. He dreamed of deeds great beyond measure, of evil vanquished and defeated, of death and its cold embrace.

He had thought himself mad, cursed by the ghosts that haunted the Red Keep. Then, one hot summer day in his eighth year, he and Joffrey had gotten into a fight, as they oft did, and in the aftermath, he had been confined to his chambers. He had been so angry. He remembered feeling unbearably warm, and when his anger churned too high, a gout of flame had burst from his hand and scorched the wall black. He'd had to cover the burn with a tapestry.

Almost two hundred years of life lurked behind his brilliant green eyes, memories of a strange place, where owls instead of ravens carried messages, and men and women both fought with magic wands instead of sword and shield, took lessons in castles with moving stairwells, rode flying brooms, lived well beyond a hundred years.

But he didn't feel like the man from his dreams and memories. Not exactly. He wasn't so weary, so tired. Words couldn't quite explain the sheer strangeness of it, to live a life in dreams, seeing and hearing and tasting, but never feeling. That was the only barrier between who he was and who he had been. The thoughts and motivations of the Chosen One were beyond him.

The prince came upon his horse, Flatfoot, a black dun courser, near the edge of the forest where the King's Road bordered the woods. "We're going back to the keep, girl," he murmured, reaching up to rub her flank.

Flatfoot nickered and turned her huge gray head to look back at him. Green flashed in her coal black eyes. Be still, he thought, and it was so. He pulled a rope from his pack, and as the stag's corpse settled into place behind the saddle, the rope uncoiled from his hands and tied itself about the horse, securing the stag in place.

Flatfoot bore the extra weight with little issue. She was big, too big for a boy his age to ride and control, but his magic made her manageable. He had never once fallen from the saddle, and Lord Jon always said he rode like he was half-horse himself. It was easy to control Flatfoot, to mold his magic to her mind and set her to purpose. It was even easier than moving things with magic, though not so easy as setting them on fire.

He climbed into the saddle, checked his packs and his sword, then kicked Flatfoot into a steady canter up the well-trodden and heavily rutted King's Road. Why is that? he wondered as he rode. Why does fire come so readily? He could see the city even from this distance, leagues away. The Red Keep stretched high above King's Landing, the seven iron-crested drum towers like stout fingers reaching up to grasp the sun.

He rode up the trodden path for over an hour, passed rumbling wayns and the chatty merchants who drove them, to the barge that ferried travelers across the Blackwater. Rows of ramshackle hovels that were wreathed in mist hugged the muddy southern bank, stretching west for near a league. Downtrodden souls haunted the leaning shacks, more mud than men, garbed in roughspun rags. There were fisherfolk without skiffs, farmers without land, drunkards, lamed men and women, and their half-starved offspring, barefoot little ghosts with big round eyes like owls, stick thin limbs, and swollen bellies.

He had once asked Lord Jon where they came from, how they had fallen upon such misery. "They ran afoul of a lord, or a knight, or a brigand," Lord Jon had said. "Or perhaps locusts decimated their crops, or a man gambled his property away. Foulness falls upon all, just as readily as rain."

Harry threw them a few coins as he passed, and one filthy little girl with thick, matted brown hair reached out to touch him. He threw her another coin, for her daring if nothing else, and spared her a smile.

The men that manned the ferry hailed him as he led Flatfoot onto the barge, but aside from a nod to each of them, Harry paid them little mind, his eyes instead on the bay beyond the river mouth. The deep blue waters were speckled with dozens if not hundreds of fishing boats, merchant cogs, and trading galleys. The prince had always liked to watch the business of the bay, watch the ships as they sailed and oared their way through the dark waters. It made him think of bees buzzing about a hive, laden with honey but unable to land for the sheer number of their brothers and sisters. The wharves were full, he saw, and a thousand and more fisherfolk, sailors, and traders walked the quay, salty skinned and wind burnt.

The north bank of the Blackwater was dominated by the Fishmarket, rows and lanes of salt-crusted timber and weather-beaten stone that rolled west down the river, curving around the city wall to the King's Gate. It was the River Gate, however, cracked and muddied, stones tinted green with algae, that loomed before him.

Harry saw twenty mounted gold cloaks waiting in its shadow. One gave a shout, and the portcullis started to lift with great clanking and clattering groans. The horsemen fell in alongside him as he passed into the city. The great walls made the city into a realm all its own, massive but cramped for the great number of people that called it home, the stacked buildings built too close, the streets made too narrow, winding throughout the great hills like a thousand coiling serpents.

The stench hit him as he entered the city, worsened by the midday heat. Horse shit, hog slop, and worse things riddled the streets, the smell so sharp and pungent he almost gagged. Smells like a corpse, he thought, overripe and half decayed. Servants kept the Red Keep pristine in comparison, scented oils and candles burning in every room and every hall. But sweet oils could do naught for the rot but mask the smell.

Flatfoot didn't seem to mind the smell or the filth. She trotted almost gaily down the road, the stag's great antlered head jumping with each step. The pair went first through Fishmonger's Square, pushing through the bustling crowds that parted only at the sharp urging of the gold cloaks at their side. They followed the Hook's curving cobbled road down a lane of towering manses, storefronts, and warehouses, growing taller and taller as they stretched and straggled up the slowly rising incline. Harry was hailed by children running barefoot in the streets, women washing in the windows, and even the men as they worked, pushing carts and selling wares. Dirty faces popped up in windows, smiling and waving. Old crones leaned out of crooked storefronts and called out blessings. Harry returned their smiles and waves, treated their blessings with copper and silver.

The Hook carried them up to the Red Keep and its reaching towers and stout walls, the ashlar a pale red like watered down strongwine. The castle gate was still open, and wouldn't be shut till nightfall. Harry imagined his mother was waiting for him, with Maester Pycelle at her heels like the shiftless fool he was, frowning down at him from the castle steps. Ser Meryn too, if the King had not set him to another task. He imagined his father as he always did, as the king always was, more oft than not, well in his cups with a whore in his lap, mind absent of worry. The king paid his children little mind, truth be told, his wife even less, and though he had more words for Harry than for Joffrey, it wasn't as many words as he had for the whores and serving maids who warmed his bed.

Things hadn't always been that way. When Harry was younger, and his mother less bitter, his father had spent time with him, and Joffrey, and Myrcella too. But as they grew older, so too did he grow more distant, till sometimes he seemed not even a father at all, but a stranger parading about under the guise of a familiar face. Joffrey had always seemed most affected by his dismissal, and sought and found solace in their mother and her honeyed words of encouragement. Harry had turned to Lord Jon for a father, and learned from him what it meant to be a lord, just as the Vale lord had attempted to teach his father. Harry had heard from him the tales of the rebellion, of the great battles won and lost that saw his father sit the Iron Throne, of the great men who had died, and the wretches left behind to mend a broken kingdom.

Harry remembered battles. They were different, in his dreams, than what Lord Jon described. The Hand spoke of death, more oft then not. A great many deaths, of noble and common alike. But there weren't so many wizards as there were people in the Seven Kingdoms. And wizards weren't so inclined to killing. His was a kingdom of butchers; Harry would be surprised if there was a single ser in Westeros who hadn't killed at least one man. In his dreams, though, he could count on two hands the number of wizards he had witnessed take a life. The Battle of Hogwarts didn't hold a candle to even the smallest of Westerosi wars. He had seen floggings more bloody.

"Prince Harrold," a quiet voice announced, cutting his musings short. "You've returned. The castle will be glad to hear it." Ser Brenden Rykker, the captain of the Gate, stepped out from the shadow of the postern door, followed by the prickly Ser Connell Pyle. Ser Brenden reached out to aid in Harry's dismount, while Ser Connell moved to take the stag down from Flatfoot. "Ser Meryn will be gladdest of all, I should think," Ser Brenden continued, a smile playing at his lips. "Your father ordered him to guard the privies after he lost you." Half of Ser Brenden's face was hidden beneath a thick brown beard and whiskers. He was tall as any knight, and stout too, with eyes the color of chestnuts.

"He certainly won't lose track of those," replied Harry with a smile, even as his eyes were drawn to the small crowd standing beyond the gates at the castle steps. He saw neither his mother nor the Grandmaester present amongst them. Instead it was his uncle Tyrion's ugly misshapen face that greeted his eyes, his pretty little sister Myrcella with him. And behind them stood the master at arms, Ser Aron Santagar, and the kingsguard Ser Arys Oakheart, and-

His smile withered. His uncle Stannis stood with the group as well. The Lord of Dragonstone was clad in plain silver mail beneath a golden surcoat bearing the Baratheon stag, tall and black with great spiked antlers. He was going bald, thick black hair curling about his head like the shadow of a crown. Fleshless cheeks and a strong jaw gave him a severe look, and the press of his lips and cut of his eyes did little to lighten the expression. The few feet between him and the cluster of people seemed as if a vast chasm for how rigidly he held himself. Stannis was the single most dour man in all the Seven Kingdoms, Harry knew, and he carried his belligerence about him as a weapon to be drawn upon any who crossed his path. He was dutiful to the extreme, and that, Harry thought, was his one redeeming quality. Harry had scarce seen Stannis laugh or smile. He rather thought that his uncle didn't know how.

He heard a grunt of exertion behind him, and looked to see Ser Connell staggering under the weight of the deer. Ser Brenden rushed to help him. Ser Connell turned his sharp face down to Harry, skin red with the strain of his effort. "How did you manage get this up here?" He seemed annoyed by the weight of it, as if he'd been done some horrible grievance. He was sweating beneath his helmet, and his red hair clung to his hollow cheeks. "It's as heavy as a cow!"

"The smallfolk of the Kingswood helped," Harry explained. He offered no more than that, and the ser did not press.

"You killed this yourself?" Ser Brenden asked, wrapping his arms about the corpse.

"Indeed I did," Harry said. "All it took was two arrows."

Ser Brenden let out a low whistle and said, "Quite impressive! I was much older than you when I killed my first stag. The skinning was even harder than the killing. A bloody business, that." He shook his head. "Bloody and messy."

Harry smirked. "You cut open the bladder, didn't you?"

"The bladder, the bile sack, the stomach." Ser Brenden shuddered. "It took days to wash the stench out of my hands. My boots weren't so lucky."

The young captain called for servants from the keep. As Harry approached the castle steps, two young men scurried out to take hold of the carcass. Beyond them, the castle grounds were a sprawling maze, the lower bailey dappled with granaries, barracks, stables, armories, and smithies, to say nothing of the massive Tower of the Hand, the Maidenvault, the Sept, and the keep itself, vast and stout and towering. One could get lost before even entering its looming doors. "Wait for me in front of the Great Hall," Harry told the servants. They hurried off to do his bidding.

"Ah, you've finally decided to grace us with your exalted presence," Tyrion quipped when Harry finally drew near. "Let us all bow before the great lesson-skipping prince." And bow he did, bending so low his jutting forehead tapped the ground. "We must celebrate his arrival with wine and women. More of one than of the other, though I am not quite sure which, just yet."

Harry grinned, even as Stannis' face curled into a sneer.

"Really Harry, what possessed you to run off this time?" Tyrion continued. He was dressed fine enough for a feast, clad in tight satin breeches of bright cloth-of-gold, and a red tunic decorated with roaring lions. A shock of black and gold hair fell over and across his forehead, mismatched black and green eyes gleaming. "Not that I blame you, this keep is an awfully dreadful place. And the company! Why, some are no more engaging than dung piles, for all their ranks and titles-"

"Quiet, Imp." Stannis glared at Tyrion, his wide jaw clenched tight. He looked to Harry then, and his expression didn't ease. Wintry blue and emerald green warred for the briefest of moments before Stannis looked away.

Most people couldn't stand to look Harry in his eyes. Especially those with secrets. He could see them sometimes, their secrets, and they could feel the weight of his gaze, judging the things they would rather hide away in the shadows of their mind. But Stannis didn't seem the sorts for secrets. Harry surmised his avoidance of eye contact to be a different matter entirely.

"The king wishes to see you," said Stannis. "You've skipped out on your lessons. Again. And worse, you ventured into the Kingswood alone in the process."

"And see him I shall," said Harry. He nodded in greeting to Ser Arys who was standing dutifully in Myrcella's shadow, and winked at his sister, reaching out a hand to ruffle her golden hair.

She leaned away and took his hand in hers instead, pulling him closer. "You smell," she said, face upturned, dainty little nose wrinkled in disgust. But she hugged him anyway, and remained tucked under his arm when they broke apart. Her hair was thick and wavy and golden, her face soft and her features delicate. Her eyes were a shade lighter than his, and matched perfectly the color of her gown. She smelled strongly of lavender, with a hint of some sort of berry. The scent tickled his nose.

"I haven't missed my arms lesson, have I?" Harry asked Ser Aron. The dornishman was lean and tall, with oiled black hair that fell to his back, a long, straight nose, and swarthy skin. His black beard had been braided into a thin rope and threaded through golden beads, and he wore gold in his ears and gold about his neck.

"No, my prince," Ser Aron began, his accent giving his words a strange lilt, "but do you recall the Queen's orders regarding your lessons? No drills until-"

"-after my book lessons," Harry finished. He pouted dramatically, coaxing a laugh out of Myrcella. She hid her giggles behind her hand, shoulders shaking as she laughed.

Stannis glared. "Don't pout, boy. You are a prince. Act like it."

Harry's face curled into a frown. What a joyless man. Does he not know the pleasures of laughter? Myrcella's laughter especially was a precious thing, sweet and pleasant to the ear. Would that I could make music of it, men and women across the kingdom would flock to listen.

"Master-of-Ships, Lord of Dragonstone, and a messenger. My lord, where do you find the time to manage it all?" Tyrion said.

Stannis bristled at the insult, jaw working furiously. Harry imagined he could hear his teeth grinding. Instead of replying, the Lord of Dragonstone settled on a look so full of vitriol that Tyrion swallowed what he had been about to say, and instead bid his niece and nephew goodbye. "I've a woman to see about a particular itch," he said, and then he was waddling through the gate, into the city and away from the keep.

Harry turned a questioning eye down to Myrcella, wondering why she was present. He asked her as much.

"I was waiting for you... you promised to go to the gardens with me, remember?"

He didn't. It had completely slipped his mind. He had been so focused on getting to the Kingswood that he had forgotten. "I can't now," he told her, "but later I'll come find you and then we'll go pick your favorite flowers and have us a proper sword fight, alright?" Despite his many duties and responsibilities, he always made time for Myrcella. Always.

She nodded happily, but didn't leave until coaxing another promise out of him. Ser Arys followed her, a white giant as solid and dependable as the oak of his House's sigil, according to Lord Jon.

"Well, Uncle Stannis, Ser Aron, shall we?" Without waiting for a reply he walked past them down the winding path of stone that led into the keep, then through the massive doors of black iron and oak. Both men fell into step behind him, one at each shoulder. Stannis seemed less inclined to sneer now that Tyrion was gone, Harry saw when he glanced back, but he was no more amicable for the dwarf's absence.

A handful of ghosts greeted Harry in the halls with disparaging oaths. Some of them tried to frighten him, popping out of the black suits of armor that lined the halls with shrieks and howls and bloody smiles. Others didn't bother him in the least, but they all, at some point, came to see him, even if it was only a glimpse. Harry didn't react in the slightest. As only he was aware of their existence, it didn't seem wise, and he had long since grown used to their antics.

"You brought down that stag yourself?" Ser Aron asked.

Harry nodded. "I did," he said. "And it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be." He suspected his magic had something to do with that. Sometimes it was very subtle, his magic, and carried a light touch, like a whisper on the wind.

"Probably luck," Ser Aron said, his smile softening his words. "You're certainly a strong lad, to be able to draw that bow of yours. Might be I should start you on the warhammer, eh?" He laughed. Harry only smiled. "Meet me in the usual place after your lessons with the Grandmaester."

No doubt for some manner of grueling drill. "I will," said Harry. "I still need to work on my aim."

"You're but a boy of ten," Ser Aron said. "I am a man grown twice over, and still I work on my aim. A true warrior never stops his practice." And he too departed, turning down a hall and leaving Harry and Stannis alone.

"I know the way, uncle, or did my father bid you to see me all the way to the throne room?" Harry would rather not have to walk with Stannis. His uncle was ruining his mood. His overbearing and unyielding presence was like a mass of clouds that swarmed thick and black on the horizon to blot out the sun.

Stannis didn't reply at first, lips pressed thin. Harry wondered just what had happened to make Stannis such a man, absent of smiles or laughter, when Renly, raised and reared in the same keep, was so lighthearted, and his father was so often full of drink all he did was make fun.

Finally, Stannis said, "Why must you insist on these childish endeavors? Sneaking out of the city to hunt alone in the Kingswood was folly. Surely you know the risks. You've wits about you."

"I am a child," replied Harry. "I am allowed to do childish things. Foolish things." He shrugged. "I don't see the problem. The small folk love me anyway; nothing would've happened."

"More than smallfolk walk the streets of the city," said Stannis. "Targaryen loyalists exist still. Men who would not balk to strike at the king, men who sharpen their blades beneath dragon banners, awaiting opportunity. Men who would have no qualms with taking his son for ransom, or cutting off his beloved head. At least take a guard if you insist on this foolishness."

Stannis left him at the Great Hall. Good riddance, Harry thought, even as he understood the truth of Stannis' words. Now the sun can shine anew. Servants were waiting for him with a large wooden tray bearing the deer's carcass. He nodded his thanks to them as he walked into the throne room, the doors towering over him just like the trees in the forest, giants of oak and bronze that were inlaid with iron whorls.

The throne room was near empty of people, and seemed all the more cavernous for it. The walls were decorated with hunting tapestries and the banners of House Baratheon, a rearing black stag in a golden field. The ceiling towered over him, cast in shadow. Two rows of massive pillars stretched to the rear of the room, iron vines winding up and down the smooth stone, braziers at the base of each. The marble floor seemed to sparkle beneath the flames. There was a pillared gallery overlooking the hall with whitewashed arches and black and gold streamers dangling from them. Thick shafts of sunlight slanted through the high windows, glistening with motes of dust.

The king stood before the twisted, hulking mass of swords that was the Iron Throne, his back to the door, a flask in hand, one foot propped up on the narrow steps. He stood six-and-a-half feet tall, with broad shoulders, a great round belly, and a beard of thick, coarse, black hair, a curtain of jet falling to the nape of his neck. His skin was flushed, no doubt from wine, but he didn't seem that far into his cups yet. He wasn't swaying, at least.

Lord Jon stood with him. The lord of the Vale was much older than the king, eighty or close to it, with a lined, craggy face and thinning gray hair, the half moon and falcon of House Arryn standing proud over the chest of his finery. A chain of linked hands hung thick and heavy about his neck.

The two were in conversation. Joffrey's whipping boy, Pate, face pimpled and sullen, stood off to the side of them, arms folded behind his back. And behind the whipping boy, on either side of the throne, were two knights of the Kingsguard, his uncle Ser Jaime, and Ser Mandon, both in pure white raiment like sculpted snow.

The queen sat on her cushioned seat beside the Iron Throne itself, in the shadow of its swords. She sipped from a golden, ruby-encrusted chalice, and was draped in a myrish gown the color of fire. She was beautiful as dawn, and her golden hair shone especially bright, her lips red like rubies. She looked deep in thought, far, far away, her eyes half closed as if dazed, but she perked up when she noticed Harry, and the young prince was caught by how much his sister and mother resembled one another. They could be twins, if not for the years between them. Her handmaidens clustered behind her, talking amongst themselves.

"Your Grace," the guard by the door announced, acting as herald. "Prince Harry has arrived, and he bears tribute."

The king waved him over, only sparing Harry a brief glance before continuing his conversation with Lord Jon. Pate, Harry saw as he approached, appeared to be preparing himself for some daunting task.

His mother finished her wine in one mighty gulp and rose to greet him, descending the dais with all the grace of a Lyseni dancer. Harry had seen one in the year hence, after following Tyrion to the Street of Silk. He wondered, not for the first time, why his father bothered with whores and serving girls; none were near as beautiful as his mother.

"Harry dear, come," the queen said, beckoning him closer. She mentioned nothing of the stag the servants carried behind him, nor did she seem to be angry. Relief shone in her face, yet she wouldn't meet his eyes; she almost never did, in fact, and he wondered if it was because she had figured out what he could do, or if she just didn't like the look of them. How could she not, though; they were her own green eyes, the exact same shade, set in a face like his father's, with dark hair to match.

"You skipped another lesson," she began without preamble. He opened his mouth to protest but she pressed a finger to his lips and stalled his tongue. "I warned you to not defy me, and you ignored my warning. If you will not mind me, then you will mind your father." She brushed the hair away from his brow, fingers cool against his skin. "Visit me later, love, and tell me what sort of adventure could call you out of the city absent a guard. I assume it had something to do with the deer?"

He nodded, expression sheepish, and she smiled, a slight, crooked thing, truer still than the smiles he had seen her give to others.

"It's an impressive specimen." Her fingers traced his face, danced along his jawline. Her voiced dipped low, little more than a whisper. "Such a willful child... even more so than your brother. What ever will I do with you?"

"Mother?"

Then her fingers tightened on his jaw, nails digging into his flesh. Her gaze pierced him more deeply than any sword. "Do not leave the city again, Harry, not without a guard. Do you understand?"

He could do naught but agree. The pain was sharp, but he had felt worse, in life and dream both. His voice was level when he replied, "Yes, mother."

What did she see in him that made her treat him so much differently from his brother and sister? Sometimes she wouldn't even acknowledge him, went out of her way to avoid him, to belittle him, and other times... other times she would hold him close and whisper sweet nothings in his ear as she played with his hair and trailed her long fingers along the contours of his face, eyes alight with wonder. Sometimes she was scathing, as sharp and cutting as Valyrian steel, and other times she was soft and sweet and loving. It was maddening, but he craved her attention, her love, all the more for it.

The corner of her mouth twisted into a smile again and her grip relaxed. "Good," she said, hands still on his face. "I trust, after this business with your father, that you will seek out the Grandmaester for your lessons?"

Harry nodded again.

She stared at him through narrowed eyes for several long moments before she finally spoke. "Be good, love, and don't forget to visit." She gave his cheek on last caress then left the room without speaking a single word to the king, trailed by her handmaidens.

Harry turned his attention to his father, who had yet to acknowledge him. He waited in silence, and as the time went by, he began to fiddle nervously with the buttons of his jerkin. He had already been apprehensive about being summoned, and the prolonged silence did nothing to assuage his worries. Just as he was about to speak up his father turned to him with a bored expression, fat face visibly brightening when he caught sight of the stag. His eyes lit up and his cheeks widened into a smile.

"You brought that down yourself? Without help?"

How many times will I be asked the same question? Harry nodded, his eyes shifting to Lord Jon to gauge his reaction. The old lord smiled, skin crinkling at the corners of his eyes.

"Look at that, Jon," his father said. "Ten and already hunting deer. And a stag at that! You'll be coming with me on the next hunting trip."

Harry smiled so wide his face hurt. "Thank you, Father."

"But," his father continued, "you skipped your lessons, again, after your mother forbade you to do so. Worse, you went to the bloody Kingswood to do it! This is the fourth time in the past two weeks you've skipped your lessons, and I tire of being bothered with it. Since no other punishment has worked..." Pate stepped forward, and revealed that he had been holding a rod behind his back. He handed it over to the king. "We'll try a new one."

Harry gulped. A whipping? He wasn't afraid of pain, but it seemed rather extreme for skipping a lesson. The Grandmaester was an old fool anyway, and despite his less than stellar attendance, he was even further along in his learning than Joffrey, who was a full year older. Stranger still was his father's participation in the first place. He had never seemed to care what Harry did before.

"I noticed your displeasure last week, when those brigands were flogged in the city square," Jon Arryn said. "And so after much deliberation between your mother and I, we devised this punishment."

The King tossed the rod at his feet. "You'll beat him," he nodded at Pate, "until I tell you to stop, and then you'll attend all your lessons, or you'll be made to do it again, and again, and again."

Harry opened his mouth to argue, a rebuttal on the tip of his tongue, but Lord Jon's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Even a prince must be held responsible for his actions," he said, "and all the consequences that arise thereafter. You brought this on yourself Harry. Pate did nothing wrong, and he deserves no punishment, but more oft than not, it is the innocent that pay for the crimes of the wicked. Such is the way of the world."

"No," Harry said, aghast. "I refuse." He couldn't believe Lord Jon, of all people, would betray him in such a way. Lord Jon, who never failed to preach on the virtues of honor, who implored him to be fair and just in all that he did, who had more hand in raising him than his own father. "I skipped the lessons," he continued. "Not Pate."

"You would deny your king?!" his father said, anger purpling his face.

"I would," Harry returned. He stood tall and straight, chin upturned. "I will not whip Pate."

"You've got some nerve, boy." His father gestured to the rod. Pate retrieved it with shaking fingers, and presented it to his king. "More nerve than any man in all of the Seven Kingdoms. See here, boy, if you don't whip him, I will, and it'll be a lot worse coming from me."

Harry was beyond shocked. "You - you would do that? Just for skip-"

"This isn't just about those bloody lessons!" his father bellowed. His thunderous voice reached every corner of the hall, echoing off the aged stone. Birds fluttered from the high windows. "You have a kind heart," he said with a sigh, his words weighted with weariness. "Too kind, some say, and I agree."

Harry had never seen this side of his father before. So full of regret. So tired. So weary. Is that why he drowns himself in his cups? "Better to be kind than cruel," said Harry. "Would you rather I be like Joffrey?"

"No," his father replied. "Joffrey is too much like his mother."

"But you are two sides of the same sword," Lord Jon cut in. "I would rather you learn to harden your heart and find a middle ground. A king can be both loved and feared," he said. "Loved for what he does, and feared for what he might do."

"A King? Me? Might be you've forgotten in your old age-" and his father laughed, a loud guffaw that almost startled Harry, "-but I am the second son. Joffrey will be king."

"Second sons have been kings before," Jon muttered quietly; so quietly Harry almost didn't hear him. "And yet you still must be prepared," he said louder. "Truth be told, you might never be king, but you will always be a prince. Your every action and inaction will reflect upon the crown. Mayhaps you would follow in my steps, and be Hand?" He paused, old bones creaking as he shifted to look Harry in the eyes. "I've seen something in you, Harry. Something special. Different. Anyone who's met you can see it. You are bold, and clever too, and it's good that you are kind, but this world has no place for kind men."

"Then I will make a place," said Harry.

"'I will make a place,' he says." his father scoffed. "And how are you to do that, boy? Hold hands and sing songs? Men respect steel. They respect death. They respect power."

Why are they pushing so hard? What are they asking of me? "What does any of that have to do with Pate?" he asked. "You ask me to be unjust, and that I cannot do. If a man is worthy of a beheading, I will have him beheaded. If a man rapes a lady, I will have him gelded, but I will not whip Pate for something I did." He took a breath. "I'll take the beating, but spare Pate."

"He's a whipping boy," his father said, anger colored with amusement. "He's for whipping." He turned to Jon. "Hard to believe he's so young. Was I ever as stubborn?"

"Yes," Lord Jon answered succinctly. "He's just as stubborn and bullheaded as you were at his age."

"He's smarter than I was," the king admitted. "Never much cared for books and learning." His eyes bore into Harry. "You see this crown, boy? It's heavy. Heavier than any sword or hammer, heavier than any bloody stag." He turned his attention back to Lord Jon. "Between my sons, mayhaps they will be able to bear the weight."

"We can only hope," said Lord Jon. Harry was suddenly struck by how old he was. The lines in his face had never seem so long, so deep.

"He reminds me of Ned," his father said.

"Another stubborn, honorable fool," said Lord Jon.

"That he is, the bloody runt." His father chuckled. "How long's it been since I last saw Ned? Five years? Six?" The king took a long pull from his cup. Wine dribbled down his bearded chin. "But you, boy... I can't decide if you're the worst of Cersei and I, or the best." And then he struck Harry across his chest with a blow so strong it knocked him from his feet. It was so swift, so sudden, even Lord Jon was caught off guard. "I've said my peace. Either you whip the boy, or I will." He leaned forward over Harry and held out the rod. "That was just a practice swing."

Harry scowled at his father and picked himself up from the ground. Ser Jaime, he noticed, had edged closer. "Just do it," his uncle mouthed silently.

Harry sighed. "Fine." He snatched the rod from the king's hands. He had never dared to show such insolence, not to his father, but he had never been in this situation before, and he found that his foreign memories and experiences paled in comparison to the emotion he felt, the hot anger coursing through his veins. He felt warm, all of a sudden, as if the sun was shining against his bare skin. The flames in the braziers crept higher, threatening to scorch the pillars.

"Scowl at me all you want, boy. You'll thank me for this when you're older."

Thank you? Harry almost laughed. He would have if he wasn't so furious. He couldn't ever imagine thanking his father for this. Cursing him, more like. You great fat muttonhead.

The rod was light but solid and smooth, unlike the barbed whips and rods used for floggings. He looked to Pate and saw resignation on his face, knew it was mirrored in his own. This was an argument he could not win. He was surprised he had managed to argue as much as he did. He had only seen one man openly disagree with the king, and Jon Arryn occupied a place and status none could match.

He wondered why Lord Jon never sat with Joffrey, never spoke with him, never gave him lessons on ruling, or kingship, or leading men. Or maybe he tried, and Joffrey simply didn't care to listen. Surely they don't mean to make me king?

"Get on with it boy!" his father demanded, breaking him from his reverie.

"Yes, Your Grace," he ground out through clenched teeth. This wasn't fair, not by far, but he would rather whip Pate himself than let his father do it. He would find a way to make it up to Pate. I am sorry.

Harry never skipped another lesson.

Chapter Text

 

The sun burned bright in the sky, and cool ocean winds gusted across the castle yard. The air thrummed with the sharp thwacks of wood on wood and the ringing clang of steel on steel.

Harry was sure he would have long since roasted in his armor if not for that wind. He had been out here since dawn, toiling with Ser Aron amongst the dirt and grit of the yard, practicing sequences with spear, sword, and a shield and sword together. Sweat made his hair stick to his forehead, stung his eyes as it dripped down his face, trickled pleasantly down his back, beneath a black doublet and silver cuirass. His arms burned terribly, and come morning, he was sure he would be covered in bruises. Still, he fought on.

Beyond the yard, the castle bustled. Guardsmen and sers took up sword and lance in the wards below the barracks, drilling for war, and servants hurried about as they saw to their duties, hauling food stuffs and soiled clothes and messages. Harry had seen one stout man herding a passel of hogs to the kitchens, a matron dragging a great sack of linens behind her, and a lad about his age trembling under the weight of a towering stack of books. Then there was the coal boy, tanned skin dirtied with smoot, and a pretty serving maid whose stomach was swollen with child.

And so it went, until came Ser Jaime, and then Ser Barristan. They watched Harry drill from opposite ends of the solid wooden fence that encircled the yard.

"I've seen stable boys better with a blade," Ser Jaime called out to Harry, smiling. "Might be you are better suited to grooming horses than fighting with a sword." The golden knight stood at the edge of the training yard, tall and handsome, his cream and burgundy gambeson fine and unblemished. Harry ignored him, focusing instead on the man opposite him and the bruising sword in his grasp. Ser Aron was fast and strong, but worse, he was tricky, and skilled besides. The swarthy Dornishman led Harry along, slipping through his guard on every fourth or fifth exchange. Last month it had been every second or third.

"Don't mind the Kingslayer," said Ser Barristan, white haired and clean shaven, old yet lean as any young knight. "You're doing well enough, my prince. I wasn't half as swift with a blade when I was your age, nor as sure in my stance." The old knight wore a suit of white enameled scales and plate with silver chasings, his cloak as pure as fresh-fallen snow. Beneath the sun, Ser Barristan shone like a steel moon, gleaming and glittering.

This wasn't the first time the knights had come to watch Harry, but it was the first time they had crossed paths while doing so. Jaime would belittle him, always japing, pointing out his errors, as if the bruises left by Ser Aron's blade weren't lesson enough. Ser Barristan tended towards praise, but every once in a while, he would take Harry aside and show him little tricks he had learned or created, and help him with his footwork and balance. Same as Ser Aron, only less intensive.

Harry turned away a downcut that shook his arm all the way up to the shoulder, ducked beneath a high sideswing, then twisted away from the sloping backswing as Ser Aron arced his blade back around. Harry lashed out as the knight's blade swept pass him, but his sword was batted away at the last moment, and he was attacked in turn.

"You must not have been a very talented child," said Ser Jaime. "A late bloomer, I imagine? You don't get to be so old and gray without some measure of skill."

Ser Barristan was wholly unamused. "Old as I am, I could still carve you up as easily as cake," he returned. Jaime laughed.

And then the fight was over. Ser Aron feinted to Harry's left, and when the prince stepped right, the knight kicked his legs out from under him with a sudden move. With a deft flick of his wrist, Ser Aron brought his sword to bear at Harry's chest. "Do you yield?" the Dornishman asked.

Harry could do little more than nod, winded as he was. But his lack of breath didn't stop him from scowling. With the end of the fight, the reality of his circumstances had come rushing back; he had been forbidden from leaving the Keep after his folly in the Kingswood, and his punishment had not been lifted in months. His nameday was coming up soon. He would go mad before.

"Come on then. Give me your hand." Ser Aron held out a hand and helped Harry to his feet. "You must remember - attack and defend simultaneously. One cannot suffer for the other."

Easier said than done, Harry thought. Why don't I look left and right at the same time while I'm at it?

"Every strike must flow into the other, but strength and speed must not suffer for fluidity," Ser Aron continued. "But I do say you are improving, my prince. Your dedication these past months has been admirable."

What else would I do, Harry wanted to say, trapped in this damned keep? But he only nodded and smiled. There was truth to Ser Aron's words. He was improving. And quickly, at that.

Since the incident in the Great Hall, Harry had thrown himself into his duties, especially training at arms. He didn't have to think with a sword in his hand. His mind was soothed and quietened by the movements, by the exertion. He spent every waking hour in the training yard, with a sword, or a spear, or a bow, and sometimes a morningstar or a mace. It was all he could do not to hear Pate's cries, to see the red welts blossoming on his skin, see the blood running in rivulets down his back.

Pate's back had been a tattered mess of nasty purple bruises and broken flesh by the time his father allowed Harry to stop. The prince had seen worse, before and since, but never by his own hand. Just last week Ser Illyn Pane had beheaded a murderer from Flea Bottom who refused to take the Black, and he once saw a whore boiled in the square for passing a pox to nearly a score of lordlings. The whipping had sickened him, and his anger at his father had barely cooled in the months since. It made meal times awkward, the king's gaiety and his sullenness, and created even more dissent between himself and his brother, whose japes and jeers he could no longer ignore, so hot was his anger. His mother, however, had known exactly how to appease him, and to his chagrin, his displeasure with her barely lasted past the night of the incident itself.

"I am sorry, sweetling," she had said when he stormed into her chambers. "So very, very sorry. I knew this would hurt you, but I need my lion strong." And then she had held him close and tucked his head into the crook of her neck. Her perfume had smelled heavenly. His anger had started to leave him then, breath by breath, bit by bit, like drops of dew evaporating in the sun. "You are a lion, are you not?"

Harry remembered hugging her close. His dreams had taught him to appreciate his mother's love. Things could have been much worse.

"This world is a cruel place, love," she had said. "More cruel than you could possibly know. Would that I could spare you from it, but I am only a woman, and it is not my place to fight the battles of men."

Her words had made him sad, so he said, "And I am glad of it. I rather like you as woman. You're much too pretty to be a man." She had laughed at that, a clear, ringing sound like bells chiming in the wind. His father, however, had not apologized, and Harry didn't think he ever would.

He'd had no more success crafting a wand in those few months either, and whenever he tried to question the Grand Maester about magic, he was scolded not to entertain the "imaginative fallacies of children", as the maester put it.

"Magic is a matter of the past," Pycelle had told him, voice dry and raspy, "when there were yet dragons soaring through the skies. Only darkness comes of magic, and you would do well to remember that."

And so, bereft of a wand, ahead in his lessons, and still nursing his anger, he had implored Ser Aron to intensify his training. The Dornishman had not disappointed. Now there weren't but a handful of squires that Harry couldn't match, and all of them were older and bigger besides.

"The ser lies," said Ser Jamie. "You're getting worse. Slower and clumsier by the day. I think I can hear the horses neighing your name."

"Go bugger one of your precious horses," Harry returned.

Jaime's laugh was sudden and fierce. "How crass," the knight said, as if affronted. Ser Aron shook his head in apparent amusement, moving to put the practice swords back on their rack.

"For once, Kingslayer, I agree with you." Ser Barristan climbed into the training yard and walked towards Harry. "That was quite unbecoming," he admonished. "I didn't think you one for such talk."

Harry knew that Jaime wasn't the least bit insulted, and he wouldn't have cared if he was. His uncle could do with a little insulting from time to time, as often as he did it himself. "I am sorry you had to hear that, Ser Barristan. I will take care to censor my words in your presence." He smiled at the old knight, by far his favorite of the Kingsguard, and the grizzled ser ruffled his hair in response.

"Gah, begone boy, you've spent enough time here, and you stink like a pig's arse."

Harry laughed at that, but did as he was bid, and returned to the keep to seek out a bath. The sun beat down on his back like a drum, and the wind sent his hair aflutter. His eyes were stinging, and he tasted salt on his lips. As he cut a path toward the inner ward, Jaime fell into step behind him.

"You've been spending too much time with Tyrion," his uncle told him as they walked. "Or Tyrion's guests, maybe. He doesn't entertain whores in his apartments, does he? That would be like him - probably beds them before sending them off to the king."

"Don't speak of such vulgar things, Uncle," Harry said without much feeling. He had heard worse from the men in the barracks, and worse still from the sailors down in Fishmonger's Square, to say nothing of the wretches in Flea Bottom. "You're a knight of the Kingsguard, not some bloody freerider."

"But it's okay for a prince? Tsk, tsk, my dear nephew, that's quite hypocritical of you. If I recall correctly, and I do, not even five minutes ago you told me to go bugger a horse."

"So I did."

Jaime was silent for but a moment. "Still angry about the whipping?"

"I am," Harry admitted, voice soft. "Every time I step into the Great Hall I hear his cries."

"The memory will fade," Jaime said. "As will your anger."

Harry wasn't so sure.

The Red Keep was even busier inside than out. Servants scurried through the corridors like headless chickens, weighted down by trays that were laden with food and flagons that sloshed with ale. Handmaidens and dressing maids weaved in and out of the bedlam wielding fine cloths and foreign lace like swords and shields. He glimpsed his father's youngest brother, Renly, the Lord of Storm's End, in the halls, tall and slender and handsome with black hair that fell to his shoulder; of all his uncles, it was Renly that Harry resembled the most. Him, and Jaime. A fair-haired Pentosi woman trailed behind him, and behind her came a train of dressing maids, arms heavy with fabrics.

Harry's name day was in six days, and his father had called for a tourney to celebrate the day. Hopefuls were already pouring into King's Landing, hedge knights and landed knights and all those in between. The notable among them visited the keep to show fealty to his father; a few of the knights had been given leave to house in some of the barracks behind the keep's curtain walls, and a select few were given apartments in the keep itself. The only one he personally knew was Thoros of Myr, who had been away from the capital fighting in a tourney in the Reach. The purse was grand, Harry had heard, and the priest, with his flaming sword, had claimed victory in the melee.

If Harry had to hazard a guess as to what Thoros was up to at the moment, he would put his coin on the balding, bearded man getting drunk with the king, as he oft did. Probably on arbor wine, no doubt, and maybe even rum; the good kind, not that black tar shit, as his father put it.

Their path through the labyrinthine corridors of the keep took them to the inner bailey and the heart of the keep, then across a dry moat lined with wicked iron spikes. Maegor's Holdfast stood tall at the end of the bridge. The square fortress was massive, a castle within a castle, with solid stone walls some twelve feet thick. Harry rather thought that Maegor, for whom the fortress was named, had been awfully paranoid.

And then he remembered the story of Maegor the Cruel, how he had executed all who worked on the castle to preserve its secrets, how he had slaughtered an entire House for an imagined betrayal, and he thought of his own interactions with the ghost king. Paranoid and half mad. If not for his magic, proof in Maegor's eyes that he was a Targaryen scion, he was certain the ghost wouldn't have bothered with him. He had been intrigued that Harry could see him, but it was the magic that drew him in. Other ghosts followed suit, but none were quite as persistent as Maegor. Some days it seemed as if he couldn't escape the old brute.

Harry hoped he never grew so paranoid, so broken, but as his eyes roved the walls and fell across the many cracks and crevices in the aged stone, across the nooks and crannies and alcoves that dotted the corridors, he suddenly felt cramped, trapped even, as if the walls were closing in on him, pressing down from all sides, the splintering stone like jagged teeth. The keep was a giant of pale red rocks and he was falling deeper and deeper into its crushing maw.

"I must be free of this place," he announced suddenly as they passed the Queen's Ballroom. "This keep... it's suffocating." He sighed. "And Joffrey, the ponce, isn't helping either."

For the past few weeks his brother had tried and failed to bully him into some semblance of submission. Whenever Joffrey shoved him, tore at his books, or demanded his obedience in some scheme or another, Harry shoved back harder, sometimes with fists, and told him he could stuff his obedience. Harry had never liked his brother. Hated him, even, as much as he pitied him. He had seen inside his brother's mind, had seen the foul, vile thing that he was, and his contempt of him colored their every interaction. Likewise, he had seen Joffrey's pain at their father's dismissal, and thus his pity was born.

Joffrey had tried to terrorize Myrcella when his efforts against Harry failed. But when Joffrey went to her, Harry was waiting. Had anticipated it. They came to blows then, far rougher than their usual scuffles, but with all his practice and extra work, Harry was stronger and faster than his brother. There had been little contest between the two. He remembered Myrcella shrieking frantically, her voice a sharp and high-pitched. "Stop, stop, stop!" she had screamed. "Please stop. You're family!"

Harry was ashamed he had lost his temper, but he counted the confrontation a victory. Joffrey hadn't bothered Myrcella since, though he still tried his level best to humiliate and aggravate Harry. And because Joffrey was heir to the throne, he had suffered naught for his transgression. At least, that was how Harry understood it. He had been forced to write lines.

Myrcella had sat with him during his punishment, and with a little concentration he had been able to magic the quill to write on its own. With Myrcella's help, his jailor for that evening, Septa Aglantine, a woman with a face as ugly as her name, had been none the wiser. She had, in fact, been quite impressed by his handwriting.

"It has been a while since you went into the city," Jaime said, interrupting his thoughts. "But are you willing to risk it? Your mother certainly won't be happy."

"Only if she finds out. Swear you will tell no one," Harry demanded.

Jaime put a hand over his heart. "I so swear," he said. "But only if you take an escort. Wouldn't want a repeat of the whipping now, would we?"

"Not you," Harry said. "You're too bright."

"And you're too dark," Ser Jaime returned.

Harry left his uncle on the first floor of the holdfast and climbed the steps to his apartments. The halls were near empty, save for the occasional guardsman posted at the junctions at the ends of the corridors. His rooms were on the third level, along with Myrcella's and Joffrey's.

Flickering fire light warmed his face when he entered his chambers. Torchers were ensconced along each wall, casting a soft orange glow across the worn stone. A flight of stairs curved up behind the far wall, leading up to his solar. He cross the room and took the steps two at a time, and was greeted by the sight of his servant, Meron the Mute, a gangly red-haired boy almost five years his senior. He was sitting at the table in the center of the room with a tray of bread and soup before him, still steaming. Meron wasn't a true mute, but he spoke so rarely it seemed as if he was.

Harry's solar was more a library than anything. He had collected a great number of books over his short life, some from the Grand Maester's library, the rest copies of the tomes he was unwilling to part with. Centuries worth of legends and histories were right here in his grasp. He hadn't read even half of them yet, but he hoped to find some sort of reasoning for his dreams and abilities in one of them. And to learn, of course, from all that had come before.

Hermione would be proud. From what he had glimpsed of her in his dreams, she had been quite fond of books and learning.

Harry dropped down into a seat at the table with a dull thud. It was a rickety old thing, stained with ink and covered in parchment. The scent of garlic and lamb wafted up to his nose. His stomach rumbled; he hadn't even realized he was hungry until now. Trust Meron to know. "I am going into the city." Meron nodded. Harry broke off a chunk of bread and dunked it in the soup. Outside the window, a bird cawed. "Help yourself," he said as he bit into the bread. The taste was exquisite. "And save some for the boot-boy, when he comes. He deserves it. My boots have never shined so bright."

Meron nodded again, smiling, and helped himself to a small chunk of bread.

"If anyone asks where I am, tell them I've gone to the Godswood. Hopefully no one will come looking." Another nod. "I shan't be gone long. A couple hours should do." Harry snatched another piece of bread before he left. He decided not to bathe - after all, the smallfolk didn't - and instead changed into the oldest clothes he could find; a pair of tan, worn breeches, and a frayed beige tunic.

Meron came down as Harry was changing. He fussed in his silent way, his intent to help Harry dress, as was his duty. Harry would have none of it - he could very well dress himself - and instead bid Meron to rummage amongst the garderobe and gather his finery for the tourney. "That's a much better use of your time," Harry told him.

Alone now, he found one of Meron's tattered brown cloaks, threw it across his shoulders, and pulled up the hood, bathing his face in shadow. Not quite a disguise, but it should do. He was tall and broad enough to pass as a small man, and slim enough to pass as a particularly flat-chested woman. He slid a dagger into his belt, then tucked his coin purse behind it. On a whim, he decided to take one of his failed wands. He could do better without it, but there was a certain comfort in carrying the gnarled stick.

There were secret passageways all over the Keep, and thanks to Maegor, Harry was familiar with all of them. There was only one in Maegor's Holdfast, hidden in an alcove on the uppermost floor, seemingly random in its placement and completely and utterly disguised from the eye. Maegor told him that no one else knew of it. "Not even the fat spider," he had said.

Harry climbed the steps and reached the alcove unseen. He pressed down on a particular section of the wall, then another, and a third and a fourth. At the end of the sequence the stone began to shudder and groan as old iron gears in the stonework came to life, and the wall slid to the side. The revealed tunnel was just wide enough for a man to squeeze through. It reminded him of the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, the steep decline that descended into darkness, and he gave a whoop of delight as the sheer drop curved and he slid down the chute to the tunnel below the holdfast.

There was no basilisk at the end of this tunnel, however. There was darkness, and the whispers of the dead, and beyond that, freedom.

The tunnel took him to a junction that split in twain, each path barred by thick iron doors with rusty padlocks. Locks were nothing to Harry. His magic grasped and twisted, and the appropriate door popped open. The tunnel that was revealed took him out to a granary in the outer bailey. From there, he ducked into another tunnel beneath the rookery, that took him deep beneath Aegon's High Hill and out to a small, skinny postern set in the north wall of the keep, low to the ground and hidden by thick, winding vines. It opened out to a narrow alley behind some lord's manse. The alley took him out into the city proper. The smell was awful, but the sheer vibrancy of the city, the sights and the sounds, more than made up for the stench.

The streets were as busy as ever, peppered with writhing swarms of lowborn and highborn alike. Beneath the beating sun, he weaved through the thick throngs of men and women that perused the stores and stalls along the Street of Looms. He saw a group of lordlings prancing about like jackanapes, their finery patterned with golden whorls. He stopped at one of the more crowded stores and peered through its stained windows to the gowns and doublets and jackets and cloaks contained within. A massive, square-faced ser was showing off his newly purchased bearskin vest to a group of his fellows, while a slim woman draped in bright fabrics argued vehemently with a merchant over the price of a slip of silk lace, her powerful voice belying her small stature. Her child, a little wisp of a girl, snatched a length of cloth from the wall while her mother gestured and shouted, the vendor none the wiser.

He passed pot-shops and worse when he strolled down Pisswater Bend. Haggard, hard-eyed men stood before the storefronts with massive pots that were filled with the infamous bowls o' brown. And where there was a pot-shop, there was a butcher nearby. Harry spotted one in an alley between buildings, sneering as he sharpened his knives, fresh red blood and old brown blood staining his apron. The boiling stews didn't smell as bad as Harry had thought they would, but he had heard rumors that the meat used in the stew could range from horse to fish to even human, the flavors masked with onions and barley and carrots. He wasn't of a mind to discover if the rumors held any truth.

People didn't smile so much in Flea Bottom, and he couldn't blame them. They were the lowest of the commons, though not quite so low as the gutter rats in the hovels on the banks of the Blackwater. There was never so much shit on the ground as there was in Flea Bottom. Maybe that's how Pisswater Bend earned its name, he thought, from the brown tinged piss water bending and curving between the sloping cobbles. In his pity, he began to drop coins in his wake, safe in the knowledge that the currency was sorely needed by whomever might find it. It wasn't much, but a little help was better than no help at all.

Pisswater Bend flowed down into the Street of Flour. He sampled a number of cakes and pastries, but found himself drawn, as if by magic, to the fat woman selling blueberry tarts in the fore of a bakery. The delightful pastries lasted him the trek to Rhaenys's Hill, at the top of which stood the mighty Dragon Pit. The sun had started to slink down to the horizon now, fat and heavy as it fell to the west, and the shadows that fell across the street were long and thin.

The Dragonpit loomed over the slums like a giant specter, but what might have once been a majestic sight was soured by destruction and disrepair. The domed roofed had long since collapsed, the bronze doors were tarnished, and the splintering stone walls were covered in intricate, winding webs of weeds and vines. The Dragon Pit was one of the three pillars of King's Landing, but it had been abandoned long before his time, when the last of the dragons died out. Now it was little more than a vast, empty building, crumbling ever so slowly.

A shame what happened to the dragons... would that I could bring them back... He rolled his wand around in his palm. He had tried a simple transformation spell the other day and instead of changing his boots into a tea kettle, he had set fire to them. Without a true core for his wand he feared he would never be able to use magic as he once had, as he dreamed he had, and he was sure the power was necessary. Why else would he have memories of his past life? He had been reborn with a purpose, a fate, and given his last tangle with destiny, he was sure he would need every sword in his armory for whatever horrors that lied ahead in the future.

As he came upon the ruined Dragon Pit he heard a voice call out from behind him, and then feet pattering on the street. He turned to see what it was, a curse on his lips, but it was only a child, his age if not younger. The boy was short and barefoot, draped in roughspun tunic and trousers, with shaggy brown hair that framed a round, filthy face. Beneath the filth, though, his eyes were sharp.

Harry looked to either side of the road. Three more children appeared out of the shadows between the houses and buildings that lined the street. The first was tall and thin with a shining bald head, and he had a monstrous, mountainous nose that was so large it overshadowed the rest of his face. Harry had to stare for a moment to even see past it. The boy carried a long shaft of tan wood whittled to a sharp point, and had a net tied to his waist.

The second was a short, fair haired boy with fat, wormy lips and a dull, plain face. He bore some resemblance to the first waif, and was clad in similarly filthy clothing.

The third was a girl, at least as tall as Harry, with milk-white skin, full lips, dirtied silvery blonde hair and slanted eyes as dark as midnight. She was beautiful, even with her face marred by dirt, her features sharp and exotic, very different from most anyone Harry had ever seen. Her cloak was of decent make, and the tip of a bow peaked out from over her shoulder.

"Give us yer' coin," the tall one said. "Don't try nothin' neither," chimed the fat-lipped boy. "Or else."

Harry smiled. These four were no cause for worry. They were children, and half-starved besides, other than the girl. His smile grew into a laugh. That made them angry.

"Oi, we ain't playin'!" said the tall boy. He waved his stick as emphasis while the sharp-eyed boy voiced his agreement. The girl was silent, but her scowl grew sharper and sharper as the seconds passed.

"Of course you are," said Harry. "Else you'd have that spear of yours buried in my neck by now."

"It'll be there soon enough," the girl threatened. "Now hand over your coin, and be quick about it, or you'll die slow."

The tall boy puffed out his thin chest and brandished his spear. Harry slipped his wand back into his belt and palmed his dagger, something like excitement shaking itself awake in his chest. This is adventure enough, he thought. Felling the foul child thieves in the shadow of the Dragonpit. "Come on then," he said, waving the boy on. "Let's see if you're any good with your stick."

The fat-lipped boy yelled, "Stick em', Jerryd!" and the girl said, "Do it! Do it now!"

Jerryd sprinted at Harry with a shrill battle cry, his steps clumsy and awkward and so very slow. Harry leaned aside his first thrust and slapped the spear down and away, then drew his dagger from his belt. With a quick step, he brought its edge up to Jerryd's throat. A red line opened on the boy's neck, thinner than a wisp of hair. So this is what it's like to fight someone who isn't a knight. There was no comparison.

"You aren't very good with a spear, are you?" He looked askance at the others, watching for movement. The fat-lipped boy looked absolutely mystified, but it was the girl who held his attention. She had an arrow in her hand, and was reaching for her bow. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he warned her. "This will go worse for you if I am dead. You'll die screaming in a dark, dank dungeon with naught but rats for company."

"There are no witnesses here," she replied, incensed. He noticed though, that she'd stopped reaching for the bow. "No one is going to see me kill you, and they," she waved to her friends, "won't tell." The boys looked queasy at the mention of the justice that awaited them, though. Jerryd started to sweat, his chest rising and falling rapidly.

Harry tutted and shook his head. A bluff for a bluff, then. "If you touch that bow, I will slit his throat." The boy in hand let out a little mewl, and tears swelled in his eyes. Harry had heard of the child thieves in Flea Bottom, scoundrels that scrapped and scraped for food and clothes and warm places to sleep, but these four weren't quite what he had expected given the stories. The girl especially.

Just as he expected, the girl dropped her hand, and a hint of petulance crept into her ever present scowl. She's as young as the rest, he surmised. He wasn't sure how young though; her cloak only revealed the barest hint of curves.

"Fine," she said. "Now let him go."

"After he answers my question," Harry returned. He glanced back at the frightened Jerryd. "What if I had been less... amicable? What if I had killed you? What then?"

"I - I didn't - I don't!" His eyes were wide and panicked.

"You didn't you don't what?"

"It was Aeryn's idea!" he cried, pointing at the girl. "She's mad! I just wanted to go to the docks!"

"Coward!" Aeryn exclaimed. "You're about to piss yourself, aren't you? You really think that little lordling is gonna kill you?"

"He's a lord?" the fat-lipped boy gasped. "How d'ya know?" He turned curious eyes upon Harry. Even Jerryd, frightened as he was, paused in his whimpering to look Harry over.

"His boots," the sharp-eyed boy said. He had been mostly silent until now. "That be fine leather, there."

"His trousers too," Aeryn added. "And you see how his belt tilts? That's on account of how fat his coin purse is."

Harry looked down at his pants. They looked rather dingy to him.

"He's not no lord," she continued, "but I bet his father is." Her eyes found Harry's. "Isn't he? From the Crownlands, no doubt, or nearby in the Riverlands. His father is a fat, stupid lord with more gold than he can count and bastards by the dozen. All lords are fat," she said matter-of-factly.

"Nuh uh," disagreed the fat lipped boy, shaking his head. "I saw a lord before, at a tourney. He wasn't fat! I seen Lord Beltish too. He's skinny as Jerryd!"

"Sorry to interrupt," Jerryd squeaked. "Do ya' mind?" He glanced down at the dagger still pressed to his throat.

Listening to Aeryn, Harry had almost forgotten about the knife. "Oh. My apologies... Jerryd, was it?" He let the boy go and passed him a gold dragon - a colossal sum for a boy of Flea Bottom. For any commoner, in truth. A man could live well off only a couple of dragons a year. "For your efforts," he said as he slid his dagger back into his belt.

"Th-thanks, m'lord!" Jerryd's voice trembled as he pocketed the coin, one hand reaching up to wipe at the blood on his neck. He patted his pocket as he walked over to his friends, as if to reaffirm the coin's existence. He had probably never even seen a dragon before - coppers were the coin of choice in Flea Bottom. "Fat Lip, Mumbles, how would you two like some real food? No more bowls o' brown for us." From their wide, grinning faces, they were all for it. "Aeryn, since she's so tough," he spat, "can fend for herself."

Aeryn stared into his eyes and said, "Fuck you, you craven little cunt. Did the lordling cut off your balls while we wasn't looking?" Jerryd bristled, jaw clenched and quivering, but he looked away first.

Harry admired Aeryn's fire, but he couldn't help but be annoyed by her attitude. The boys were nice enough, he supposed, and Fat Lip was aptly named. They were misguided for sure, but this girl... she was all sour. "Who are you?" he asked. "No way you came from the same slums as this lot. Not with that face. Not with that hair." Silvery blond hair was not common to Westeros. Not since the Targaryen dynasty was toppled by his father's warhammer and his uncle's sword.

"She's a bastard," the boy called Fat Lip said. "Her mum's a whore at Chataya's -" Aeryn took two quick steps and slapped him hard across his head. "Ow!" He crossed his arms over his head and braced for another blow.

"Shut your fat lips, Fat Lip, or I'll make em' even fatter! That cow you call a mother is more whore than mine. She'll take man to bed for a few coppers!"

Fat Lip, he decided, was quite young, because his eyes teared up and his fat lips quivered at the insult. The boy shuddered, either from anger or holding back his tears, Harry couldn't tell. "An expensive whore then," he whimpered, voice quavering.

"Your temper is even worse than mine," Harry told the girl. "Why don't you like lords? Don't get me wrong, I don't like most of them myself, but," he shrugged, "I can't imagine that you have much experience with them." He didn't mean to sound condescending, but from the look on her face, that was how she took his words.

"My mother is a courtesan," she said, eyes daring him to speak. "Lords visit her every other day, if they've the coin. And my father was a lord, so I think I know enough." She folded her arms over her chest.

Harry considered her words. "So your name is Waters, then?"

"No. My father didn't bother with that. Just dumped his seed in my mother and sailed back to Driftmark." Harry could almost taste her bitterness.

Driftmark...that's the seat of House Velaryon. His eyes fell again across her features, the hair, the eyes, the skin. The beauty.

She intrigued him. Harry had learned the histories of most every noble houses of the Crownlands; Rosby, Rykker, Thorne, Hollard, Blount, the houses sworn to Dragonstone, and all the lesser houses as well, the Boggs, the Brunes, the Caves, the Crabbs. None of them, nor any of the Great Houses, save a very small few, could claim any link to old Valyria and the ancient Valyrian Freehold empire.

The Velaryons could. The Celtigars too. History said that both had originally been lesser families of the old Freehold, sworn to the Targaryens, and long since bereft of dragons, even before the Doom. They had followed the dragonlords west in exile centuries ago.

"We're the Nameless!" Fat Lip piped up, his woes forgotten. Harry was starting to like the younger boy. Fat Lip seemed to have a good disposition, despite having tried to steal his coin. "Since none o' us got surnames. I know me mum and dad both, though. Me and Mumbles live wit' em' in Flea Bottom. Me dad's a cook -"

"He makes bowls o' brown," Jerryd cut in.

"- and me mum is a servin' wench at the Smokin' Hog," Fat Lip finished. He scowled at the older boy before turning to Aeryn. "Since we ain't takin' his stuff, can he come sailing wit' us?"

Sailing? Harry wondered what sort of boat they had. It couldn't be anything more than a skiff. He wondered how old the boy was, to so quickly shift between feelings. "How old are you, Fat Lip?"

"Er..." Fat Lip paused in thought. "Eight?"

"He's seven," Mumbles said. He jabbed a thumb into his chest. "I'm eight."

"And I just turned fourteen," Jerryd said. "Almost a man grown. Aeryn is a year younger, but she still bosses us around like she's the oldest." He sounded put out about it. "How old-"

"What's your name?" Aeryn asked Harry, cutting across Jerryd. The thin boy frowned at her, but said nothing.

"My name is Harrold," Harry replied, a smug smile spread wide across his face. "But I prefer Harry."

"You know what I mean," she growled, stalking closer.

Harry sighed. He could have lied, but what purpose would it serve? Everything would be fine so long as they kept quiet - he didn't want this getting back to his mother, for she abhorred his dealings with the smallfolk, to say nothing of his violating his punishment. And who would believe them besides?

"Baratheon," he said. "Harrold Baratheon." He gave a mocking bow. "At your service." He was met with shocked silence.

"What-" Aeryn reached over and pulled down his hood. Her eyes searched his face almost frantically, and she let out a yelp when she recognized him. "Green eyes," she gasped. "Black hair..." She had seen him before, Harry surmised. Those features alone weren't enough to know his identity. She stepped away and her whole demeanor changed. Her eyes were wide with shock, mouth agape, jaw hanging. Her anger was gone. "The prince...he's...he's the prince! He's the pri -" Harry clapped a hand over mouth.

"You're too loud," he whispered fiercely. She stared back at him, and close up, Harry saw that her eyes were indigo, not dark blue. "I am going to move my hand now, and you aren't going to say a word, alright?" He nodded slowly as he spoke, goading her into doing the same.

People were watching them now, their attention drawn by Aeryn's outburst, but they didn't seem to have understood her words. He dropped his hand from her mouth. Her dragon blood is strong, he thought, now that he could see the true color of her eyes. "Your eyes... they're more purple than blue," he said. "Where is your mother from?"

Aeryn's gaze was dull and clouded. "I - what?"

"Your eyes," he said again. "They're purple. A rather dark purple, but purple nonetheless. It's a Valyrian trait," he explained. "Purple eyes aren't so common in Westeros, and I was wondering if you inherited your coloring from your father or your mother or both."

"Oh," she muttered. Her confidence seemed to have abandoned her, replaced instead with confusion. She didn't seem as distressed though, and for that, Harry was glad. She had been almost hysterical at first. "My mother is from Lys," she said finally, voice soft. "She's dyed her hair blue for so long, I can't remember what color it used to be, but her eyes are more blue than mine." She shrugged. "My father supposedly has hair like mine too, but I never inquired as to the color of his eyes."

Harry didn't know much about Lys, save that it was one of the Free Cities, their pleasure houses were world renowned, and the blood of the old Freehold was strong there.

"You're in trouble now, Aeryn," Jerryd taunted, laughter in his voice. Then he remembered that he had attacked a prince of Westeros and his face fell. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "S-so-s-sorry for attacking you. I didn't know who you was, an-and-and -"

Harry waved him off, and Jerryd fell silent. "Don't worry about it," he said. "Just don't do it again."

"Aeryn, you shouldn't be so mean," Fat Lip said. "Or it's to the black cells fer' you!" He laughed.

"It's fine," Harry said. "No harm, no foul."

Aeryn maintained her silence. When before she'd stared boldly into his face, now she averted her gaze, seemingly afraid to look him in the eyes. She was nervous, he realized. And oddly flushed. Embarrassed, probably, he thought. "Say, Jerryd," he said, turning to the lad. "What did you want to do down at the docks?"

"The usual," the boy said, leaning against his spear. "Take me raft up the river, see if I can't catch nothing. Fat Lip and Mumbles are good hand-fishers, so I take'em with me. Bowls o' brown ain't so bad when you know what kind o' meat's in it. Aeryn's our captain, but I'm the best fisher by far."

At this the girl seemed to become herself again, and her pretty face fell into a frown. "I'm the best," she said, scowling mightily.

"Is that all you do?" Harry asked.

"What?" she said, defensive. "Is what all I do?"

"Scowl," he replied. "You've done nothing but scowl this entire time. You're comely enough. You should smile a little."

Her flush deepened, spreading down her cheeks to the gentle slope her neck. She turned away. "Come on you lot. There'll be fishing boats all over the harbor and up the river by this time of day. We'll either have to head further upriver or deep out in the bay if we want to catch anything." She started to walk away, but none of the others turned to follow her.

"Will you come, Your Grace?" Fat Lip asked hopefully.

Aeryn slapped him again, gentler this time. "The king is His Grace, the prince is just the prince," she said.

"Oh. Well, will you come Prince 'arrold?" He wasn't the least bit affected.

"Don't call me Prince Harrold," Harry said with a laugh. "Just Harry is fine." His mother would definitely not approve of these scoundrels, nor their familiarity, and after Pate, he could imagine her ordering him to beat one of these four, if she ever found out. "And speak naught of me to anyone," he added. He pulled up his hood as he fell into step with them. "Neither mother nor father; not even your friends." Just in case.

"No worries," Jerryd assured him. 'Nobody'd believe me if I did." Fat Lip and Mumbles hastily agreed. Aeryn said nothing, but he noticed her constant glancing at him, her hesitance clear as a summer sky.

"Aeryn?"

She sighed, but agreed to his terms. Harry wondered why she was so reluctant.

"We won't tell a soul," Fat Lip vowed.

A flock of birds rose into the air at his words, wings beating with the wind.

Chapter Text

 

"What's that one there, the dead weirwood surrounded by ravens?" said Harry from atop Flatfoot.

"House Blackwood," Myrcella answered promptly. She was being ferried along beside him by a pair of horses in a redwood horse with gold-wire windows and sheer rosy curtains, lions and stags ambling down the carved wood. "And the red salmon next to it is House Mooton."

The tourney to celebrate Harry's nameday had come. The sky was somber and grey, and the sun had been lost behind a veil of swarming dark clouds. Light summer rains fell from the gloom, drifting this way and that on brisk winds.

Despite the damp and drear the tourney grounds were a sight to behold. They were strewn across a vast clearing just west of the city, nestled between the Blackwater Rush to the south and farmlands to the north. A hundred and more pavilions sprawled the massive stretch of land, reds here and blues there, and green and black and silver and pink and orange, striped, spotted, and slashed. The royal procession weaved and twisted between the tents like a great slothful eel, flanked by gold cloaks trudging through the mud, and trailed by lords and ladies in dazzling brocade jackets and gowns, either ahorse or carried in palanquins.

Harry wiped a bit of wetness from his brow. "I wasn't going to ask about House Mooton," he said.

"Well, you certainly won't now," his sister returned. Her sequin gown was a deep crimson, darker than blood, with cloth-of-gold flowers and vines winding up and down the dagged sleeves. Her golden hair tumbled down her shoulders in loose ringlets, a diamond choker about her neck that glittered like a star.

"Don't be cheeky," he warned with a smile. He pointed to a banner depicting a black kettle on a red field. "And that one?"

Myrcella scoffed. "House Kettleblack, silly."

Harry couldn't help his laughter. "Perhaps that one was too easy."

"Of course it was too easy," Myrcella boasted, grinning, her nose upturned in a perfect imitation of their mother. "They are all too easy. I know the sigil of every House in every land."

It almost seemed as if every House had sent men to the tourney. Harry counted near a hundred banners rippling and snapping in the wind. He saw the three red chevronels of House Rosby, the black warhammers of House Rykker, the hooded man of the Banefort, the purple lightning of House Dondarrion, and dozens more still, from most every province, save the North and Dorne. Even a few Reach lords had come, Houses Blackbar and Graceford and Wythers, and there, in a green pavilion dusted with golden flowers, House Tyrell. He saw Valemen too, for there were the three ravens of House Corbray ferrying their hearts, and the five fanned silver arrows of House Hunter. Harry had learned the sigil of most every House in the Seven Kingdoms, down to lowest landed knight, and he was sure he could stump Myrcella without resorting to Houses mired in obscurity.

"What about that hanging man there?" he asked, pointing to a gray tent, banner flapping above, a man in black hanging from a rope against a field of blue.

Myrcella was silent, brow furrowed as she thought. "House Trant?" she said finally, her act forgotten.

Harry laughed again. "Are you asking me or telling me?"

She paused. "Telling you," she said, certain now. "Am I right?"

"Lucky guess," said Harry. "And what of that one there, with the dogs?"

Her frown returned. "House... it's House... Doggett?"

"House Clegane," Joffrey corrected as he rode up between them, his smile sharp and nasty. His crimson overcoat was fastened with a double row of gold lion heads. "The Clegane's serve our grandfather, Lord Tywin. This one will serve me." He was delighted, Harry could tell. Their mother had promised Joffrey a sworn sword some time ago, but their father had refused. It seemed that he had changed his mind.

Joffrey turned to Harry, something like hate gleaming in his eyes. Harry was certain the same was reflected in his own. The princes shared some common features, lips, eyes, and height most notable, but where Joffrey's hair was bright and golden, Harry's was black as pitch. "You don't have a sworn shield, do you Harry?" said Joffrey. He chuckled, a thin, wheezing sound. "I suppose you simply aren't important enough."

"Harry doesn't need protection," Myrcella said. "The smallfolk love him, and he's brilliant with a sword. Uncle Jaime says so, as does Ser Arys."

Joffrey rounded on Myrcella, but before he could speak, Harry leaned over and gave his horse a swift slap on the arse. The horse snorted and rushed ahead towards a throng of lords, kicking up mud in its wake. Joffrey yanked hard on the reins and leaned to the left as far as he might, just barely swerving aside the lords. One of them, their great-uncle Ser Kevan Lannister, who was visiting from Casterly Rock, turned a disapproving eye on Harry. Beyond him, Joffrey fumed silently, eyes alight with rage. Harry was wholly unmoved by either of them.

"You'll sit next to me, won't you Harry?" Myrcella asked. "I would hate to have to sit with Joffrey, he's horrible. And maybe uncle Tyrion can sit with us too?"

"I don't think Mother would allow it," Harry said. "You know how she feels about uncle Tyrion. Mayhaps Renly can sit with us instead."

Myrcella sighed, then smiled, and turned up her nose again. "That is... acceptable, I suppose. See that it is done."

Harry smiled back, eyes crinkling. "Of course, Your Grace. Your will is my command."

The smallfolk went mad when they rode past. His father, awash in black and gold finery, bejeweled crown winding about his head like a vine, raised his flask to salute the crowd and they returned his gesture in kind, the clamor rising to smother every sound, their wooden goblets and bowls overflowing with wine and ale. Harry could scarcely hear himself think for the great noise, and focused instead on soothing Flatfoot's agitation. The roar gradually quieted to a dim rumble as the procession took its place in the stands opposite the smallfolk, a long, towering behemoth of solid wooden beams that overlooked the grounds.

The herald blew his horn, a loud, clear, ringing note that stretched to every corner of the tourney grounds and beyond, signaling the start of the tourney. A hush fell over the crowd. The man was just starting to speak when Harry's mother, from her seat beside the king, silenced him with a wave of her hand. "Why don't we let Harry speak to the people?" she said, looking to Robert. "It is his nameday celebration, and I think the commoners would rather like to hear from their beloved prince. They hear from your herald often enough." She smiled tightly, her sparkling scarlet gown reflected in her brilliant green eyes.

The king considered her proposal for a moment, then turned to Harry, face already ruddy from drink. "Go on then boy, speak to the people."

Harry frowned at his father, still nursing his anger at the incident with Pate months before. He thought it an injustice to Pate to allow the memory to fade, but it was too much effort to keep the grudge alive when Pate had already forgiven the both of them.

"It's me duty," he had told Harry hardly a week after the incident, his back still bruised and sore. "I'm a whipping boy, as His Grace said... just don't get in no more trouble, if it please you." Pate was more a brother to him than Joffrey, so Harry had done as he asked, despite his inclinations to ignore his minders.

Remembering that, he graced his father with a very small smile. Forgiven, but not forgotten. He rose to stand, one hand braced on the railings, willing his nerves to settle. He remembered giving speeches in his life before, but only barely, the clarity of the memories shadowed by a hazy fog.

He could remember spells well enough. People too, but their faces and features more so than their names. His dreams granted the memories definition, made them tangible, and when he slept, he sometimes forgot he was Harrold Baratheon, Prince of the Iron Throne. At those times, late in the night when the castle was quiet and asleep, or in the twilight hours of the morning where wakefulness and slumber warred, he was Harry Potter, the Chosen One, a wizard who had reshaped a world, vanquished vile evils, and mastered death.

A speaking horn was thrust towards him from his left, passed down from the herald, the tapered, open-ended cone-shaped instrument lacquered with black and gold. "There you are, my Prince," said Littlefinger, his father's Master of Coin. "That should amplify your voice well enough to reach the crowd."

Harry gave his thanks to the thin little man with a smile he had learned from his mother, and gave more sincere thanks to the herald for allowing him use of the trumpet. Harry didn't much like Littlefinger. His smiles never reached his eyes. He was a little squirrel of a man, with shifty gray-green eyes set beneath a shock of black hair peppered with gray.

Harry fumbled for a moment, seemingly at a loss for what to say. His eyes scanned the crowd, the thousands of grimy, smiling faces, and as if of their own accord, they settled on the familiar, willowy form of Aeryn, who was sitting atop the railings that separated the crowd from the field. It was her hair that caught his eye, the gleaming curtain of molten silver and gold, and then his gaze fell to her face, and he smiled. She cleans up nice, he thought. He saw Jerryd a ways down sitting in a similar fashion, and unbidden, words came to his lips as if summoned from some place deep in his gut. He put the smaller end of the device up to his lips, and spoke.

"My good friends." He licked his lips. "You were told that this tourney was being held in honor of my nameday. I am here to tell you that it is not." The silence seemed to grow heavier, and sweat blossomed on his neck. "Instead," he continued, "we honor you, the fishermen and the tanners, the merchants and the bakers, inn keepers and tavern wenches and farmers and masons and craftsmen alike... all of you!" And just like that, the silence was broken, shattered to dust, cast away to float down the rumbling Blackwater and into the sea. The crowd rose into such a clamor as to shake the stands. "I am proud to be your Prince, proud that I can count you amongst my friends, and I hope to one day be able to serve you as you have all served me. Blessings and thanks to all, now let the tourney commence!"

As he returned to his seat amidst the cheering, Tyrion, who was lounging in the row behind him, draped in gold and crimson, leaned forward and said, "Glad to see that someone has absorbed a parcel of my considerable oratory skill. I must admit I feared you a lost cause, dear nephew. You are, after all, save for sweet Myrcella here, surrounded by dimwits and muttonheads alike, men I wouldn't suffer on my greatest enemy. Or should I say, I would only suffer them on my greatest enemy."

"But you don't have any enemies, uncle," said Myrcella, eavesdropping shamelessly.

Tyrion loosed a short bark of laughter that sent his black and gold curls aflutter, mismatched eyes twinkling. "I'm a Lannister," he said, as if that was answer enough. "Now where was I? Ah yes, gushing praise. As I was saying before being so rudely interrupted, fantastic speech, nephew." Harry had never heard praise so droll. "Though I suspect you could have told this lot that you pissed in their ale and they would have cheered just the same."

Harry couldn't help the laughter that bubbled up in his gut. He went to pass the speaking trumpet back to Baelish, but was waved off.

"Keep it, my prince. You will need it to give the command to start the match." His voice was pleasant, his smile sincere, but his eyes gave him away. There was a subtle, chilling insincerity lurking there, something black and twisted and vile.

The herald blew his horn once more, a long, low note, then the men on their mighty horses galloped into the fighting ring, and the commoners went mad again. There was Thoros of Myr riding a magnificent red mare, bald pate hidden beneath a crimson helm, and there was the young Lord Beric Dondarrion, his black armor gleaming, a forked bolt of purple lightning arcing across his breastplate. His sword was polished to a shine so bright that for a brief second, Harry thought it goblin's silver.

Other men and warriors of renown followed, resplendent in glittering plate, with chasings of most every color, from blue to silver to yellow to green, surcoats adorned with sigils. He saw a brindled boar, then a black kettle, then a golden goose. And there, across the field, waving to the commons, was a grey squirrel, and beside him, a two headed pelican, half black, half pink. Then came the hedge knights and freeriders, in piecemeal mail and plate and scale, and even boiled leather.

Myrcella tugged at his arm. "Where did you learn to speak like that?" she said.

He shrugged. "Here and there. More there than here." At his side, Renly, garbed in forest green finery with golden highlights, laughed a great booming clap that was almost startling, it was so loud.

"Harry!" she complained, voice shrill. "That's no answer at all!" Harry just chuckled in response.

The mêlée was first. The men lined up across from each other in the field, fifteen on either side. He saw Thoros on the far end, and the Lightning Lord nearest the stands, but the knight who truly captured his attention was the massive man not fifteen feet away from where Harry sat, in plain, battered steel-gray plate, his helm fashioned as a dog head, snout and all, sharp fangs framing his face. The three stacked dogs of House Clegane were etched across the escutcheon strapped to his arm and emblazoned across his yellow surcoat. He was a few inches shy of seven feet, one of the taller men in the field. Only the brindled boar, a knight from House Crakehall, was larger.

The tumult of cheers swelled and he was almost drowned in the sound, but the royal stands were close enough to the ring that Harry could still hear the horses as they brayed, the wet clip-clop of their hooves in the mud. "Begin!" he yelled into the trumpet.

At his shout, the men sprung into action, kicking their horses to charge this way and that. In the melee, any man was fair game. Every man was an enemy. It was chaos.

Harry loved it.

Thoros swiped his hand down his blade and a great green flame roared to life along the steel. Beneath the green glow, Thoros' red armor took on a yellowish tint. Harry recalled Ser Aron warning the priest that the smiths would refuse his patronage and never forge him another sword if he kept ruining them with fire. Harry rather thought that so long as Thoros had the coin, the smiths would forge him whatever he wished.

Thoros' flaming sword set the other horses affright, and one unfortunate ser was thrown from his horse to land heavy and hard in the mud. The men nearest the priest wheeled away from him to turn upon each other, so he pushed into their backs, fiery sword raised high, and drove them to the other side of the ring, into the great throng that had gathered there. Lord Beric angled his horse to knife between two Reachmen who were fighting together, and for a moment his sword was as the lightning of his sigil, twisting so quickly between the two they could do naught to defend. He wheeled about and struck again, and again, and again, until the men fell and yielded.

Swords clanged and clashed like ringing bells, rising and reverberating across the field in a sharp, erratic melody. Harry watched with rapt attention as the dog-helmed Clegane swung his sword into a man and knocked him clean from his horse with a single cut, then whirled around and with three deft strokes unhorsed another knight with frightening ease. None could stand against him, though many tried. Even the Crakehall man, after fighting from one end of the ring to the other, fell to his blade

"What's his name?" he asked Renly, nodding towards the mighty warrior.

"Which one?" his uncle asked.

"The Clegane, with the dog helm; the big one who just unhorsed Ser Robar."

"Ahhhh... that, my young friend, is Sandor Clegane." Renly took a sip from his goblet.

"Not Ser Sandor?"

"Not to my knowledge, no. Something to do with his brother." The Mountain that Rides, Harry thought. Renly sat back in contemplation. "If I recall correctly, Ser Kevan made mention of their mutual hatred for one another. Not too altogether different from you and Joffrey, now that I think of it." Harry didn't appreciate the comparison. He'd heard rumors about the Cleganes, terrible ones. Renly was ignorant of his ire, however, and continued to watch Sandor. "He's certainly skilled enough to be a knight, no matter his lack of holy anointing." Sandor yanked a knight from his horse with but one hand, then turned about and ran him down, battering him with his sword until he yielded. "And brutal," Renly continued.

"Quite," agreed Harry. "Joffrey mentioned a Clegane was to be his sworn shield. His shield seems to be a far better sword."

Renly laughed. "He's a talented fighter, for true, but the world has much and more to offer than blades and horses."

"Like what?" asked Harry.

"Music and merriment," said Renly. "Love and laughter. Beauty."

"Harps, drink, women, and fools, you mean?" He spotted Moon Boy strutting about on stilts at the edge of the field, in the shadow of the oaks and elms that separated the grounds from the river, heard the revelry of a troupe of musicians somewhere beyond the tents, thin and faint for the ringing steel and cheering crowd. Shapely women, long-legged and big-breasted, in sheer gowns of lace and silk, lured lords and lordlings alike into their grand tents, and Harry blushed to think of what they were doing inside.

"That is precisely what I mean," said Renly. "Harps, drinks, fools, and... women. Beauty can be expressed in so many different ways, can it not?"

"Indeed," said Harry, eyes far away. A horse can be beautiful. A song. A sunset. A sword. Life and death and all the little adventures betwixt the two. And the ones after.

He heard a gasp that was echoed across the grounds. He looked to see what had caused the commotion, but then Myrcella grabbed his arm and pressed her face against his shoulder, and his eyes fell to her instead. She was trembling. "Sweet sister, what's the matter?" She pointed towards the field. Thoros sat above a man who rolled and writhed in the mud, his stump of an arm bleeding and smoking. Blood spurted from the wound in thin, intermittent sprays. His screams lent itself to the cacophony of cheering crowds and chiming steel, a perverse accompaniment to the symphony of violence.

It was a gruesome sight for sure, but not so stomach turning as it could have been if not for the heat of Thoros' blade. The flames had partially cauterized the wound and stifled the blood flow. Harry watched with a sort of detached interest as the knight was pushed into a litter and carted from the ring by a pair of squires, his half-arm flailing wildly, the skin blistered and blackened.

The fight lasted for near an hour. Lord Beric yielded to Sandor after a ferocious exchange, leaving Sandor, Thoros, two hedgeknights, the Corbray man, and a man of House Tyrell. Sandor, he noticed, stayed well clear of Thoros and his flaming sword. Harry couldn't understand why - the Clegane was just as skilled, if not more so, and surely such a fearsome man wasn't afraid of a little fire? But it seemed he was, for he turned his back to Thoros and rode down the others when the priest advanced on him. He took them down in turn, one by one by one, until only he and Thoros remained. Harry stood and leaned over the railings, anticipating a great battle, but then Sandor yielded without trading a single blow, and it was all he could do to keep in a petulant groan of disappointment. What in the seven hells was that? Victorious, Thoros turned to face the royal stands.

"Harry, announce the match," said Tyrion. "You do still have the speaking trumpet, do you not?"

"Yes, yes, yes, give me a moment." He didn't want his disappointment to color his tone; that would be unfair to Thoros. He took a breath. "Thoros of Myr!" he yelled. "Congratulations on a battle well fought. I believe the purse should just about cover your drinking tab." A ripple of laughter spread from Thoros, to the courtiers, to the commons, growing into a dim roar by the end of it.

Thoros thumped his fist to his chest in salute to the king, then thrust his still flaming sword into the air. The crowd erupted in cheers. The royal ovation, however, was far more subdued. Lord Rosby did not clap at all, nor his uncle Stannis, nor Ser Kevan. His mother looked down upon Thoros with disdain marring her features, rouged lips pressed into a thin line. She had never liked Thoros, Harry knew.

Harry found his eyes drawn to the lone figure at the far end of the field, trudging towards the tents, a big black courser trotting beside him. It was Sandor Clegane, he realized, by the size of him and the color of his surcoat. He could just make out the three black hounds. And behind him, following in his massive shadow, was a ghost with thick, wavy black hair that spilled down to the small of her back, matching him step for step for step. As far away as they were, Harry could just make out the dark red discoloration in her gown. Blood, he thought. She was covered in it.

Harry watched her until she disappeared from sight. He had never seen her before now, of that he was sure. She was no Targaryen, as most of the ghosts in the keep were. A wife, perhaps? Or some unfortunate woman who had been murdered inside the red walls? A mistress, maybe, or a good-sister. As far as Harry knew, only those with magic in their blood could manifest after death, and even then, only the most wretched and broken souls chose to stay behind. He could think of no other reason for the bevy of Targaryen ghosts in the Red Keep. But the First Men had had magic too, and they were not so easily distinguished and categorized. And most of Westeros is descended from the First Men.

His musings lasted until the tourney's end. Ser Wenfryd Yew claimed the archery competition, and Ser Jaime the joust, defeating Ser Barristan after breaking five lances against his shield. Harry watched his mother be crowned Queen of Love and Beauty, his uncle Jaime keeping with habit. His uncle had crowned her every tourney he ever won, as far back as Harry could remember. From there, the royal party saddled up, and returned to the keep. Myrcella shared a litter with their mother on the way back, leaving Harry to his thoughts.

The feast that night was as grand as any. Servants had set up several trestle tables in the center of the Great Hall, long slabs of smoothly polished oak engraved with stags ambling through open forests that were each big enough to seat half-a-hundred bodies. Ornate candelabra, gilded, golden constructs made in the Westerlands, inlaid with rubies as red as blood, had been arranged in rows around the table, bathing the room in a warm orange glow.

Harry sat between Myrcella and Joffrey at the head table, beside their mother and father. The other lords were assembled according to their status, his mother had told him, with the men most in his father's favor seated nearest the royal family and the 'simpering fools looking to ingratiate themselves' seated furthest away. Lord Jon sat on the other side of the king, then Renly, with Ser Kevan beside him, but his father had served Stannis a slight by sitting him further down the table, between the sickly Lord Rosby and the Reach lords, when his rightful place should have been beside Renly.

Harry wondered at that, why his father never failed to belittle his brother. For all his stalwart ways and mulish nature, Stannis was utterly dedicated to his duties as Master-of-Ships. He was as rigid as a cast-iron sword and as prickly as one too, but his efforts deserved some sort of recognition - more than what he received, at any rate. Harry knew the stories. Stannis had held Storm's End for a year during his father's rebellion, keeping the Tyrell army from the field. He had taken Dragonstone and forced the last remnants of the Targaryen dynasty to flee east, absent wealth or warriors. During the Greyjoy rebellion he had crushed the Iron Fleet off the coast of Faircastle, and taken one of the islands while his father besieged Pyke. True, Harry didn't like Stannis, and would rather the company of scamps and scoundrels, but he respected him, for his glories if nothing else.

Servants wheeled out half-a-hundred trays of food to the assembled guests. The savory scents wafted through the open hall as if carried by the wind; Harry could almost taste the almond crusted trout, mouth salivating like a dog's. They had trout wrapped in bacon as well, along with rabbit stewed in garlic and onions and peppered quails swimming in butter. More servants brought spit-roasted boar and deer, skin crisp and crackling. There was beef and bacon pie with grilled lambs and herbs, and when Harry bit into the pie, he could almost be content, sitting amongst family sharing a meal with friends.

But that, he knew, was just an illusion. There were too many secrets, too many lies writ in the pale red stone of the keep for these people to call themselves friends. Allies, perhaps, but never friends. Those were Lord Jon's words, and Harry, knowing what he knew and seeing what he saw, could do naught but believe him.

After the main course was finished they had blueberry tarts and sweet lemon cakes, and the men drunk Arbor Gold until their cheeks were flushed red and their eyes drooped low. None drunk so much nor so quickly as his father, though. Even Tyrion, far down the table, could scarce keep up. There was little talk amongst the nobles, so Harry was quite surprised when Ser Kevan addressed the king. He had expected the meal to pass in relative silence, as the more boisterous courtiers sat way at the far end of the table.

"Your Grace," he began, setting down his cutlery. "Have you given further thought to my proposal?"

His father took a long swig from his jewel-encrusted goblet before he answered. The conversations around him quieted down to the merest whispers. "I've thought on it," he said into the growing silence. "And I've not decided yet. I have a mind to send the boy to Highgarden."

Harry snapped up at that, his tarts and cakes forgotten. The boy? The boy who?

"Highgarden?" his mother said. Her voice dripped with contempt. Down the table, Ser Theodore Tyrell scowled into his plate. "I thought you wanted to foster him with your beloved Lord Stark?"

His father frowned. "Mind your tongue, woman. I'm not in the mood for it. I'll need a few more cups in me first." There was laughter, but it withered and died quickly beneath his mother's glare. Ser Kevan especially was unamused. "I considered Winterfell," his father continued. "But the Imp put up a convincing argument in favor of the Tyrells." His mother gave Tyrion a sharp look, but his uncle paid her no mind. "They've a daughter not much older than he is," his father said. "He can foster there and marry the girl when he comes of age."

Me, Harry thought. They mean me.

"A brilliant match, Your Grace," said Ser Theodore. "Lady Margaery is the fairest rose in all the Reach. Nay, the Seven Kingdoms!" The Reachmen sitting with him gave a loud cheer.

"I don't give two shits how fair she is," his father said. "The boy is pretty enough on his own. But that'll be six Great Houses united beneath me." He smiled, and when he spoke again, there was a wisp of longing in his voice. "Six Great Houses, and one magnificent army. What say you to that, Ser Kevan?"

Damn what Ser Kevan thinks, thought Harry. It's me you mean to send off. He only just managed to hold his tongue.

"You would give our son to Mace Tyrell?" his mother cut in. "He opposed you during the war -"

"I know what he bloody did! I was there, woman. Now be silent, you're making my head ache."

"You speak truly, Your Grace," Ser Kevan said. "But Prince Harrold needn't foster in Highgarden to be matched with Lady Margaery." Ser Kevan was near bald, and going to fat, but there was a dignity to him, quiet and sure.

Harry glanced down the table. Stannis' jaw was clenched so tight he thought it might shatter. The Tyrell's supped outside Storm's End while my uncle starved, he thought. Laughed and joked and feasted while good men wasted away, all for a mad king.

"Why not Dorne?" Renly said. "I'm sure Prince Doran would be happy to have him."

"I am not sending my son to Dorne," his mother said, steel in her eyes.

"No, not Dorne," Lord Jon said. "The Martell's may have bent the knee but they haven't forgotten the past. Doran is wise, for true, but Oberyn..." the old Vale lord shook his head. "I too am in favor of Winterfell." His pale blue eyes fell upon Harry. "Prince Harrold could learn a lot from Lord Stark. And as Ser Kevan mentioned, he can foster elsewhere and still be betrothed to Margaery Tyrell."

Harry could take no more. "Since no one knows where they want to send me," he said, rising to his feet, "mayhaps you could inquire as to where I would like to go?" Every eye turned to him, as if they had forgotten he was there. The silence stretched. "Has the drink turned you all to dullards?" Myrcella kicked him under the table, and he almost winced. His father tilted his head back and laughed, loud and long, and the lords and their ladies joined him, their laughter ringing off the walls. His mother gave him a long, sharp stare, her green eyes almost frantically searching his face. He didn't know what she was looking for.

His father said, "I'd near forgotten how bold you were, boy, but you've no say in this. You'll foster where I tell you to foster, and you'll marry who I tell you to marry."

"Margaery truly is beautiful, Harry," said Renly, placating. "And clever too. Her brother squired for me, you remember Loras, don't you?"

Harry nodded. He had met Loras, Ser Loras, now, thrice. He was a good sword and a better lance, but he was vain, and nearly as prickly as Stannis. Harry didn't much care for him. "I remember him."

"I considered sending him to Winterfell," his father said to Lord Jon. "But my son is an annoying little shit, more man than he has any right to be, and Ned has enough children to look after. I wouldn't want to saddle him with another. He'll turn the man grey before his time."

Their was laughter, and then, "Storm's End, then," from Renly.

Harry found that he didn't mind the thought of spending the rest of his youth in the lands of his ancestors. It helped that Storm's End wasn't quite so far away from King's Landing as Winterfell. Not even half the distance, if he remembered his maps correctly. And I've a brother there. He can't be half as bad as Joffrey. He might have known his brother too, if not for his mother. When Robert made his yearly trips to Storm's End, he did so absent his children, at her behest.

"Another sound suggestion," Ser Kevan said, "but you are the Lord of Storm's End, Lord Renly, Prince Harrold can never hold those lands as he is not your heir... however, if he proves capable," he leaned forward in his seat, "then Lord Tywin will name the prince as his heir. With your consent of course, Your Grace," he added.

Further down the table, Tyrion's jaw dropped, eyes wide in shock. But as the seconds passed his misshapen face slowly twisted in anger.

"Heir to Casterly Rock, eh?" The king regarded Ser Kevan with a shrewd eye. "If he proves capable? Oh, he's capable alright. He'll drive Lord Tywin mad."

"Be that as it may, Lord Tywin would still like to have him. He could shape Harrold into a great man."

"After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great," a voice from Harry's dreams whispered in his ear.

If Harry thought hard enough he could just see Garrick, with his thin wispy hair and eerie silver eyes, could almost smell the wand wood and polish in the air, feel the oil staining his fingers. Garrick Ollivander had become a friend and mentor after Hogwarts, but it was that first chilling meeting that dominated Harry's dreams, when the strange wandmaker had uttered those fateful words. Terrible, yes, but great. "I would foster at Casterly Rock, if my father permits," he announced suddenly, the words climbing out of his throat before he had decided to utter them. His mother beamed at him then, a truly dazzling smile, and a pleasant warmth spread through his chest. His father only frowned.

"Wait just one moment, if you will," Tyrion called from down the table. His father looked at him as one might look at a bug, but Tyrion was unmoved. "I am the rightful heir to Casterly Rock. Me. Has my father forgotten that in his old age? Has senility finally gripped him in its fist?" He stood up in his chair, wobbling as he did so, and stared Ser Kevan down. "What did you say, dear uncle, when my father sent you here to rob me of what is rightfully mine?" Tyrion was already ugly, but the frown on his face transformed him into something monstrous.

The warmth in Harry's chest deserted him as quick as it came. His mother, he saw, enjoyed Tyrion's distress, but Harry felt sick inside. Worry not, uncle, he wanted to say, for if I am to be the heir of Casterly Rock, you will want for nothing.

Ser Kevan had the grace to look ashamed, but he met Tyrion's eyes when he spoke, and his words were sincere. "I told him that it was wrong to rob you of your inheritance... but that I would see his will done."

"Of course you did," Tyrion spat. "Ever the yes man, aren't you uncle?" He plopped down in his seat and drained his cup dry. "Pray that Lord Tywin has more consideration for you than he ever had for me," said Tyrion, eyes upon Harry now. "He is a terrible man."

"Terrible, yes, but great," the words came again. Harry Potter had never expected to be great, had never wanted it, but Harrold did. He expected, and he desired, and he knew. By the might of the magic in his blood, he knew. The realm will need me, he thought. It will need my power, or why else would I have it? Why else would I dream as I dream... Perhaps Joffrey's cruelty would lead to a war, he thought, or twisted dragons would rise from the ruins of Valyria and lay waste to the realms, or some dark sorceror would unleash a plague to end the world... The realm will need me, he thought again. Someone great... and mayhaps a little terrible too.

Joffrey, dragons, plagues... they would be cowed by nothing less.

"We will further discuss this matter on the morrow," Lord Jon told Ser Kevan.

"Now that that's settled," the king said, slamming his cup down with a resounding thud. "More wine!"

Harry returned to his meal.

Chapter Text

 

The woods were dark, and dank, and dreary. Twelve days had come and gone since Harry's name day, since he learned he was to be fostered. He had been out here with the men for most of them, following old game trails deeper and deeper into the looming timbers. His father had yet to decide on where to foster him, but Harry felt it obvious. Ser Kevan yet remained in the city, and all his knights with him, but Ser Theodore had long since gone.

Renly had ridden out with the Reachmen when they left, but said that he would only travel as far as Tumbleton, and promised to return with a portrait of the Lady Margaery. A kind gesture, true, but useless all the same. Margaery could look no better than the back end of a flea-bitten pony, and if his father desired it, Harry would still be wed to her. But those talks had died down as well, left for later years, his mother told him. For now, there was only the fostering.

During those first four days after his name day, when he wasn't nose deep in a musty old tome, or sweating runnels in the training yard, or running about the keep with Myrcella, Harry had spent his time in the city, wandering the wharves and back alley wynds with the Nameless, to truly see the people he had honored on his nameday. He had watched the commons from afar for years now, listened to their conversations beneath the guise of cloak and tattered clothing, walked amongst them, laughed with them, but he had never truly known them. Not as he knew Tyrion, or Ser Aron, or even Meron. The Nameless, as queer and quirky a group as he knew, were slowly changing that.

But sometimes he took to the streets in the guise of the prince he was, in black and gold finery or plate of the same, as often ahorse as he was afoot. He would ride the streets and crowds of commoners would slowly gather in his wake, first a trickle and then a tide. Men and women grown would come to kneel at his feet, singing his praises. Mothers wept and brought their babes for him to kiss. Children followed barefoot at his heels, laughing and singing. They revered him, honored him with their every breath, as if he had accomplished something great beyond being born to a king. I could easily be one of you, he oft told himself. The son of a crofter, or a brewer, or a baker. A huntsman, or a hedge knight, or a cordwainer.

The morn before the hunt, when the dawn had only just come and the morning dew still glinted on the cobblestones, he found himself standing before the Great Sept of Baelor, the seven crystal towers aglitter like stars. An old crone asked him to pray with her, if it please him, so pray he did. He kneeled with her in the flowery gardens, amongst pinks and blues and reds and purples, the scents cloying for their richness. The towering statue of Baelor had stretched high above, and a hundred and more smallfolk were knelt behind him, murmuring near soundless prayers. They begged the Mother and the Father and the Warrior to bless him, the Crone to guide him, the Maiden to give him a strong, beautiful wife.

Harry had only ever prayed to the Stranger, the one god he knew as true. He had felt its embrace, as dark as the blackest night, had tasted the sweet nothingness of nonexistence, had fallen asleep in its arms a wizard and awoken a prince. When I meet you again, he had prayed, give me peace.

"There goes King Robert's boy," he would hear them say as he trod his horse down winding streets. "He'll be a great knight, that one, a true ser o' the people, just like in the songs." Everything he did was somehow grander for his being a prince, sacred even. Such regard, he would think. And so ill deserved. What great thing had he done that they loved him so? Was it only his blood, his station? Had they truly been so moved by his speech? Words were wind, he knew, but wind had never garnered such love. He made a vow then to truly earn their regard, to be a man worthy of it, terrible and great and just and true, or else he would feel false and fraudulent till his last breath, and perhaps even after.

The knights and squires of the west weren't the sort to cheer and weep and run about barefoot, though. On the second day of the hunt, the hunting party had made camp in a meadow that tumbled down a gentle muddy slope to stout rows of oaks and soldier pines. Harry was watching the servants set up the pavilions in the sludge when Ser Kevan's squire slid up beside him. Quenten Banefort was slim and slight and beetle-browed, with short black hair that brushed against his forehead, beady black eyes, and the beginnings of a beard bristling across his cleft chin. The Baneforts had been kings in the olden days, during the Age of Heroes, and had ruled the northern half of the west from their coastal seat. Now they were but a principal House sworn to Casterly Rock, powerful, prideful, and as Harry learned, prickly as thorns.

"I hear you have a talent for archery," Quenten said. Somewhere in the trees above a pair of blackcaps were warbling, and in the distance the Blackwater was a dim rumble.

"A talent," Harry agreed, then he shrugged. "But it is nothing great."

"Nothing great," echoed Quenten, disbelieving. "I hear you are not so bad with a sword either, for a young lad, but I've never seen you in the yard. I thought I might have witnessed your skill, by now."

Harry turned to face him at that, one eyebrow arched. He and Quenten were nearly the same height, for all that he was obviously older. "A young lad, am I? And how old are you, ser?"

Two others joined them then, squires both, though Harry wouldn't have known from the look of them. Herbert Plumm was big and broad shouldered, with a red face and a thick neck, much like his uncle Ser Dennis Plumm for whom he squired. Betram Estren was half a head shorter, and skinnier besides, with a stout jaw and a nose that looked to have been broken at least twice. "He's no ser," the one called Bertram said, grinning. "Just a bloody pain is all."

"More like a bane," Herbert said.

"Aye, a bane," said Bertram, "to every man he meets."

"Women too," said Herbert. Harry saw Quenten clench his fists and grind his teeth. He looked so much like Stannis in that moment that Harry couldn't help the chuckle that escaped him.

"And he'll be fifteen this year, our young Banefort lord," Bertram continued, throwing an arm around Quenten. "He's due to inherit a keep with lands and tithes -"

"And ships," said Herbert.

"- and ships, but it prickles him something fierce that Herb and I will have our spurs before him."

"Prickles him almost as fierce as that dirk he's got jammed up his arse," Herbert said.

"Buggered himself with a blade, he did," said Bertram.

"Careful then," Harry said, amused by their antics, "or might be he'll decide to take it out and bugger you instead."

"Beware, beware, the buggering Banefort!" sang Herbert.

Quenten threw off Bertrams's arm and said, "Go on, have your laughs. I'll pay them back with bruises. I'm a better blade than the both of you. I ride a horse better than the both of you. We'll see who's dirk is jammed where, alright. I'll ram a lance up in you too."

Bertram laughed. "Please, no my lord, not your lance!"

"Mercy!" begged Herbert. 'I've only ever been buggered the once!"

Then came Marvell Brax, Ser Lyle Crakehall's squire. He was the oldest and the biggest, and half Crakehall himself, with a strong jaw and arms thick with muscle. "Mind your words," he told them, his voice strangely soft considering the size of him. "You stand beside a prince, one who might one day be your lord. Save your jests and japes for your beloved wenches. Here comes one now." A pony trod past then, and Bertram and Herbert howled with laughter. Even Quenten cracked a smile.

There were more squires, some older, some younger, but they were the sons of lesser houses, if that, and they didn't venture far from their masters, nor presume to speak with Harry. They hung about at mealtimes, lingering at the outer edges of the fires, listening raptly to the grand tales his father and the men spun of war and battle and women.

He heard tale of the Ninepenny Kings, and of his father's war, and of Greyjoy's Rebellion. His father had spat into the fire when Ser Lyle – Strongboar, they called him - brought it up. "That was no rebellion," he said, half drunk with a wineskin clenched tight in his fist, face reddened by drink and flame alike. "It was a slaughtering! Never has there been a fool so great as Balon Greyjoy. Seven Islands against Seven Kingdoms? Did he think us cravens to cower away in our castles, pissing our pants in fear? Ha! Greyjoy's Rebellion... Greyjoy's Folly, more like."

Harry had tried to imagine what Balon Greyjoy had been thinking, to rebel against his father with only sailors and skirmishers to back him. He tried to imagine what Maelys and his penny kings hoped to gain by challenging the Seven Kingdoms, with all its wealth and power. Both had reached too far, too fast. Had their folly been born of pride, or merely madness? They tickled a sleeping dragon, Harry thought, and the dragon awoke.

Then the mists rolled in on the third day, and the general cheer of the men was smothered beneath it. The fog was dense and damp, hanging like drapes about the woods, clinging to drooping boughs, hugging rugged boles, the greens and browns and golds of the forest turned ashen. The hunting paths the royal party followed were overrun with weeds, half-buried roots, and scattered stones, and the going was slow. Each day dragged longer than the last. The sea was not far off; Harry could hear the waves as they whooshed against the flowstone caves and jagged clefts that dotted the rocky southern coast of Blackwater Bay. The sound waded and whispered through the silvery brume, and if he listened close, beneath the clod of hooves and the muttering of men, he could heard the gulls calling to each other out over the water, squawking, chirping, cawing.

They ranged ever deeper into the Kingswood, the days bleeding together, as the third day became a fourth became a fifth. The woods grew ever dimmer and danker, and the bolts of light that speared the green canopy dappled into dozens of gauzy, hair-thin shafts when they fell upon the mists. His father wanted a bear and refused to leave until he had one. Some of his lords had no such compunction, and as the fifth day became a sixth, a small number of them returned to the city, begging leave for some task or another. Joffrey, who'd stayed well clear of Harry for the entirety of the hunt, and his shield, Sandor, had been amongst them.

The king hadn't cared a whit. He still had Thoros, Ser Strongboar, and enough wine to last them a fortnight. Few others could match the king cup for cup, save for them. But then that sixth day had eased into a seventh, then an eighth, and Harry, tired of the woodland drear, took his fox pelt and his fowls and returned to the keep as well. Hunting had lost its luster with so many men stumbling half drunk in the woods, and game had been scarce.

Twelve days come and gone, he thought as he rode back to the city. What will the thirteenth bring? He rode hard, and his red mare, a gift from the Tyrells, was well lathered by the time he came upon the Blackwater River. The mist was even thicker near the water, a blanket of white and gray and silver, and the smallfolk that haunted the muddied hovels seemed as if ghouls beneath the brume, wailing for mercy, for coin, reaching for him as he passed, fingers brushing his boots. They daren't do more than that; the two guardsmen at his back wielded wicked iron cudgels, and while Harry was known to be kind, these men weren't. The ghouls soon returned to their crypts of thatching and timber, hands heavy with coppers.

That night, ensconced behind the castle walls, Harry dreamed of snowy white owls, freckled red-heads, and bearded, ruddy faced giants, and when dawn broke, he awoke to the leering face of the Mad King. Aerys' cheeks were sharp as daggers, his manic eyes sunken deep in his sagging, wrinkled face. Blood was splattered across his chest just like a sigil. He looked more skeleton than ghost, more ghoul than man, like those poor souls on the Blackwater.

"I know a secret, usurper spawn! You want to know it? You want to know how to wake dragons?"

Harry had never desired a wand more than he did in that moment. Would that he had one, he would banish Aerys as quick as a heartbeat. Or silence him, at the least.

The ghost floated up to the ceiling, cackled, and broke out into song. "Burn them, burn them, burn them all! Burn the walls! Burn the halls! Burn the Vault! Burn the Keep! Burn them, burn them, in their sleep!" His voice grew faint as he drifted away through the stone.

Harry scowled and muttered sleepily, "My uncle should have cut off his head."

"Better to cut out his tongue," said Maegor from the window. "A headless ghost might still yet speak." The ghost looked ever the warrior, tall and thick shouldered, with a square jaw, a square neck, and a square chest.

Harry couldn't help his groan. One Targaryen ghost was problem enough. Two would drive him mad before he could even break his fast. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" he said as he climbed out of bed, voice laden with sarcasm. A large pot sat in the hearth, hot coals warming the water inside. Meron's work, he realized, for no other could enter his chambers without awakening him. Save for the dead.

"Mind your tongue, boy," said Maegor.

"Or what? You'll have it out?" Harry scoffed. "Good luck with that, ghost." He set about his ablutions, careful to mind the steaming water.

"If I still yet drew breath," grumbled Maegor, "I'd make you beg for death."

"If," said Harry, and he scoffed again. "Is that all you have left, ghost? Ifs?"

Maegor growled like a wild animal, but said nothing. His pride and his cruelty had been tempered by death, but only just. Harry knew the stories as well as any. Maegor's cruelty had been total and absolute. Legendary, even. Aerys though, had only grown madder after his death. And I was enriched by it.

"Why are you here, Maegor?" He dried himself and looked about for something to wear.

"I want you to free me boy. Spare me from this... this torment. I tire of this half life, this damned existence. I want to pass on."

"You chose this. You turned your back on what lies beyond." He found a white tunic and woolen trousers hanging in the solar, and a pair of shining tan leather boots standing beneath. "I can no sooner free you of your torment than bring you back to life!" he called down the steps.

Maegor floated up to the solar after him. "Don't lie to me, boy. I know what you are. Free me."

"I cannot," said Harry, combing his hair with his fingers. "I haven't the right tools."

That gave the ancient ghost pause. "Tools? Are you lying to me? You've never needed such before."

"I've never needed to grant true death to a ghost either."

Maegor mulled over his words, then said, "And what sort of... tools do you need? A sacrifice?"

Harry shook his head. "A wand, Maegor. A wand."

"Make one," said Maegor, as if it were as easy as that.

"It's not so simple a thing," Harry explained as he donned the tunic. "I need the proper wood, a proper core... none of which I have been able to find. The wood must be capable of channeling magic, as need be the core."

"Weirwood, then. The Andals didn't cut them all down for nothing. And as for this core... something from a dragon. There are no other beasts of magic in this world. None known."

"Aye, something from a dragon." Harry had already considered these things, and a dozen others as well. He only needed time to test most of his considerations, but no amount of time would grant him a dragon. "In case you forgot," he said, "there are no more dragons."

"There are dragon eggs," Maegor allowed.

Harry paused, one leg still out of his trousers. "Where?"

The old king smiled, and it was a twisted, crooking thing, sharp and barbed and so very pleased. "Dragonstone, if they weren't stolen. There is a vault beneath the castle, hidden by blood magic, that holds a great many treasures. Among those treasures are two dragon eggs. From one of Vhagar's clutches. Surely even you know of the great Vhagar."

Harry finished dressing. "If it's hidden," he said, scowling," then how am I to find it?"

"Damn if I know, boy! Use your fucking magic!"

Harry shook his head, exasperated. "I'll consider it," he said. Even if there were dragon eggs beneath Dragonstone, he doubted they had survived all the Targaryens that had called the castle home over their centuries long reign. Still, he couldn't ignore the possibility. No matter what Maegor wanted, Harry needed a wand. Perhaps not in the now, but certainly in the future, far or near.

Maegor grunted and disappeared through the wall. Harry, dressed and washed, took to his daily routines. He studied under the Grandmaester, drilled with Ser Aron, took meals with his mother and sister and finally, when night fell, he sought the Nameless at the quay, between a ramshackle tavern and inn. The moon was a curved white claw against the black sky, the stars dim and distant. It was cool down on the wharves, the wind rolling swift across the waves, gusting between the stone taverns and timber storefronts.

He would call them his friends, but that wasn't quite true. Not yet. He liked them, and they amused him endlessly, but they were so far removed from court and lordly matters as to be different creatures entirely. They cared nothing for lands, for currying favor, for books and swords and finery. They weren't very successful thieves either, he had learned himself, unless they stole from cravens or crones, and even some of the crones he had seen looked tough enough to fend off Jerry's pointy stick.

"Been a while," Jerryd said when Harry came to the meeting spot. His nose was as long as ever, but his garb was clean, freshly bought with a bit of the coin he had gotten from Harry. "Thought you was done with us. Moved on to a less smelly bunch."

"I just might," Harry returned. "You smell more and more a pig with every passing day. Fat Lip, Mumbles, Aeryn." He gave a nod to each. Aeryn had rouged her lips again, Harry saw, and her hair seemed to glow beneath the moonlight. Her beauty seemed all the more unearthly for it, and if he gave her a smile along with the nod, none said aught of it.

"Where ya' been, Harry?" Fat Lip asked from around a chicken leg. He wiped his greasy fingers on his dirt-crusted tunic.

Aeryn smacked him across the head. "The Lord o' Light gave you more lips than wits, I swear. He went hunting with the king, or don't you remember?"

"If I remembered," grumbled Fat Lip, eyes already rheumy, "I wouldn'a asked, would I?" Aeryn smacked him again. "Stop it!" he squealed, stomping his feet.

Jerryd stepped between them. "Leave off him, Aeryn, you know he's a dimwit."

"Yeah! You know I'm a - hey!"

"Well, it's true, innit? You're the dull one and Mumbles is the clever one."

"Aye," Mumbles said with a nod, "and you're the craven one."

That led to more bickering. Aeryn backed away from the boys to stand at Harry's shoulder. She smelled richly of lavenders and lemons, and her fair-skin seemed all the paler for the moon. "Word is you'll be leaving us for the lions soon."

He glanced at her, eyes lingering on her face. "I might. How did you come across this word?"

She smirked. "Don't you know anything, your princeliness? Keeps have ears. Ears, eyes, and mouths."

Harry knew what she meant, but still he said, "And legs and arms too, eh? What queer sort of keep have you been living in?"

"The Keep o' the Rose Lantern," she said. "Anyway, twasn't the keep that told me you was leaving. It was Jayde."

Harry had never heard the name. "And how did this Jayde know?"

"Heard if from your father, she says. He sends for her, sometimes."

Harry hadn't forgotten what Aeryn was meant to be, but neither had he thought much of it. Nor had he given thought to the things lords and kings would say with a sweet pair of lips wrapped around their member. "What else did Jayde hear?"

"That you are a pain in the king's arse, and he hopes you give the old lion as much grief as you've given him." She seemed to take great delight in telling him that.

Harry chuckled. "Is that it? That's tame, for my father."

"There was more," she said. "Would you like to hear?" Her wicked smile made her look older than her thirteen years, and his stomach gave the tiniest flutter.

"Go on then," he returned, and go on she did. By the time the telling was done, Harry was equally upset, disgusted, and entranced, and he had a burning curiosity to see these supposed seven sighs. They sounded almost like magic.

He heard a particularly embarrassing story about his uncle Tyrion, bet thought it best forgotten in lieu of the acts described.

There was little else to do that night, save jest and jape. The waves were too strong out in the bay, and Jerryd had ripped his sail besides. The taverns were no more lively than usual, despite the twelve Tyroshi cogs swaying against the quay, and the matron of the Scraggly Squid refused Fat Lip a cup of ale, even after Jerryd offered her three stars. That was a great sum, Harry knew, for Jerryd was quite niggardly with his coin. He'd gotten the dragon broken down into stags and stars, and kept caches of them hidden throughout Flea Bottom, instead of on his person, to avoid having it stolen. Aeryn had called him a fool. The caches could be easily found, she said, flipping a silver stag in her hand. Her mother would've watched his coin for him, or even Chataya herself, for one gold dragon was nothing to them.

Eventually, he left the Nameless at the wharves, feet carrying him to the rocky beach at the base of Aegon's High Hill. The Red Keep loomed above, jutting out above the cliffs, knifing for the sky. There was a passage into the castle hidden amongst the cliffs, one that led right up to the dungeons beneath the castle. It took him half an hour to find the narrow steps up to the cave. The footing was treacherous, but he was as nimble as he was confident, and climbed them with little issue. The cave was small and damp, the shadows so black he could scarcely see a foot in front of him. Water dripped in loud wet plops. He opened his hand and thought, Fire, and roiling blue flame flared to life in his hand, gleaming off the wet stone. And on he went.

He was making his way into the bowels of the keep when Maegor appeared before him. He almost jumped, surprise giving way quickly to annoyance. "This is the second time today you've come to me, Maegor. Have I worn down that decrepit exterior of yours and warmed the black heart beneath?"

"You've had time enough to consider. I would have your answer. Will you free me?"

Like a bloody dog he is, gnawing at a bone long deprived of meat. "Lets say I find these supposed eggs from three centuries ago," Harry began, stepping through the ghost to continue on his way. "How would I hatch them?"

"Fire and blood," Maegor growled, following behind. "A life for a life, to wake the dragons. But not any wretch will do. Only magic begets magic, boy."

Harry stopped as he thought. Surely Maegor didn't mean - oh, but yes, of course he did. When the realization came upon him, he said, "Fire and blood, is it?" and spat. "There's to your fire and blood."

Maegor was bristling, almost quivering in his anger. "Somewhere in this world there exists a man who deserves to die by fire. You know it. Find them, birth your dragon, and free me!"

Blue light glinted off the walls, and the stone looked like ice. "My answer is no."

"Curse you, you little shit! I helped you! I showed you all the tunnels, every one of them! I gave you counsel -"

"And for that you have my most sincere thanks," and he smiled, all teeth and narrowed eyes, "but I won't condemn someone to death by fire for you. You were a vile man, Maegor. Viler than most. If I should construct a wand in some other fashion, I will help you, but only then."

Maegor scoffed. "Such power you have, and yet you shackle it, abiding the laws of man as if you were one of them! Usurper spawn you may be, dragon blood burns in your veins. You know it as well as I."

Harry said nothing, and eventually Maegor grew quiet. They ascended from the dank, whispering tunnel, coming up beneath the keep. More ghosts came and went, the burned, the broken, and the battered, trickling past with grumbles and mutters, sallow and silver haired. Harry followed the tortuous arched paths of long forgotten halls and corridors, the faint crash of wind and water against the cliffs echoing softly through the dead silence, walls painted a pale blue that shifted and shivered with his every step. The sight of the ghosts made him think of the mystery woman who haunted Sandor Clegane.

He had seen her thrice more since he had returned to the castle, but only when the the Clegane was near. She never uttered a sound, never took her eyes off him, doggedly hounding his steps wherever he went, her gaze as sharp and deadly as steel. Harry had asked Maegor about her days earlier, before the hunt, and he had said that the 'Martell bitch' and her screaming whelp kept to the the lower levels of the keep and stayed well clear of the living. There was only one Martell he knew of who could be the secretive ghost; Princess Elia Martell, wife to Prince Rhaegar and sister to Prince Doran.

He got it in his mind to find her now. He wanted to know the truth, the truth that none would speak of. He knew well the tales of every battle of the war, but no one ever mentioned the Sack of King's Landing. He knew little of Elia's story, of the horror and tragedy that had befallen her and her family, beyond that she and her children had been killed to secure his father's place on the throne. He knew neither the details of their deaths nor the identity of their murderers, but he assumed that Sandor Clegane had been involved. Why else would she haunt him so obsessively?

She was what Dorne hadn't forgotten, and since glimpsing her for the first time, Harry didn't think he would ever forget her either. She was small and thin, frail even, but so too was she hauntingly beautiful, with her thick dark hair and soft features.

My grandfather sacked the city, and Sandor is sworn to his banner. "Maegor, what do you know of Tywin Lannister?" Harry knew Tywin to be a stern and proud man, not given to flights of fancy and utterly scornful of ineptitude - at least, that's what he had gathered from those who had met him more than once.

"I know he needs to burn," Maegor growled. "And you as well, for refusing me after all I have done for you."

Harry shook his head in exasperation. "Begone, ghost. Go bother Rhaenyra, I'm sure she'd be delighted to see you." Rhaenyra had little respect for her ancestor; he had been killed by the Iron Throne itself, wrists slashed open by blades, and she had been swallowed by a dragon, and her brother's dragon at that. Amongst the ghosts and their macabre culture her gloriously brutal death gave her great status, and she never hesitated to remind Maegor of his pitiful end. Harry was fond of her for the sheer fact that she never bothered him, but he couldn't bare to look upon her, for she was horrible to behold, all charred, blistered flesh with gaping holes and melted bone here and there, her eyes naught but empty black craters. Maegor was a beautiful maiden in comparison, as pretty as Aeryn.

"Don't speak to me of that whore," Maegor grumbled. "She was no dragon, just a bitch playing at one. You are more dragon than she, however watered down your usurper blood is." He leaned closer to Harry. "Why the pretense, boy? Unchain yourself! Take what is yours! Be the dragon that you are."

Harry ignored him, his eyes riveted on the hall ahead. There was a torch at the very end of the hall at an intersection, the flame dim and dying, but for a moment he had seen something move in the flickering shadows. He walked towards the forked path and saw it again, a hazy silhouette floating around the curve, and he broke out into a run. Elia, he thought. "Wait!" he shouted, voice echoing through the halls. "Stop!"

Something drove him to this madness, something inherent in his soul, and he sprinted after a her, a ghost that by all rights might loathe the very sight of him. His footsteps echoed so loudly in the heavy silence of the cellars that he was certain he could be heard on all the floors above. But then there she was, facing the wall, so still that for half a heartbeat he thought her a statue. He announced himself with a tentative, "My lady?" but this wasn't Elia Martell - the ghost was much too short and small. This one is a child. The realization made him feel cold and hollow. "Rhaenys," he breathed, voice as soft as a sigh.

A great sorrow rose up in his chest. He hadn't realized how it would effect him, seeing a child ghost, a soul so broken and tortured that it had turned its back on a blissful eternity. He knew of death, knew its secrets and comforts, and to think that her soul would never pass on to the other side, would always be trapped amongst men, in the realm of the living...

It was distressing, and he found himself sniffling, his vision blurred with unshed tears. He almost laughed at the absurdity. I never cry. Death had been a release, a freedom that living men could only dream of, the last great adventure. Rhaenys would never know that freedom, would never know peace. Not unless he constructed a wand.

She was so very small, more a babe than a child, with black hair to match her mother's. She wore a man's tunic that was covered in blood. So much blood, he thought, bile rising to the back of his throat. There were dozens of cuts and tears in the tunic, some so close together they looked like one big gash. He knew what they were. Stab wounds. He counted half-a-hundred at the least, and disgust swelled in his gut. Stabbed fifty times? That was torture. Surely his father hadn't been privy to this?

"Rhaenys," he said again. He reached out, forgetting in his distress that ghosts were incorporeal. "I mean you no harm..."

The girl turned to face him, and the blue flames died in his palm. Her wide eyes were shadowed with a horrible misery, her chubby cheeks cut to ribbons. The skin hung from her face in fleshy tatters, like so many swaths of pink cloth. He could see her teeth through the gaping wounds.

His stomach turned, roiling in his gut. The taste of bile grew stronger, but he didn't vomit. He wouldn't vomit - he refused to show that weakness. His blood had done this. His grandfather. His father. Maybe he hadn't held the knife, but this girl had died so his father could sit on the throne. So his father could be king. And my mother a queen.

The disgust he felt morphed into something more, something black and twisted. It was a fury unlike any he had ever known, hot and burning and boiling, a rumbling pot of fire. He could hear his teeth grinding, feel his jaws tightening, but he was oddly removed from it all as if he had been separated from himself, detached from form and flesh, dreaming instead of living.

He wished he was dreaming.

"Best leave, boy," Maegor said. "This one's a screamer."

Harry paid Maegor no mind. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "Rhaenys, are you - " But before he could finish, the little dragon princess opened her mouth and screamed.

She screamed and screamed and screamed, without pause, an unceasing and unrelenting cacophony of terror and agony. It cut him to the core; he felt it as a sharp pain in his chest, like a knife to the heart, stabbing and twisting. Her tortured screams surrounded him, deafened him, suffocated him - the room was spinning, the torchlight was dimming and it was cold, so cold he could see his breath, so cold he was shivering, and he had to get away.

He clapped his hands over his ears, but it didn't help - the screams just got louder and louder and louder until he couldn't hear himself think, until it felt as if his head was about to explode, and his own yells joined hers, sharp shouts of disbelief that drowned beneath the waves of her anguished wails.

He turned and ran, ran as if the hounds of hell were at his back, ran as if his life depended on it, ran and ran and ran, trying in vain to escape the screams. He ran past startled maidservants working late into the night, past half-sleep guards standing post outside oaken doors, and still the screams followed him, grasping at his shoulders and snapping at his heels.

They followed him all the way to his chambers, and when he finally crashed, exhausted, they crept into his sleep and haunted his dreams.

Chapter Text

 

Harry walked down a causeway that was shrouded in darkness. Green fire writhed atop the torches that lined the causeway, sending shadows flickering across the slimy black stone. Somewhere in the shadows there was water dripping. Plip, plop, plip.

Harry could see neither the cavern's roof nor its walls; beyond the flickering green the darkness was thick and murky, but here and there something glinted in the black, like the edge of a dagger catching the light just so. The inky lake beneath the causeway was a mirror of black glass, and when he peered into its depths, his face appeared twisted and gaunt.

Plip, plop, plip. Deeper and deeper into the darkness he went, with only the queer green light to see by, the stone slick underfoot, the air damp and stale and sour. For what seemed like hours the shadows stretched, onward and onward, until finally he came upon a girl. She lay splayed across the wet stones, slim and pretty with hair like fire. Her name came to him through the silence. Ginny. Friend, lover, wife. She didn't stir at his approach, and instead lay there limp and lifeless. Her red hair was strewn wildly about her head, and her skin was painted a ghastly green for the light of the torches, as if she were half rotted already.

He knelt beside her and reached out to touch her face. Plip, plop, plip. Her skin was cold and clammy and soft as pudding. He nudged her cheek, shook her shoulder. Nothing. He leaned over her. "Ginny?" He nudged her again.

Then her eyes snapped open and she lurched awake with a shaky jerk. He drew his hand back as if scalded, falling to his buttocks. Her lips parted in a soundless scream, hair and skin and bones twisting and reshaping into something smaller and frailer and darker. The freckles dusting across her face became red furrows of torn flesh and wet blood. Harry scrambled to his feet, then grabbed for his sword and wand. No, not Ginny, he thought. Rhaenys. "Save me," she whispered, voice faint and rasping. "Save me."

Water rippled as the stone beneath his feet began to quake. The great darkness to the front of him parted like a veil, and out came a massive serpent, forked tongue whipping through the air. Plip, plop, plip. The beast gave a great rumbling hiss. Harry gazed into a maw wide enough to swallow him whole twice over, with black fangs like curved swords, dark scales that glinted like daggers in the firelight, and golden eyes that glistened with black malice. Harry knew fear then, and its taste was bleak and bitter. His sword arm grew heavier with every breath, and his wand splintered in his grip. The massive serpent reared up, its head lost in the darkness, then sprouted wide, bat-like wings, grew thick, muscled legs, and gave a roar that sent the cave quaking anew. In the next heartbeat a torrent of liquid fire burst from its maw, the flames so hot they turned the stone molten.

But Rhaenys did not burn, nor did Harry; as solid stone turned liquid, their flesh remained wholly unchanged. The basilisk-dragon morphed once more; the wings melted away and the beast shrunk to the size of an aurochs. Fur grew across its back, and two more heads wet with blood and gristle burst from between its thick shoulders. Claws turned to paws. The roaring fire faded away, vicious snarls and snapping fangs rising to take its place. Frothing at the mouth, eyes alight with madness, the three-headed dog pounced. Dagger like teeth bit deep, ripping and tearing and rending. "Save me!" Rhaenys yelled, screaming, thrashing, dying. "Save me!" She reached out for him. He took her hand -

Harry awoke with a shiver and a shout. The coverlet tangled in his legs was damp with sweat. Only a dream, he thought. Just a dream. But he could still hear her, even now. Her screaming. The echoes of them shattered the silence of his chambers as if it were but glass to be broken. He could still taste the bitter horror in the back of his throat, still hear the water dripping, plip, plop, plip.

The dusty shafts of light slanting through his windows were pale and grey. Harry judged it dawn after gazing out to see the sun just starting its climb into the ashen sky, and began to get dressed. He donned a white tunic with puffy sleeves gathered into a cuff, then a black leather jerkin over that, then dark breeches with cloth-of-gold stripes down the thigh, and knee high black leather boots. But when he looked into the silver mirror propped up against the wall, he didn't see himself - he saw Rhaenys, saw the agony in her eyes and the skin hanging from her face, saw the sins of his father come back to haunt him. He shuddered and tried to rid himself of the sight of her, tried to bury his sadness and revulsion beneath glorious, righteous fury - tried to forget, if only for a few moments, the memory of her mutilated corpse and terrible, piercing screams.

He clung to his fury, held it tight as a shield, but he couldn't forget. He would never forget.

He left his rooms in a rush, barely bothering to close the door behind him. There she was again, in the shadow of an alcove, haunted eyes gazing dully. And there, half hidden behind red drapes, mouth stretching wider and wider, vile black ichor oozing from her lips. He looked down at his hands and saw them covered in dripping blood. Plip, plop, plip. It was her blood.

"Running off to go play with swords?" a familiar voice rang out. Harry near leaped out his boots. He looked up and saw his uncle Jaime coming down the hall. The golden knight was more disheveled than Harry had ever seen him. His pale gold tunic and crimson breeches were wrinkled and there was a pale red wine stain dribbling down his chest. One of his tan doeskin boots was unlaced and his golden hair was in a wild state of disarray.

Harry glanced back down at his hands. The blood was gone. He wondered how many little girls there were like Rhaenys in the Seven Kingdoms, how many children had been murdered before their time, how many sisters and brothers had been butchered for the glory of men. From some place far away he felt his teeth grinding, felt his fingers digging into the palms of his fists. When he looked at his knuckles they were as white as alabaster. Calm yourself, Harry. He let out a long, slow breath, and his posture eased. "No, uncle," he said, letting his hands fall. "I am on my way to break my fast. Sword play comes after, as you well know." He made himself smile. "Are the maids about yet?"

Jaime gave him a long look. "I'm not certain. I've only just awoken. I was heading down to check for myself."

"Walk with me?" Jaime nodded and fell into step beside him. They descended to the first level of the holdfast and crossed the bridge to the keep. The air tasted of rain and earth. Another storm is coming. The courtyard was quiet and still, and the clouds above were grey and swollen.

Harry said nothing for a long while, working in vain to clear his thoughts. It should have been easy - he remembered the lessons from his life before, had dreamed of them - but silencing his emotions only made the image of Rhaenys grow brighter and bolder in his mind, gave her such clarity as if she was standing in front of him. He couldn't ignore that, couldn't deaden himself to that. Send me to Dorne indeed. Elia Martell was Prince Doran's sister... if I were him, if that had been my niece...

But just what would he have done? What could he have done? Justice was a deadly sword, and it took steady hands to wield it. Bloody hands. When the highborn fought, men from the Summer Sea in the south to the Wall in the north went to war, if only because their lord commanded it. Smallfolk perished by the thousands. The millions, even. Could he do it? Could he wage war, could he kill to avenge his loved ones? Could he send men to die to for family? For justice? "Has my father returned?" he asked suddenly, finally breaking his silence. For a crazed second he entertained the idea of actually confronting his father about his part in the deaths of Elia and Rhaenys and little Aegon.

"No. Still out hunting," Jaime replied, his mouth turned up in a grin.

And then the moment passed.

They descended a flight of uneven stairs to a dank passage on the southward side of the keep. The walkway was slick with moisture from the sea, wet, salty wind breezing through the open windows. The torches in the hall burned low, the glow from the dim orange flames whitewashed by the pale light of the sun in its cloudy shroud. They wouldn't be changed for many hours yet, until the sun fell again and darkness reclaimed the sky. Every second window was set with black and gold stained glass sheets that were etched with murals of great battles from the past; the same battles his father and his father's lords glorified in drunken exchanges, the battles that singers wrote ballads about, jaunty sonnets of honor and virtue. How many innocents had suffered in those great battles? How much had been destroyed?

For a brief moment he was overcome with the urge to smash the windows and send them careening down the rugged cliffs of Aegon's High Hill to the Blackwater below.

"Are you worried about the fostering?" his uncle asked. "You needn't be. My father can be demanding - " But Harry shook his head no before Jaime could finish.

"It's not that." He looked up and down the hall and found it empty. There were neither servants nor guards present - only a barren path of stone, dappled by silvery shafts of light. "Can I ask you a question, uncle?" He had seen the way his uncle would tense ever-so-slightly when the men called him Kingslayer. But they were connected, Elia and Rhaenys and Aerys, and he figured Jaime was far safer to ask than his father.

"I can't stop you from asking," the knight said, "but I can refuse to answer. This isn't about girls is it? Because if it is, I'll be no good - best talk to the king -"

"Why did you kill Mad Aerys?" Harry asked in a rush, cutting him off.

Jaime fell silent, and a queer sort of stillness settled over him. He arched one golden brow. "What brought this about?"

"I merely seek the truth, uncle. Why was it you?" Harry stopped walking and leaned against a window, and Jaime, after a moment, mirrored him on the opposite wall. He felt the cool glass press against his back through the thin fabric of his tunic, heard the waves crashing against the craggy slopes far below, horns sounding out in the bay, the ships trumpeting back and forth. "Why did you do it?" he asked again. "My father, your father, even Lord Stark could have killed him. Should have killed him. So why was it you?"

Jaime smiled, and it was sharp as steel. "I did it because he was mad," he said. "He is called the Mad King. But surely you knew that already, nephew?

Harry frowned. He should have known his uncle wouldn't give him a straight answer. Jaime Lannister never made anything easy. "There was more to it than that. There had to be."

"Is this why you wanted me to walk with you? And here I thought you simply enjoyed my company."

"He was insane before the war started," Harry said, disregarding the question. "Some of the servants say he burned a man every night before supper and every morning after breaking his fast."

"So he liked to set things on fire," Jaime replied glibly. "As I said, he was mad."

"But you didn't kill him then. He was mad for a long time, but you didn't kill him until the war." He didn't notice Jaime's face darkening. "Until Lord Tywin brought his army to the city."

"You don't want to hear about the Mad King, my prince. It's a rather depressing subject and you'll be depressed enough under my father's thumb at Casterly Rock."

"Was it for Lord Tywin?" Harry pressed. "I know his men sacked the city... did he order you to kill him? Or was it my father who commanded you?"

Jaime pushed away from the wall with a shake of his head and turned down the corridor. "Leave it alone, Harry." His steps were heavy, and he buzzed with agitation.

But Harry didn't notice, and he wouldn't have cared if he did. All that mattered was the truth. He was certain that he was on the right track; Jaime's non-answers had been proof enough. Something had happened to make his uncle break his vows. And it had to do with Lord Tywin. His father hadn't become king until after Aery's death - he'd had no command over Jaime. "And what of Rhaegar's wife and children. How did they come to die? Which of our fathers ordered -"

"Harry!" Jaime turned on him, almost snarling. "Leave. It. Alone."

Jaime's anger was fierce, but Harry was not be deterred. Not when Rhaenys's battered body haunted his dreams; even now the thought of her summoned her image in the shadows. Her misery wasn't something to be easily forgotten. His uncle's anger meant nothing. "Tell me something," he demanded. "Were they knights?"

Jaime didn't speak for a very long while. Sharp thuds preceded them down the corridors, their boots loud against the stone. Jaime held his silence until they came upon the kitchens. "Yes," he said finally, voice short and curt. "They were knights." And then he pushed the doors to the kitchens open and stepped inside. The rich scent of fresh baked bread billowed out on warm air.

Harry almost scoffed. Of course they were knights. Noble men blessed in a Sept of the Seven, who prayed to the gods, made vows to them, and gained title and lands off the blood of the weak. Noble men who broke their vows with the ease of snapping a twig. What had those men been given? Gold? A castle and a pretty highborn wife?

Harry couldn't fault Jaime for killing the Mad King - he had deserved to die. And for kidnapping Lyanna Stark, Rhaegar too had deserved to face justice. But his sins weren't his wife's sins. They weren't his daughter's. Nor were they his son's. Septon Garth, who held prayers in the castle sept, often said that only the Father and his scales could give the measure of a man; only the Father had the right to pass down judgment. But divine power wasn't necessary to know right from wrong, to see the difference in justified execution and unwarranted murder. Only the Father could judge a man, but Harry didn't believe in the Father. Not quite. If a god existed, it was death. The Stranger.

And was he not the Stranger's instrument? Death had taken him in its cold arms and ushered him into a new life. Oh, the things he could do! There had to be a reason why he knew what he knew, why he alone could reshape reality, why he had been blessed with an eternal soul; why death did not lay claim to him as it laid claim to countless others. If his purpose was not to change the world, to avenge the weak and protect the defenseless, to live and love as he had always lived and loved, then what? And the price for such a revolution...

It would be a heavy toll indeed.

Surely his purpose was not to sit in a castle somewhere and grow fat and old with a wife and dozens of bawling babes. He wanted a family yes... but there was so much more he could do. He was a wizard. The Chosen One... the Master-of-Death. But could he do it? Could he pass the ultimate judgment? Was it the right thing to do, or merely the easy thing?

The right thing, or the easy thing... The thought unraveled a twisted thread of memories. The knot came loose, and like feathers floating on the wind, hazy memories drifted up to the forefront of his thoughts. A voice sounded in his mind's eye. Dumbledore's voice. It is our choices that define us... and the time will come when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.

Noon found him in the outer ward, watching the other men drill. His lessons with Ser Aron had long since ended for the day. The sun beat down from high in the sky, and salty wind swept through the bailey. Harry was leaning against the wooden post, one muddy boot propped up on its lowest rung. Sandor was in the ring now, trouncing yet another knight. Steel clanged mightily between them in a ringing clamor, and they grunted at every sharp note.

Sandor was a terrible sight to behold. He was tall and thick with muscle, and half of his face was little more than a gnarled web of wicked, twisting scars. The pocked skin was charred black and the white of his bones shown where the skin had been burned off completely. The wound oozed red when he grimaced, and he happened to grimace often. He was hideous, more monster than man, and his abrasive personality made his wounds all the more noticeable.

Harry wasn't the only one watching. Lady Elia was present, was always present; she watched Sandor from within the shadows of the barracks, unmoved by wind and men alike. There was Jaime standing off to his side, cloaked in white, and there, in a sleeveless black leather brigandine, was Ser Aron, bejeweled beard as golden as ever. Joffrey, surprisingly, was watching as well. He sat on the post beside Jaime, his doublet and breeches dirtied from dust. Allar Deem, a goldcloak - the nastiest of the bunch, according to Aeryn - stood on the other side of the fence, and the frog faced Janos Slynt was with him, both in the black ringmail of the City Watch. Other such men stood with them, men whose names Harry didn't care to learn. They were betting on the matches, and it seemed the round-bodied Janos was winning. His heavy jowls bounced as he chortled at Allar's misfortune.

There were other sers present as as well - the portly drunkard, Ser Dontos; the shaggy haired and barrel-chested Ser Andar of the Vale, who's beard was as thick as the hair on his head; the dark skinned Lothor, who's oily skin was marked with dozens of thin white scars; and half a dozen others. All of them save the squires had tried their swords against Sandor, and all of them had fallen. The song of steel came to a shrieking end, and another knight, bruised and battered, limped from the ring and joined their number.

"Is this all King's Landing has to offer?" Sandor thundered. He looked around the ring at the crowd of men, face twisted in a scowl. "What of you, Kingslayer?" He pointed to Jaime with his sword. "Will you face me?"

"Ser Jaime," Harry said. He did not shy away from Sandor's narrowed grey eyes when the man wheeled around to face him. He didn't so much as blink. "His name is Ser Jaime, and you will refer to him as such." He glanced at his uncle out the corner of his eye, but Jaime didn't look his way.

Sandor chuckled. It was a rough sound, like grinding rocks. "Of course, my prince." Then he turned back to Ser Jaime. "Well, Ser Jaime?" He spat out ser as if it were a title to be scorned instead of admired. Harry couldn't find it in himself to fault him for his disdain.

Jaime was unaffected though. "A lion does not lower itself to fight with dogs," he said. He spoke as if Sandor was foolish for even asking. A few men laughed, but they quickly fell silent under Sandor's heated glare as he spun about, his thin hair whipping around his head. Most of the men present had fallen against him. If Sandor was but a dog then they were much less.

"You're just as much a dog as I am, Kingslayer," Sandor said. Then his eyes found Harry's, and his ugly face widened in a baleful smile. "Excuse me, my prince. Ser Jaime." But the words might as well have been the same - the insult was still there, woven in the harsh tone of his voice. He looked back to Jaime. "The King says jump, and you say how high."

Jaime didn't even bother scowling at Sandor. He merely laughed, no more than a light chuckle, and smiled his sharp smile.

Sandor spat, and his brow knuckled. "All these Lords, all these knights, and no one will face me?" He spat again. "Craven cunts, the lot of you." Then he took three steps, placed one hand against the highest rung of the fence, and vaulted clean over the wood. "Bloody fucking sers." He moved to stand at Joffrey's back.

Ser Aron spoke up. "Prince Joffrey, Prince Harry, mayhaps you would grace us with a showing?" He glanced at each of them. "We've seen enough of old men waving swords, and as instructor for the both of you, I would see who has best absorbed my lessons." He waved them into the ring.

Harry climbed between the posts as Joffrey pushed off from his seat, a smirk on his face. The betting men had moved on when Sandor left the ring, migrating back to the eastern barracks in packs of two and three. Soon, Harry thought, they would begin their shifts.

The clouds were blowing south west, towards the Blackwater river, and the sun was slowly sliding free of them, a warm orange light trickling from beneath the brume. Ser Aron gave Harry and Joffrey both wooden swords and padded doublets to wear. "Fight well." Then he stepped back to observe from the fence, and when they were ready, he barked, "Begin!"

Joffrey attacked immediately, rushing at Harry and thrusting his blade to skewer him through. Harry loosed a sideswing that swept the thrust wide, and quick as a cat, he yanked his blade back and whacked Joffrey across his forearm. He followed with an overhand strike, but Joffrey's blade managed to fall in the way. He came again from the left, then the right, then overhand again, gaining ground with each stroke. He pushed the pace, salvos becoming more direct, more vicious, every cut faster than the last.

Joffrey stumbled beneath the weight of an overhand slash, his arm buckled on the next, and he dropped his sword on the third. The fourth crashed into his knuckles. Joffrey yelped, bringing his hand back to his chest, and Harry reared back and punched him in the face.

It felt good.

The blow sent Joffrey reeling, but Harry backed away and allowed his reddening brother to reclaim his sword. He didn't do it because he was feeling chivalrous, but because he knew Ser Aron would call and end to their match if Joffrey had no sword.

"You're quite good at this brother," Joffrey said, scowling, nose flaring. His cheek was an angry red, and he spoke in a sharp hiss. "Good enough to maybe serve on my Kingsguard when I become king." When Harry stepped closer, he shuffled away, keeping his sword between them.

"I cannot be a member of your Kingsguard," Harry returned. "I am to be Lord of Casterly Rock." And even if he wasn't heir to Casterly Rock, he would never serve on Joffrey's Kingsguard.

"True," Joffrey said, giving Harry's sword a tentative smack. "But if I will it so... well, who are you to deny your king?"

"I am a prince," Harry answered, voice hard. "By the time you are King, I will also be Warden of the West. The Westerlands are bigger than the Crownlands, I've heard. The Westerlands are also richer."

Joffrey scowled. "And as my vassal, all that is yours will be mine as well." His face changed, lightened, and Harry grew wary. Joffrey edged closer, but looked ready to bolt at the slightest moe. His voice was so quiet Harry had to strain to hear. "Too bad Myrcella won't be going with you." His fiendish smile grew into alarm, however, as he shuffled away from Harry's sudden thrust. "Don't worry brother," Joffrey said as he danced away from another attack. "I'll take good care of her."

Images of Rhaenys flashed across Harry's mind; her ruined flesh, her blackened eyes, her pained face as she screamed and screamed and screamed. She morphed into Myrcella, her blonde curls lank and thin, her face ripped from steel, her body wet with blood. He felt his stomach drop, and his heart quickened to an almost feverish pace. It sounded loud in his ears, like the pulsing beat of war drums. "She's your sister," he growled, breath suddenly short. He spared a glance at the onlookers, but none appeared privy to their conversation - they hadn't heard Joffrey.

"Yes, unfortunately." Joffrey sounded disappointed. "But," and his wormy mouth spread again into a wicked grin, "that whore of yours isn't my sister."

Harry grew angrier still. He tried to calm his mind with long, deep breaths, but he felt the heat building all the same. The air warmed, grew stifling, and he felt sweat run down his face. "Watch your mouth, Joffrey. She isn't a whore."

"She isn't a whore yet," Joffrey amended, beyond pleased. "Don't look so upset, Harry! I'll leave her in one piece for you." He looked thoughtful. "Or pieces, depending on how I feel."

Harry charged Joffrey like a raging aurochs. Anger fueled him, gave him strength and speed that belied his size and youth. Joffrey was ill-prepared for the ferocity of his assault, and took vicious blows to his chest and his ribs, only barely managing to avoid a backswing that would've surely knocked him out, if not unburdened him of a few teeth.

Joffrey looked furious, trying to hide his pain with a scowl. "But I'll have her first," he continued, "again, and again, and again, and when I'm done I'll feed her corpse to pigs. Or maybe - "

Harry moved faster still, his fury from the morning bleeding over into his disgust and anger with his brother. He swung his sword with such strength that in one stroke he ripped Joffrey's blade clean from his hands - unarmed, Joffrey could do little to defend himself from what followed. Blows rained down upon him like droplets in a storm and he fell beneath the sheer number of them, arms curled over his head to shield his face.

From somewhere far away, Harry thought he heard someone begging him to stop. He paid the voice no mind. "Touch her," he said, voice quiet, barely above a whisper, "touch either of them, and I will end you. This I swear, before all the Gods, old and new." Then he smashed Joffrey's face with the flat of his blade, and the begging stopped. Harry reared back to strike again, but something barreled into him and knocked him from his feet. The thick cloud of anger that had dulled his senses began to dissipate. Ser Aron appeared above him.

He was beyond disappointed - it was plain to see from the look on his face. "My prince..." He looked about to say more, but something he saw in Harry's face made him draw short.

"Don't," Harry said. His temper hadn't fully abated, not yet, and still bubbled deep in the pit of his stomach. He climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. "Tend to Joffrey."

Ser Aron moved to assist Joffrey, but the heir to the throne was out cold. Ser Aron had to slap him awake, but when the knight went to help Joffrey find his feet, the blonde prince pushed him away, scowling at Harry as he stood. His face was an angry red, and his jaw had already started to swell.

"You'll pay for this brother," he spat, spittle dribbling from his mouth. He turned and left the ring, his gait even, his back tall and straight. For all his vileness, he looked the part of a prince.

But a King needed more than looks. Far more.

Harry departed the confines of the training yard after a quick tongue lashing from Ser Aron. His dornish accent was strong when he was angry, and his words seemed to blend together, so much so that Harry could scarcely understand him. It was the angriest he had ever seen the dornishman, but Harry wasn't fazed. There were far more terrible things to be angry about.

Do you know what happened to Elia? he had thought as Ser Aron berated him. She was Dornish, just like you. He hadn't voiced his thoughts, however, and had barely even acknowledged Ser Aron's words. In his mind, his actions were justified, regardless of his brother being the future king. As he climbed through the posts to exit the yard a shadow fell over him. He looked up into Sandor's scarred face.

"That wasn't a very nice thing to do to your brother," he said in his deep, gruff voice. He looked Harry in the eye when he spoke, daring him to cringe away from his grotesque face.

Harry was unimpressed; he had seen far worse burns. "Do you and your brother do nice things to each other?"

"My brother doesn't know the meaning of nice." His voice was heavy with vitriol. He turned away from Harry to follow in Joffrey's wake.

Harry walked after him, jogging to keep up with Sandor's long stride. His mail clanked with each step, sword slapping his thigh as he walked. They passed a granary made of stone and wood, laden with oats from farms across the Crownlands. Birds congregated near the top of the stout building, had made homes on the sloped roof and stained the blackened stone with excrement. A group of servants - boys not yet men grown - with but one bow between them, stood around the granary, taking turns shooting arrows at the birds. Every time an arrow sailed past, the birds would flutter about, caw indignantly, and land back on the shit stained roof. "Did you take part in the Sack of King's Landing?" Harry asked Sandor.

Then he saw Elia moving away from the shadows of the barracks, drifting right through the group of boys. They each shivered as she passed through them, and the one holding the bow lost his grip on the wood. She fell in step beside Harry, her haunting eyes boring holes into Sandor's skull, as if she could kill him by sight alone. She didn't so much as spare Harry a glance.

"No," Sandor said. "I was serving at Casterly Rock when the lions took the city."

"And what of your brother, Gregor?" He noticed Sandor stiffen at the name. Elia too. "He was here during the Sack, wasn't he?" Elia looked at him finally, a sharp look, but Harry didn't return her attention.

"What does it matter?" Sandor asked, voice gruffer than before. "That was before your time."

"I'm interested in history," Harry replied, not missing a beat. "And battles," he added after a moment.

"That was no battle," Sandor spat. "It was a massacre. Your knights ransacked the city, raped and killed everyone they came across. Women, men... even children."

"They aren't my knights." Not his knights, but knights nonetheless. Faithless men. Worthless men, save for the might of their swords. Only ranks and titles separate knights and broken men, he thought.

"They will be," Sandor returned. "You're the heir to Casterly Rock, aren't you?"

Elia's gaze sharpened further. Her eyes were like knives, cutting into him. "Not yet," Harry replied, but he was looking at Elia. He studied her crushed neck and her beautiful, bruised face, all the rips and tears in the front of her skirts and the blood that stained her gown from chest to thigh. His pace slowed to a crawl as his eyes roved over her. Eventually he came to a stop. Sandor continued on, leaving Harry alone.

Alone with Elia.

"It was Gregor, wasn't it?" he said quietly. It wasn't hard to figure out, now that he knew Sandor hadn't been the culprit.

"So it's true. You can see me." She looked at him as one would look at a particularly interesting insect.

"Did he... did he kill Rhaenys too?" he asked, indifferent to the derision in her eyes. He was far more affected by the look of her, beautiful but battered, once olive skin paled by death, marred with angry red splotches and thick purple bruises.

"A dog mauled me," she said, "but it was a manticore that took my daughter." The dog is Gregor, Harry thought. 'But who is the manticore? She leaned closer; too close. "But why do you care?" She tilted her head as she studied him. "Will you kill them, little lion?" There was a strange lilt to her voice, a faux sweetness that was more chilling than outright anger. "Will you kill the men who murdered me and mine?"

"I'm of House Baratheon," Harry replied. "A stag, not a lion." She was very badly bruised, and up close, he could make out each abrasion. "A stag," he said again.

"Whorespawn of the Usurper you may be," she spat, "you're a lion at heart." She put a hand on his head and it sunk through his face, her touch so cold that it burned. "A little black lion, with hair like your father and eyes like your mother." She smiled, but it was twisted, full of loathing. "Twice cursed by the Gods." Her voice lowered, grew soft, and he had to strain to hear her. "You're younger than my Aegon would've been."

She tried and failed to trace the dimples in his cheeks, eyes lost in remembrance. She had no substance, no solidity; there was only coldness, and Harry felt it burrow to the pit of his stomach and knife into the soles of his feet. He weathered it when he could have moved away - should have moved away - but a twisted sense of obligation kept him rooted to the spot. This was the price for his father's kingdom. This woman died so his father could sit on the throne - he could stand her cold essence for a few moments.

"Are you going to avenge me, little lion? Avenge my children?"

"If I can," he said, nonplussed. Elia was nothing how he had imagined... but at the same time, she was everything he had feared after meeting Rhaenys. She was only a woman, but she had been wronged by the world and was twisted in death, locked in a perpetual haze of hatred. How long had she haunted the keep and stalked its shadows, waiting for a glimpse of the man who had killed her? He had expected a lady, wrought with sadness, only driven to anger when gazing upon her killer, but he had be wrong. Her anger was not an occasional thing - it was what tethered her to the living realm. It was ongoing and unceasing. Eternal. "It's wrong, what happened to you," he began, but Elia cut him off with a shrill screech.

'"Wrong? Wrong? WRONG?!" Her face darkened with rage, and as her lips parted, Harry saw the gaps in her teeth where they had been knocked out. "Wrong, little lion, is being humiliated, or robbed, or cheated. What happened to me was far from wrong."

"Poor choice of words," he said, trying to placate her. She was so loud. He forgot, for a moment, that he alone could see and hear her, forgot that her voice was, in truth, only as loud as silence. "How could I avenge you?"

"Awww, the little lion wants to avenge me." Her voice was sickeningly sweet, like lemon cakes drenched in syrup. Her face contorted again, rage written in every bruise, and her jaw seemed to stretch as she yelled, "Kill your father! Kill your grandfather! Kill every dog, and every stag, and every lion!" Then all at once she calmed, and her voice grew solemn. "Kill everything they hold dear - everything you hold dear. Kill them and smile at their corpses."

Harry was aghast. He should have known better - no ghost of the Red Keep was pleasant. "I'm sorry, truly I am, but I cannot do that."

She scoffed. "Then why are you here, little lion?"

He had been wondering that himself for some time now. The answer came swift to the forefront of his mind. To be great.

Chapter Text

 

The sky was just starting to grey with the coming of night when the king returned to the keep. Two days had passed since Harry had left his father in the Kingswood.

The young prince watched the king ride in from Lord Jon's audience chamber in the Tower of the Hand. The king was flanked by two of his kingsguard, and trailed by the few lords and knights who had remained behind for the entirety of the hunt. There was Ser Barristan and Ser Mandon, both armored in the pure white of the kingsguard, and behind them came Ser Kevan, Ser Strongboar, Thoros, and near a dozen others.

"My father has returned," Harry announced without looking away from the window.

Jon Arryn was sitting at his desk at the far end of the room, quill scratching away at the parchment, back hunched and head bowed low. His eyes weren't what they used to be, for all that he was hale and hearty for such an old man.

The prince looked beyond his father's party to the city behind the battlements.

He could see nearly all of King's Landing sprawled outside the arched window, saw chimneys belching plumes of black smoke above the Street of Steel. There were birds swarming in the skies, gray pigeons and white-blue seagulls, their calls rising over the gentle din of the city. The falcon he'd just released circled high overhead, half in the clouds and angling lower with each revolution. In the distance, the seven crystal towers of the Great Sept thrust up from Visenya's Hill like a cluster of bone white trees. The stench wasn't so great up here, and the falling sun, half-shrouded behind creeping clouds, seemed close enough to pluck from the sky, like an apple from a tree.

Harry braced himself against the window ledge, leaned forward, and felt cool wind curl about his face and whip through his hair. Oh, but if only he could fly! Would that he could take the falcon's form and soar through the skies-

"Careful, Harry," warned Lord Jon after some time had passed. "I would hate for those poor ladies milling about outside the tower to see you fall to your death." The Vale lord had a rough, smoky voice, and a hint of a lisp from his missing teeth.

Harry lingered in the breeze then stepped away from the window with a laugh. The falcon tucked his wings and cut into a sharp dive. Harry could imagine the wind roaring in his ears. Wicked talons glinted in the falling sun as the falcon snatched a pigeon in mid-flight. He thought he heard the faintest cry as the pigeon was crushed by the impact.

Lord Jon cracked a smile, but never once looked up from his work. "How does he fly?"

The chamber was quiet, save for the steady scratch of his quill, and the gentle crackle of the flames that were flickering about the braziers and torches. Harry had watched the old lord write so much that his own hand gave phantom twinges of pain. "Like the air," Harry said wistfully. "He flies like the air."

The room Lord Jon used to conduct his business in was rather small in comparison to the other vast chambers in the Hand's Tower. Four stone columns dominated the room, with torches ensconced on all fours sides of each column that cast warm orange light to near every corner of the room. There was one arched window in the curving wall; as Harry stepped away from it, the falcon landed on the sill, his kill dangling from his beak. Green flashed in his golden eyes.

Lord Jon's great oaken desk was the largest piece of furniture, dark brown with a hint of red, like blood that had splashed across a tree trunk and dried in the bark. In the center of the floor lay a tapestry with the blue and white falcon and moon pattern of the Arryn coat of arms.

"Do you remember what you said to me," Harry began, "that day I snuck off to the Kingswood? About Joffrey and I?"

The scratch of quill to parchment let up as Lord Jon dipped his quill into the ink pot sitting at his desk. "I remember what I said. Every word, in fact." Finally, he stopped writing altogether. The old lord set his quill down and leaned back in his chair to look upon Harry with eyes as sharp as any falcon's. The leather creaked as he moved. "Something is on your mind, I imagine? Well, go on boy. No doubt, now that your father has returned, he'll call for a feast, and that'll be hours more I will be unable to do my duties to the realm. So," and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the oaken table, "out with it."

Harry took a deep breath and said, "You alluded to the fact that it's possible that I might become king."

The lord nodded. "I did."

"Were you just talking, or was there some merit to your words?" He found his thoughts turning, as they oft did, to his place in this world, and the cause of his resurrection.

"My words always have merit, and you'll do well not to forget." He waited until Harry nodded before continuing. "And in that particular instance, I was quite serious in what I said. The king and I both recognize something in you, something more. You have an uncanny understanding of concepts men thrice your age struggle with, for all that you are reckless and brash. You would make a fine king, I think, with the proper guidance. Finer than most."

"Fine enough to pass over Joffrey?"

"Possibly. If your brother should continue to prove inadequate for the task, then yes. Fine enough to pass over Joffrey. Despite that terrible temper of yours." Lord Jon's furrowed brow shared enough of his opinion of Harry's temper.

Harry shrugged. "I am my father's son."

"Aye," Lord Jon agreed, cracking a toothless smile. "Your mother's too."

Harry was silent for a while. He knew that he was meant for some great challenge, some impossible task, felt it in his bones and his blood, and yet, "I'm not sure I want to be king. I would, if it was asked of me, if the people of the realm needed me, but…" He trailed off, eyes falling to the floor. He had only recently started to give thought to what that might really mean to be king; since that day before the hunt, when he'd prayed in the Great Sept with that crone.

Was it truly feasible, in light of his magical nature? The sheer scrutiny his father faced, the snakes that coiled about him, watching, waiting, scrambling for power and influence. With his gifts, he was singularly suited to the task of discerning truths from amongst the muck of lies.

How they would fear him, if they knew…

"Just as well," Lord Jon continued, "your father might name you Hand when you come of age, to rule the realm for your brother when he is named King."

Harry scoffed and set his thoughts aside. "The moment he sits his pasty arse on that ugly throne, Joffrey will cut off his Hand for a new one."

"Perhaps," Lord Jon allowed. "Or maybe, by then, he'll have matured enough to see the value in peaceful and amicable relations with his brother." His blue eyes turned hard. "I'd thought you suitably mature, once upon a time."

"…And you don't, now? Because of what I did to Joffrey?"

"Because you haven't apologized. Because you haven't acknowledged the folly of humiliating your brother. Because you attacked him so fiercely in the first place! Anger can be necessary, to put fear in those who might rise against you, but it must be tempered with caution. Do not allow yourself to be governed by your anger, boy. It will ruin you."

"I will never apologize. Not to him. What he said was unforgivable—"

There came a knock at the door. Harry, at Lord Jon's wordless, hand waving gesture, opened it. A gaggle of serving women stood outside, three young maids and one old crone. They swarmed him as flies might swarm a half-eaten apple left outside, hemming and hawing at him all at once.

"His Grace has called for a feast," one of them said. "Her Grace sent us to fetch you," said another. "We're to take you directly to your chambers," chimed in a third. "There'll be a ball too," said the first. "And lots of lovely ladies to dance with," sang the second, swooning. "His Grace killed a bear!" exclaimed the third.

Harry stared.

"Are you alright, my prince?" asked the fourth. She was the oldest, Tansy, one of the serving woman who used to change his swaddling when he was a babe. With the sort of familiarity born from cleaning someone's arse of shit, the old crone pressed the back of her wrinkled hand to Harry's forehead, checking for fever.

A confused second passed before the prince frowned and stepped back; he went to close the door in their faces, just to have a moment to collect himself, but he felt a hand at his back pushing him out into the corridor.

"Best be on your way, my prince," said Lord Jon. When Harry looked back at him, the old codger was smiling. "We will continue our discussion later. On the morrow, perhaps? I imagine I will be disposed after the feast. I'll have the falcon prepared for gifting to your sister."

"Thank you, Lord Jon."

"No thanks necessary. Now off with you."

The heavy oaken door closed behind Harry with a resounding thud.

The frazzled group harried him towards his apartments, chattering about the dishes that would be served, which lady would wear what gown, whether this knight fancied that lady, and if Prince Joffrey's bruises would have faded in time for the feast. That particular conversation came to a sudden halt when one of them chanced a look at Harry's frowning visage, and the talk steered back towards matters of fashion, food, and love.

Harry rather thought they would better serve elsewhere. There was no need to herd him to his rooms like some hapless cow. He knew the way to Maegor's Holdfast just fine.

They descended the spiraling steps of the Hand's Tower in a rush, then spilled out into the inner courtyard.

Harry saw men conversing in the bailey as he walked, most all with a sword at their hips, clad in lordly finery of various colors and cuts. The booming voice of one particular ser caught his attention as he passed, the men around him laughing raucously.

The voice belonged Ser Strongboar. The knight of House Crakehall was near a foot taller than all the men around him, and heavily muscled like a hero of old. His surcoat was emblazoned with a brown and white brindled boar.

There were women about as well, all in long, flowing gowns, who huddled around the limestone benches and strolled through the lush gardens, their braided hair decorated with flowers and jewels. They hailed him as he passed, but he could do little more than wave in return - the servants allotted him time for nothing else, obsequious but insistent.

"Please, Prince Harrold," old Tansy begged. Her face was square and wrinkled, and her black hair was peppered with gray. "The queen bade us hurry."

Of course she did, Harry thought with a frown.

The halls were crowded with smatterings of people; lords, ladies, and servants alike. A group of courtiers lounged in an alcove that was brightened by waning sun and rising fire, old men all, their backs hunched with age. He passed a gathering of his father's favored drinking men; two older knights, their glory days long passed, Thoros, who he greeted with a nod, and the colorful exiled Summer Prince, Jalabhar Xho, his goldenheart bow held tight in his black fist. He noticed Jaime and two others of the Kingsgaurd - Ser Blount, the cur, and the short, blond Ser Preston - assembled in the well-lit chamber that opened up to the holdfast where the serving maids made their departures.

Meron met him outside his chambers. When he entered he saw that his faithful servant had already set out an outfit: a black tunic with puffed sleeves that were embroidered with gold vines, and tight black satin breeches.

Harry took his time dressing, stripping down to his underclothes with almost reverent care. Meron had also set out a bowl and cloth for him to wash with, and wash he did, scrubbing away the dust and grime from his earlier exertions.

Romelda the Maid, a slight, brown-haired woman whose stomach was rounding with child, came to his rooms as he was dressing - no doubt sent by his mother - with a comb and brush to set his wavy hair to rights. The freckled woman braided the hair that hung aside his face in two thick ropes and tied them together at the back of his head, letting the rest hang free to fall about his shoulders. She tried to decorate his hair with golden flakes, but his glare stopped her.

He would entertain some of his mother's fancies, but not all.

Harry left his rooms and exited the holdfast to find Ser Barristan waiting for him at the bridge.

"You're a few minutes late, my prince," the old knight told him as they crossed over and made their way to the Great Hall.

Harry gave a long suffering sigh. "A prince arrives precisely when he needs to Ser Barristan, you know that."

Ser Barristan gave a throaty laugh, but he sobered quickly. "I heard tale of your match with Joffrey," he said. "You needn't have humiliated him the way you did. You're made of finer things than that." He looked down at Harry and the years that shone through his eyes made his gaze as heavy as a ship's anchor. "But you're allowed a few missteps here and there, I should think. Most every boy has a temper."

The knight knew him well. It was his father's blood, Ser Barristan had once told him, that gave him his temper. But then he had thought a second longer and said that perhaps his passion was born of both his parents. He had been laughing as he said it. In that, he and Lord Jon were of one accord.

"I shouldn't have let him goad me," Harry allowed. "But I'm not sorry. I won't apologize."

"And I would not ask it of you. He must've done something quite foul, to rile you up like that. Ser Aron said you would've beat him worse had he not stopped you."

"It wasn't just what Joffrey said," he admitted. "I've other things on my mind as well. Not the fostering," he added, before Ser Barristan could suggest it. "I'm just... worried about the future. About my place in..." He waved his arms wide. "This." King's Landing. Westeros. The world.

"Worried? Do you foresee some great conflict?" The old knight laughed again, a warm sound that made Harry think of flames crackling in a hearth. "Clear your mind of worries, my prince. Erase all doubts. You're but one and ten, not yet old enough to call yourself a man. You've years before you."

They came upon the Great Hall, flanked on the left by a train of servants who were carrying trays laden with foodstuffs through the open doors. Harry tasted garlic in the air, inhaled the aroma of onions and spices, meats and vegetables, and sweet honey and jams. A steady murmur of voices seeped out of the hall.

"One day your path will open before you." Ser Barristan patted his shoulder. "One is opening before you now - you need only walk it." He smiled and the lines around his eyes deepened. "I believe you capable, as you well know."

His path. His destiny. They were one and the same. Mayhaps Ser Barristan had the right of it. He couldn't help but wonder as to his future, but instead of worrying about it, perhaps it was best to simply let it come. Destiny had a way of working like that.

Ser Barristan spoke again. "The King's Hand has no small measure of personal interest invested in your growth. Trust me; old men like us know these things. Whatever challenges lie ahead in your life, you will be able to face them." The old knight paused and took a breath. "Lord Tywin is a harsh man," he said, "but he is gifted in administration and nigh impossible to impress. It was he who deigned to name you his heir. Chose you over Lord Tyrion, over his brother, over his nephews. He chose you, the grandson who he knows only though secondhand accounts. Imagine how glowing those accounts must be, for him to name you his heir? Be only that for now - the heir to Casterly Rock. Worry not of shadows waiting to pounce in distant times."

Ser Barristan had quite a lot of faith in him, he realized. He would endeavor to prove it well founded.

With that thought, he entered the Great Hall. The room was thick with bodies, and the air was heavy with a thousand fagrances, lavender, lemon, jasmine, to say nothing of the food.

The hall was perhaps a third full. There was Lord Jon and his wife, the Lady Arryn. Below the dais was the Small Council, and Ser Kevan and his retinue; Sers Lyle the Strongboar; Harwick of the knightly House Vikary; Peter of House Plumm; Wenfryd of House Yew, and their squires, those funny boys he had met during the hunt, most all of them draped in the colors of their houses, sigils emblazoned upon chest and back. Marvell stood at his shoulder, and gave Harry a nod when the prince glanced at them. The plain-faced Ser Wenfryd, a fine archer if he ever knew one, bore the arms of House Yew, a golden longbow on white between two red flanches. Ser Peter, thick bodied and barrel-chested, was clad in the purple and gold of his House, much like his nephew and squire, Herbert. Harwick, descendant of Reyne bastards he had heard Sandor mock, bore the white and red of his house, his broad chest covered with a quartered sigil; a red boar on white and a silver lion rampant regardant on red, beneath a gold bend sinister. Bertram made a face at Harry as if to convey a sense of suffering for being in his knight's presence. Quenten, standing with Ser Kevan, scowled at everything and everyone.

There were the lords and ladies of Chyttering, Rykker, Rosby, Mallery, Massey and dozens more still, and their retinues as well, all clothed in lively finery of varying qualities and styles. Their silk and satin gowns were scented with lemon and jasmine, their velvet doublets were decorated with sweeping patterns, and their vests were woven of gold and bronze and silver threads.

Harry walked the length of the plush red carpet, a row of massive vined columns rising on either side of him, to stand before the raised dais and the throne.

His father looked down on him with a jolly smile, crown tilted just so. His black doublet was decorated with dark gems. The thousands of swords that framed him, black and rusted from age, seemed poised as if to cut him to ribbons. When Harry saw his father he thought of Elia's words. Smile at the bodies. What had she meant?

His mother stood just beside the throne. Her hair was inlaid with crimson rubies and was woven about her head like some sort of fantastical halfhelm. She was magnificently beautiful, as beautiful as he had ever seen her, and her hair shined like spun gold. His darling sister, Myrcella, stood beside her and looked much the same. The gold satin fabric of her gown and skirts was set with pearls. Joffrey stood off nearer the wall side with Sandor at his back, and he too looked regal, clad in the colors of both their mother and father; his red velvet doublet was slashed with black and flecked with gold, and he wore striped black breeches.

The king, upon Harry reaching the dais, stood up from the throne. He waved a meaty hand a hush settled slowly over the room. He announced the fostering at Casterly Rock to the assembled courtiers, joked that his blood would rule from the Stormlands in the south to the Westerlands in the west, and perhaps in the Vale of Arryn as well.

At the king's proclamation, the queen's face turned to granite, became hard and unforgiving, her displeasure apparent in the tightness of her lips and jaw. Lord Jon, however, was pleased with Robert's words, and his wrinkled face spread in a smile. The gathered nobility clapped politely, applauding as if they truly cared. He heard Ser Strongboar's booming voice proclaim that the "Black Prince" had become a golden one, heard him joke to his fellow knights that they need now devise a new name for Joffrey.

Harry hadn't known that they called him such.

They dined in splendor. Instead of one large table the hall was decked with dozens of smaller weirwood tables that were painted with molten copper. There was such suckled pig as to feed an army, and honeyed duck too, along with river pike poached in almond milk, roasted fowl crusted with herbs and fiery spices, all manner of soups and stews, and sweet bread baked to a fine crisp. They had wine enough to drown a thousand men - a golden vintage from the arbor - and mead and ale as well. Even Harry had a few cups, felt the sweet wine burn in his stomach and muddle his thoughts. Good, that, for it enabled him to enjoy himself in ways he otherwise wouldn't.

He reveled in the affair, tried to enjoy what might be his last grand meal in King's Landing, ignoring, just for a while, the heavy thoughts that weighed on his mind. He spoke with most every lord that he knew, complimented their ladies no matter how old or fat, and when the time came for dancing, he and Myrcella twirled around the floor as if mad, laughing all the while. He worried for her, worried fiercely, and as he was pulled away to dance with his mother, her golden gown shimmering in the fire light, he saw Joffrey glaring at him from beside a great brazier. The flames flickering aside him made shadows amble across his face.

Harry glared right back.

"You must apologize to your brother, sweetling," his mother said softly. He could barely hear her over the music.

"I'm sorry mother, but I cannot. I'd sooner..." He cast about for something suitably grim. "I'd sooner cut off my own foot than apologize to him."

"Harry!" she exclaimed, tone admonishing. She stilled, looked down at him with pursed lips, and tucked her hand beneath his chin to lift his eyes to meet hers. Her fingers were cold. "You will apologize to your brother."

Harry scowled. "I will not. He threatened my sister, and he threatened my… friend." Thrice now he'd been pushed to apologize. He wondered if the question would come a fourth time.

Cersei's gaze turned shrewd and one of her finely sculpted eyebrow arched ever so slightly. "That's not what he told me," she said. "So which of you is lying?"

Harry was affronted and it showed on his face, for Cersei's features lightened. "Have you ever known me to lie, mother?"

She graced him with a gentle smile and grasped his hands, then began dancing anew. The tune was slow, and the dance involved such twirling as to make the room spin. "You've certainly omitted truths before, but I've never known you to lie, not to me." She looked about for Joffrey and found him dancing with one of Lord Renfred's doe-eyed daughters. "He said you threatened to kill him," she said when she turned her gaze back to Harry.

"I did."

She sighed. "No, no, no, my love. You shouldn't say such things; not to your brother, not even in anger. There are none so accursed as the kinslayer." Her eyes searched his face and saw not a hint of regret. "You feel such a threat was justified?"

"Mother," Harry complained, "he threatened Myrcella. Myrcella."

She dismissed his concerns with a shake of her head. "Fret not my bold little lion. No harm will befall Myrcella. I'm sure whatever he said was said in jest - in poor taste, perhaps, but in jest nonetheless. Joffrey wouldn't harm family."

Harry wasn't so sure, but he knew better than to try and convince his mother of that. She was more enamored with Joffrey than she was with him. She never gave Joffrey the odd, heavy looks she gave him, and she was delighted by his cruel brand of willfulness. But Joffrey didn't bear her affections as Harry did; he pushed her away more oft than not.

"And what of my friend?" He stood on his tip-toes and spun her about.

"The whore, you mean?"

He opened his mouth to protest, brow furrowed in anger - she was not a whore, wouldn't be, if he should have anything to say about it, her ribald jokes aside - but his mother pressed her finger to his lips and shushed him.

"Whore, whore's daughter, there is very little difference." She lifted her hand and stroked his hair. "You and he are not so different, my love. Both so willful..."

"We're as alike as night and day," returned Harry, resolute in his conviction.

And how did everyone know who Aeryn was? He could admit to himself that he had done a terrible job covering his tracks - he had stopped bothering, after a while - but not only did they know of Aeryn, they knew of her mother as well. Tyrion wouldn't have told the queen, would he?

"Perhaps," his mother replied. "But are not night and day two sides of the same coin? He's your brother,sweetling. You and he will rule this realm someday."

Lord Jon had said much the same thing, both earlier today and all those months ago, before Harry had been forced to whip Pate. They were both so certain, so sure that he and Joffrey could rule together. "... Is Uncle Tyrion not your brother, mother?" Mentioning him brought to light the fact that he was conspicuously absent from the festivities. In fact, now that he thought about it, he hadn't seem his uncle since before the hunt. Aeryn had said she'd seen him with her mother, but that had been weeks ago.

His mother dropped her hands and frowned, her body taut and tense. For a second she looked as if she wanted to slap him. She's beautiful even when she's angry. But the moment passed. She relaxed and the tension left her.

"That vile little creature is no brother of mine," she said quietly but vehemently. "And you will never speak such words to me again." She leaned closer to his face. "Never," she reiterated.

Harry thought of bitter Tyrion wasting gold at Chataya's brothel and wondered what it must have been like for him at Casterly Rock. Had the queen hated him as much then? Did he drink to forget his past?

"I'm sorry mother," he said, voice somber. He was saddened by the malice she held for Tyrion, but he genuinely disliked upsetting her. She was his mother, and that was one thing he had no memories of. He grinned at her and took her hands in his. "Let us not speak of what neither of us would like to hear. I won't mention Tyrion, and you won't mention Aeryn."

"So that's her name... she must be a beautiful girl for you to be so defensive."

"Quite beautiful," he admitted. "But her beauty is naught but a small pebble; yours mother, is a mountain." But one day, he could imagine that people would speak of Aeryn's beauty as they had spoken of the Targaryen's of old - mayhaps even Sheira Seastar herself?

His mother laughed. "You've been reading poetry? That is not a habit of warriors, my love." She looked up in thought. "I've never known Jaime to read anything. Nor Robert, for that matter."

"Jaime was never a prince, was he? Nor was father."

They danced a while longer before his mother moved on. Harry was tossed around the room to the same old and fat women he had complimented before, and a few of their fat and ugly daughters as well. Some were pretty enough - Lord Staunton's daughter especially, with her round, freckled face, full rouge lips and dark, curled hair - but she seemed rather dim-witted and she spoke sparingly, and only when addressed. A proper lady some men would say, but Harry just found her boring.

The dinner drew to a close when one of the lords passed out into a bowl of peas and carrots. His lady wife was humiliated, and the man, fatter even than the king, was so heavy he could scarcely be moved. Ser Strongboar, as Harry had taken to calling him, lifted the man as if he was but a sack of grain, hefted him over his broad shoulders, and carried him from the hall.

The next morning found Harry at Chataya's brothel on the east end of the Street of Silk. Aeryn had somehow gotten word to Meron to meet her at the wharves, and had lead him here at Tyrion's behest.

The city was just awakening. People milled about, on their way to their daily work, or returning home from a night best left forgotten.

There was a man in roughspun carrying a slab of goat meat across his back, and a heavy-set matron was beating a rug with a broom. Stumbling up the lane, arms slung over each other's shoulders, came a group of ruddy faced gold cloaks who were in a raucous uproar after a night of drinking and whoring at one of the cheaper brothels that sat further down the street. One of them tripped over a particularly tricky spot on the cobbles and landed face first in a shallow pool of a brown, watery substance. His fellows dissolved into laughter, even as they helped him to his feet. There were a few carts trundling along the cobbles, rickety wheels clattering, horse hooves clopping, drivers shouting for passerbys to step aside.

Harry turned his attention back to the brothel.

Chataya's brothel was quaint manse that grew out of the rising slope of Rhaenys's Hill along a winding path. It was two stories, one of gray stone and one of varnished timber, with an iron-crested turret that branched upward from the manse's southern corner. The windows were framed with lead, and an elaborate, bronze plated lamp that was decorated with scarlet glass hung over the door.

"The Keep o' the Rose Lantern," Aeryn said with a flourish. She'd pinned her hair up, and wore a man's tunic and breeches with knee-high brown leather boots. "Your funny little uncle is in there. Wants to talk to you, he said."

"My prince," began Ser Brenden, who stood at Harry's back, "you needn't be seen entering such an establishment. Allow my squire and I to enter and retrieve your uncle." Frederick Farring, his squire, stood behind him, nervousness written all over his thin, pimpled face.

Considering his new status, Ser Kevan had felt it best that Harry have a sworn shield to guard his back. The Lannister knight had suggested one of his own retinue, but Harry had selected the captain of the gate instead. There was a certain familiarity between, and even a hint of rapport. The knight's squire hadn't uttered so much as a word in Harry's presence.

"No," Harry returned. "This is where he wants to talk, so talk we shall. His entire future's been ripped out from under him. I owe him this much, at the least." He glanced back at the bearded knight and his lanky squire, and nodded to both of them before turning back to the brothel. "Lead the way, Aeryn."

She pushed open the door, and Harry stepped past the threshold into the most expensive brothel in King's Landing. Ser Brenden and his squire were close at his heels.

The building wasn't overly large, about as big as most any other manse in the district. The antechamber smelled of foreign spices and sweet oils, and the floor was cool stone that had been painted with a mosaic of two naked women entwined in love. He walked past an ornate Myrish screen of dreaming maidens laying in fields of flowers to reach the next room, and paused at the sight presented within.

The common room was sparsely populated with few women and even fewer men. The whores were like fairies out of a fantasy, bright and beautiful, clothed in the sheerest of gowns, the material so thin he could see their breasts as if they were bare. Soft music wafted through the air. With the wispy smoke from burning incense and the smell and the atmosphere, he could imagine it all a dream.

Tyrion sat in a cushioned alcove beside a leaded window, clad in red and gold finery fit for a feast. The sunlight streaming through the window was skewed by the colored glass, and left starburst patterns dappling his face and clothes. And the woman with him... she bore a shocking resemblance to Aeryn.

"My mother," the girl said in an aside as she led him closer. "Amaerys of Lys."

She was a stunning beauty, pale as the moon, with long blue hair that hung about her head in lazy ringlets, and big, slanted, dark blue eyes. Finely sculpted ruby lips sat above a sharp chin. Her nose was small and pointed, and a purple gem sparkled in her left nostril. It matched the color of her gown, if the garment could be called that.

The chest line dipped low, lower than he had seen any noblewoman wear, and in that moment the young prince thought the twin curves of her breasts the most beautiful things he had ever seen. There were slits in the side of the dress that came all the way up to her hips, revealing long, shapely legs.

"Never seen a pair of tits, have you?" Aeryn jokingly whispered, nudging him.

Harry had the decency to blush, and the wit to hold his tongue. He couldn't help but consider that one day Aeryn might strike such a stunning appearance. He chanced a glance at her to find her lips spread in a wicked smile, dark purple eyes smoldering like coals in a fire. He wished, for a second, that he was a normal child, and didn't know what that look meant. He cleared his throat before speaking. "I've missed you this last week, uncle," he said to Tyrion, stepping up to the table, hands clasped behind his back. "You wanted to talk?" He looked around at the whores and their patrons, eyes flickering again to Aeryn's mother. "Here?"

"This place is as good as any," Tyrion said, words slurred. "But perhaps a bit of privacy might do us some good." He turned to Amaerys. "Wait here, if you will. I'll call for you when mine nephew and I have concluded our discussion. Given his previous displays of intelligence, I wager our talk will be brief; all the better for a swift return to spending my father's gold."

Amaerys giggled as a girl might, and reached out to thread slender fingers through Tyrion's hair. "I will await your return, and pray that your talk, however long or brief, does not tire your tongue." Her voice was melodic, and she spoke with a strange, undulating rhythm that bespoke her foreign origins.

The youngest son of Tywin Lannister cracked a smile and shifted off the seat, cup in hand. "Follow me," he said to Harry, sipping as he walked.

"Wait here," Harry told Ser Brenden and his squire, another blush coloring his cheeks. He'd seen enough in his dreams to grasp Amaerys' meaning. "You too," he said to Aeryn.

The girl in question put her hands on her hips, and if anything, her smile widened. "Oh, are you ordering me about now? Any other orders you'd like to give me, given the locale?"

Harry frowned. She was making a jape, he knew, but, "I thought that you didn't much care for your mother's… work?" he asked, leaning in to whisper in her ear.

"I don't," she said. "But we're friends now, aren't we?" She winked, then claimed a seat at the table beside her mother, who watched them with an amused twinkle in her eyes.

Ser Brenden and his squire Frederick remained standing, hands resting on their swords. The knight of House Rykker was not half as amused as Aeryn and her mother. He watched the room with a knuckled brow, mouth set in a tight line. I must needs speak with him before we return to the castle, Harry thought. Ser Brenden wouldn't talk, but Harry felt he had best explain the situation.

He had nothing to say in return to Aeryn, nothing that wouldn't fuel further insinuation, so he turned away and followed Tyrion down a darkened hallway and up two flights of stairs, only to take a separate hall to another smaller, narrower set of curving stairs that ended at an ebony door. They passed a few girls along the way, young and red-faced, some with tumbling curls, others with complex braids, and all beautiful.

"Whores at least require coin before they spill your secrets, and Chataya's whores require more gold than most," Tyrion said as they entered the room.

The chamber was circular and well lit, with a large canopied bed sitting in the center of the room. A tall wardrobe of colored weirwood stood across from the bed, decorated with erotic carvings, and an exquisitely sculpted redwood table was pressed against the far wall. The narrow leaded window cut high in the wall was patterned with red and gold diamonds. Lower down hung several brilliant tapestries in dazzling colors, showcasing fantastical landscapes and carnal pursuits.

Tyrion closed the door behind Harry and grabbed the little stool that had been sitting behind it to drag it over to the table. "Sit down, Harry, and let us speak freely. You are the Prince of Casterly Rock, now," he said as he dragged the stool, "a shining example of wit and chivalry, champion of the oppressed, beloved of maidens, master of practice swords... the perfect little prince." He grunted as he climbed atop the seat. "Young and handsome. Clever. Whole."

Harry could nearly taste his uncle's bitterness. "Have I offended you in some way, uncle?"

Tyrion sighed. "You? No." He sipped at his wine. "A boy of your observant nature can no doubt hear the displeasure in my voice, but I could be no more angry with you than I would the sun for blinding me with its brilliance, or a pack of starving wolves devouring me should I fall from my horse in a lonely meadow. You are what the god's made you, and whatever promise you've shown to gain my father's attention is no fault of your own.

However, now that you have his attention-" he paused and took another drink, longer this time, and loosed another sigh. "I feel I must warn you…"

He grew quiet for a long while. Were those tears glistening in his mismatched eyes? "Beware my father, Harry," he said at last, after the silence had stretched long passed awkwardness. "His reputation is well earned." He leaned forward, shoulders slumped, expression somber, heavy brow shadowing his eyes. He whispered, voice almost reverent, "Have I ever told you about Tysha?"

"No," Harry said, baffled by the change in his uncle's posture. "No, you haven't." But when he looked into Tyrion's eyes, he saw. Saw a girl barely older than himself, beautiful and solemn.

"I loved her," Tyrion admitted. "Thought I loved her. She was beautiful - dark haired and slender, with skin as soft as down. She wasn't much older than you are now." He looked at Harry with sharp eyes. "About of an age with your friend, that pretty little silver haired girl." There was a warning in there, somewhere. "I'll spare you the boring details, but I married Tysha, and for the first time in my life, I was happy. My father never approved of me, never showed me the same consideration he showed Jaime or Cersei. I finally had something that was wholly mine." He grabbed his cup and peered into its empty depths. When he spoke, his voice was dark, and seemed as if to echo out of some deep, dank, broken place. "Even if my happiness was a lie, it was a brilliant one, one I would have lived until my dying day. But it was a lie, and Lord Tywin, my dear old father, had my wife - a fucking whore - service his guards. Gave her a silver for each one, and made me watch. Fifty men, Harry. Fifty."

Harry was stunned into silence, mouth agape. That was cruelty of a kind he'd never witnessed, never even fathomed.

"By the time she was finished, she had made a very small fortune - there was so much coin spilling through her fingers she had to carry it in her skirts. She never once screamed. Neither in pleasure nor in pain. Not even once. But there was this look in her eyes that to this day eludes me. Was it shame? Hatred?" He tilted his head as if in thought, his lips pressed into a quivering line. He was swaying, back and forth, back and forth. Harry wanted to hug him.

"My noble Lord Father made me lay with her, right there in the hall. Pay her with a Dragon, he said. Lannisters are worth more. I was three and ten. Two years older than you are now, and more of a boy besides, for all that I had to grow up quickly." He looked into the disgust working its way across Harry's face and gave a brief smile of satisfaction. "That is the man you're going to foster with. He is as cruel as he is ruthless."

Who was worse, Harry asked himself, the whore for making a fool of Tyrion, or Lord Tywin for humiliating him? Was Tysha why Tyrion spent so much time with whores?

"Take great care to consider your association with lowborn, Harry. My father will think very little of it, and even less of them. They are not your equals.

"Just as well, given who you are, he might allow your eccentricities. But I wouldn't chance it if I were you. That girl downstairs, do you care for her?"

"I… yes. I do." She was his sort-of friend, if nothing else, and his stomach did this strange shimmy whenever he looked at her.

"Then forget her. Leave her behind, lest something horrible happen." Tyrion slapped his hand to the table, swayed left, then right, and leaned back in his stool, just barely managing to grasp the edge of the table and avoid falling. "Now, if you will excuse me - I'm in a brothel and I've had no whores, and that, dear nephew, is a problem that must be rectified." He left his seat and waddled over to the door, steps measured and deliberate. There was no one outside when he opened it, but when he leaned across the threshold and gave a shout, Amaerys seemed to appear before him as if she had been conjured out of the shadows.

"Are you ready, my lord?" She held a flagon of wine in each hand.

"Beyond ready." He led her into the room.

Harry thought suddenly of his hasty decision to endorse Lord Kevan and ask to be fostered at Casterly Rock. I'm a fool. Is it too late to declare for the Reach?

"Well, well, well," Amaerys said, looking Harry up and down after she'd refilled Tyrion's cup. "You're a bit young, but had I known it was a prince Aeryn was always rushing out to see, I might've taught her a few more tricks."

"Tricks, er... my lady?" he ventured. His voice was hollow, and he spoke only for proprieties sake. Even if Tysha had been a whore, what Lord Tywin had done was too much.

"Oh listen to him!" She laughed. "He called me a lady! Aren't you just a sweet little thing? Isn't he, my Lord?" She curled her fingers in Tyrion's curly black and blond locks, a seemingly familiar gesture.

"That he is," the dwarf said, "but I'm not paying you to compliment my nephew. I'm paying you to fuck me."

She paid Tyrion no mind. "Amaerys of Lys," she answered finally. "At your service. But you may call me Merry, if it please you." She curtsied, and Harry pretended not to notice the swell of her breast as she dipped, or the way they jiggled as she moved, bouncing beautifully. He could see why Tyrion liked her.

"You should visit me when you're older. I can show you all my little tricks. The seven sighs, the nineteen seats…" She parted her lips over so slightly, tongue dancing lasciviously around the edges of her mouth. "For the right coin, of course," she said with an impish grin. "We Lyseni are masters of lovemaking, and I know a fair few more tricksthan most."

Harry shuddered and a blush crept up his neck to spill over his cheeks.

"Next time you see your friend," Tyrion interrupted, eyes going glassy as the wine he drunk settled in his stomach, "tell her that her mother is well worth the price. Mayhaps one day she could learn the trade? She's every bit as beautiful as her mother." His watery eyes shone with a clear warning.

Amaerys gave a coy laugh and slapped at Tyrion, but said nothing to defend her daughter.

Harry wished he could say he was appalled, but his eyes saw too much. Amaerys probably did want her daughter to become a whore, had trained her for it, no doubt. There was little else she could aspire to. No other occupation would grant her as much coin, and with coin, however ill gained, came a certain prestige.

Harry frowned at his uncle, wanted to say something, anything, to deny the possibility of danger, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. His mind was a torrent of thoughts, and yet not a single one manifested upon his lips. He left his uncle to his vices, and bid both he and Amaerys goodbye as he vacated the room.

As he lay in bed later that night, his chambers dimly illuminated by the twinkling starlight that spilled through his window, his thoughts culminated into a near prayer. Fire writhed in his palm, danced between his fingers.

By steel and fire my father made himself a king, and I, sired through his loins, a prince. And the Stranger made me a wizard. This life was no accident of fate, but destined, written in stars and blood. Who I am, what I am, what I will become; they were etched into the fabric of existence the moment Harry Potter collected the Hallows.

I am beyond kings and lords, beyond the considerations of mortal, magicless men. Whatever they might see in me, it is but a fraction of my true essence.

I pray that they never need know it.

He fell asleep with those thoughts lingering in his mind and fell into dreams both wondrous and worrying.

He dreamed of dark shapes that swept through cities like a plague and left chilling, life-draining mists in their wake. He dreamed of savage, twisted wolves that stood on two legs, hunting men like animals in shadowed forests. He dreamed of war and love and loss. He dreamed of a girl with eyes that burned and hair that was kissed by fire. He dreamed of celebrations; dazzling lights that burst in the night sky, the people beneath them drunk with laughter. He dreamed of life. He dreamed of death.

And he dreamed of the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Chapter Text

The skiff knifed through the bay as silently as a ghost. Mist lapped at its prow, rising thick over the water, spread thin here and there by soft, fleeting wind that allowed the starlight to trickle through the fog and dapple the water. Harry plunged his hand into the cool blackness and watched the reflected sky shake and quiver.

"I wish I met ya' sooner," Jerryd said as he dipped the oar, grunting. "Never thought a prince o' the crown would be willin' to spend time wit' folks like us. Ya know, bein' a prince and all. And I wish Aeryn would stop tryna' be pretty and bloody help me oar!"

The girl in question gave no indication that she had even heard him. Her perfume reached Harry's nose, a sweet, almost spicy scent that somehow overshadowed the stench of the fish that was piled in the center of the skiff.

The moon gazed out from behind a cloudy veil, glinting on the mist and turning the water silver. It turned everything silver, giving the night an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality.

"What can I say," Harry said, eyes searching the inky horizon beyond the mist, voice somber, "you all are an interesting bunch."

Fat Lip and Mumbles were absent. The tavern that their mother worked at had seen a change in ownership, and her new employer had offered her more coin for their extra hands, to wash and clean. Of course she had agreed. Harry hadn't seen them in days.

The wind rose, briefly, a cold caress across the water's surface, sending ripples dancing and spreading the mist even thinner. Harry felt Aeryn watching him. Tyrion's tragic tale was never far from his mind, giving his thoughts an unwelcome weight. Between Rhaenys, Elia, and now Tysha, he had lost a hint of the levity that colored his life before now, as if being privy to old tragedies had burned away a small piece of who he was.

What would he lose, he wondered, if tragedy should ever find him?

The bay was calm and quiet. Waves beat against the rocky shores beyond the mouth of the bay, a soft, distant rumble that was broken by lonely bird calls. Harry tasted the salt of the sea in the air, saw the waves break white against the rocks.

Jerryd steered the boat towards the stretch of wooded, craggy beach on the southern bank of the bay, oaring steadily through the shadowy water. "You won't forget us, yeah? While you're off lording at Casterly Rock?"

"He won't forget us," said Aeryn, hair hanging loose, feet kicked up on the center bench. "But he'll try."

Harry glanced at her, finally, and found that he couldn't look away. He felt almost bewitched. That loss of levity had changed other things too. His stomach flipped, twisted, danced, and he smiled at her, briefly, though he'd had no intention to.

The moonlight bathed her already pale skin in a silvery glow. Her eyes might have been gems for how they glimmered in the light. She was a hard girl with a soft beauty – had Tysha been something similar? Tyrion had never known the truth of Tysha's feelings; Harry needed only to look in Aeryn's eyes to see.

"And besides," Aeryn continued, gaze never wavering, "it's not as if he's going to the other end of the world. He'll return to the capital every year or so, twice a year, even, for name days and tourneys… and when he's here, we'll make sure that he never forgets us."

"Right," Jerryd said. He looked back, a teasing smirk widening on his face. His once bald head was covered in stubble. "I reckon you'll do the honors yourself, eh? Makin' sure we ain't forgotten?"

Aeryn didn't bother responding. Her eyes said enough.

"When will you be leavin'?" Jerryd asked Harry.

"In two weeks," Aeryn returned. Harry arched a brow in question, wondering how she knew. "Jayde told me," she said in answer. "And Janei," she added after a pause. "Your father sent for both of them after you left the other day. Janei fancies herself in love. Babbled about him all bloody night."

"Hmm," Harry grunted, finally looking away from the deep pools of her eyes. He didn't want to speak of his father. He had not forgotten Rhaenys and Elia. He held his father partially responsible for their horrid fates, and for the justice that had been denied their ghosts.

Jerryd laughed and said, "The king will be sendin' for you soon enough, Aeryn."

Aeryn scowled mightily, and a dangerous look settled in her eyes. For all her beauty and teasing nature, she was quick to violence, ruthless and unflinching. Harry had seen her beat Jerryd twice, now. He did not intend for this to be a third instance.

She tensed, fists clenched, and made to stand, the boat rocking sharply as she moved, but Harry reached over and placed a hand against her arm. She paused in mid-rise, half standing and half sitting. Harry shook his head. Aeryn was violent, independent, stubborn, but she deferred to him, going from defiant to demure. Teeth grinding in anger, she sat back down and sent Jerry a look that promised retribution.

"I'm not a whore," she said into the silence. "Nor will I be. My mother can't make me. Neither can Chataya."

"The king can," Jerryd said, tactless. "Harry too, I bet. But you're already in love wit' him."

She made to attack Jerryd once more, and again, Harry's touch stilled her.

"What will you do," he began, voice soft, "when I leave?" He had already decided he couldn't take them with him. Her especially. He hadn't really considered it, but Tyrion's story was enough to turn him against the idea before it had ever even occurred to him.

She shrugged and let out a sigh, and when she spoke, her voice was equally soft. "I don't know. I've always wanted to be a sailor. Or a smuggler. Silly, I know, but… there's something about the sea that calls to me. My mother reckons it's the Velaryon blood." She paused then, eyes downcast. "You know what she wants for me."

Harry nodded. She wanted her daughter to whore alongside her. He reckoned the Lyseni courtesan could buy a decent ship ten times over. He had heard from Herbert and Bertram that a weekend with just one of Chataya's girls cost nearly a thousand dragons. Amaerys had been whoring for at least fourteen years, considering Aeryn's age. That was a lot of weekends.

"I suppose that's why I'm friends with Jerryd and the rest," Aeryn continued. "They like the water almost as much as I do." Unlike her earlier aggression, the look she gave Jerryd now was a fond one. Harry was surprised at how the soft look changed her face, highlighting the frailty that all women possessed, enhancing her beauty. "Jerryd might like it even more."

Harry had noticed. Most of his time with them had been out on the water, in this very skiff, or at the wharves, watching the water as one might watch a troupe of mummers put on a performance. No matter his mood, Jerryd's elation at being out on the water was almost touching to witness.

They came upon the southern shore. Seawater sluiced across the jagged rocks. Jerryd was extremely careful angling the skiff between them; if the boat were to crash against the stone, they would have to walk back to King's Landing through the forest, a trip that would take at least a day, on foot. The birds were louder here, the water less calm. A small flock of seagulls watched them from the trees that overlooked the beach, cawing lazily to one another.

When the rocks were close enough to reach out and grab, Jerryd tied the boat taut between two arms of stone, and the three of them climbed onto the gray beach. Little black crabs scuttled out from underfoot, only to be set upon by the birds flocking about the rocks.

Soon enough, Harry had a fire going, and Jerryd was preparing the fish for cooking. Aeryn sat down next to Harry and feet crossed under her. Crickets shrilled from the shadows of the forest, the burning wood crackled, and somewhere in the dark, a wolf was howling.

"Be careful in the city," Harry said. The wind rose as if to match the wolf's howl and almost swallowed his voice. "My brother and I had a… disagreement, and-"

"-I already know," said Aeryn, cutting him off. The moon had crept back behind the cover of clouds, and the firelight turned her face orange. The shadows stretched and shimmied. "My mother told me, after your uncle told her. Did you really beat him for threatening me?"

"For threatening you," Harry began, "and for threatening my sister, Myrcella. He made me so angry, I just… snapped."

Aeryn touched his hand. "You have my thanks for defending my virtue." Harry could sense her gratefulness, but there was a note of irony to her voice all the same.

"… I made you a target, Aeryn. The whole bloody city knows about my lowborn friends, but you are all that anyone ever talks about. He'll do something awful. I know he will." A sudden sense of foreboding settled in his gut as if he'd swallowed a rock.

She must have recognized the severity in his voice, because her tone was subdued when she said, "I will be careful. I can take care of myself, and I have people who look out for me."

"Good," Harry said, nodding as if trying to convince himself. "Good." The wind swept with ever increasing force, and the waves reached higher, churning over the rocks. The forest murmured, leaves rustling, wind sighing, cicadas singing their songs. Beneath a gauzy black sky, as the moon glittered off the rocks, the three ate and japed until their bellies were full and tired from laughter.

Harry was up with the sun the next day, groggy from staying up so late the night before. He and the others hadn't sailed back to the city until a sliver of sunlight started to peek over the horizon and the darkness of night had started to gray with the coming dawn. He might have stayed in bed for hours more, but Aeryn had given him the address of a maester in the city who had just returned from Essos with a basilisk, and Quenten had all but demanded to fight him in the practice yard.

He handled the latter before the former, if only because the Banefort heir had been so insistent, and the maester, as far as Harry had been told, would be in the city for some time before journeying to Oldtown. Fatigued, and desperately in need of sleep, Harry had given a poor showing. Quenten, for all his prickly disposition, had been a gracious winner.

Herbert and Bertram had seemed quite disappointed by Harry's loss, and took up teasing Quenten incessantly. The Banefort heir had subsequently defeated the two of them in a series of matches.

The maester, Wulfric, Aeryn had said his name was, was staying in an inn on the outskirts of the city. The tall stone building hugged the northern wall, sandwiched between a tavern and a shop that sold farming equipment. Again, as he had been when going to visit Tyrion, Harry was accompanied by Ser Brenden and his squire, Frederick; Marvell, Quenten, Bertram and Herbert had come as well, their armor finer than any he had ever seen a squire wear, the mail as supple as beaten leather, breastplates and cuirasses etched with beautiful patterns in the shapes of their families' heraldry: a unicorn, a hooded man, three roundels, four double-headed eagles. They clustered behind him, Bertram and Herbert bickering with Quenten as they so oft did.

Harry tuned them out, hiding his amusement – and his annoyance - at their antics.

The day was warm, and the heat, so far removed from the coolness of the previous night, only served to make him more sluggish and irritable. The din of the city seemed as if a gentle serenade to lull him to sleep. Inside the inn was cooler, and the thick stone walls served to block out the sounds of the city, the murmur of half a million voices, bird calls, the clatter of carts. There was glass clanking instead, cups thudding against wooden tables, the steady sizzle of roasted boar crackling over a spit. And underneath it all, almost too faint to hear, there was a sort of skittering sound, like claws scratching against wood.

The basilisk, Harry thought upon hearing it. He felt a certain restrained excitement, hopeful that he might finally be able to craft a wind, but aware that the basilisk might prove no more magical than a teaspoon.

Ser Brenden bellowed into the room, "We are looking for a Maester Wulfric!" Harry had known Ser Brenden for years now, yet he had never known the strength of his voice.

There were only a few people milling about the inn: a pair of sellswords sitting in the back, the heavyset woman who giggled at their advances, a trio of sunburnt, leathery skinned sailors, a wiry, wizened old man behind the counter, watching them all with droopy yellow eyes, his daughter or granddaughter, most like, wiping at the counter. At Ser Brenden's proclamation, everything came to a halt, save for the skittering and the crackling and the girl.

"Good day, ser," the old man behind the bar said. He turned to Harry and bowed. When he smiled, all his teeth were missing. "My prince." He invited them to sit, and immediately the young girl brought out food and drink for their pleasure. It was meat from the boar that was crackling on the spit, paired with a bowl of grilled leeks and carrots. The smell was mouth-watering.

Harry sent the fat woman who had been flirting with the sellswords to retrieve the maester from his rooms.

A man came down from the stairs that stretched up the side wall to the guests' rooms. He did not wear the robes of a maester, but a plain tunic and breaches. He wore his chain though, and it was quite long, reaching down to his thighs; Harry saw links of pewter, iron, gold, copper, black iron, and nearly a dozen other metals.

"I am Maester Wulfric," the man announced as he walked towards them. He was an older man, tall and wiry, with a thick black beard and a crown of graying hair. His chains clinked and clattered with every step.

Harry waited until the maester was seated before he spoke. "You have a basilisk," he said, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. He was too tired for pleasantries, and didn't want to sit too long and allow his irritation to ruin the negotiations. "I would like to buy it from you."

The maester seemed taken aback. "I… well… ahhh…?"

"Never seen a maester so tongue-tied before," joked Bertram. "They usually drone on and on and on about something or another. They bore you to death."

"Death by maester is a terrible way to go," said Herbert. "Almost as bad as death by buggering." Quenten, who he had been goading with the remark, merely palmed the hilt of his sword.

Harry ignored the banter, growing ever used to their ways. "Your price?"

"Forgive me, my prince, but I am not certain I wish to sell my basilisk." Maester Wulfric had a slow, deliberate way of speaking, and the strangest accent Harry had ever heard. Just how long had he been in Essos? "I have only just begun to study him… but one does not simply say no to a prince of the realm! I will sell my basilisk to you if, for a period of one cycle of the moon, you allow me access to him."

"Impossible," Harry said with a mirthless smile. "I mean to kill him."

Maester Wulfric did not seem inclined to question why. "…Oh. Well. In that case… I-" He paused as he seemed to finally take in the men who had accompanied Harry, not just Brenden, but the lordly squires as well, who were all nearly knights in their own right. Marvell especially seemed to alarm him, for the Brax squire was at least a head taller than anyone else in the inn. "How does ten dragons sound?"

Ser Brenden bristled, no doubt thinking the price too high for some queer creature. The maester paled.

"A fair price," announced Harry. He dug ten dragons out of his coin purse and handed them over to Maester Wulfric. He took note of the maester's hands, how they seemed both delicate and strong, and surprisingly deft as he rolled the coins across his knuckles before pocketing them. "Frederick? Collect the basilisk, would you please?"

Harry had meant to leave shortly thereafter, but the maester seemed almost compelled to speak of some of the wonders he had seen the east, the barbaric Dothraki and their strange customs, the gentle lamb people, the cruel slavers, the sellswords that seemed as numerous as mosquitoes. Most remarkable, he had said, were the roads cutting out of old Valyria to stretch through Slaver's Bay, as flat and straight as if the gods themselves had come down to pave them.

Afterward, Harry returned to the keep. Sleep claimed him for half the day. He awoke to a note in straggly script left by Frederick about another meeting with the maester, who had a proposition for him to consider, and a separate note from the maester himself. He had written at length about the properties of dragon bone, as he had discovered in the east, and his desire for funding to return east, and go even further, beyond the Jade Sea to Asshai. Harry promptly sent Meron to have servants collect a few of the dragon skulls from the cellar, and, remembering his own thoughts of Essos, resolved to listen to the maester's proposition if only to further his own purposes.

Awake now, and somewhat refreshed, he collected his men once more, and after asking around for a smith that might be able to work dragonbone, ventured to the Street of Steel.

Tobho Mott's shop sat at the top of the tortuous street at the summit of Visenya's Hill and in the shadow of the Great Sept. Made of plaster paneling and decked with rows of timber at the juncture of each floor, it stood tall and strong above the other smithies. The smoke from its forge rose from the arm of its chimney like a great black fist, but as the wind blew its fingers lengthened, before dispersing over the sept.

The double doors were adorned with a weirwood and ebony carving of a hunting scene: men encircled some manner of cervid, their tri-pronged spears brandished to strike. Two stone knights armored in rich carmine stood to either side of the doors: One was fashioned after a griffon, its sinister beak curved like an arakh, the other modeled to resemble a unicorn; the horn that protruded from its head sharpened to a fine point.

Harry took a moment to admire the detail in the carvings before he entered the shop proper.

His retinue of guards, ten strong and mounted atop rounseys, ordered to accompany him by his mother, remained outside. Ser Brenden sat his horse at the head of their formation, his black breastplate polished to a soft sheen. They had assembled themselves around the two heavy carts that were laden with dragon skulls; they were massive things, black and gleaming, with horns as long as Harry was tall, and jagged teeth like rows of daggers. It had taken a team of draft horses to pull the carts down the cobbled streets and twice they'd had to reset a wheel damaged by the uneven roads.

Smallfolk young and old had admired the skulls as they rode from the keep, down River Row to Fishmonger's Square, pointing and whispering as if speaking too loudly would summon the dragons back to life. Harry had waved to them from within the contingent of guards that rode with him, and they had sung his graces.

Ser Strongboar, Marvell, Quenten, and Ser Wenfryd had accompanied him as well, and followed him now into the shop.

Inside the smithy was sweltering. The air tasted bitter and smelled of molten metal and burning charcoal, and was heavy with the ringing, repetitive clang of hammer to anvil. The room was lit by black iron braziers, some along the floor, others hanging from the oaken rafters. The walls were lined with dozens of swords, axes, spears, and shields, some banded oak, some iron, and others yet steel, tinted most every color Harry could think of. There was a set of ebony cabinets standing against the far wall, in the rear of the shop, bracketing the open doorway that lead to the back porch. Through it, Harry saw the forge; heat rose from it in almost invisible waves. There was a black-haired boy there, older than Harry and broad chested, who was the source of the ringing note.

Tobho Mott, hairless with shrewd eyes, thin but solidly built, clad in red and purple robes, stood at a round ebony table in the center of the room. He watched them sharply as they entered, expression neutral, eyes flickering from prince to knight to squire and back.

"Blacksmith", Harry greeted with a nod.

Tobho returned his nod with a deep bow. "Prince Harrold. It is an honor."

Harry walked around the shop, trailing his fingers along the steel that hung on the walls. He loved swords. Just as the sea called to Aeryn, steel called to him. Steel, and ghosts. Each sword sang a different note when he tapped them, and he imagined what they might feel like in his hand. Absent a wand or proper way to work magic, swords and steel seemed an appropriate temporary replacement.

He stopped at a short sword with a wicked curve in the blade. It had but a single edge. Even in the bleary firelight, the steel glistened. When Harry looked upon it, he could almost feel it twisting his chest. He thought of the warning he had given Aeryn of Joffrey, and hoped that his fears proved unfounded.

"A falchion," Tobho Mott said, indicating the sword. "Not very popular amongst you Westerosi."

Ser Wenfryd said, "That's because no man is fool enough to try and slash through plate. Now, that sword there," and he pointed to a short, thin blade on the opposite wall, "would be useful."

The blacksmith's neutral expression soured, face curled in irritation. "All my steel is useful," he told the knight, folding his arms across his chest. "It's the best in the city." He turned his attention back to Harry. "That's why you've come to me."

The feeling passed as swiftly as it came. Harry eyed the massive banded oak shields - they were almost as tall as he was, some even taller, and when he tried to lift one he could scarcely move it, unless he use both hands. Ser Strongboar walked over, his square face set in a grin, gripped a shield in his massive hand, and hoisted it up as if it were but air. Marvell joined him, grabbing up a shield of his own to test its weight.

"Can you carve dragonbone?" Harry asked without preamble, looking back to Tobho. "I've been told the blacksmiths of Qohor are the best in the known world. You are from Qohor, aren't you?"

He said the right words, for Tobho almost smiled. From outside came the general murmur of a city in the cusp of the workday. Men were shouting to each other, peddling wares, and the septons were giving their sermon at the steps leading up to the Great Sept.

Tobho said, "You were told truth. The blacksmiths of Qohor are renowned throughout all of Essos. I learned to smith there." He unfolded his arms and moved towards Harry. "You have dragonbone, you say?"

"Yes," returned Harry with a sharp nod and a half-smile. "And a great deal of it. I've also been told dragonbone bows shoot further than wooden bows." He ceased his inspection of the shields and turned his full attention to Tobho.

"That they do," replied the blacksmith. "But it is difficult and tedious, carving dragonbone into bows, and men rarely get the practice."

"Have you the practice?" asked Harry.

The smith nodded. "I do."

"So I'll leave the skulls with you then." He meandered over to the short sword Wenfryd had pointed out and admired the ivory ridges chiseled into the hilt and the sapphire gems in the pommel. The guard and hilt were flecked with swirling patterns of gold. "How long would it take to make just one?" he asked the smith. He wanted to give one to Aeryn. It would make a good gift, he thought, for such a fierce girl.

"Just one?" the smith repeated. "A week, perhaps longer. As I said, it is a tedious process. A special steel is required to cut dragon bone."

Harry smiled. "That's fine. I will have the skulls wheeled around to the back of the shop." He thumped the thin head of a rapier - it was extremely narrow, made for thrusting and nothing else, and it's song seemed to reflect that. He had never seen a knight wield such a blade. "And the cost?" he asked, turning back to the armorer.

"Fifty silvers a bow," the blacksmith said after a moment.

Harry thumbed three dragons out his coin purse and tossed them to the smith. "That should be enough to start."

The ringing clamor paused as the boy working the forge entered the shop, skin darkened by soot, short black hair arranged haphazardly about his head. He noticed neither Harry nor the knights at first, and set about collecting sheets of metal from the black cabinets.

"Who really works the metal here, you or the boy, blacksmith?" Ser Strongboar said, his voice loud in the quiet of the shop. He was joking, but he annoyed Tobho Mott all the same.

"Mind your jests, ser."

The burly knight laughed. "I meant no offense blacksmith. I've heard naught but good mentioned of your steel. But I wonder about the weight of these shields."

"You fight in plate, yes? Those are for men without that benefit. Leather can not stop a sword; those shields can."

Harry walked to the back of the shop and approached the black-haired young man. As he passed into the backroom, Ser Wenfryd engaged Tobho in a discussion about bodkin points and broadheads. Quenten followed him almost soundlessly, hand never leaving the hilt of his sword. If not for his having moved, Harry could have thought him a statue.

"Hello," he said.

The boy turned around, startled, blue eyes wide with alarm, and they widened further still when they recognized the speaker. His eyes were very familiar, Harry thought. And the shape of his face, the width of his jaw... he looked like Renly. A dirtier, smellier, younger Renly.

"Um... ahem..." The boy cleared his throat and gave an awkward bow that was so deep he almost tilted over. "Good day, my prince."

"And good day to you as well," said Harry The smell of the forge was more pungent here, and burned his nose. Tendrils of black smoke drifted every now and then through the door when the breeze shifted. "What's your name?"

"Gendry, my prince."

"Gendry," he repeated, tasting the name. He noticed the lack of surname, entertaining the thought that Gendry had been sired by the king. He certainly looked the part. Harry knew of his half-brother Edric Storm, at Storm's End, his father's only legitimate bastard, and his possible half-sister in the Vale, but no one cared to mention his father's other unacknowledged bastards. Just as well he could have been the son of some other black-haired, blue-eyed noble.

But the resemblance to Renly, and thus his father, the king, was uncanny.

"What's it like, being an apprentice to a blacksmith?" Harry asked, truly curious. "I imagine it's rather hard work."

Gendry had set out some of the metal sheets atop the cabinets. Harry rapped his knuckles against one and it gave a hollow ring. Gendry was a long time speaking, as if fearful of doing so. Harry could feel his nervousness, and guessed that the sweat trickling down his neck wasn't born of the heat from the forge.

"It's hard," Gendry agreed finally, tentatively. "But I like it well enough. I like making things; taking a sheet of iron and turning it to steel." He grabbed the pile of scrap metal and carried them out the doorway to the forge. "It sings when you hit it right."

Harry smiled. He knew the song of steel, though perhaps the song he heard was different from what Gendry spoke of. Harry followed him outside and leaned against the frame of the open doorway, his shoulder propped against the wood. Quenten watched everything like a falcon, hand never leaving his sword. "I heard that blacksmiths in Qohor know how to reforge Valyrian steel," he said, the first words Harry had heard him speak neary all day. "Is it true?"

"I ain't seen it done, but me master mentioned it once or twice." Gendry set the metal down and grasped a sheet with a pair of thick tongs, and dipped it into the molten fires of the forge. He worked silently, with a sort of steadiness that bespoke long hours of practice.

Ser Brenden burst into the shop then. Ser Wenfryd was so startled he had pulled his bow from his back and notched and arrow before the knight could even speak.

Ser Brenden cast his eyes about the room and saw Harry standing in the back. "My prince," he began, walking closer. "There is talk of a riot near the Dragonpit." He licked his lips. "The people say Prince Joffrey was attacked."

Harry thought he might have heard wrong. "Attacked? Joffrey?" What was his brother doing near the dragon pit? There was nothing there for him. And who had attacked him? He remembered again the warning he had given Aeryn, that strong sense of foreboding he had felt…

"Yes, my prince, and they say that... they're saying..." The knight looked down at his feet, despondent.

Ser Brenden was not one known for dramatics, nor had he ever shown such reluctance to speak. He clearly thought what he was about to say would cause Harry distress. Great distress, judging by his demeanor.

Dread blossomed in Harry's gut and burned its way up his chest.

"Spit it out!" Ser Strongboar bellowed, annoyed with the gold cloak's silence.

"They say it was children who attacked him," Ser Brenden said finally. "A group of four. Two young boys, an older lad -" he took a deep breath, "and a girl, with gold and silver hair."

Harry had never before been gripped by such fear, by such worry. Never so swiftly, so unexpectedly. But mostly, what wracked him was guilt. Whatever ill had or would befall them, this was his fault.

No. No.

It wasn't them. It wasn't her. It couldn't be. He said it in his head as a mantra, repeated it to himself as he rushed from the shop with nary a word, pushed past Ser Brenden and climbed atop Flatfoot, the men hot on his heels. He kicked his horse into a gallop, sat forward in the saddle with his feet pressed hard against the stirrups, magic and emotion bleeding over into his horse, urging him faster, and faster still.

As they rode down the Street of Sister's, men and women shouting as they barreled past, hooves thundering, as they maneuvered through the city square at the base of Visenya's Hill, through throngs gathered around preaching Septons and Septas, Harry kept that thought in mind, held to it as tight as he dared.

It's not them. He hoped with all his heart it wasn't, prayed to the Father and the Maiden and the Stranger, and the old gods as well. He knew it was, felt it in his bones, but he hoped all the same. It's not them.

He slowed his horse as he came upon Rhaenys' Hill. There was a body lying half way up the road. Fat Lip was dead.

Harry saw his little body lying face down in the middle of the street, bright hair tangled atop his head. He was near split in two from shoulder to hip. A great pool of blood spread about him, a deep, deep red, like liquid rubies, cascading down Rhaenys's Hill. Mumbly lay next to him, and for a brief, frantic moment, Harry thought he too had perished, but as he dropped from his horse and moved closer, he saw his chest rise and fall with shaky, rattling breaths.

He was alive, but he didn't seem as if he would last much longer. Not with his head half caved in like that, as though he had been struck a with a hammer.

There was a small crowd of people framing the scene. Some of the people jeered, and some wept, but Harry could hardly hear them, their voices distorted and muffled, drowning beneath the quickening beat of his heart. He wished they were gone, and though he couldn't recall giving the order, when he next looked, the people had left. Where are the others? he wondered.

Guilt and anger gave his tongue a taste like ash. There were ten gold cloaks walling off the street, now, and three others congregated closer to the massive bronze doors of the Dragonpit, stomping and kicking someone. He could hear them, the grunts of rage, the wet thud of fists impacting against a face, garbled begging. And there, just to the right of the doors, he saw Sandor's big black courser, and Joffrey's sandy-haired palfrey.

His dread became anger, his guilt, rage. The fear was burned away to the same ash he tasted on his tongue.

He moved as if in a dream, disbelieving of the carnage laid out before him. The sunlight glinted off the cracked brass dome. He winced against the glare, vision going red. Ser Brenden gave a shout and the men standing further down the road turned toward the sound, revealing Jerryd beneath their feet, beaten and bruised, curled into a ball.

But Harry didn't see Aeryn. Or Joffrey.

At some point he had started to run. He was aware, just barely, of Ser Strongboar and Ser Wenfryd at his back, Marvell and Quenten behind them, keeping pace. The three gold cloaks saw the look upon Harry's face and rushed to speak all at once, but a mighty shout from Ser Strongboar quieted them. Harry barely spared the men a glance. It was as if they didn't exist.

"We should kill them," Quenten said.

Harry shook his head no and looked down at his lanky friend, sorrow in his eyes. "Jerryd?" he said, voice tentative.

The boy cracked open a swollen eye and tried to smile. "Har-" But he collapsed into a fit of coughs, blood spilling from his mouth and down his face. "T-the p...pit." It was clearly painful for him to speak. "Aeryn," he managed, voice heavy with meaning. "Go!"

Ser Brenden looked upon the poor, battered boy, and gave an order to retrieve a maester. Two of the men peeled away from the retinue and climbed atop their horses; there was a manse of maesters near the Dragon Gate only a few minutes ride down the other side of the hill, and Wulfric's Inn wasn't far, just two lanes further to the north side of the city. The three gold cloaks were taken as well, pushed and shoved to stand with the men that had formed a barricade against the crowd.

Harry continued into the pit at a rush. He had never seen the doors opened, not once, and yet they were open now, cracked just barely. There was space enough for three men abreast to squeeze through - when opened wide, thirty in line could fit through the doors, horses and all.

He heard screaming as he drew nearer - it was faint at first, like a whisper on the wind, but with each step the sound grew louder until everything else seemed a whisper, and it a thunderous roar like crashing waves and cracking thunder all at once. It was a girl's scream, high-pitched and riddled with pain; he heard laughter then, twisted and demented, and as he drew closer still, the steady sound of flesh smacking against flesh.

What he saw within would haunt him for years to come.

Allar Deem lay atop Aeryn, thrusting, one hand curled around her neck in a vice grip. Another man, Toret, plump and soft-chinned, his nose a bleeding mess of gnarled flesh, held her arms. She had been stripped naked, her pale skin bruised blue and purple along her arms where she had been grabbed, and across her stomach where she had been punched and kicked. There was red pooling on her forehead from where Toret was bleeding on her.

There was rubble all around, loose bits of rock and rusted metal links, and knee-high weeds grew up through the earth. As if moved by the intensity of his anger, they started to shake, rattling loudly but briefly. Further into the room lay enormous chunks of stone from the collapsed domed ceiling; they quaked as well, filling the vast chamber with a rumbling din. There was a single torch set beside the trio, lashed to a stick wedged in the ground.

Upon his entrance, the flames seemed to leap up off the torch, the fire trickling down to engulf the wood itself.

Aeryn turned her head and saw him there standing in the door way. Her eyes revealed everything to him, her relief, her rage, her hate. She tried to speak, tried to say something, but all she could manage were strangled breaths.

Harry felt his wrath take hold of him, felt it coursing through his veins, a great bursting flame like a dragon's roar. He needn't raise an arm, nor make any sort of gesture - his magic realized his intent and manifested in Allar Deem. He wanted to make him hurt, had never wanted anything as much, had never felt a desire so strong.

Allar gave a great shout, and Toret laughed gingerly, pained by the nose that Aeryn had no doubt gnawed off. "That was quick!" he joked, jowls dancing.

Allar Deem did not stop screaming, though. Toret's laughs tapered off, and terror worked its way onto his round face. Allar coughed up blood, his skin grew flushed, and when he rolled off Aeryn, bloodied cock waving in the air, his face was contorted in pure agony.

His blood was boiling.

Harry stalked closer and drew his dagger. He felt as if he was being guided by some greater power, watching from outside of himself. He gripped the hilt tight, wrapped one hand around the other, and raised the dagger high -

"Harry!" Ser Brenden called out, as if to snap him out of his mania, forgetting propriety in his alarm.

Harry buried the knife in his throat, feeling the blade catch against bone. Allar Deem's scream subsided. It was strange how easily the knife parted his flesh. It was like cutting into a slow roasted boar. Hot blood gushed over his hands, and the gold cloak let out a whet, gurgling whine that sounded like the sort of sound a battered dog might make. Or a man whose throat was a gaping red ruin.

Harry couldn't organize his thoughts. He felt too much. There was sadness and sorrow, enough to crush a man, and fury unlike he had ever known, beyond what he thought it possible to feel. The guilt was the worse, the sure knowledge that this – all of it – was his fault. He had thought he was angry at the tragic fates of Elia Martell and her children.

He could almost laugh. There was no comparison.

He dropped his arms and the dagger fell at his feet. He breathed deeply and steadily, and as if they had moved all on their own, he found his hands wrapped around Toret's plump neck, squeezing the breath from him. The fat man's body had taken on an eerie stillness, stiff as stone, as if his fear had paralyzed him. No one tried to stop Harry this time. He watched, almost fascinated, as the life bled from Toret's beady eyes.

When the body fell, Harry looked to Aeryn, and felt his eyes grow hot. This was his fault. He had become their friend, he had humiliated Joffrey... he had made them targets. Made her a target. I should never have gone out that day. He felt the guilt weigh him down, like an anvil, pressing into his shoulders, but more powerful than that was the fury that rose up to consume him. It burned like fire, like ice, spreading from gut to chest to mind, till all he saw was red, red, red.

Red like blood.

"Aeryn?" he whispered into the silence as he knelt beside her. Her face was bruised and bloodied, her jaw was swollen, and her neck bore the angry red marks of Allar's grip. She looked up at him, her eyes glistening with tears, and he smoothed the hair away from her face, careful to mind her wounds. Her mouth and chin were red with blood, and it was smeared across her head, making her look savage, cannibalistic, even. Even now, she's beautiful.

He took off his own doublet and draped it across her chest. Ser Brenden passed him his gold cloak without prompting, and he lay it across her legs. The look she gave him was intense, her eyes blazing like the girl from his dream.

"Ser Brenden, send men to Chataya's brothel. Ask for a woman called Amaerys. Bring her here." He sat there for several quiet moments, staring at her as she stared at him, dark purple locked on bright green. Neither spoke. Neither moved.

And then he heard a cough.

He looked back and saw Sandor standing to the right of the cracked door, wiping blood from his sword. Fat Lip's blood, Harry thought. And he saw Joffrey standing in his shadow, a satisfied, if somewhat shocked grin spread about his face. But as he peered upon Harry, he lost his grin, and fear and apprehension wormed its way across his features.

Harry felt the rage take hold of him all over again. "You," he spat. He tried to stand, but Aeryn clenched his arm. He glanced down at her and whispered, "It's okay."

Reluctantly, she released him, and sat up with a wince. She slipped into the doublet and wrapped the cloak about her shoulders, then fastened the cord at her neck. Harry helped her stand; she wavered for a second, but held her ground. Still, she did not speak.

"What did I tell you, Joffrey?" Harry took a step towards his brother. He couldn't believe he was related to such a loathsome creature.

"I've done nothing wrong," Joffrey said, and he sounded like he believed it. "That stupid boy dared to attack me with his stick, so Sandor cut him down." He seemed oblivious to the menace in Harry's eyes. "I showed the rest mercy." He smirked. "I'd thought to put them in the crow cages."

Harry was aghast. What was wrong with him? This was madness. Pure, unadulterated madness. "You call this mercy?" His rage reached a crescendo, and it morphed his face into something fearsome.

Sandor stepped in front of Joffrey, seeming to recognize the murder written plain across Harry's face, as if in big, bold lettering. If the Cleganes knew anything, it was murder. "Calm down now, prince. Kinslaying ain't for you."

No, Harry thought. Not kinslaying. He caught Sandor's gaze and tore into his mind like a wild beast tearing into its prey, with neither remorse nor mercy. He had no desire to see memories. He just wanted to see him in pain.

Today, he had learned the truth of hate, and it was a black, ugly thing, that corrupted all it touched.

Sandor winced, his face curling in misery, and he put a mailed hand to his head as if to stave off the torment. He couldn't speak, so great was his pain, so sudden, and his eyes widened, wrought with confusion and a dose of fear. With a powerful thud, he fell to a knee. Blood flowed from his nose in crimson rivulets. Joffrey grew pale.

"Prince Harry," said Ser Strongboar. Harry ignored him. He felt a hand close around his shoulder, but didn't bother to look and see who it was. Marvell, perhaps? "Harry!"

Harry turned about, fury bared for all to see, face set in a snarl, and snapped the connection. Ser Strongboar looked wary, extremely so, and Ser Wenfryd too bore signs of alarm. Quenten's face was blank, remote and motionless, and Marvell, more than anything, seemed almost frightened, whispering prayers under his breath.

That alone brought Harry up short. He couldn't imagine so large a person would be afraid of anything.

"Gods be good," Ser Wenfryd murmured as he eyed Harry, tone gravely serious. "The Father himself has called justice down on this man."

Harry rather thought that that was the only explanation the knight could muster, and the only one he was willing to believe. The other's seemed to agree, but Quenten, in his silence and facial expression, expressed both a great lack of concern for the unnatural things he had witnessed, and a great pleasure at the deaths of the two gold cloaks. Marvell's relief at the proclamation was almost palpable; Harry had not known him to be so religious.

Sandor, freed from the mental assault, gave a loud grunt and climbed shakily to his feet with labored breath. He did not look at Harry again, and, pulling Joffrey behind him, left the Dragonpit in abject silence. Joffrey wisely kept his tongue.

Harry let them go - he had seen the truth of the matter in Sandor's mind, though it had done nothing to cool the scalding ire that coursed through him, like flames funneled through a forge. He couldn't blame a dog for defending its master, could he? But Joffrey would pay for his crimes, he so vowed; no matter how long it took, no matter what ill the people might think of him, he would see justice done.

He held out a hand for Aeryn, and together, they walked to meet Amaerys. She leaned her weight against him as they walked, the only sign of her pain the grimace on her face, the halting hesitance of her steps. They passed the fiercely burning torch on their way out; the flames wafted back and forth as if guided by a breeze, pushing and pulling against the shadows.

Chapter Text

 

Later that night, beneath the pale light of the waning moon, Harry dreamed that he had arrived at the Dragonpit too late. He burst into the massive shadowed structure to find Joffrey dancing gaily over Aeryn's corpse, stabbing her in the chest with each jaunty step. Harry pulled at his own sword, but it was too heavy to move, stuck in its sheathe, and where Joffrey danced nimbly, Harry seemed to be trudging through quicksand, sinking into a swirling black muck.

Then the dream shifted, as dreams oft do, swimming from one thought to the next, to the night Voldemort returned. The moon was bright and golden, the night eerily silent, the graveyard fringed in mist that stank of mildew and death, and he was chained to a rock. He struggled, screamed, pulled at his shackles, and then, as if he had turned some hidden knob, he was outside of himself, a formless spirit, drifting in the darkness. He saw Wormtail toss the scaly creature that was Voldemort into the bubbling cauldron, heard the wind shriek, tasted something foul in the air. Drown, he thought, hate clutching at his heart with barbed fingers. Drown and die.

The noxious mix of potions boiling in the cauldron spilled out with a hiss, and two pale, long fingered hands clutched the rim. Harry watched himself climb up from the stewing muck.

The sight of himself, naked, emerging from coiling mists with pitiless eyes as red as blood, woke him with such suddenness that he nearly fell out of bed.

His hate had unlocked something, or perhaps it had broken something, some part of himself that he might have been better off keeping whole. He found himself brooding over all the times he had witnessed a wrong, every flogging and beating and beheading, wondering if those who had been judged guilty had truly been guilty in the first place. He dressed with these thoughts on his mind, without paying attention, and saw, when he stood before the mirror, that he had clothed himself all in black, from his boots to his breeches to his doublet.

The basilisk, now dead, was spread over the table in his solar, organs separated in piles, tinny blood threatening to spill over the cloth he had lain out and stain the wood. Even before he had cut it open he knew the creature would be useless; it wasn't in the least bit magical, despite how ugly it was: the basilisk had a chicken's head, with eight bird-like feet, three wicked talons on each one, and a round, scaly back and long tail that made him think of turtles and snakes.

He held out hope that perhaps unicorns might have some sort of magic in them, but then he remembered what Jaime had said, that they were just shaggy goats with straight horns, and his hope died. He thought of Maegor's demands those few weeks ago, for him to journey to Dragonstone and collect one of the dragon eggs that might be hidden somewhere in the bowels of the castle.

Perhaps he would.

He went to break his fast in the kitchens, not feeling at all up to eating with his family, and whispers followed him. Word had spread of the men he had killed, and why he had killed them. The serving maids who brought him his meal – poached eggs, buttered bread, and rabbit stew - seemed as if to weep at any moment, and one did, breaking out into great sobs when he thanked her. They were quite taken with the rumors that had swept through the castle like a sudden gust of wind: that the children killed were his friends, and that he and the silver-haired girl were in love as only children on the cusp of adulthood could be.

Harry thought of the look in Toret's eyes as he choked him, the unnatural stillness of his body as his life drained away. He wished he had made Allar Deem suffer longer before death, and then felt shame for his wish, alarmed by his own cruelty, by the depth of his hatred.

The day passed slowly. Myrcella came to him just after his morning meal, and, being surprisingly perceptive and sensing his mood, didn't mention the events of the night before, speaking instead of mundane things; how he felt about going west, how lovely her new gowns were, the increasingly complex sewing patterns she'd learned, the falcon he was going to give her as a going away present.

"Who told you?" he demanded with a half-smile, spirits lifted by her presence.

"No one told me. I overhead some of the serving maids gossiping about it. They think its sweet how you dote on me. Don't be angry with them for ruining the surprise, I'm sure I'll love it all the same! Is it a boy or a girl?"

"A boy. He's gentle, for a bird of prey, but you'll have to be firm with him or he'll grow too bold."

Myrcella giggled. "So he's like you then!" They sat in companionable silence as the noise of the kitchens washed over them, cups and plates clanking, the gruff voices of the cooks debating over which spices to add to what dish, a maid humming as she cleaned the stoves and table tops.

"I'm going to miss you, dearest brother," Myrcella said, clutching his arm. "You will visit often, won't you? I wish I were going with you; this place will be so boring with you gone, and Joff-" She paused, paling slightly, as if fearful of how he might react to the mention of their brother.

Joffrey's threats against Myrcella swam to the front of his mind. "I wish you were going with me as well," he said, taking her hand in his. "If he does anything, anything, you tell father, or mother, and you write to me, okay?"

She promised she would, but that did nothing to quieten his dark thoughts once they had departed each other's company. Joffrey had witnessed his rage, but it was Sandor who suffered it. Harry doubted the sight of Sandor brought to his knees would be enough to forestall his brother's stupidity. He was overcome, suddenly, with the black urge to kill his brother, for Myrcella's sake, for what he'd had done to the Nameless, but the shame came swiftly afterwards, that he would even consider the murder of his own kin, and his urges calmed to a gentle swell as opposed to frothing waves.

Gods be good. He wished he believed in the gods and their justice, wished that he might find some peace in prayer to them…

Perhaps that's what he would do. Go to the Great Sept and pray to the Stranger, to seek out the cold clarity of death, so that it might cool the fires that burned inside him, anger and hatred and regret churning together as one mass of feeling.

Neither his mother nor his father called on him in the morning, and so he took his lessons with the Grandmaester, trained with Ser Aron and the squires, and, when he thought he might die of boredom, thoughts dark and savage, stole away to the city to visit Jerryd and Aeryn, who were in Maester Wulfric's care at the inn he'd visited the day before.

Had it truly been only a day? It seemed like so much longer…

In contrast to his thoughts, the day was clear and beautiful, the sky a deep blue, the sun bright and golden. The sea breeze swept through the city, salty and cool, cutting away some measure of the great stench that hung about like flies on shit. Birds were wheeling overhead, swarming, and the commoners were thick in the streets, teeming over the cobbles, as loud as the roar of the Blackwater emptying into the bay.

Again, a few of the Westerlands knights and squires accompanied him, Ser Strongboar, Ser Wenfryd, Marvell, Quenten; Bertram and Herbert had remained behind at the keep, having both taken a shine to a young serving maid.

Ser Brenden walked just at his shoulder, close enough to lean forward and whisper, "I have told no one of what I witnessed last night. What you did to Allar Deem, to Toret, to Clegane-"

"Everyone knows I killed Allar Deem and Toret," Harry cut in just as quietly, deliberately misinterpreting what the knight meant. "Nothing else happened."

Ser Brenden held his silence for several breaths. "Of course, my prince," he said finally, dipping his head in deference. Their eyes met, briefly, and a wordless promise passed between them.

Louder, Harry said, "You've protected me well since I asked you to guard me on my trips into the city; I would ask you now to accompany me to Casterly Rock, now that I am its heir, and continue your leal service."

There was another pause, and Harry imagined he could feel Ser Brenden's surprise and bewilderment, but more than that, his delight. The moment stretched into awkwardness. Harry glanced back at Ser Brenden, an eyebrow arched in question.

The knight started as if startled. "I am yours, my prince," he said with great fervor. "I will guard you with my life."

They entered the inn.

The common area was near deserted. The owner, whose name Harry had never learned, was nowhere to be seen, but the heavy set woman and the little girl were both present, along with a few guests spaced throughout the room. It was with surprising and alarming somberness that the girl led him up to Wulfric's rooms.

"How are they?" he asked the maester when he entered, seeing with a cursory glance that both Jerryd and Aeryn were asleep. Amaerys was sitting on the bed beside her daughter, stroking her hair, quietly humming a whispery, undulating tune. She glanced up as Harry entered with his men at his back, crowding the admittedly small room.

She bowed her head and intoned solemnly, "My prince." Then she turned her eyes back upon her daughter and starting humming anew. The bruises on Aeryn's face were fading. Harry had never seen her look so peaceful. Even when he had seen her happy, or teasing, there had always been a certain inexplicable weight to her expressions, something intangible in her eyes that bespoke great feeling.

He had seen a piece of what that was the night they'd sailed across the bay, but he couldn't quite define it. He only knew that he had seen it, and that whatever it was, it was reflected in him.

"They are doing well, all things considered," began Wulfric. "I've sedated them to help with the recovery. Both will experience some discomfort – it will take some time for the boy's jaw to heal, and he'll never have full vision in his left eye – but he'll live. The girl has heavy bruising in her, well, ahem, in several places, ribs, thighs… but her mother has a rather ingenious tonic to soothe the pain and lessen the swelling that we have applied liberally. It's a wonder you two managed to walk here, though I imagine traveling by horseback or palanquin would've only worsened her wounds."

He went on, but Harry tuned him out, claiming a seat between the two beds so. Seeing them like this only gave strength to his dark thoughts and urges, and it was a long time calming his rage and hatred. Damn them. Damn Joffrey, damn Sandor, damn the gold cloaks. Damn them all.

He hadn't punished the men who'd beaten Jerryd, aware that they had most likely been ordered by Joffrey, but now…

Quenten leaned toward him and said, "Those three gold cloaks are still confined to their quarters," as if having read his mind.

Ser Strongboar who, Harry had thought, along with Marvell, was the least likely to support him, said, "Allow my squire and I to visit justice on the cravens. I have never cared for street urchins, nor children of any sort, but if it be your will to punish those who beat your friend so, then I would be honored to carry out your justice." He laughed, loud and booming. "I'll even give them a fighting chance, which is more than they gave that poor lad."

Harry was taken aback by the offer. Ser Strongboar had never seemed so eloquent, nor so loyal – not to him. In all their previous interactions, Harry had felt as if the knight was simply humoring him, in much the same way all adults humored those they considered children.

Was that what he'd lost, what his hatred had killed? The aura of childhood?

Whatever had changed between them, Harry didn't care – he sent Ser Strongboar and Marvell to beat those men as badly as they had beaten Jerryd, feeling both intense pleasure at the thought that they would suffer, and stomach turning shame that his pleasure at such was so great.

Later in the day, after two bouts with Quenten – one of which he had won, narrowly – and a slow, meandering trek around the city, he came upon Stannis in a well-furnished niche in the main hall of the keep, arms folded across his chest, mouth set in a hard line. "The King wants to see you," he said as Harry walked up. "He's in his chambers."

Silently, Harry followed the walkway toward the Holdfast, Stannis at his side, boots loud on the stone floor. The castle was oddly quiet, the halls near empty. The sky had been a pure blue that morning, but now clouds were rolling in, pulled from the east to the west as if following the sun's trail.

"There is no fault in what you did to those men," Stannis said abruptly, and he tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. "Your methods were extreme, but you did what your honor demanded of you." He grew quiet, appeared to be considering his words. "What those men did was unforgivable. Rape is a crime, no matter the people involved… but you should have allowed them the opportunity to take the black. You can't ignore some parts of the law to favor others."

"I couldn't allow them anything," Harry said. Odd, he thought, that Stannis was trying to comfort him. It warmed his heart, and he couldn't help but think ill of himself for all the times he had slighted his uncle for his abrasiveness. "I wasn't thinking," he admitted. "I just… acted." They came upon the intersection that opened up to the courtyard in the middle of the keep and the bridge to the holdfast. Harry smelled blood and heard panicked bleating – somewhere nearby goats were being slaughtered.

"You must learn restraint," Stannis said. "You can't allow yourself to be governed by anger, or any other emotion."

Harry had heard the same advice from Lord Jon, but following wasn't quite so simple as that. He couldn't help the strength of his feelings, but perhaps, he surmised, it would be best to seek some manner of control over his nature.

He paused in the shadow of an arched doorway and peered out the open threshold to the guardsmen lowering the bridge across the spiked moat. He saw the goat now, hanging from a rack across the bailey, just outside an arched opening that led down to the hall where the kitchens were. The butcher was puffing away at a pipe, and the smoke curled into strange shapes before the wind swept them away.

"Perhaps I over stepped my bounds, but I would do so again if need be." A thought came to him then. "Do you have friends, uncle?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"A few," Stannis allowed. "The Onion Knight, Ser Davos. I count him as friend."

"If he was abducted and tortured, what punishment would you visit upon the men responsible?"

Stannis looked away to stare into one of the tall black iron braziers along the floor. The coals were smoldering, flames whipping almost frantically, bending this way and that.

"I know you, uncle," Harry continued. "I know you well. You would kill them, and you wouldn't do it quickly. Don't begrudge me my anger... two children lay dead," as if I, he thought, angering, am not a child myself, "another raped-" He stopped abruptly as her image came to his mind, bruised, battered, and bloody. He clenched his fists until his palms ached, and remembered that Aeryn was alive, Jerryd would live, and the surviving gold cloaks were getting their due. And one day, be it weeks, years, or decades, Joffrey would get his as well.

After some time, Stannis said, "There was a fourth, was there not? Some fisherman? What of him?"

"His wounds were severe, but the maester believes he will live. But there's nothing for him in King's Landing now. Nothing for any of them." His face fell, eyes boring holes into the stone beneath his feet. "He wants to sail ships," he said. "Even has a little boat... we'd go sailing, sometimes. Just the other day, actually. We sailed to the southern bank of the bay and ate roasted fish."

Stannis was quiet for an even longer time. The sound of singing drifted towards them from somewhere in the castle; an older serving maid walked past with a heavy sack over her shoulder, eyes bright as she sang. She saw them and struggled to bow, but Harry waved her on with the faintest of smiles. Finally, Stannis said, "May be that my friend has need of a servant. He was once much the same, Davos. Born right here in King's Landing, in Flea Bottom, even."

Harry could scarcely believe his ears. "You would do that, uncle?" He would need to talk with Jerryd, but he couldn't imagine the boy declining.

"I'll send word to Cape Wraith," Stannis said. He gestured to the holdfast looming ahead of them. "The king is waiting." With those words he departed, disappearing around a corner, his footfalls echoing in the empty corridors.

Perhaps Stannis wasn't so bad after all?

He found his mother waiting for him in an alcove on his father's floor of the holdfast. Further down the hall stood his uncle Jaime and Ser Mandon Moore, silently guarding the king's door, appearing like nothing so much as two white statues of sculpted steel. Every window was open, and the hall was silent save for the familiar fluttering crack of the flames atop the torches that lined the walls.

"Harry dear, come." She held out her hand for him to grasp, and pulled him close. His mood lightened further in her presence, but only just.

"I've missed you today," she said, voice soft. "That was quite the adventure you had. The whole castle is talking about you. Your father has spoken of little else all day." She combed her fingers through his hair, straightening up the ruffled strands hanging around his face "You took your meals in the kitchens?"

Harry nodded, leaning into her touch as a cat might. She was rarely so affectionate.

She tutted. "Shame. You should eat with your family. Blood is what matters in this world." They walked slowly towards the King's chambers, one of her arms curled about his shoulders, the other still holding his hand.

"I never thought you would be so strong," she said. "You've proven that you are a Lannister, a true lion, strong and fierce."

"So too have I proven that I am my father's child. Ours is the Fury," he quoted ruefully. He could still feel it deep inside him, that fury, a vast chasm of scalding heat waiting to overflow. Stannis and his mother had stilled it, somewhat, but if left to smolder, coals could catch heat and come ablaze with but the slightest kindling.

"Oh, but did you not roar!" she said, voice bursting with pride. She mentioned nothing of Joffrey's part in what had taken place. He resented her for it, but it was as a kernel to a castle in the face of his love for her. "And the whole realm heard your roar, hears it still. There will be songs written about you, love."

Harry did not share his mother's enthusiasm. "Perhaps." And I would just as well never hear them. "Does their suffering not matter? Aeryn was raped, and Fat Lip and Mumbles were dead. Jerryd will be half blind in one eye. Who would care to hear such a song?"

She stopped him at the threshold to his father's room. He was acutely aware of the Jaime and Ser Mandon flanking them, and imagined he saw the slightest amused smirk slither across his uncle's face. "You are what matters," his mother said. "There are millions of lowborn; they suffer now and they will continue to suffer. There is but one of you, my love, and I would not see your heart hurt so for those beneath you."

Harry should have expected that. His mother looked down on ladies and lords - she would care nothing of smallfolk. But still...

"They needn't suffer for the crime of birth," he said, thinking of the hovels on the banks of the Blackwater, of the children, scarily thin with their big, wide eyes and bulging stomachs. "It's just... it's not..."

"Fair?" his mother supplied. "If the world was fair, sweetling, then I would rule the Iron Throne. I would wield arms and wear plate, and it would be your father in skirts and gowns." She glanced over at Jaime, but the knight stared dutifully ahead. The smirk was there though, wider now.

Harry knew the world wasn't fair, but that didn't mean he had to like it; didn't mean he couldn't change it.

His father's rooms befit his status; they were vast an well furnished with opulent pieces of furniture. One wall was spanned by a vast wardrobe of burnished oak, prancing stags etched into the aged wood, hundreds of little trinkets and bits of jewelry displayed in gold and silver cases on the flat top.

Arms of flame as tall as a man reached up from a hearth set in the adjacent wall, and above it, atop the mantle, rested his father's old warhammer, a solid hunk of glittering steel inlaid with black gems. Tapestries hung on either side of the hearth, black silk woven with golden thread that depicted heroic scenes of men at war; beside those hung the Baratheon heraldy, the black stag in a sea of gold.

His father was sitting in a dark corner atop a plush stool, the cushion stuffed with down. The king held a flask in his hand, and at his feet lay empty goblets and casks. He hummed to himself in between sips, one hand dancing through the air in rhythm to the sounds.

Harry felt his anger stir. He had not forgotten past injustices in face of new wrongs; he had not, nor would he ever, forgive his father for what had befallen Prince Rhaegar's family. He couldn't help but think of them whenever he saw his father. "Smile at the bodies." That's what Elia had said. Had she been referring to the king, or Lord Tywin? There was only one way to discover the truth... but he wasn't so sure he wanted to know it.

"Robert," Cersei announced into the silence.

The king turned, just now noticing them, and smiled, heavily bearded face stretching wide.

"Smile at the bodies."

"Harry! I've been waiting for you." He stood and stumbled a bit, footsteps slow and irregular. He did not greet Cersei.

He was shirtless beneath his black robe, and his chest was as hairy as the bear pelt on his bed. He staggered over to it and leaned his weight against one of the posts. "Tell me boy, did you enjoy it?" He drank from the flask gripped tight in his meaty fist, and smiled a savage grin. "There's nothing quite so sweet as revenge. It's sweeter than any woman. Certainly sweeter than your mother."

Harry had been confused at first, but understanding came swift as his father continued to speak, and anger, for the insult against his mother. Harry had been raised on tales of his vengeance over Rhaeger at the Ruby Ford. He said nothing, though; he had another thought on his mind, one that had blossomed bright and bloody when he looked upon his father.

"I still remember when I killed Rhaegar," Robert went on, wistful, nostalgic. "The feel of the hammer in my hand as it crushed his chest, the sound he made, a gurgling sort of grunt; the disbelief in his eyes… he shit himself when I hit him."

Harry didn't care to speak of Rhaegar, but his children and wife were never far from his thoughts. "Will Joffrey be punished?" he asked, already knowing the answer, knowing that if that time came, it would be at his hands, and no one else's.

Fat Lip and Mumbly were dead because of him. And Aeryn… Allar Deem and Toret may have done the deed, but it was Joffrey who goaded them to it, Joffrey who gave them leave to act as beasts, Joffrey, who had cost a girl her innocence and two children their lives.

Harry would take whatever chiding that came for his killing the men, but he wouldn't do it silently. Not while his brother stood free of judgment.

"Joffrey did nothing, but stain his honor." his father said, and Harry felt the scalding heat rise into flames, smoldering coals catching light with the slightest of kindling. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. He'd known what his father would say, and yet it still enraged him.

"And what of Sandor?" Harry asked, teeth clenched. His hatred of Joffrey was total, and though his feelings against Sandor weren't half as strong, knowing in his heart that the man had acted in his duties as Joffrey's sworn shield, he disliked him greatly. Breath, Harry, he told himself. "He murdered a child." He felt his magic stirring as if alive; it responded to his emotions, the two as interwoven as braided twine. He took an even deeper breath.

His mother frowned at him. "That child attacked your brother," she said. "Charged him with a spear. Sandor's actions were warranted."

Not you too, mother, he thought, ashamed at her words. "Joffrey attacked them first."

"It doesn't matter," the king said. "Joffrey shamed himself, and Sandor did his duty, as he had sworn an oath to do."

"He needn't have killed him," Harry stressed, trying to reign in his anger. He felt his face grow hot. "He could just as easily have knocked him out. He was a boy. Younger even than Myrcella. I'm not asking you to dismiss him, but do something." Did they not understand? Could they not see just how heinous his crime was?

"Sandor did what needed to be done," his father said with an air of finality. "It was necessary."

His mother said nothing.

Harry's anger peaked. Mayhaps he had heard wrong. "Necessary?" he repeated, voice strangled. "Necessary?!" How could his father say such a thing? His fury mounted, bolstered by flames not yet gone, fueled by his hatred of Joffrey and his utter disdain for his father. Disgust oozed its way into the anger, and Harry scowled.

"It is never necessary to kill children," he said vehemently. The flames crackling above the hearth thickened, fueled by his magic seeping into the air. "Not even for a kingdom." His voice was quiet, taut like a drawn longbow.

Robert was taken aback. "What was that boy?" His tone had changed. There was steel in his voice, and Harry imagined that his father's temper was perhaps even greater than his own.

Cersei gripped Harry tight, willing him to be silent, but he could no longer hold the question that had been plaguing him since he spoke with Elia Martell. His father's words had but fanned the flames of his anger, made them brighter, fiercer, and he could contain them no longer. Smile at the bodies. It came back to that... a sin, unforgivable.

"Did you smile at them, father?"

"What? What are you talking about boy?"

"Elia, and Rhaenys, and Aegon," Harry spat. His mother squeezed his shoulder tighter. "The children that were murdered to see you on the throne. Did you smile at their dead bodies?" Say no, he thought. Tell me it's all a lie.

"Those weren't children, boy. They were dragonspawn, and they deserved to die."

Harry might have been dismayed if he weren't so angry. How could his father be so crass? So cruel? The room itself seemed to shake - loose coins lying about the floor, trinkets along the top of the wardrobe - even his father's crown, sitting at his bedside table. But the king didn't seem to notice.

Cersei's grip tightened further still as her eyes roved the room. He could almost feel her fear, her worry, but it did nothing to quell his rage.

"They were children," Harry said. "Innocent. Ignorant. They didn't put men to the torch. They didn't kidnap Lyanna Stark."

His mother tensed beside him, and Robert looked stricken. Harry saw that, the regret and the shame, and pounced like the lion his mother had claimed him to be. A very dark, sinister part of him blamed his father for Joffrey's cruelty, wondered if perhaps had the king been a better man, he might have raised a better son.

"Do you think she would've loved you after that, father?" Rage was building in his father's face, but Harry couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, urged on by his own anger, and something else, like spite, almost, but sharper. "Do you think she could've loved a man like you? A coward? It's no wonder mother is repulsed by the sight-"

Something exploded against the side of his head, and for several long breaths, the world was dark. He felt as if he were falling into a deep hole. No sound existed save for the silence of his thoughts, but as he began to rise out of the hole, fingers grasping for purchase to see him free of the darkness, a voice reached his ears.

"... disgrace, you still love that whore!" It was his mother's voice. Then there was a thunderous clap, and more silence.

He climbed faster towards the light. Slowly, the darkness faded. He felt stone beneath his back. He was lying on the floor, and his head was throbbing. He'd been hit by his father.

"Does it make you feel strong, striking a woman?"

Harry didn't hear the blow this time, but he heard the air rush from his mother's mouth, heard her knees hit the floor as she lost her balance. He struggled to stand. His limbs felt weak, his head was swimming, and tiny lights flickered in his eyes. The room wavered. "Stop," he said, but he might as well have whispered for the strength of his voice.

He felt hot. Burning hot, as if he had become flame, in essence.

"You are no king." It was his mother's voice again, weaker than before.

"Shut it, woman, or I'll show you just how much of a king I am." The goblets on the floor started shaking again, perhaps had never stopped, then the chairs, the warhammer above the mantle, the massive wardrobe. They shook and shook and shook, and still the drunken king did not notice.

Harry found his balance. He felt himself returned to the Dragonpit, still bearing witness to the stuff of nightmares. Rage, wrath, fury, anger - they were but words, incapable of describing the utter intensity of his feelings. "Stop," he said again, voice louder.

Cersei spat at Robert's feet. Her lip was split and already swelling. Robert reared back his arm to strike her once more-

Something in Harry snapped.

"Stop!" He thrust out an arm and Robert flew into the wall as if shot from a catapult. His head smacked the stone with a sharp crack. He fell to the floor and did not move.

Now that the moment was over, panic carved its way through the wall of Harry's anger. His chest was heaving as if he'd been running. He'd used magic on his father. He couldn't tell if he was breathing. Oh no. Oh no! All at once his anger seemed to evaporate.

He ran over to his father and dropped to his knees beside him, limbs shaking. For all his rage, for all his hate, he hadn't meant to hurt his father; just stop him. He hadn't meant to kill him. Frantic, he put two fingers up to the king's neck, and laid one against his chest.

The pulse was faint, but steady, and he felt the massive chest slowly expanded as his father drew in a weak breath. Relief chased the panic away, and he had to fight off the anger from returning. His father was alive. He tried to focus on that.

Harry took a deep breath to calm his frazzled nerves. This was the third instance in which he had used magic to hurt someone, the third instance where he had allowed his emotions to control him. But this was so much worse than the others. This was his father.

Cersei struggled to her feet, regarding him with wide eyes. He was afraid to look at her, to see in her gaze the same wariness and fear he had seen reflected in the face of those knights who had stood with him in the Dragonpit. He hadn't cared much how they felt - though he was grateful for their loyalty - but he loved his mother, loved her in a way that belied words, and he didn't think he could bear it if she rejected him.

It was his greatest fear.

She scooped Robert's flask into her hands, spilled some on the floor, and wiped her foot through it, then she took a swig from the flask herself and tossed it back to the floor. "Go into the hall and tell Ser Mandon to retrieve Maester Pycelle. Tell him Robert slipped in spilled wine and took a blow to the head." She paused, considering. A bruise was already purpling on her cheek. "Wait for me in your quarters."

"Mother, I-"

"Go, Harry. I'll be along when I can."

He hesitated, unsure of what to say or do.

"Go," she said again, with more force to her voice.

Harry, a rapidly unraveling bundle of nerves and emotions, did as he was told.

He sat in his room for many hours. Night fell while he waited, nearly moonless for the veil of gray clouds that shrouded the sky. He hadn't bothered to light a torch, content to sit in the darkness with only his thoughts for company, the black shadows patterned with motes of starlight that trickled through the open window. Maegor had come during the first hour, but Harry had scarcely acknowledged his presence, and the surly old ghost had left, grumbling his displeasure.

He was worried, but at the same time, oddly apathetic, and strangely relieved. What would become of him now? Of his father? He had attacked the king, and with magic, no less. Robert would know he hadn't slipped in wine.

And what would his mother say? Magic was little understood. Some considered it a thing of nightmares, a vile creation of beings most foul, the works of devils and spirits. Some had no thought of it at all. He remembered his lessons on the Great Bastards and the kings of old, the rumors and whispers that followed them, of pacts made in the dark of night, of blood sacrifices in dedication to creatures beyond the realms of men. But he also remembered lessons on Bran the Builder and the wall he had erected of ice and stone, woven with protective spells to defend the kingdom from whatever horrors that lay beyond it.

The Builder was remembered as a hero. Under which slant of light would he be viewed? By and large he was known to be kind, but just the day before he had killed two men with little thought. Deserving though they were, he couldn't be sure of how people who didn't know him might interpret the events.

And that was how his mother found him, lying in his bed, staring into shadows.

"Harry," she said when she entered, voice tremulous. She carried a single candle with her.

Harry didn't look away from the darkness. He didn't think he could bear it if of saw fear in her eyes.

"Harry," she said again, voice stronger. "Look at me."

He sighed, braced himself with a deep breath, and turned around to see her standing in the doorway, her face brightened by flame.

She was smiling. "Come here, child." She held out a hand and he rushed from his bed and fell into her embrace. The scent of sweet berries tickled his nose, and then her warmth and loved seemed to seep into him, warming his bones and lightening his heart.

"You've done me a great service today," she whispered, voice heavy with meaning. She pulled back and looked into his eyes. She'd never done it before, and he was so surprised and delighted he didn't even think of delving into her thoughts. "What did you do to Robert? What happened?"

Harry kept his silence. He was unwilling to part with his greatest secret. Mayhaps if he didn't vocalize it, she could delude herself into thinking it a trick of light, or a hallucination wrought by pain.

Cersei adopted a thoughtful expression, but Harry saw sorrow in her eyes, and this alarmed him. "I propose a trade. A sharing of secrets. I will tell you my secret, and if you deem it great enough, you will tell me yours." She led him back to his bed and they sat atop the furs. "That is fair, is it not?"

Harry nodded slowly, his reluctance plain on his face. He watched the shadows flee the candle light, saw them scramble up the wall and under the bed.

"You are a miracle," she began, eyes glistening. "A true miracle." As the silence stretched, Harry began to realize the gravity of what she was about to say. He had never seen his mother so hesitant speak, so mournful.

"When I grew heavy with you, I took moon tea, and a great deal of it. I didn't want another child." Her eyes grew wet with tears and they spilled down her face, more tears than he had ever seen his mother shed. "But you kept growing. Kept living." Her voice was tremulous. "I tried tansy... and still you lived. I felt you inside of me, just here," and she grabbed his hand and held it to her stomach, "punching and kicking... so full of energy, so full of life." Her gaze grew even heavier, shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs. "I wanted no part of it. I hated you, love, before I had yet laid eyes upon you." She pressed her lips against his forehead, once, then twice, and cradled his face.

He was almost undone. A single tear slipped from his eye.

"And then you were born, with his black hair and my green eyes... Jaime's green eyes." She gave a watery smile. "That well of hate dried up, and I grew to love you... my sweet, bold boy. So strong. So willful." She wiped away his tear with the pad of her thumb.

Harry had nothing to say to that. What could he say? His mother had tried to kill him, tried to end his life before it had begun. Had hated him. Did she do the same with Myrcella? Why had he been so reviled? And how had he lived?

But she loved him. That's what mattered, he thought. That's what he clung to, that knowledge, lest despair consume him. She loved him.

"That was my secret." She let out a sharp breath and shook herself loose, tears glistening on her cheeks. "Now what is yours?" Her eyes searched his face. "What happened, love? What did you do to Robert?"

He was hesitant to answer, but she was insistent. He mulled over his words, wondering how he would explain, what he would say. But she had seen him do magic already; what else was there to say but the truth?

"It was magic," he said at last. He held out a hand and a strip of cloth laying across the tip of his mirror flew to his fingers. He gently wiped away her tears as she had wiped away his, and dabbed at the thin stream of blood that still trickled from her swollen lip.

Her shock was apparent. Wariness too; he could see the cogs in her mind turning. He had done it so casually, and with such ease. "And how did you… how long have you been able to-"

"I was born with this power." It was a gift, he wanted to say. From something more than man. Something great. Something terrible.

She was silent for a very long time. Long enough that Harry felt apprehension take hold of him. "Is that all you can do?" she said finally. "Move things?"

He shook his head. "I can do more," he admitted. "Much more. But I don't have the proper tools."

His mother contemplated his words and asked, "You've told no one of your... magic?"

"No, but-" he stopped and cleared his throat, "in the Dragonpit, I..."

"Go on," she urged, voice gentle.

"I cursed Allar Deem, when I saw him. And Toret. And Sandor too." Thinking of it only made him angry again. Better to feel angry than drown in sorrow, he thought. "I was just so angry. Ser Wenfryd named it punishment from the Father," he admitted. "I didn't disagree."

"That's fine, love. You did well. But you must take care to reveal this power to no one else. No one. Do you understand?"

"I understand." That's what he'd been doing.

She stared meaningfully.

"Yes, mother."

She leaned down and kissed the crown of his head, and then each cheek. "There are many simple minded fools who may think your power the work of devils and demons." She stood, still holding his hand. "If need be, I will endeavor to convince them otherwise."

"How would you do that?" he asked, genuinely curious. He had ideas, but he'd scarcely entertained them. They were but vague, half thought out plots to tie himself to the Faith. A sudden exhaustion came over him, and he stifled a yawn.

"Worry not, my love. Leave it to me. Leave everything to me."

Harry hesitated. What would happen when his father awoke? He opened his mouth to ask, but his mother silenced him as she always did, with a finger pressed to his lips.

"Hush, child. Mother knows best."

But there was something else he wanted to know as well; another question burned in the back of his throat. He spoke quickly, before he could be quieted. "Does he... does he do that often?"

She tilted her head and strands of golden hair fell into her eyes. "Do what, love?"

"Hit you," Harry said. "I'd never noticed-"

"It's not for you to notice. And he doesn't do it often." She tested her swollen lip with a prodding finger. "But often enough," she finished in a whisper. Then her face brightened, shining like the starlight that cascaded through the open window, brighter even, like the sun risen anew. "Save your worries, sweetling, I've had my revenge." She ran her fingers through his hair again, and he sighed at her touch. "In more ways than one."

Chapter Text

 

In the days leading up to Harry's departure, he never heard a single word mentioned of that night in the king's chambers, beyond idle servant gossip about how violent the king was when the drink was in him. But when the time came, his father did not see him off to Casterly Rock, sending Lord Jon and Renly to stand in his place.

Words could not convey how greatly that worried him.

The city did not share his father's reticence, for they came out in droves, from the most obnoxious of highborn lords and ladies – like the miserly old Lord Gerard Thorne, and his stoat of a wife, some needle-necked Rollingford woman – to the hardiest dredges of Flea Bottom, thin, bedraggled folk with dull eyes and sharp faces. Even the birds had come to see him off, twitchy pigeons that perched atop tiled roofs and balcony rails, raining droppings on the unfortunate souls huddled beneath them, and stray dogs too, sniffing about for whatever morsels of food that hadn't been seized by the barefoot waifs of the slums. They all gathered before the leonine face of the Lion Gate, as dawn broke in a swirl of yellow and pink and purple over the choppy eastern sea.

Chubby cheeked children peaked out from their mother's legs as Harry's party rode past, and older, bolder lads parted from the crowd to march proudly alongside them. The crowd was subdued somewhat by the early hour, but still they cheered his name, and the lowest of them, and perhaps the most besotted, reached out to touch him with grubby hands. Watching them, his thoughts turned to the promise he had made to himself, to become a prince worthy of such devotion. What would they think of him, he wondered, if they knew of the darkness festering in his heart?

Harry rode at the head of the party, with Ser Kevan beside him, each flanked by a standard bearer, one floating the black stag of Baratheon, the other, the golden lion of Lannister. Then there was Ser Barristan, a regal figure in shining white, who had volunteered to serve as escort, and the Westermen, in freshly polished plate as if they were riding off to war, followed by their squires. An honor guard of one hundred gold cloaks in five rows of twenty brought up the rear, trailed by packhorses and mules, servants and oxcarts. Maester Wulfric, who hoped that some of the riches of Castlery Rock might fund his return to Essos, was in one of those carts, as well as Aeryn, and Tyrion too.

When Tyrion had discovered that Harry meant to take Aeryn with him to Casterly Rock, he had called Harry a witless fool, cursed him, and sent word ahead to his aunt, to see about saving his nephew from the same sharp lesson that his lord father had given him. In light of Harry's foolishness, Tyrion had said, he couldn't allow him to face Lord Tywin alone.

The cheering and murmuring of the crowd merged with clopping hooves and the far off growl of the Blackwater, ringing off the stone and thrumming in the air. As the cacophony washed over him, he turned back to look once more upon the city and its people, to see their grimy faces, the lords in their silken finery, the ladies in their laced, bejeweled gowns. His eyes were drawn beyond the many stores and inns and houses that humped the twisty streets, to the precipice of Visenya's hill. The Great Sept stood as tall as ever, stout and grasping; from Harry's vantage, it seemed more like white beams spearing down from the clouds than towers reaching up for the sky.

And so they rode, Harry and his party, as the morning sky brightened to pale blue, then, when the sun peaked, became streaked in swaths of bright gold. The sun followed them for a time, like a dog at their heels, and then suddenly they were following it, and the blue and gold streaks were darkening to purple and bronze. The cycle repeated day after day, like spokes on a wagon wheel, turning, turning, turning.

As the days churned, Harry couldn't help but ponder the matter with his father. A part of him was worried by his father's distance, another part was relieved by it, and yet another was angered, disgusted and confused, by his mother and father both, still reeling from what had happened, and what he had learned, on that fateful night.

And then there was the anger, and the hate, buried deep, but not altogether gone. Perhaps it would never truly be gone.

He should have confronted his father, he mused, or tasked one of Aeryn's friends with discerning his mind. Or delved into his mind myself. He found no solace in the simplistic beauty of the countryside, the vastness of it, the endless quiet, the sweet taste of the air, though he wished he could. Everything was soured. My mother tried to murder me in her womb. My father hates me. I've vowed to kill my brother.

Rolling grasslands spread northward from the Gold Road, hugging the Blackwater; further west, the green fields bled yellow, stippled with golden wheat that flowed upward into gentle hills, then tall, forested mounds, and beyond even those, far off in the distance, little more than fading, indistinct shapes against the horizon, vast mountain ranges that shone gold and red when the sun set.

There was a unique sort of stillness to the countryside, as if the world was holding its breath, but every so often, as the horses thundered down the path, the grasses would come alive as flocks of birds burst from the stalks, shrieking shrilly at their passing. The air was scented with the thick, heady smell of wildness, tall grasses and flowering weeds and wet earth. When the wind blew, it was a gentle breeze that swept through his hair like cool fingers, trailing soft touches against his skin. At night though, the air would teem with whining mosquitoes, droning crickets, clattering cicadas, croaking frogs, and the occasional hooting owl, round gemstone eyes staring down from spindly branches.

The beauty, the serenity – it was lost on him, wasted, and he wished, desperately, that he might revisit the boy he had been, and not the man he was becoming. The changes in him were apparent to more than himself; Herbert and Bertram complained that he was becoming as dour as Quentin.

A week out from the capital they set camp in the marshlands where the Blackwater Rush was joined by God's Eye River. Such was the beauty of the wilds that nearly half the men didn't even bother to erect tents, opting instead to sleep on the soft earth beneath the open sky. They sang vulgar tunes over the gurgling waters that rushed on either side of them, tumbled dice and gambled over cards. Sweet smelling hickory cookfires crackled, spitting wisps of flame, and the aroma of boiling herbs, onions, and fresh-caught salmon wafted thick in the air.

In the waning daylight, Harry, Aeryn, and two of his honor guard rode south down the Blackwater along a thin, muddy trail that was framed with rippling reeds. Harry had set out with no true purpose – the ride had been Aeryn's idea. Practice, she had said, to better her riding skills.

Ser Kevan had not approved.

As they rode, a splash of dark color in the midst of drab greens and browns along the riverbed caught Harry's eye. He gently tugged the reins and Flatfoot slowed to a stop, angling towards the murky water.

The color had caught Aeryn's eye as well, for she slowed her horse beside his, almost in tandem, and dismounted to wade through the reeds and slushy soil to the riverside. Dragonflies buzzed back and forth, flitting this way and that. Upon the muddy bank, they found a cluster of black lilies that were hemmed by a rotting log pimpled with white-gilled mushrooms.

"Black lilies, black omens," Aeryn whispered. "I wonder who they're for?" Her voice was sour. Harry could feel the guards nearby, watching them. He turned, stared – the both of them wheeled away and rode off to graze their horses in the fields.

Aeryn knelt in the mud and gathered the lilies in front her. Beneath the gloaming sun the silver-gold strands of her hair were darker, streaked with purple and fiery orange, reflecting the magnificent sky above. "I think I should make a crown. One for Mumbles, one for Fat Lip… and one for me."

Harry squatted beside her and peered into the water. His reflection leered back at him, twisted and baleful.

"Stupid boy," Aeryn said, not bothering to indicate who she meant. "He wanted to be a pirate king. King of the Stepstones. He didn't even know where they were." She laughed bitterly. "He would have had a better chance sailing to the moon. Mumbles though… Mumbles was clever. Witty, even." She wove the lilies together with blades of grass, her fingers deft even as her hands trembled.

Harry reached out and touched his hand to hers, and the trembling stilled. He hadn't thought much of either boys. They are the Stranger's, now. Free.

"There's a flower like this in Lys," Aeryn said. "A red flower. The blood lily. My mother told me about them. The alchemists grow them in the airy halls in the tallest towers of the city." She sang softly as her hands worked, "Mix red and black with powdered bone, and watch the Widow's Blood flow free."

He wondered if Lyseni alchemists were anything like their Westerosi counterparts. "Widow's blood?"

"A poison. Slow and painful, with a low dose. Quick, and no less painful, with a higher one. My mother gave me a few vials to keep close at hand." She stared into his face. Her eyes were stormy; behind the deep, dark purple, he saw a flash of swarthy skin and black hair. He grit his teeth as a wave of hatred surged through him. He thought of Joffrey, and how he might one day repay the debt he owed his brother. I made a vow.

The quiet stretched too long. A frog croaked, and something rustled through the reeds. His hatred cooled to a simmer. Would he always carry this feeling in his gut, this rage and loathing?

Aeryn just knelt there, silent and still as a tomb, so Harry spoke again. "All it takes is a red flower, a black flower, and powdered bone to make a poison?"

"No, there's more to it than that." She rose to her feet, her tight leather breeches stained at the knee, and set two crowns on the log, and the other on her head. "They have to be aged, the flowers, and the bone has to be burned before being powdered. And then there are the prayers."

"Prayers?" Or spells, most like.

"To the Red God, by my mother's methods. Others use spells. No alchemist crafts in quite the same way."

Harry caught her eye and saw a heart aflame; the scene shifted to a stout temple of red sandstone on a wall-spanning tapestry. And then a man, screaming, beneath a torch that was engulfed by flames.

Tears pooled in her eyes, like silver motes against the twilight, and her voice shook. "I prayed to the Lord of Light when... when–"

He knew when. "You don't have to say it."

She shook her head. "I do. I can't move past it if I don't. And I need to say it." She took a deep breath. "When I was... when I was raped... I prayed to the Red God. For the first time in my life I prayed... I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed. 'Watch the flames,' I told myself. 'Focus on the fire.' And do you know what happened?"

"No." But he could imagine.

"You came. You came, and you chased away the terrors. You killed them." Something heavy passed between them. He didn't know the words to explain what it was, couldn't articulate how it felt, but it was profound and frightening, and it touched the dark part of him that still dwelled in that twilight place where Death reigned.

The days went on. Ser Barristan crossed swords with him every night and every morn. Herbert and Bertram and Quenten bickered like nagging crones. Marvell, soon to be knighted, kept close to the older sers, and proved more pious than Harry might have reckoned, praying every night to not only the Warrior, but all the gods. Sometimes Harry joined him, reciting the same prayers, even as his mind turned to the Stranger. Faithful Ser Brenden guarded his back as loyally as a dog, and pimply Frederick watched everything and everyone half in suspicion, half in wonder. Ser Kevan glowered whenever he saw Harry and Aeryn together, and Tyrion cursed him for a sweet-faced, soft-hearted fool.

The roar of the Blackwater followed the mounted party some way down the road; it was just over a week until the rumble completely faded, and by then, the gold dusted hills were shifting to gray, craggy mountains and straggly forests. Thick clumps of tall grass and weeds fringed the road, swaying in the wind.

They stayed over at Silver Hill for a night, a rich castle sitting atop a vast silver mine, and then the Deep Den, a much more modest keep that was wrought from the mountains themselves. The road wound through cliffs that seemed as if to swallow them, soaring high on either side of the road like arching arrowheads, their jagged peaks piercing the clouds. The Gold Road was well traveled, but not quite so rutted as the King's Road, and day after day they came across traveling merchants, bands of knights, and the occasional woods witch or hedge wizard traveling between settlements.

As they drew nearer the Rock, Aeryn professed an interest to learn how to wield a dagger. And so, when the hour was late, under the cover of darkness after his lessons with Ser Barristan were done, Harry would show Aeryn how to stand and stab and slash from the confines of his tent. When the lessons were over, they would sneak off to the outskirts of camp where he would watch her shoot targets that they'd set up in the shrubbery, with naught but the pale glow of the moon to light her way. They would ride his horses through the fields in wide circles around camp, wind whipping through their hair, starlight trickling down from the heavens. Her riding had improved – she certainly wouldn't be winning any races – but she could manage the rhythm of a trot or a canter just fine, if a bit awkwardly.

But for all her skill with a bow, hitting targets dead center in the dark of night, Aeryn was terrible with a dagger, more awkward than he had imagined she would be.

"It's not a kitchen knife, Aeryn, you're holding it too tight," Harry told her one night in his pavilion. "Loosen your grip... yes, like that."

Aeryn gripped the hilt as Harry showed her, careful to mind the space between her fingers. "Who ever knew there was a proper way to hold a dagger." She stabbed at an invisible foe.

"You certainly didn't."

She gave him the ghost of a smile. "I wish I had known then."

Harry opened his mouth to speak, but could form no words, his voice choked by dark emotions. And what could he possibly say?

Aeryn went on, "But I'm learning now, ain't I? Besides, I've the dreaded Black Prince to look out for me."

"Praise the gods for that. I've seen babes wield a blade better."

"Shut it you." She waved the dagger at him, one eye narrowed. "I've got a knife, and I ain't afraid to use it." Her lip twitched in a half smile, belying her threat.

"So you do. But you've just learned how to grip it – you're more likely to hurt yourself than me."

She pounced on him at that, her silver-gold hair wild, and for a few breathless moments as they wrestled around the floor of his tent he almost forgot his hatred, his rage, his sorrow.

Pinned beneath him, pale skin flushed red, she said, "You're very strange, Harry. I didn't think people like you existed."

"There are no people like me. I am the only one."

He sometimes dreamed of that day in the Dragonpit, each one darker and bloodier than the its predecessor. When all was quiet and the camp settled down for the night, Aeryn would come into his tent with nary a word and join him beneath the furs, herself plagued with nightmares no doubt more severe than his own. He would wake to her shivering beside him, even though it was warm out, or screaming into his chest, voice wet with anguish, and he would soothe her as he soothed Myrcella, with soft words and softer touches until she calmed.

On such nights he wanted to ride back to King's Landing and carve out Joffrey's wicked little heart, and the candle he had set on the bedside table would burst to life, a vicious flame writhing atop the wick, pulsing with the beat of his heart. It grew as his hatred grew, fed by roiling waves of malignant magic.

Some nights Tyrion joined them, sipping on a pale, orange liquor, or sweet wine, and occasionally, mead. He shared stories of his youth, specifically about Lady Genna, and what Aeryn could expect in her service. Tyrion would climb atop one of the camp stools and thumb through one of Harry's many books, unless he had brought his own, slowly drinking himself into oblivion. The closer they drew to Casterly Rock, the more he seemed to drink.

Aeryn wasn't as wary in his presence as she was others – his uncle was so small, she probably thought she could overpower him if need be.

"You'll like her – both of you will like her, I think. A strong Lannister woman, my aunt." There was a sort of tired resignation about him. It made him seem older than his four and twenty years/

"Like my mother?" asked Harry.

His uncle frowned. "Oh Gods no... nothing like your mother. Lady Genna has a heart."

He couldn't fault Tyrion's opinion of his mother, and remembering what she had told him, her secret for his secret, he could understand why he might feel that way. And, thinking of Tyrion's story, of his wife's fate, he could see how his mother might have become the woman she was, raised by a man like Tywin.

A great man. A terrible man.

More days passed. The sun and the moon warred for dominance of the sky, and the clouds sought to smother them. As if to keep his mind from wandering back to the day in the Dragonpit, and to ease his heart of its black sentiments, Harry pressed Ser Barristan to intensify his training, hoping the exhaustion might offer his thoughts some reprieve. And, when the lessons were done, he picked the old knights mind, so that he might better understand his own.

He and Ser Barristan were sitting around a cookfire, grey smoke billowing, a row of rabbits cooking on the spit. The grizzled knight held a whetstone in one hand and his sword in the other. They were alone, save for Ser Brenden, who was stoking the flames, and Frederick, who was never far from his side.

Ser Barristan was telling Harry about the Defiance of Duskendale. "Aerys was never the same after his captivity. That, I think, was when madness began to claim him. He had been quick to anger before, and he was never one to forget a slight, but…" The old knight trailed off, shifted in his seat, stroked stone to blade. "For Denys Darklyn's treachery, every member of his house was put to the sword, even the green boys."

"Put to the sword by Lord Tywin."

"Aye." Ser Barristan nodded, twisting his sword this way and that. The steel glinted in the fire light. "By Lord Tywin."

Elia and her children crept into his thoughts. "He seems to put many people to the sword. Men, women... babes." Sweet little girls and swaddled boys, still on their mother's tit.

"Lord Tywin, as I've told you, is a harsh man. He's cruel, and he's ruthless... but you shouldn't judge him by his actions during war. I've seen knights behave as common criminals when the bloodlust is on them, raping and pillaging to their hearts desire. War makes monsters of us all, my prince. Even I have killed when mayhaps I could've granted mercy."

Harry sat quietly as he digested Ser Barristan's words. "I heard my father once say that had Lord Tywin still been Aerys's hand during the Battle of the Bells, he wouldn't have survived to become king."

Ser Barristan sheathed his sword and dropped his whetstone into his pack. "No, I don't think he would have. Lord Tywin would've put Stoney Sept to the torch."

"And killed all the people inside?!" Lopping off someone's head with a sword was one thing. It was quick, painless, a mercy, some might say. But burning them alive… he wouldn't even wish such a fate on Joffrey.

"Killed all the people inside, and ended the Rebellion," Ser Barristan amended. "What is the worth of a thousand lives against a million?"

Harry couldn't rightly answer that. Or perhaps, he was afraid of what his answer might be. "What would you have done?"

"Much as Jon Connington did, I suppose. Search the city, and pray for the gods' favor."

"But... you just said–"

"I know, lad, but ofttimes men haven't the heart to make such a decision. I know I haven't, and I thank the gods I've never been placed in such a position."

Harry sat there for a long while listening to the crackling fire, watching the flames pitch to and fro. The wilds were loud tonight, the crickets ringing up a furious clangor. What would he have done at the Battle of the Bells? Burn an entire town, women and children all, to save a kingdom? To end a war? What was a kingdom worth? Who could truly measure the value of one life against ten lives, or a hundred, or a thousand? A kingdom is only worth as much as the people within it, he thought. But if he was ever called to kill a child to save a thousand more, could he do it?

He didn't know, and he hoped he was never faced with such a quandary.

Several days later, and all the more nearer Casterly Rock, found him ambling towards Ser Kevan's pavilion after the Lannister knight had sent Quenten to fetch him. Lannisport was hardly a day's ride away. Tyrion, sensing that his uncle meant to speak of serious matters, accompanied him.

Ser Kevan was standing when they entered. He made no mention of Tyrion. Instead, he took a seat at the table and poured himself a generous cup of dark red wine. Tyrion joined him.

"That girl of yours," Ser Kevan began. "Aryelle or Aryanne–"

"Aeryn," Harry cut in. He did not move to sit. "Her name is Aeryn."

Ser Kevan frowned mightily. "Whatever her name is, Lord Tywin won't approve of her. As you well know." He sipped from his cup. "Won't like the hold she has over you, nor what the men might say of her."

"She isn't for him to approve of... nor does she have a hold over me." But that wasn't necessarily true, was it? He pushed on. "She's my friend, and because of our friendship, she came to great harm. I vowed to see her safe." And I vowed to kill my brother.

Kevan scoffed. "You're a prince and heir to the Westerlands, you don't have lowborn friends. It isn't done."

"It wasn't done."

Ser Kevan grew annoyed. "And you'll be keeping her at Casterly Rock?"

"She'll work in the service of my dear aunt Genna," Tyrion said after knocking back his first cup. "Who just so happens to be your sister. As she herself calls Casterly Rock home, it is safe to say that Aeryn shall call it home as well."

Kevan glared at Tyrion. "Need I tell him about–"

"Tysha?" Tyrion cut in. "I've already told him." He poured himself another cup. "I admit, the situations bear some token resemblance, but–" and he gulped down the wine as if dying of thirst, "Harry is a good deal taller than I am, and not nearly as ugly." No one laughed at his little joke, but Tyrion went on, "My father has never hated him, nor has he ever brought shame upon our family name. And he's a prince besides. That ought to win him some semblance of respect."

Ser Kevan ignored him. "You care for this girl, for her safety?"

Harry nodded. "I do."

"Then you should've left her at the capital."

"She's my friend," he repeated. "I couldn't just leave her. And she was raped for a fault of mine. I am honor-bound to see her safe."

"A distasteful business, that," Ser Kevan said, grimacing. He drummed his fingers along the table top, scowling down at the wood. All at once he sagged in his seat, and sighed. "Lord Tywin isn't one for surprises."

"Oh?" Tyrion said. "You haven't sent ravens ahead to inform him of her presence? I find that hard to believe." He poured another cup. "But I'm sure he already knows – Aunt Genna has probably mentioned her."

"She'll be perfectly safe at Casterly Rock, Ser Kevan," said Harry. "You needn't worry." But Harry worried.

"Lord Tywin might take offense to her presence," Ser Kevan said. "Any man with eyes can see her intentions. Do you not worry that he might do worse than those gold cloaks did?"

"I do, but for different reasons, I think." I made a vow. "Nothing will stay my hand from exacting vengeance on any who wrong her. She wears my cloak, Ser Kevan. She is under my protection – I made a vow to the gods, and no man will see that vow broken. Neither lord nor king." Nor prince. "But we're not married, as Tyrion and Tysha were, nor will we be. I know the duties required of my station."

Ser Kevan stared into his face, somewhat taken aback. "...You're serious about this, aren't you?" After a beat, he grabbed another cup, filled it halfway with wine, and offered it to Harry.

"Very serious," Harry said as he accepted the drink. He took a sip and found he liked the warmth rushing through him, though he didn't much care for the bitter taste.

"I've known many lords," Ser Kevan said. "Great lords, weak lords, treacherous lords. Men who inspired fear, men who garnered love. Men who were made of iron, and men who spent too much time at their mothers tits. None could compare to my brother, but you… you remind me of him."

Tyrion gave his uncle a strange look, then turned a considering gaze to Harry.

"Who?" Harry asked, setting the cup on the table. Surely he didn't mean–

"Lord Tywin," said Ser Kevan. "I've only the one brother left to me, now. There's a certain sharpness to you. An edge, like tempered steel. You'll do great things one day, methinks."

And there was Garrick again, peering at Harry through the shadows, luminous silver eyes like twin moons. "After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great." Harry thought of how Lord Tywin had avenged his king. How he had cleansed his lands of treachery. How his men had butchered a city.

"That's high praise coming from him, Harry," Tyrion said. "Ser Kevan has forever walked in my father's shadow – he knows better than most the greatness of Lord Tywin. Why, he catches wind of it every time my father spreads his arse to shit."

Ser Kevan's fleshy face reddened, and he seemed to be building himself up to an angry tirade, but Harry cut in before he could speak.

"May I ask you something, Ser Kevan?"

The balding knight glowered at Tyrion for several seconds longer before turning back to Harry. "Go ahead."

"Were you with Lord Tywin during the Sack of King's Landing?"

Ser Kevan adopted a perplexed expression. Harry could see the question in his face, but the man answered anyway.

"No. I remained at Casterly Rock. He left me behind to continue raising the levies, should King Robert have turned his forces against the West."

Harry had never considered that his father might have invaded the Westerlands. "Why would he have turned against the West? Lord Tywin sacked King's Landing – Jaime killed the Mad King."

"The war was already over when Tywin set his forces to sack King's Landing," Ser Kevan said, "and he'd served as hand for twenty years – he and Aerys were friends, good friends, until Aerys went mad. King Robert knew that. And King Robert loved war." Another sip. "He loves it still."

"So how did he stop my father from invading the West?"

"...By proving his loyalty beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Ser Kevan's discomfort was plain, but Harry couldn't find it in him to care. "And how did he do that?" he pressed.

"By securing King Robert's throne."

"By having Elia and her children killed, you mean."

Ser Kevan frowned, and, already somewhat flushed from the wine, grew redder still.

"He presented their bodies to my father wrapped in crimson cloaks... didn't he?"

The old knight rubbed his eyes with long, slow strokes. "How did you hear of this?"

"I've heard bits and pieces of the story from here and there." Harry leaned forward over the table and braced his hands against the wood. "So that proved his loyalty then? Having Elia and her children murdered?"

"You're damn persistent, boy."

"I am."

"Some would say too persistent."

Harry nodded. "They would."

"And stubborn as a bloody mule."

Harry just stared. He would not relent. He didn't have it in him; not anymore.

Ser Kevan rubbed his eyes again, and sighed. "He never meant for Elia to die," he admitted. "That was an unfortunate mistake."

Unfortunate indeed, Harry thought, a scowl forming on his face. But unfortunate for whom? Gregor Clegane still yet drew breath, as did Lord Tywin; it certainly hadn't been unfortunate for them.

"So he meant for the babes to die, then? The Tyrells fought against my father and they didn't have to murder children to be pardoned. Lord Mace laid seige to Storm's End for a year!"

"Make no mistake, I am not condoning what befell Elia Martell. But consider this, young Prince – the Tyrells can command a host more numerous than any other great house. They could get by with merely bending the knee – a war against the Reach would've been folly, and King Robert knew that. But against the West?" He shook his head. "Our men are the best trained in the land, aye, and we've mountains for shields. But our coast is flat, and the fields beyond the southern marches are lightly defended. If he truly desired a war, King Robert, with the Reach behind him, plus the North, the Riverlands, and the Vale, would've had the naval strength to barricade our ports and invade from the coast, and the land strength to march through our mountain fastnesses and lay waste to us all. If the king had turned his forces against us, we'd have been crushed into dust."

"So he killed them based on a possibility?"

"Possibility? I think it more a certainty. You know nothing of your father's love of war, but perhaps you might one day understand." Kevan regarded him with shrewd eyes. "Sit, Harry, and listen closely. You too, Tyrion. You want to understand why Lord Tywin is the man that he is? I will tell you."

And he told them of his father, Tytos Lannister, and the shame he had brought upon their house. He spoke of his weakness and his ineptitude. He spoke of his mistress, an unscrupulous lowborn woman, and his bannermen, who laughed behind his back and spat upon his name.

"Tywin seems a hard man," he began, "but he's no harder than he's had to be. Than he was made to be. Our own father was gentle and amiable, but so weak his bannermen mocked him in their cups. Some saw fit to defy him openly. Lords took loans and never troubled to repay them, japed at court of toothless lions." Ser Kevan swallowed yet another cup of the bitter wine, then poured more. "Even his own mistress stole from him. A woman scarcely one step above a whore, and she helped herself to my mother's jewels!" He pounded his fist to the table with such force that the goblets rattled. "It fell to Tywin to restore our house to its proper place. Just as it fell to him to rule this realm, when he was no more than twenty. He bore that heavy burden for two decades and all it earned him was a mad king's envy. Instead of the honor he deserved, he was made to suffer slights beyond count, yet he gave the Seven Kingdoms peace, plenty and justice."

Harry had never heard anyone speak of his grandfather in such glowing terms. Not even his own children.

Ser Kevan looked to each of them, expression earnest. "He is a just man. He's saved more babes than he's killed – know that." Then he leaned back in his chair, cup half raised to his lips. "You may be called to make such tough decisions in the future, Harry, to choose between the lives of a few and the lives of many."

Harry was forcibly reminded of his conversation with Ser Barristan.

"Will you have the strength to do what's right," Ser Kevan went on, "to place the lives of your people above your honor, to be harsh, and cruel, in the name of peace?"

Harry had nothing to say to that. He had only his thoughts, and an old voice whispering in his ear from a world away.

"It is our choices that define us... and the time will come when we must choose between what is easy and what is right."

Chapter Text

 

Harry's procession entered Lannisport to the ringing call of clarion horns. The city swept across a vast expanse of flatlands that fell into the Sunset Sea, all faint golds and dark reds, like neat clumps of wheat crested with blood. Tall, foreboding walls of stout, rosy stone fortified the city. Harry counted half a dozen murder holes as he passed through the yawning gate onto a busy lane that was framed with handsome buildings of sandy stone, some adorned with archways of polished redwood, some glittering plaster with pale yellow windows, and all of them roofed with sloping bronze and brass sheets.

The air was crisp and salty. Harry scented only faint traces of filth, a striking contrast to the reeking stench of King's Landing. Lannisport was smaller too, by his estimation, but the orderly, cobbled streets seemed no less lively, thick with yellow-haired folk of all shapes and sizes, possessed of a murmuring clamor that was birthed from thousands of voices.

"The city teems with lesser Lannisters and even lesser cadet houses," Ser Kevan was saying. "Lanneys, Lantells, Lannetts, Lanleys, and of course, the Lannisport Lannisters. They quarreled endlessly before Tywin rose to the lordship. The city suffered for it. But no longer." He gestured to the watchmen.

Harry followed his gaze. Red-cloaked city watchmen stood in long lines athwart the road, their silver breastplates beaming beneath the sun, halberds held erect in their fists. They cut intimidating figures, he thought, standing as still as they were. A horn sounded; the men turned as one and marched down the road alongside them.

"The west prospers in many ways, my young prince. This is what my brother intends to leave to you."

Harry and Ser Kevan led the procession, as they had since setting off from King's Landing. It had grown since their departure from the capital, swollen with farmhands and swineherds and the women who followed them. The standard bearers had been joined by Ser Cleos and Ser Lyonel, nephews of Ser Kevan, who had met them beneath the city walls. Now, they were joined by the city watch.

"How many people live in the city, Ser Kevan?"

Ser Kevan thought for a moment. "A hundred thousand, perhaps. More, during the winter."

Harry had more questions, and he didn't hesitate in asking them; Ser Kevan knew everything that could be known about the Westerlands. If nothing else, the questioning served as another distraction from his brooding. The end of their journey had brought its own measure of catharsis. As curiosity burgeoned in place of slow-simmering anger, he looked, finally, to the future instead of the past.

The party cut cleanly toward the westward side of the city, passing beneath rows of lanky archways wrought from red brick and ashen stone. Deeper in the city, the thronged lanes became choked with heavy oxcarts and jutting storefronts, forcing them to slow to a crawl. Here the gold and cloth merchants lurked, selling jewels and jewelry, lavish embroidery, fine laces and silks, and dazzling tapestries.

Harry was met with hundreds of inquisitive stares from the citizens of the city as they gathered along the edge of the street, and then applause as they became aware of who he was. Some of the people seemed more content to watch him than cheer for him. He could nearly taste their curiosity, and found himself sitting taller in his saddle, straighter, with as much of a smile as he could summon.

Their curiosity mirrored his own. He saw women in rich finery bargaining for perfumes in a minor square, the air heavy with sweet, fruity scents, and then a bustling group of men – miners, by the grit of their faces – crowding the entrance of a timber wrought tavern. He saw swarthy men-at-arms in piecemeal mail and plate standing guard over a colorfully dressed, dark-haired woman as she picked through a display of herbs and spices, and beside them, a handful of bright-faced, straw-haired children weaved through a cluster of fair-skinned ladies with parasols, laughing gaily

A mob was coalescing near the center of the city, across a wide, clear expanse of cobbles in the center of which stood a fifteen-foot lion carved of red stone, with bejeweled eyes and gold and silver scrollwork, roaring in the shadow of a white, spindly tower that was topped with a golden seven-pointed star. Harry glimpsed more people approaching in the distance; the road beyond the square fell near straight as a sword thrust, flowing in gentle earthen waves to a mountain that was shrouded in mist.

Wispy-haired crones threw garlands of black flowers in Flatfoot's path, gazing upon Harry with solemn eyes, mumbling what sounded like prayers to the Seven. A row of septas clothed in hooded blue robes, holding candles of the same color, sang to the Maiden in sweet, hallowed tones, while another group, cloaked in white, hymned to the Mother.

And there, behind them, were Silent Sisters, who said nothing at all. But he could feel their eyes.

From out of the throng he heard a young, rambunctious voice yell, "Hail the Black Prince!" and the call was echoed down the lane. The bright faces of young lads and burgeoning men looked up at him from the masses, and he could just imagine their fanciful thoughts and romantic ideas, born of the tales that circled his name. He didn't know how to feel about that. A part of him was thrilled; the other bristled with disdain.

What did they know of who he was, of the things he had seen? The things he had dreamed?

Be yourself, Ser Barristan had told him. Being himself had led to this, the songs, the stares. He swept his eyes over the other faces, the men in their tunics and doublets, some of threadbare wool, others of silk and velvet, and the women in their gowns, spun from poorly carded cotton or lively foreign lace, some with babes nestled at their breasts, others with children hugging at their skirts. Some of them smiled broadly, waving with vigor, but others were not so taken with him, more wary, perhaps, of the stories and rumors that had preceded him up the Gold Road. Others still seemed ambivalent, teetering on the edge of both. Harry could almost hear the question on all their minds: Who was this dark boy who had caught their lord's eye and inspired such grave regard?

More shouts rang from the gathering crowds. Harry, recalling the necessities of charm, waved to the masses, and gave his most winsome smile. He had always been prone to smiles and smirks; the gesture came easily. And if it didn't reach his eyes, no one seemed to notice.

The party rode through four more such squares as the first, and with each square passed, the mountain looming in the distance grew taller, more distinct. And then, all of a sudden, the clouds that blanketed the sky parted. A great fist of a mountain unfolded out of the brume, reigning over Lannisport as the sun reigned over the heavens, tall and stout, a behemoth so massive it was dizzying. He craned his neck seeking its peak, but the mountain proved too tall.

Ser Kevan was watching his face. "Casterly Rock is the grandest castle in all of Westeros," he boasted. "Only Harren's Folly is bigger, and it lies in ruin. Highgarden has its charms, and the Oldtower is a sight to see, but… none can compare to the Rock."

Harry couldn't quite agree. He had never seen any of those castles. But he would. Why, if he had a wand…

They came upon a bustling intersection where the road forked in three. One fork branched to the south and the harbor beyond, along a lane of timber and plaster buildings. Another snaked to the north side of the city down a humped wynd of armories, and the third stretched up the slow-rising slope of the mountainside, to Casterly Rock amongst the clouds.

Ser Kevan directed him to take the path toward the summit of the mountain. The road was quiet, straddled by lush forests of pine and white oak. Somewhere in the thick woods, a brook was babbling. The air tasted strongly of pine, and smelled of it too. Beneath the pine, Harry scented the sea.

After a half-an-hour climb, at the mountain's zenith, they came upon a large, square gatehouse wrought from pale, glistening granite. Turrets jutted from each corner, supported by corbels fashioned as snarling lions. Faces framed by mail coifs bobbed along the battlements. The gatehouse was of such size that Harry imagined it could garrison a thousand men, if need be.

There was a welcoming party waiting before the gatehouse, to the right of the raised portcullis. Two sat atop coursers, decked in claret finery embroidered with gilded thread. The other ten were on foot, in dark, smoky steel plate lacquered in carmine. One of the mounted men was old and thin, at least as old as Ser Kevan, with gray, receding hair, and a pug nose. The other was considerably younger, and solidly built, with a pug nose to match. His head was a mess of low-cut yellow hair, his lantern jaw framed by a neatly trimmed beard.

Ser Kevan greeted the men with a smile. "Ser Stafford," he said, inclining his head to the older knight. "Ser Daven." He did the same for the younger. "I pray you have not been waiting long."

"Oh, it's been long. Too long," said Ser Daven. "We've been hours here waiting. My arse was starting to hurt."

"Then you should have gotten off your horse," returned Ser Kevan. "I've not heard Ser Stafford complain."

"Give it a moment," Ser Daven said, glancing over at his father, whose wrinkled face was slowly twisting into a frown.

"I'm sure he'll find something to complain about in short order," Tyrion announced from behind Ser Kevan. "Cousin Daven." He nodded to the knight. "Uncle Dolt."

Ser Stafford scowled fiercely, but he didn't rise to the bait; he didn't even spare Tyrion so much as a glance. "Show some respect," Ser Kevan admonished.

Tyrion's answering grin was as cruel as it was disdainful. "So sorry, Uncle Kevan. Excuse my terrible manners. I meant to say Ser Dolt. Not that Ser Dolt seems able to see or hear me. Too much empty space between his ears, by my reckoning." Harry heard twittering from behind, scattered laughter disguised as coughs.

"Is that Tyrion I hear?" Ser Daven leaned over in his saddle to look upon Tyrion, and his smile broadened. "Why, it's the Imp himself, come to drink all our wine and fuck all our whores! You've gotten uglier, cousin."

"And you've gotten stupider," Tyrion returned. "I mean to take more than your wine and your whores – I'll have your coin as well. You've forgotten my skill at tumbling dice. I'm just as voracious a gambler as I am a drunkard and a whoremonger."

Ser Daven laughed. "We'll dice for whores and wine then, so as to keep my coin in its purse where it belongs." His narrowed his eyes. "How be you, cousin? I don't think you have much need for our wine. You're red as a cherry!"

"And I intend to be redder still. Mayhaps we could bring some wine for Ser Stafford as well? It might help loosen the rod that's backed up his bowels all these years."

Ser Devan laughed uproariously, and walked his horse close enough to Tyrion to clap him on the back. "Casterly Rock has been dull in your long absence, cousin."

"My apologies, then. I am not at all sorry to say that it will soon returned to its diminished luster," Tyrion replied. "I came for Harry's sake; I suspect I'll be gone before the next fortnight."

Ser Stafford spoke up finally. "Where is the prince?" he said, filmy eyes searching the crowd of knights and guardsmen.

Somewhere along the road up the mountain Ser Strongboar had broken rank and pulled to the front of Harry's line, in front of Harry himself, who had fallen back to mingle, for a time, with the squires. Behind Strongboar's broad back, Harry was nigh invisible.

"Yes, where is the lad?" said Ser Daven. "Dark tales have trickled up the Gold Road from King's Landing. Let the squires tell it, the prince dueled a gold cloak to the death with a paring knife, and beat another to death with his bare hands!" His gaze swept across the group, spotted Harry behind Ser Strongboar, and his eyes lit up. "Ser Lyle! Move your wide arse out the way, let us have a look at our future lord."

Harry wheeled his horse around as the knight moved aside, and pushed to the front of the party. He curled his lips. "Good sers," he said, nodding to each. "Shall we continue on?"

They obliged. The gate opened to a planked bridge so wide that twenty knights could comfortably ride abreast down its length. It carved into the heart of the mountain, ending at a towering set of stairs that had been cut it into the rock. Climbing the steps took the better part of an hour; its summit was nestled beneath a soaring curtain wall, backed by two more walls that were each taller than the one before.

The first barbican was the most elaborate, carved from shining tan stone that had been sculpted to resemble a lion's gaping, fanged maw. It led them into the outer bailey. Timber barracks and granaries sprawled across the vast, grassy incline. The mountain rose into a grove of interconnected towers of pale umber stone, topped with ruby spires like bloodied bodkin points, tapered to sharp tips. They seemed to spear the sun itself, shimmering as if carved of diamond, flecked with grains of sparkling quartz.

There were people everywhere, servants and stableboys and guards and knights. Harry saw hundreds of stables along the inside of the wall, sections of two score stalls sandwiched between buttresses big enough to support a mountain, with footholds leading to the ramparts above. He had never seen so many horses in one place. The walls were so tall, once the gate closed behind him, he thought himself transported to another realm, closed off entirely from the outside world. I will become a lord in these towers and keeps, he thought, and then, a wizard. He had stopped trying to craft a wand, suspecting that he wouldn't find what he needed in some menagerie.

But he had not given up on magic.

The middle ward was a courtyard of ornate columns, elaborate statues, and bright gardens lined with redwood benches. Cobbled walkways wound through the flora, the paths framed by neatly trimmed hedges. A pair of fair-haired women stood in one of the gardens, holding hands as they poured water into a glass basin atop an ashen stone pedestal.

The pair turned about when they heard the party riding through, each as pretty as a summer meadow, both draped in bright scarlet gowns that were laced with gold, roses woven into their blonde tresses. He could have thought them fairies, had they wings.

"Be mindful of my sisters," Ser Daven told him in an aside, gesturing towards the women. "They're a worrisome lot. They'll weave flowers in your hair and bathe you in scented oils, if you let them."

"Cerenna is the oldest of the two, by a year." Ser Stafford said, glancing over at Harry. "But Myrielle is nearer your age; just three-and-ten." Harry could read his meaning well enough.

A gilded arcade stretched from the gate of the inner bailey into the heart of the castle. At its end stood a pair of massive, red wood doors banded with gold bars, studded with black iron lion heads that were positioned between the latticed links. Two guardsmen stood to the left and right of the doors in full crimson plate, and pulled them open as they rode up.

The party dismounted before them, and a team of servants appeared from the hall beyond to lead their horses back down the road to the stables.

"All right then," Ser Daven began, "you lot," and he indicated the assorted group of guards, lesser squires and freeriders, "head to barracks on the north side of the keep. There's drink, food, and beds aplenty." He stopped one of the bedraggled women who was hauling their belongings into the castle. "Settle the servants in their quarters," he told her. She passed her burden on to another and hurried off.

Ser Daven and Ser Stafford led them into the castle proper, Harry, Ser Barristan and Ser Kevan trailing them, followed by Tyrion, and the knights and squires.

Harry was almost hyper aware. He saw everything, smelled everything. Tastes and scents and sounds and sights were amplified by a thousand. Was it simply nerves? Voices reached him from far across the courtyard. He could taste the coming rain, see the tracery in the ancient stone walls and columns. He closed his eyes, swallowed a mighty breath, and felt himself settle.

The spacious halls of Casterly Rock were lined with stained glass windows of red sunsets and rampant lions. The gentle scent of roses wafted through the air. Such light filtered through the many windows that there was no need for torches – all the gilded braziers were empty, the torches unlit. Tasseled red carpet stretched the length of the hall.

They came upon a rotund woman who was standing at a crossways, before a towering pair of red oak doors that were etched with thin, winding streaks of gold enamel and set with rows of pearls. They too were flanked by guards, as the entrance way had been, two stout men wielding pollaxes. The heavyset woman had a smooth, broad face, and long, wavy blond hair that was streaked with gray.

She was beautiful once, Harry thought, but her looks had since begun to fade. Still, there was something regal about her, something grand, and it shown in the light of her green eyes and the white of her satin gown.

"Aunt Genna!" said Tyrion with a wide, almost goofy smile.

Harry stepped aside as his uncle shouldered to the front of the group. He was clearly drunk, his face red, steps wobbling and unsure.

"Tyrion." Lady Genna eyed her nephew shrewdly, her husky voice garnished with honey. "Are you sure you've drunk enough, dear? You don't seem much able to keep your feet." She reached down and pulled the dwarf into a warm hug, pinching his cheeks as she released him.

"I expect I'll manage, my lady. Drunkenness is an art I have spent many long years perfecting. Maesters study tomes, knights wield pointy sticks, corsairs sail ships, and I?" He waved his hands with a flourish. "I drink. I am the most able drunk in all the Seven Kingdoms, in fact. And the shortest. That makes my accomplishment twice as impressive because I'm half the size."

"Of course you are, dear." And then she turned her gaze on Harry. "And you must be Prince Harrold. Come here child, let me have a look at you." She beckoned him closer.

Harry stepped passed Ser Daven and Ser Kevan to stand before Lady Genna, staring up into her smooth face. She was tall, at least as tall as his mother, and very wide. Her gown, despite the tightly laced burgundy bodice, bulged at her gut.

This is the woman who raised Tyrion, he thought. His mother, in all but name. "My lady." He bowed and kissed the back of her hand, and when he came up, the smile he gave her was genuine.

"How charming," she gushed. "And handsome." She tilted her head this way and that, studying him as if a painting. "Your hair is a bit amiss, and a touch too shaggy, but otherwise you're a well put together lad. As pretty as Jaime ever was. Now come along, Harry dear. Lord Tywin beckons, and when Lord Tywin beckons, we lesser beings must obey. May I call you Harry?" Then she looked to Kevan, continuing on without waiting for his reply. "How was your trip, brother? I can't imagine all that time in the saddle was good for your hips. You're getting old, Kevan. We both are. Daven could've just as easily delivered Tywin's request."

"I've strength in me yet," Ser Kevan told his sister. "And Lord Tywin bid me to act in his stead. I did my duty as requested of me."

"As you always have," Lady Genna returned. "But now that you're home, you can rest. So go," she said, pointing off down the hall, "rest. Leonard, darling?"

The taller of the two men guarding the doors turned to look at her.

"See to it that Ser Kevan arrives promptly in his chambers. No doubt his wife eagerly awaits him." She looked back to Ser Kevan. "Lady Dorna has missed you dearly, brother. She hasn't spoken of anything else since you left."

Ser Kevan smiled as he never had before, and glanced at the guard. "Stay at your post. I know the way to mine own chambers... and I don't need help getting there," he added in an aside to Lady Genna. His eyes swept the corridor, looking to each man present. "I bid you all farewell. Gods willing, we'll dine together at sundown." Then he walked off down the hall, past a long row of alcoves furnished with plush bronze stools and red velvet curtains.

Lady Genna pulled Harry closer and started down the adjacent passageway. "Go on into the great hall," she told the assembled party over her shoulder. "There's food enough for you strapping men. Oh, and have a drink for your dear aunt, Tyrion."

"I'll have four," Tyrion returned.

Lady Genna spoke idly as they walked, asking after his mother, Joffrey, and Myrcella. They came upon a wide stair that climbed to the heights of the castle. "I've heard much about you, Harry," said Lady Genna. "Dark things, by the mutterings of some. They say you've a temper. A violent temper."

Harry didn't bother denying. Instead, he said, "And I've heard much about you as well, my lady. Nothing dark, though. Tyrion speaks quite highly of you."

"Is that so? Well," and she pinched his cheek, "we'll have to sit down one day and share all the tales we've heard of one another. We'll have chopped fruits and sweet cream, and I'll introduce you to all of your cousins. I've always felt that man without a temper is a man without a spine; and he's like to be without his balls as well. Now be a good boy and help your aunt up these stairs."

He took her arm and they ascended to the second level of the keep. Their was a great history here in these walls, he sensed, far more ancient than what the Red Keep could boast. He had seen no ghosts, but a certain feeling persisted that reminded him of their presence. He and Lady Genna crossed another gilded arcade, then traversed a rounded hall of gleaming chandeliers, before coming to a set of doors at the end of a bright passage, sunlight filtering through the dozens of windows to freckle the floor. The doors opened to a slender stone bridge that led to one of the mighty stone towers he had glimpsed from the gatehouse.

Lady Genna turned to him. "Is this Aeryn of yours as fair as they say? Why, there were minstrels down at the harbor singing of her beauty."

Harry pictured her pale skin silvered by moonlight, and her old, wicked smiles. "She is fairer."

"I should go and collect her then." The lady smoothed her skirts and said, "I wouldn't want another fool to die for taking liberties where they ought not."

She said it so simply, he was almost taken aback. "She isn't my girl," he managed. "I don't own her."

Lady Genna gave wry twist of her lips. "Be that as it may, I'll take care of her all the same. Now run along. Tywin is waiting." She gave him a little shove through the open doors, and when he glanced back at her, half to glare and half to gawk – he had never met a woman quite as forceful as Lady Genna – she waved him onward.

"Go," she said, grinning. "And don't mind the old lion's roar–"

No, it's his bite I should mind.

"–You're taking on his name to lead his house to greater glory in the distant years to come. He owes you a debt of sorts, sweetling, and–"

"A Lannister always pays his debts," they finished in unison. He had heard the adage often enough. "But is he really in my debt?"

"Mayhaps debt is too strong a word," she allowed. "But you've given him an heir, darling. And in turn, he will give you the West. Which is more valuable? The land, or the legacy?"

What is one without the other? "You have my sincerest thanks, my lady."

"And I'll have a great deal more of them before I leave this world. And please dear, call me Aunt Genna. I know I'm a lady; I needn't be reminded of it all the time."

As she disappeared into the hallway, he headed into Lord Tywin's tower, lips parted in a half smile. Tyrion had been right. He did like Lady Genna. Aunt Genna, he reminded himself.

He walked the length of the bridge alone, with only the clouds above for company. The clouds, and his thoughts. He would be lying if he said he wasn't apprehensive about meeting Lord Tywin. It had been several years since he last saw his grandfather, and it was clear the Lannister lord had been keeping a close watch on him, through a multitude of eyes. What would Tywin think of his exploits? Of his decisions?

What would he think of Aeryn?

He entered the tower and came upon a vaulted antechamber guarded by a pair of burly men in red mail. One of them, without prompting, left his post to open the doors to the office, and Harry stepped inside.

The room was grand, a testament to its owners wealth, the sleek stone floor dominated by red velvet carpeting. Suits of gold armor stood against an aisle of marble pillars. On the tables that lined the walls sat grim-faced statuettes of ancient Lannister lords and kings. Stuffed lion heads hung high on the walls, the tapestries beneath them decorated with the likenesses of past lords of the Rock. Shelves and cabinets of redwood dusted with glittery speckles stood between the tables, lined with all manner of leather-bound tomes. The windows above the shelves were stained a faint yellow, like pale topaz, intricate patterns of diamonds and seven-pointed stars decorating the panes.

And there, sitting at a redwood desk in the rear of the room, was Lord Tywin. He was a powerfully built man, broad of shoulder, with thin, graying hair that was swept to the back of his head. His green eyes were flecked with gold, the lines of his face straight and angled, indicating a man who rarely, if ever, saw fit to smile. His visage seemed carved of stone.

The table rested atop foundations of rampant lions, and two padded, high backed wooden chairs were placed before it. Ink pots and quills and rolls of parchment were arranged in neat little rows, and there was a large silver pitcher setting at the end of the table nearest Harry, on a platter laden with two drinking horns and a basket of steaming buttered rolls.

"Grandfather," Harry greeted, bowing to his grandfather. He tried to smile, to recapture the light spirit of his conversation with Lady Genna, but in the face of his grandfather's severe expression all he could manage was a slight twitch of his lips. The man looked much the same as he had when Harry was younger, save his hair, now more gray streaked with blond than blond streaked with gray.

"Prince Harrold," Lord Tywin returned. His voice was deep and rich, like the low rumble of a bossed bronze gong. "Or should I call you the Black Prince now? Sit," he said, when Harry remained standing, nodding to one of the chairs. The Lord of Lannister poured two cups of water, then set one before Harry.

"Harry is fine, grandfather." He sat as he was bid, despite his wariness. He couldn't get a read on Tywin. There was naught but calm behind his pale green eyes, like the eye of a storm, the pregnant pause before a violent eruption of wind.

"You brought a girl with you."

"I did."

Lord Tywin scoffed. "Not yet a man grown and already falling in with whores. You've been too long around Tyrion. That will come to an end."

Harry had no doubt of that. He didn't think Tyrion meant to stay at Casterly Rock for long; he had come only at Harry's behest. "Aeryn is not a whore," he said, frowning. "She's–"

"A stain," Tywin cut in, nostrils flaring. "And if a stain cannot be cleansed, it must be kept hidden. But, because of your deeds, that option is no longer available. Not since singers across the lands deigned you worthy of immortalization in song." His face was severe, but there was something that looked suspiciously like approval shining in his eyes. "Your stain must then become something else. You will not bring shame upon this house. Do I make myself clear?"

Harry clenched his teeth, breathed out sharply. "Very," he said, when the tension left him.

"This girl will remain out of my sight."

"Her name is Aeryn. You can say her name, grandfather." He did not shy away from Lord Tywin's sharp gaze.

The old lion's lips grew so thin they seemed to disappear. "Hn," he grunted. "So I can." He leaned forward and steepled his fingers beneath his chin, elbows resting on the table. "You have arranged for Aeryn to serve as Lady Genna's handmaiden."

"I have." Harry nodded.

"A prince has no need of handmaidens. There will be no gallivanting through the city. No traipsing through the castle halls. If I see you with her, I'll have her hanged."

Harry's face hardened, and the tension returned with a fervor, teeth clenched so tight his jaws burned. "No, you will not." He would keep her safe. He swore.

And then he saw the terrible hint of a smile that Tyrion had warned him of, a slight twitch n Tywin's jaw, almost like a nervous tic. "There it is," he said. "You've your father's hot blood. Will you do to me as you did to those gold cloaks, hmm? Slit my throat? Strangle me?"

Harry kept his silence, teeth grinding. Tywin had rekindled his anger with by a few statements. Tyrion had warned him. As had Ser Kevan.

"A prince has no need of handmaidens," Tywin said again. He stood in one smooth movement, walked over to a statuette atop one of the tables, and lay his hand across the solemn face. "If you mean to be seen with her, if she means to remain here, in this castle, then she will attain the necessary skills and abilities to be of use to a prince. Elsewise, she will be hanged." He grew silent as the statuette trembled, looking about the room as if confused.

Harry felt sweat trickle down his forehead. Keep calm, he told himself. Don't mind the old lion's roar. He took deep, measured breaths until his anger cooled. "If that be your will," he forced out. He won't hang her. I won't allow it.

Tywin grabbed a rolled parchment from the table and turned to stare at him, one eyebrow arched. He seemed to have expected more resistance. "You don't like me, do you boy?"

"No, I don't," Harry admitted, feeling that Lord Tywin would know if he lied.

"You needn't like me," Tywin said. "But you will respect me."

"I already do." Respected that he was just as much a monster as Gregor Clegane. But where the Mountain was crude stone, Tywin was solid quartz, polished in such a way as to disguise its sharp, jagged edges. But even quartz yielded to fire, if it burned hot enough, and he well knew his way around a flame.

"You're not half as impertinent as I've been led to believe," said Lord Tywin.

"You've not given me cause to be impertinent." And I've since learned to keep my tongue. But then he remembered Elia and Rhaenys, half-forgotten in lieu of the Dragonpit. He couldn't think of Gregor without them haunting his mind. Now that he was sitting before Lord Tywin, he could hear Elia's shrill voice raging, "A dog mauled me, but it was a manticore that took my daughter."

"May I ask a question, my lord?" He kept his tone light.

"You may." Tywin turned back to look out the leaded window; yellow and red light speckled his face.

"Which of your bannermen claims a manticore as their sigil?" He knew a great deal of the houses sworn to the Lannisters, but he didn't know all of them.

"House Lorch," Tywin replied.

"And which man of House Lorch stabbed Rhaenys Targaryen half-a-hundred times?"

The old lord tilted his head in thought, and looked over his shoulder to eye Harry as if he was some strange, foreign creature. "What does it matter?"

"Please, my lord. Indulge my curiosity." Tell me, he demanded silently.

"You only say 'my lord' when it suits you," Tywin said as he turned about. He leaned his hips against the table and folded his arms. "Your sudden regard for my title is transparent. Don't take half measures; either refer to me as 'my lord' every time you address me, or do not address me as such."

Harry nodded. "Very well, grandfather." There it was again, that slight twitch in his jaw. "You were about to mention a name," he ventured.

"No," Tywin said. "I don't believe I was."

Harry stared at him, willing him to speak, and Lord Tywin stared back. The seconds dragged on while silence reigned, a heavy, tingling silence that oppressed and smothered.

"Ser Amory Lorch," Tywin said at last.

"Ser Amory Lorch." Harry repeated the name slowly, committing it to memory. It tasted vile on his lips. "Ser Kevan said that you had the Targaryen children killed to save the West from war. That your intentions were honorable. Did he speak truth?"

"Honorable?" Lord Tywin scoffed and reclaimed his seat, his steps muffled by the carpet. "There is nothing honorable about murdering children. I had the Targaryen babes killed to secure the future of the Lannister name. To ensure that we would not become a footnote in the annals of history." The Lannister lord regarded him with ageless eyes.

What atrocities have those eyes witnessed? Harry wondered.

"You will rid yourself of these childish notions," Tywin started again. "Honor is for men who can afford to be fools; for men who can afford to believe in illusions. A boy in your position cannot afford to be a fool. Not any longer. You think less of me because I ordered the deaths of children? You think me dishonorable?"

"I do." There was no use lying.

"Of course you do. You've been raised on whimsical tales and chivalrous songs. I would expect no less from a boy your age. But you will come to learn the truth of the world, in time."

"And what is the truth, grandfather?"

Tywin gave Harry a look so sharp and piercing he felt as if the lord was reading his mind. "Honor doesn't exist," he said. "It is an idea born of shame – a farce conjured up by men to help them sleep at night. Family is all that matters. Family is all you have. Anything is admissible, in the defense of it, or the advancement of it."

Without honor, Harry thought, men are but animals. Ser Barristan would have disagreed vehemently with Lord Tywin. "You must sleep terribly then."

Tywin glared at him, the gold specks in his eyes darkening to amber. "You will save your cheek. My sons are clever enough and I have no need of more the same from you." He shuffled through the rolls of parchment on his desk, then grabbed a quill from the tabletop. "You will come here, to this room, on the first, third and fifth day of every week, precisely after supper, until I say otherwise. On the sixth day of every week, you will accompany me to survey the men as they drill. You will attend to your studies and your lessons in arms just as dutifully as you have in the past, and if what I have been led to believe holds true, I will name you my heir." Then he set to reading the documents. The minutes ticked past, the only sound in the room the ceaseless scratch of quill to parchment.

Lord Tywin was just as Harry had imagined. Great, but terrible. Only one question remained. "Would you have done it?"

"Would I have done what?" There was the barest hint of impatience in his grandfather's voice.

"Would you have stabbed Princess Rhaenys half-a-hundred times?"

"No," he said, sparing Harry a glance. "Once would've been enough."

Chapter Text


"Back from another lesson with the terrible Lord Tywin?" said Aunt Genna several weeks later as she and Aeryn passed Harry in the chandeliered hall. Candlelight shimmered in the hanging fixtures, splintered to diamond fragments by the crystalline arrays. "Ser Brenden," she greeted the knight at his back.

Before Harry could answer, she went on, "I've tasked Cerenna with showing you around the Rock. I couldn't help but notice how lost you've been, sweetling; a shame the boys are so intimidated by you."

That was mostly his fault; none of the boys of Casterly Rock seemed the sort to be intimidated, but he had done little to foster amicable relations. Lord Tywin's threats and Tyrion's warnings hung heavy over his head, twisting his thoughts and moods.

"Cerenna isn't so easily frightened by a sharp scowl," Aunt Genna continued, "and might prove better company besides – she's a clever sort, that one. The gods robbed her father of wits when he was still in the womb, I say, and gave it to his children instead. They did the same to my Emmon, truth be told, but you already know how much of a boor he is, I'm sure. Oh, and if you should happen across Nathyn, or my two youngest, tell them that they'll be scrubbing privies until their hands fall off. If Tywin had caught wind of their antics…"

She trailed off with a shake of her head, pressed a wet kiss to his cheek, and swept from the hall. Aeryn lingered to squeeze his arm and share a smile before continuing after her.

Harry released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and the gentle rumbling in his ears quieted. Lessons with his grandfather always left him like this. Tense. Agitated. That first terse discussion had set the tone for all further interactions between them. They were courteous, as their stations dictated, but they never spoke more than was necessary, never offered the other any words of praise or congratulations. There were no jokes, no smiles, no laughter; just a heartless man, and the prince he had chosen to replace him.

Harry continued down the hall, following the faint sound of female voices. Ser Brenden's heavy steps echoed behind him, his mail rattling as he walked. They turned down the torchlit tunnel vault just past the steps; it led to a breezy corridor where the shutters along the outer wall had been thrown wide, allowing a gentle breeze to sweep through the vaulted hall. It was almost always windy up on the mountain, the air crisp, clear, and chilled.

Ser Stafford's daughters stood halfway down the corridor, messing about with the two guards who stood watch over the entrance to the great hall's gallery. They were clad in sea-green brocade gowns that pooled on the floor, the sleeves adorned with layers of quilled lace. He watched Myrielle kick at the guard's halberd, then thump the other's breastplate. The men didn't so much as move. Cerenna stood off to the side, watching her sister with a long-suffering grin. Neither girl seemed to notice him as he drew nearer.

"They're as still as statues," Myrielle was saying. Her hair tumbled down her shoulders in bouncy, honey-gold curls, decorated here and there with ribbons that matched her gown. "Isn't it strange that they never move? Lord Tywin trains his dogs well. And now he's given his dogs to a stag." She scoffed and turned up her dainty nose. Her face was round, her eyes heavily-lidded, with prominent cheekbones and a small, sharp chin.

"Don't call them dogs, Myrielle," Cerenna said in her lilting voice. "They are men, and our protectors besides. They deserve your respect. And Prince Harrold won't be a stag for long. He's to be a lion, or haven't you heard? It's all anyone has been talking about since he arrived."

"I've not seen these two protect anything but a pair of doors. As for the prince, he'll be the queerest lion I've ever seen. Who ever heard of a black lion? People will think he's a bloody Grandison!"

Cerenna rolled her eyes. "The Seven forbid our black lion be mistaken for a sleeping one." She was two hands taller than Myrielle, with a heart-shaped face, big, almond-shaped eyes, and bow lips.

Harry cleared his throat. They turned in unison, half startled, moving with the eerie synchronicity of extremely close siblings. Whenever he saw them, he was reminded of Myrcella. Cerenna especially; they had the same color hair, the same heart-shaped face, even the same lips. His beloved little sister sent him a letter every few days, just as sure as the sun would rise. So he wouldn't worry, she'd said.

"Prince Harrold," Cerenna greeted with a deep, graceful curtsy, lips parted in a smile that dimpled her cheeks. "Ser Brenden." She curtseyed again, though not nearly as low. Her eyes were a paler shade of green then Harry's, her flaxen hair braided about her head in an intricate bun that was beset with rose petals. "I'm Cerenna, if you've forgotten again."

He nearly blushed. He hadn't forgotten her name. It was only that she and Lady Lanna looked so much alike, and it had been dark, and really, they shouldn't have worn their hair in the same styles if they didn't want people to confuse them.

Myrielle stared at him as if he were some curious, foreign thing. She was a strange girl, with an almost childish air to her. Her delicate features and short stature did little to dispel the image, but he saw in her wide eyes a sort of casual cruelty that reminded him of Lord Tywin.

Cerenna nudged her sister with an elbow, eyes narrowed, as if to goad her into a proper greeting.

Myrielle nudged her back. "Oh bugger off, Cerenna," she said as she stalked towards him, not bothering to curtsy. Up close, he could make out a thin dusting of freckles spread across her nose and cheeks. She smelled overly sweet, like sugar and lilacs. "You're plenty tall for a boy of eleven." She stood on her tiptoes, her forehead hovering somewhere near his chin. "Take after the king then, do you? And the other Baratheons too, I've heard. All tall, dark haired men?" She looked back at Cerenna as if to make a point. "All stags, yes?"

"Aye," he said, leaning away. "The Baratheons are stags."

"You're too pretty to be a stag," she declared, settling back on her heels. "You'll be our fawn instead. Prince Harrold the Black Fawn."

"Myrielle!" Cerenna stamped her foot.

Harry was surprised to find himself smiling; with Tyrion gone, and Marvell, Herbert, and Bertram – all knights, now – having joined Ser Daven in touring the Reach for honors and glory, there were very few people in the castle who would hazard to speak to him in such a way, fearful of his wrath, never mind that he'd hardly given them cause to fear it.

Since he'd been made a sworn shield, Ser Brenden felt it inappropriate to joke with him, and Quenten wasn't the japing sort. Ser Lucion was, but he had ridden out into the mountains with a couple dozen knights after reports of a rather daring band of outlaws reached the Rock. Nathyn Jast became as skittish as a wild horse whenever Harry was near. Willem and Martyn were little better, but they had been warming to him over the past few days, no doubt urged on by their father, Ser Kevan. Aunt Genna's youngest sons, Red Walder and Tion, were easily the boldest of the Casterly Rock boys, but they never so much as sneezed in his direction.

Myrielle could certainly be annoying, but there was something refreshing about her lax regard all the same.

The girl in question reached up and wound her fingers around the wavy locks that framed his face. "You look like a little maid with this long hair. But I like it, even if it is black. Everyone around here is blond. It gets boring, looking at yellow hair all the time."

"I'm sure it does," Harry said, untangling her fingers and dropping her hand. She was pushing beyond the realm of annoyance, now. He could nearly feel Ser Brenden's amusement.

"Lady Genna bid us to show you around the Rock," Cerenna said. "You haven't had a tour yet, have you?"

"Lady Genna bid you to show him around the Rock," muttered Myrielle. "I was busy, as you well know."

Cerenna shot her sister a quick glare. "You didn't have to come. I didn't put a dagger to your neck and force you, did I?"

"You would have if I hadn't stolen it."

Cerenna loosed a peal like chiming crystals. "Don't try to act like you weren't waiting for the chance to properly meet Prince Harrold. You forget, I am your sister. I know every thought that drifts through that empty head of yours."

"Well he's not much of a prince yet, is he?" The both of them seemed to have forgotten he was there. "He's only eleven!"

"I would say he's quite the prince," Cerenna returned. "That he's young only makes him all the more impressive. He will be our lord one day, silly girl, just as Lord Tywin is our lord now."

Myrielle opened her mouth to offer a rebuttal, but Harry cut in before she could. He didn't fancy standing about, listening to them bicker. "Mayhaps, since you both are already here, you could just show me around?"

Cerenna gave a gracious nod. "Of course, my prince." She looked askance at her sister, as if daring her, then promptly turned about to lead him deeper into the castle.

"Lords and knights across the West vie for her hand," he heard Myrielle mutter, "and here she is, obsessing over a bloody boy. She'll be married off long before he's of age."

Marriage. He would be lying if he said he was prepared for it. Lord Tywin had just informed him of the opening of negotiations between himself and Mace Tyrell. With Harry keeping Aeryn as close as he did, his grandfather had resolved to waste no time in setting up his betrothal to Lady Margaery. Harry still had the portrait of her that Renly had gifted to him, buried somewhere with his things.

They strolled down a side passage to a narrow walkway wedged between two vast windows that overlooked a quintain. Myrielle hummed and sang behind him, twirling and spinning as they descended the winding set of stairs at the end of the passage to the bowels of the castle. Ser Brenden's boots were as loud as ever.

The hall that lay at the bottom of the stairs was lit with torches and smelled heavenly, like fresh bread and butter and bacon. There were no windows along the walls; there was no need of them beneath the ground, as sunlight couldn't penetrate solid earth. Servants scuttled about in the fire light, with trays and brooms and washcloths, eyes downcast as the trio passed. A few of them stared, and one scrawny lad brandishing a mop tripped on its dangling strings, nearly falling into a matron carrying an armful of silver cutlery.

Cerenna laughed her beautiful laugh at the sight, even as she helped the boy right himself. "The kitchens are down here," she said as they resumed walking, "if you should ever want for a meal and there be none available in the great hall. The dungeons are down even lower. See that alcove at the end of the hall there?" She pointed to the aforementioned space, even as they drew nearer to it.

"I see it." It was curtained, but looked much the same as all the other alcoves. But nearer the curtain, a soft, indistinct murmuring reached his ears, like the far off sound of waves crashing against rocks. Or whispering ghosts.

"There's a stairway hidden behind the curtain," said Cerenna. "It leads down to the dungeons; beneath those are the caverns and mines. There are hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands." She glanced back at him. "It's easy to get lost, so if ever you feel the desire to explore the caves, come find me. Your other cousins will say they know the way around, but they don't, really. Lancel got lost just a few weeks ago. Red Walder and Tion the week before that."

"We found Lancel by the sound of his crying," said Myrielle with a toothy smile. "He was sitting in a corner, begging the gods to bring his father to rescue him. The craven. Some knight he'll make."

Lancel and Tyrek had left for King's Landing shortly after Harry's arrival, to serve as his father's squires. He already pitied them.

A twitter slipped from Cerenna's lips, but she quickly clamped down on her mirth. "Don't speak ill of family, Myrielle. It's unbecoming of a lady."

"But it's alright for you," Myrielle grumbled, much to Harry's amusement.

The foursome turned down another hall, long and narrow, that angled towards the north side of the castle, patrolled by a single guard. "This is the shortest path to the northern towers," Cerenna explained. "I noticed you tend to take the long way, through the courtyard."

They came upon a stairway that took them back up to the first level of the castle, and then the second, ending at a set of unmanned doors of oak banded with bronze. The doors opened to a covered bridge that hung over the castle armory, running alongside the stone chute that funneled the heat from the forge to the sky above. The bridge was connected to Lady Genna's tower, a rounded structure surrounded by neat gardens and alabaster statues.

Cerenna turned around to face him at the end of the bridge. "I've met your friend, the lowborn girl. Aeryn, I think her name was? Lady Genna brings her around for sewing lessons. She's quite pretty. They say she looks like a Targaryen."

"So she does," replied Harry. He found it hard to imagine Aeryn sitting in a room with a bunch of babbling ladies, knitting cloaks and tabards. He found it harder to imagine Myrielle doing the same.

"Who cares how pretty she is?" Myrielle said. She grasped at the thin columns that supported the bridge's covering, swinging herself back and forth at each juncture. "Quenten said that you killed the men who raped her, killed them with your bare hands. He said you even saw her raped with your own eyes. Did he speak the truth?"

Harry felt his jaw tighten. No one had dared to ask him about that day, and he had avoided thinking of it, no matter that the emotions still lingered, like a particularly insidious odor. Beneath his feet, the stone gave a gentle tremor. Breathe, Harry. Picture the ocean. Hear the gulls singing. "Quenten spoke truth, in part." He remembered the sticky warmth of Allar Deem's blood spilling over his fingers, the faint, tinny smell. "I used a knife on one of them."

Myrielle sighed. "I wish I could have seen it. Sounds more exciting than a beheading, anyway. Or a flogging. Those are dreadfully boring… or maybe I've simply seen too many…"

Harry blinked, taken aback. She couldn't have just said what he thought she said. His fists clenched, unclenched; his pulse quickened. He had heard wrong. He must have heard wrong. He hoped he heard wrong.

Cerenna took notice of his furious expression, perhaps sensing that something was amiss. "What my sister means to say is," she rushed to explain, "that she wished to have seen those men brought to justice. Isn't that right, Myrielle?" Her glare was so sharp it could have cut stone.

"Well, yes," Myrielle said, somewhat confused. "Isn't that what I said?"

Cerenna shook her head and sighed. She pushed through the doors to a gently curving hall that descended all the way to the ground level of the tower. "You, sweet sister, are a tactless fool."

Harry couldn't help but agree.

The tour ended shortly thereafter, at the base of his own tower, which was hardly a stone's throw from Lady Genna's. "Begging your pardon, my prince," Ser Brenden told him when they were alone, "but there is something very wrong with Lady Myrielle. I've never known of a maiden so vicious."

Harry thought of his mother's hatred of Tyrion, her disregard for the lives of those she felt beneath her, and her failed attempt to kill him. Had she been as cruel at Myrielle's age?

He saw to his men training under Ser Wenfryd's direction in the fenced yard beside the tower – about thirty boys and young men who remained from the groups that joined him on his journey to Lannisport – then took his leave to his chambers at the top of the tower. There, he set about to taking a bath, and Ser Brenden joined his squire, Frederick, at his post in the hall.

Meron had a trio of servants fill the brass tub with near boiling water, made murky by dissolved lye soap. Harry pitied them the long walk up from the first level of the tower, but the burly women hardly seemed effected by the trip. They were shocked by his thanks, revealing gapped and snaggled teeth when they smiled.

As the sun sank steadily beneath the sea, and twilight blossomed across the sky, Harry thought Fire, gave a broad sweep of his arms, and watched, enraptured, as the candles and braziers spread throughout the room burst aflame. The water was a touch too hot – he twitched his fingers, and it cooled to a less scorching temperature.

He had likened his magic to oil, once – oil slipping between his fingers, difficult to shape and direct. Those had been the bad days, or when he attempted magic too complex to use without a wand.

But now? It almost yearned to be free of him. He'd nearly cursed Lord Twyin thrice over the past week alone. Another flick of his hand saw the shutters swing closed; with a pointed look, the flames flickered blue, then red, and back to orange, twisting into fantastic shapes; thestrals, hippogriffs, dragons; a shaggy-haired giant, a blast-ended skrewt.

The room was quiet. He settled into the tub, almost lost in its depths, awash in the vermillion glow of candlelight. He had decided to put off crafting a wand, as he had yet to find a viable core, but recent events urged him to rethink that decision. He couldn't continue on as he had been, ignoring his magic. But needing a wand wouldn't help him in making one, and after the disappointment of the basilisk…

Perhaps Maester Wulfric knew of a true magical creature from which he might make a core? Aeryn might know, he surmised, if her tales of her mother's spells were anything to go by.

The warmth and the quiet lulled him to a state of half-sleep. He was but the merest second away from nodding off, his head resting comfortably against the tub's rim, when Aeryn came bustling into his quarters, arms laden, without so much as a knock.

"Oh good," she said as she slipped into the room, "you're still bathing." He was confused, for a moment, still in the haze of half-sleep, thinking her a dream. She wore boys' clothes – a thin white tunic, fine, brown leather trousers, and soft soled boots laced up to her calves. Lady Genna must have relieved her for the day; she wouldn't have allowed her handmaiden to wear trousers.

Realizing that he was, in fact, not dreaming, Harry shifted in the tub to glare at her, hyper aware of the strange, heavy, almost visceral thing that existed between them, and his complete lack of dress. "You're supposed to knock before entering, so I can tell you not to enter. Isn't Ser Brenden outside? I gave orders not to be disturbed. And why is it good that I'm still bathing?"

"Lady Genna bid me to assist you with your hair." She paused at the end of the tub, hooked a stool with her foot, and dragged it closer. "She doesn't think much of your own skills, and it's gotten too long, she says. And since you are still bathing, I figured I could wash it too."

He contemplated, for the briefest of moments, sending her away. "Who let you in?"

"Frederick. He's dutiful enough, and suspicious of everything, but he fears upsetting me, and you, by extension. All it took was a smile. Ser Brenden's down in the yard, I think." She set the items in her arms on the stool.

Harry waded closer, and saw a jar filled with a brownish, viscous fluid, an empty flagon, several combs, and a couple of drying cloths.

"Are you angry he let me in?" she asked as she picked up the jar.

"I could've been naked," he said, voice flat.

"You are naked."

He splashed water at her, grinning as she squealed. "You know what I mean."

"You don't have anything I haven't seen, you know." She opened the jar and a wave of cinnamon hit his nostrils. "I was born in a brothel."

"And they taught you to steal, did they?" He splashed more water at her. "Those are my clothes you're wearing."

"Are they?" she said, looking down at herself. "I thought they fit a bit funny."

Funny was one word for it. He was a little taller than Aeryn now, and broader as well. The trousers hung low on her waist; when she bent down to shuffle through her things, he could just see the barest hint of pale flesh at the soft curve of her hips.

"Do you like her?" he asked. He looked up at her face; she was watching him as closely as he was watching her. "Lady Genna, I mean."

"Like her? I think I might love her. She's just as Lord Tyrion described." She grabbed the flagon and dipped it in the tub, filling it with water before she set it back on the stool.

Harry let out a slow breath. "I never told you what Lord Tywin threatened to do to you, did I?"

"No, you didn't. But I didn't ask either. Lady Genna said it must have been something properly gruesome, though. You haven't stopped scowling since."

"… He said he would hang you if we're seen together. No 'gallivanting through the city', nor 'traipsing through the halls'." Harry glanced down into the water, watching how the ripples skewed his face. He blinked, and the water stilled. He wasn't scowling now.

"And you would allow it?" She moved behind him and poured the scented goop over his hair. It was cold and slimy. He grimaced as it slid down his neck.

"No," he said, affronted. "I wouldn't allow anything."

"So what does it matter what he said?" She worked the mixture into his head, scratching pleasantly at his scalp, trailing her fingers through the thick clumps.

Harry sighed, relaxing against the tub. "It matters because I might not be able to stop him."

He felt her shrug as she worked. "It still doesn't much matter anyway, does it? His quarters are on the other side of the castle."

An insane, almost blasphemous thought swam up from the depths of his mind. "I think he was being nice, putting me in this dusty old tower."

She scoffed. "I've heard a lot about Lord Tywin since we've been here. Nice isn't a word I would use to describe him."

"And yet–" Harry gestured around the room, "here we are."

"Yes," she said. "Here we are." She emptied the flagon over his head, filled it again, and repeated. "I can't say that I ever saw myself serving a lady in a castle."

"I never imagined I would be heir to Casterly Rock."

She paused, seemed to gather herself. "Harry... may I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"... How did you... what was... when you..." He blew out a sharp breath, sucked in another. "Oh, nevermind."

He twisted around to watch her face. When he caught her eyes, he saw a brilliant flame burning atop a candle. Other images flashed by to quick to decipher. "What?"

She shook her head, urging him back into his previous position. "It's nothing, really. I shouldn't have even asked. Just forget it?"

He thought he had an idea of what she might have meant to ask him, but sensing her distress, said nothing of it.

She was silent for a long, long while; it was a contemplative silence, laden with meaning, heavier than any plate armor. He could nearly feel the thoughts racing through her head. And then, "What now, Harry? Where do we stand, you and I? Where do we go from here?"

He was silent for even longer. "I don't know," he admitted. "First and foremost, we must find something for you to do that's useful. Besides washing my hair. What is that stuff anyway?" He chanced a glance at her face – by the knuckling of her brow, his attempt to change the subject wasn't lost on her.

"Lady Genna gave it to me. It's from Pentos, she said. Some sort of scented cleanser." She toweled off his hair with a thick strip of cloth. "I could assist Maester Wulfric, while he's still around. Learn healing, or something of the sort. Fool boys like you get hurt often."

Harry cupped his hands together, let water pool in his palms, and tossed it over his shoulder. Aeryn ducked away with a laugh, yanking at his hair in retaliation. "Do you really want to learn from Maester Wulfric?" he asked when he looked back at her.

She nodded. "I do."

"Why?"

"Because foolboys like you get hurt often," she repeated as she finished drying his hair.

"I'm serious." He didn't think that was the whole of it.

"I know." She seemed to be searching for the words to say. "I'm just curious, I guess. And I want to learn. All sorts of things, actually. I've never really had the chance before."

"What sort of things?"

She sighed. "You're bloody relentless, you know that?"

"Only when people avoid answering me," he replied.

She smiled a sardonic smile. "You gave me a dagger to better defend myself. Taught me how to use it. If I learn something like... what is it called, anatmony–"

"Anatomy."

"Right." She set about combing his hair. "Anatomy. If I could learn anatomy, then I'd know exactly where to put the dagger if I wanted to kill a man, or if I wanted to make him suffer. Especially if I want to make him suffer. I could apply the knowledge to poisons and potions. Poultices too. Make them more efficient. More effective."

There was a strange sort of light shining in her eyes as she spoke, a fervor that set his hair on end. This was something more than a spur of the moment idea. "I'll ask him then. I doubt he would say no."

"Of course he wouldn't say no. You're his prince, and he likes you. More than that, though, he needs you. His travels and experiments won't fund themselves. Now get dressed," she ordered. "I'm not finished with your hair–" She glanced out of a window and noticed how dark the sky had become, "and it's just about time for supper."

He climbed from the tub, forgetting, in his haste, his lack of dress. Then the cool air hit him. He went red as a ripe apple, and hurried over behind the dressing screen across from the tub, feet plopping across the floor.

Aeryn laughed and laughed and laughed, then laughed some more. "Isn't that a woman's dressing screen?" she taunted between giggles.

His lips twitched, threatening a smile. He dressed quickly, donning a black skirted doublet studded with golden beads, black satin breeches, a red sash to hang about his waist, dark leather boots, and a thin, gold circlet set with rubies and black gems. That, he held in his hand.

"There's no need to be embarrassed," she continued, louder, a smile in her voice. "We've slept in the same bed, as you well know. Some mornings I thought you might've slipped your dagger beneath the covers–"

Harry popped out from behind the screen and scowled, jaw clenched. The room grew brighter, warmer. Aeryn's mouth snapped shut.

"Is your head full of air? I just told you that Lord Tywin threatened to have you hanged."

She looked away, eyes downcast. "Nobody heard me."

"They might have," he returned, insistent. "You can't say things like that... at least not so loudly. You'll have to mind your tongue here."

"I'm sorry," she mumbled. Her eyes sought his. "I'll be quieter next time. I swear."

That wasn't enough. "If Lord Tywin, or one of the servants had heard you–"

"No one is around but Frederick," she said, voice regaining its strength, "and he's standing outside that thick door. His loyalty is to you, not Lord Tywin, is it not?" She guided him over to the stool in front of the mirror and started on his hair.

Watching her in the mirror, he nodded, lips pursed. "Yes, his loyalty is to me."

"Then stop worrying. We can speak freely here, at least, can't we?"

"Only here," he said. "In this room. Quietly."

Smiling, she said, "If that be your will, your princeliness." She wove his bangs to meet at the back of his head and combed the rest of his hair backwards, away from his face. "This still doesn't quite feel real, sometimes. Like… like I'm dreaming." Her fingers worked deftly, quick and gentle.

"Maybe you are dreaming, and I'm just a figment of your imagination."

"You'd be older if this were my imagination," she whispered, voice as soft as sighing wind.

He became aware, suddenly, in the heavy quiet, how lovely her fingers felt in his hair, and just how beautiful she was, with the candlelight sparkling her eyes, lips parted and gently rouged.

She caught his eye in the mirror, and it was her turn to blush. "Ahem. I'm done."

He finally looked at himself the mirror. His hair seemed fine enough, but he peered closer and realized, with dawning annoyance, that she had woven golden flakes into the braids. He could almost imagine it a crown, not unlike the circlet still clenched in his fist. It was appalling.

She laughed at the look on his face, hands crossed over her belly as she shook with mirth. Her laugh was every bit as beautiful as Cerenna's.

His cousin's laughs didn't make him want to smile, though. "Why you vile, heartless, evil wench–"

He sprang to his feet and lunged for her, but she slipped away, shouting as she sprinted away, dancing between the furniture that cluttered. He went to jump over a chair that she had pushed into his path, but he misjudged the distance and his foot caught on the wood. He fell to the ground with a solid thud, groaning as he rolled over onto his back. Before he could stand, Aeryn plopped down on his stomach, her silver-gold hair hanging to tickle his face.

"Lady Genna bade me to do it," she said, trying to pin his arms.

Harry put up a token resistance. "I look like a bloody girl."

She tilted her head, lips curling in a devious smile. "Nah, you look fine to me." Quick as a cat, she leaned down and kissed the corner of his mouth. Before he could think to react, she hopped to her feet. "Now go on, or you'll be late. I'll be waiting for you when you return." She slipped from the room as he climbed off the floor, leaving the door cracked behind her.

He licked his lips, and tasted a hint of spiced honey. It dawned on him that this was the first time since the Dragonpit that he felt like himself, like the boy who had stolen off into the night and befriended a group of thieves, who smiled readily and laughed easily. Aeryn was the one who had suffered, but here he was, still mired in the dark happenings of that day, as if it had been him pinned to the ground beneath Allar Deem.

It was no wonder his cousins were intimidated by him.

He made to follow after her, but a silvery specter came strolling through the wall, with limp hair and a sharp face, watching him with laughing eyes. When Harry tracked him through the room, his mouth dropped.

"My, my, my," the ghost said, lips twisting to match the mirth in his ghastly gaze. "You can see me?"

Harry nodded. "I can. Who are you?" He hadn't seen a single ghost since he'd arrived at the Rock, but he imagined he could hear them sometimes.

The ghost's smirk grew into a grin. "Oh, no one important or noteworthy. Merely an overly ambitious seventh son born to a legendary family, who was given to studying phenomena far beyond his meager understanding. You may have heard of my father, though. He was called Lann."

"… Lann the Clever?"

"Aye, one and the same. I am Lannard Lannister. And you must be Prince Harrold Baratheon." He floated closer. "Young Ty might think the maids don't gossip, but they do. They've merely learned to be smart about it. And you, my soon to be friend, are their favorite subject." His grin widened, sharpened. "I didn't kill my first man till fifteen. You are a killer at eleven. A true Lannister, you are. My father would have been proud."

Every person in Westeros knew the story of Lann the Clever, and how he had swindled Casterly Rock from the Casterlys. The Age of Heroes was rife with such fanciful tales… And magic. Magic still lived during the Age of Heroes. Harry could scarce believe his luck. "Lann's story accounts him as a trickster and a swindler, not a killer."

Lannard thought that was hilarious. His laugh echoed, buffeting Harry's ears; the sound was unnatural, and as Lannard had no need to breathe, unabating. Harry was sharply reminded of Rhaenys' terrible scream. "That's the problem with stories, lad. They very rarely capture the whole of the truth, or even a portion of the truth. Most times, they capture none of the truth." He was so close now that Harry could count his eyelashes. "My father was a trickster, aye, and a swindler. And if old King Casterly and his five sons were here, they would tell you straight – he was cruel, conniving, and an avid murderer of men. You don't trick men out of a castle, boy. You kill them, and take their daughters."

"Times haven't changed much, then."

"Oh, they've changed. Men are softer now. Weak. But how is it you can see me? What are you, boy? I've seen sorcerers birth shadows, divine the future in blood, bind beast and men with naught but words. I've seen warlocks weave such magics as to hear their name spoken halfway across the world, give sight to the blind, drive their lessers mad with whispers. I've known skinchangers, wargs, furry little children. But never a man, nor a woman, who could perceive ghosts. Feel them, perhaps, but see them, speak with them? Tis' a frightful power you wield, boy. Too much like them. So what are you?"

Harry smiled. He called the candlelight to his hand, made it jump between his fingers, shift colors, coalesce into a ball, sprout wings, a tail, a snout, and fly about the room, relighting the candles. Lannard's fascination was plain on his face. "I am a wizard without a wand," Harry said. "And you, my soon to be friend, are going to help me craft one."

Chapter Text

Days begat weeks. Weeks begat months. Time rolled on as a boulder down a boundless cliff face, steadily tumbling. Harry settled into his role as heir, his face and manners growing ever familiar to the denizens of the Rock and the people of the city, from the blushing scullery maids who attended him upon his predawn forays to the kitchens, to his distant cousins in Lannisport, merchants and knights and ship captains, whose noble sons had fattened the ranks of his tower guard from thirty to fifty.

Harry's duties were few: Attend upon Lord Tywin, continue his princely education, see to his men, and, on occasion, when events saw fit to bestir Tywin from his seat, or he was elsewise indisposed, oversee judgments and disputes in court, and on much rarer occasions, down in the city.

And then, as if in a blink, a new year was coming upon him.

The day dawned as any other, and the hours passed as they were wont to do. The morning was given to study with the Maesters Creylen and Wulfric, but noon found Harry and Quenten dancing beneath an uncommonly blistering sun, under the watchful gaze of the aging master-at-arms, Ser Benedict Broom. The sky, cloudless and clear blue, offered no reprieve from the heat, and the wind was naught but a tease.

The outer ward was as loud and lively as it ever was. The air rang with a furious clamor; there were clanging knells of blunted steel, vibrating thrums and sharp thwacks of drawn bows being released and arrows sinking into painted targets. Merged with the sounds of warcraft were bleating sheep and goats, a thousand and more horses grunting and neighing, men and boys shouting, the murmuring chatter of hundreds of servants going about their work.

It was a song that Harry was intimately familiar with, and despite the sweat stinging his eyes, and his burning arms and aching bruises, he basked in the sounds, grinning beneath his helm even as the heat thickened and exhaustion began to settle in his bones.

"Again?" the Banefort heir asked when the bout was done, lifting his visor. Quenten's burgeoning beard had thickened, as if to offset his beetle-brows, growing in straggly patches across his sharp jaws. The knighthood he coveted still remained elusive, but certainly not for lack of skill; it was said that Ser Kevan was simply waiting for him to turn sixteen, so as not to add his already considerable ego with an early knighting.

Harry yanked off his stuffy greathelm and gulped the warm air. Next time, he vowed, he would use a barbute. Greathelms, even vented, were much too hot and stuffy. "Perhaps later," he said, working the kinks out of his shoulder. Quenten's slight frame belied his strength. He heard a voice bellow a welcome, and turned to see Ser Lucion reining towards the barracks beyond the training yard, with nigh on two dozen knights riding at his back, tabards and surcoats a riot of color. "I promised the twins that I wou–"

And that's when he saw him. A pale, fleshy man, with hard eyes and a thick brown mustache that hung low over thin lips. He wouldn't have caught Harry's eye if not for his heraldry. Standing proud upon his tabard and shield, tail coiled to strike, was the black manticore of House Lorch.

"Is that Ser Amory?" he asked. The name was no less bitter in his mouth than when he had first learned it.

Quenten shrugged, just as Ser Benedict said, "That's Ser Lorent's son, Ser Gerard. Ser Amory flies his manticore on a red field."

More like a bloody field, Harry thought. "And Ser Lorent is Ser Amory's…"

"Brother and lord," the master-at-arms replied. Tall and rawboned, he cut an imposing figure, looming about the yard like a pepper-haired scarecrow. A checkered green and black surcoat fell from his broad shoulders. The mail beneath chinked as he moved closer. "Have you met Ser Amory, my prince?"

Harry shook his head, waving for a squire – whose squire, he didn't know – to come help him out of his armor. "Unfortunately, no." There would be one less Lorch in the world if he had. Rhaenys' screams still crept into his dreams from time to time.

Ser Benedict grunted as he collected their swords and returned them to the rack. "Fortunately, you mean. Ser Amory is about as beastly as they come. I only assumed, from the tone of your voice and the grimace on your face, that you'd had the displeasure of meeting him. Most of the Lorchs are a beastly sort, in all honesty. There is a reason why Ser Lucas took the manticore for his sigil."

A manticore on a white field beneath a crimson chief with three golden coins. Harry knew the sigil as well as any other. By Maester Boren's account, written in Histories of the Westerlords, Ser Lucas won his keep and lands by poisoning – with manticore venom – three overly ambitious Westerlords who had thought to go against their liege and support Rhaenyra Targaryen during the Dance of Dragons, when dragonblood watered the earth and rained from the skies.

"Enough about the Lorchs," Quenten said. If Ser Benedict took offense to Quenten's tone, he didn't show it. "Ser Lucion brought back eight men to hang on his first ranging. Now he's brought back a score, and almost all foreigners, by the look of them. " He gestured to the scraggly group bringing up the rear of the knightly party, some twenty odd men, trussed up in ropes and chains, fetters clanking with each shuffling step. Most of them had dark, swarthy skin, but some were pale as mist, and others sported forked, brightly colored beards, clad in flamboyant, if muddied and torn raiment.

"Essosi?" gasped Ser Benedict in apparent disbelief. "Why in the Father's name are Essosi bandits in the West?"

Why indeed? Harry thought. There had been a few strange looking men amongst the first group of captured outlaws, but nothing like this. They had revealed naught but mad ramblings beneath the tender mercies of the gaolers. These prisoners were far more blatant with their foreignness, and proud too, for they did not slink and cower as they were paraded through the courtyard, but shambled onward straight-backed with heads held high.

Later, after the prisoners had been taken to the dungeons, Harry hosted Ser Lucion and the assorted knights in his tower for the midday meal to better learn what had transpired during their brief campaign; Lord Tywin would expect him to do more than sit and listen when they met after supper, and gossip was hardly ever accurate.

The Prince's Hall, as Harry's cousins had started calling it, was large enough to entertain over two hundred souls, though the three great trestle tables of polished redwood seated perhaps half that number, and the head table, upon the dais at the far end of the room, framed with ornately carved chairs, could sit twenty. The windows winding about the room were small, round, and many, bordered on either side by black iron sconces. Pale umber walls climbed up to a raised trey ceiling that was supported by red oak beams and stout stone columns. Glittering enamel wound through the stonework like golden vines, and cushioned, white marble benches lined the walls, cast in orange and yellow hues beneath the glaring sunlight that spilled through the windows.

Sers Brenden, Herbert, Bertram, and Marvell were amongst the number of knights, along with Ser Daven, Ser Wenfryd, and over a dozen other sers whose names Harry did not know. He knew their sigils, though; there on the left were the gold coins and purple and white checkers of House Payne, the oak spoon of House Hetherspoon, the orange engrailed bend of Ruttiger. And there, at the center table, the red boars and white lions of Vikary, the golden boats and crimson sails of Lantell, the green field and double-tressure of Greenfield, the six red pikes of Lannett.

And then there was the Lorch, Ser Gerard, and three lesser knights who wore his House's livery. They had claimed the table on the right. Harry knew it was wrong of him to judge Ser Gerard by the actions of his blood, considering the things his own grandfather had done, but he could not help but think ill of the Lorch lordling. His surly disposition didn't help Harry's low opinion of him. So too did the prince notice how some of the younger serving women shied away from Ser Gerard as they flitted about, filling his cup from across the table and staying out of arm's reach.

Still, the general mood was one of cheer, for surely, it was said, this was the last of the bandits who had dared to raid the Westerlands. The knightly company had brought back twenty men to hang, but they had killed half-again that number, by Ser Daven's estimates. Cups overflowed to stain and soak the table tops, and soon over half the knights were good and well drunk, given to raucous laughter and back-slapping and booming declarations of might and valor. They ate light; fingerfish crisped in breadcrumbs and garlic, stewed leeks and onions and broccoli, pork cracklings, and honeycakes baked with hazelnuts.

Harry discovered quickly that Ser Lucion knew just as much about why the Essosi were in the Westerlands as Harry himself, which was to say, he hadn't the slightest idea.

"The first eight took their motivations to the grave," he explained from Harry's left, scratching at his neat golden beard, face slowly going ruddy from drink. The knight was as much Crakehall as he was Lannister, Harry thought; though blond haired and green-eyed, he was every bit as brawny as his sister Lanna was buxom. "This lot will be no different. You can see it in their eyes. They don't fear pain. They don't fear death. They don't fear Lord Tywin either."

Ser Daven, garbed in fine-woven mail beneath his Lannister red surcoat, slapped a heavy hand down on the table, rattling the cups, pug nose flaring. "Then they're fools. The gaolers were a touch overzealous before, but they've since learned patience and a more subtle touch. Lord Tywin saw to their training himself. The outlaws will talk, mark my words."

"Oh, they will talk," Ser Lucion said. He was still clad in his plate, bright steel chased with gold and red scrollwork. A pair of lions sat snarling on his shoulders, stood rampant upon his breastplate. "They will talk and squeal and scream. And beg. But will their words be worth hearing? Might be that beneath those proud exteriors they are just as mad as the last."

"Perhaps we should let Quenten at them," Herbert said from further down the table. He grinned as if he'd made some great joke. His neck had gotten thicker, Harry saw, his shoulders and chest as broad and muscled as a bull's, made even broader by the cut of his dark-yellow gambeson.

"Aye," Ser Bertram agreed with a smile, revealing the silver tooth he'd taken from one of the outlaws. "Quenten knows his way around a torture chamber." The Estren lordling had another notch in his nose, and an angry red scar curved downward over his lantern jaw. "Every man fears a good buggering, and Banefort is a tried and true master. Did I tell you all about the dirk–?"

Bertram shut his mouth tight when he caught Harry's glower. According to Lady Genna, it was well on its way to being as fearsome as her lord brother's.

"I think I would like to speak with these Essosi," Harry said into the resulting silence. The men below grew louder, as if given leave to be unduly raucous by the relative quiet of the head table.

"Best to wait until nightfall, my prince," Ser Lucion said. "No doubt they are being questioned now."

"I am not afraid of a little gore, Ser Lucion."

The knight settled back in his seat, drained his cup, and called for another. "No… I don't imagine you are." He chuckled. "I forget, with that girly face and quiet demeanor, that you are still the blood of Lord Tywin Lannister."

"With two kills to his name already," Daven cut in, half-drunk already.

"And the Father's blessing," said the tonsured Ser Marvell, who was the only man present more robust than Ser Lucion, and easily the most pious knight that Harry knew. The prince had continued his occasional practice of praying with the smallfolk when he ventured down to the city; Ser Marvell came along whenever he could.

"I'll drink to that," chimed Ser Wenfryd, raising his cup. "And it'll be my last. I'll not go the way of Old Ser Roger, passed out in my soup." He gestured with a gloved hand to a knight at the leftward table, slumped over in his soup bowl. Ser Roger Ruttiger was old, it was said, when Lord Tywin was still young and untested. How he continued his knightly duties at such an age, Harry couldn't rightly comprehend.

A serving maid hurried over and filled their cups – Margaret, Harry thought her name was – but before she could take a step away, Ser Lucion pulled her into his lap and planted a sloppy kiss on her round cheeks. The woman, round faced and blushing, giggled like a girl half her age and settled into his embrace.

They spoke of other things for a while. Lord Hawthorne had died recently, fallen to a pox, and his fair daughter, Lady Evelyn, would be hosting a tourney in three months for unwed highborn knights of the West, with Lord Tywin's blessing. She offered no gold for the victor, but herself instead, intending to make her champion her husband as well. Being named the Lord of the Thorns was no small thing; the Hawthornes were old blood, though their once great lands had been carved up piecemeal by Lyddens, Peckledons, and Serretts over the centuries before Aegon's Landing. All the knights were abuzz about it; Daven couldn't decide if it was the lordship or Lady Evelyn's thorny bush he desired more.

After the ale went dry and the food had all been consumed, the knights began to trickle out until only the head table remained, and old Ser Roger, still snoring in his bowl. Their talk turned back to the bandits.

"What did you discover in their lair?" Harry asked.

The knightly faces about him all soured. "There was a bit of gold and silver, and a few trinkets," Herbert said.

"Bolts of cloth, spices, jewels, and a great deal of grain," said Bertram.

"Crying women," said Wenfryd. "And dead ones. The stench was horrendous. Ser Gerard reckons they'd been selling girls to brothels, perhaps even slavers. The pretty ones, anyway. The others…"

Ser Marvell bowed his tonsured head. "Aye, 'twas a foul bunch, those men. May the Father have mercy on their souls."

"The Father might have mercy," Ser Lucion said, "but Lord Tywin won't."

"Those curs don't deserve mercy," grumbled Ser Daven. "I will be glad to see them hang, if they should survive to see the noose."

Harry scowled. Slavers. Rapers. Robbers. Scum. "They must have known the peril of plying their foul trade in the West," he said. "Lord Tywin's reputation precedes him. And if they are as mad as the others, all the more reason to speak with them. Mad men tend to have masters." He thought of Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch.

Ser Lucion gave Harry a long hard look, studying him with uncommonly sharp eyes. "Killing a man in the throes of passion is very much different from killing one with a clear mind," he said. "Watching a man being strangled with his own entrails, legs and arms beaten into bloody misshapen lumps… it changes you. There's no honor in it, no glory, however necessary it can be. You are still a young lad, my prince; are you ready for that change?"

Was he not already changed? He had seen terrible things… "I have served as Justicar in Lord Tywin's stead on several occasions. Seeing to the gaolers is my duty – my readiness, or lack-thereof, matters little."

Ser Daven barked out a laugh, slapping his hand to the table again. "You have been too long with your lord grandfather, little cousin. You are starting to sound like him."

In the end, Harry did not wait until night to visit the dungeons, when the torturing would be done and the prisoners locked in their cells. He ventured there after a brief run-in with Maester Wulfric, who had grudgingly started teaching Aeryn the healing arts and anatomy, and, after discovering her talent for it, herb lore. The maester still longed to return to Essos, and mentioned it at least once in every conversation and every lesson, much to Harry's annoyance. He had promised the maester funding and for his trip, but only after Aeryn was properly educated.

Having grown used to having Ser Brenden at his back, he felt oddly vulnerable without him there. He had left his protector to see to Frederick's knightly education, citing that he didn't very well need a sworn shield following him about all the time. Ser Brenden had acquiesced, as the prince had known he would, but the knight's reluctance had been plain to see. Truthfully, Harry had only wanted privacy for his task, privacy that was much too fleeting with Ser Brenden in tow.

He took the path that Cerenna had showed him, down by the kitchens, through the black iron door behind the red-curtained alcove. The single guard standing watch said nothing, merely moving aside and opening the door at Harry's gesture. Torch in hand, he descended the uneven stairway deep into the bowels of the castle, shadows fleeing his every step. The musty caverns croaked and groaned as if alive, and all around there was the faint sound of endless whispers and, every now and again, eerily familiar wet drips. Plip, plop, plip. The whispers were only the ocean, Harry knew, for the ghosts who haunted the dungeons and mines weren't the sort given to speaking, in whispers or otherwise.

Lannard had shared some of their harrowing tales, and on unfortunate occasions, Harry had crossed a few of their paths. There was the Wailer, a witch who had been force-fed gold by a Lannister king until she died from it, and the Barker, a skinchanger who had spent one week to many in the mind of a dog before being gruesomely murdered. Andal knights, Lannard told him, had stoned the poor fool to death, not wanting to besmirch their blades with his foul blood. There were others too, numerous and nameless, who aimlessly wandered the tunnels and mines and caves with their ghostly gazes downcast, exuding the same sorrow and melancholy he had felt from so many of the Red Keep's ghosts.

The dungeons were three tiered, comprised of the dozens of nooks and crannies of gold-dry mines. But beneath the three levels, the veins of golden ore were still rich, and mining was heavily regulated to keep them that way. It seemed to Harry that the mountain was more gold than stone. Casterly Rock had been mined for thousands of years; it would continue to be mined for thousands more.

The cells were pitiful little things. Some that Harry passed were so tight that a man could scarcely slide into them sideways, let alone sit or lie down. Others were so short that standing was impossible, and all were infested with rats. He heard them scuttling through the rock, squeaking to one another, and every now and then a prisoner would curse when the vermin ventured to taste their flesh. Deeper in the cave, rasps and shrieks and screams reached his ears. It was the bandits, he realized, enjoying the cruel attentions of the gaolers.

He followed the tortured sounds down a winding path to a yawning cavern where twenty men hung suspended from hooks like freshly slaughtered cows, some with flesh shorn off in jagged patterns, others with blood dripping thick from their mouths, and others still with burns all about their body. And some… some he turned away from the moment he looked upon them.

With twenty men to interrogate, the gaolers could afford to kill a man or three.

The cave stank of piss, shit, and death. Stone teeth arched down from the ceiling, threatening to bite. There were a few torches spaced here and there along the craggy walls, and fewer braziers, but the light they cast was dim and unsteady, and the smoldering coals were half dead. The flames pitched about as if in the face of a great wind, making the shadows dance. They climbed the walls, flitted across the ceiling, splintered against the teeth, fell over leering faces.

Stomach roiling in disgust, Harry stood and watched as a bearded man was pulled down from the hooks and strapped into rack, the skin of his back angry red and leaking blood. The scruffy looking gaoler who worked the rack didn't ask him a single question – he merely set to pumping the handle, ratchet clanking loudly as the gear spun. The rollers whined, in desperate need of a good greasing. Another bandit was affixed to a breaking wheel for a good bludgeoning, and another was stripped naked and forced into stocks.

When one of the gaolers stepped up behind him with his trousers unlaced, laughing a cruel laugh, Harry surmised that he had seen enough. "Well met," he called out, and stood unfazed as twenty six pairs of eyes snapped to him.

The torturers were a ghastly sort, pale from lack of sun, filthy from lack of bathing, and near great brutes all, for Harry had seen the delight in their eyes, however muted, as they saw to their work. Even now one was caressing the length of his iron cudgel, as if anxious to see it swing through the air, to feel it shatter bone. In the silence, the whispering ocean sounded all the louder, and then came a creeping wail whose resonance grew with each passing moment. The dripping, faint but steady, set his nerves on end. Plip, plop, plip.

"P-Prince Harrold," stuttered the undergaoler, a spare, dirty-haired man of considerable age with a bulbous nose and a thick brownish-grey beard, like mud streaked with ash. Upon the left breast of his blood stained tunic was the badge of his rank, a brass man in chains. From past ventures into the dungeons, Harry knew that the chief undergaoler wore two such badges, to denote his higher rank. All at once, the undergaoler and his gaolers kneeled, only standing after he'd told them to rise. Twice.

"Begging y-your p-p-pardon, milord," the undergaoler began, "but… n-no one told us you was c-coming." He waved a hand at the bandits. "They ain't t-talked yet, nothing m-m-more than curses and g-g-gibberish, but I s-swear on my li–"

"There's no need," Harry said. Closer now, he could see the bandits more clearly, see the vile thoughts hidden behind their eyes. He frowned, fighting back another wave of disgust. "Leave us."

The senior gaoler gave feeble protests. "B-b-but, milord, it isn't… we sh-shouldn't… w-we can't… Lord T-T-Tywin gave orders…" He trailed off, realizing, perhaps, the futility of arguing against Harry. Without another stuttering word, he waved for his men to accompany him from the cavern. They left through a narrow side passage. Where it went, Harry hadn't a clue.

He wasted no time with questions. He kneeled in front of the man in the stocks, grabbed his chin to force his head up, and pushed into his mind before he could so much as blink. He wasn't so aggressive as he had been that day with Sandor, as his anger had given him greater agency over his magic, but neither did he soften the mental lance he thrust into the bandit's thoughts. Distantly, he heard a man screaming.

Scattered images flashed before his eyes. Men in plate bearing down on him with swords aloft. A girl screaming as she fled his embrace. His sword plunging through a merchant's stomach. Blue lips set in a thin, sallow face. A city by the sea, alight with revelry, with square brick towers and tiled roofs. A man in dented and rusted plate mail, face red with blood not his own, eyes wide and crazed. A cowled man giving orders in broken Valyrian, and strange singing that seemed as if to come from a thousand voices.

He pushed too deep, and all he saw was black.

Harry withdrew from the man's mind. The bandit slumped over immediately, and would've collapsed to the ground if the stocks weren't holding him up. Froth dripped from his lips. The rest didn't look so prideful now.

"Witch!" one cursed, spittle flying from his mouth, struggling feebly against his bindings. "Warlock!" said another, eyes bright with fear. His tattered trousers were freshly stained and dripping piss. "Maegi!" claimed a third, straining to be free of his hooks. Every twitch tore more flesh from his back.

Harry went to them next, and found much of the same. Their minds were already broken, their memories naught but fragments, splintered like shattered glass. And behind those memories lay a vast emptiness. Without context, the images meant nothing. But Wulfric would know some of the things he'd seen. The city by the sea, the pale, blue-lipped men, the broken Valyrian. Harry could speak some measure of High Valyrian, and learned more every day, but what those men spoke wasn't quite Valyrian. He had only understood three words. "Bleed the sunset."

For the thousandth time, he lamented not having a wand. It would be so easy to discern the truth. And if their minds should be crushed in the attempt, all the better.

Supper that night was a subdued affair. Lord Tywin's silences seemed especially tense, and Ser Kevan wore his worries plain on his face. Even Tion and Red Walder, the scoundrels, sensed the general unease. The singer Whitesmile Wat kept his smile to himself. Harry mulled silently for much of the night, brooding over the things he had seen. Terrible, terrible things. When he had finished invading their minds, he'd called the undergaoler and his men back into the room and ordered them to do their worst.

"Not a fan of lamprey pie?" Willem asked from Harry's right. Lord Tywin sat to Harry's left in his gilded high-backed chair; on Tywin's left was Ser Kevan. The three always sat the same seats, but everyone else arrayed themselves differently every night. Sometimes Lady Genna sat beside him, sometimes Cerenna, and other time Daven, or Myrielle, and so on and so on. He had too many cousins to count, and every day a different one claimed the seat to his right. Sometimes it wasn't a cousin at all. He'd sat with Lady Dorna once, and even Ancient Ella, who had one foot in the grave and was slowly sliding the other in.

Today the honor was Willem's. "It isn't my favorite," Harry said, "but I am not averse to it. I've other things on my mind, is all." The Great Hall was large enough to entertain an army. Despite the great number of bodies that populated it, it was as subdued as its lord. It grew into a teeming thing at the furthest ends of the lower tables, where the servants took their meals. They knew better than most not to make a racket in the halls of Lord Tywin. Not if they hoped the chance to make a racket elsewhere in the future.

Willem glanced left, then right, to see if anyone was listening in on their conversation. Harry didn't need to look to know they were. He had grown familiar to them, true, but he was still ever the curiosity. Why, Lady Dorna would tumble from her seat if she leaned over any further. Willem ducked his head close and whispered, "Did you see something foul down in the dungeons? Tion and Red Walder said they saw you venture there."

Of course they did. Genna's sons got into much they had no right to, and gossiped like maids. "Foul is an apt way of putting it," Harry said, poking at his pie. "I find myself wondering if perhaps there isn't a bit of Essosi mixed in with the lamprey."

Willem's face turned green to match his eyes, and he gagged. He wiped frantically at his tongue with a kerchief and pushed his plate away, only to look up into Harry's smiling face.

"It was a jest, Willem. A poor one, I see."

The blond boy, younger than Harry by two years, cracked a nervous smile. "Well you got me good. I've never heard you jape or jest… or even seen you smile really. Except with that girl. Er, Aeryn."

Harry arched an eyebrow, glad that his cousins were finally warming up to him. He would have struck up a conversation with his cutlery to get his mind off the things he'd seen. "Been watching me, have you?"

"No!" Willem protested. His near frantic shout garnered a wave of disapproving green eyes. "No," he said again, quieter, "but we notice things."

"We?" Harry looked out over the hall. He saw pale blond hair and dark blond hair, reddish blond hair and brownish blond hair. He saw young Joy Hill, Gerion's bastard, sitting beside the headwoman Lynora Hill, half-sister to the deceased Lady Joanna. The little girl smiled at him, and gave a wave of her fingers. Harry smiled back. Aeryn was nowhere to be seen, but that was expected. She never took her meals in in the Great Hall.

When no explanation was forthcoming, he looked back to Willem, and said again, "We?"

"Oh, er, Martyn and I. And the Freys. Even Nathyn, when his head isn't buried in a book."

"I don't recall ever spending much time with Aeryn where prying eyes can see."

"You don't, and that only makes it more obvious when you pass each other in the halls, or when she serves Lady Genna at her little luncheons." His frown told enough of what he thought of Lady Genna's luncheons. "You smile when she's around. Any other time, you're, well…"

"I'm well what?"

"Dour. Not all the time," he hurried to say. "But most of the time."

"He's lying," Tion whispered from further down the table, grinning his sharp grin. "It's all the time." Tion was two years older than Harry, and squire to his brother Ser Lyonel Frey. Long and rangy, the only feature he shared with his father was his brown hair. Red Walder, seated to the right of his older brother, didn't even share that. He looked more like a Marbrand than anything, with thick copper hair that fell to his shoulders and dark green eyes. There were rumors – very softly whispered rumors – that of the sons of Emmon Frey, only Cleos was truly his. Considering the disdain Lady Genna held for her husband, Harry found the rumors easy to believe, though he would never give voice to them.

Harry deigned to take a bite of his pie. As most every meal he had eaten at the Rock, it was delicious, the crust flaky, the meat tender and flavorful. "I don't appreciate being followed," he told Tion after he had finished chewing. In lieu of their words, he gave his flattest stare and clenched his jaw.

Tion was halfway through a stuttering apology before Harry managed a smile, slight though it was. Red Walder laughed so loudly he earned a scolding from the usually morose Lady Darlessa, who still grieved the death of her husband, Ser Tygett Lannister, even after six years.

The elder Lannisters had had much to say about Ser Tygett. By all accounts, the knight had been a fearsome, ferocious fighter, if temperamental, and kinder than his eldest brother. He had perished in much the same way Lord Hawthorne did, only where Lady Evelyn had scoured only the whore who infected her father, Lord Tywin had seen Tygett's favorite brothel burned to cinders and ash, with the whores still inside.

For all his temper, Genna had told Harry, Tygett had been a loving man, if a promiscuous one, and ever the romantic, much like his brothers. Tywin was ruthless, Kevan was dutiful, Tygett was angry, and Gerion was reckless, but all of them loved fiercely, as passionate men were wont to do. Harry would never have described Lord Tywin as passionate – austere and unforgiving, yes, but passionate?

Genna had set him straight. "My brother eradicated two houses for daring to challenge the Lannister name. He resigned as Hand when the mad king shamed him. He refused to remarry when Joanna died. What man would do such things, if not a man of passion? He isn't even good at hiding them; he only thinks he is."

Harry chanced a glance at Lord Tywin. He found hard green eyes staring back at him. "You appear to be finished with your meal," Tywin said.

Harry saw nothing behind his eyes. They revealed neither thought nor feeling nor memory. "I am."

"Then let us convene in my chambers. We've much to discuss."

Silently, Harry followed Tywin from the hall, the heavy weight of a thousand eyes bearing down on his back. The thud of their booted footfalls sounded thunderous in the empty corridors beyond the Great Hall. Harry was tall for his age, well over five feet, but it still seemed as if he had to hurry to match his grandfather's measured strides. The many leaded windows glinted pink and yellow, the crimson and gold glass made pale by the silver light of the waxing moon. Everywhere, torches flickered.

Had Tywin heard about his visit to the dungeons? It was more like than not, Harry thought. The gaolers wouldn't have kept it secret even if he had ordered them to, fearful as they were of their lord. He couldn't summon the effort to be alarmed. There were far more important things to worry over. Like the fact that there would undoubtedly be more foreigners raiding the West. More scum come to plague his people.

He was familiar enough with the path to Tywin's chambers that he could have walked it blindfolded. They bypassed the stairway and the hall of chandeliers and instead approached the lord's tower from the courtyard. The night air was crisp, almost chill. A sudden breeze sent his hair fluttering about his head, gently ruffled Tywin's leather doublet. A lone pygmy owl ghosted across the face of the moon.

After some time, they came upon the tower. The door was tall and heavy, thick oak studded with iron, with golden tracery curling between the studs to form a roaring lion's head. One of the guards threw it wide, then hurriedly closed it after they had entered. The dim entrance hall beyond was decorated in lavish redwood furnishings, and there, to the rear of the room, sat a stout weirwood table the color of lye-bleached bone. It was as almost old as the castle, Lannard had told him, even older than the stunted weirwood that rested at the heart of the Stone Gardens.

They climbed the stairs that wound up the tower and into Tywin's office.

The room was smoky and smelled of hickory. A few pitiful flames still sputtered in the hearth. Tywin opened the windows to let the smoke billow out, then claimed his throne behind his work table. Harry pulled up a high-backed chair from the wall.

"You visited the dungeons," said Lord Tywin without preamble. The Lannister Lord never bothered with it, in fact. In all things, he cut straight to the heart of the matter, often with appropriately bloody results. "The prisoners were left nonsensical."

"That was no doing of mine. The undergaoler said they were mad."

"Yes. Mad." Tywin's ashen hair glinted orange and yellow in the dim light, and his brow was a long flat line. "But still capable of speech. Still reactive. Still given to screaming and begging, as all cowards are when facing a gruesome end. After you left, not a one of them so much as flinched, no matter the wounds the gaolers inflicted upon them."

Harry knew what question was coming next. He looked off to the stone busts of past lords and kings of the rock brooding atop the tables beneath the wall, and let the silence linger. Lannard was fond of waxing about the many kings of his day, how utterly dishonorable they were, how they sowed their fields with blood and death, slaughtered villages as readily as ants crushed underfoot. Lords, he said, were naught but kings of a lesser vintage, and only a fair few still clung to the ruthless notions of old. A king had to be more than a mere man to rule long and rule well. He had to be a force of nature, unfeeling and unstoppable.

Steel tones cut the quiet. "Did you learn anything of importance?"

Harry snapped his eyes back to Tywin with such speed that he felt almost dizzy. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it and closed it again. Suspicion and surprise mingled, kept him silent for a beat longer as he considered his words. "Someone went to great lengths to send those men here," he said finally. "And they did so with a specific purpose."

"A fact that I have already deduced." Tywin tilted his head, and the shadows that veiled his face sharpened. "You somehow tortured twenty men into drooling halfwits without leaving a single mark on them, and that is the wealth of what you discovered?"

"I need to speak with Maester Wulfric before I can say anything for certain."

Tywin scoffed. "Your maester is little more than a beggar."

"Aye," Harry agreed. "But he's a smart beggar, and one who knows more of Essos than you or I. I would wager he knows more of the lands beyond the narrow sea than Maester Creylen as well."

Tywin studied him with narrowed eyes. "We will speak of this again come the morrow, after you've consulted with your maester. At dawn."

Harry nodded. "At dawn."

Lord Tywin settled back in his chair. The leather creaked. Lynora entered with wood for the fire and lemonwater for their throats, but when she went to light the braziers and torches, the Lannister lord waved her on. She bowed low and scampered out with nary a word nor a backwards glance.

When the door clattered shut behind her, Lord Tywin said, "Ser Kevan worked from Sandor Clegane what befell him during your tantrum in the Dragonpit." The low rumble of his voice was like distant thunder. "And your mother has alluded to certain talents. Keep your proclivities to yourself. Men fear you, and that is good. But hatred is ever the bane of fear. And they will hate you, if they come to know what I know."

Harry wasn't alarmed, so much as wary. What, exactly, did Tywin know? Or think he knew? "As you say, grandfather. I will be more discreet."

And then Tywin changed the subject with all of the subtlety of a war hammer, throwing Harry for another loop. "Your tower guard has fifty men," he said as the fire began to crackle. "Why?"

This was a far less stressful topic. Harry felt the tension in his shoulders ease, though it didn't completely leave him. "I commissioned Tobho Mott of King's Landing to craft dragonbone bows for me using a skull I took from the Red Keep." He looked down, studied the carvings in the table. A lion was rearing to strike down another. "Learning the bow is difficult. It's best to have men raised to it. Mott has made nearly fifty bows since I left King's Landing, and he still has a great deal of the skull left." He sipped at the lemonwater Lynora had brought. "I'll need more than fifty men before he's done."

Tywin mulled over those words, then said, "Which skull did you use?"

"Balerion's." The skull had been monstrous in size, nearly thrice his height, if not taller.

"Write to your mother," Tywin said. "Tell her to send Mott the rest of the skulls, with gold to hire men to assist him. Fifty bows in nearly a year is unacceptable."

If Tywin had been anyone else, Harry might have smiled. Instead, he merely said, "I will send a raven tonight." And that was that.

Tywin spoke of the family name, and Harry's duty to uphold it. He might've once said that his family name was not yet Lannister, but now, he held his tongue. The Lannister lord was not one to shirk his responsibilities – it was his duty to see that Harry knew how to rule and how to lead, how to garner respect and how to generate fear. He taught his charge the intricacies of counting coppers, building on past talks, and the necessities of swift action in the face of any obstacle, be it a truculent lord or a particularly misguided ship captain.

Tywin talked and talked and talked. He would be hosting a grand feast to celebrate Harry's upcoming nameday; he meant for Harry to ride in his stead to the Thorns for Lady Evelyn's tourney. And then, "Lord Tyrell has agreed to the betrothal."

"With Margaery Tyrell?" Harry hadn't forgotten her, though he had never met her. Aeryn had put her portrait right by his bed when she found it amongst his things, so that hers was the last face he saw before he fell to slumber and the first he saw when he woke from it.

"It will be some time before we settle upon the minute details," Lord Tywin said in answer. He drew himself up without seeming to, sitting taller in his chair. "Your coupling will be more than a marriage of two great houses; it will be a joining of two realms. Realms that will usher in a dynasty to last centuries. With the gold of Casterly Rock and the bounty of the Reach, your brother's rule will be secured for generations to come. Even if he should fall to madness and wed a sheep farmer's daughter."

Harry tried hard to keep the disdain from his face. He might have spat had he been anywhere else. Joffrey. The less he heard of that name, the better. "I wouldn't wish Joffrey upon any man's daughter, let alone some poor sheep herder."

Tywin did not try to keep the disdain from his face. His lips curled and his brow knuckled. "You will rid yourself of this foolish hatred for your brother. He is your blood."

This time, Harry did spit. "He's as much my blood as Tyrion is yours."

"And not half as shameful."

"No. Only mad, stupid, and vicious."

"Madness can be curbed. Stupidity can be conquered. And viciousness… viciousness is a trait every king must have. Prince Joffrey will learn what he must to rule. And you will learn what you must to see his rule endure."

All Harry could think about was the vow he had made. He couldn't keep to it, could he? The gods had decreed that no man was so accursed as the kinslayer. Harry didn't believe in the seven, but he believed in the one. He knew the power of a well-cast curse; perhaps Death did as well.

When the lesson finally drew to a close, Harry was swift in seeking out Maester Wulfric. He found him, after hours of walking from one side of the castle to the other, in the vaults beneath his tower. The cavernous chamber was connected to other such vaults by a gold-walled warren of tunnels, and held now a small assortment of treasures from ages pass. The tunnels were closed off by thick iron doors, but Lannard had told Harry where they went. They converged to a room deep beneath the castle that was absolutely flooded with countless riches, called the Golden Gallery.

The stuffy vault was lit in warm orange tones from the great number of torches and candles spaced throughout the room. Wulfric's voice echoed off dark stone walls. He and Aeryn stood over a brass cauldron of stinking, bubbling liquid. Embers glowed red beneath it.

"Maester Wulfric," Harry called out in greeting as he drew near. "Aeryn." He sent her a smile, and she returned it with fervor. He was forcibly reminded of Willem's observations.

"Ah, Prince Harrold!" said Wulfric. He gave the foul liquid a stir, held his palm over the cauldron, then stirred again. "To what do we owe the great honor of your presence?" Beside him, Aeryn rolled her eyes.

Harry stopped some feet away. "Those fumes aren't toxic, are they?"

"No, no, my prince, of course not," Wulfric hurried to assure him. "They clear the nose and cleanse the palate. The smell will fade the longer it boils. It is a variation of a bowel-moving tonic I learned in my journeys across the sea. Ser Damon spoke of a particularly severe case of const–"

"I have a question for you, maester," Harry cut in quickly, even as Aeryn fell to quiet giggles. "Several questions, actually." He was close enough now to peer over the rim of the cauldron. The liquid within looked like nothing so much as watery mud.

"Ask away, my prince." The maester had trimmed his black beard, and shorn off his crown of gray hair. He looked years younger for it, even with the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and about his mouth.

"You visited several cities whilst in Essos, did you not?"

"Yes, my prince. Braavos, Lorath, Pentos, Myr, even Volantis."

"Do you remember much of the architecture?"

Maester Wulfric's face lit up. "Oh yes! There is a truly majestic statue that overlooks Braavos called the Titan. I have sketches of it, if you should like to take a look. A hundred canals cut through the city–"

"Do you recall a city with many square brick towers and tiled roofs?" Did Maester Wulfric ever shut up? He might have pitied Aeryn, if she didn't show such apparent delight at his annoyance.

"Hmm." Wulfric stirred the mixture again before passing the ladle to Aeryn. "When the bubbling slows," he told her, "give it another couple stirs. As to your city, my prince, it sounds like Pentos, but I would have to look over my drawings to be certain. The spice traders owned several buildings of such design."

Pentos, Harry thought. The bandits sailed from Pentos. He had but one more question. "Are there blue-lipped men in Pentos?"

Wulfric's face curled in disgust. "You speak of the warlocks," he said.

One of the outlaws had cursed Harry as a warlock. He had sounded afraid. "You know of them?"

"More than I would care to. Theirs is an insidious order of superstitious, self-serving madmen. I came across a few in Volantis. They drink a mixture called shade-of-the-evening that turns their lips blue."

"And do they exercise much power in Essos?"

Wulfric shook his head. "Not in the Free Cities. The Warlocks hail from Qarth. They were much feared, once upon a time."

"But not now."

"No, my prince. But I heard rumors…"

Harry perked up. "What rumors?"

"Only the gossip of sailors, my prince, nothing more. Seamen are full of fantastic tales."

"I would hear this one."

The maester sighed and said, "When I ventured to Volantis, there was word that the warlocks had regained a measure of their former glory. One shipmate professed to have seen a warlock send a man into frights merely by looking at him. But as I said, sailors are ever full of tall tales. Most like he saw a frightened half-wit fool and a warlock in the same vicinity and attributed the fool's behavior to the presence of the warlock. Truly, my prince, they are nothing to worry over."

Harry frowned. Nothing to worry over indeed.

Chapter Text

Harry watched another round of armored horsemen come clambering up the mountain rise, these with the blue peacock of Silverhill flapping on their cream banners. The waning sun was wreathed in white clouds, and a pair of eagles circled beneath the brume. He saw a line of sheep scuttling across the courtyard, herded by a scruffy boy and an even scruffier dog. A horn bellowed from down the castle road, a blaring rumble that rang long and loud. The sheep panicked at the outburst, bleating madly as they scattered, trampling the wild flowers that fringed the beaten path.

Tinkling laughter sounded at Harry's side. "Oh, that poor boy," said Cerenna, her sentiments made false by the lingering notes of her mirth. Quenten grunted his disdain, lips curled in a silent snarl, bushy brows furrowed, Ser Brenden stood as stout and silent as stone in his steel raiment, and the servants bustled about the yard while guardsmen walked the parapets above.

Harry observed the drama of the sheep and the sheep boy unfold. The boy's panic seemed even worse than his charges – his fear was plain on his face, eyes darting from the sheep to the party coming up the road to Harry and his companions standing at the top of the rise – but the dog kept calm, uncaring of the watching prince and encroaching lord, and loped about to round up the wayward flock. He barked and snapped, driving the sheep back into a neat line. By the time the Serrett retinue came riding into the upper bailey, dog and boy and sheep were long gone, trampled flowers the only sign of their passing.

The new year had passed in a swirl of ravens and swords and ghosts - rose-scented letters from Highgarden and lemon-scented letters from King's Landing, mornings and afternoons toiling in the yard, nights wandering the bowels of the castle to uncover its secrets - and the feast for Harry's twelfth nameday was nigh. He had tried to argue the necessity of such celebrations, in the face of the foreign aggressions, but Lord Tywin was not one to be cowed by brigands and warlocks, no matter how organized or numerous. So the lords came with their knights, every train with twice as many swords as servants, all in plate or mail, steel worn plain on their hips to ward off daring bandits. The lord of Silverhill proved himself no different on that front; it looked as if his entire retinue was garbed in steel.

"Well met, Prince Harrold," called Alton Serrett as he vaulted from his pale mare, her cloth-of-silver trappings catching every muted ray of light. He stepped nearer to Harry, and bowed. The peacock over his broad chest had been stitched in bright blue velvet, and the many eyespots of its dazzling plumage were wrought in diamonds. A silver-hilted longsword hung low at his waist. He was tall, Harry saw, though not so tall as Lucion or Ser Benedict, with a dark golden beard cropped short to match the close shave of his pate.

Prince and lord clasped hands. "Well met, my Lord," Harry returned. Alton's grey-green eyes were as ruthless a cut as Harry had ever seen, but he caught the tiniest sliver of something soft lurking in their depths when Alton glanced back at the young girl standing in his shadow.

The Serrett lord inclined his head to the brooding Banefort as his men dismounted behind him. "And you must be Ser Quenten."

"Just Quenten," Quenten ground out.

Alton laughed. "You will be a knight soon enough, lad. I can tell from the look of you that you are your father's son. A hard man, the Hooded Lord. I squired for him during the Rebellion."

Here was another veteran of the Sack of King's Landing, Harry thought. Most of the lords who had come to the feast were. The older men, Cerenna had informed him, had ridden with Lord Tywin when he crushed the Reynes and Tarbecks.

"Has your father not yet arrived?" Alton went on. "You and I share blood, as I'm sure you are aware. Your grandfather wed an aunt of mine. And I might have been wed to your mother when I was a boy, had Lady Hawthorne not already made arrangements with your father."

Lord Alton, Harry surmised, was a talker, and only a puffed-out chest and an upturned nose shy of pompous.

"My father is indisposed," was Quenten's grumbled reply.

The Lord of Silverhill gazed past Harry to his bride. Cerenna was resplendent in a flowing azure gown of silk and Myrish lace, collared in ermine and powdered with pearls. Her lips were rouged, her cheeks dabbed with the merest splash of rosy color, and her silver hair net glittered with sapphires and opals.

"Quite the beauty my new bride is," said Lord Alton. He bowed to Cerenna as if she were a queen, took her hand, and laid a lingering kiss against her gem-laden knuckles. "I am much pleased to meet you, my lady." He smiled wide, dimpling his cheeks.

"The pleasure is mine, my lord." Cerenna curtsied, a coy smile playing at her lips. A false smile, Harry thought. Cerenna was many things, but coy was not one of them.

"You must meet my daughter, Celina," Alton said. "You will be her good-mother, after all." The girl in his shadow stepped forward, a cream-colored gown swirling about her legs. Short and slender, she would have been pretty if not for the sour set of her lips and the sallow hue of her skin, even with her owlish eyes and sharp nose.

Cerenna had told Harry of the fate of Lord Alton's first wife when, on the heels of his betrothal to Margaery Tyrell, she had been sold, as she called it, to the Silverhill lord. They were wedded and bedded young, the Lord Alton and his Lady Alys, both of them no more than fourteen. Lady Alys had been a frail girl, it was said, and after fifteen years of marriage and one daughter for five stillborn boys, she had finally died this past year. Myrielle had said that Lord Alton strangled her rather than suffer more stillbirths and be forced to leave his lands to his daughter, but when the tale was recounted to him, Ser Lucion named it false. He had known Alys Algood since he was a boy; she had always been of weak constitution, he said, and she had only gotten worse once she was sequestered away at Silverhill.

He had never refuted the implication that Lord Alton was the sort of man to strangle women.

"Hello there, sweetling." Cerenna stared down at the girl, lips spread in a soft smile. Little Lady Celina flared her sharp nose and scowled. She and Cerenna were nearly the same age, though Celina appeared far the younger; the Serrett heiress was a hand and a half shorter than Cerenna, an inch or so shy of five feet, and flat-chested as a boy. "Your daughter is a charming creature," Cerenna said to Alton.

The Serrett lord laughed. "Celina is an angry child, spoiled and willful. She never minded her mother, nor my uncles' wives, since Alys passed. I'm loathe to beat her, but she cannot continue on as she has. Perhaps you, my lovely lady, will prove a calming influence."

Cerenna eyed the girl, whose scowl had not lightened. "A beating or two might do her some good."

"Her mother was from the coast, was she not?" said Harry, stepping forward to take Celina's tiny hand in his. Her scowling eyes turned suspicious, and while the flat line of her lips softened, she did not smile. Celina had the look her father; she had his dark gold hair, though hers was wavy and fell passed her shoulders, and her big eyes were the same grey-green. They had the same ruthlessness in them, and the same hint of softness too. "Perhaps a little time near the sea might quiet that angry part of herself," Harry continued. He brushed his lips across the back of her hand, as Aunt Genna had made him swear to do to every lady who came to Casterly Rock, old or young, fat or slim, rude or courteous. "I am Prince Harrold."

"I know." Celina curtsied, dipped her head. "Celina Serrett, my prince, at your service."

Cerenna led Lord Alton down the arcade and into the Rock, whispers from their conversation trailing behind them. Harry sent the noble born knights on with their lord, but the men of lower blood he directed to the barracks, of which there were many to choose. Harry greeted the next dozen lords who came up the mountain, some boasting of gifts, others of the steel and fire they would bring down on the brigands. Lord Andros Brax came with thirty knights at his back, flying his purple unicorn in a silver field, lamenting that Harry could not wed his daughter Merissa. Then came Ser Mattis Myatt the Treecat and old Lord Damon Marbrand of the burning tree, and Moreland and Bettley and Ferren.

Quenten made note of those who were absent or had sent sons or less in their stead. His father was first on the list, then Lords Estren and Kyndall and Garner. His aunt the Lady Hawthorne had sent a much lesser cousin, an aging knight with drooping, rheumy eyes, and the juggling fools of Falwell had sent their heir, a spindly boy who was even younger than Harry. "There is only one thing that would keep my father from Casterly Rock when summoned," Quenten said. "The brigands have grown bolder."

"And more numerous, most like," Harry returned, thinking of the wrinkled, blue-lipped face he had seen in the bandits' minds. Bleed the sunset, the warlock had said.

"Aye," Quenten said, "numerous enough for a war council in the guise of a feast. How many knights do you think Lord Tywin will assemble to root out the curs?"

Harry watched the clouds float towards the sun as the deep blue darkened and the horizon bled bronze. "As many as it takes to scour the west. Hundreds at least. Perhaps thousands."

"I will be one of them," Quenten vowed. "I should be a knight. Ser Kevan insults me with every passing day."

"Perhaps he hopes to humble you."

Quenten gnashed his teeth in response.

"Whatever his reasons," Harry continued, turning away from the sky, "they are his own. If your sanity begins to fail from the pressures of patience, tell me. I'll have Ser Brenden here knight you. Now come. They will be expecting us in the Great Hall."

Together, prince and squire and silent shield entered the castle. The camaraderie between Harry and his sworn shield was not what it once was, but none could doubt his devotion. Lucion and Daven were better swords, Marvell a better lance, Herbert and Bertram better company, but Harry knew for certain that Brenden's loyalty was his and his alone.

When they reached the Hall, they found it near empty for its vast size, save for a throng of lords, ladies, and knights all clustered near the dais, a line of trumpeteers to either side of the room, and a troupe of singers from the city, led by Whitesmile Wat, arrayed near the door. No servants would dine with them on this day, though they were present as well, busy ferrying drinks and hauling food laden platters. Even the lowborn knights had been left to take their meals in the barracks. And of course, there were his many cousins, sitting at the head table as if this was just another dinner. They all stood when he entered, as if he were a king, and Harry thought of the father who had not written him since he came west. By his mother's words, his father rarely even spoke of him.

He looked to Tywin, who was watching him with his hawk-like gaze, then saw Aunt Genna and her wide smile, little Joy grinning from where she was surrounded by perfumed ladies, and put his thoughts of his father from his head. This feast was not a true celebration, but it was his, and he would not allow his uncertainties to hamper his enjoyment of the festivities. Amidst such pomp as to beggar lesser lords, trumpets blaring, singers singing, and a chorus of, "Blessed nameday, my prince," Harry took his seat at Lord Tywin's left, and the feast commenced.

They had rack-of-lamb baked in garlic and herbs and garnished with mint, minced lamb with pepper and saffron, and leg of lamb, sauced with honey and cloves. There were great wheels of white cheese, and stuffed goose sauced with mulberries. Five soups they had, sweet pumpkin, at Harry's request, and oxtail soup, fruit soup with blood oranges and lemons in a cloying syrup, chicken broth and chestnut soup, and creamy mushrooms and buttered snails. Harry hadn't bothered to count all the different breads and fish platters, and ate little more than a few bites of each course to keep from gorging himself. Every so often, he glanced at his grandfather as if to read his thoughts by the lines of his face; Tywin watched the lords assembled beneath the dais, expression unreadable.

"Will it be as it was in our youth?" Harry heard Ser Kevan ask over the gentle din of the hall; clattering plates, murmurous voices, the soft notes of the singers as they hummed another tune. "Five hundred strong we were, riding the mountains and valleys, setting the west to rights." Ser Kevan sounded wistful, and when Harry peered at his face, he noticed a sort of longing in his eyes. "My sword arm is not what it used to be, but my mind has only grown sharper. I will find these brigands in their hideaways, and I will end them. Give me the men, my lord."

"No," Tywin returned. "I have need of you elsewhere." He spared a glance at Harry, who didn't bother to hide the attention he paid their conversation, then turned back to his brother. "It seems that we must direct our attentions east if we mean to burn out the rot that has come over the west. For now we can only stall the infection. Ser Daven will lead one company of knights, Ser Lucion the other." His eyes swept across the hall, pale green flecked with gold and hard as tempered steel. "Each of these lords will elect men to do the same. Lord Quenten will come down from the north, Daven and Lucion will sweep from the west, Ser Harwyn will come up from the south, and the Lords Ferren and Moreland from the east. They will leave no rock unturned, no cave unsearched. Every village and hamlet must be scoured. I will not have it said that the Lannisters allowed common outlaws to run rampant in their lands." He made a noise half snort and half growl, a wordless utterance that oozed absolute disgust. "I will not have it."

"When will I sail?" Ser Kevan asked.

"Within the week." Tywin looked out over the hall again. Harry could almost see the gears turning in his head. Cruel were those gears, barbed and bloody. "We will discuss more later."

During the council, Harry thought. Or after. He looked to his left. Lord Damon Marbrand gave him a grey smile, mouth framed by a thick, crumb laden beard. Beyond him sat a few ladies of the Rock, intermingled with some of Tywin's principal lords and their wives, Brax and Crakehall and Lydden. All of them knew one another, be it from squiring together, or serving as cupbearers or pages or even handmaidens, in the case of Lady Tianna Crakehall and Bethany Brax. Down on Ser Kevan's end was Lord Alton paired with Cerenna, then the young and fierce heir to the Golden Tooth, Alysanne Lefford, then old Lord Garrison Prester, and Antario Jast and Quenten, who sat in his father's place. Seated amongst them were other ladies and lords of the Rock, Sers Stafford and Damon and Damion, Myrielle and little Tyana and even Ancient Ella. Lord Tywin's message was clear. Any of his blood was worth as much or more as his most powerful, most loyal lords, from the oldest crone to a girl still young enough to piss herself at night.

In the west, the blood of a Lannister was as good as gold.

When the feast was done and the hall had cleared, Tywin led Harry and the Westerlords to the small hall of his tower. Of the Lannister knights who had sat at the head table, only Ser Kevan remained with the group. They took the long route that Tywin and Harry had taken those weeks ago, but this time they went ahorse, riding the open courtyards of Casterly Rock on palfreys trained to navigate the uneven sprawl.

Outside was dark, but torches framed the path, and moonlight spilled pale white from above, silvering the land. The doors to the tower were open when they rode up, and five men in Lannister livery stood on either side of the entrance. Harry dismounted near the doors and left the horse to wander, entering the tower on Tywin's heels. The lords trickled in behind him.

The long weirwood table had been placed in the center of the chamber, he saw when he entered, and a large map of the west laid flat against the wooden expanse. The last flickers of the fires in the braziers that were scattered across the floor bathed the walls in dim swaths of pulsing orange, the crackling coals almost impossibly loud in the silent hall.

Harry claimed the seat to Tywin's left by reflex alone, studying the map as the table slowly filled. Dozens of mountain holdfasts and villages had been marked off, but there were stretches of mountain all throughout the central Westerlands where brigands might be able to hide and the passes were to narrow for many armored men to traverse.

"My lords," Tywin began, eyes sweeping from one side of the table to the other, "you all well know what plagues us now. Outlaws." He spat the word like a curse. "Twice now men have been sent to end them, and yet they persist."

"Large groups of mounted men were sighted sniffing around Hornvale," said Andros Brax. "My sons hunted them into the mountains, but the bandits eluded them. Disappeared into the wood like ghosts."

"I've only heard rumors of these outlaws," said Garrison Prester, "and I have not suffered them in mine own lands, but House Prester and its swords are yours, my lord."

Tywin said nothing, settling back in his chair to regard them all.

"These men are more than just bandits or outlaws," Ser Kevan said. "There are too many of them. They're sellswords."

"Hired by who?" Alton Serrett questioned.

"A fool," Lewys Lydden said, a burly old lord, squat and stocky with a head of dark brown hair peppered with gray. "Only a fool would dare challenge the west."

"The men are foreign," Harry ventured. From the way their heads swiveled to regard him, he suspected that none of the lords had actually expected him to speak during the council. To sit and listen and learn, yes, but not take part. Only the Lannister brothers showed no reaction. "But there are enough men in Westeros with cause to wish ill on the West without looking beyond the sea. There are less men with the means to carry out such wishes, and less men still mad enough to chance the inevitable reprisal."

"Ser Kevan will search for whomever it is who dares challenge us," Tywin said. "I would know what my lords mean to do about the men burning fields and sacking villages."

They sat silently for the longest while before Garrison Prester spoke up. "Bait them. Send a false merchant caravan up in the mountains for them to take and set up an ambush."

When Tywin said nothing, Lord Andros cut in. "A viable strategy," he said, "But one that will see only a small number dead. We must snare all the vermin in our trap, down to the man."

"Sending men into the mountains isn't enough," said Lady Alyssane. The Lefford Heiress was more pretty than plain when she had cause to smile, but her sharp features were made all the more severe by her pinched lips and narrowed eyes. "My men have brought back dozens of heads to decorate the pikes at my gates, but the sellswords' numbers only grow."

"A total offensive," called out Lord Lewys Lydden, banging his fist to the table. "We must mount a total offensive. Sweep through the lands with overwhelming numbers."

"We've certainly the men for it," said Lord Alton.

"And the gold," said Lady Alyssane.

"We need more," said Gyles Bettley. "Men who know every goat trail and every cave of every mountain, or else the bandits will slink away, and in three or fourth months, they will strike again." Lord Gyles was one of the younger lords, perhaps a decade older than Harry, and not a man of the sword, judging by his build. He had thin arms and a soft belly, but there was something hard in his eyes, a cruel intelligence.

"So send out men to confer with the smallfolk," Harry said. "Map out the trails and caves." He could feel Tywin's eyes on him, but he didn't turn to look at his face, watching the lords instead.

"I will send men," said Lord Andros Brax.

"As will I," said Lord Damon Marbrand.

No one said anything for a while. Harry wondered why his grandfather had not merely told the lords his plan from the beginning, and though he gave no sign as to the direction of his thoughts, both Lannister brothers seemed to know his mind, imploring him through gaze alone to work out why. Lords were finicky, he had heard said, and fragile, easy to slight, to injure – perhaps, by allowing them to parcel through potential plans of action, Tywin let them feel that they had a say; that they had power. And men liked nothing so much as wielding power.

They spoke of taxes, and harvests, and marriages. Lord Gyles was to wed a Crakehall girl, and Ser Myatt hoped to win Lady Hawthorne's tourney, elsewise he would settle for a Hetherspoon, as his aging father desired. Alyssane Lefford, as of yet unwed and only a few years older than Cerenna, entertained even more suitors than Lady Hawthorne, and she wouldn't dare, she said, leave the choice of her husband up to a joust.

Harry spoke for some time with Lady Alyssane and Lord Gyles after the council drew to a close, and suffered through Alton Serrett telling half a dozen stories of how the many branches of House Serrett had formed before he managed to slip away.

He spent the next day in the yard, away from the bustle of the keep, and by twilight half the lords and ladies were gone. The rest rode out the day after, and then two hundred knights under Ser Daven the day after that. Quenten had not gone with them, to his immense displeasure; he would be sailing east with Ser Kevan. Harry rather thought that Ser Kevan's task was the more dangerous endeavor, but Quenten had been too full of rage to heed his counsel. Even Bertram and Herbert, ever teasing the Banefort heir, had not ventured to incur his wrath.

Harry was out in the courtyard where the paths were hemmed by neat hedges and rosewood benches and the walls were choked with vines. He could hear the waves beating against the base of the mountain, a much calmer sound than the thunderous rumble it became in the bowels of the castle. The night was giving way to morning, but the moon was still bright, and the wind was a gentle sigh. His thoughts commanded his full attention, thoughts of brigands and weddings and fathers, and so his legs alone led him to the shadowy recesses of the great castle, to the Stone Gardens where the heart tree waited.

The path went wild a quarter of a league before the garden, dappled with weeds and wildflowers, fringed by clusters of oak and soldier pine. The Stone Gardens were a series of caves at the heart of the wood, fenced in by old craggy stone and open to the sky. As he expected, no one was in the godswood. No one save Lann. Harry pushed past the ghost and into the cave as owls shrieked in the trees above.

The chamber was thick with shadows. He flicked his wrist and the torches flared to life, illuminating ash-white boughs and scarlet leaves.

The twisted weirwood stood at the heart of the garden. Sap pooled at the corners of its eyes, dripped slow and red passed a toothless mouth that was spread in a leering rictus. Nothing else grew in the chamber, neither fruit nor flower, for the twisted tree's many roots, spread about like a thousand half-buried bones, had choked all life from the earth, and its blood red leaves had dominated the gaping hole above to soak up all the sunlight. Now it soaked up the moon light, and the pale glow on the leaves made him think of blood gushing hot over a castle forged dagger.

The prince rarely visited the Stone Garden. The heart tree was unnerving, with its scowling red eyes and bone-white branches that scratched at the walls like fleshless claws. It made him feel as if he were being watched. Judged. Measured. The red eye was too much like the one from his dreams. And yet…

"I've found suitable wood," he said to Lann, brushing a hand against the gnarled trunk, the wood smooth but torturous. The tree was alive in ways that the elms and oaks of the Red Keep's godswood hadn't been; it almost pulsed beneath his hand, and if he listened closely, he imagined he could hear its voice, a faint and whispery sound like the flutter of a butterfly wing. "But you haven't been nearly as helpful as I'd hoped with finding a core."

The ghost was standing on the other side of the tree, whistling a jaunty tune. "Oh, Harry." He gave a grave shake of his head and tsked thrice, as melodramatic as a maid. "I am a man of many talents: An artist of the arcane, a purveyor of the impossible, a scholar of sorcery… but I'm no conjurer. Even I can't pull a magical beast out of my arse. Especially since I'm dead." He leaned through the bark, face popping out from the weirwood's grinning mouth. "And why, pray tell, do you even need a "wand"?" I've seen you work plenty of magic without one."

Harry sighed. Lann had seen him work magic, true, but nothing like the magic of his dreams. He had taken to documenting all the spells he knew, fearful that by the time he managed to procure a wand, he would have forgotten them. "I can do more," he answered.

Lann cocked his head. "Can you walk in dreams?"

"In dreams?" Harry took his hand away from the tree, and the faint whisper ceased. "No. But I can walk in minds. See memories."

"Hm. A useful talent."

"Quite." His talent to scour minds had uncovered a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the West. With a wand, he could've done far more. "How does one walk in dreams?"

The ghost shrugged, then laughed at the sour expression on Harry's face. "Dreamwalking was never a talent of mine. But I knew a lovely lady who was a master at it. She did far more than walk in dreams. She danced." He floated the rest of the way through the tree. "The castle Nightsong in the Stormlands owes its name to her. When war came to the Marches, she would serenade her soldiers at night while they slept, and the wind would lend itself to her voice, so her songs reached every ear, and her spells touched every mind. She gave them dreams of blood and battle, of glory and victory. She bedded them in their dreams, and they fought all the harder for her." Lann would've made a great storyteller, Harry thought. His voice had a silky, almost hypnotic quality to it. "She would serenade her foes as well, if they were fool enough to keep a siege overnight, and drive them to madness." Closer now, he fixed his laughing eyes on Harry. "You've been plagued by many dreams of late, have you not?"

Some were dreams. The red eye beneath the roots. Others were nightmares. His dreams of his life before were common; he'd had them since he could remember. But some nights he dreamed of fields of ice and mountains of fire, of freezing winds and burning winds, of wailing voices and thunderous roars. Those dream weren't so bad. He hardly ever woke from them, unless he had to piss. But then there were the dreams of grasping blue wraiths that pulled at his flesh and gnawed at his skin, as if to suck the very life from his bones. Those, he woke from.

"I've had a few nightmares," Harry said.

Lann laughed his long, cruel laugh. "Might be a dreamwalker has set their sights on you."

"Or a warlock."

The ghost nodded sharply. "Them too."

Footsteps sounded against the stone, and mail clinked. Ser Marvell's massive head poked into the stone chamber, followed by his equally massive frame. Marvell was leaner than Strongboar, but taller, an inch high of seven feet, with hands the size of dinner plates and a jaw of granite. He was clad in fluted plate with silver inlay, a purple unicorn rearing proudly on his surcoat. A flanged mace hung from one hip, a longsword and dagger from the other. "Converted to the Old Gods, my prince?

Harry gave the white wood one last caress and turned to Marvell with an easy smile. The Brax lordling had the makings of a great knight. A true knight. "No, ser. Merely curious." He caught sight of Marvell's expression, the furrowed brow and downturned lips. "Is something amiss?"

"I… yes, my prince. There was an attack at Wyndhall, but Lord Estren repelled it with ease. And another at the Thorns. Lady Hawthorne hanged the brigands, still living, from gallows she had erected along the Gold Road."

Neither Lord Estren nor Lady Hawthorne had bestirred themselves to attend the feast. Perhaps this was why. "I assume there is more."

"… Lord Moreland's convoy was attacked. His daughters were taken, and Lord Moreland was slain. Lord Bettley fell to the same fate."

A shame, Harry thought. Lord Gyles had seemed a formidable man. He could not imagine the warlocks' purpose for stirring up the Westerlords. He was certain that he was their target, but why the brigands? If they had the magic to command minds, why not strike at him directly? If their purpose had been to anger him, they had succeeded. He knew little of Lord Moreland and his daughters, and little more of Gyles Bettley, but he had seen what befell those taken by the outlaws. He prayed the girls died quickly.

As he left the Stone Garden, he felt the weirwood watching, heard the faintest voice call his name. "Harrold."

Marvell took him to Tywin. Already the knights were assembling, these to ride out under Ser Lucion's command, and the courtyard teemed with horses and plated warriors. The clanging and clattering of steel drowned every other sound. Harry counted over a hundred knights mounting up beneath the silken dawn, with more appearing by the second. His grandfather was waiting on the east wall; it overlooked the entire city below, and the countryside beyond for many leagues until the green hills and grey mountains faded to mist. Even after Marvell left them, Tywin kept his silence, seemingly content to watch the city awakening below him.

"Even if you were older," Tywin began, "I would not send you to fight brigands. There is a task for every tool and a tool for every task." He looked away from the city and turned to Harry. "This is not the task for you, nor are you the tool for it."

The wind picked up, fluttering Harry's cloak, and he scowled. He had never so much as entertained the thought of joining the knights, but it rankled him to be virtually useless, and he did not bother hiding his displeasure from his grandfather. "You mean for me to do nothing? To wait here and twiddle my thumbs? I can find the minds commanding these men."

"That is undoubtedly what they want." Tywin turned and began to walk, his boots loud against the stone. Harry followed him.

The bowmen manning the parapets bowed as their prince and lord passed by. "Who else knows of your talents?" Tywin asked.

"You, Mother. Myrcella has seen, but I've never spoken to her of them." Harry stopped, thought for a moment, recalled the sight of the king flying through the air, the sharp crack of his head striking the wall. "And Father knows, possibly."

"Possibly? Either he knows, or he doesn't."

Harry furrowed his brow. "He was drunk."

"Hn," Tywin grunted. "Of course he was." He was silent for a beat, then, "And the girl?"

Harry didn't have to think to realize what girl his grandfather meant. "She does not know for certain, but she suspects."

"And none of these peoples, I would presume, have dealings with men from half a world away?"

"Your presumption would be correct."

"Then someone else knows."

That, Harry thought, was obvious. His thoughts must have shown on his face - Tywin's lips twitched as if he had been about to smile.

"Who was ever in position to see or overhear you doing... whatever it is you do, and has dealings across the Narrow Sea?" his grandfather asked.

Harry did not know. He imagined Varys, perhaps, if he were half the spymaster he was purported to be. And if the rumors of him being from Essos were true. Harry had never spoken a word to the spymaster to condemn him so quickly, but he could think of no other so easily slotted into the role of dastardly mastermind. A man made a lord through lies and secrets was ever a suspect for vile plots.

"That is your task, ultimately," Tywin said. "But it must wait. You have heard, by now, of Lady Hawthorne's tourney? I want you to go there in my stead. The lords have met you here today in my shadow; let them see you outside of it." And then he threw in, as if a treat, "Your betrothed will be attending as well."

Harry would have been lying if he said he was not anxious to meet his betrothed. It simply seemed a bad time. "Lady Hawthorne should postpone her tourney. Allow us more time to clear the west."

"Three months is time enough," Tywin said.

Harry certainly hoped so. He gazed out over the men gathering below. They were forming up now, horses barded and caparisoned, steel plate gleaming. Thin trails of smoke hung in the air, wafting up from the forge on the other side of the yard. A horn sounded, a long, blaring note, and then the men were off, horses ambling down the mountainside.

Chapter Text

Outside the Prince's Tower the weather was wet and blustery, wind beating and howling against the shuttered windows, rain pelting the stone; inside, Harry was preparing to ride to the Thorns for Lady Hawthorne's tourney.

Aeryn had told him of the brewing storm as they took a pre-dawn meal of buttered bread, cheese, and grilled marlin in the kitchens of his tower; now the brewing was done and the sky wept angrily over the castle. So Aeryn bundled an oiled sealskin cloak in his packs, and alighted another upon his shoulders, trimmed in gold, hooded and dyed black. The finely carded lambswool tunic beneath would keep the chill off him, she said, and his man Meron agreed. His gloves and breeches were lambswool as well, but his boots and sword belt were leather, and his circlet was beaten gold.

"How did you manage this?" he asked Aeryn as he stood before the polished silver mirror and slid his sword – single-handed and plain-hilted, save for the faceted onyx gem in the pommel – into its sheath.

Aeryn was picking through the dozens of little glass jars on the table near the flaming hearth, slipping them one by one into a leather pouch. "How did I manage what, your Holy Greatness?" she asked with a wicked grin, her voice a ringing falsetto. The fire beyond her spit tiny sparks, glowing orange motes that danced in the air.

"Don't play dumber than you already are," Harry returned. He watched her in the mirror as she palmed a clump of sealing wax and launched it at his head. He ducked away, laughing as the wax sailed over him. "I should have you flogged for that, wench."

"Promises, promises," she sing-songed back. Harry shook his head as if exasperated, and Aeryn went on, "In regards to your question, I spent weeks buttering up your cow of an aunt, cried a few tears for her, and begged and pleaded to be allowed this morning with you before you set off to meet your betrothed." She pressed a hand to her heart as she spoke the last few words, voice breathy and tremulous as if moments away from weeping. Then she laughed, cackling like Ancient Ella, and the effect was ruined.

"You're a horrid girl," he said, smiling. "I'll not have you calling Aunt Genna a cow. I thought you liked her – she's certainly fond of you."

Pouch filled, she slipped it into his bags, grabbed his dirk and dagger from the rack against the wall, and gamboled over like a madwoman to fix them to his belt. "Are cows such terrible creatures that they cannot be liked; nay, loved?"

She was in an awfully playful mood, Harry thought. Or perhaps… "You've been in the summerwine, haven't you? While I was washing."

"I only had a little. Just a cup. Three cups."

She held her drink well, he thought. She hadn't stumbled and she wasn't slurring her words. But then she lurched forward and hugged him close, pressed two sloppy kisses to his cheeks, and teetered backward to fall against the vast featherbed. "Four cups," she admitted finally, spread eagle over the furs. "And I do like Lady Genna, really. She isn't quite as cunty as some of the other ladies. But for all her name and bearing, she isn't so different a creature as my mother. The rumors are true, you know."

Poor Emmon, Harry thought. Dressed now, he sent Meron for servants to carry his packs down to the courtyard and strap them to his pack horse. This would be the first time since he arrived at Casterly Rock that he would be venturing out into the world beyond the Lannister demesne; he found himself recalling the trip up the Gold Road from King's Landing to Lannisport fondly, for all that he had been in a foul mood for nearly the whole month, and wondered if this journey would be the same. The way the gold hills rolled, the taste of the air, the sounds of the wild, the feel of his horse trotting beneath him, her senses as she ambled along, hooves clopping – the countryside had seemed so beautiful then, and deathly still, as if the Gods themselves had blessed the land to reflect the calmness above.

"If I asked you to buy me a ship," Aeryn began, rolling over to regard him, chin propped against her fists, "would you?"

"Yes. And a loyal crew to man it." He went to the window and eased it open to regard the yard below. Heavy gusts buffeted him, threatening to snatch the shutter from his grasp. The sky was a great sheet of swirling purple and heavy rain. Men and horses gathered in the muck of the yard, appearing as lumpy shadows against the stormy gloom. No, he thought as he beheld the bleak morning. This journey would not be like the last.

Aeryn split his thoughts in twain. "Would they obey me, this crew?"

He nodded, closed the window. "If I told them, yes."

She smiled a soft, sad smile. "I went with Sour Celina and Mad Myrielle down to the wharves last week. We stopped at perfume stalls, bought bolts of cloth at Silk Square, and everywhere we went, smallfolk and highborn alike regarded them as if they shat diamonds and pissed Arbor gold. Ser Tywald even offered to take them out on Lord Tywin's flagship." She sighed. "She's beautiful, you know. The ship. Sleek in the water, and swifter than you would think for her size."

She rolled back over and gazed up into the tester, silvery-gold hair splayed around her face, as shiny as the circlet about his head. "If not for you, I wouldn't have been permitted to walk with them at all. How does it feel to wield such power? I have wondered my whole life why you highborn mattered so much. Why I mattered so little."

Harry turned to her, gloved hand pressed to the hilt of his sword, offering a crooked smile before he expressed what he had gleaned from all of his grandfather's lessons. "It's because steel rules this world. Steel and might, and the kings who first took power and the lords that followed them said that this is the way the world should be." He thought of the knights who had returned triumphant a fortnight ago, of the dead he had seen in the brigand's thoughts, of the butchered ghosts in the Hall of Heroes beneath Casterly Rock where the champions of old were entombed.

"…So it does, and so it is." Aeryn sat up, tucked her legs beneath her. "But do you truly believe that?"

The weight of the circlet against his brow was light, but the metal was cold. "It is the truth," he said. An unfortunate truth.

Aeryn sat quiet for a long while before she pushed herself to her feet and moved to stand before him; he was a hand taller than her now, and he hadn't lost a grappling match to her in months. "Everyone says the bandits are all dead," she said. "I have come to cherish your company, dear prince, so take heed not to die."

"You think I will die?"

She shook her head. "No, but I fear it all the same. Handmaidens and serving women gossip, Harry, even here. They gather in the hedge gardens like a charm of hummingbirds, twittering of fell magics and blood sacrifices and foreign heathens."

Her eyes reminded him of the storm outside, of the deep purple of the sky and the black of the clouds. Their depths drew him in like breath. "I can't ask you not to be afraid," he said. "But you know that I am different. You've seen."

"Aye, I've seen," she began solemnly. "And I've heard. They whisper about you too, you know. Folks in the city. Merchants from abroad. They whisper quietly, but they whisper. 'The Black Prince consorts with demons,' they say, 'commands ghouls and bewitches lord's daughters. Sacrifices men to dark gods.' Some laugh it off, most I've seen, and the septons and septas sing your praises as if you were a saint."

No rumors had ever reached his ears, and Tywin had never spoken of them. His grandfather was not a man to entertain hearsay, and neither was he.

"But some don't," Aeryn went on. "They look up to the castle above the city, and they're afraid. No rumor ever started by itself, and before I left King's Landing, I never hear anything about you but good. Sellswords and outlaws don't just decide to challenge the Lannisters. Warlocks don't move against princelings half a world away - I remember that night in the tunnels, when you questioned Maester Wulfric," she said to the questioning tilt of his brow.

He saw himself in her thoughts. Saw flames devouring a torch lashed to a tall stave amongst crumbled stone and long shadows, saw flames appear atop a candle in the dark of a pavilion, saw them dance through his chambers like dandelion seeds on a twisty breeze.

Softly, he asked, "What are you telling me, Aeryn?"

"To be careful. To keep safe." Her voice was even softer than his, and grave as a lichyard.

He reached up, tucked a loose locks of hair behind her ear. So pretty, he thought. "I could say the same to you. You'll be here alone when I leave."

Another smile, fleeting, but bright, like a glimpse of sunlight through a dark tempest. "Dearest Lady Genna and her valiant defenders will keep me safe."

Not from Tywin, he thought, and then felt foolish to have thought it. If Tywin wanted Aeryn dead, he wouldn't wait for Harry to leave Casterly Rock to have her killed. That was a craven's ploy; the plotting of a coward. Lord Tywin was many things, but never a coward.

The way she looked at him, it was as if she knew his thoughts, could read them as they unfurled, and agreed.

"Whatever you are," she said with an air of finality, "whatever power you have, you're still a man." Her voice gave the slightest quake. "And all men die." Then she kissed him again, a soft brush of her lips, and swept from the room before he could think to call her back, cinnamon scent lingering in the air, the fiery sweetness of spiced-honey on his lips.

Aeryn had kissed him before, and every now and again he woke to find her in his bed, but he couldn't help but feel that this particular gesture of affection meant more than all that had come before it. He knew that she prayed to R'hllor – he saw her staring into the hearthfire some nights, eyes glazed. Perhaps she had seen something in the flames; something that frightened her.

He had no fear save that there would be need for him to wield the steel at his hip; to call upon the might of his magic. He eyed the little dresser beside his bed where he had hidden a long stick of weirwood in the top drawer; where Margaery Tyrell's painted brown eyes twinkled and her rosy lips smiled, and left the room.

As he descended the coiling stair he heard a clamor like clattering steel that grew louder as he walked, and came upon Ser Brenden and his squire Frederick climbing the steps to meet him. The knight and his squire were garbed much like Harry was, but they wore plate and mail beneath their sealskin cloaks, the steel as fine and silver as moonlight, and Frederick, less pimply now, and much less gangly, wore a greatsword strapped to his back.

Ser Brenden bowed and said, "The men are ready, my prince." Blazoned on the center of his tabard was Harry's personal coat of arms, a black stag and a golden lion quartered; the crossed warhammers of House Rykker adorned the bottom of each leg slit, the blue and white of the field vivid against the dark cloth.

Frederick, still bowing, teetered, unsettled by the weight of the greatsword. He was a man grown now, and would make a fine knight by Ser Brenden's words, but he was still a nervous lad. Fumbling Frederick, Herbert and Bertram called him, for his clumsy hands and stuttering speech.

Harry, thinking of Aeryn's worry, and seeing their armor, wondered if perhaps he shouldn't wear armor as well. A mail hauberk, at least, and a brigandine. And a gambeson, of course, one with thin steel scales sewn into the padded fabric for added protection.

After a slight delay in which they went back up to his chambers and Brenden and Frederick helped him don his armor, the three of them exited the tower and entered the storm, the fat droplets pelting like hail, hard and cold. Harry could hardly see through the heavy spray – he shuffled forward, reaching for Flatfloot with his mind and his hand, and suddenly the caparisoned black dun mare was nudging his palm with a warm huff. He checked the saddle straps, the stirrups, the cinches, knowing that Meron and Brenden and Frederick had already done so, and climbed atop the horse.

Flatfloot had seen him up and down many a mountain trail; carried him, brilliant in black and gold barding, through the city on several occasions. Harry owned many horses, most of them gifts – destriers, coursers, palfreys; mares, stallions, geldings; roans, bays, greys, and chestnuts; but none were so dear to him as Flatfoot. Her mind was especially malleable – conditioned, he thought, to the touch of his own.

Once all the men were ahorse, Marvell sounded the horn – with the roar of the wind, the continuous patter of the rain, and the creeping thunder all merging to a deafening cacophony, there was no other way for them to communicate. Thirty-five men rode out beneath the roiling sky, mud spraying in their wake, banners flying limp and wet; tabards and surcoats showed a brindled boar, a black manticore, a purple unicorn; red shields and golden lions, gilded ships and scarlet pikes, twin towers over a river.

Ser Gerard Lorch led a line of men at Harry's left flank, Ser Jaxom Lanley of the Crimson Shield at his right. Marvell bore Harry's standard, the cloth dark with rain; Ser Lucion carried the Lannister lion, and Ser Strongboar, Ser Lyonel Frey, and Tion rode in advance with half a dozen household knights – the rain and mist swallowed them up as they pushed ahead. Daven, Brenden and Frederick rode close at Harry's back, Ser Wenfryd in the rear with ten Prince's Bows and Maester Wulfric on his donkey.

Onward they slogged down the Gold Road, each day wetter and muddier than the one before, hedgerows drooping and dripping, sun and moon veiled behind dense clouds as black as deep water, until five miserable days later when the rain stopped, the skies cleared, and the sun bloomed bold and orange in the eastern sky. Those first rays of sun that broke through the dreary sky were like warm kisses. The wind, however, refused to let up. It came swift down the mountains to swirl about the valley, throwing wet debris across the Gold Road from the villages that grew up out of the peaks above, blowing droplets of lingering moisture from the wet leaves of the trees that bordered the rutted road.

For those five days the heavy rain had kept them from building camp fires, so they had had to suffer both the damp and the hard labor of eating salted beef, but now the wind was warm, the sky clear, and some of the bowmen had managed to find relatively dry firewood, a feat as magical as any Harry had witnessed for how soaked everything was.

They built a fire that night, softening tough strips of salted beef in pots of boiling mead to be eaten with hard bread and cheese. The sky might have been dry, but the earth was still wet, and the air, thick with moisture, still tasted of rain. The storm was moving east – Harry could see the dark clouds in the distance, drifting slow beyond the mountains.

Most of the men had campaigned with Ser Daven or Ser Lucion; Ser Gerard Lorch had joined Lord Regenard Estren's host in the north, and Strongboar had ridden with Harwyn Plumm in the south. As the knights gathered about the cook fire and the mead began to bubble, they shared tales of their experiences, some with the ring of truth, some naught but boastful exaggerations.

"A sneaky, cowardly lot, those sellswords," Strongboar said. "A few of them were worth the effort of killing, but more oft than not the blighters would creep up on you in the dark of night and try to take you unawares. One almost slit my throat." He tugged at his collar to show a thin pink scar across his neck. "Some Turnberry fop was meant to be keeping watch, him and a Greenfield. Damned cunts couldn't handle their drink."

Cicadas droned in the grey darkness, the shadowy night made pale by the dim light of the moon. The glowing sickle was slashed by thin grey clouds that swam slow and steady across the star-speckled twilight. Ser Daven, as he had every night, had sent men to patrol the perimeter, and he himself was scanning the dark horizon, his ale untouched.

"Like shadows, they were," Ser Gerard said, beady eyes bright. "If shadows could bleed."

"I have never seen men so free of fear, so willing to die," said Marvell, sitting at Harry's side, bald pate catching the moon. "As if there was no horror that could shake them, and death was but a game. I saw a man impale himself on a spear in a mad rage and laugh like he had just made a clever jest. He died laughing." Marvell would have prayed to the Gods for understanding, Harry knew, but he doubted they had been much forthcoming with answers.

"They were less than broken men," said Ser Daven. "Broken men, at least, seek to live, even if they must resort to banditry. But those men… they were more akin to panicked sheep. No order, no discipline… just chaos."

"Do you think that they're all dead?" Harry asked no one in particular as he watched the firewood melt to ash. "The sellswords?"

"They must be," Strongboar said. His cup of ale looked like a child's toy in his massive hands. "Sellswords are fickle. If any of them survived the slaughter, they've tucked tail and run home by now."

"I killed a dozen men with mine own sword," said Ser Lucion. "And my command claimed hundreds. I would hazard a guess that thousands died, in all. All that's left is an army of bones."

That thousands of men had died, Harry thought, did not mean that the brigands were gone. The warlocks hadn't lost their interest in him, of that he was certain. He imagined that perhaps he could feel them watching from the dark hills, waiting for a chance to strike like coiled snakes hiding in a bush. He heard the sharp call of a crow, then the fluttering thrum of wings, saw light glimmer on black feathers when he looked up into the branches. A black-beaked head twitched to regard him and its eyes flashed green; the bird flew off, soaring over the slopes and cliffs, eyes roving the lands below. The only thing astir was the wind.

Ser Wenfryd's brother hosted them at his modest keep on the seventh day. The castle Yew was built atop a grassy hill that overlooked the road, a square stone and timber keep with crenelated drum towers at each corner, circled by an embattled stone wall that was twenty feet tall. A golden bow was blazoned on each of the banners that writhed madly above the towers, and smoke unfurled thick and grey from their spindly chimneys. The keep had changed since Harry's first visit those months ago when he had first come west; Ser Manfryd had had a second granary constructed in the shadow of the first, and he had converted the entire southern wall into an archery range. The garrison was smaller too, only forty men as opposed to the sixty there had been a year hence.

After seven long days on the road, the warmth and dryness of Manfryd's halls were quite welcome. And yet, there was a strange tang to the air that set Harry's hair on edge. He found himself twitching at odd sounds, hand never far from his dagger, his appetite all but ruined.

"Going to try your lance at the tourney, little brother?" Manfryd Yew was saying as they supped in the Feathered Hall, named such for the hundreds of eagle feathers that hung on golden threads from the rafters, twirling back and forth in the breeze that gusted through the open shutters.

The room was a little smaller than the Prince's Hall, and made all of timber. There were torches ensconced on every face of the six wooden columns that supported the ceiling, the expanse beneath the dais was choked with oaken trestle tables, and the timber walls were draped in rich tapestries of hunting scenes, each depicting men and women with golden bows; one of them, grander than the others, and positioned behind the dais, showed a grizzled old man in ragged leather armor, blindfolded, and embraced in the arms of an oak tree.

"Gah, I'm no jouster," Ser Wenfryd returned, quaffing the last of his wine. It was late in the night now, and the castle was half asleep. "My talents lie elsewhere – as do yours." He looked pointedly at the tapestries.

Manfryd grinned. "Is that a challenge?" He was stockier than Wenfryd, but just as plain-faced, his dark hair lank, his top lip shrouded beneath a thick mustache, face made bushy by bristling whiskers. He reeked of bird shit.

The Yews raised eagles to fletch their arrows – Manfryd kept a rookery of them alongside his maester's ravens. Harry could hear them even now, their fluttering wings and screeching calls creeping soft and slow through the keep, the sounds muddled by stone and timber walls both. House Yew was only a knightly house, but it was old, an ancient line of First Men blood that they traced back all the way to the Blind Bowman, Alan o' the Oak, who had walked the lands during the same fabled time as Lann the Clever and Bran the Builder.

Alan o' the Oak's descendants stumbled from the hall, jostling one another like boys; some of Harry's bowmen who sat scattered amongst the servants at the trestle tables followed behind them, curious, perhaps, to see the two of them shoot. He saw Ser Lucion with a serving woman, leading her to a shadowed lunette in the far corner of the hall, and Strongboar with Ser Gerard and Ser Jaxom tumbling dice at a table, wagering for some unknown prize.

"Now that Quenten is gone," Marvell began as he sidled up to Harry at the head table, voice quiet like it always was, "perhaps you might like to try your steel against mine? We pray together often enough – should we not fight together as well?"

Harry stopped messing about with his food and looked up at the massive Brax knight. Marvell was well over a foot taller than him, heavily muscled, and a proven warrior. They had never crossed swords, nor any other weapon. But they had worshipped together, if Harry's one-sided conversations with death could be called such, in the sept at Casterly Rock and down in the city, at the septry and the motherhouse, with the dredges in the shanties off the harbor. "Very well," Harry said. "We will cross swords on the morrow. I advise you to spend this night in prayer to the Warrior."

Marvell grinned. He looked half a fool with his tonsure, Harry thought, and oddly boyish for it, even with his growing beard.

"We have prayed together often," Harry repeated, "but I cannot say that I know you very well, ser."

"Nor I you," Marvell returned. He sat in silence, considering his words with apparent care. "You are very private," he said at last. "And it isn't for a knight to know his lord; only to obey him."

"Is that what I am? Your lord?"

"You are more than that," Marvell said. "You are my prince."

Harry pushed his plate away, swallowed down the rest of his watered wine before it lost its chill. "Once upon a time I thought we might all become friends, you, Quenten, Herbert, Bertram and I. Just as my father had Lord Stark, Uncle Renly his squire Loras…"

"And now?"

"Now I wonder what happened to the boy I was. I wonder which moment finally killed him. Was it the Dragon Pit? Was it after?" He leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table. "Or perhaps I was never a boy at all."

Marvell gave him an odd look. "When I was twelve, my only worries were making sure Ser Lyle's armor was properly polished, and keeping eye to dodge his heavy-handed clouts."

"He does have rather large hands, doesn't he? He's more bear than boar. As you are more boar than unicorn."

The massive Brax knight cracked a smile. "To my mother's great pride. The Crakehall blood breeds true, she says. But you, my lord – my prince, beg pardon – you have a bearing unlike anyone I have ever met. Certainly not the countenance of a boy."

"I'm almost a man grown."

"In body, perhaps. But you've always been a man in your mind, haven't you?"

Harry thought of that serious, hopeful boy sailing on the Black Water in a rickety fishing skiff, searching endlessly for his next adventure. "…No. Not always."

They departed ways sometime later, Harry to Ser Manfryd's own chambers in the westward facing tower, thrust upon him by the lord himself, and Marvell to the guest apartments in the tower that looked north.

When Harry slept, he dreamed of blue-veined wraiths and a glowing scarlet eye. He drifted down a dark corridor that smelled of wet earth and roots, unafraid of the reaching shadows, even as they swarmed around him. A single red eye watched him from the deep. He walked towards it, then sprinted, but never got a step closer. The shadows bled blue ink that pooled at his feet, splashed beneath his heels. The ink grew into creatures of nightmare, thin, wrinkled, long-limbed, with dagger-sharp fangs and iron grips. Still, he was unafraid.

The wraiths grabbed for him. He opened his mouth to yell, reached for his gift, but the inky shadows leaped into his mouth and clogged his throat. The creatures held him fast, tore at him with blue claws like sharpened points of bone–

Harry awoke with a sharp gasp, phantom pains throbbing up and down his arms. The chamber around him was deathly dark, the embers in the hearth long since gone grey. He heard a great rush from outside, like wind and snapping banners, almost, but deeper. Had the storms returned? Scents played on the air – burning charcoal and fatty pork and seared beef, something sweet and musky, rotten eggs, iron fresh out the forge – so thick and rich he could almost taste them.

He frowned at the smell, yawned, wiped his eyes – the queer light spilling through his cracked window urged him up from his bed, a sickly green that reminded him of the killing curse from his dreams. He shuffled groggily over to the window, threw the shutter wide, and stared, struck dumb. The heat that blew thick and scorching into the room burned away the hazy remnants of sleep and singed his nose hairs. That smell… it was burning men.

The stone wall was afire, but instead of orange, the flames burned vibrant green. Beneath the crackling roar, he heard steel ringing, men yelling – and screams, terrible echoing screams like the wails of the ghosts that slumbered beneath the Rock. Now that he was aware of the sounds, he didn't realize how he hadn't heard them before. Such agony, those screams conveyed, and fear, and rage. The stench turned his stomach, even as the sounds hardened his heart. A man aflame in flickering green dove from the wall; when he hit the ground, the fire spread as if the moist earth was dry kindling.

This was the work of the brigands, he thought, grinding his jaw. And the warlocks.

There came a pounding at his door, and then Ser Brenden's voice shouting for him to open it – Harry twisted about, gestured, and the latch released.

"The keep is under attack!" Brenden said unnecessarily as he pushed into the room.

"I know," Harry returned, still at the window. Sweat beaded his brow. He saw shapes moving below, and blades catching on the fiery green glow as they carved through flesh. Were those his knights dying, or Manfryd's? "Where are the men?"

"Ser Lyle is holding the hall below with Lorch and his men, and Ser Daven is rousing the others."

"And Ser Manfryd?"

"Leading men up to the tower battlements, my prince, to put his bowmen to use."

Harry turned back to the flames. The warlocks had been waiting for this. Waiting for him to stir from Casterly Rock. He'd known, in his heart of hearts, that something would happen, but not this. Not wildfire. This was madness.

"We must get you in your armor, my prince," Ser Brenden said. "I do not think it a coincidence that the keep is being attacked while you are in it."

The Rykker knight bustled about, lighting candles and gathering Harry's things – sword, mail, brigandine and gambeson – and tossed them to the prince. Harry garbed himself as quickly as could, his attention focused on the fire – no doubt the warlocks expected it to burn the whole night through.

But they had not anticipated the breadth of his power. Teeth clenched, he reached out to grasp the flames.

They were wild, enraged. Magical. They resisted him, fought against his control like a wild bull, then, as his anger mounted, a bucking colt, and then a mad dog. It seemed as if he were taking the flames into himself, for he felt his skin grow hot, felt his heartbeat deepen, quickening to a thunderous pattern.

How dare they?!

Ser Brenden stepped up beside him to help him don his hauberk, even as his mind was on the flames, pushing, cajoling, dominating, always dominating. His brigandine went on last. The weight of the mail against his shoulders was oddly comfortable, the plain leather grip of his sword familiar in his hand. The weight of the fire in his mind was as heavy stone, though, the feel of it a scalding brand on his thoughts, but on he fought.

The wildfire seemed to shudder, shrinking in on itself.

"Your safety is paramount," Ser Brenden said, "but I know you will not meekly hide away while we deal with these men–"

There came a commotion from the corridor. Sharp rings of clanging steel reached his ears, rough voices raised in anger, the pained grunts and shouts of men whose sword arms were a touch to slow; as the flames outside began to die down, finally under his sway, he smelled the sharp, coppery scent of blood, but stronger than that, still, the sweet, putrid odor of burnt flesh.

Ser Brenden rushed to the open door, blade drawn.

Harry clamped down on the wildfire with all his might, and the flames stilled as if frozen.

The fight had reached them. An axeman loomed in the doorway. He was draped in knotted leaves and roots like some devil born of the wood. He blocked Ser Brenden's blade with the shaft of his axe, lashing out at the knight with a booted heel.

Ser Brenden absorbed the blow, struck back with a blow of his own.

Outside, the fire began to recede.

Harry heard more voices, smelled more blood. Five men spilled into the room after the axeman, wild men, some garbed in blood-splattered and rusted mail, some in equally bloody and worn leather. They stank of madness and death.

One moment Ser Brenden was wrestling with the axeman; the next, his sword was buried in his foe's skull and he was yanking it loose to meet his next opponent. Harry felt as if he had been living his entire life at half speed, and only now had he seen the frantic pace of true living. There was no time to plan, to consider. Only act.

A swarthy swordsman in a lumpy halfhelm dove over the bed at him, eyes crazed. He shuffled backward in alarm, sword brandished before him, but his foe had entangled himself in the furs.

The swordsman tumbled over the edge of the bed, thudded against the floor and rolled to his belly, gathering to push himself up from the floor.

Harry saw that he was armored all over, save for his legs, so he slashed and cut through the back of both of them; the man screamed, and Harry did not stop to consider the fact that he had just hamstrung a man, silencing him with another cruel stroke.

Perhaps he might find peace in death, the prince thought, as Harry Potter had. He moved to help Ser Brenden, heart beating in his throat, blood pumping, something that tasted like excitement coursing through his veins, and anger, hot as the wildfire that had scorched the wall; one of the three brigands who had swarmed his sworn shield twisted about to attack him, this one with a pair of daggers.

This was just another match in the training yard, Harry told himself. Another fight against Quenten. Despite the frenetic beat of his heart he was oddly calm. He wove his sword through the flashing knives as if it were a needle and plunged his blade through layered cloth and leather into the soft meat of his foe's stomach. Blood welled from the wound; the man slumped over with a wet gurgle, red pooling beneath him.

Marvell came barreling into the room then, seven feet of steel and sinew, and brained one of the men tussling with Brenden with a swing of his mace. His backswing caught the other with a resounding crunch and a spray of blood and bone chips, but more men came into the room after him, pushing through the door, emboldened by insanity; for every helmed head he stove in, it seemed as if two more men appeared in replacement.

Harry looked to his sworn shield. Ser Brenden was slumped against the bench against the wall, blood dripping from beneath his arm. He struggled to his feet to re-enter the fray; another man came at Harry, slinking up like a panther, face hidden behind a vented greathelm. His armor was finer than the others, but no less bloody, his foot falls heavy against the floor.

Everything was happening too fast, too sudden. Enraged, Harry reached for his magic, but then a sword was arcing towards his face, and as if of its own volition, his blade leapt to meet it. The steel clashed, screeched and sparked, and clashed again.

The man drove Harry back to the window with his blade work, his sword point a flickering silver mote that twisted through the air like a dragonfly. He was taller than Harry, stronger, and it was all the prince could do to keep up. This was no mere brigand, he thought. This man was a knight, tried and true.

The strange tang he had tasted on the air intensified. He heard more men out in the hall, sounds of violence, the furious patter of booted feet against stone. The sword came at him again; he ducked away and pushed, calling on his gift.

The room quaked, stone shuddering. Focus, he told himself.

The man stumbled for half a breath and attacked again before Harry could so much as think, cutting left, right, then right again, laughing all the while, like it was all a big game, some grand jest. He was fast, strong, deadly. His sword whistled closer with every swing.

Harry panicked, his power turned inward, and for the span of a single moment, he was aware of everything: The floating dust, the way the wind curled over the half-burned wall, Ser Lyle and the others fighting down in the hall, the thrum of arrows sailing through the air, the men coming up the tower steps, Frederick's shallow breathing out in the corridor, a man climbing through the window–

He saw the coming downcut before the motion had even started. He stepped aside, stabbed out with his blade into the sliver of unprotected flesh beneath his foe's arm; the tip sliced through skin and sinew like a cleaver through slow-smoked hog. He twisted the sword, yanked it loose; blood splattered against his face, dripped down to his lips. The man fell to the floor as if a puppet with its strings cut, blood everywhere.

He twisted to aim an arcing slash at the man sneaking up behind him, slipped on something slick – sharp pain erupted in his temple, and then, darkness.

Chapter Text


Harry woke to the grunting of horses and the droning of crickets. His head was pounding and his mouth was painfully dry. A pair of owls screeched down at him from branches that still dripped with moisture from the last rain. The mountain air was cold and still.

He wondered, for a second, why he was tied sideways across a horse's back as if he were a bundle of cloth - but then it all came rushing back; the fire, the fight, his capture, and that last moment at the end when the world had seemed, all at once, impossibly fast and unbearably slow.

He wriggled to see how loose the ropes that bound him to the horse were, but then remembered that he could just magic himself free when he needed to. His hands and feet were bound as well. The trail was steep, uneven, and rocky – he could tell by the way the horse lurched along that it was unfamiliar with its surroundings. Moonlight poured through the trees to spill over the rain-slick ground.

A voiced sounded from somewhere in front of him.

"Finally gonna tell me what your masters want with the Prince of Casterly Rock?"

"My masters?" came the reply. The voice was heavily accented. "The Undying are our masters, ser. Your Lord Urrathon serves them as well. And it isn't for you to know their desires. It isn't for any of us to know their desires."

"They just want us to die for them."

"You were a slave once, less than a man, broken and useless. Now you are free. Whole. You have purpose. Your thoughts are still your own. Your life is the least of what you owe them."

A groan and a sigh. "Only you would tell me to be thankful for the power to think. Fucking sorcerers…" Another sigh. "Could've grabbed a few girls, at least. There's no fight left in the ones at camp… think your masters will mind if the boy is roughed up a bit?"

Harry took as deep a breath as he could, and then another. The way he was situated atop the horse made it difficult to inhale – he tried to focus only on breathing. Just breathing.

The pain in his head dulled to a gentle throb, and anger came quick to replace it. Stay calm, he told himself. Calm and still. He could escape whenever he wanted to. He could kill them whenever he needed to. He would kill them, for their crimes. But not yet.

"No. They will not mind, so long as he is alive."

Calm, Harry. Be calm. There was something different about the second man, something intangible. Familiar, almost. Harry couldn't place what it was, but he could feel it, as sure as he could feel the wind breezing through his hair.

Eventually, the trail leveled off, only to rise again, even steeper than before. How long had they had him? It seemed like only moments had passed since he had seen the wildfire burning outside his window. His men were probably out searching for him now. No one would want to be the man to return to Casterly Rock and inform Lord Tywin that his heir had been taken by outlaws that were supposed to be dead.

One moment, the air was cool and the crickets were droning and the trail was an endless climb into dark, scraggly woods, and the next, the world had fallen silent. Harry felt himself pass through some sort of barrier. It was slick on his skin and tasted foul in his mouth - when he chanced to look up, a tumbledown keep greeted him. It seemed to have sprouted up out of the shadows. The single tower was smothered in vines, and a fledgling ironwood grew in the grove beneath the crumbled wall, its blue leaves fluttering like butterfly wings in a gentle breeze, though Harry felt no wind on his skin.

The horse stopped moving, and all at once, the men dismounted. He counted eight sets of feet, but he couldn't be sure that these were the only men around.

"Take the prince to the cells," said the man with the accent. "Keep him bound."

"What can he do?" called out the first. "He's only a boy."

"The Undying would not be this interested in only a boy. He is… different. Special."

"He's no more special than any other boy. They all squeal when you poke em'." There was a pause, and then, "You heard the man! Get moving! Whatever witchery you've been doing to these poor sods, it's getting worse."

"We won't need them for much longer. Our task has reached its end."

Harry felt hands grip his shoulders and quashed his instinct to lash out, keeping his body relaxed as if he were still knocked out. He was lifted into the air and carried into the cellars beneath the tower. The smell of mold hit him as soon as he crossed the threshold. He could hear rats squirming in the walls, and what sounded like a sobbing woman. Every sound had a strange echo. He felt the heat of a torch pass his face, but kept his eyes closed.

A cell creaked open.

He was dropped unceremoniously to the ground. The impact knocked the wind from his stomach; he wheezed and sat up, startling the man who'd carried him in.

He was tall and swarthy, with lips so dark they almost looked black, and scars all over his face and arms. He stared as if he knew Harry could see into his mind and was goading him to do it, but said nothing. His eyes said enough. There was a sliver of hatred in them, and anger too, but mostly fear. The mind behind them was cracked and muddled, broken by tortures both physical and mental. This man was only a puppet, and hardly that.

Harry glared back, nose flaring. "I'm going to kill you," he said, unable to hold his tongue. He didn't know if the warlocks could see through those they had made into pawns, but he hoped they could. "I'm going to kill each and every last one of you."

The man closed the cell with a clang and lumbered away without a backwards glance. Eventually the cellar grew quiet, save for the rats in the walls. A single torch ensconced in the column in the center of the main room was the only source of light. It illuminated a single table and chair, and four other cells, but the light was too dim to see past the bars.

Harry used his shoulders to push himself to his feet. He suspected that one of the men in charge would visit him soon. He wanted to be prepared.

"Bold words for a prisoner," a voice said from beyond the cell doors. "Might I have your name?"

"Harrold Baratheon." There was a sharp intake of breath. "Yours?"

"Damn it all to the seven hells. If these butchers have captured you then I truly fear for what comes next. I wish our second meeting could have come under better circumstances."

"Who are you?" The voice was vaguely familiar. Harry leaned his face against the bars and peered out into the darkness. "Come into the light."

A body rolled into view in the cell perpendicular from his. "I am Gyles Bettley, my prince. We spoke at your nameday feast."

Harry was briefly taken aback. He hadn't expected there to be a lord here. Certainly not alive, even though from what little he could see of Gyles Bettley, the man could hardly be termed that. "I remember you. I'd been led to believe that you were dead."

"No. Not yet. The mangy cunts kept me alive. Killed most of my men though. The Essosi knight means to sell me in Mereen. Apparently a learned and well-bred man such as myself is worth a considerable amount of gold on the slave market."

"Are there any other prisoners here?"

"One of the Moreland girls. The dimwitted one. The other they sent "down river" with the rest."

Down river? "To where, Oldtown?"

"That is the assumption. Many girls refused, chose death instead. But enough caved. The ser boasts often of the sellsword company he will found with the gold he'll make from selling the daughters of lords. All in Urrathon's name, he says. Whoever that is."

Harry turned away from Lord Gyles and shuffled over to the recesses of his cell to lean against the wall. The man continued talking but Harry tuned him out. There was so much he didn't know about warlocks. About their abilities. He'd been so sure of himself that he hadn't bothered to learn. Certainly there was a maester somewhere who had been to Qarth, who knew something of their ways. It would do him no good now, but once he was free, he would learn everything there was to know about the warlocks of Qarth, and then he would destroy them.

He stood there in the dark for some time, frustrated and angry. He could feel his magic in his veins like a living thing. How much suffering had come unto the people of the west for the warlock's interest in him? And what had he done to deter it? Nothing but play at being a knight and a lord. Tywin hadn't allowed him to ride in the campaign against the brigands, but that was no excuse. He could've done more. He should've done more. Maybe the Moreland girls would still be with their father. They had been at his nameday feast, but he could scarcely picture their faces.

There came the screeching groan of a door opening, and then footsteps against stone. Harry pushed off the wall and shimmied forward into the light. There was a man standing in the main room, a torch clenched in his fist. He was pale as milk with thin blue lips and spidery blue veins running all through his face and hands. Even his eyes were blue. He wore a tattered gambeson and carried a curved sword at his waist. He stepped right up to the bars and stared just past Harry's head.

"My name is Xen Xakhar."

It was the same accented voice Harry had heard before. The man's presence was unmistakable. He spat. "You're a warlock."

"I am merely a student."

Xen was smart not to look him in the eyes, Harry thought. But if he were truly smart, he wouldn't have come down at all. "A student. Who is your teacher?"

"I have several. They are called the Undying. You will be on your way to them soon."

"What do they want with me?" Tell the truth…

"Your power. They want it for themselves. With your power, they will eclipse their former glory. They will reclaim all that was once theirs."

"How did they even know about me?"

"Lord Urrathon-" Xen Xakhar stopped and scowled. "How are you doing this?"

Harry shuffled closer. The warlock's eyes dropped to his feet. "You're going to die here. If you release me now and tell me what I want to know, I will be merciful."

That made him angry. "I have no need of your mercy."

"Why did you and yours kill so many of my people? What purpose did their deaths serve?"

"Sacrifices must be made."

Harry inched closer still. If his hands were free, he could've reached out and grabbed the bars of his cell. "Sacrifices for what?"

"The Deep –" He clapped a hand over his mouth. "How are you doing this?! Such ability…" Fear and hate were as two sides of the same coin, and as his fear grew, so too did his hatred. "The masters will not mind if you are maimed."

Harry ignored his threat. However badly the warlock wanted to hurt him, it paled in comparison to Harry's own desire. It almost frightened him, how badly he wanted to hurt this man. "You'll never be able to get me out of the west. That illusion outside only masks the trail, it doesn't erase it. It will fall if you die, won't it?"

"How do you know about the…" Xen trailed off in thought. "You were awake when we rode in," he said as if he had just realized it. "You left something. A marker." He turned away.

Harry wriggled his wrists, focused intently on his hands being free. His desire to strangle Xen Xakhar warred with his need. The ropes writhed as if alive, slithered loose of his wrists and feet and shot forward to coil around the warlock as he made to leave.

Xen fell with a shout and rolled to his back, struggling with the rope. The torch clattered to the floor. As the warlock opened his mouth to yell, the rope wrapped itself about his throat. The only thing he could do was gasp for air.

Harry waved a hand and the cell door swung open. Xen Xakhar saw him approaching and clenched his eyes shut even as he thrashed helplessly.

Harry kneeled beside him. "How did your master find out about me?"

Xen Xakhar throat pulsed as he rasped for breath. Harry twiddled his fingers and the rope loosened. The warlock took in great gulps of air, chest heaving, but through it all he kept his eyes closed.

"I don't know!" he gasped out.

"You mentioned a Lord Urrathon."

For several long moments the only sound was Xen's harsh breathing. "I won't betray my masters," he finally managed.

"Yes you will. You have no choice."

"Now that I know the insidious touch of your foul abilities, they will have no effect on me. The Undying will defend the sanctity of my thoughts."

Harry laughed, a short, harsh bark. "No they won't. You're on your own."

The rope tightened its grip. Harry grabbed the warlock's face and forced his eyes open. He had never pushed his magic on someone like that, to goad them to tell the truth. He'd never had to. As he focused on Xen Xakhar's thoughts and memories, the world narrowed to brief flashes and glimpses of his life. Grand cities and choppy waters. Weeping men with blades. A hall of men in blue robes, each one as pale as a wraith. He pushed deeper. With the rope so tight around his neck, Xakhar couldn't gather the air to scream.

His mind wasn't all that different from the broken men the Undying had made into puppets. It was connected to something greater, a cluster of things, one small part of a vast whole. In the others, the connection had been weak, but in Xakhar it was as strong as steel. Beyond his mind flowed a river of deep blue liquid that spilled into a vast chasm. And behind that chasm, shrouded in darkness, Harry found the masters. They were only impressions, vague outlines of twisted beings whose essence reeked of decay and rot.

These decrepit creatures wanted him? Hello, he wanted to say. You should've stayed away.

As he saw the lingering echoes of them, so too did they catch a glimpse of him, just as they had when he seared through the minds of the prisoners beneath Casterly Rock. He felt their fear. He felt their desire. They coveted his power as much as they hated him for having it.

But how did they know? How had they discovered him?

The name Urrathon Night-Walker came to the forefront of Xakhar's dying mind. He arose as a hazy image, a giant of a man as wrinkled as old leather with black, sightless eyes, surrounded by glass candles that burned with an unpleasantly bright light. He used the candles to see things hundreds of thousands of miles away, to track his allies and hunt his enemies. But how had he found an enemy half way across the world? What had drawn him to Harry?

Xakhar did not know.

Harry released him and stood. The warlock had breathed his last. Harry took his curved sword and went to let Lord Gyles out of his cell. The lord seemed reluctant to leave.

"You have nothing to fear from me, my lord. But we must leave. Now."

"Right. Of course. Of course. And I'll mention this to no one, obviously."

He seemed to have a great deal more he wanted to say, but the words never formed. Harry had other things to worry about. Sword in hand, he climbed the steps up out of the cellar. Xen Xakhar kept a warhorn in his quarters. If he could sound it, he could draw his men to the camp.

He stepped out onto the first level of the keep. It was cluttered with arms and armor, and the smoking hearth stank of charred meat. There was a bow leaning against the nearest wall, with a quiver of arrows hanging from a peg. The biggest crossbow he had ever seen rested atop a blood stained table. A man armored in plate was standing beside the stair to the second level of the keep. As he turned around, Harry threw his sword at him and snatched up the bow. He saw the man flinch away in the corner of his eye. The arrow seemed to leap into his hands.

With hardly a motion wasted, he knocked and released an arrow. The tip spun through the air and into the man's eye. The sound of his armored body falling was almost deafening to Harry's ears. He rushed past the open door, jumped over the body, and continued up to the second level. Lord Gyles followed behind, collecting Harry's sword and another for himself.

Xakhar shared his quarters with the man he had called ser. There was a girl crouched in the corner, muffling her sobs with her fist. She was clad in filthy rags, and the left side of her face was one big bruise. Harry was reminded of another girl, one far more dear to him.

Distantly, he heard his teeth grinding.

"Poor girl," Gyles Bettley said as he approached her. "It's alright, my lady. You're safe now."

The girl started crying even harder. Harry found the warhorn atop a pile of shields. He inhaled deeply, put it to his lips, and blew.

The off-white coil of bone loosed a long, rumbling note. Harry blew again, and again still. He passed Gyles the horn, took the sword, and told the lord to blow until he passed out. Then he went to guard the doorway.

Two men came running into the keep only to trip over the dead body slumped at the base of the steps. Harry was quick to reach for the bow, but he only had time to shoot one of the men before the other was on him. He backed away from a wide cut, called his blade to his hand, and angled it in the path of the next swing.

The steel met with a clang. Harry slipped his blade free and thrust the point up towards his foe's face. The man leaned aside the cut and punched Harry in the temple. The blow sent him reeling, and he only just managed to dance away from the follow up. The tip of the blade cut into his skin, and he felt a searing pain shoot down his cheek.

Death was a single misstep away, and yet Harry was in his element. The danger, the rush of adrenaline, the blood pumping in his ears, it all seemed intimately familiar, like old friends he was reacquainting himself with. He recalled the strange clarity he had achieved at Castle Yew, and slowly, the feeling returned.

Lord Gyles was still blowing the horn. The sound made it hard to think. All Harry could do was listen, feel the vibrations roll against his skin. The sword came whistling torwards him again. He stepped back, and back again – his foe over-reached, teetering off balance. As he stumbled forward, Harry pushed the point of his sword into his throat. When the steel caught on bone, he yanked it loose and felt blood splatter his face.

Beneath the endless rumble of the warhorn, he heard what sounded like horse hooves. He waved for Gyles to stop and started down the stairs.

"I – my prince, what are you –"

"Stay here, my lord. When the fighting is over, I will call for you."

Three men came barreling into the room, each clad in plate. Harry brandished his sword, glad that the stairs would keep them from swarming him, but when the men turned towards him, he dropped his sword to his side. That armor… that sigil…

"Marvell?"

Marvell Brax pushed up his visor and grinned. "Prince Harrold!"

Harry descended the steps two at a time. Marvell took up the Myrish crossbow and came to meet him at the base of the stair. "I never thought I'd be so happy to see that stupid haircut of yours. Gyles Bettley and one of Robin Moreland's daughters are in the upper room. Who leads the attack?"

As one of the men stepped past to go up the stairs, Marvell said, "Strongboar is leading the attack… my prince? Where are you going?"

"To join him." He wanted to see the outlaws die, down to the man. The knight, the puppets, the sellswords. All of them. He wanted to see.

The night was giving way to morning. Off to the east, the sun was just waking to start its journey through the clouds. Strongboar's raid on the camp was too swift and too sudden for the brigands to defend against. Even a disciplined force would've been hard-pressed to fend off his attack. Scouts had tracked the warlock and his men up into the mountains, but lost them in the illusion. Two dozen men had swarmed the cliffs, searching desperately for the bandit camp. The illusion had fallen with Xen Xakhar's death; the warhorn had brought them down on the camp like crows on carrion.

Harry stepped out of the keep into an arena of death, Marvell close at his heels. Bowmen ringed the camp, picking off stragglers; knights trampled all the rest, then dismounted and unsheathed their swords to finish the job. The taste of victory was sweet indeed, even one so small as this, but Harry couldn't forget those that his inaction had damned. When the fighting was done, he walked from one end of the camp to the other, checking with each man in the aftermath of the skirmish.

Tywin kept a certain distance from his men and preached the same, but Kevan had always said that it was good for your men to know you, to believe that you cared for their wellbeing. Harry couldn't say which was better, but with each forearm he clasped, he felt a little weight lift from his soul, as if he had shared his burden with them. Even the blackhearts like Gerard Lorch received his thanks. A few of the men were injured, some seriously, but only two of them had died.

One was a squire, a sandy haired boy from Castle Yew. The other was Ser Brenden. Harry found him near the ironwood tree with his throat slashed. Older blood stained his face, and his helm was dented. That sweet taste of victory, already soured by circumstance, rotted in his mouth. He felt his lips tremble.

"He shouldn't have come," Marvell said from behind him. "He took a blow to the head when the brigands attacked the keep. Said he was seeing double and he could hardly walk, but no one could keep him away. He fell from his horse as we rode in. I didn't see what happened after that."

"Someone slit his throat."

He knelt beside Ser Brenden. Harry had known him since he was a young boy, before Brenden had become a knight, before he had learned the truth of his dreams and discovered his magic. A familiar face had turned into a trusted face, but now it was only a dead face.

"I need four men to return his bones to Duskendale." His eyes were burning, so he closed them. "And I need another four to go south. Tell them to follow the river through Golden Grove. The brigands sent their captives through the Reach. Probably to Oldtown."

"My prince, I –"

"Go."

Marvell bowed, then turned and left.

Eventually, Maester Wulfric found him kneeling in the same spot. Four men had come and collected Ser Brenden's body. Harry had thanked each of them, but if asked, he wouldn't have been able to recall a single name or face.

"You've been cut," the maester said by way of greeting.

"What?"

"There, on your face. If you would allow me to clean and dress the wound?"

Harry stood and nodded. Quietly, the maester cleaned the cut with some sort of stinging solution, then wrapped his face in bandages.

"What is this tree, maester?"

Wulfric glanced over at the tree. "Ironwood, if I'm not mistaken. Shade-of-the-evening is made from its leaves."

The maester had mentioned that once before, Harry recalled. "A blue, oily substance?"

"To my knowledge, yes. I've never partaken myself, but I know of a few who have."

Harry wondered what would happen if he drank shade-of-the-evening. Would he find himself connected to the Undying as Xer Xakhar had been? Surely there was more to it than that, some sort of spell or invocation, but… "Why do they drink it?"

"They say it opens the mind to the truth."

"Hn. The truth."

Wulfric finished tying off the bandage. "Maester Aldon believes the beverage is simply a powerful hallucinogenic."

"Could you make the drink yourself?" Harry asked.

"I would have to consult a few of my comrades, but yes, I believe I could."

"Good. Collect some of the leaves."

By the time Wulfric was finished, all the spoils had been gathered – weapons, armor, and even some gold – and all the men were ahorse and prepared to depart.

Marvell returned to him with a mount. It was Flatfoot.

"It was like she knew where to find you," he said. "One of the scouts rode her up the mountain until the trail disappeared. She was the first through the hidden path through the cliffs, when we found it. You and your horse both have been touched by the seven, my prince."

The big dun courser bent her head and nuzzled Harry's chest when he stepped up next to her.

Strongboar rode up. He somehow seemed even larger than normal. "We aren't far from Silverhill," he said. "It might be best to stay there for a – "

"We ride on to the tourney," Harry said. "There are no brigands left to ambush us, and if we're close to Silverhill, then we're close to the Thorns."

Strongboar looked like he wanted to argue, but seemed to think better of it. "Then on to the Thorns we shall ride, my prince."

They went east down the mountain before working their way north to the Gold Road. Before the trees rose to surround them, Harry could see the Crownlands off in the distance. In the forest, he could hardly see in front of him. Mist flowed thick between the trees, wafting up from the earth, hugging the boughs and boles. The grey light of morning slowly working its way across the sky couldn't penetrate the haze.

The world around him seemed muted, but not for the mist – the feeling went deeper than mere sight. It was as if the last hours fighting for his life had been the most vibrant he had ever lived, and now that the fight was done and the danger was gone, the world was much less clear, much less beautiful – it was but a dull dream, hazy as the aimless fog.

Harry became aware of voices on the road, then the thudding tread of horse hooves and the metallic chink of armor, and waved for the men to stop.

"You said there were no more brigands," Strongboar said from beside him.

"There aren't." Harry did not think that these were the sounds of another outlaw army, but it never hurt to be cautious. "Ser Gerard, Ser Marvell." He waved a hand.

The knights gathered five men and rode ahead, leaving Harry with the battered remnants of his retinue. When no sounds of skirmish reached them, he gave a signal and they rode onward to the road, breaking free of the brush only to halt before a wall of spears. Harry saw that Marvell and Gerard Lorch had dismounted beyond the gleaming steel points, but they didn't appear to be captives, nor did they look to be ensorcelled.

There was a long, unbearably quiet moment when no one seemed to breathe, and even the sounds of the forest ceased – then Marvell was yelling at the spearmen and Gerard was yanking his sword free – a tall, broad-shouldered man in green and gold plate armor shouted, "At ease!", and the spearmen stepped back into a line, slamming the butts of their weapons to the ground.

"Oh my," a voice said, soft, mellifluous, drifting down from the open door of the tall wheelhouse that had suddenly appeared out of the fog.

Perhaps he was dreaming – perhaps he had taken a fall from his horse and cracked his head against a rock. He knew those brown curls, those big eyes, those smiling lips. He didn't know the lissome form, though; it was supple and graceful as a swan's, garbed in soft silks dyed bright green and patterned with golden flowers and twisting vines, bare shoulders smooth and pale as porcelain. She was shorter than he had imagined she would be, and the portrait hadn't quite captured the deep brown of her gaze, nor the silken ease with which she moved. And was that concern he saw in the parted 'o' of her lips, in the trembling fingers she pressed to her mouth?

"You're bleeding!" she exclaimed.

A brittle voice drifted out the wheelhouse from behind her. "And you, dear, are almost as talented as your oafish father at stating the obvious."

Harry touched his bandages and the tips of his fingers came away red. He tried to smile, play down his injury, but then loyal Ser Brenden's gaping neck flashed across his eyes. He thought of the girls who had chosen to die rather than live, and how wretched their last days must have been.

His smile withered before it could bloom. He knew death was but freedom from the rigors of the world – a long, peaceful sleep after the tumult of life – but he could not help the dolor creeping up his spine and sitting cold in his chest. There were few people in the world whom he trusted as he had trusted Ser Brenden, and even his sworn shield hadn't know the truth of who and what he was.

Now he was dead, and here was this girl who was meant to become his wife. His ally. His confidante. "Forgive my appearance, my lady. I am –"

"I know who you are," Margaery Tyrell said as she stepped down from the wheelhouse, mist parting before her as if it had been cut. "You're the Black Prince."

"Yes, yes, yes," came the other voice, faint but growing louder, "he's the Black Prince, and now he's bleeding like a Stuck Pig." A tiny, pale head blossomed from the wheelhouse, thin wisps of white hair framing a heavily wrinkled face. Harry didn't know that face, had never seen it, but he could guess as to whom it belonged to.

"Well don't just stand there staring at him, silly girl," Olenna Tyrell went on. "Bring the boy in out of this dreadful weather. Muggy air does nothing for cuts, dear, grandmother knows."

Chapter Text


(16)

Harry had never liked to ride in wheelhouses.

When he was old enough to accompany Lord Jon on his rare forays to feast with nearby lords in the Crownlands, his mother had insisted that he ride in a one. The night before his first trip he had set fire to the dreaded contraption in a fit of childish rage and watched the paint melt and the wood blacken until only ashes were left. Cersei never again attempted to make him ride in a wheelhouse, and Jon, after scolding him for playing with fire, ignorant that the burning had been purposeful, gifted him a handsome tan pony to ride instead. Harry had always been fond of the Hand, but that act of kindness had cemented him as family.

He was reminded now why he had hated wheelhouses as a child; the lurching and jostling from the rutted road, the constant rattle of endlessly loose axels, and the stuffiness, even with a window open, were nearly unbearable. He much preferred to have a horse beneath him, to feel the impact of hoof to earth reverberate up his legs and into his arms, to feel the wind on his face and in his hair. Margaery caught on to his quiet displeasure as time went on, and, much to Olenna's chagrin, pulled Harry from the wheelhouse hardly half an hour after he'd entered.

"Muggy air never killed anyone," she said after Harry had started to tap his fingers against the windowsill. "And it's much too stuffy in here. Ride with me?"

He beamed at her.

Ser Garlan brought her horse, a pale mare that was caparisoned in Tyrell green and gold, and together, they galloped through the misty fields of weeds and wildflowers that bordered the Gold Road. Margaery kept quiet as he took in the sounds and the smells and the tastes. The wind was sweet to his nose but bitter on his tongue. The muted sunlight was easy on his eyes after the deep dark of night, but everything looked drab and gray. To Flatfoot's mind, however, this was paradise. She yearned to stretch her legs, to push herself, so he let her and made her delight his own. A couple dozen men broke file to follow them, and a couple dozen more rode ahead, as if bandits might spring up from the weeds.

Perhaps they had, he thought. He'd never learned just how the warlock had gotten his men into Ser Manfryd's keep, but giving it some thought, he realized Xen Xakhar must have used an illusion.

Flatfoot slowed from a gallop to a brisk walk, allowing Margaery to catch up. Harry heard obnoxious cawing in the brush ahead; Margaery put on a sudden burst of speed and flushed a bouquet of ring-necked pheasants from the tall grass ahead. Harry was quick to claim one with the short bow he'd taken from the outlaw keep. The bowmen riding behind them took the others. Margaery pretended to be upset that the men had killed all the birds, but confessed to Harry that grilled pheasant stuffed with onions and mushrooms was one of her favorite foods. She claimed her cast of falcons – all bred by her eldest brother, Willas – were the preeminent hunters of landfowl at Highgarden.

The gray, misty morn gradually brightened to a golden afternoon as the fog cleared and the sun pierced the cloudy veil. The main party turned off the Gold Road to follow a patchy trail that wound through a wide valley, beyond which lay the Thorns; Harry and Margaery kept to the hills. Harry had never been to the Thorns, but when studying for Tywin's hearthside lessons he had read maps of the Westerlands until his eyes burned. His grandfather was as thorough a tutor as he was an administrator.

Low cliffs rose on either side of the main path, reaching up from the hills, and meadow foxtail and creeping bent grew in the deep ruts along the road. Harry and Flatfoot eased into another gallop, only for Margaery to push ahead, taunting him as she rode past. Here they came across travelers, all with news of the tourney at the Thorns, some driving wayns, others on foot. A hundred and more noble born knights of the west had come for a chance at Lady Evelyn's hand, they said, and a town of cloth and banners had sprouted up beneath the keep walls overnight.

The pair slowed their horses to a walk as the breeze picked up and the hills grew treacherous and rocky. Harry matched Flatfoot's gait to Margaery's mount and was reminded of a different ride down a muddy riverbank that had been fringed with wind-ruffled reeds. Little more than a year had passed since then, but to him it felt like a lifetime.

"Sorry about grandmother," Margaery said. "She can be a bit much."

"I didn't mind her questions. I just don't care for wheelhouses."

"I imagine you wouldn't. You ride like you're half horse! I've never seen anyone so comfortable in a saddle."

"You might be as good, if you practice."

She loose a peal of laughter. "Your modesty is touching, my prince. If only I could be so humble." She angled her horse closer to his; close enough that he could see the hazel flecks in her brown eyes and smell the faint but redolent aroma of her rose-scented perfume. "My brother Willas breeds horses. The best in all of Westeros. You've probably dozens of your own by now, but Willas always says that there is no such thing as too much horseflesh. I–"

"Are you offering me one of your brother's horses?"

"Two. So neither will ever be lonely."

He laughed and said, "I would be honored."

She smiled at him and they lapsed into silence. It was a comfortable silence until Harry thought of the bloody night that preceded this quaint moment; his face darkened and he saw Margaery frown at him from the corner of his eye. For all his power and ability, it would be years before he could properly avenge all those who had died for the schemes of the Undying. Qarth was oceans away. Tywin would never allow him to just up and leave, no matter how badly he desired to. Until he acquired a working wand, the vast distance between himself and his enemies would forever be a near insurmountable obstacle.

And while he waited, Urrathon the Nightwalker would be watching through his glass candles. The thought made his stomach turn.

"I can't imagine what you've been through," Margaery said. "What you've seen." She licked her lips. "We aren't yet wed, and won't be for some time, but I want you to know that whatever burdens you carry, I'm here to help you bear the weight."

He saw no duplicity in her eyes, only an earnest desire to know him. And yet, he kept his thoughts to himself and swallowed his disgust. Urrathon would be judged. "Those are strong words for a first meeting."

"Not if it's the first of many. We've years ahead of us."

She seemed very serious, Harry thought. And very perceptive. "Am I so easily read? And how did you know I liked horses? I never mentioned them in my letters. Have you been spying on me?"

She laughed, but offered no rebuttal. Harry found he liked the sound of her laugh. It made him forget, if only for a moment, all that had happened and all that he needed to do. But the moment passed to memory and his thoughts came rushing back, a black, stormy mass of doubts and concerns. He couldn't share his burdens with Margaery. Not truly. They had only just met, nevermind the letters they had exchanged, and no matter how pleasant she was, nor how smart or honest, he wasn't sure he could trust her with his secrets. Not yet.

He imagined that she could sense his hesitance. She would keep working to earn his trust, he knew. They were bound together now, by spoken word and written oath. Without trust, those bindings might as well be poison.

The rugged cliffs gentled to grassy mounds where tussocks of wild oats grew chest high, and the trail knifed up the side of the valley and through the hills; the main road kept straight to the valley's end, where the hills flattened to grassy fields and streams and then knifed again into jagged rocks that rose into leagues of mountains.

Harry heard crows cawing in the distance, saw them circling beneath the clouds like swirling black smoke. At the top of the rise, he saw why.

Twenty-four gallows framed the road, a decaying corpse swaying beneath every one. From what he could see, most of the bodies were little more than bone, and those that weren't teemed with thick masses of flies. The stench was sudden and awful, as if the cliffs had kept the smell at bay. How many months had it been since the Lady Hawthorne turned away the outlaw attack on her lands? How long had she left these men to rot?

Margaery gagged, clutched his arm, and covered her mouth and nose with a scented kerchief she had pulled from her sleeve. "How can you stand the smell?"

He shrugged. He was focused on smelling with Flatfoot's nose, and besides the natural fear that came with the scent of death, she was unbothered. "I've smelled worse. King's Landing is a real shit hole." And that was true. The refuse that clogged Pisswater Bend stank far worse than these dead men, and the cells beneath the Red Keep were a close second, but neither smelled so foul as flesh cooking in wildfire.

Margaery gave him a sweet, sad little smile, as if she knew his thoughts. Then she steeled herself and pulled the cloth away from her face. "I suppose I should get used to it then."

They took their time coming down the cliff side, picking each step carefully lest the rocks slip. A pair of crows swooped down from the mass to pick at one of the bodies that still had bits of grey-green flesh clinging to the bones.

When the castle was in sight, some of the men who had rode ahead rejoined with the main party as they came around the mountain. Harry led Margaery away from the gallows, further into the golden wheat fields that stretched out from the road. The flaxen stalks turned to cabbage, then carrots, then potatoes. The straggly trails through the farmlands were just wide enough in most places for both horses to walk abreast. Harry could hear a stream trickling somewhere beyond the trees that watched over the fields.

The Hawthorne seat stood tall and proud atop a low rising hill, the five towers surrounded by a crenellated wall wrought of smoky grey stone. Each tower was crowned with a spike of black iron, and it was for them that the castle was named. Harry knew little of the Hawthornes themselves, save that the family was old and had once been petty kings of the surrounding hills and rivers. Now they were a lordly house of middling strength with far more fields and orchards than gold mines.

There was a small village nestled beneath the keep's eastern walls, behind a tall palisade. The smallfolk had called it the Lady's Town; no doubt when Lord Hawthorne had been alive it was called the Lord's Town. A small crowd had gathered along the muddied road that looped around the inside of the palisade, watching with wide eyes as the prince's party drew near.

Five score pavilions dotted the vast field west of the keep, some stitched of linen, others silk and sailcloth, with banners writhing above them all, be they tall or stout, square or round; further west Harry could see wooden stands and a tilt barrier on the shore of a small lake. The castle godswood was visible from the road; hawthorn trees stretched high over the wall, and when the wind shifted, taking the stench of rotten flesh with it, pink and white flowers fluttered down from their thorny branches.

"We're near the Riverlands, aren't we?" asked Margaery.

Harry nodded and pointed east, to the distant vista. "Stoney Sept is just past those mountains."

"We should travel there, you and I. After the tourney. Your father won a great battle there, did he not?"

Harry didn't care to go to Stoney Sept. There was nothing there he wanted to see. But deeper in the Riverlands lay an island where there grew weirwoods more ancient than the realm. Where the old gods and their magic still lived. "We will go to God's Eye. Stoney Sept is on the way."

Closer now, they could hear the great clamor emanating from the gaudy field of brightly colored pavilions, the steady thrum of hundreds of voices, the ringing clang of a hammer striking metal, horses neighing and snorting. There was Ser Mattis Myatt's silken pavilion, a spotted treecat snarling down from the center pole; there was the green and russett of House Moreland, the orange and black sunbursts of House Kayce, the white and green and black of House Doggett, the black crossbows of House Drox. There reared the purple unicorn of House Brax, there brooded the hooded man of House Banefort, and there ran the three dogs of House Clegane. Lefford, Kyndall, Broom, Estren, Farman, Sarsfield, Hamell, Garner; every house, small or large, major or minor, had sent a son or a cousin or a brother.

"Gregor Clegane is here," Harry said aloud, realizing at that moment that aside from Sandor back at King's Landing, there was no other Clegane alive save Gregor.

Margaery craned her head to see, thinking he was speaking to her. "The Mountain that Rides? Garlan says he's a brilliant jouster, though not much of a knight, for all that he was knighted by a prince. His cruelty is known even in the Reach."

Clegane had never done Harry any harm – they had never even met – but Harry could not deny the hatred he felt as he laid his eyes upon that black and yellow banner. He felt a pressing urge to burn it to the ground, and wondered if Elia had cursed him with her loathing.

"Rhaegar must not have been a very good judge of character," he said. "He knighted the very same man who murdered his son and raped and killed his wife."

"How could he have known?" Margaery protested. "He was only a man."

Harry scoffed. "He was a prince. And we must be more than mere men."

"How great the view must be from where you sit, looking down on the rest of us."

"The view is unfortunately lacking. But perhaps you might join me, one day."

When he looked into her eyes, they were smoldering. After a moment, she looked away, lips curling into a soft smile. "Perhaps I will."

News of his arrival traveled swiftly through the camp. Knights and lords stepped free of their pavilions to see him pass. Ser Mattis Myatt, tall and broad with a head of wild, dirty blonde hair, was the first to hail him. He was draped in satin striped in gold and brown, and his velvet cloak was pinned to his chest by a golden treecat brooch. Ser Mattis was an honest, personable, dutiful man, if a touch too garrulous. In that, he was much like Gyles Bettley. Unlike Lord Gyles, Ser Mattis was a proven warrior; Harry had heard tale that he had fought fearsomely at the Battle of Ten Towers when Lord Tywin subdued Harlaw during Greyjoy's Folly, and had taken the Tower of Glimmering after slaying its master in single combat.

"Got yourself into a bit of a scuffle, my prince?" the Treecat asked after a low bow.

He remembered the bandage on his face and the cut immediately began to itch. "A bit, yes."

"Ser Ronnel was expecting you to approach from the road. Lady Evelyn had him and his men waiting outside the gates day and night to receive you. She's a hard woman, Lady Evelyn, and strange, and she keeps even stranger company. Like that Marwyn character. Between you and me, I'm not so sure I want to win the tourney." Ser Mattis turned to Margaery. "Now I know my prince, but you, my lady, I have never met. Judging by the golden roses adorning your dress and your horse, I would say you are a Tyrell."

"You would be right, ser, if you were to say that."

The wild-haired knight laughed. "A good thing, Lord Tywin bringing the Tyrells into the fold. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Margaery." He kissed her hand.

"You lied, ser. You said you didn't know me."

"Everyone in the west knows Prince Harrold is betrothed to Lord Mace's only daughter. It wasn't so great a leap of logic to figure out who you were once I knew you were a Tyrell."

Ser Mattis took it upon himself to lead them up to the castle, chattering on as they went. Harry tuned him out, thoughts elsewhere, and before long, they had rejoined the main party beneath the raised portcullis. Rheumy-eyed Ser Ronnel Hawthorne was there waiting, as Ser Mattis had said he would be, with three horsemen in Hawthorne livery at his back. He had been speaking with Strongboar when Harry and Margaery rode up, but when he glimpsed the prince their conversation ceased.

"Prince Harrold!" the old knight exclaimed. "It is good to see you again. I bid you welcome to the Thorns. My lady has been waiting for your arrival." He looked inordinately pleased with himself, as if by greeting Harry he had accomplished some great deed.

"So I've heard," Harry said, not at all inclined to be princely. After the things he had seen in the warlock's mind, he couldn't help but feel that this tourney was a massive waste of time. Nor did he much care for Ser Ronnel. The knight clung tight to old glories, unwilling or incapable of letting them lie. "Will you lead me to her, good knight, or shall I wait here in the muck, amongst horse shit and botflies?"

He heard a spattering of chuckles throughout the ranks of his men, and Ser Ronnel began to turn red.

Margaery touched Harry's hand, and Harry's lips twitched in a fleeting smile. Already she was trying to cow him?

"Forgive my prince," she began, "Ser… Ronnel, was it? We have been long riding, ser, and his patience has been much tried as of late." She didn't look as though she had been long riding. Her hair was still perfectly curled, and the light sheen of sweat on her skin made her seem aglow.

"Apologies, my prince," the old knight said, inclining his head, already charmed by Margaery's smile. "Please, follow me."

As Ser Ronnel escorted them into the castle proper, Margaery leaned over to whisper into Harry's ear. "I had been led to believe that you were kind and considerate."

"To those deserving. I've met Ser Ronnel once before, heard all the stories from his lips and others. Once he was a lickspittle who could swing a sword. Now he is a lickspittle who can hardly swing a butter knife, but you would never know to hear him boast."

"And for this, you shame him?"

"No. Wallowing in memories of old glories is no crime. That was for making Joy cry."

"Joy…?"

"My cousin. Ser Ronnel came to Casterly Rock for my nameday feast, in Lady Evelyn's place. He made some rather… thoughtless comments about bastards, offhandedly, as if she were entirely beneath his notice." In truth, he had told Joy that she was lucky she was half Lannister, as bastards were only good for brothels and hedges; a quiet, soft-hearted girl, she had been devastated by his words. "Joy is only a little girl, and she will never see her father again. I took offense to his words then, and I take offense to his presence now."

There was a small timber sept in the lower bailey, around which a small crowd had formed to hear the septa preach, and an aged brewhouse that leaned against the outer wall. Hens and roosters wandered loose through the cobbled ward, guarded by a dozing mastiff that barely perked an ear at the party riding the thoroughfare. A serving girl hurried across the main path towards a row of neat little timber homes further down from the sept. Harry saw a group of pages fighting one another with wooden swords in the shadow of a stone storehouse. When one of the boys spotted the party, he stopped to stare, only to get wacked by both of his fellows. Angry, he turned and slapped them both across the face with his sword and tackled one to the ground.

Evelyn Hawthorne was coming down the crooked stone steps that led up into the largest of the spiked towers as they crossed the upper courtyard. The first thing he noticed was how tall she was, and while he wouldn't consider her a great beauty, there was something regal and otherworldly in the light behind her eyes, in the sly smile playing at the edge of her lips, as if she were laughing at your expense. She wore a gown of pale pink silk and Myrish lace with satin linings beneath an ermine mantle. Her dark hair was wound about her head in an intricate braid, and her hairnet was decorated with pink topaz and moonstones.

She curtsied deeply, watching him through her lashes as she dipped her head. "My prince, it is good to finally… see you."

"Your tourney has been the talk of the West for many moons, my Lady. I would have arrived sooner, but alas, I was delayed."

"By the brigands?"

He furrowed his brow. "Rabid dogs, more like."

"Filthy creatures nonetheless," she said. "You are unhurt, I pray?"

"Save for this cut," he said, gesturing to his bandage, "I am well."

"And did you learn anything? Did one of them reveal to you why they came?"

He was almost hyperaware of all the eyes and ears that were watching and listening. "No. They did more dying than talking."

You are lying, her eyes said. Her lips only smiled. She greeted Margaery warmly, and Lady Olenna when she exited the wheelhouse, though the wizened old woman only rolled her eyes at the display. Ser Garlan received little more than a perfunctory nod, but Strongboar she welcomed as a brother, and when she leaned in close to whisper in Ser Lucion's ear, he came away blushing like a maid. She looked down her nose at Ser Mattis, and had to stifle a laugh at Ser Marvell's tonsure.

"My prince," she began when the greeting was done, "there is a matter that I would like to discuss with you… in private. You won't be long from your betrothed, I promise. Ser Ronnel, please show our esteemed Reachmen and their lovely ladies to Hawberry Hall. You all must be famished after so long on the road." Without awaiting a reply, she turned and sauntered into the tower.

One hand resting casually on the hilt of his sword, Harry followed her. He had not forgotten Ser Mattis' words. "She's a hard woman, Lady Evelyn, and strange, and she keeps even stranger company. Between you and me, I'm not so sure I want to win the tourney." Perhaps he had meant nothing by it, but recent events had taught Harry the value of caution. Never again would he be caught unaware.

The halls were narrow and smoky, and beeswax candles tossed gentle orange light across the corridors. They appeared to stretch for forever. Harry saw only a handful of servants, all walking with their heads down and eyes to the ground. Was that out of respect for their Lady, or fear of her wrath?

He gripped his sword tighter.

She led him deeper and deeper into the gloomy bowels of the tower, where the darkness was impenetrable and the quiet was heavy and solemn. Eventually they reached a huge ironwood door at the end of a dank passage. There was a steady dripping sound, faint and familiar.

Plip, plop, plip. Plip, plop, plip. Lady Evelyn pushed the heavy ironwood door open with a gentle touch, and Harry felt cool air brush against his face.

There, in the center of the room, burned a candle of black glass. It was tall as his waist, and twisted and jagged. The flame was strangely still, and its light was impossibly bright, but the shadows of the room were as deep as the sea.

Glass candles in the Nightwalker's Hall, he thought, recalling Xen Xakhar's thoughts of the creature called Urrathon. Was Urrathon watching him now? As Lady Evelyn turned to face him, the shadows languidly tracing her body like snakes coiling about their prey, Harry slid his sword free and pressed its tip to her throat.

"You hunger for vengeance," she said, paying the blade at her neck no mind. "I could see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice."

"Aye," Harry said, "and I shall hunger for years more. But mayhaps I might sate some of that hunger here and now."

"Qarth is quite far, isn't it?" she went on. "And the sea is a treacherous place. One might wonder why the Undying thought it prudent to see you dead. They sacrificed thousands, and for what? To learn that they should have never reached their wrinkled blue hands beyond the walls of Qarth?"

Harry grit his teeth. "I have no desire to kill a woman, especially not in her own keep, but if you don't tell me how you came to know these things, if you are one of them, I will cut open your throat."

She continued as if she hadn't heard him. "You know your enemy," she said. "And you know where to find them. That is most important, to know your enemy. So often those who oppose us remain hidden in shadow, a dagger in the dark waiting to…" she glanced down, that infuriating smile playing at her lips, "slit our throats. But once you know your enemy, then you can end them, be it next moon, or next year, or two or five or ten; it matters not how long it takes. It is your duty, and you will see it done. Or you are not the boy I saw in the candle."

She was not a pawn of the Undying, he decided. But that didn't mean she wasn't a venomous snake waiting to strike him when his back was turned. "How long have you been watching me? Why did you bring me here?"

"I've been watching you for years. And I brought you here so that we might speak freely, uninterrupted and unheard. The walls in King's Landing might have ears, but here they only have cracks and cobwebs."

Annoyed, he pressed harder and a thin line of blood trickled down her neck to her collarbone. "Don't be coy."

She sighed, and he felt as if she were disappointed in him, somehow. "I am over thirty, my prince. I have no heirs, save through my sister. The maesters tell me that I am yet young enough to bear children, but the strain will be great. Perhaps I might have one child, maybe two. Perhaps I might die, leaving my House in the hands of a green boy, or worse, a girl, to be raised as chattel by a castellan. Do you know what it took to earn the respect of my peers? The things I had to do? A house without heirs is weak. A house with a boy lord is weak. But a house in the prince's favor..."

"I've a blade to your throat and you speak to me of favor? Why would I ever favor you? Because you know things you shouldn't?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "Because I know who it is that hunts you. Because I know why they hunt you. Because I too, desire vengeance. Because I can help you." She paused, and then, "Look into my eyes if you must. I am not afraid."

And so he did. With Xakhar, he had plunged into his mind as a daring boy might dive into the ocean, brazen and without regard. With Evelyn, he was tentative, as the shy lady who dips only her feet into the water lest her gown be ruined. But that was enough.

"You speak the truth," Harry said, half-astounded. She knew of the warlocks, she knew how to see through the candle… she knew what he was, had seen him at the tower up in the mountains, in his chambers at Casterly Rock, even in the bowels of the Red Keep, seemingly speaking to empty air.

He sheathed his sword and closed the door with a gesture. There was no reason to hide his power. Not now. The candle provided the only light in the room, but then he held out his hand and bright blue flames erupted over his palm.

Evelyn's eyes grew round and wide. "You must show Marwyn," she said, excited. "For eight years he traveled Essos, searching for lost books, learning sorcery and the Old Tongues, and the most he can do is light a glass candle. But you… you can make a man speak the truth, torture him with nothing more than your gaze. How did you do that? Teach me."

Harry was briefly taken aback. He tried to speak and found himself tongue-tied. His power was little spoken of, though there were rumors abound. To hear her speak of it so freely, so enthusiastically… she reminded him of the bushy-haired girl from his dreams, and he imagined, for a moment, that she had been born again as he had. But then he saw the glint in Lady Evelyn's eyes, calculating and cruel, and he frowned.

"You will never be able to learn my craft. It isn't something one can learn. It is in the blood."

He could tell that she was dissatisfied with his answer, but she seemed to have expected it.

"Who is Marwyn?" he asked. The name was vaguely familiar. "I heard Ser Mattis speak of him."

"He is the Archmaester of Magic, and his rod and mask are Valyrian steel. He taught me how to light the candle, how to see through it, speak through it… how to hide from it. I had thought to teach you the same, but since I cannot learn to wield your magic –"

"You will refuse to teach me?" Harry arched his brow. "Is that it?"

She looked at him as if he were a fool. "Since I cannot learn to wield your magic," she said again, "I must then request a different boon. One of equal measure."

There is nothing equal to my power, he almost said.

"But alas, I have neither seen nor heard of anything that could equal what I have seen you do, so I will ask for an alliance instead. A pact, between sorcerer and sorceress. If I should birth a boy, then he will have a daughter of you. If I should birth a girl -"

"You will have a son of me."

"Aye, a son. And if I should die on the birthing bed, you will foster my child, girl or boy, and raise them as your own."

"Is that all?"

"During your great-grandfather's reign, Sewlyn Serrett slaughtered the Knight of Whitethorn Tower and absorbed the lands into his own demesne. That knight was sworn to House Hawthorne, but my grandfather was too weak to reclaim it, and Lord Tytos was even weaker. Had he still been Lord of the West, I'd have sent men to Silverhill long ago to slit their throats, but alas, a true lion now sits in Casterly Rock, and he has found another to take his place when the Stranger takes him. I want my lands back, my prince. I want my lands, and I want my tower."

Harry doubted Lord Alton would want to give up any of his lands, but Harry didn't much care. If he couldn't convince the lord himself, Cerenna certainly could. She had even charmed Tywin once. "Very well. Consider the tower yours."

She smiled, wide and bright. It made her look young, that smile, as if still a girl. "Come and stand before the candle, my Prince. You must learn to see through the flame before you can hide yourself from its light. If you are responsible for saving Manfryd's pittance of a keep from wildfire, then this will be simple."

Chapter Text

(17)

Ser Lucion had won Lady Evelyn’s hand after a grueling seven-day joust, felling a hundred and a half knights for the honor. Lady Evelyn wished to be wed within two fortnights, but Harry had no intention of remaining at the Thorns for so long, though, he supposed, he could certainly stop over on his return trip. He had learned all the lady had to teach of obsidian candles within those seven days, and desired now more than ever to journey to the Isle of Faces and speak with the Green Men of the holy island.

And to commune, if he could, with the being beneath the tree.

The morning after the tourney found Harry and Margaery strolling hand in hand through the castle godswood. The sky was swathed in blue and gold and birdsong echoed through the boughs. A pair of robins flitted from one branch to another, and Harry could hear something rustling in the brush.

This was not the quiet grove of spruce and fir haunting over a dark cave that was the godswood of Casterly Rock, nor the acre of elm and alder and black cottonwood of the Red Keep; this was a bright and lofty garden, all pink and white and vibrant, where there grew hawthorns and pansy and bloodroot, red buds and daffodils and azaleas. The air was redolent with their aroma, sweet and spicy and earthy. Margaery seemed to take great joy sampling the scents of near every flower as if they were a precious gift.

Harry cared little for flowers, save his golden rose; it was the trees that called to him. He had never before given much thought to learning sorcery, for nothing in the myths and stories could match his power. But as he had sat before the glass candle and studied its flame, and as he now felt the faint tingle of something pulsing through these trees, like a heartbeat, long and slow, he realized that had been a mistake.

He had seen Qarth in the flames, seen its elaborate fountains and slim towers, its bronze arches and marble temples and great arcade of heroes, though the Undying had remained cloaked and hidden in their grand house. He had seen the Dothraki Sea, endless plains of swaying green stalks and wild horsemen, and Slaver’s Bay: crumbling Astapor and yellow Yunkai and the stepped pyramids of Mereen. He had seen five massive forts braving a vast ocean of sand and a sea of blood. He saw the fused black walls of Volantis, tall and foreboding, saw the Titan of Braavos watching over a harbor that teemed with purple-hulled ships. He saw a windswept isle where fair-haired men and women worshipped a love goddess, and a wall of ice as tall as the sky. He saw an island of trees and antlered men robed in green, and another island, surrounded by roiling black seas, where scaled flame walked on four legs and the very air burned. He saw Aeryn brewing up a scarlet potion in the bowels of the Prince’s Tower, saw Quenten cutting a man’s throat as a city burned around him.

He saw a glowing red eye in the roots of a tree, and a gaunt, pale figure hidden behind roaring white winds.

Much and more he had seen in the flame, more than Lady Evelyn had ever dreamed of seeing, and now, he had found an abundance of trees that might serve as wand wood. The godswood of King’s Landing had yielded subpar wood, and he was certain there were a few hawthorns growing in its black soil. What was the difference?  

Margaery abandoned her flowers and sidled up to him, nudging his shoulder with her own.

“Has the tree offended you in some way, dear prince? Or are you practicing your dark and fearsome scowl?”

Harry laughed and pulled his hand away from the rough bark. The wine-poached pears he’d had for his morning meal had loosened his smile, and Margaery’s presence, as light and airy as the garden, had done the rest.

“No, no. I am only thinking.”

“Of?”

Death and magic. “Trees. I should like to plant some of these hawthorns at Casterly Rock. The godswood there is little suited for afternoon strolls.” And I am no fool to think that the first wand I make will be perfect. He would need an abundance of magical wood to find the best fit for him, when he got his hands on a proper core.

Margaery smiled a gentle, full-lipped smile, mischief dancing behind her hazel eyes, and curled her arm around his.

“You’ve a beautiful young maiden all alone in a quiet garden, and you can only think of trees?”

To his great surprise, Margaery was proving herself near as wanton as Aeryn. If she meant to fluster him, though, she would have to try harder.

“I wouldn’t want to ruin your gown,” he said.

“Have you ruined any other gowns?”

He frowned anew, confused, before realization dawned on him. Ah. I had expected this sooner. “You speak of Aeryn.”

“Yes, her. The girl in the songs. A great beauty, by all accounts, and utterly devoted to you. Your men say she sometimes sleeps in your chambers.”

“Hn. What else do they say?”

Margaery pulled him further into the wood, lacing her hand in his. “They say that her mother is a witch and that she learned black magic at her bosom. They say that she has bewitched you, turned you into her thrall. They say that you humiliated the crown prince for threatening her, and that you hate him for the tragedy that befell her.

His scowl deepened. “The last bit is true, mostly. I only despised him before. Now I loathe him.” Then his expression lightened and he smiled. “Aeryn has not bewitched me, though I can’t say for certain whether or not she knows black magic. I only met her mother the once. But what if I have… ruined her gown?”

She had the grace to laugh, at least, at her ridiculous metaphor, but sobered quickly.

“I suppose, then, that you should buy her a new one. Several, if you meant to make a habit of ruining them. But I shall not be shamed.”

“And I shall not shame you.”

Margaery smiled again, and nodded. “Good.”

Then she stood on her tip toes and pressed her lips to his. They were downy soft and sweet as summerwine, same as they had been the first time they kissed, and every time after. Unbidden, his hands rose to cup her face. Margaery was everything he had hoped she would be and more.

He wondered if she might fear him, if she truly knew him. If she knew what he was. And then he wondered if he might be able to kiss her fears away, as her tenderness had solaced the quiet rage that seemed his ever present companion.

She had initiated the kiss, and she was the first to pull away, flushed and breathless.

“Careful,” she managed, cheeks red and eyes dark, though not nearly so dark as his. “I intend to go to our marriage bed a maid.”

“No woman ever lost her maidenhead by kissing.”

“Then they’ve never been kissed like that.”

Beneath the reaching, pink-wreathed boughs, as warblers and sparrows trilled and the wind whistled its gentle song, their lips met again, and Harry held tight to the quiet hope blossoming in his chest.

They returned to the keep at midday. Margaery was immediately summoned by Lady Olenna, and left him with a gentle caress of his cheek and a saucy wink. Beneath the gentle din of the castle town, he heard the familiar clanging of steel, and followed the sound through a maze of granaries and storehouses to the training yard where a dozen knights drilled under the afternoon sun. Ser Lucion, fresh off his tourney victory, was dominating the ring.

“A raven came from Atranta,” Ser Marvell said when Harry stepped up to the wooden barrier.

He still wore his tonsure, Harry noted, and his silver and purple armor as well, the rearing unicorn over his chest as bright as an amethyst. In fact, Harry hadn’t seen him out of his armor since they had left Casterly Rock. Nor Ser Lyle, for that matter.

“Ser Brenden’s escort should reach Duskendale in a fortnight,” he continued. “If the rains hold. Ser Lyle means to see Frederick knighted upon his return. He fought well during the defense of Castle Yew, and again when we found the encampment in the mountains.” A pause, and then, “There was talk of knighting you as well.”

Harry watched Lucion clobber Ser Gerald Lorch with a heavy overhand blow that knocked his blade loose from his grip. Ser Lucion’s backswing crashed mightily into Gerald’s helm and sent him sprawling to the dirt.

“Frederick is more than deserving of his spurs,” Harry said. Ser Lucion was talented, very much so, but Harry had seen better blade work. Emulated better blade work. “But I’ve not yet earned a knighthood, I think.”

“Lord Gyles says otherwise. He would still be rotting in a cell if not for you.”

“I did nothing more than my duty as his prince.”

“Nothing more than your duty? You slew knights. Robbers and slavers, true, but knights nonetheless. I saw you kill three men with mine own eyes.”

“So I have killed.” Harry turned his head to look Marvell in the eyes, and was almost frightened by the effort it took not to delve into his thoughts and memories. “Does that make me a knight?”

Marvell opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it. Harry didn’t have to read his mind to know his thoughts. “There was another raven, from Oldtown,” he said instead. “Garth Greysteel had several ships seized at port, all under suspicion of harboring slavers. Amongst the cargo of one particular ship, he discovered a woman claiming to be Melyssa Moreland.”

Harry’s lips twitched into the slightest of smiles. “Then it is done. All that is left is for Ser Kevan and his men to return from Pentos.”

“And that will be the end of it?”

No. The Undying must burn. His smile gained a cruel bent. “Yes. That will be the end of it.”

He smelled Lady Evelyn before he saw her, sweet flowers and nose tickling spices. Lorna Moreland followed after the lady as a duckling might follow its mother. Her bruises had all but faded, but her eyes were sunken and haunted, and she still twitched at the slightest of sounds. Lorna was meant to learn to rule from Lady Evelyn, but now that her sister – and their father’s true heir – had been recovered, he wondered what would become of her.

Lady Evelyn stepped up beside him, eyes on her husband-to-be in the yard. Her heavy gold and silver samite gown seemed utterly out of place amongst the fighting men, and the moonstones dangling from her ears were the size of quail eggs.

“Good day, my prince. I heard a rather disheartening tale. Is it true that you will not be attending the wedding ceremony?” Her husky voice was sharp as an axe head.

Marvell bowed once, deeply, and wisely took his leave.

“I will not be staying for the ceremony,” Harry said. “But if I should return from the Riverlands in time to attend…”

She almost huffed. “I was hoping we might speak now, then, as I imagine we will both be occupied during the later hours. Please, my prince, follow me. Lorna, dear? Get some fresh air. I will send for you when I have need of you.”

She took him down into the bowels of the castle, to her hidden room. The halls didn’t seem so long as they had on his first trek into the underbelly of the castle, nor the shadows so deep and dark. The ironwood door was already open. When they crossed the threshold, Evelyn went to light a candle, but Harry gestured with a hand and suddenly the entire room was awash in a pale blue brilliance that made his skin seem almost ashen.

“Simply amazing,” Evelyn murmured, watching the still flames, their queer blue light reflected in her eyes. Then she turned to face him. “There is only one place of note in the Riverlands. You mean to travel to the Isle of Faces.” It wasn’t a question.

“Aye. I have dreamed of a red-eyed being ensnared in the roots of a massive weirwood, and I have seen him in the flames. He wants to speak to me. If his power is tied to the weirwood, as I believe it is, there is no better place to hear him than an island rife with them.”

“You… dreamed of him?” There was a hint of fear in her voice, apprehension and wonder all rolled in one.

Harry, wary and confused, nodded. What did she have to fear?

“I tried to send you dreams,” Lady Evelyn continued. “As did Marwyn. But your mind… it was like trying to carve into a slab of granite with a spoon. Your mind is as a fortress. Whoever this red-eyed creature is, he is a creature of great power. I urge you to be careful, my prince.”

Harry had well learned the value of caution. “I will. I don’t assume this is why you wanted to speak to me?”

She took a seat before her candle, several feet tall and thin as a spear, her reflection twisted and distorted across it’s crystalline surface.

“Marwyn sent word that he should like to meet you, properly. He would like you to visit Oldtown. As talented a mage as Marwyn is, Malora Hightower is better, for all that her mind is as scrambled as a fried egg. You need allies, my prince. Allies who see the world as you see it, who have some inkling of the powers that govern it, who can stand against the forces arrayed against you. However mad she might be, Malora is such a person. Marwyn is such a person.”

“Just how many of you are there?”

Lady Evelyn looked away from the candle, brow arched. “Beg pardon?”

“Mages. Witches. Whatever you call yourselves. You, Marwyn, Malora… how many others?”

She paused in thought. “I am not entirely sure. I have invited many a woods witch and hedge wizard to sup in my castle. With the servants, of course. Less than a handful of them had the gift. And yet, the Upcliffs of Witch Isle have a long history of magery and sorcery, and the oldest families, the Blackwoods, the Daynes, the Starks… magic can be learned, true, but power is born of blood. Beliefs may wane, talents may die out, but blood remembers.”

He put those names to memory and joined her before the glass candle. His reflection stared back at him from the glossy dark surface, strangely whole, unlike Evelyn’s broken and scattered visage. If he strained his ears, he imagined he could hear a sibilant voice hissing his name, more quietly than the softest whisper.

His experience this morning was still fresh on his mind. “I finally visited your godswood. What have you done to the trees?”

“Ah, noticed that, did you? I thought you might.”

She pressed her hands to the candle and closed her eyes tight. Her jaw clenched, the veins in her hand grew thick and bold, and then a tiny flame fluttered to life atop the candle, impossibly bright and unnaturally still.

“When I was very young, my grandfather would bleed poachers and thieves into the roots. To keep tradition, he once told me, of a time when the Hawthorns ruled as kings of these hills and forests, when weirwoods grew in the grove, and our blood was untainted by the Andals. But he knew nothing of what I know now.” She smirked. “Sacrifices accomplish little without knowledge. Without power.

“Sacrifices,” Harry repeated.

“Aye, my prince. Sacrifices. I have fed dozens of souls to my hawthorns. Bound their living spirits to the trees, and thus, given my trees a simulacrum of life.”

His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched tight. “…You…what?”

“They deserved it,” she said quickly.

A part of him was horrified. And a part of him, larger than he cared to admit, was utterly intrigued. “You bound the souls of living men to your trees,” he said, as if trying to wrap his mind around the concept. It was too similar to how Harry Potter’s great nemesis had cheated death. His intrigue turned to disgust. “How? Why?”

“How? It’s simple, really, once you’ve unlocked the Gift, as it were. You draw the symbols and say the words. Marwyn discovered the method during his travels in Essos, but he has little use for binding souls. Malora refined it with prisoners from her father’s dungeons. As for why…” she shrugged. “Why does anyone do anything horrible? For power.”

He scowled, lips curling involuntarily. “And did you gain it? Power?”

She had the audacity to smile. “I could feel you in the godswood. You and everything else. Every fluttering wing, every twittering call. I mean to extend the grove into the forests beyond.”

Harry was silent for a moment. “And you used this power to defend your lands from the warlocks.”

“When they were close enough,” she said. “I’d found them in the flames, hiding up in the mountains. A small force, like the ones that attacked Castle Yew.”

“Found them in the flame, you say?” His scowled deepened, and the unpleasantly bright flame atop the glass candle seemed to dim. “Why did you not help the Lannister army?”

She scoffed. “It is not so easy as that, to scour leagues of mountains for small groups of men. Every man has a different path through the flames, and it takes great effort and skill to see through the flames at all. It is no trivial thing to journey in flame, as you have made it.”

“You found me easily enough.”

Another scoff. “Because it was easy. The shadow you cast is as vast and bright as the sun.”

He recalled Tywin’s words, when the Lannister lord had inquired as to how the warlocks had learned of him. He had been sure it was Varys or Lord Baelish butting their noses where they had no business. He had been prepared to kill them. Both of them, if need be.

But this war with the warlocks was no fault of theirs, was it?

Would he forever be fighting off the ambitions of men who sought his power? “Crush your enemies completely and utterly,” Lord Tywin had once told him, “so that future enemies will fear to rise against you.” He would have to do more than simply crush the warlocks; he would have to end them, erase every trace of their existence. Purge them from the annals of history.

Just as he had promised.

    

 

Chapter Text

 (18)

"Be careful, my prince, that your light not shine on things best left in the dark."

Those had been Lady Evelyn's last words to him before he departed the Thorns, whispered in his ear as a warning. He thought of them now in his smoky pavilion as he beheld the gift that had accompanied the words: A gnarled glass candle hardly the length of his arm, but twice as thick around, with a sharpened bottom meant to be wedged in the earth. He had watched her shape it from a block of obsidian, chanting words in a sibilant tongue. The black glass had moved like water, flowing into an almost serpentine shape before it had hardened.

Someone was entering the pavilion. He caught the scent of flowers playing on the air, wisteria and jasmine, heard the murmur of the camp for a long note before it became muted once more.

"Am I disturbing you, my prince?" came Margaery's dulcet voice.

"I told you to call me Harry," he said without looking up.

"I know," she returned, a smile in her voice. She moved to join him, sidestepping an aged redwood table. "I've come to warn you. My grandmother is on her way here now. She had men watching to see when we returned to camp. She says she shan't be avoided any longer."

"Finally decided to come herself, eh?" Harry sighed, stood from his chair, and used the candle, careful of its edges, to stir the coals in the brazier that burned at the foot of his bed. He had been avoiding Lady Olenna since the Thorns. She knew things she shouldn't. He had seen it in her eyes, and he had no desire to hear it from her mouth. "Very well."

"You needn't look so… defeated. I know grandmother can be –"

"Insufferable?" He turned to face her. "Aggravating?"

She tried to scowl through her smile. "Difficult."

"Yes. Difficult. You've said that before. Something of an understatement, no?"

"Oh stop your whining. She's no worse than your mother, from what you've told me."

"My mother doesn't have sour old woman's breath."

Margaery had only just stopped laughing when Olenna stepped gingerly into the pavilion. The old crone was draped in a patterned turquoise gown with long slashed sleeves adorned with golden roses, and her cane was polished oak. She squinted at him with rheumy eyes.

"No more running, boy," Lady Olenna said. "I've words to have with you. Put away your little stick and come along. My eyes are already stinging from the smoke in this dreadful tent, and the stench!" She pinched her nose. "Nothing worse than the smell of self-absorbed princeling. We will speak in my pavilion." Leaning heavily on her walking stick, she turned and left without another word.

"I hope you aren't like that when you are old," he said to Margaery.

She ran her fingers through his hair, smiling. "It will be your fault if I am."

Very carefully, Harry placed the candle in his trunk and followed Lady Olenna out into the wilds of the Riverlands. Streams of sunlight peeked fleetingly from behind a veil of dense white clouds. A breeze swept through the camp, carrying with it the echoing sounds of the forest, the pleasant trills of thrushes and dunnocks, the staccato calls of crickets and katydids, the whining drone of mosquitoes and mayflies. Margaery slipped her arm in his and threaded their fingers together.

"Don't be angry with her," she whispered. Harry grunted. "She is worried for me. As she well should be. You cannot deny you have secrets, Harry. Grand secrets. The sort that men would kill to know."

"Are you worried? For yourself, I mean?"

"Yes, I am." She smiled. "But I trust you."

And she meant it. It was there, behind the brown of her eyes, and there, in the curve of her lip. He felt shame. I should tell her, he thought. If not the entire truth, then some measure of it. She should know what I am.

The encampment was sprawled haphazardly across a winding stream that was choked here and there with reedmace and water cress. Tall pickerel weed grew in bunches along the banks, and dragonflies buzzed between them, flitting from stalk to stalk. Harry had hired a few trappers and hunters to guide them through the Riverland forests, and he saw them now, hanging hides to be washed in the stream. Another man was butchering a deer, and poorly.

Harry recalled that long ago day when he had stolen away to the Kingswood, and thought of Ser Brenden. They had been something like friends, once. As prince and sworn shield they had become something different. The mantle of duty, varied for every man, had changed them, changed who they were.

The Lannister half of the camp was noticeably more cautious than the Tyrell half. Harry saw Marvell sitting fully armored at a cook fire, venison in one hand and his mace in the other. Tion had sequestered himself high up in a tree with his longbow, and Ser Wenfryd rode the boundaries of camp with the Prince's Bows fanned out on either side of him. There was Ser Lyle sharpening his greatsword in the shadow of a great cypress, and there, at a trestle table near the kitchen tent, Ser Daven and a few of the scouts sat with what looked like maps set between them.

He himself had taken to using the glass candle almost every night. He would scout the surrounding lands, gusting through the forests as wind, scouring the shadows. But then he would turn his gaze outward. To Pentos, to Kevan and Quenten and the sellsword army they had bought with Lannister gold. And to Valyria. He had seen massive shapes moving in the black smoke of the great volcanoes, great scaled wingless beasts, heard their mighty roars and seen them belch flames. The barren land they ruled was pockmarked with decrepit structures of fused black stone, all broken and crumbled. But one still stood: A great citadel grew like a tumor up out of the central mass of land, surrounded on all sides by a smoking grey sea. Only the dead wandered it halls.

"What is that contraption anyway?" Olenna asked. "That black, barbed stick of yours."

"It is a sculpture from beyond the Jade Sea. Lady Evelyn gave it to me as a belated name day gift. I've been using it as a fire poker."

"It is ugly," Lady Olenna said. "But I certainly wouldn't accuse Lady Evelyn of having taste." She looked him up and down, at his black raiment. The only colors on him were the intense green of his eyes and the gold of the circlet about his brow. "Nor you, for that matter."

Lady Olenna's silken pavilion was across the stream, nestled by a tall hedge and guarded by a pair of giant twins, neither of which Harry had heard speak. Harry had yet to see a Tyrell with anything that wasn't green, and Lady Olenna had proved herself no different. The cloth was varying shades of green, accented with gold. It blended almost perfectly into the surrounding foliage; he had hardly noticed it until they were right upon it.

Inside the pavilion was stuffy. It was richly furnished, Harry saw, but it stank of old woman, though he counted three incense burners wafting thin trails of lavender scented smoke. The muted light of the sun filtered through a single small mesh window to stipple the rugs that were thrown across the bare earth. A handmaiden was sitting on a camp stool knitting a light green brocade gown by torchlight, but Olenna sent her away with a word. There were two high-backed settles set off in a corner, one facing the other. Lady Olenna sat at one, Harry on the other. Margaery paused, looked to both of them, eyes twitching left, right, and left again, then joined Harry.

Olenna did not seem entirely pleased by her decision. She scowled at her granddaughter before turning her attention wholly to Harry. "Well, my prince, care to tell us about your little scuffle up in the mountains?"

The hiss and crackle of the torch was loud in his ears. "Not especially, no."

"Rumors travel. Like plague. Words reached the hummingbirds that so love to flutter about flowers. And do you know what those words were?"

"I do not. But I imagine you are about to tell me."

"Oh you're an insufferable little brat, aren't you? Your mother didn't hit you often enough. I can tell."

"Grandmother!"

"Be silent girl. The adults are speaking."

Harry quirked an eyebrow.

"I have done all I could to ensure that Margaery didn't turn out a fool like her father. Her mother is hardly better, unfortunately. Vapid girl." She paused and shook her head. "Now. Boy. I would like to know what it is the Warlocks of Qarth found so interesting about you that they would risk war with the Westerlands to have you? Here, have some wine."

Harry accepted the cup and took a long sip. It was sweet, like Margaery's lips. "I am sure you have some idea already. As you said, rumors travel. I am not like other men. That is all you need to know."

She scoffed. "You've the arrogance of a king."

Harry smiled. Lady Olenna didn't need to know his secrets. But Margaery…

"If you mean to wed my granddaughter –"

"Who Margaery weds has nothing to do with you. You are not the Lord of Highgarden. Your son is. The fool." He stood. "If that is all, my lady, I would like to rest. We leave at first light on the morrow. I mean to reach Willow Wood before nightfall."

He felt Lady Olenna's scowl on his back as he left. He was near the stream before he heard Margaery hurrying after him. He heard her call his name just as her hand closed around his arm. He stopped and turned to face her.

"Grandmother had no right to demand answers of you like that." She took a deep breath. "But I am to be your wife. 'Til death parts us. And I believe I do have the right. I am no fool, Harry. You are more than just different. Do you know what your men say about you? They think you've been touched by the Seven. Blessed, some say. By the Warrior, by the Father, by the Crone."

He felt it again, that paralyzing fear that he would be scorned and rejected. And then he conquered it, for he was not a man to bow to fear. I pray I won't regret this. "At the Isle," he said. "I will tell you whatever you want to know at the Isle. And nowhere else."

She nodded. "Alright," she said solemnly. "I shall wait until then."

The clouds parted and golden warmth fell over the clearing to sparkle the water and banish the shadows. Some of them. Others only grew darker. Deeper. Harry and Margaery sat beside one another amongst the pickerel weed on the bank and watched the water as it flowed around the smooth river stones. A single flower petal floated downstream, weaving through the watercress and lilies, and it was red as blood.

A week out from the Thorns, they came upon the Willow Wood. Night was just falling. The pale grey keep straddled the God's Eye lake, overlooking the forests of weeping willows for which it had been named. Its wall was twenty-feet tall and seemed more moss than stone, covered here and there in patches of soft green. The Ryger banner hung limply above the portcullis, a drooping green willow in a field of white. Harry thought it look rather pitiful.

A helmed head appeared atop the wall, sighted the prince's banners and the Tyrell green and gold, and called for the gate to be opened. A lordly looking fellow rode out to meet them, tall and ruddy with thick brown hair and a clean shaven face. He wore his sad tree proudly across his chest.

"I bid thee welcome, my Prince, and am deeply honored by your visit. I am Lord Tristan Ryger. Willow Wood is yours."

The castlefolk had gathered to see him, weary in the late hour, but wide-eyed, for the last prince to visit Willow Wood had been Aegon the Unlikely, many decades ago. They were clustered beneath the castle sept, all in rows, watching him as he rode past. Once upon a time, his only desire had been to do right by such people, to earn the love they had so readily given him. To give some measure of light to their bleak lives. But the more he looked to the flames, the more his mind turned to the vast world beyond the shores of Westeros. Everywhere, men suffered. The world reeked of it.

Lord Tristan led them to his hall; Harry would hesitate to call it great. Torches in the wall sconces splayed dancing swaths of orange light across the smoke-stained stone, and rushes crowded the floors to combat the faint scent of mold. The scents wafting up from the kitchens were decent enough, he thought, though the images he had glimpsed in the glass candle's flame the past night had soured his appetite. He had seen the misshapen men that haunted the smoldering shadows of Oros, seen them feast upon the men of a traveling caravan as if starved beasts.

"When word came of your visit," began Tristan Ryger, "I had a feast prepared. I –"

"Beg pardon, my lord," said Harry. "The road has left me feeling ill. I need to rest, if only for a short time. But my men will certainly appreciate your hospitality in my stead."

The smiling lord, easily twice Harry's age, deflated in on himself. "Right. Rest. Of course." He tried to rein in his disappointment. "I will show you to your quarters then."

Harry turned to Margaery and wondered again if this was all a terrible idea. "Send for Maester Wulfric. He will know why I have need of him. He should be with the baggage train."

"Will you need my maester as well?" said Lord Tristan. "He has several links in medicine. I am sure he could –"

"No need, my lord," said Harry. "Maester Wulfric will suffice." He gestured as if to say, 'lead on.'

Harry's cell was directly beneath Tristan's own, in the rounded tower that stood in the shadow of the Great Hall. He could see the God's Eye lake outside the small round window; the Isle was little more than a hazy silhouette, shrouded in mist. Wulfric found him there, at the window, a stoppered jar of an inky blue liquid tucked under his arm and a pewter cup clenched in his fist.

Harry spared him a glance. "How goes the shade, Maester?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"I have a batch ready now, my prince." Wulfric held up the jar. "I warn you, the taste is… unique."

The taste was unique, Harry thought, when the first drop touched his tongue. Uniquely disgusting, like spoiled meat. Then the second drop hit his tongue, and the flavor changed, growing to encompass everything and anything he had ever tasted; sweet cider and blueberry tart, leather and parchment, mother's milk and blood, spiced honey and summerwine, Aeryn's lips and Margaery's tongue; and things he hadn't tasted, things he could only guess at, sweet and bitter and sour and savory. And for a moment, the wind was purer, the silence of the Isle clearer, and time stretched endlessly on and on like the void between the stars.

The moment passed. This was not the blue liquid he had seen in the bleak realm beyond the warlock's mind. There was some measure of magic to it, but only the barest thread. Something was missing.

He wiped his mouth clean and passed the cup back to Wulfric. "You have my thanks, Maester." He smiled in thanks.

"What did you see? What did it show you? They say a single cup unstoppers the mind and opens it to the truth. I only managed to unstop my bowels. The taste does not agree with me."

Harry's smile grew strained. "You have my thanks, Maester," Harry said again.

"Yes, I heard you, but I –"

Harry scowled.

"– shall be leaving now. Rest well, my prince."

Later that night, when the castle was quiet and the torches had long since gone out, Harry journeyed from his quarters to the chain ferry on the shore of the lake, his candle strapped carefully to his back. The castle did not seem so pitiful in the dark, for the long shadows of night made it seem larger, fiercer somehow. The looming willows were as giants, their boughs like grasping arms.

Margaery was waiting for him in the chill night, face hidden beneath the hood of a grey cloak. The moon had cut a silver slash across the black waters where the ferry bobbed and swayed. Harry heard the hoarse shriek of a horned owl, then a frog, croaking in the reeds.

Margaery opened her mouth to speak but he mimed for her to remain silent, and helped her into the boat. Quietly, he unlatched the heavy chain, and with a heave, started to pull them across the lake to the Isle of Faces. When Willow Wood was only vague shape behind them, and Harry's shoulders had begun to burn, Margaery spoke.

"Just what have I gotten myself into?"

"Think of it like a story," he told her. "An adventure. But for now, relax. You've ridden barges up the Mander. Imagine you are there now, and this is just another lazy summer day."

"It's warm on the Mander; it's bloody freezing out here."

"I will start a fire."

"Good luck –" She let out a tiny gasp as flames pooled in his cupped palm. But the light was too bright; Harry gazed into the wavering orange haze and the flames turned black. For a long moment, all Margaery did was stare. "You –" She swallowed. "You are a red priest? A red priest who can conjure black flames? Is that your terrible secret?"

Harry laughed, but it was strained. "No. No I am not." He searched her eyes and saw surprise, wonder. And something like fear.

"A red priest called Thoros came to Highgarden for a tourney," Margaery said. "He conjured green flames around his sword, but Willas said it was only a trick. That he had used wildfire." The question in her eyes was clear.

"I have no need of wildfire, nor any sort of trick. Magic is not so dead and gone as the maesters would have us believe. And I happen to have a talent for it."

She stared at him. "For magic."

"Aye. Since I was a boy."

She sat quiet and still for a long while. "So you conjure fire, and… what? Bewitch pretty young ladies to do your evil bidding?"

That was good, he thought. She was making jokes.

"I sacrifice pure maidens to the Lord of Night." When she said nothing, he turned to see her watching him with wide eyes. "It was a jape," he said, grimacing. "Just a jape. A rather terrible one, apparently."

Her eyes narrowed into a scowl and she whacked him across the shoulder. "That wasn't funny, Harry." She hit him again. "At all."

"I am sorry for frightening you."

"You should be." She leaned over and kissed him, burying her fingers in his hair. When she pulled away, she was smirking, but nothing could hide the apprehension in her eyes. Not from him. "I forgive you. For now."

"You are still afraid."

A nightingale's mournful song swept across the lake.

"Yes," she said. "I am."

The journey to the Isle after that was quiet, but for the crickets chirping their endless chorus, and the nightingale calling out to the dark. The blue-black sky was aglow with a thousand and one scattered motes of light. The Sword of the Morning sat low in the southern vista, dim at this time of night, but the Crone's Lantern was like a beacon to the east, and the blue wanderer in the north seemed as if a gleaming jewel.

There was a group of men waiting for them on the shores of the isle. All four wore mottled green robes with headdresses woven from leaves, but only one wore antlers, long barbed lengths arcing up from either side of his head. The weirwood forest loomed behind them, blood-red leaves swaying in the gentle breeze. Harry could almost taste its magic, the ancient power that thrummed through the soil and reverberated in the trees. He could feel the red-eye watching him.

"We have been expecting you, Prince Harrold. He said you would come."

Margaery looked from the men to Harry then back and clenched his arm. "No harm will befall you," he told her. "Not while I am with you. Not ever."

She nodded.

Together, they climbed from the boat. The forest seemed to open as if a book, and the green men slipped into its closing pages. Harry followed with no hesitation, Margaery close at his side.

The dense wood swallowed them up. The forest was possessed of a loud and terrible silence; not the absence of sound, Harry thought, but the death of it. Every tree had a face, some smiling, some snarling, some frowning, some yawning, all leaking sap from their crinkled eyes, like tears of blood. Margaery stumbled beside him; Harry conjured a dozen orbs of blue fire to illuminate the path. The darkness beyond their light was black as pitch.

Deeper into the forest they went, through a maze branches and brambles. The silence was almost deafening. Even the wind was quiet. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, they reached the heart of the isle. The trees here were larger than all the others, older, with great wide trunks, long, solemn faces, and branches that had wound together to form a latticework canopy of stark white and deep red. They watched over a shadowy clearing speared hear and their by lances of silver moon light; in the center of the clearing was a throne of bone white roots as ancient as the isle.

It was there, before the weirwood throne, that Harry placed the candle.

"We will leave you now," the antlered man said from outside the clearing. "But hear this, prince. Yours is a bright future, full of light and wonder. But it is from the light that shadows are born."

"What does that mean?" Margaery asked, but the man only glanced at her. It was Harry's turn to touch her arm; she turned to him, question in her eyes, then looked back. The green men were gone.

"I told you I was different," Harry said. He sat on the throne of roots. It was more comfortable than he had thought.

Margaery scoffed. "Loras is different. Flames and green men and Warlocks… I am afraid to ask what comes next."

"I want to be honest with you. I need to be, I think. I want you to see with your own eyes this life I live. But if this frightens you too much, if any part of you doubts a life with me, then I will take you back to Willow Wood and you can be on your way. I will have my grandfather break the betrothal."

"Frightened? Harry, I am terrified. This is far more than I ever bargained for, far more than I had ever dreamed. But I shall not allow fear to rob me of my perfect prince. You are strange, true. Different. But your heart is wrought of gold, never mind that you are an arse sometimes. Now scoot over." She joined him before the candle and rested her head against his shoulder. "Work your vile magic."

The heavy feeling in Harry's gut dissipated and the tension in his shoulders eased. He was grinning when he turned his mind to the candle. Lady Evelyn had always strained to light hers; for Harry it was a simple as opening his eyes. A thin lance of white light grew atop the candle, so still as to be frozen. The orbs he had conjured winked out one by one, and the candle's flame grew taller and brighter as each orb died, until the candlelight seemed as if to reach the tops of the trees. Through the flame, Harry glimpsed a mountainous weirwood surrounded by seas of ice and snow. And beneath that tree, twined in a throne of roots much like the one he now sat, he saw him.

Margaery yawned. The late hour seemed to be taking its toll on her. "That's a neat trick. My cousin Leo says that when a maester is ready to earn his chain, he must sit before such a candle and attempt to light it. He has never known anyone to succeed."

I have been waiting, the trees spoke. The voice was faint and fleeting, as if the wind itself had formed the words and scattered them through the boughs.

"Harry?" Margaery whispered. She pressed herself closer to him. "Did you hear something? It sounded… almost like a voice."

"It is the voice of the trees. The Old Gods live still." Who are you? Harry spoke back. He didn't have to touch the trees to feel their magic. This was the same presence he had felt watching him in the Stone Garden at Casterly Rock. He knew it in his bones. Are you with them?

A long while later, the voice came again. No. I am with you.

Harry heard the ring of truth in the wind's words. Through the flame's light, he glimpsed a glistening red eye in a face made more of wood than flesh. He saw that eye reflected in every weirwood, as if the trees were mirror faces. A thousand eyes and one, Harry thought. Who are you? What are you?

Margaery yawned again. "Are you… communing with them?"

"I suppose I am."

When I lived as a man, said the rustling leaves, my name was Brynden Rivers. Men called me Bloodraven. I am the Last Greenseer.

Bloodraven. Harry knew that name from his lessons as a boy. Even to this day it was cursed, for it was said that Lord Bloodraven had ruled the realm with spells and spies both; he had slain his own kin, lain with his own sister. Broken the word of the Iron Throne. For that he had been sent to the Night's Watch, and now he withered slowly at the edge of the world, clinging to life; in the shadows beyond the roots, Harry saw half-a-dozen pairs of slitted golden eyes winking in the darkness. You made me dream of you. Why?

To warn you. The cold winds are rising in the North, and the Long Night approaches. But that is no fault of yours; the Great Other would have risen anew, no matter your interference.

My… interference?

This was the longest pause yet. Ten minutes passed before Bloodraven spoke again. I cannot see much beyond these lands to which I am bound, but I can feel the changes in the world, feel the Old Ones awakening from their eons old slumber; slumber that should have continued for eons more. You were not meant to be, Harrold Baratheon. You will bring ruin to this world.

The surety in his voice gave Harry pause. What do you know of me?

Enough, Bloodraven said. The green man lied. Yours is a future of war and death, not light and wonder. A pause, and then, But I can help you.

How?

I have heard you speak of wands. Of cores and woods. Come north, my prince, to the great heart tree beyond the wall. Take what you will from the Children, craft your weapon, and save this world from the ruin you have wrought.

The trees fell silent. Harry saw the first beginnings of morning peeking through the trees in the eastern sky and felt pins and needles dancing up and down his arm. Margaery had fallen asleep against him. She would have more questions he knew, and he hadn't quite yet decided how to answer them.

He sat there, in the throne of roots, and let her sleep.

Chapter Text

(19)

The muffled squawking of seagulls through the creaking walls of his cabin beckoned Harry to the deck, for that sound could only mean one thing; the ship was nearing Oldtown. He placed an eagle feather in The Reckoning of Time to mark his page and slid his golden circlet about his head.

"The numerical discrepancies rampant in the world's recorded histories are not a problem of measurement," Archmaester Walgrum had written in the vaunted book. "A year on one side of the world is just the same as a year on the other."

A year, Harry thought. It had been nearly a year since he had spoken to Bloodraven at the Isle of Faces; since he had revealed to Margaery that magic was not so dead and gone as taught by the maesters. A year of sweet kisses, spiced honey and summerwine lingering on the lips. A year of darklit rooms and unnaturally bright candle flames. A year of watching the world spin, of scouring its lands and learning of its people, of their hopes and dreams, of their sins and virtues. A year of hunting the flames for the beings that would see the world of men torn asunder.

Harry had begun to wonder if perhaps it was a deserved fate. There was decency in the world, he had seen it, but it was as the tiniest candle flame in the face of a massive wave. The evils of men knew no bounds.

He dropped the book on his bunk and ventured out into the hall. Margaery's cabin was across from his own. She had not taken well to the rocking of the sea, and had kept to her cabin with her lady attendants and handmaidens for most of the trip. He paused at her door, hand poised to knock, but the door cracked opened and Meredyth Crane appeared.

"I thought I heard someone out here," she said, her voice near a whisper. "Margaery is still resting, my prince, but I shall rouse her if–"

Harry shook his head. "No, no, let her rest. I only wanted to see how she fared. Thank you, my lady." And then he was gone.

The sea fog had thinned since morning, and the day was bright and damp. Already the crewmen were preparing to dock; there were a half dozen men pulling at the halyard to lower the sail, a bright, rippling sheet of red and gold. Harry ambled about the ship, squinting against the blinding light of the sun as the crew wove around him. A rawboned deckhand shambled past with coils of heavy rope in either hand; another carried buckets of fish heads, lurching from the weight of them. Most of the knights and guards that had accompanied Harry remained below decks, but he spotted Ser Wenfryd and ten black garbed bowmen huddled starboard, loosing arrows into the sea; a game of distance, Harry learned, from the bets he heard. It was warm out on the water, and the breeze was a soft sigh, the faint crash of waves a gentle whisper, both near muted for the roar of four-hundred rowers grunting as they worked the sweeps. The waters of the Whispering Sound were rather calm, he thought. Serene. Whispering Sound. It is a most apt name. He looked to the clouds, searching out the Hightower.

He had first sighted the stepped lighthouse days ago, when the Pride of Lannisport had sailed past the stout towers of Black Crown. It had seemed little more than a pebble of pale stone against the sky, but that pebble had since grown into a mountain. The Hightower loomed over the grey haze of clouds, impossibly massive, reigning over the white-walled city from a great fist of black rock thrust up from the center of the Honeywine where it emptied into the Whispering Sound. Harry watched towers and manses and wharves sprout from the fading mists on either side of the colossal lighthouse, and ships, hundreds and hundreds of ships, carracks and galleys and cogs; even tiny leather coracles that drifted in the sea like water lillies. The ships' bells were tolling madly. Ding, ding, ding. Ding, ding, ding.

Harry circled the Pride and came upon the captain standing at the prow. "Good day, my prince," said Ser Tywald Lannister. The Lord Captain of Lannisport pulled the Myrish eye from his face and tucked the tapered brass tube into his heavy leathers. He was a tall man, but whip thin, with a single gold tooth. "We will be upon Battle Isle shortly. Its dockings are slim, but Lord Leyton made exception for us. They say the old man hasn't come down from the tower in nigh on a decade; to look at the thing, were I him, I wouldn't come down either." He turned to shout a gruff order to the head oarsman, harangued a scruffy deckhand for tying a piss-poor knot, then turned back as if he had never stopped at all. "How long shall you be staying, my prince?"

It was the work of a few hours to speak with Malora and Marwyn, and perhaps days to learn what magics they knew, but Harry had not endured the choppy waters of the Sunset Sea to enjoy the wonders of the city for only a few days. He could spend months perusing the ancient tomes at the Citadel. And Margaery would certainly want to spend time with her kin.

"A fortnight," Harry said at last. The sunlight glinted off the gilded prow, a pride of lions clawing at the air. "But perhaps longer. Enough time for your men to waste their pay on whores."

"Oh, it won't take long for that," Ser Twyald replied. "That's the work of a day, maybe two for the officers. Oldtown has the best whores in all the kingdom, save King's Landing. And they are pious too. They pray before you rut with them."

"I didn't think you a man of such proclivities, ser. I don't imagine you speak of such things to my grandfather."

"Never, my prince. He would have my tongue."

"And you think I won't?"

That brought Ser Tywald up short. The man floundered, made speechless by a fourteen years-old boy. Harry smiled.

"You may keep your tongue, cousin. I've enough of them." The captain left him with all haste. Harry turned his gaze back towards the city.

Even through the salt spray stinging his eyes, Oldtown was a sight to behold, possessed of an ineffable beauty like a sweet summer dream. The Hightower reminded him fleetingly of the structure he had seen in the wastes of Valyria; but where the Valyrian tower had been all oily black stone, this tower was wrought of pale white ashlar, crowned with beacon that, when lit, could be seen for miles upon miles out to sea. It was unlit now, only a vague shape above the heavens.

The quays of Oldtown were stuffed to bursting. They lined both shores of the Whispering Sound, dense with ships. The western shore was all guildhalls, opulent stone mansions that leaned out over the water, but the eastern bank was reserved for the gods; Harry saw a red temple belching black smoke, and stone effigies of likenesses he had only seen in Essos; a black goat, a stone crow, a crowned merling; a moon-pale maiden and a weeping one, with Bakkalon between them, and half a hundred more. And standing over the lesser temples and foreign gods as if in judgment was the Starry Sept, a fortress of black marble and arched windows. He did not think of the new gods when he looked upon the ancient tower; he thought of the old. Only they seemed to be missing from the wharves.

Harry had left the Isle of Faces armed with terrible knowledge and a wary betrothed. Perhaps he should have used a gentler hand when ushering her into the wild wonders of his short but trialed life, but now the deed was done and there was no going back.

They had parted ways at Silverhill; Margaery had gone south to Highgarden, and Harry had returned west to Casterly Rock. They met again at a tourney in Lannisport, and again for a similar occasion at Crakehall. Harry had found himself longing for her during the months in between; he and Aeryn were close, almost intimately so, but Margaery was his sweet summer rose; his equal if ever there could be one. Letters and dreams had kept them close until Harry had convinced Tywin to embark on this tour of the Seven Kingdoms, and so here they were, traveling together again.

Harry had told no one of what he had seen in the candle flame, nor what he had learned at the Isle. His mother, Tywin, Aeryn, and now Margaery… they knew he was more than a mere man, knew that he could do great and wondrous things, but they knew nothing of the evils arrayed against him, of the foul terrors that waited in the dark. He had hoped that Bloodraven was mistaken, but Harry had felt the truth in his bones. And what a horrid truth it was. That burden he carried alone, and he imagined he always would, until the terrors were no longer constrained to the shadows.

Ser Kevan had returned at the start of the year, shortly after Harry's nameday. His coming had been heralded by a great storm that had seen the quays of Lannisport closed for nigh on a week. The knightly lord had brought with him news of the ravaging of Pentos and the end of its secret Qartheen occupation. The warlocks were no more in the city, and its devastation had led Braavos to seizing a great deal of its northern hinterlands. Ser Kevan had reckoned that it wouldn't be long before Myr and Tyrosh turned their eyes north to the crippled city and its few remaining magisters. War was brewing in Essos.

It was strange, he thought, this dichotomy in his life, like something out of a song. He was a prince by day, honorable and dutiful, the love of the commons, betrothed to the most beautiful maid in the Seven Kingdoms, but at night, the veil was lifted and the wizard came afore, a thing of ghosts and flames and terrible power.

But was it so terrible? How bright was the light of his soul that it had changed the world so?

It was enough to drive a man mad. But Margaery… her steadfast support had been just the balm for his darkening nature. He wondered if he should rouse her to enjoy the view with him. He feared there would be little enough to enjoy in the coming months.

Harry heard the clanking rattle of mail and plate drawing near, and the heavy tread of a man in full armor.

"You are thinking of your betrothed," Ser Marvell said. Harry turned a questioning eye towards the stalwart knight. Marvell had shaved his head entirely after a terrible lice infection; now there was only stubble. "Your face changes. Softens. Usually it is hard as granite."

The prince leaned against the wale and looked out over the water. Years ago, his cousin Willem had told him much the same thing, only it had been Aeryn who softened his scowling visage. "Do you get on well with your own betrothed?"

Harry had only met Alys Ferren the once, at his nameday feast, but the mousy girl had kept silent throughout the entire affair. She had done more praying than speaking; Harry suspected that was rather why Ser Rupert had arranged the match for his son. The prince had never met a knight so godly as Marvell.

"She isn't terrible," Marvell said. "Pretty. Pious." He shrugged his massive shoulders and donned his helm. "I haven't spent much time with her, and I doubt there will be many opportunities to do so in the coming months. It will be weeks to Storm's End, and weeks more to King's Landing, to say nothing of the journey North."

"My apologies then, for keeping you from your betrothed."

"Think nothing of it, my prince. It is my duty to guard your life with mine. My betrothed and I shall have our time together when we are wed."

They stood quietly for a while, watching the city grow nearer. The seagulls were nearly silent now, for Ser Wenfryd and his men had turned their dragonbone bows upon the birds. Harry followed the flight of an arrow up into the sky and his gaze caught on the blue eye of the Ice Dragon, somehow still bright enough to be seen in the northern sky. As he searched for its tail, a thought occurred to him.

"Do you know the last prince of the crown to tour the North?" he asked Ser Marvell.

The knight shook his head. "I can recite the Seven Pointed Star by heart, and I know The Warrior's Way like the back of my hand –"

"More like the palm, Herbert would say."

"–but I know little of history, my prince," Ser Marvell finished with the slightest grin. Herbert had turned green the moment he set foot on the Pride, and had not left his bunk since they had sailed from Lannisport. Bertram fared no better. "Maester Hamand could never make it stick," Marvell finished.

"It was a trick question," said Margaery. Harry hadn't heard her approach. He turned to her with a smile on his lips. Her skin had a slight green tinge to it, and her steps were a might unsteady, but her smile was bright as the sun.

"There hasn't been a prince who toured the North," she said. "Harrold will be the first."

"Will you see all of it?" Marvell asked. "Every frozen keep?"

"No. I will see Whiteharbor, Winterfell, the Wall… that will be enough to sate my curiosity, I think. Certainly more than you shall see if you continue to sail in full plate."

"I don't fear death, my prince, not by steel, nor flame, nor drowning, for I know the Father awaits me in heaven. I fear failing in my duty."

As the Pride of Lannisport eased into the wharf on the southward face of Battle Island, Harry glimpsed a group of knights in Hightower livery waiting ahorse upon the rocky shores. One of the grey-garbed knights stood out from the others. It was neither his size nor his build that differentiated him, for he stood neither taller nor stouter than his fellow men, and yet he seemed larger than them all the same; more, somehow, as if a giant squeezed into the frame of a man. Even Ser Garlan Tyrell, perhaps the greatest knight that Harry had seen in a training ring, had not held himself so.

Margaery stepped up to his side and alighted a hand upon the small of his back, pointing with the other. "Do you see the one there, with the white-plum on his helm?" She singled out the very same man Harry had been watching. "That is Garth Greysteel. My mother says he's the finest knight of House Hightower since the White Bull. He is the only knight I have ever seen best Garlan."

When Harry finally stood before the famed Reach knight, he found himself reminded of Ser Barristan. There was a quiet strength about him, and a certain surety of skill. And conviction – Harry could see it in his eyes. This was a man with honor on his side, a man who believed whole heartedly in the ideal.

Ser Garth removed his plumed helm and bowed deeply. He had a square jaw and a cleft chin, and his eyes were blue like the sea. "Welcome to Oldtown, my prince."

"I am honored by your welcome, Ser Garth."

"You know me?"

"Your niece just pointed you out to me. But even if she had not, your sister described you well when I saw her at Highgarden. She spoke very highly of you. It was you who rescued Lady Moreland, was it not?"

"I cannot accept all of the credit," he said. "Archmaester Marwyn sent word of his suspicions to Ser Moryn. Considering the severity of the alleged crimes, I led the seizure myself. I did nothing but command men."

Ser Garth never once looked away from Harry's face when speaking. He was a very direct man, Harry realized. He found himself liking Garth Greysteel.

"I have heard of this Marwyn," Harry said. "Men say he is a sorcerer."

"Men say many things, my prince. The only truth I know is steel. But I think it would be the height of irony for the Archmaester of Magic to know nothing of the subject." A pause, and then, "You said my niece was with you?"

Harry glanced back at the boat. "She had to return below deck to change her garments. A last minute bout of sea sickness over took her when we docked."

"Alerie was never one for the sea either. Shall we wait for her?"

"No. If her stomach settles she will join us this evening."

The port town was a tight sprawl of whitewashed buildings, storehouses and shipyards, taverns, an inn. Ser Garth donned his helm and led Harry down a road of salt-stained wood to a switchback stairwell carved in the side of the island. It was a long climb up the stair; half way up, he looked down through the thick iron bars of the balustrade and closed his forefinger and thumb around the Pride of Lannisport, mast and all. The wind was louder here. Fiercer. It whipped at his hair, buffeted the skirt of his gambeson.

At the top of the rise was a small village. Its denizens had congregated in the square; toddling babes sat atop their father's heads and clutched at their mother's skirts, boys watched raptly, mimicking his posture, his bearing, girls giggled and sighed… but the men and women watched him as the commons had watched him all his life, with something like hope glimmering in their tired eyes. And something like fear, too.

Beside the village was a cobbled road that disappeared into the forest, and beyond the trees stood the Hightower, larger still than Harry had fathomed, almost too large to believe. The trees seemed like toys before it. The tower was ringed by black stone walls as tall as any Harry had seen, and it too looked as if no more than some child's plaything.

There were two dozen horses stabled at the ramshackle Inn that looked over the road. A stable boy came running with a pair of them, a red roan and a lean, gray-maned stallion. Ser Garth mounted the roan, leaving the stallion to Harry. The prince brushed his mind against the beast's as he brushed his hand across its silky coat. It nickered at him, instantly familiar; he leapt smoothly into the saddle, and then they were off, horse hooves clopping on the cobbles.

Ser Garth set a gentle pace. Familiar woodland sounds washed over Harry; the melodious warble of some woodland bird, the whining drone of lacewings in his ear, a clatter almost like rain, though the sky was clear, and crickets, always crickets. He wondered how quiet the wilds of the world would be without them. Harry could still hear the sea as well, but it was a fleeting sound, only the hint of a whisper.

They had been riding for some time when Ser Garth spoke. "Tales of you abound," he began. "I am not one for the gossip of milk maids and sailors, but I hear what I hear."

"Oh? And pray tell, what have you heard, ser?"

"I heard a tale of humility, fit for a priest. A tale of a prince who has won squire's tourneys, who has defied slavers and gaolers. Thrice he was offered knighthood and thrice he denied the honor." The knight turned in his saddle to stare at Harry. "I would know why."

"I see no point in pledging to uphold ideals that are already my duty to uphold. And I have seen the value of a knight's vows."

"Some men were not meant to be called ser," Ser Garth returned. "But as a knight, I must ask that you not judge us by the worst of us, but by the best of us. That a man might profane his vows does not mean the vows themselves are invalid; only that the man is weak." Harry heard rustling in the forest, saw a robin flit across the path. "An oath to the goods is a pact. Yes, a man can betray that pact, and he might live a full and prosperous life, win wealth, father sons, and die happy… but the Gods do not forget pacts, my prince. They do not betray them. The Father's scales weigh all." Ser Garth held Harry's gaze for a long moment, nodded abruptly, and turned to lead him into the open gate.

The ward beyond was a narrow thing, for the base of the Hightower was nearly as wide around as the curtain wall, leaving room for only a few tall, spindly buildings amongst the cobbled trails and wildflower gardens.

An army could have marched itself through the towers massive bronze doors. It took a dozen men to pull them open, using a pulley much like the ones meant for raising and lowering gates. The gears clanked loudly as the men heaved.

If Harry had never seen Casterly Rock, he might've thought the Hightower the greatest castle in all of Westeros. The bronze doors opened to a grand hall of full of people, lords and ladies in shimmering silks, maesters in drab grey, chain collars clanking, a fool juggling knives, and another cartwheeling through the throng; they mingled beneath a chandelier that seemed as a star, spilling glittering motes of golden light over the hall. And yet, for all the people, the hall was only half full.

Ser Garth pointed out a few of the lords, but did not linger long – by the time a voice yelled, "Prince Harrold has arrived," the knight had already led him down a side corridor.

The entrance hall of the Hightower had been bright and airy, but there were no windows in the heart of the tower, and these halls were dark and echoing. The torchlight could do little to illuminate the corridors, and the high ceilings were shrouded in dense shadow. But everywhere there hung the silver Hightower, and every so often, when Harry glanced at the banners, the meager light caught just so on the cloth of silver, brightening the halls for but the briefest of moments.

"My father had a feast prepared," Ser Garth said. "There will be time enough after its end to mingle with the lords of ladies, if that be your wont."

Harry tried not to roll his eyes. He had yet to visit a castle that didn't have a feast prepared. He was growing rather tired of them.

"But my father would like a word with you, beforehand," Ser Garth continued. "We might take the steps, if you feel daring, or we can take the winch elevator."

Harry chose the latter. The ride was long and quiet. He thought of the knights he knew, and those who truly kept to their vows. The list was woefully short.

When the winch came to a stop, Garth led him to a tall oaken door at the end of a long hall. Every castle had had a feast, and every lord had at least one man to guard the door of his solar. Lord Leyton had four. Ser Garth knocked twice, patted Harry on the shoulder, and left to the oppressive silence of the hall.

A muffled voice drifted out through the door. "Enter."

The oak creaked when Harry pushed it open. The room was darkly lit, for a thick curtain had been placed over the room's single window, and the flames in the hearth were dying out. But it was not Lord Hightower waiting for him in the smoky room. It was a handsome woman instead, with dark blonde hair, a dainty nose, a small bow mouth, and owlish eyes the color of shallow pools. They lit up when they saw him, burning with a fervor that made his hair stand on end. Without having to ask, Harry knew her as Malora.

"I dreamed of this day," she said. Her voice was hoarse, like she had been screaming. "When I first glimpsed you in the flames and saw what you were, I wondered what I might say to you, when we met. They fear you, you know."

"Who?" Already he was confused.

"The voices. Do you hear them, my prince? The voices in the dark? Rasp whispers, like rats scuttling in my brain, and the shrieks! Oh, the shrieks! They speak to me in the twilight, in the gloaming morn, when I sleep and when I wake. They fear you as a coward fears death… yet they yearn for you, for your flesh and your soul." She stepped closer. Harry inadvertently lowered his hand to his sword.

Her owlish eyes widened further. "You need not fear me, my prince. I would never dream of harming you."

"She looked too deeply into the flames," a voice said.

Harry was halfway across the room with his sword poised to skewer the speaker before his eyes registered the grey cloak, the stooped figure, the saggy jowls and bloodshot eyes, like an old mastiff.

"It is a problem of talent over sense. She has an overabundance of the former and a severe lack of the latter." Marwyn the Mage glanced down at the blade poised to cut him in two. "You are a fast one," he observed.

"Never do that again," Harry said. The Archmaester could only nod.

"Marwyn fears your power," Malora said.

It was strange, Harry thought, speaking with people who not only knew of magic, but could use it. As he sheathed his sword, he wondered what it meant that they were all mad. "What do you mean, she looked too deeply into the flames?"

"Malora has never been the most… stable woman. She reached beyond the veil of death and what she saw changed her."

"I saw you," Malora said with conviction, a bone thin finger angled toward Harry. "An image reflected through fog, broken and hazy. Disjointed parts of a magnificent whole."

Harry didn't know what to say to that. He chose silence.

"Lady Evelyn mentioned that she taught you how to use the glass candles?" asked Marywn

"Aye."

"She said you could see whatever you desired," the Archmaester went on. "Even with her young candle."

Harry scowled. "I could not see into the House of the Undying."

"Nor can I. Their protections are too great –"

"What will be the price of your assistance, maester?" Harry asked.

"Beg pardon?"

"Why have you asked me here, to Oldtown? What great enormity have you seen in my future? Or do you work in the name of justice?"

"I –"

"Speak truth."

The maester sighed. "You should sit, then. The answer to your question is not a short one." He poured wine, sat at the fireless hearth. Harry joined him in the high backed chair – the leather creaked as he sat.

"Fourteen years ago," Marwyn began, "the world changed."

Fourteen, Harry thought. He was four and ten this year.

"There are three glass candles –"

"At the Citadel, yes, I know. Get on with it, Archmaester, if your tale is so long. I've no need for theatrics."

It was Marwyn's turn to frown. "Are you always this much of a shit?"

That startled a laugh out of Harry. "I will give you that one, maester. Still, I would have this long story of yours condensed. Tell me only what is of import. I care naught for anything else."

"Very well then." The maester quaffed his wine and poured another cup. "I managed to light one of the candles at the Citadel fourteen years ago. I knew what that meant, for I had been trying and failing for decades. So went out into the world to discover why. Everywhere I went, I heard tales of magic. Born anew, they said. In Myr, slavers spoke of an unnatural light above Mantarys that lingered for weeks; in Volantis, men spoke of demons come out of the Lands of Summer. scabbed and scaled –"

"I have seen the Lands of Summer," Harry said. "There is naught there but wyrms. If these scabby demons of yours existed, they have long since died off."

Marwtn sighed as if aggrieved. "The more you interrupt, the longer my story shall be."

Harry almost laughed again. "My apologies, Archmaester. Carry on, please. I will stay my tongue, for the sake of expediency."

"I traveled further east, to the hills of Kosrak. I met a godswife there, a woman called Mirri Maz Duur who told me that the spells and songs she had learned as a child, in honor of the Great Shepard, had suddenly begun to ring true. She raised foul creatures of night before my very eyes, and even sang to me a song of the moonsingers, a shrill, undulating tune that grated on the ear but saw my aches and ails eased. For her knowledge, I taught her medicine, astronomy, the common tongue, and what little I knew of the magics of Valyria."

Malora joined them by the fire, eyes bright with madness.

"From Kosrak, I went to Qarth. You have seen what the warlocks are now, yes? They were just rising then. Qartheen is a strange tongue, but I knew enough of it to get by. The warlocks had begun buying slaves by the hundred; they would cart them into the palace of dust, but what became of them once within the wretched tower, no one could say.

"Since then, I have heard tale of sorcerers rising in YiTi, of dragons in the Jade Sea, of bloodless men building towers of living flesh atop the Mountains of the Morn."

"A… man spoke to me of ancient beings rising anew, after aeons of slumber. I knew it to be true the moment he said it, but you have only cemented these feelings."

Marwyn sagged in his chair and sighed, long and deep. "Then it is as I feared." The Archmaester stared into the wafting smoke of the hearth. "Know you of the Land of Shrykes, my prince? No? The Bleeding Sea, then? West of it is a city called K'dath. Search it out in the flames. Perhaps its legendary history is tied into these… ancient beings. Mayhap one slumbers beneath it."

"And in Qarth too, I bet."

"Prince?"

"This only confirms it," Harry said. "You said the warlocks were buying slaves fourteen years ago. Xen Xakhar mentioned that they needed sacrifices for the 'Deep One'." And the way their minds were connected…was that the work of human men, or something else?

The solar door creaked open. There was only the silhouette of a man before he stepped past the door's shadow and into the light. He looked like Garth, Harry thought, with a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes, but this man was clearly older, for there were crow's feet at the corners of his eyes and his thick brown beard was peppered with gray.

"Prince Harrold," Lord Leyton said slowly, his voice rough and smoky, like jagged rocks over smoldering coals. He bowed briefly then stood erect. "I thought my son would have taken you to the great hall."

"The Archmaester stole me away first, my lord."

"Here, to my solar?" The lord sounded angry, but the smile tugging at his lip belied the truth. "This ugly grey fool hasn't the –"

"That was my doing," said Malora. "Prince Harrold is a kindred spirit, father, you need not worry. We've only come to speak in private. Yours is the only room without ears."

"And now it shall be a room without people," Lord Leyton said. "Come along, all of you. We've a feast to attend. Conversations such as these are best had on a full stomach. There will be time enough after to speak of the world's end."

Chapter Text

 


(20)

Through the far-reaching light of an unmoving flame, the prince looked out over a city of silence. Not a soul stirred in the paved streets of K'Dath. Even the bleak plains that surrounded the city were quiet and still, the echoing call of the Shrykes in the far off forests muted by the dread that gripped the air as if to strangle it. The city was ringed by a high weatherworn sandstone wall that was spiked with skulls; within the ring of stone, strange domed buildings huddled together beneath the black sky, empty and dark, watching over barren streets. The inner city was older than the outer, and there the buildings were aged and cracked. Weeds had grown into vines that choked the towers and smothered the hovels. Harry thought he might have glimpsed a woman standing at a stained window, but when he peered into the room, there was only dust.

He let himself drift, let his eyes take him where they would. The market square boasted endless stalls of rotting fruit and meat, and yet not a single fly buzzed about the waste, nor carrion bird nor stray dog. There was only the lonesome quiet, like a living thing, smothering the city.

At the heart of K'Dath stood a stepped pyramid of a dark, almost mud colored stone, crowned in gold. Nothing dwelled in the temple; not even the wind blew to flutter its dying torches. Harry looked beneath the temple, to the twisting warren under the hallowed stone.

And there he saw them, kneeling at the foot of a shattered statue wrought of oily black stone, in a musty hall of bones: hundreds upon hundreds of ghosts, robed and cowled. There they knelt, unmoving, and the silence reigned.

Harry blinked, looked away from the flame. "There is nothing there."

Marwyn grunted from where he stood by the bookcase. There were dozens of them, each fifteen feet tall, arrayed in long rows that reached back the end of the room, where there hung from the wall a sword wrought of Valyrian steel called Vigilance. Even encased in glass the blade seemed wicked sharp; Ser Garth had told the prince that no Hightower had wielded the sword since the Dance of the Dragons, for no son of Hightower had seen war in the century-and-a-half since. So long, the knight said, that men doubted they still possessed the blade.

The Archmaester had been perusing the shelves for some time, and seemed now to have finally found the book he sought. He plucked a thick leather-bound tome from a shelf and cradled it in his arms. "What do you mean, there is nothing there? Has the entire city of K'Dath up and moved?"

"The city is dead," Harry said. He felt Malora's eyes on him. When he turned to face her, the light spilling through the window played with the lines of her face, lengthening them. She almost seemed sad. She looked beyond the veil of death, he thought, and she saw me. My immortal soul.

"You saw nothing?" Marwyn asked. His steps were light, almost soundless, but his heavy collar clanked like mail. "No signs, no –"

"The city is dead," Harry repeated. "It belongs to ghosts now."

"Ghosts," echoed the Archmaester. He tilted his head and a queer expression came over his face, made almost comical by the tufts of hair jutting from his ears and nose. He thumbed his chain link collar, where five Valyrian steel links were woven with four more of copper. Magic and history, Harry thought. "Actual ghosts?" Marwyn asked. "I have long since believed in their existence. You can… see them?"

"And speak to them."

The Archmaester plopped down in the chair across from Harry as if all the air had been let out of him, head hanging to his chest. The night before the trio had convened in Lord Leyton's solar; now they used the adjacent library, regularly kept locked to all but Leyton's eldest children, Malora and Baelor. They sat at a heavy oak table sat in the center of the room, in the midst of the bookcases; sunlight speared through the open window and slashed the middle of the oak like a ribbon of gold. The floor was a sea of Myrish carpets, pale silver and stormy grey and fiery orange. Paintings hung from the wall, most in the vivid artisan style of Myr: a king with silvery gold hair kneeling as the High Septon placed a ruby-encrusted Valyrian steel circlet atop his head; a shapely dragon-queen with a king's ransom in rings about her fingers standing defiant before the maw of a golden dragon; a warrior in all white, thick of arm and chest, with a bull embossed on his breastplate and a face carved of stone. The scenes seemed so real, so life like, that Harry could imagine them portals instead of paintings, windows into another time and place.

"The entire populace of K'Dath, gone," Marwyn mumbled. "Primordial creatures of nightmare awakening to walk the world again, to plague its oceans and sands, its mountains and plains. Its people." He looked up, forehead wrinkling. "You are awfully fucking calm, my prince."

Harry found his eyes drawn back to the king, kneeling to receive his crown. Aegon the Conqueror, he had been called. "I have known since I was a boy that I was given this power for a reason. That I came to be for a reason." Harry recalled Tywin's words to him on that windy day a year-and-a-half ago, when the knights of Casterly Rock had ridden to put an end to the warlock incursion in the west. "There is a tool for every task and a task for every tool. This is the task for me, and I am the tool for it."

Marwyn's ugly face scowled. "A grand sentiment. Sounds suspiciously like prophecy."

"It may very well be, Archmaester. But can you say you have ever known the like of me? Found or heard of anyone or anything who can do what I can?"

"Summoning fire and reading thoughts won't–"

"Do not doubt him, Marwyn," said Malora. She moved nearer; the light that had lengthened her face softened it now, made the blue of her eyes shine like sapphires. "The voices fear him. That is proof enough of his power."

To that, Marwyn only grunted and sat the massive book on the table. The leather cover creaked when he opened it, and the pages were all wrinkled and dog-eared. "These are my own writings. This book in particular is a copy - one of four I have had made over the years. It is a journal, of sorts, of my travels and learnings. It would do you better than I, I think." He pushed the book across the table to Harry. "You read High Valyrian, I hope?"

The prince nodded. "And speak it. The Grandmaester insisted."

"Good. Then it shouldn't be difficult for you to decipher the code I used. Consider it a test."

"I learn best through practical demonstrations, Archmaester," Harry said. "He gestured with his hand, a loose wave. "If you don't mind?"

Marwyn harrumphed. "Most magics are not so readily used as glass candles, my prince. The Jhogos Nhai sing their moonsongs after battle, with blood still on their blades. When Miri Maz Duur sang to me, she had painted herself in goat's blood. I would not dare try to bind a creature of shadow, and I would rather not use blood magic simply to sate your curiosity. Is the craft truly so easy for you?"

"I will summon a shadow for you, Prince Harrold," Malora said, before Harry could answer Marwyn. "The ignoble dead heed my call without need of sacrifice, be it of blood or of the soul. They have already taken what they will from me."

"Do it," said Harry.

"There is no need –" Marwyn began to say, but his protests were lost in Malora's rising chant.

Her voice was dual-toned, undulant, a bass rasp and a lilting contralto all at once, guttural and melodic, unnatural and incomprehensible. The words were grating, cutting at the air, at his ears, sawing like blades, and then smooth as silk, a cool caress against his skin. They seemed to unfurl into the room, as if a massive snake uncoiling, expanding to fill every corner. And somehow… somehow he knew them, deep in his soul. This was the language of death. "Hear me, o' beloved shepherd of the dead, grant unto me of your unholy flock, the ignoble dead, blackest of souls and most broken of spirits, fierce in life and wretched in death. Give them unto me, I plead. My beloved." Marwyn was paling, but Harry felt no fear, even as the light in the room died and Malora's already pale skin went milk white and her veins pulsed black. The prince could almost feel her reaching out into the world beyond, where the dark writhed as if alive, thick as tar. He could just see it, the reaching masses of black shadow, coiling and uncoiling, shredding apart only to come together again. He could not hear them, at first, but then the voices came in crescendo, a million broken souls shrieking and shouting. They seemed so close, Harry thought. It was as if the only thing separating them was a mere wall of daub and wattle.

Then the wailing quietened all at once, and the shadows hushed. In the pulsing dark, a voice spoke, susurrous and seductive. The words were lost to his ears, and yet the sound still reached him, like a voice on the wind. He realized, belatedly, that it was Malora speaking.

"Master," she said in that strange, twilight tongue. "I await you." The cold whisper of her voice reminded Harry of death, of that twilight place. His memories of the peaceful emptiness still lingered, still crept sometimes into his dreams. Malora was suddenly in front of him. She leaned close, nose to nose, and pressed her cold lips to his. Memory became sensation, like a wintry wind in his chest, a fleeting reminder of what awaited when his end came. Fleeting, for when she stepped away, a roaring fire chased away the crawling chill, and it too was a reminder, of what was yet to come and what he had yet to do.

The color returned to Malora's skin. She blinked, touched her lips, tasted them. "Death knows you as I do," she said.

It should, he thought. "That was a spell?"

"A plea," Malora said.

And Harry had heard that, hadn't he? Her plea to the shepherd. "In what tongue?"

Malora smiled and her eyes brightened. "In your tongue, my prince, for I did not know it until I saw the truth of you. The voices cannot speak it, though they try. Thiers is a bastard tongue, a pidgin of greater languages." She watched his face. "You have forgotten it?"

"I – yes."

Liar, her eyes said.

Marwyn erupted, pushing himself up from his chair. It tilted over and fell atop the carpet with a dull thud. "Damn you, woman! And damn you," he jabbed a finger at Harry, "for allowing her to do it. These are not things to be trifled with. Gods and demons, ghouls and devils…" He almost growled. "Magic is not benign. It does not bend to your wants, does not heed your control. It bends you to its wants, to its desires. It is a beautiful whore hiding warts under her skirt and fangs between her legs. Lay with her if you dare. You have already paid the price for your zeal, Malora… would you have us suffer as well?"

"You've too much fear in you, Marwyn," Malora said. "I can smell it on you, like the musk of a long day's work. That is why you will never be more than a lighter of candles and a singer of songs. Magic is not benign, but neither is it the province of cowards."

Harry was reminded then that it had been Malora who had taught Lady Evelyn how to bind the spirits of living men.

"A coward, am I?" Marwyn snarled. "You –"

"Enough," Harry said, and stood. Malora and Marwyn both ceased their bickering. "There is no fault in your caution," the prince told Marwyn. "It is understandable, and expected. You are dealing in matters that are beyond you." He grabbed the Archmaester's book, tucked it in the crook of his arm. "Magic is not the province of cowards," he said, "nor is it the province of men at all."

"And yet here you are," Marwyn said. "A man, or near enough to one."

Malora cackled. "All those books and all that learning, and still you cannot see that our prince is not a man? How many men pray to Death? How many whisper to her, that she might spare them and take their enemies? Such names they have for her! The Stranger. The Black Goat. The Lion of Night. Bakkalon. A thousand names for one face, and she chose to show that face to our prince. To speak to him. Master, she named him." She slapped her palms to the table. "Master."

"We will speak no more of this," Harry said. "Marwyn, you are the scholar amongst us; find out what you can of the legends and myths of K'Dath. All the things you saw and heard on your travels, they are in this book?"

The Archmaester nodded.

"Then I shall leave you. I have seen enough, for now. Good day, Archmaester, my lady."

They waited until he left the room to begin bickering anew; he could hear them through the door, muffled though they were, Marywn's rough growl, Malora's hoarse rebuttals. Marvell, who had been waiting outside, fell in step behind him, his steps heavy and loud against the stone.

The gears of the winch rattled and clanked mightily as the elevator lowered them to the ground floor. It had been weeks since Harry held a sword in his hand, since he had been able to smother his thoughts beneath adrenaline and sheer delight and let his instincts breathe. So he ventured to the training yard, drawn by the clangs of blunted swords.

The castle ward was cramped and bustling, and the sun sat high over the black stone wall. Servants scurried across their path, hauling grain and hurrying after chickens. The training yard was nestled between the pale stone of the High tower and the westward face of the wall, a wide expanse of rough stone where weeds and wildflowers pushed up through the rock, dotting the grey with motes of green and yellow, white and pink. Here the prince vented his frustration and anger on the squires of the Hightower, and then the squires of his own knights, until sweat burned his eyes and his limbs were numb and leaden.

A year, he thought again. And what to show for it? The Undying still breathed, and he was months away still from traveling beyond the Wall to gather materials for a wand.

"I am worried for you, my prince," said Marvell. Of the four lordlings who had attached themselves to Harry, Marvell remained the most dependable, the most stalwart; Quenten had once stood now where Marvell stood, but his father had called him to the Banefort after he returned from Pentos. But where Quenten had not cared to know why, had not cared to seek explanations, Marvell was ever curious.

"As am I," Harry said, tugging at his training leathers to loosen the straps. Ser Wenfryd was fighting now, and fiercely, for his opponent was the greatest sword of Oldtown. Ser Garth danced around him as a flower might dance on the wind.

"The…war with the Warlocks of Qarth," Marvell began. "It is not over, is it?"

Harry shook his head. "The war will only be over when the House of the Undying is a pile of ashes and all the warlocks are dead."

Marvell stepped closer so that he might speak more softly. "I am no navigator, my prince, but sailing to Qarth is a journey of months, if not years, even for the swiftest of ships. I cannot imagine the difficulty of transporting an army –"

"There will be no army," Harry said. "Only me."

"My prince, I –"

"Do you remember what you witnessed at the Dragon Pit?"

"Aye." Marvell nodded his massive head. "The gods –"

"And at Castle Yew?"

The giant knight was silent for but a moment. "…The wildfire," he said, with growing realization. "It can burn for hours, and yet…"

"The gods are with me, Marvell. This you know." In the ring, Ser Garth and Ser Wenfryd had locked swords; the Hightower knight pivoted and flicked his wrist, sending Ser Wenfryd's blade sailing into the dirt. "I tell you this now because I trust you. When the Warlocks fall, it will not be for the spears and shields of an army, but these hands here." He held them aloft, clenched his fists. "They came for me, Marvell. For me. And so I will end them."

"And this trip? What is your true reason for this tour?"

"All that matters is that I go North. A weapon awaits beyond the wall, and I must have it."

Marvell said nothing for a long while. Then, "Does Lady Margaery know?"

"She knows enough," the prince returned. "Anything more would be a burden."

Baelor's young heir, Daryn Hightower, stood with his uncles Ser Gunthor and Ser Humfrey, watching Harry from across the yard as one might watch the morning sun rise. As if the prince was a falling star trailing flames across the sky. The boy idolized him, for all that he was hardly three years younger. Harry wondered if his brother Edric would idolize him so. As if glancing at him was an invitation, Daryn ventured over with both uncles in tow.

"I had hoped to see you fight," the boy said. "I've heard all the stories. You slew mad knights in the West, and crushed a band of outlaws. I reckon you could beat Uncle Humfrey, and Uncle Gunthor too." He looked disapprovingly to his uncles.

Ser Gunthor was clad in a cloth-of-silver cloak and a suit of grey enameled scales. He was taller than Garth, but reed thin, with pale, blue-grey eyes. Ser Humfrey might have been his twin were he not shorter. His armor was flashier as well, chased with silver and gold with scrollwork that gleamed like diamond.

"My father wants me to squire for one of them," the boy chattered on. "I'd rather squire for Grandfather, and he doesn't even carry a sword anymore. When I am Lord Hightower, I will carry Vigilance with me always, as a reminder of life's greatest lesson." He had the sound of someone reciting words they had heard a thousand times over. "A man, no matter his station in life, must be constantly vigilant, for always the prince of the seven hells seeks to do evil on the righteous."

"Chapter sixteen, verse seven, the Warrior's Way," Marvell said. "Rather advanced reading for a lad your age."

"Father says that a Hightower lord must appreciate words and writings as well as swords and knives. Eschewing learning makes for a dull mind, as not sharpening a blade makes for a dull sword."

"Your father is a wise man," the prince said. Harry had spoken to Baelor at the feast, but little beyond pleasantries. Yet the prince had gotten enough of his measure in the deep blue of his eyes to have some inkling into the sort of man he was.

"Could I squire for you?" the boy, Daryn, asked.

"I am not a knight."

"Uncle Garth would knight you. I will ask him –"

"You will not," Harry said. Ser Garth was listening, he knew, though the knight had not looked their way. Harry turned to him. "I have not forgotten your words, Ser Garth. I will give the best of you your just due."

And that was the problem, wasn't it? He was excited to have found his purpose, but to see the world as he did was to see that it did not deserve a savior. But he was judging men by the worst of them. The fat slave lords of New Ghis and Slaver's Bay, the wild men of the Dothraki Sea, and worse, beyond the mountains, where men built towers of bone from which to watch the starry sky.

Perhaps it was time to start judging men by the best of them as well?

Hours later, Harry stood staring through a clear-paned oriel window at the colors that played on the sea, as the golden glow of day gave way to dusk and then purple night hazed in pale silver. Such wonders lie beyond the sea, he thought. And then he wondered what might lie in it. Malora's words still lingered in his thoughts, clinging to the walls of his mind. They had been naught but vocalizations of some of his own thoughts, thoughts he had had for years, for it had always been the Stranger to whom his prayers went, but to hear the words spoken aloud, to feel Death as he had only felt her in memory, to see eternity staring at him through Malora's eyes, had made it all so very real.

Master, the being had called him. Even now he could feel it's breath in his chest, cold and reaching. For all of the truth he had shared with Margaery on that misty morn so many moons ago, this was beyond her. To her, magic was whispering trees and dancing fire, and blue-veined madmen a world away. Strange and eerie, true, and perhaps even frightening, in the way that the unknown so often was, but small, like the sun in the sky seemed small.

As if the thought of her had summoned her presence, Harry caught a whiff of summer roses playing on the warm night air before Margaery stepped into sight. Halfway up the Hightower was naught but circular halls lined with tapestries and busts, as if a viewing gallery. The windows were tall here, taller than Harry, to capture the full light of the sun and the moon both.

"I thought I might find you here" Margaery said. The sapphire about her neck sparkled white in the moonlight, and her creamy skin seemed ashen. "It is a beautiful view, is it not? Everything seems so small." Her gown was thin, weaved of silk and Myrish lace, all turquoise and white, the color of the sea and the clouds. The bodice was slashed just below the gentle swell of her breasts, and the "v" was covered by a silver panel of quilled lace. Her arms were bare but for the sheer fabric puffed at her shoulders. "But perhaps that is the problem. The world has always seemed small to you, hasn't it?"

"Not the world," Harry said. The sea was lit for miles; atop the Hightower, the great flaming beacon roared, scorching the sky.

"Only the people in it," said Margaery.

"Some of them, yes."

"A prince must be more than a mere man, you once said to me. But you must be more than even that. Why?"

Harry looked away from the sea. He could see the whole world if he wanted, could see through to the heart of a man, and yet her eyes pierced him as arrows, sharp and deep. "What do you mean?"

"Whatever you learned that night at the Isle of Faces, whatever you've discovered since… it has changed you. I have come to know you in these months. And I wrote your sister to learn of the boy you once were."

"And?"

"There is a great weight upon your shoulders, and you put it there yourself. You smiled easily, once. Laughed freely. Made a game of life."

"I grew up, Margaery. I became a man."

"No, it is more than that. I had expected your arrogance, for you are all any boy could ever hope to be and all that any father could want in a son, but there is a surety about you, as if you believe, wholeheartedly, that you truly stand above all other men. You have taken the burdens of the world unto yourself. I want to know why. Why you?"

"Because no one else can," the prince said.

"Because no one else can," Margaery repeated. "Truly a noble sentiment." She walked closer to the window, pressed a hand to the glass. "For every secret you share, you've a dozen more, like the layers of an onion, each more bitter than the last. When shall you tell me the whole truth, Harry? Or will I always be in the dark?"

"Does magic still frighten you?"

"Of course it does. I know nothing of it! Only that it exists, that you can wield it… and that it is dangerous."

Harry sighed. "Some things are best left unspoken, Margaery."

She gripped his arm tight, her eyes imploring. "We have been betrothed for a year now. A year. I have kept your secrets, not even speaking of them to myself. Have I not earned your trust? Proved myself more than a frightened girl?"

"It is not a matter of trust!" Harry said. "The truth, the whole of it, would bring you naught but despair. Malora went mad because of it. Because she saw the truth."

"We will make a fine pair, then. The dour, joyless prince and his pitiful, crazed princess, him scowling, her weeping and mumbling to spirits."

The world as we know it will end, he almost said. The Elder Gods are awakening. My immortal soul woke them from their slumber. I am more than a prince. I am a wizard, unlike any other. After he had decided that she deserved to know of his magic, it had been easy to share it with her, to invite her into his life. She had made it easy, for he had wanted to love her, and she had wanted to be loved.

But this felt different. He tried to speak, tried to force the words past his lips, but he could not get his mouth to move, and so the words remained unsaid.

She kissed him as if to loosen his tongue, crushing her lips to his. He pulled back, searched her eyes, and saw only dogged determination.

"I will have the truth from you, Harrold Baratheon." She nuzzled his face. He felt her lips moving against his ear. "All of it."

Despite himself, he smiled. "You don't want to know the truth, Margaery. Trust me."

"You believe I can't handle it?"

"Truth be told… no."

"Then I shall take great joy and satisfaction in proving you wrong. But before you return to scowling at the sea, my grandfather should like to see you." She arched a brow. "You have certainly piqued his interest."

"He isn't the first lord interested in me, and he shall not be the last. It's the stories, you see. Baelor's boy is enamored by them. They are grander even than the tales I hear in Lannisport."

"All stories change in the telling," Margaery said. "You should see to it that the change happens in your favor."

Chapter Text

(21)

The damp, cavernous fortress beneath the Hightower was ancient as time, and its labyrinthine corridors were piled high with treasures and riches. Harry could almost taste the centuries, hear the many years this place had weathered in the echoing creak of the oily black stone as gentle waves lapped at the rock beneath, worming between crevices carved by a millennium of the same. It was here, in the groaning maze of greasy stone and timeless treasures, that Harry found Lord Leyton.

The winch clanked and clattered as it lowered the last few feet to thud against the hard earth. The hall revealed to him was plain, if vast. The walls were unadorned, the floors and moldy shelves decorated with piles of gold, trinkets and carvings, gems and jewels. Centuries upon centuries worth of the spoils of peace.

Lord Leyton stood near the center of the chamber, amidst increasingly tall mounds of treasure, looking over an aged stone tablet. He wore a white velvet doublet sewn with pearls and black breeches under a pale grey cloak of satin that was clasped at his right shoulder with a shining tower pendant. The warm light of his torch was splayed across the walls, breaking over jagged rock to be swallowed by the deep shadows. There was a note to the air, familiar but fleeting, like the call of death. Harry imagined he could feel Her at his shoulder, waiting and watching, but when he looked, there was only dim firelight and dust, and the feeling left him.

The lord wasn't alone. His eldest son stood with him, hidden, at first, by a fluted column of purest gold. Baelor shared his father's blue eyes, his height, the cut of his jaw, but his smile was something other, bright and boyish despite his age. His brown hair fell to his shoulders in loose curls, and his face was shaved clean to reveal square, dimpled chin. His cloth-of-silver doublet was trimmed at the sleeve and collar with vair, and his breeches were silver as well, slashed with black.

Lord Leyton set the tablet atop a sturdy table of carved marble and watched Harry approach. "You've old eyes," he said by way of greeting. "As old as any greybeard I've ever seen. How does one so young come by eyes so old? Stole them from some hapless old crone?"

"I have an old soul," Harry replied, unamused. "Lord Tywin says that I have lived before."

"Death certainly knows you," said Leyton, turning sideways to squeeze his broad shoulders between two stacks of faded Myrish carpets. Even old and worn, they were more than the average lord could afford, and these were decades old, if not more. "Perhaps the Lion of Lannister is right. Come, my prince. There is something I want to show you."

"Don't mind my father, Prince Harrold," said Baelor, almost bashfully. "He grows ever more eccentric as he ages."

Lord Leyton led him deeper into the gaping hall, where rows upon rows of trinkets and treasures disappeared into the darkness. Baelor carried the torch to illuminate their path, a narrow lane of dusty black stone. The path twisted left, right, then left again. Harry saw old banners of houses long forgotten, busts of kings long dead. The green hand of House Gardener – once the Kings of the Reach – he recognized, but the others, a twisted black rose on red, a silver seven-pointed shield on blue, three thin towers crowned in gold in a field of black – those were unknown to him, and others still were too faded to decipher.

The path widened. A wide, twenty-feet tall slab of stone stood in the middle of the path, as if a barrier, treasures and jewels like golden knolls on either side. Carved into its oily face was a jagged semi-circle – an arch, he realized – inside of which were crooked, looping patterns that looked almost like letters. They looped around one another, then broke into harsh lines, only to curve together again. The foreign alphabets seemed to pulse as he watched them, glimmering with an eerie light. The prince heard a low, steady thrum in his ears that matched the pulse, like a heartbeat. Doo-doom. Doo-doom. Doo-doom. Doo-doom.

"This looks like Valyrian," Harry said, stepping past Lord Leyton and Ser Baelor. "But…more primitive, almost. Less refined." He reached down to brush one of the letters with his finger and the thrum intensified. He glimpsed an endless realm of black in his peripherals, heard a sibilant voice whispering just at the edge of his hearing, and the soft flutter of a veil, scented age and decay, and quickly shuffled backward. His hand dropped to his sword. The sound quietened, the smell dissipated, and the black revealed itself to be naught but shadow.

Yet he did not step near the symbols again.

"I believe this language predates Valyria," Ser Baelor said. "I am no maester, of course, but I studied language at the Citadel."

Harry eyed the symbols warily. "Why did you show me this?"

"To see what you make of it," Lord Leyton said. "This is where Malora became… Malora. Where she looked beyond the kin of men and saw you."

Harry frowned. "She spoke to you? About me?" Of course, he thought. Death knows you, the lord had said. And Baelor knows as well, Harry realized, eyeing Brightsmile.

"Aye. When she realized it was you she had seen. My daughter tells me everything, my prince. I know of every terrible whisper she hears." Lord Leyton looked off, his expression troubled. "The way the blood had dripped from her eyes… like thin fingers, trailing down her face. Ever since that day I have wondered what would become of her, and if what she saw was real. And then I heard of you."

"There seems to be many rumors circulating about me."

"Many and more," Baelor said. "But that is all they are. Rumors. Tavern-talk and smallfolk gossip. High lords do not concern themselves with the braying of sheep."

"And yet here I am, with a High Lord and his heir."

"Yes," Leyton said. "Here you are. Some of mine own ancestors were rumored to practice sorcery. Some were even thought to convene with the dead." His smile was sad and rueful. "I knew what rumors to believe and which to eschew; I have Malora, my prince, and once her abilities began to manifest and I made it my duty to see to her health and protection, I had Marwyn. They explained who you truly were and who you might be. What you might become. They watched you in those damned candles, until the Hawthorne woman taught you how to block the flame."

Harry felt the insane urge to laugh. "My mother once told me that men would think my power the work of spirits and demons. That they would fear me, and my magic. But all I have found since is magic. Witches, warlocks, mages. Are you two mages as well?"

"I have little talent in the arts," Ser Baelor said, "and even less of a desire to learn them."

Lord Leyton tilted his head in thought. "I have oft wondered how Malora gained her skill, how she knew what rituals to do, what spells to sing, or even how to speak the languages… but alas, I am only a man, and I know little and less of the unseen realms. I will leave the magery to you, my prince."

"I suggest you close this chamber off, then. Move your treasures elsewhere. This… thing, is a portal. A doorway to the realm of the dead."

"It is solid stone," Ser Baelor said, brows raised. He had his father's confidence, Harry thought, but not his belief.

"It is a doorway," Harry repeated. "And doorways can be opened. From either side" Without awaiting a reply, he snatched the torch from Baelor, turned, and made his way back to the winch. He heard Lord Leyton following. "I wonder… from whence did these rumors arise?" He glanced back at the Lord of Hightower. "I imagine you have spies peppered through the kingdoms."

"A few," said Lord Leyton. The lord had fallen in place at Harry's right shoulder, walking half a step behind. Baelor lingered near the circular etching before hurrying to catch up, his booted footfalls echoing in the damp chamber. "Someone in King's Landing wants to sully your name," Leyton continued. "Make men doubt you. I know not who. Your mother, however, works for the exact opposite."

That is obvious. Harry could think of only one person who would want to sully his name. Joffrey. But who else knew? Who else suspected? Everywhere there were enemies, waiting to strike from the shadows. Warlocks. His brother. Gods. He glanced back between the piles of treasure where the portal waited. And death. Leyton's latter statement finally registered. "My mother is doing what?"

"The queen has entered negotiations of a sort with the High Septon in recent months," Lord Leyton said. "She desires to name you a saint. Nearer to the gods than even the High Septon himself."

"Like my namesake," Ser Baelor said. "Though he was dead before the Faith anointed him."

"She mentioned nothing of the sort in her letters." Only that Joffrey still heeds my warning. The heir to the Iron Throne had not bothered Myrcella since Harry had left to foster with Tywin. "How do you know?" If his mother hadn't even told him, he doubted she would tell anyone else. But the High Septon was a corrupt lecher who sinned as he breathed.

"The High Septon reached out to Septon Alesander. He leads the Faith at the Starry Sept. Truly an ancient and holy place." The lord eyed him. "Surely you aren't worried? If ever a man were worthy of a sainthood, it would be you. I should think this the least of your trials."

Harry tried not to scowl. He failed. "You say you know me. You say that you know something of what I will face –"

"What we will face," Lord Leyton said. He put a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I would a be a poor lord to leave my prince and savior to face such great evil alone. House Hightower is yours, should you have need of us."

And he meant it. It was there, in the hard blue of his eyes. "Why?"

"Garth believes you have the making of a great knight," said Lord Leyton. "If I knew nothing else about you, that would be enough. But Malora believes in you, with all of her black heart. Don't look at me like that, my prince. I know my daughter. I know what she has become. Would that I could, I would have never indulged her curiosity in the forbidden, but alas, I am only a father, blinded by love."

The trio boarded the winch. "We will speak again, my lords," Harry said. "We must speak again." He worked the wheel himself. The chains and gears clattered and clanked as the winch elevated.

Night had long since settled over the Hightower. The halls were dreadful quiet, save for the faint call of the sea, and seemed almost blindingly bright after the creeping dark of the undercastle. Harry might have thought the tower empty, but at every turn waited a man-at-arms, eight-foot spears held erect, wicked steel tips gleaming in the moonlight that slashed through the open windows.

The lords and their prince parted ways on the ground floor. Lord Leyton continued up to his solar, where Malora was waiting for him, he said, to speak of what she had seen and heard since Harry's arrival. Ser Baelor was off to see to his wife, who had spent many an hour in the small kitchens, as of late – pregnant again, Maester Otho had said. And Harry…

Harry ventured out to the yard, to better see the stars.

The night sky was alight with them, a sparkling array like scattered pearls. The lingering notes of dread thrumming in his ears were swept away by the cool sea breeze; when he inhaled the salt spray, he felt himself cleansed.

He heard seagulls call out over the water, faint and distant. A lone ship bellowed a long, low note to signal its dockage, but then four more came like wraiths out of the shadowy waters, each calling out in concert. Then he became aware of the murmurous drone of the city, the sound of over a quarter of a million souls blundering through life, each one oblivious to the devils that waited in the dark.

A light flickered over the Starry Sept; Harry reached out to a seagull as it swooped over the wall, felt the wind buffet his feathers, and tilted into a long dive. He flew over the water, across the docks; roofs flashed below, brick and tin and bronze, and he heard people laughing, shouting, scented fresh bread and roasting meats.

The light above the sept was only a tallow candle, as tall as the bird was long. Septon Alesander stood at the high window, watching the city below as a father might watch his sons. This was the man that Lord Leyton had spoken of. The septon with whom others of the Faith sought counsel.

The bird alighted upon the window sill. The shutter was open, the gossamer curtains drawn back.

"Hello, little creature." The septon had a gentle, dry voice, like crackling parchment, but his face was hard and harsh, all sharp lines and sagging skin. He had a hook nose and a thin wedge of a chin, and his cloudy eyes were small and close set. Yet there was a kindness in them, and empathy, the bird thought, born of a life of suffering and hardship. The color was off though, a filmy gray like pond scum. "Have the gods addled you wit mysteries as well?" He reached into the pocket of his robes and pulled out a hunk of dried bread. With long, thick fingers that seemed more fitting on a blacksmith, the septon broke a piece off and placed it on the sill.

The bird hopped forward, snatched it up. My prince.

"I find myself troubled, dear bird. The Faith is corrupt. Rife with sin and debauchery. Our High Septon sits in his office not by the grace of the Gods, but by the exchange of gold. Lannister gold, I am beginning to suspect." He hummed to himself, content to spell out his woes to the bird. "And now this same High Septon writes to me of anointing the very boy chosen by Tywin Lannister to be his heir! Doubtless at the behest of the Queen." He tore off another piece of bread, sat it on the sill. "I have prayed to the Gods. To the Crone, for wisdom. For understanding…but she has been silent. By all accounts the boy is exceptional…but by those very same accounts, he is cruel and unforgiving, and it is not for men to be either. Only the Gods."

My prince. The bird edged closer still, tilted its head.

"The Gods offer no answers, and I have yet to find one on my own…" he trailed off, tapped a finger to his chin. His dry lips turned up in a crooked, yellow-toothed smile. "But our prince is in the city, is he not? Just across the water…"

Harry blinked. The septon's candle was a tiny mote of light in the distance, one of hundreds. He could taste stale bread on his tongue, smell the smoke of the candle. He wanted to fly.

"My prince," Ser Marvell said worriedly, hand hovering over Harry's shoulder.

"Apologies, ser." Harry blinked again. Marvell dropped his hand. "My mind was…elsewhere."

"When isn't it?"

The prince had the grace to smile. "True enough," he said, still looking at the holy wharf across the water, where it seemed all the gods of men had congregated. "Are Bertram and Herbert still hiding away in their apartments like sickly babes? They've been off the ocean for days now. Surely they aren't still bedridden."

"Why don't you ask us yourself, You Gracelessness?"

Harry smiled again, and a trickle of laughter slipped from his lips. "Ser Bertram." He turned to face the knight and saw Ser Herbert standing at his side. They were men grown now, the both of them, and they looked it. Harry had grown a shade taller than Herbert, but the Plumm knight was thick as a tree trunk, rippling with muscle. Bertram was leaner, more willow than oak, and taller too, long and rangy. He was trying to grow beard, his chin dusted with uneven patches of dark brown hair. "Our ladies have awoken, then?"

"You missed us," Herbert said. "Marvell complains that you're too grumpy, my prince. We left you too long with Quenten."

"And that one will only be worse once he leaves his father." Bertram sighed dramatically. "The only thing worse than a Banefort is another Banefort."

Herbert smiled. "And sometimes a prince, if Marvell is to be believed."

"Shut it, you two." Marvell clapped them each across the head with an open palm. Before either could protest, he clapped them again.

"That's enough out of all of you," Harry said. Still, a ghost of a smile played at the edge of his lips. "I asked Marvell to gather you two for a reason." He looked back to the city, saw smoke wafting above the markets where butchers smoked meats for preservation. "I wish to see Oldtown. To see it and experience as a normal man might." Judge men by the best of them. Not the worst.

"We can see it just fine from here, my prince," Bertram began. "Though if you should like to take a boat across the Harbor, I'm sure our resident giant spawn would love to row for you –"

"All of you will row," Harry said.

Bertam sighed again. "We should don our armor then – " Herbert shoved him.

"And go sailing?" The Plumm knight said, incredulous. "Are you mad? Fancy yourself an Ironborn, do you? It is a long way to the bottom of the sea."

"No," Harry said. "No armor. No swords. You may carry daggers. Perhaps shortswords if you can fit them beneath your cloaks."

"Daggers?" Bertram frowned. "We're knights, my prince –"

"Which is why you will carry only daggers, and wear only the plainest clothes you possess. It has been a long while since I last sneaked out of a castle to explore a city. Sneaking out of Casterly Rock is nigh impossible, unless you want to trudge through tunnels of shit."

"Plan on going to a brothel?" Herbert asked. "Is that why all the secrecy?"

Bertram sighed a third time, long and slow. "He's a prince, you idiot. If he went into the city as himself, he would be hounded by smallfolk."

"And whores," Herbert returned. "So my question remains valid, Estren."

"My prince," Marvell began, ignoring his fellow knights, "I must advise against this course of action. Oldtown is a maze, and an unknown one at that. It is one thing to navigate the city by sunlight; it is another thing entirely to find your way by starlight."

"That is why I am not going alone. Eight eyes are better than two, eh?" And in truth, Harry had been scouting the city in his candle flame. He knew it well enough, he had decided. "Ready yourselves. I mean to return before the morning meal." The prince shooed the knights away and turned his gaze back to the sea. The water here was greener than the seas outside King's Landing, and calmer, but beneath the night sky, it all looked the same, a sheet of black glass speckled with pale motes.

Half an hour later saw the prince and his knights rowing quietly across the slow-moving Honeywine to the wharves on its western shores. The stars seemed even brighter over the sea, as if they enjoyed watching themselves shine in the water's reflection. Or perhaps they meant to compete with the light atop the Hightower, a great mound of orange flame like an amber pearl swimming in a black sea. The wind was sharp with salt, but otherwise gentle, barely ruffling his loose, unbound hair. It hung half down his back now, dark as obsidian and thick with curls, and in dire need of a cut.

Even at this time of night the city was abustle. They passed a handful of boats in the water, though more were coming up from the Whispering Sound like a languid wave. The stone quays were near full, but the wooden wharves on the outskirts of the harbor were barren save for a few isolated skiffs. Marvell turned the boat south with a few mighty strokes of his oar, and Bertram and Herbert propelled them the west of the way.

The beacon of the Hightower was a sun all its own, lighting their way across the river. Its light fell over the guidlhalls that looked out over the wharves, all elegant whitewashed stone, smoothly sculpted and carved. The merchant guildhalls seemed more opulent than the crafter's, taller and stouter, with faux battlements and gold-enameled merlons like stacks of coins. Harry cut between two of them, careful to mind his step in the dark alley lest he step in shit, or worse, and came out in the Singer's Market.

True to its name, throngs of men and women had gathered in the cobbled square to serenade the city. The singers sang from a tall stage of old soldier pine, and the people stood shadowed beneath patterned awnings, each woven with swirling patterns that looped and linked together.

Harry followed the streets, trying to stay in sight of the western wall. The Seven Shrines rose before them, a grove of seven, seven-sided towers. Each of the towers was dedicated to one of the seven gods, and tall banners of their likenesses hung from the walls of each. Wrought of grey streaked marble, the towers watched over a maze of markets and squares where the streets curved back and in on themselves, crisscrossed thrice, and somehow never managed to take you to the same place twice.

It was said that the ancient mazemakers of Lorath had some hand in the design of the fortress beneath the Hightower – after Harry and his men had circled the same street for the second time, he rather thought they had helped plan the city as well. Four times Smokeberry Wynd met a zig-zagging street called the Spine, humped with squat stone houses all crowned with roofs painted red. The people were of little help, and most shied away from them when approached, no doubt fearful of four strange faces.

But finally, they were free of the maze. North of the Seven Shrines the streets ran east and west and north and south, clearly designed by a more efficient hand. As they crested a low hill, they saw the domes and towers of the Citadel climbing above a white stone wall. Harry counted twenty or so grey cloaks manning the embattlements, faces shadowed beneath visored helms. Dozens of storefronts crowded beneath the wall, each selling wares more wild than the last. There was an herbalist with dried waspwillow and daggerleaf and pinchfire, and a gruff, scarred man with cages of silver, violet-eyed lemurs.

Harry decided that he would visit the Citadel on the morrow, after this night of exploration. Knowledge could be just as deadly as a sword when applied with precision, and a mite more useful for matters beyond the purview of steel. Here stood the face of centuries of concerted effort to knowledge. The place that had made Marwyn as well as Wulfric, and Pycelle and all the others. The chained men. The knights of the mind.

Perhaps, one day, he too might come and study for a time? He would certainly never wear the chain and cloak of a maester, but he might earn a link or two.

The Maester's Market stretched the entire length of the Citadel's wall. Its patrons were mostly novices and acolytes, some boys and some men, but there seemed a great many noble folk as well, plump lords in silk and vair, heartier men in fine leather gambesons and jacks, and women too, gowned in sequins and satins, wool and cotton.

Harry followed the wall to the river road that ran along the Honeywine. Stone bridges arched over the water, crowded with buildings like stands of trees in a wild forest along an overgrown path. The half of the city on the other side of the river was just as much of maze. With the moon and the Hightiwer beacon as their guides, hey navigated the crisscrossing alleyways, the crookback wynds, old plank bridges and ones of stone.

Always there was more to see. Manses of smooth marble and palaces of polished granite and warehouses of rough white stone; squat, timber gambling dens and salt-stained winesinks and sea girt inns and quaint little foreigners kept to the wharves. On the eastern port, Harry saw bravos dancing a deadly fight at the edge of the docks, and a crowd of men cheering them on. They fight would not last long; already the City Watch were thumping down the thoroughfare, grey cloaks swishing, spears banging a steady beat as they marched.

He saw very little of the best of men. But he did not see the worst, either.

Then they came upon the quays that the gods called home. Harry counted half a hundred little temples, one for any queer god the many sailors who traveled through Oldtown might worship. Some were little more than altars and a few stone steps, some even less, but men still came to pray, still knelt on the those few stone steps, or on the cobbles, heads bowed and voices solemn.

And above them all was the Starry Sept, its black marble towers limned in silver moon light. The warm light of the Hightower's beacon splayed off its southern face; to Harry, the tower seemed as if a black sword aflame, steel edges glinting, thrust up from the earth.

Harry recalled the septon's wrinkled face, his gnarled hand pointing to the Hightower. To him.

"I am going to speak with the Septon," he said. "Bertram, Herbert, you don't have to come with me, but don't wonder off. It would be a shame to find you two gutted in an alley somewhere." He glanced to Marvell.

"You know not to ask," the stalwart knight said. "I shall never leave your side, my prince." He clapped a fist to his chest. Harry heard the chiming clink of metal; he stepped near, grabbed Marvell's sleeve – the knight wore mail beneath his tunic, and padded leather beneath it.

"You are worried, Marvell?"

"I always worry, my Prince. You are a beacon for the unusual, the cruel, and the desperate."

"Truer words were never spoken," Harry said, voice half a whisper.

They had to cross a stream to reach the sept. Moss floated atop the water, trapped by the planks of wood that held up the short bridge.

Harry had grown so used to the sights and sounds of ghosts that he had begun to ignore them, but the Sept was especially rife with them, gray face staring out from the windows. They phased in and out the walls, blind to the living world around them. What sort of people, he wondered, had lived in its hallowed halls? And what sort lived there now?

Long had the Hightowers been champions of the Faith, Lord Leyton had said. And long had they rumored to practice sorcery, to dabble in the forbidden.

It was enough to make the prince wonder.

The great ironwood doors were shut. A bronze carving of the seven gods had been grafted to the door; the stars that shown over them were mother of pearl, and each pair of their eyes was a different colored gem. Marvell raised a massive fist and beat the wood three times. Dook, dook, dook.

Harry heard the pounding echo inside the tower, but other than that answer came. Marvell beat the door again. Dook, dook, dook.

Again, nothing. Marvell lifted his fist a third time –

A small hatch opened in the door, hidden in the Father's beard, and a pair of eyes looked out. Harry hadn't even noticed it. "Who crosses unto this hallowed ground at so late an hour?"

Harry stepped forward. "The gods do not sleep," Harry said. "Why should we? Inform Septon Alesander that he has a guest."

"The gods might not sleep, stranger, but septons most certainly do. Septon Alesander has retired for the night–"

"You lie," Harry said. "He stands now at the top of the tower, watching the city through the window. I saw him not long ago from the walls of the Hightower."

"Walls of the…?" The eyes widened. "My… Lord Hightower?"

"My prince, actually," said Bertram. "So you'd best open the bloody door."

The hatch closed and the door swung open with a long, whining creak.

Inside the sept was cold and dark. A stooped man with a sweat-slick face stood wringing his hands in the foyer. A young boy went around the walls lighting torches. Soon the dark was gone, but the cold lingered.

Harry touched a hand to the wall, felt cool rough marble under his fingertips. There was something here. A presence that he had felt only fleetingly at the Great Sept in King's Landing. Or perhaps he simply hadn't been attuned, back then? He hated not knowing, operating with only conjecture. He had so many questions, but as of yet, no true answers. Malora knew next to nothing, and Marwyn even less. His book was informative, but it wasn't enough, truth be told. The scope was too small, too limited…

"You are lucky our prince is kindhearted and merciful," Herbert said.

The man looked near to pissing himself. "Apologies, Prince Harrold, I did not know–"

"Save your apologies, septon, you did no wrong," Harry said. "My knights are merely… overzealous."

"Yes of course," the stooped man said, nodding his balding head. "I can understand why the chosen guards of the prince might be overzealous, given the attempt on your life this past year. I sent a young lad to fetch the Septon. It shall be a while before he comes down; he's an old man, with bad kn–"

"I will go to him, then." Harry pushed past the man. "Is this the stairwell here?"

Marvell followed a stride length behind as he climbed the stairs. They twisted up and up and up, spiraling about the outer wall. Moonlight splashed over the floors from the arched windows. The walls were oddly bare, but for a strange pattern etched into the marble that looked like nothing so much as a starry sky, when the light caught it just right.

It was a long way to the top of the Sept. They passed the boy on the way and sent him back down to the foyer. The lad had looked half asleep, his eyes barely open.

The Sept was hardly a third as tall as the Hightower, and perhaps not even as tall as the Tower of the Hand, but it seemed an hour had passed before Harry reached the iron studded door at the top of the stairwell. He knocked twice.

"Enter," came a dry, old voice.

Harry pushed the door open. Heavy though it was, it swung gently. Quietly. Marvell closed it behind him and remained on the other side.

Alesander stood at the window sill, candle burned down to the wick. A few bread crumbs still sat on the sill. Harry took a deep breath; there was a sour note to the air, like something had spoiled.

"Prince Harrold!" Alesander exclaimed. He glanced back with a tired smile before returning his sightless gaze to the vista beyond his window. "I was just thinking of you. Fortuitous, yes, that the gods led you to me?"

"So they did," Harry said.

"Please, my prince, sit." He gestured to the table near the window, set with a single chair. "I have little to offer by the way of refreshment. Stale bread and lemon water, I'm afraid. Unless you be willing to wait for something from down in the kitchens."

"No thank you, Septon Alesander. I did not come here for a meal."

"No," the Septon said, a smile on his lips. Harry could see his reflection in the window. "I imagine you did not come for physical nourishment. This is a spiritual place, after all. Is your soul weary, my son?"

I don't know. "My soul is no wearier than it ought to be, Septon." He laughed, incredulous. "It is the soul of a saint, after all."

Alesander laughed too, a short, dry cackle. "You know then, of your Queen mother's machinations?"

"Only just recently. She means to make me a saint, in the eyes of the Faith."

"And implores the High Septon to do so," Alesander said, nodding. "What do you know of the High Septon, my prince?"

"Very little. I was a boy when I left King's Landing. I oft prayed with the people of the city, but never him."

"He is a simpering lecher of low cunning and less honor. It is an affront to the gods that he stands as representative of their voice, but he is the only High Septon we have, until such time as he dies or is voted from the position."

"I have no desire to be a saint," Harry said.

"And why not? The septa who often oversaw your mass prayers applauded your piety as a boy…what changed, hm? A few scuffles in the Westerlands broke your faith?"

"I believe in God." And her name is death. "But I do not believe I am a saint."

"God, you say. The seven that are one? Or do you speak of the veiled stranger, the cloaked death that awaits us all?"

Harry arched his brow. "You think I worship the stranger?"

"The septa believed. She said that you would stare most intently upon the Stranger's statue, more solemn than any boy should ever be."

"As you said, death awaits us all. The stranger is easier to see at work than the others."

"There are as many gods of men as stars in the sky. Thousands of names, all for the same being…or so it is said. But perhaps there are thousands of names because there are thousands of gods."

The sour note intensified. It was not a smell, he realized, but a sensation, slick and oily on his skin. His tongue grew bitter in his mouth.

"What do you think, my prince? We have named the Seven in One as the most holy and righteous of gods, yet the Andals pillaged and raped the First Men into submission over centuries of conflict, and they were so faithful as to carve the seven pointed star into their flesh! That sounds neither holy nor righteous. Especially not now, that the Old Gods and the New live in concert. Or so the pacts of men would have us believe."

Harry heard raised voices outside, drifting up to the window. He stepped past the septon to peer down over the window. He saw what looked like Bertram below, entangled with a man garbed in mottled blue robes. He opened his mouth to yell –

Something hot bit into his back, stealing the sound from his voice. He turned, saw the knife tip glistening red with his blood as it curved up towards stomach.

His heartbeat thundered in his ears. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Panic seized him, and everything slowed. The knife was a little thing, more fitting for carving apples than carving princes. Harry gestured with his hand, and it was thrown from Alesander's grip.

Time quickened. Pain lanced through his back, and there was something hot in his veins, like acid.

The prince screamed, and wished that the Septon might know this pain, that he could feel the fire burning in his veins.

Alesander crumpled to the marble floor with a pained cry, and for a moment, Harry knew relief.

Marvell came bursting through the door, dagger in hand. In two loping strides he had snatched up the frail old septon by his throat. The man was laughing. Marvell began to squeeze, face blotchy red, veins bulging.

"No," Harry said, voice almost inaudible to his ears. The pain was coming back. "I must know… why." Marvell stopped squeezing, but he did not let the man go. He leaned out the window instead, shouting to Bertram and Herbert below. What he said, Harry could not tell.

Using Marvell's cloak as a crutch, Harry pulled himself over to the dangling septon. Not a septon. Something else. The pain was great, almost crippling, but between the lances of agony there was a certain clarity, a clearness of vision. Harry seized it, and turned his might upon the fake septon.

The man's face began to change first, the sagging skin tightening, eyes losing their milky sheen. His posture straightened. He was hairless and pale with heavy bags under his eyes and piercings in his nose. His drooping grey eyes were full of regret and sorrow.

Beside him, Marvell looked on with something like horror.

A faceless man? Harry though confusedly. No. Not a faceless man. That note in the air, sour and bitter and familiar – he realized now where he knew it from.

Xen Xakhar.

"You are a warlock," Harry said. The pain was muted now, and the throbbing fire in his veins was turning to cold. But his thoughts were coming slow, and the room was growing progressively darker.

The assassin shook his head. "I am so sorry," he said.

"The blade?!" Marvell shouted, shaking the him. "Was it poisoned?"

"Yes," the assassin said. He made no attempt to escape. "The blade was coated in Demon's Dance. Your passing will be excrutiating."

The sorrow in his voice enraged the prince more than his impending death, for he did not believe that he would die. "Yours…" Harry coughed. "Yours most certainly will. But why? How? I thought… the warlocks wanted me alive… to sacrifice to their god."

"The Widow of Vaes Ovrik foresaw your coming here, to Oldtown, before you blocked her sight. Urrathon hired the Sorrowful Men to kill you; hired me..." he trailed off in wonder. "Is this what the warlocks spoke of? Your ability to make men speak the truth? Amazing…"

The cob webs slowing his thoughts seemed to snap in two. "Why?!" He clawed his way into the assassin's mind and the man cried out, knees buckling. Marvell dropped him to the floor as he began to spasm.

"Urrathon fears me," Harry said, voice distant. "Fears what will happen once the Undying Ones have fed me to the beast beneath their palace."

"…a thing of age and dust," the man whispered, as far away as Harry was, nose dripping red. "More ancient and decrepit than the Undying themselves."

"Why…" Harry sucked in a breath, pulled back from the man's mind. The cold was in his chest now. "Why is Urrathon so certain the Undying will capture me?"

The assassin shook his head. His eyes were red and bloodshot, but the spasms had ceased. "He knows they cannot capture you. Already, your power is too great. So they will make you come to them."

The already dark room grew dimmer, and the floor tilted. Marvell caught his cloak as he fell and hauled him to his feet.

"Kill him," Harry said. Staggering, he stumbled back to the wall. The cool night air breezed in through the open window. His tunic was damp with blood and sweat.

Marvell drove his dagger up and through the man's skull.

The cold intensified. Harry felt himself dying.

He became aware of a presence beside him, light-footed and quiet as death. When it spoke, its voice was strange and melodic. "All men must die, they say. But not this one. Not now. The Many-Faced-God has use for you."

Marvell didn't notice her. Looked right through her, when he came to dress Harry's wound. Was she a demon of his imagination? Or perhaps a ghost, come to welcome him to their ranks.

Harry heard feet thundering up the steps beyond the open door. The room grew dimmer still. Something cool touched his lips, then came something colder on his tongue, and bittersweet. He made to spit it out, but the demon woman clamped an iron hand over his mouth. "You must swallow, young prince. Swallow." He did, and suddenly the hand was gone, and his pain with it. Only the cold remained. Always the cold.

The voice whispered in his ear, "These are not your gods, prince. Why do you bother with them? It is not for their favor that you will live this night. When the black sun rises and the cold winds sweep down from the north, remember that Death saved you."

"The… Stranger…"

She scoffed. "A false idol. Death is no stranger to you, is it?"

The curtains fluttered. In a quiet chorus of whispers, the demon-woman vanished.

Harry was so very tired. Weary. He tasted again of that twilight place, felt the chill sink deeper into his chest, heard endless silence, so quiet and comforting. He gave in to the encroaching darkness and knew peace. He would sleep a while. Just a while.

Marvell's bellow followed him into the dark.

"My prince!"