“A double wedding,” Corlys says, tugging at the high collar of his new tunic. It’s stiff with silver thread embroidery, and he’s been fiddling at it all morning. “A double wedding, Rhaenys.”
“I know, love,” she soothes him, slipping her powdered fingers under his collar in the hopes it will chafe a little less. “I helped arrange for it, remember?”
The children - children! As though they are not each older than Rhaenys was when she wed Corlys! - are away finishing their preparations, almost ready to leave for the sept. Rhaenys had gone to see their final fittings only two days previous, and it had shocked her to see them so arrayed, Laenor so louche and elegant in his Targaryen cloak, Laena so straight-backed and bright-eyed in her Velaryon turquoise.
It had shocked her to see them so adult. Sometimes, she still thinks of them as the wild little things who’d run giggling ahead of her and Corlys along the beaches of Driftmark. It has been a long time since they had such freedom, since they had the time for such things, but even so…
“There now,” Corlys says, brushing away a stray tear with his knuckles, his touch as unwaveringly gentle now as it was during their long-ago courtship. “Let’s not be sad today, dearheart - we’ll dance and laugh, and the children won’t be able to tell how sorry we are to see them go.”
“I feel so silly,” Rhaenys admits. “It isn’t as if they’re going far - Laenor will be staying on Dragonstone with Papa, Laena at Driftmark with you, and I’ll be between both and court. It’s no different than it’s always been!”
“Aye,” Corlys agrees, tugging her close and nosing a kiss to her hairline, above her circlet. “Mayhap. But we’ve never had to share them with anyone but each other before.”
Laena’s gown is pale silver-white samite, paler even than her hair, and it is strange to see her so elegantly attired - she is her father’s daughter, and her mother’s too, more at home at sea or in the air than at court. She looks more beautiful even than usual, and Rhaenys can feel her eyes overflowing once more.
“Oh, Mother,” Laena sighs, brusque and fond at once. “Come now, it isn’t a day for such silliness. Come, cheer yourself - think of it as gaining two children, instead of losing Laenor and me.”
Gonsalo Mopatis is not the sort of son Rhaenys wants, with his tittering laughter and his eyes that see too much, no more than Alicent Hightower is the sort of daughter she might have asked for, but such is the price they must pay. Laena will have a foreign husband as reward for the return of Rhaenys’ father, and Laenor will have a Reacher wife to quell the murmurs of discontent after the Arryn matches and Daemon’s westward dash.
If Rhaenys had her way, they would marry for love, as she did, as her father did before her - but no. If she is to inherit the throne, she must think as a Queen, and the Queen-to-be in her had to barter away her children’s futures for the sake of the realm.
Grandfather’s death seems closer at hand by the day, which makes it more important than ever that she act the Queen. Papa never fully recovered from his time away, after all, and many burdens will fall on Rhaenys’ shoulders.
“I am being silly, aren’t I?” she says, taking Laena’s face in her hands. “I am only so happy to see you looking so lovely, sweetling. You have your cloak?”
“Yes, Mother,” she sighs. “You’d best check on Laenor, though - he is more likely to be lost this morning than I am.”
“Your father is with your brother, Laena, and you must make do with me.”
Laena has Grandfather’s nose, and she looks down it from her height atop the dressing stool.
“It is hardly making do, Mama,” she says, and smiles. “I assumed you would be with Laenor, though, and Papa with me.”
“Your papa does not understand a bride’s nerves,” Rhaenys says. “No more than I understand those of a bridegroom.”
She certainly does not understand the very particular nerves a young man such as Laenor must be enduring, and as such is glad that her lady mother whispered that mayhap it would be good to invite Uncle Vaegon from the Citadel. Papa had seemed surprised, but Mother had whispered to him as well, and then he had understood.
Would that these things were so easy for everyone as they were for Mother and Papa, or Rhaenys and Corlys! At least Laena has spent the past two weeks eyeing her betrothed as though she would like to devour him whole, but Laenor… She only hopes that Alicent Hightower is understanding.
That the girl is clever, Rhaenys has no doubt. But there is a gulf between intelligence and kindness, and she has been praying as hard as she knows how that Alicent is as rich in kindness as her father is in gold.
“Gonsalo doesn’t really seem to understand about the cloaks,” Laena says, drawing Rhaenys back to the day at hand. “I think it’s just as well - I’ve tried explaining it, but at least this way he won’t resent taking my name as an Andal would.”
Laena gestures across the room, to the dressmaker’s dummy behind the door. Rhaenys had not even noticed it, but there it is, bedecked in the heavy turquoise silk and cloth-of-silver of the Velaryon cloak she will drape around Gonsalo Mopatis’ broad shoulders in just a few hours.
“Maybe so, sweetling,” Rhaenys says, thinking of how very smart the Mopatises have been since Papa’s return, and wondering if this cluelessness is not, in fact, a very smart move. “Maybe so.”
Laenor looks very, very much like his father.
“Oh, my boy,” Rhaenys says, taking his face in his hands as before she took Laena’s. “A prince indeed.”
His circlet is the same style as her own, entwined bands beaten flat, hers in silver and gold and his in plain silver. Laena’s is plainer, a single smooth band of silver with a small white stone on the brow, but Laenor’s is more regal, Rhaenys thinks.
“I hope to do you proud, Mama,” Laenor says, taking her hands and kissing them, first one and then the other. “You and Grandfather and Great-Grandfather all, so that none of you may doubt me coming after you.”
“I have never doubted you, sweet boy,” Rhaenys assures him. “And now, the realm will see that I have been right all along.”
“You have too much faith in me,” Laenor says, rueful and shy as he always has been. He is steadier now than when he was a boy, but still soft - Rhaenys hopes he never fully grows out of it. “I only hope Lady Alicent approves as much.”
“How can she not, brother?” Laena asks, arriving on Corlys’ arm. “What woman would not be thrilled with the man who will be king?”
Laenor leans down and kisses Laena’s cheek, and they murmur together for a moment - a moment Corlys takes to come across to Rhaenys.
“I thought we’d agreed no more tears,” he scolds with a smile. “Look at you - you’re going to spend the day weeping, aren’t you?”
“Probably,” she admits, folding herself into his embrace. “I’m just so proud of them.”
“We can hear you, Mother,” Laena sighs, long-suffering but pleased.
The sept is all flowers - red flowers, for the most part, bright as Meleys but twice as sweet - and Laenor looks so handsome, lit by candles and framed by roses.
Gonsalo Mopatis is handsome enough as well, she supposes, wearing a bright ruby in his tooth where his father wears an emerald, with clear golden-bright eyes and artfully careless hair. Rhaenys does not like him, but Laena seems to get along well with him. That will do for now.
Rhaenys is standing at the front of the crowd, to the right. They are all arrayed in order, Grandfather and Grandmother, Papa and Mama, Rhaenys and a space for Corlys. To the left, the Hightowers are taking precedence - a battle hard fought, and won only when Grandmother brokered a peace and pointed out that as wife to the heir’s heir’s heir, Alicent would take precedence over Gonsalo, and so the Hightowers came first.
The High Septon had been thrilled. He has been thrilled this year or more, since Laenor and Lady Alicent’s betrothal was made official and public, and even his joy does not make him a more likeable man.
Grandfather wavers, and Aunt Alyssa touches his shoulder and guides him down into the pew. He has gotten frail these past months, frailer even than he was when first sweet Alicent was sent by her holy uncle to nurse him, and Grandmother too has gotten frail - she just won’t admit to it.
They are old. They are nearly to their end, for all Rhaenys sometimes wishes they might go on forever. She is glad that they are here today, to see this.
Corlys leads Laena in first, with their matching chins and their matching eyes and their matching cool reserves. Corlys’ beard always shines pure white when it’s freshly trimmed, and whatever oil the maids used in Laena’s hair has the same effect. Rhaenys is always proud of her family, but she is doubly so today.
No matter how much gold the Hightowers pour into Alicent, she will never be as lovely as Laena, as proud and regal.
Rhaenys is proven right a moment later, for here is Alicent, with her fair hair and her delicate features, with her too-intricate gown and her too-braided hair, and she is no match for Laena. Even so, she is the one the crowd oohs and aahs over, knowing that to curry favour with their future queen is the more sensible choice.
Grandmother sits as well. Soon, Papa will ease himself down for the sake of his ever-aching knees, and Rhaenys will remain standing so that one link in the chain does not seem on the verge of snapping.
Corlys lays Laena’s hand in Gonsalo Mopatis’, unsmiling, and takes his place at Rhaenys’ side.
Otto Hightower has probably never smiled so hard in his life as he does while laying Alicent’s hand in Laenor’s.
“Have you told her yet, my love?”
Jocelyn’s hair has not silvered at all beyond those bright wings at her temples, but Aemon’s own has faded from bright silver to the white of an old man.
An old, sick man.
“Not today, Jocelyn,” he says. “Not now. Not yet.”
His father is dying - has only lasted this long, Aemon thinks, by sheer desire to see Rhaenys’ children wed - and his mother will not be far behind him. But they are old, have lived long and lived well, and Aemon feels cheated that he is failing near as fast as they are.
His back. His knees. His heart, too, seems never to have entirely recovered from all his time away, no matter Petruchio’s rescue and care, no matter the tenderness and coddling he’s had from Jocelyn since his return home.
And now his lungs. Vaegon had looked grim when he saw the stains that no longer wash from Aemon’s white handkerchiefs, the mucus thick with blood and pain.
“I will not ruin today for her,” he says. “You know how hard she is taking it already - you know she feels that she is denying the children the chance for love as she has, as we do.”
“She is soft,” Jocelyn says. “Like you.”
Rhaenys’ softness is more permissible than Aemon’s own, because she does not let it guide her actions. She sorrows for the children, that they cannot follow their hearts - not that Laenor could, not with his absolute need for children to stand as his heirs, with Baelon’s boy and his Lannister girl on the Stepstones, with Saera’s bastards claiming legitimacy for whatever false marriages she has indulged in on her adventures , with the persistent rumours around Laenor and the Lonmouth boy.
Aemon had more sympathy for Laenor’s proclivities than he dared to say - had he not been tempted to seek comfort with his fellows belowdecks, stayed for a time only for the guilt that curdled in his gut at the thought of betraying Jocelyn? There had been no other woman, true, but there had been friends who offered companionship and comfort of a kind Aemon had never expected to find with other men.
His softness might have allowed Laenor to put off this day another while. Rhaenys’ softness will offer comfort, but no leeway. She will be a better Queen than he will a King - but at least he will not rule for long.
“She is strong,” he says, kissing each one of Jocelyn’s sharp knuckles. “Like you.”
Laenor is dancing with his new wife, with his shoulders set like Mother’s, narrow and sloped in ease. The Hightower girl is pretty enough, clever rather than beautiful, and Aemon hopes she will be understanding.
Laena, though - well, there is understanding between her and her new man. Aemon just wishes it were a little less obvious. He still looks to Rhaenys’ children and sees them as the little things they were when he returned from his time away.
“My love,” Jocelyn says, kissing his shoulder. “You must speak with her. You know what Vaegon said. Rhaenys deserves to know the truth.”
“The truth about what, Mama?”
Aemon near falls from his seat in surprise, but Rhaenys hardly seems to notice. Instead, she greets them each with a kiss on the cheek, leaning over the backs of their chairs with her circlet a little askew from the dancing.
“The truth about Laena’s dancing, mayhap?” Rhaenys asks, casting a critical eye over the sultry way Laena presses up against Petruchio’s boy. “Or the truth about why Uncle Vaegon has been squirrelling away in your chambers, Papa, every morning and every evening since he arrived from the Citadel?”
Aemon feels sick. He is sick, but that is not the point.
“I am not a fool, Papa,” Rhaenys says, “but I do not wish to cast a shadow over this day for either of the children - tomorrow. Corlys and I will break our fast with you and Mother, if we may, and you will tell me what is wrong. Yes?”
“Yes, darling girl,” Jocelyn says, kissing Rhaenys’ cheek. “I’ve tried reasoning with him, but-”
“You needn’t tell me, Mama,” Rhaenys assures her. “It was not all from you that I inherited my stubbornness.”
She kisses each of them again, and then is away to dance with Corlys - it warms Aemon to see them so still in love, to know that Rhaenys, at least, will have a strong support to carry her through losing him a second time.
“Now, my love,” Rhaenys says, smoothing Laena’s hair over one last time before her dressing mirror. “No doubt you’ve preempted your vows-”
“- but even so, it may be different now you are wed. If you are blessed, he will be as kind and generous as your father was and is to me. If he is not, here.”
This was Corlys’ idea, but Rhaenys is glad to deliver the pretty knife to Laena’s hand nonetheless.
“Remember that you are my daughter,” she says. “And he is only a cheesemonger’s son.”
“You worry overmuch, Mama,” Laena chides her. “You would do well to remember that I am the finest swordswoman in the realm, after yourself, and he is not even renowned in Pentos, where they are no warriors to compare to us.”
“Aye,” Rhaenys agrees. “But you’ll have no sword tucked into your smalls this night, my dearest girl, and I would give you the best shield I can.”
“Go to Laenor, Mama,” Laena says, turning to face her. “I know what I’m about - he needs you more than I do.”
“No doubt,” Rhaenys says. “But let me fuss a moment longer.”
Laena wraps her arms tight around Rhaenys’ waist, and Rhaenys wraps her arms tight over Laena’s shoulders.
“Oh, sweet girl,” Rhaenys sighs. “My lovely, brilliant girl.”
Corlys is waiting outside when she emerges, smiling a little and looking as heartbroken as she feels.
“Young Joffrey is with Laenor,” he says. “They’re going to speak to Lady Alicent. See if they can manage some kind of arrangement, I think.”
“When did they stop being our little hellions, love?”
“Oh, a few years ago, I’m afraid. You’ve just been too busy denying that they’d grown to admit it.”
“Come here, you,” she says, pulling him close and burrowing against his chest. “Are we old now, Corlys?”
“I’ve been old for ages. You’re just too in love to say a word.”
She kisses him.
“Take me to bed,” she says. “I’m old and tired, and I’m weepy from all the wine and revelations.”
“Aye, I imagine you are. Come on, dearheart - come, let’s rest. And maybe if we rest a little, we might find another means of distracting you.”
“You’re revolting, you dirty old man.”
“I thought you hadn’t realised I was old!”
She waits until they’re safely in their bedchamber to sigh again.
“Laenor will be alright, won’t he?”
“Laenor,” Corlys says, “is much more capable than anyone has given him credit for being, since old Barth died.”
“The children are fine,” Corlys soothes, “but your parents are waiting, and you’ve been fretful over your father for the past week or more. Come, love, let’s meet them-”
“Is that screaming? Do you hear that?”
Rhaenys runs. She and Meleys had a bad landing while fighting pirates off Shipbreaker Bay three years ago and her hip has pained her ever since, but she runs now as easily as she did when she was seventeen and the guards told her Papa was home.
Mother is screaming. There are only two things that would make Mama scream - assassins in her bedchamber, or… Or…
“Aemon! Aemon! No! No, Aemon! Please, gods, Aemon!”
Or Papa’s death.
Rhaenys screams too. She doesn’t know what else to do.
She leaves Corlys and Laena with Mama, one to guard and the other to comfort, and she takes Laenor with her to her grandparents’ rooms.
Even now, after all their troubles, they share a solar. Even now, with Grandfather so frail he can hardly walk from bed to breakfast table, and Grandmother’s hands so swollen and arthritic that Grandfather must butter her toast.
Rhaenys clears her throat again, but words fail her. Yesterday she had cried herself dry, overjoyed to see the beginnings of happiness for her little loves, but today she thinks she might flood the Blackwater Rush.
“Your Graces,” Laenor says, his voice tight but steady. “We have unfortunate news.”
“Surely your fair new bride has not disappointed you already, lad?” Grandfather says, and for the first time Rhaenys is glad of his rheumy eyes, that he cannot see how swollen and red her face is.
“No, Grandfather,” she says, coming forward to kneel at his feet and take his hands. “Oh, my lord, I- it is Papa, Grandfather. Papa has- did you know that he was ill? I knew, but not so ill as this.”
Grandmother’s tea spills across the table.
“No,” Grandfather says. “No, sweetling, you must be wrong.”
“Corlys and I were to dine with him and Mama this morning, Grandfather, but when we got there, Mama-”
“No!” Grandfather shouts. “You are wrong, Rhaenys! You are wrong!”
“Jaehaerys,” Grandmother says. “Stop it, Rhaenys is not-”
“No!” he snaps. “Not my boy. Not- not my boy.”
“His lungs have been failing for months now,” Grandmother says. “Jocelyn told me, but Aemon wouldn’t let her tell anyone else. We should go to them, my love. Please?”
This will kill him, Rhaenys realises. Grandfather has mistaken little Alicent for Aunt Saera half a hundred times, has thought Rhaenys is his mother even more, and had called Papa Father more than once. His mind is going, gone, but this may well be the very last weight it can bear.
“Here, sire,” Laenor says, bringing forth Grandfather’s wheeled chair. “Here, let me help you.”
“He isn’t dead, ” Grandfather insists. “He can’t be - Jocelyn has always been excitable, it cannot… It must be a lie. A trick.”
Rhaenys helps Grandmother to her feet, wishing that she had someone to support her . The sooner they all get to Mama and- and Papa the better. Then she will have Corlys.
Grandmother goes straight to Mama-
“Aly, Aly I can’t wake him, Aly please there must be something-”
- but Grandfather simply wails, all his heart leaving him in one terrible moment.
Corlys gathers Rhaenys close, just as he had in such different circumstances last night. Alicent is with Laenor, her hands tucked around his elbow, and Gonsalo is rocking Laena gently as she weeps.
Rhaenys cannot weep for the moment. Mayhaps later, when Mama is not howling and Grandmother is not sobbing and Grandfather has stopped making that terrible noise. For now, she rubs her face into Corlys’ chest for a moment, and then she braces her shoulders.
“I must tell everyone,” she says. “I must- announce it.”
Uncle Vaegon comes, and presses his fingers to Papa’s pulse, and listens for his breathing, and lifts his eyelids.
“I’m so sorry, Jocelyn,” he says, touching Mama’s hand with the barest brush of his fingertips. “I thought he had longer, but sometimes the body finds its ease sooner than we expect.”
He cups Rhaenys’ face in her hands, and it is almost unbearable - he is so like Papa.
“Be brave, little princess,” he tells her. “I fear we have more ahead of us than we know.”
He looks back to Grandfather, his pale lavender eyes bright with tears, and kisses Rhaenys’ brow.
“Be brave,” he says again. “We are all with you, child.”
There are already rumours, so all of court - so busy, with the weddings! Why, she has not even had a chance to properly speak to Aemma, to ask how negotiations for little Rhaenyra’s hand have gone with the Starks! - gathers quickly in the shadow of the Iron Throne.
Rhaenys stands at its foot, with Laenor at her right hand. She has stood so with Papa so many times before that she thinks she may be sick.
“My father,” she says, voice as steady as she can make it. “Aemon, Prince of Dragonstone is- he is dead.”
A murmur ripples through the crowd, and Laenor presses his hand to her shoulder.
“He died in his sleep during the night,” Rhaenys goes on, “with my lady mother in his arms. He would not have wished to die any other way.”
Aemma and Viserys are to the front of the crowd, with Rhaenyra and Alyn and Jasper and Rowena all gathered around them - all their children have Aemma’s thick, dark hair - and Uncle Vaegon comes to join them with Aunt Alyssa on his arm.
“We ask you to understand that, given the circumstances, the festivities for my children’s weddings must be cut short. I will speak with you again as soon as we have arranged for my father’s funeral.”
She steps down from the dais, into Aemma’s strong, waiting embrace, and weeps. Aemma has been as her little sister all these years, and she has been Rhaenys’ safe harbour, too, when she has needed comfort Corlys could not offer. Never before has that been so true, that comfort so necessary.
“Oh, Rhaenys,” Aemma sighs, kissing her hair. “Oh, I am so, so sorry.”
Aunt Daella and Lord Arryn work with Aunt Alyssa to control the crowds, and Rhaenys’ new goodchildren prove their worth, too - Alicent in particular has a knack for shutting people up when they ask too many questions.
Rhaenys can hardly breathe, but she is Princess of Dragonstone now, and with Grandfather and Grandmother both invalided, and Mama losing her mind to grief, it falls to Rhaenys to organise Papa’s funeral.
Here, too, Aunt Alyssa comes forward.
“I’ve done this before, sweetling,” she says, and there is something of the softness Rhaenys remembers from so very long ago, before Papa went away, in her aunt’s face now. “Let me help - please.”
So she does. She even writes to Daemon, away fighting some war somewhere in the Disputed Lands, offering dragonfire in return for trade, and receives a lengthy letter from Jocasta, delivered by the second of her three fine sons.
“Father will be here as soon as Caraxes may bear him hence, cousin,” golden-haired Aeron says, stepping down onto the dock. “I am so sorry - Uncle Aemon was ever kind and welcoming to us when we visited Dragonstone.”
Rhaenys kisses her little cousin on both cheeks, but entrusts him to Laenor’s care - she can hardly stand to speak now that the funeral is drawing near, and still has not gone to sit with Papa, where he lies in state in the sept.
“So you are heir to the throne once again, little love.”
Mama has aged a decade in a week, with her dark hair all a-tangle around her pale, pale face.
“A weight I do not wish to bear,” Rhaenys says, “for there is no chance he might return to us this time.”
Mama draws her near. Rhaenys goes, and holds on tight. It is the first time she has been able to catch her breath in days.
“You must be brave, my darling,” Mama whispers. “Your papa loved you more than anything in the world, and he was so proud of you. You must be brave.”
Rhaenys has always been bold and wilful and a little brash, but perhaps that is different than being brave - it must be, for everyone keeps telling her to be brave.
“My bright, brilliant girl,” Mama says, as though Rhaenys is not forty years old with two married children of her own. “My poor, brave girl.”
They weep together, and then they go to the sept. Papa’s hair looks silver by the candlelight, not white, and the deep shadows under his eyes look less haunted with his eyes closed.
“How well he looks,” Mama says, and then the sobs take her again.
“He saw the children wed,” Corlys says. “And he was almost prouder of them than of you - I think he must be at rest, love.”
The fire is still burning, but there is nothing to be seen of her father anymore. Just smoke, acrid and stinging, and still she cannot look away.
“I miss him,” she says, stunned by how much the simple words ache. “Does it stop? Does it ease?”
Corlys was six-and-ten when his father died, nine-and-ten when he lost his mother, and even to the children he rarely speaks of them.
“It eases,” he says. “But not quickly, and I fear you will not have the luxury of time, Rhaenys.”
Grandfather, in his wheeled chair with his rheumy eyes, looks mostly dead already.
“Then I must be ready,” Rhaenys says. “I must be brave.”
And still her heart is breaking - how had she never considered this cost, when she fought so hard all those years ago for Dragonstone? What a child she had been.