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The Ghost in the Keep

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Catelyn Stark is a tall woman with the same auburn hair and watery blue eyes Aegon had seen in her brother Edmure and sister Lysa. Both Tullys had bent the knee to him by now, but here Catelyn Stark still stands, unbent, unbowed… but not unbroken. He can see it in the way she stands, spine rigid, a step in front of her children, as if she could shield them from the horrors of war and Targaryen justice.

Aegon cannot help but be pleased at the sight.

“Your Grace,” she says, curtsying. “Winterfell is yours.”

“Lady Stark.” He gives her a simple nod, nothing more, because this woman hardly deserves anything more elaborate on his part. A thin layer of snow crunches under Aegon’s boots when he strides forward, and he takes care not to slip. He had never seen snow before riding through the Riverlands, but there’s plenty here in the frozen castle. It is piled along the edges of buildings, framing each wall, each path. “Your children?”

Catelyn motions to each one in turn. First there is Bran, the heir, a crippled boy of one-and-ten, then Rickon, six namedays old, and the daughters, Sansa and Arya. The second sticks out like a sore thumb, for she is the only one without the Tully red hair and blue eyes. Catelyn Stark introduces the rest of her household, though Aegon pays them little attention. He is looking for Ashara’s face in the crowd, but she is nowhere to be found, and he soon gives up in favor of turning cold eyes back onto Lady Stark, who invites him and Jon inside.

The welcoming feast is not much of a feast by Aegon’s standards, but then this is the North and winter has come and gone.

The day after, Lady Stark swears fealty to him as her son’s regent, and then—then they talk of marriage.

“Sansa is four-and-ten, Your Grace. She’s flowered.” It does not surprise Aegon that it is the eldest girl that Catelyn intends for him, for she is beautiful and well-mannered, a famed beauty carved in the likeness of her mother. Catelyn goes on, and this, too, does not surprise Aegon, “Arya is two-and-ten, Your Grace.” If she’s more to your liking, she does not say, but Aegon hears her words regardless. If Arya Stark does not look like her mother, she must look like her father, and her father looked like Lyanna Stark.

Besides him, Jon bristles at the jab, furious that anyone would so much as imply anything untoward of Rhaegar Targaryen’s memory. But as Jon had promised Aegon, he does not utter a word.

“Lady Stark,” Aegon says, “you didn’t declare for the Targaryen banner during the Second Conquest, and both the Starks and the Tullys were instrumental in overthrowing my grandfather.” Catelyn purses her lips, her face pale, and for a second he admires how she has not collapsed from grief and fear. “You didn’t bend the knee because you wished to, my lady. You bent the knee because you had no choice. And yet you expect I will marry one of your daughters?”

Catelyn says nothing for the longest time. Aegon is in no hurry, so he allows her time to think, to doubt, to wonder what he is after. “Then what is it you want?”

Aegon smiles, quick and sharp, unpleasant, like he smiled when he found Robert Baratheon rotting in the Black Cells after the battle of the Blackwater. “The bastard, my lady.” Catelyn’s eyes widen, her mouth opening to no doubt deny him, but Aegon talks over her. “The Bastard of Winterfell.”

She is quiet, Ashara’s daughter, quiet like Ashara had never been, and Aegon tries not to be disappointed. She is beautiful: slender, with dark hair flowing down her back, unbraided, and grey eyes cold as ice. Her skin is a shade lighter than his own, and he can only tell when he takes her hand and kisses it, drawing a gasp from her.

“My lady,” he says. She does not react at the address, so he gathers that she is used to being referred as such. He is glad, because bastard she may be, but her parents had both been noble. “Please do sit.” She does as he asks, settling on the armchair he has led her to, by the fire. He sits on the one next to her, turning it to face her, then nods at Jon to take his leave. He gives Aegon a long look to let him know he disapproves, then closes the door behind him.

Joanna’s hand has gone stiff in his hold, but he does not let go. “Your Grace, is there anything I can… help you with?” She bites out the words, as if it costs her to say them. It has been a long time since anyone has glared at Aegon—well, a long time since someone not on slot for an execution has glared at him—but by the way she tugs her hand away from his own and leans as far from his as is polite, he realizes why.

“I assure you, I’m not like the Usurper.” He rushes to get out the words, embarrassed. “I don’t…” He clears his throat, trying to push down the surge of sheer mortification. “My lady, I’m here to speak with you, nothing more.” For now, he thinks, and doesn’t that confirm her suspicions in a way?

Joanna does not look relieved; if anything, she looks even more apprehensive. But then that should not have surprised Aegon. He is a King with an army, and she is a bastard with no father or able brothers to even try to protect her.

And they are alone.

Nothing he can say will convince her he is not after her virtue, not after whatever fumbling displays of affection the Usurper put her through. However, there is one thing he has been assured the girl wants, and it is knowledge of a very particular topic. “I’d tell you about your mother.”

The change is almost immediate. One moment she has him pinned with her eyes, a look of vague distaste on her face, and the next she is leaning forward in her seat. “My mother?”

“Your mother”—Aegon smiles sadly—“was Ashara Dayne.”

She notes the past tense, she must, because the light in her eyes dims a little, and her lips tremble for a second or two. The kindest thing to do would be to hold her hand now, but since she seems so averse to touch, he keeps his own by his side.

Aegon tells her of Ashara: how she laughed when Aegon stole a piece of strawberry pie from under Jon’s nose because the whole pie was his, no one else’s; how she taught him to swim in the waters of the Rhoyne, when he had been a child; how she once dyed her hair blue to match his own because he thought it made him look like a fool and she disagreed; how Ashara liked to sing even though she was not very good at it; how she used to take him around the markets of the Free Cities and let him run around town squares, unlike Jon, who always bemoaned his recklessness; how Ashara had shared years worth of stories about her brother Arthur and Aegon’s mother Elia, of their time spent in the Water Gardens of Dorne as they grew; of a promise between two girls, two mothers, caught in the middle of a war.

“We’re to be married,” he says, uncomfortable with the silence that has crept into the room. He does not understand why she looks so unhappy now, when she had been hanging on his every word for the better part of the afternoon—smiling, laughing when he told her of something particularly ridiculous. If anything, she should be falling into his arms, now that he has told her he means to make her Queen.

Unlike the last king who had attempted the same, Aegon is her age, and he has the handsome Valyrian features of his ancestors. She should be pleased.

“No.” Rejection had never crossed Aegon’s mind, but she drives the point home by rising from her seat. He follows her to his feet, shocked and somewhat disoriented by it. “Thank you for telling me about my mother, Your Grace, but I can’t marry you.” She had first entered the room with the visage of an ice statue, but then she had melted like buttermilk next to a flame, until he had almost thought that perhaps he had imagined the wintry cold of her stance.

Aegon had been wrong.

“Regardless, you must.” At his words, Joanna narrows her eyes. The expression reminds him of Catelyn Stark, and it is not a welcome realization, but it brings something else to mind. “It’s your duty.” Joanna Snow is the Bastard of Winterfell, Ned Stark’s bastard. Regardless of Aegon’s own low opinion of the man who had dishonored Ashara, Lord Varys had told him Ned Stark is thought to be the most honorable (ha!) man in the Seven Kingdoms. Surely, his daughter must have inherited some of that supposed adherence to honor and duty.

Joanna shakes her head. “No, Your Grace. Please understand. With your leave.” She turns away, heading towards the door.

“You don’t have my leave,” he snaps. She stills at his words, looking back at him over his shoulder, cold eyes boring into him. He has known her for less than half a day, but within that time, he has learned one most unfortunate thing about her: she has a way of looking at him when she grows displeased, eyes narrowed just so and her mouth pursed into a tight-lipped line. He imagines her lips rising into a delicate sneer—if such a thing is possible, Aegon has no doubt Joanna to be capable of it, and it makes him feel inadequate. It is ridiculous, of course, because he is King. She has no right to judge him, and even less of a right to find him wanting, Ashara’s daughter or no, but he still feels unworthy, and that is unacceptable.

“Your Grace,” she says, voice quiet. She spins around to face him once again.

“I thought there wasn’t a woman in these Kingdoms who didn’t want to be Queen.” Margaery Tyrell, his cousin Arianne and even Myrcella Lannister had all made that clear. With Daenerys dead, the wisest course of action is to marry one of them, as Jon had made sure to remind Aegon, loudly and often, throughout their trip to Winterfell.

But Jon had not been there when Ashara had died. He had not promised to make her daughter happy.

Aegon had.

“Some people have more sense than others.” Joanna looks away. “You mean to make me a Stark, but Starks don’t do well south of the Neck.”

“You’re afraid?” He goes to deny any danger in the South, but his own words die in his throat. Aegon’s own mother had been a princess, and she had not been safe, no matter the number of guards around her.

“I can’t imagine many will be happy to see you wed in the North. The last time someone tried to make me Queen, thousands died, Your Grace, as you well know.” Yes, Aegon knows the story. Everyone does.

Eighteen years ago, when the bards first sang the song of the Winter Rose, they made out Robert Baratheon to be a hero fighting to free his lady love from the clutches of a mad prince, only for her to return dead to his embrace once the throne was won.

But the song had changed since then: now the bards sing of Joanna Snow, Lyanna reborn, and the war waged because she refused the Usurper.

After Jon Arryn exposed the Usurper’s children as bastards borne of Lannister incest, the savage had been in need of a wife, and instead of marrying Margaery Tyrell like expected, Robert Baratheon had attempted to legitimize Ned Stark’s bastard daughter, only to be refused. The Tyrells took insult, so they married their daughter to the bastard Joffrey, claiming him to be legitimate, and together, the West and the Reach had waged a war that had ripped apart the Seven Kingdoms and made it simple for Aegon to take back his crown.

Aegon measures his words with care. “The Tyrells and the Lannisters were my enemies less than two moons ago. Myrcella Lannister is the granddaughter of the man who ordered my sister and mother’s murders. Margaery Tyrell bore the great-grandchild of the same man. I won’t make one of them Queen. The Martells are my mother’s family, and they supported me in my time of need, but I’m half Dornish myself. Let us bind the North to the Iron Throne, my lady.”

He knows before she speaks that he has not convinced her. “Then you should marry Sansa, Your Grace.”

“I don’t want Sansa Stark,” he half-growls. Realizing how childish he sounds, he clears his throat. He tries to say something else—that it had been Joanna who had been named Queen in the North, not her sister, that she is exactly what he needs to secure the North—but she interrupts him.

“You can’t want me either. You don’t know me!” Her voice is cutting like the ice wind coming from beyond the Wall. “You want a ghost.” There is something in her expression that makes him pause instead of lashing back, something screaming at him to back away.

Aegon wonders if she had said the same words three years ago—to a different king.

“A ghost?” Aegon resists the sudden manic need to laugh. “I don’t think you’re ‘Lyanna reborn.’ I’m not the Usurper. I wasn’t in love with your aunt, and I’m not my father.” Joanna flinches. “But there is a ghost between us, my lady, and it’s not Ashara. Eighteen years ago, your mother gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. You looked all Stark, but your brother had purple eyes. When King’s Landing was sacked, your brother’s hair was dyed silver and given to my mother, to die with her. Meanwhile, I was spirited out of the Seven Kingdoms, and a moon later, your father ripped you away from Ashara’s arms. Ashara was kind, Ashara was good, Ashara was true. And Ashara went mad.” She had found solace in the Seven, had been sane most of the time, but she had never remain alone, out of fear that she would slit her own wrists on a bad day.

Joanna’s eyes are wide.

“Seamstresses will be sent to your rooms after supper—where you are expected to sit next to me now, not on the benches. I handed Lady Stark the decree of your legitimization this morning.” She shakes her head, eyes wide and pleading. “You’re now Joanna Stark of Winterfell, soon-to-be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.”

The look of horror on Joanna’s face makes him feel like his words are a death sentence.

Aegon marries Joanna exactly a week later.

Edric Dayne leads her into the godswood, down the path to the heart tree, where Aegon waits for her. She is clad in white wool and silver lace, and if they had been in the South, she would have worn lace and silk that did her shape justice. She doesn’t look ugly—far from it—but Aegon grew up sailing around the Free Cities, where bared skin is the norm, and high necks are prudish.

“Who comes?” Aegon starts off the ceremony with two simple words and, after the two have said their vows, he ends it by lifting her in his arms and carrying her all the way into the Great Hall, where he sets her down to start the dance.

“Shouldn’t we have married in the light of the Seven?” Joanna had not spoken one word while he had carried her through the keep, but then neither had she looked displeased during that time. She had even managed to look besotted during the ceremony, although Aegon knows it had been a lie.

“We’ll have another ceremony in King’s Landing.”

She tilts her head. “But there’s a sept here.”

“Yes,” he agrees, “but it’s small.” Which is not a problem, since half the Northern lords had not even been able to arrive on time, given Aegon’s rush. He had travelled light, too, so there had been few attendees on his side. “And would you really have wanted to marry in a place so very hers?” Aegon had considered insisting on a dual ceremony, first in the godswood and then in the sept, but it would have been done out of spite, to torture Lady Stark every time she set foot inside the place from their marriage day onwards.

While Aegon has no qualms about making Catelyn Stark miserable, he does not wish to spend his marriage day seeking vengeance.

Joanna frowns. “Why do you hate Lady Stark so much?”

Aegon almost does not answer, but she deserves an answer. “She died loving him. At the end, she kept asking for him. Just him.” And Aegon cannot forgive Ned Stark for it, not even knowing the man had been dead by the time Ashara had hurt herself.


He tilts up her chin when she lowers her head. “But you can’t let it bother you today. Ashara would have been happy to see us wed, Joanna.” His mother, too, would have been proud, he thinks, guilty. Aegon has seen many portraits of Elia Martell, brought to him at his command, but not one had made him feel like she was his mother.

Ashara had been his mother, and Aegon hopes they both forgive him for feeling such.

And then he is dancing with Sansa.

She is too young to truly be called beautiful, but he can see the promise of it in her features. He had talked to her most of all, out of anyone in the North, even Joanna, who had avoided him like greyscale after their afternoon together. He has no doubt why this is been so: Lady Stark had been loath to give up one of his two daughters when she had offered him their hands in marriage, but she had been even more loath to see her husband’s bastard wed the King.

Sansa would have appealed to Aegon once, before he had gone to war. Now she sounds foolish to him, with her bright eyes and sweet voice and head full of knights and songs. It is as if no one has ever bothered to tell her that some knights—that most knights—rape women when a city is sacked, that songs are pretty lies sung to the victors of war. She had lost a brother and a father to a mystical war beyond the Wall, had almost lost a sister, and yet she still smiles and looks at him with want, as if he is her answer out of the cold, boring, but undoubtedly safe existence she leads.

“Joanna—tell me about her, my lady. Would it please her to hear me sing?” He knows she doesn’t want to talk about Joanna, but there’s something about Sansa that makes him want to scream, that makes him want to shake her. Had Lyanna Stark been so eager to dance with a married man, to smile at him and ask him about his interests with heat in her eyes?

Sansa’s smile dims at the mention of Joanna, then answers him morosely. “She might.”

Had Rhaegar Targaryen asked one simple question like Aegon has, would Elia Martell still be alive?

While there are plenty of married or widowed women to undress him for the bedding, there are few men. Most had died beyond the Wall, and the slew of marriages between the new lords, now hardened in war, had been postponed in favor of Aegon’s own wedding.

Regardless, Harrion Karstark deposits Joanna on the bed and strides out the room without a single word, but does pause to give Aegon a look of disapproval. Unconcerned, Aegon turns to Joanna, trying to act bold and like he knows what he is doing. She, however, winds her arms around his neck and drags him down to lay on top of her when she settles on the bed.

He takes care to be slow, especially when her tongue brushes against his lips and his pulse picks up. Slow, that is what Jon had said when Aegon had asked him how to make things good for her.

Aegon’s hand slides under her shift, nearly transparent in the candlelight. Joanna moans into his mouth when his hand finds its way to her smallclothes and inside them. She breaks the kiss with a little gasp, her head thrown back. She still wears the diamond earrings he had gifted her the day before, and they glint when she moves under his hands, with every delicate sound that falls from her lips. Aegon's eyes slide down, along with his other hand, down the space between her breasts and her middle, only to trace the same path underneath the shift, this time in reverse.

Joanna takes his lips once again, but not before she pushes him onto his back. She rests her hands on his chest, stroking down the ridges and scars with a hungry look on her face that makes his mouth go dry. Aegon bunches her shift in his hands, baring her to his eyes, the tips of his fingers ghosting over her nipples. He removes her smallclothes. She removes his.

Then there is heat, and Aegon must remember to breathe.

A fortnight later, they are in King’s Landing.

The smallfolk delight in their new Queen. “Lyanna reborn,” they cry, and there is a new spin to the song of the Winter Rose. It now tells the story of a silver prince who fell in love with a wolf-maid, who ran away and died of grief upon his death. Aegon wants their heads on spikes, every single one of them, but they only wish to please him, he knows, and songs are nothing but lies, in any case. They think he wants to hear of how one Stark girl had sent the kingdoms to war because she refused to marry, and how another had done the same thing years later.

It's fit for a song, the crowds say, how Joanna Snow had refused to marry one king but acquiesced to marry another. They don’t know Joanna had refused Aegon too, that it’s no great feat to have forced her hand—and they will never find out, either, even if it grates on his nerves. A week later, it is no longer Lyanna reborn. Now, it is Rhaegar and Lyanna together, once again, whispered from maidens’ lips with longing sighs and fluttering eyes.

Most do not remember Elia Martell, but the ones that do are more difficult to handle than the ones that do not.

“The bastard,” Arianne screeches. “The bastard! How dare you? Have you heard what they’re saying? How they sing about the Winter Rose, celebrating how your father crowned a bitch in heat over your mother? Have you, Your Grace?”

Aegon lets her scream. Nothing she says is worse than what is running through his head.

“You wouldn’t marry me, and Dorne accepted that. I accepted that. You could have married one of her sisters, a trueborn one! But instead here you are, making a fool of yourself, thirsting over a very particular cunt like your father before you! You have no respect for your lady mother.”

“I have my reasons for—”

“Reasons? Reasons! What reasons could you possibly have to justify this shame?”

Aegon grinds his teeth. “As I said, I have my reasons, and they don’t concern you, cous—”

“The only reason you have is your cock, Aegon.” With a stomped foot and one last shriek, she leaves. “Don’t you ever step foot in Dorne. Not while I live!”

Aegon spends the night alone in his chambers, thinking, plotting, falling into a fitful sleep. Come morning, he summons a bard to the Red Keep and tells him a story. Lord Varys has good news for him a week later, for King's Landing shakes in the face of the tale of Ashara Dayne and Ned Stark, of a dead princess and a loyal companion, and the King they were both mothers to.

Arianne’s raven arrives two moons later. This is acceptable, it reads, and Aegon smiles, for this is one disaster averted.

His first meeting with a bard had worked out so well, he has Varys keep tabs on the man. He calls on him when he needs to sway public opinion, but a year into his marriage, he has a different purpose in mind.

On the anniversary of Ashara’s death, Aegon tells him about the torrid love triangle brought about by the War of the Usurper. The man looked thrilled at Aegon's dramatics, but less so when Aegon disavowed him of the notion he would be talking about Elia, Rhaegar and Lyanna.

“It’s to be called The Demon of Winterfell, is that clear?”

The man nods. “Like The Demon of the Trident.”

Aegon raises his goblet of wine in agreement, more than a little drunk. “Just like that, yes. And you must never call her by her name. Lady Stoneheart will do, Marillion.”

“Certainly, Your Grace. Monstrous of… Lady Stoneheart, to steal away Lady…?”

Aegon swirls his wine. “Greatheart? Softheart? Oh, just call her Ashara, It’s a splendid name.” He flicks his hand at the man, then sits up, a burst of inspiration coursing through him. “No, Braveheart!” Aegon scowls then, slumping on his seat once again. “No, no, never mind. Ashara will do.”

“Do for what?” a voice calls behind Aegon. A look at Marillion is all it takes to assure the man that yes, that is indeed his cue to leave, which he does shortly.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” he tells Joanna, looking up at her. He has to crane his neck at a painful angle to do so, which makes him chuckle for reasons that elude him.

“You’re plotting,” she chides.

Aegon snorts. “I’d hardly call it plotting.” Plotting is subtle; this is simple pettiness. He refrains from explaining himself, knowing Joanna will be displeased. Catelyn Stark had not been as terrible a stepmother to Joanna as Aegon had first assumed.

He goes to take a sip of his wine, but forgets his head is almost parallel to the floor, and that drinking anything in such a position is a bad idea, always. Joanna takes the goblet out of his hand before he can spill it on himself—or worse, choke on it. She places it on the table by his side, coming into sight.

Aegon straightens, eyes raking down Joanna’s figure. She wears little but silk these days, the heat of King’s Landing such that she had discarded Northern propriety in favor of not overheating. Her gown is a plunging slip of purple silk that wraps around her frame and comes together to form a vee reaching past her breasts. She does not even bother with lace any longer, and Aegon likes it.

“Come here.”

Joanna does as he asks, or what she perhaps thinks he asks, but he does not want her to lean over him and look concerned. He had meant a different sort of ‘come here,’ which he illustrates by tugging her onto his lap.

“Where have you been all day?” He rests his hands on her hips, helping her get comfortable.

“Not plotting, unlike you.” Aegon knows enough about Joanna to know how her voice changes when she lies. He must talk to Lord Varys about it soon; she is far too obvious.

“You’re a terrible liar, Joanna.” She gives an offended squeak. “But that’s fine for now. Who were you plotting against, hmm?” He leans forward, trailing a path of kisses down her neck.

“The son of Randyll Tarly that arrived at Court three days ago… he means to compete in the tourney.” Aegon stops in his ministrations. It takes him time to place the name: he had given the man little thought, and his head is clouded by wine besides. “Or die trying.”

“The fat one?” Joanna nods at him, her curls brushing his nose at the movement. “Does he want him to get killed?”

“Yes, so that he won’t inherit the Tarly title. His father means to kill him.”

Aegon leans back. “Now that is what I call plotting.” He skims his hands around her sides, working to unlace her gown. “But what does this have to do with you?”

“Sam’s a good man. He doesn’t deserve what his father’s doing to him.” Joanna shrugs off the dress, letting the silk pool at her hips. She fists her hand in the hair at the nape of his neck, drawing him into a kiss as her hands fumble with his breeches. Her fingers are cool against him when she lets go of his lips. “I can’t let him get killed.”

“It’s unfortunate.” And something to think about later. Not now.

Impatient, he runs his hands over her exposed thighs, inching towards her smallclothes and stroking inside. Joanna gasps, moving her hips back and forth to meet the thrusts, but does not relent. “It’s akin to murder. We have to stop it.” Her voice shakes. She pulls him closer, lips brushing his ear.

“We’ll see,” he says, and he means for his words to be the end of it until they are done.

Joanna jerks him in her fist, tearing a groan from Aegon’s throat in the process. “You can’t mean to let it happen, Aegon,” she murmurs.

Aegon scowls, backing away from her. “What’s your problem, Joanna?” He does not want to talk about Samwell Tarly and his impending death anymore. Not with her hands on him and his fingers sliding into her, and he does not understand why she does. Then realization caves in his chest like the Usurper must have caved in his father’s. He tries to keep the bitterness out of his tone when he next speaks, but fails. Spectacularly. “Ah, so you don’t know what to do, and you want me to fix it.” Joanna’s hands still. He does not sound merely bitter, but scathing too. “Are you seducing me in the name of your fat friend, wife?”

“I didn’t…” Joanna looks away. “I didn’t think you’d be opposed to it.” Aegon gets the impression that he has hurt her, which is stupid, because she had hurt him.

Aegon pulls at her hair to make her look at him. “I’m not.” Joanna slants a suspicious look at him. Incensed, and more than a little humiliated, he moves his fingers inside of her in a sharp thrust. He wants to forget the past five minutes from his mind. “But if you want something, you only have to ask.”

She opens her mouth to say something else, but Aegon does not want to hear it. He pushes aside her smallclothes, bringing her closer to slide into her in one smooth thrust. She gives small little mewls every time he moves, and he takes care to swallow every single one as he kisses the breath out of her. “I don’t think coupling is”—a sharp bite of her lip, but she does not heed his warning—“the hardship you may think.”

“What I think,” Aegon says, later, with Joanna huddled by his side, “is that I’ve given you no reason to think you’d need to bed me to get what you want.” He wants an honest marriage. Aegon does not need love, but he cannot stand lies, has lived too many to stomach them.

Joanna strokes a hand down his cheek. “I thought it would be a pleasant.” It is not an apology, but Aegon knows he will not be getting any out of her, not when she does not see why he had been angry, why he is still angry.

“We have enemies from all sides, Joanna. We don’t have to love one another, but we do need to trust each other. Don’t try to manipulate me, and I’ll afford you the same courtesy.”

 Aegon’s small council is always, without fail, at each other’s throats. When no one notices his entrance, he surmises the situation today will be even more tedious that is usual.

Joanna, sitting at the head of the table, is the first to greet him. “Aegon.”

The rest of his councilors look up, and it is only then that a chorus of Your Grace sounds throughout the room.

Taking his seat opposite Joanna, he says, “What needs fixing today?” Because something needs fixing every day, no matter what. It is Aegon’s job to make sure it happens.

“The Tyrells are requesting permission to come to King’s Landing, Your Grace.”

Aegon frowns. House Tyrell never fails to put him in a terrible mood. “Deny them, Jon. Make sure they understand my answer will not change in the future.” If Margaery Tyrell had given birth to a girl, then things may have been different. Alas, she had whelped a boy, destined to grow isolated but comfortable until he is old enough to be sent to the Night’s Watch… after taking his vows in King’s Landing itself, as a precautionary measure.

“Your Grace, we need House Tyrell,” a quiet voice says. Aegon would have snarled that no, they do not, if it had not been Joanna who had spoken. “We must pacify them.”

“They’re traitors! The King afforded them mercy. It’s more than they deserve!” Jon Connington glares at Joanna.

“Pacifying them doesn’t mean rewarding them, my lord. If we tie them to the crown, they’ll be less likely to call their banners for a child none of them saw grow up.” Joanna looks at Aegon. “Loras Tyrell is unmarried. Betroth him to Arianne.”

Randyll Tarly snorts. “You’d be better off offering him as a paramour to her brother, Your Grace.”

Joanna shrugs. “As long as they produce a child, they can both sate their appetites elsewhere. It’s not the crown’s concern.”

“Your Grace would know much of producing a child, of course?” Jon blusters. The council is quiet, eyes turning to Joanna.

“The King and I,” Joanna says, each word sharp as a dagger, but then she stops, her fury seeming to leave her in an instant.

Aegon wishes he could reach out to comfort her. “We’re discussing the Tyrells at present, my lords.” Not the miscarriage.

“The Queen’s right, my king, but a single marriage won’t hold the realm together,” Lord Varys says, picking up the threat of the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. “There are no Targaryens to offer Highgarden, but Your Grace has sisters.”

Aegon watches Joanna as she considers the man’s words. She remains quiet for so long the others move on, taking her silence for approval or simple grief over the child she had lost. When Jon insists that Sansa marry Willas Tyrell, Joanna meets Aegon's eyes, a silent plea.

“No, that wouldn’t be prudent,” he says, then nods at Joanna.

“Sansa and I are only half-sisters, and I’m afraid we never got along. She resents she’s not the Queen, I’m afraid.” Jon looks like he will explode, but Joanna continues. “Arya is loyal to me. She’d never betray me. We should marry her to Willas Tyrell.” Jon narrows his eyes at Aegon's wife, but his look is speculative. Not unpleasant.

“Isn’t she a bit young?” Illyrio speaks for the first time today, which surprises Aegon. The man meddles little in the affairs of the realm and hardly ever speaks unless coin is involved. Understandable, since he is the master of coin, but his disposition is nonetheless unnerving as far as Aegon is concerned.

“She’s also a hellion,” Ser Rolly pipes up, a fond smile on his face. “I doubt she’d want to marry him.”

“Arya is… wild,” Joana concedes with a tilt of her head, “but most of her distaste for marriage comes from her surroundings. Her understanding of marriage is limited from what she saw of Lord and Lady Stark. If she were to see an example of, say, a more liberal union, she would be more amenable. Summon her to King’s Landing.”

“Still, he’s much too old. Perhaps she’d be amenable to a younger man, Your Grace, but…”

Joanna purses her lips. “Winter is coming, Lord Varys, and we need the Reach. Arya will marry Ser Willas, you’ll see.”

Samwell Tarly is the grossly fat heir to Horn Hill. Randyll Tarly had not been happy to see his son offered a position as the Queen’s Hand, but the man had been unable to refuse Aegon. Despite his title, Samwell spends most of his time being Jon's assistant, so he is the Hand of the King's Hand, in truth.

But Jon is off at the Rock, informing Myrcella Lannister she will soon marry, so Aegon is here instead.

Aegon stares down at the lordling, mentally calculating how many moons it will take before his Kingsguard manage to train the boy into a proper knight. By next Spring, he thinks, so the answer is many, many moons. “And the aqueducts, they’ll be finished when?”

“In three moons, Your Grace. Then we can begin construction of the second part of the project.”

Joanna beams. “The sooner the better. The stench in this city is horrendous.” She wrinkles her nose.

Aegon smiles. “We all know how you feel about the smell, Joanna. Your sensitive Northern nose is not accustomed to cities.”

Joanna sniffs, but it is Sam who speaks next. “While the aqueduct is being finished, perhaps we should contemplate other manners of hygiene.” Aegon frowns, but Sam barrels on. “Like public bath houses?”

Joanna reacts before Aegon has a chance to. “Public bath houses?” There is such horror in her tone Aegon cannot help himself and laughs. She glares at him, a violent red flush coloring her face, and Aegon laughs even harder. “It’s not proper! It’s…” she flounders, looking for a word to fit her objections, “dishonorable!”

Sam, who has developed a sudden cough during the last minute or so, says, “His Grace travelled around the Free Cities for much of his life, Joanna. Public bath houses are very common there.”

Joanna whips her head around to look at Aegon, eyes wide. “That’s indecent!”

“It was a social event,” Aegon hopes to scandalize her even further.

“A social event?!"

“Oh, yes, wealthy couples could share a meal while bathing.” Joanna’s mouth falls open. “Once I went to a feast. It was an enlightening experience.”

“But… but the Faith won’t allow it, surely?” Joanna looks relieved.

“Some followers of the Seven are more open-minded than others.” Aegon smirks. “Your mother used to bathe in the Rhoyne. She said we were made in the image of the gods, so we should glory in our bodies.”

Joanna covers her face with her hands, mortified. When Sam begs off to meet with Archmaester Marwyn, she fists her hand in Aegon’s tunic and corners him before he can leave the room.

“You’re terrible.”

“Me?” He gives her an innocent look. “I’m expanding your horizons, Joanna.” Aegon settles his hand on the small of her back, shocking in its bareness. The dress she wears is the very picture of maidenly propriety—on the front. “What happened to my innocent, proper, Northern wife?”

Now that they are alone, though, she does not protest or blush. “I’m sure one day I’ll find her skeleton lying in an alcove.”

Aegon pulls her closer, already unlacing the front of her dress. “She’s missed, of course. Pity she had to go.”

Joanna tugs at his tunic. “You're not sorry at all, are you?"

"Never," he laughs.

Arya arrives two moons later, but she doesn not do so alone.

A man accompanies her, and his name is Howland Reed. His eyes slide right off Aegon when he arrives, settling on Joanna instead.

Nothing is ever the same.

Of all the Starks, Aegon had seen the least of Arya, who so happened to be Joanna’s favorite sibling. “It was us against the world,” his wife had once said, “because we were the only ones who looked like Starks.” But that no longer holds true.

Arya Stark is four-and-ten, thin as the braavosi sword Joanna had commissioned for her. She has grown into her sharp, severe Stark features since the last time Aegon had seen her. Now, long black hair frames her frowning face, and she looks charming, but her eyes are as cold as he remembers from two years ago.

Standing next to each other as they are now, Joanna and Arya look beautiful, but they no longer look like sisters.

Joanna’s eyes had turned a dark, haunting indigo at the crossing of the Neck. The deeper into summer they Seven Kingdoms slipped, the brighter they seemed to Aegon. They are not Ashara’s eyes, but what Aegon assumes is a throwback to another Dayne ancestor. Nonetheless, Joanna had grasped onto the echo of her mother like a drowning woman straining for air, and Aegon has hardly ever seen her wearing anything but purple since.

Sometimes he catches Jon staring at her, an odd look on his face. He is not the only one, though. Olenna Redwyne had stared, too.

“Go talk to him,” Joanna hisses through a tight smile, her nails digging into Arya’s arm.

“I won’t,” Arya bites out, quiet but fierce.

“Please, Arya, I beg you.”

“Someone else, anyone else,” Arya whispers. She sneaks a look at Aegon, then Joanna. “Someone my age, please. I want—”

“Alya, he’s a handsome, albeit older, man with a disability that makes brainless twits think he’s incapable of producing children. He’s eccentric, bookish, kind, likes animals, and his grandmother is the most dangerous woman in these Kingdoms.”

“How is that encouraging, Joanna?” Arya’s hands tremble before she balls them up, tears forming in the corner of her eyes.

“Such a dangerous woman understands that keeping the Queen’s sister happy keeps the Queen happy.” Joanna waves her hand, as if to brush away Arya's objections.

“And her great-grandson alive,” Aegon adds, shrugging when Joanna arches an eyebrow at him. Arya tries to pull away from Joanna, but his wife hugs her tighter. Aegon glances around. “Smile,” he whispers in Joanna’s ear. She does as he says, one hand curling a strand of Arya’s hair around her finger.

“I want…” Arya looks at Aegon for a second, as if asking him to save her. “Someone closer to my age. Someone like—”

“Maybe we should speak of this later,” he says. Joanna looks ready to protest, but Arya appears relieved—until he goes on, “I’ll take her.” Joanna melts away into the throng of dancing nobles, leaving him with her sister. He offers her his arm, and she takes it, thank the gods. “Your sister thought it would be easier for you, if you were told during the feast and not before.”

Arya scoffs. “She was right, but I don’t want to marry that man.” She sends him a hopeful look. “Please, you can—”

“I can’t,” Aegon says, quiet, a soft smile on his face to assure the vipers around him there is nothing amiss. “Do you wish for someone else simply because of his age?” There must be more.

Arya stills, looking down at the floor. “No.”

"Because he's a cripple?" he prods.

“Then why?” Aegon doesn’t understand what she protests so much, if it is not these things. “Arya?” he prompts, when she does not answer. “Arya.”

“Joanna wrote to me about you,” Arya says, surprising him. “She said you sparred together and you were kind and… and you listen to her or else Sansa would be here instead of me. You don’t look at her like most lords look at their wives—or the way most Northern lords look at their wives, then, since I’ve never been south before now.”

Aegon sighs. He had not expected Arya Stark to care about such things. He had expected her to be like Joanna: cold and practical. Like Joanna, who still looks at him with simple fondness after two years of marriage and more nights by his side than he could have endured without getting attached.

Arya is nothing like Joanna.

“Love grows, my lady.” His voice is strained.

Arya narrows her eyes. “From respect.” Aegon does not have the heart to protest, but she keeps speaking as if she thinks he will. “He’s twelve years older than I am. He’ll think I’m a child and… he’ll be right.”

Aegon closes his eyes. “Meet him. Meet him and if you truly think you’d be unhappy, I’ll think of something else.”


“Don’t tell Joanna.”

Arya tells Joanna.

“How dare you.” Joanna does not so much say the words as much as she hisses them. “How could you give her such leverage before she even met him? She’s not even trying to get along with him! She spends all her time with Ned and Allyria, talking about Dorne and all the multitude of things they’ll do when Arya visits!”

They are in his solar, away from all the prying eyes of the court, but Joanna’s voice is so loud he wouldn not be surprised if the servants outside can hear her.

“He’s much too old for her, Joanna.”

“It doesn’t matter, Aegon!”

Sometimes he does not understand his wife. How can she be so cold? “Yes, it does. She would have been miserable. I wasn’t going to be the one to sentence her to a life next to a—a—a cripple who hardly leaves Highgarden out of shame. She deserves better than being stuck in a court that hates us!” And now Aegon, too, is shouting.

Joanna takes a step back, as if he has struck her. “They wouldn’t have hurt her. They wouldn’t have dared.”

“But they would have made her miserable.”

“Arya is stronger than you think.” He has not heard that glacial tone in her voice since Winterfell. “She would have been happy, she would have been happy if you hadn’t given her a way out!”

“No, Joanna.” He looks at her, arms wrapped around herself, at the distance between them, and he is tired. “That’s you. You would have been happy, not Arya.”

Joanna is the kind of woman who would burn the world to ashes before allowing someone to break her.

“I would have done my duty.”

“Do you listen to yourself? You didn’t marry the Usurper when it was asked of you, and you wouldn’t have married me if I’d given you a choice. You—”

Joanna is an outwardly even-tempered woman. She has a tongue like a whip and the disposition of a rampaging dragon behind the veil of cultured elegance Lord Varys had forced upon her. She wears a Valyrian steel dagger underneath her shift, and she had once used it on the assassin who got past her guards four moons ago. To his knowledge, that is the only time she has ever used it, but now she does, once again, and finally the solar is silent.

Aegon does not take his eyes off her as she comes around his desk, cold hands wiping away the blood from the thin cut on his face. There is something hot and ugly boiling in the pit of his stomach, even as she slides into his lap in a mockery of affection.

“You think I’m so cold. Did you ever meet Cersei Lannister, Aegon?"

“No,” he growls.

“She was a very unhappy woman. I met her when the Baratheon court came to Winterfell. Let me tell you about her. She was beautiful. Bitter, too. When Bran fell, I couldn’t help but wonder how that could be. My brother was the best climber I’d ever seen, and it didn’t make sense that he’d fallen by accident. So while the Starks closeted themselves in their grief, I looked for the truth, and I found her fucking her brother. Just like Bran did.”

“And you didn’t say anything.”

“Because I understood. I would have fucked my brother too, if I’d been married to Robert Baratheon.” Joanna’s eyes are boring into him.

“I’ll be sure keep your brothers far from court, then,” Aegon whispers. “To prevent any mishaps.”

Joanna laughs, high and bitter, her fingers digging into his shoulders and her forehead touching his. He does not know what to say when tears spill down her cheeks. He kisses them away, both angry and confused, but she shoves him away.

Aegon leaves.

They keep to separate beds.

The court notices the distance, and suddenly King’s Landing is alive with a feast every night. Joanna drowns herself in pleasantries and wine, and every lord Aegon meets has a daughter or a sister or a cousin to present to him. His wife knows all about every single one of them, or so Varys claims, because apparently he had taught Joanna how to play the game too well, and now Aegon’s pretty little Northern wife can play better than the King and all his councilors put together.

Jon is the only one who appears calm. "Give her time, Your Grace." Varys says the same, despite how tense he looks. Illyrio as well. Soon enough, his entire council begs him to ignore why his wife refuses to have anything to do with him.

Margaery Tyrell arrives at King’s Landing in time for her brother’s wedding to Arya Stark, only to be told she is to marry Edmure Tully. She accepts the order like he imagines Joanna would have: with a curtsy and a sharp smile, then leaves to plot and scheme with her grandmother, claiming to be ecstatic over her upcoming nuptials.

Arianne laughs when he tells her about it, about how his wife is busy trying to find him a mistress. Then she laughs at him for not making it easy for her.

“Lovers or mistresses, it doesn’t matter. She walks all over you and you let her.” Arianne shakes her head. “Who’s the King, you or her? Who rules? Who’s arranging all these marriages?”

“I thought they were sound ideas.” Aegon scowls, leaning against the heavy pink vase at the edge of the terrace. From where he stands, he can see Joanna below. He follows her with his eyes, watching as she and Sansa play with Rickon, sitting on the edge of one of the many pools in the Water Gardens.

“And you wished to please her.” When he does not deny it, she makes a sound of disgust. “You’re just like your father.”

Once, he would have been angry at her words, but time apart from Joanna had shown him how little regard he has for his own pride. “Is it truly so appalling to wish for a happy marriage?”

Arianne steps in front of him, blocking his view of the Starks below. Rickon laughs, and Aegon wonders if he was ever so carefree, even when he had been a child. He thinks not.

“You can have a happy marriage and keep your dignity.”

“I won’t take a mistress, Arianne. I won’t be like my father.” He had promised Ashara he would make Joanna happy, and he had succeeded for two entire years. “Whatever has made her angry won’t last much longer.”

Joanna can look at him with a chill in her eyes fit to freeze him in the middle of summer, but Arianne will burn him with a glare one day.

In what the realm is already calling the Dornish Wedding, Arianne Martell weds Loras Tyrell in the grand sept of the Water Gardens. The ceremony is followed by a feast fit for the gods, and the next day Quentyn Martell weds Sansa Stark in the same place, Northern lords complaining about the weather and grinding their teeth over the lack of weirwoods in this part of Westeros. The day after, Trystane Martell marries Myrcella Lannister.

“And that,” Joanna tells him that night, goblet in hand like it always seems to be these days, “is how you make peace.”

Aegon sits down next to her, quiet. This is the first time they have been alone for moons. Arianne had refused to give them separate chambers, which had prompted Joanna into spending the last two nights with Sansa. She claimed her sister had been nervous about her marriage, but Aegon does not care. He had expected to find her skittish, but Joanna looks neither drunk nor nervous.

He tells himself he is not relieved.

"They'll be happy, if the gods are good."

Joanna shrugs. "The gods are hardly ever good." She sighs. "If they want to be happy, they'll have to work for it." Whether she means the insult or not, he does not know.

Aegon's temper flares, and he does his best to bite back what he wants to say, but Joanna can tell he is upset. She gives him a smile, mocking, and he can no longer stop himself from lashing out. "I've been nothing but a model husband, Joanna. You can't tell me I've been the one who—"

"Shh," she says, placing one finger over his lips. He splutters, sending her into a fit of laughter. "You're the perfect husband, Aegon. Handsome, wealthy, good-natured, a King... Yes, how despicable of me to not want you in my bed."

Aegon drags her closer, desperate now. She had never said it in so many words, and it is now painfully real, the fact that she does not want him. It is unavoidable. A man can only be so blind for so long. "Why? What did I do?" He shakes her when she looks away. "Whatever it is, I'll fix it, Joanna, please."

"You can't fix it, Aegon. Not this."

"Let me try."

Joanna looks at him, eyes sad. Her hands cup his face, so gentle it is as if she thinks he will break. "Your mother grew up here, didn't she? In the Water Gardens?"

He frowns. "I don't understand why that matters right now, but yes, she did. With Ashara and your uncle Arthur.

"With Ashara," she echoes, voice hollow.

"They were the best of friends, our mothers." Joanna tries to pull away at his words, but he holds her close. "They'd want us to be happy."

"They wouldn't!"

Aegon shakes his head, certain. "Ashara—"

"Ashara, Ashara, Ashara," Joanna snarls, finally breaking his grip on her. "You're always talking about her. You married a bastard because you promised her you would. Is that why you try so hard? Did you love her so?"

"I married you because she asked me to," Aegon says. He does not understand why she is upset. "But regardless of what I promised her, you're my wife and I want us to be happy."

"We're never going to be happy."

And her words are so final, so broken, he does not know how to comfort her.

“You cannot! You will not!” Jon is red from all the screaming he has done since the midday meal. “Some things you must not do!”

“I can, I will and I must,” Aegon says, checking the straps of his saddle one last time.

“Aegon, no. You will die, Loras Tyrell is itching to kill you. Please don’t do this.”

Aegon lowers his visor, turning his horse around. “Ser Loras and I are kin now, Jon. Stop your fretting.”

“You don’t believe yourself, Your Grace.” Jon huffs but relents, returning to the King’s box to sit by Aegon’s empty chair.

His first joust is against a Blackwood, his second against a Blackmont, and his third against the Knight of Flowers himself. He breaks seven lances against Loras, who bows at him upon Aegon’s win, so still he could have passed for a chunk of steel.

By the time he returns to his seat, dusk is fast approaching. The final joust of the day is between a Frey and a mystery knight who had first appeared the day before.

“A smiling weirwood,” Joanna murmurs from his left. Aegon glances at Jon, a question on his lips. He does not expect his Hand to be pale as snow, but no matter how much he badgers them both, neither tells him why such a thing is significant.

Frustrated, Aegon slinks away to Arianne’s side. “Now that you’ve unhorsed my husband, who will crown me?” It is an invitation if he has ever heard one. Someone must overhear her, for five days later, there is not one person who does not believe they know who Aegon will crown his queen of love and beauty. Most say Arianne, some Margaery, and few say he will crown Joanna, even though that is exactly what he intends.

"He's his father's son," Aegon had heard Catelyn Stark say to a distressed Sansa the night before.

He rides to the end of the lists, his grip firm on his lance as his steers his horse around. Aegon can taste victory, is already planning what to say to Joanna when he crowns her, when the mystery knight’s lance slams into his shield and slides up, unbalancing him and throwing him back, off his horse.

Aegon tears off his helmet with a snarl, a string of curses flowing from his lips, fighting to get back his breath.

Jon pulls him up in a heartbeat, frantic with worry and trying to hide it while simultaneously checking for injuries. Aegon waves him away, then thinks better of it and leans against him. His leg feels worse for wear.

Ser Rolly hovers at the edge of the field, a crown of dragonsbreath flowers sitting atop the plump cushion in his hands. Aegon waves him forward, eager to see whose life he would make it his business to ruin for this indignity.

“Mystery knight,” Aegon says. “The day is yours. Will you tell us who you are?”

The last person he expects is Arya Stark, face flushed and long hair spilling down her back as she removes her helmet. The girl wastes no time, taking the crown from Ser Rolly’s hands and directing her horse to stand in front of Joanna.

Aegon can only watch in horror as she lays the crown on his wife’s lap.

The entire field is quiet, even the commons. For an endless moment, Joanna looks at Arya and Arya looks at Joanna.

“Oh, Arya.” Then the Queen tears her sister from her horse, laughter falling from her throat as she draws her into a hug. Arya protests when Joanna places the crown on her little sister's head, and Joanna does the same when Arya does it to her. Neither wants to keep the crown, though, each sister claiming that the other deserves it. This lasts until Sansa saunters into the King's box, grabs the crown and plucks two flowers from it. One she slides into her own hair, piled and braided in an intricate style; the other she sticks onto the back of Arya’s ponytail.

Together the two sisters remove the jeweled crown from Joanna’s temple and replace it with the one woven out of Dornish dragonsbreath.

“I would have crowned you,” he whispers that night, pulling her behind a set of lemon trees, hiding them form sight. “I was going to crown you.”

“I know.”

Aegon blinks. “Then why?” he demands, so very tired of her games. “Why have your sister compete in your stead?”

Joanna tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. “I didn’t. She did it on her own.” Aegon goes to protest, but she keeps going. “I didn’t think you’d crown someone else, but Arya and Sansa did.”

Aegon can hardly believe her. “Sansa? But Sansa—”

“Found her the armor.”

“I thought you didn’t get along with Sansa!” he says.

Joanna looks away. “I don’t but… that doesn’t mean she would have wanted to see me shamed.” She walks around him, heading towards the din of the feast just ahead. “I’m sorry for how it looks.”

She does not sound sorry.

“They all think… No, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go inside. Let’s get away. It doesn’t matter what they think.”

They stand on the edge of the courtyard, in full view of the court. It is not long before one serving girl notices them, drawing the attention of the nobleman closest to her and his wife besides him. So on it continues, until the murmurs quiet, even as the music of the feast draws to a crescendo.

“What are you asking?”

“We need an heir,” Aegon says. “Whatever you think you’re doing, throwing girls on my bed and calling for paramours from beyond the narrow sea, it’s foolish. I won’t be called the second coming of Aegon the Unworthy."

Joanna steps closer to him, a small frown marring her face. “I’m not who you think I am.”

“Tell me now,” he begs. “Tell me why you avoid me, why you can no longer bear to look at me.” He feels like he is being strangled. There is a lump in his throat, growing ever bigger, making it difficult to breathe out his words. “We were happy once, Joanna. I could love you still.”

“You will hate me.” She speaks the words with the same hopeless melancholy she had once used to tell him their unborn child was dead, gone, murdered by an assassin she had been too slow to stop. And then fury takes over her eyes, glinting violet in the light of the braziers. “You will hate me for who I am,” she says, steel in her voice, “for who I’m not, but I can’t bring myself to do the same. I am the song of ice and fire, I have fire and ice in my veins and I...” She blinks away tears, pulling away from him as screams fill the courtyard, vicious terror in their voices—and still he cannot look at anyone but her.

Aegon can only watch, frozen, as a loud drumming fills the air. Joanna looks up, and Aegon is so close, he can see the paleness of her neck bathed in red and gold from the burning braziers. The dragonsbreath crown looks like fire come alive, and her ears glint, the same diamond teardrops from their wedding night drawing forth memories of an easier time, when his heart had not been so full his chest hurt.

The dragon, when it lands, does so behind Aegon, jolting him, his black claws sinking into pale marble like knives on butter. Dust rises up, trickling down the walls as a roar shakes the world. In his arms, Joanna is still as a gargoyle. Aegon’s mind is racing, panicked, for the dragons are dead, but there is one snarling at him now, more alive than Aegon would have given credence to a day ago.

Rhaegal—it must be Rhaegal, with its green and bronze scales, but Rhaegal is dead, all accounts of Daenerys' fight with the Ironborn say so, but it must be Rhaegal regardless—is looking at him.

Until it is not.

The dragon climbs down, claws digging into pale marble, trailing dust and entire chunks of mortar. Rhaegal knocks over a brazier—two, three, four: every single one that had been found on the collapsing terrace where it had landed. Smoke rises from the scores of burning trees, blood oranges melting and filling the air with the smell of citrus, mixing with the heavy fire.

Aegon coughs, and Joanna is no longer in his arms.

“You came,” she says. It is a wonder Aegon hears her, but she is speaking to the dragon, not him. “You came.”

But she does not look surprised.

And as she rips slits into her dress with the Valyrian steel dagger she had thrown at him moons ago, as she climbs onto a dragon—a dragon, a real dragon—something, perhaps everything, in him refuses to acknowledge what is happening before his eyes.

“Joanna,” he whispers.

“Visenya,” she says. His wife looks at him, expressionless, eyes dark. She does something with her hands, and then Rhaegal is moving, the dragon's immense body tearing apart more of the palace as it climbs a tower and raises its wings, preparing for flight.

She’s leaving, Aegon thinks.

He is afraid she will not come back if she does.

Panic drives him forward. He climbs after Rhaegal, onto the ruined terrace, then uses the black spikes of the dragon’s body as his footholds. Rhaegal snarls, whipping his tail around so that Aegon hangs from its tip in midair.

“Joanna, come down,” he pleads, keeping his eyes on Rhaegal’s bronze eyes. “You don’t even have a saddle.”

“Rhaegal won’t let me fall.”

“Joanna,” he implores.

“No.” Her voice is like a whip. “Rhaegal!”

The dragon bucks, waving his tail up and down, fast and brutal. Aegon loses his grip, and the next second he is plunging down, down, down as Joanna flies in the opposite direction, enormous green wings glowing a pale jade in the moonlight as she slips away from him, perhaps forever.

And Aegon understands.


Chapter Text

Theon Greyjoy is a tall man with blue eyes, dark hair, and darker lusts. Aegon had threatened to lop his head off on more than one occasion, but when Joanna visits Pyke for the second time in as many moons—well, he wonders if beheading the current lord of the Iron Islands is worth having yet another rebellion on his hands.

“So tell me, my lord,” Aegon says, his voice pleasant as an ice storm, “how is my wife?” The wife he had not seen in almost a year.

“She—” Theon swallows. Aegon smiles, unkind, but he is too furious to find amusement in how Theon Greyjoy’s obvious tension, for all that he looks like he is.

“She?” Aegon prompts.

“Sh-she’s w-well, Yo-your G-gra-grace.”

“Is she?” Aegon sips from his goblet, the wine bitter on his tongue. “I’m glad. But tell me, come now, Greyjoy, how is she, really? Surely you have more to say, considering how much time she’s spent on your lands lately?”

“No. N-no, Your—”

“Quit stuttering, you twittering fool!” Aegon snarls, slamming his goblet on his desk, spilling the arbor wine in it. Theon goes white, even paler than before, white as a man can go without becoming a corpse. “After all, we’re all…” he tries to say ‘friends,’ but the notion of even uttering the word turns his stomach “allies. We’re all allies here. Right, Ser Gerold?”

“Yes, Your Grace.” Darkstar, standing behind Theon’s chair, nods. His armor clacks together at the movement, and the sound makes Theon quiver. Good, Aegon thinks, thanking the gods for Gerold Dayne’s vicious reputation. 

“Now tell me, how is my wife?”

“S-she’s well, Your Grace. She v-visited the smallfolk and she wished to see the seastone chair and she played w-with the children, some children, and she wanted to know about Euron, she asked about Oldtown, and she met my wife and she visi-visited the smallfolk, the smallfolk, s-she asked about ships, about—about how trade was holding up now, about how—how the realm was, and she met my wife, she seemed to like her, we have a babe on the way, she seemed ple-pleased, and—and—and—Oldtown.”

Aegon stares, malcontent.

“Pleased. With what?”

Theon twitches. “With—” Theon stops.

Aegon scents blood. “With,” he repeats, giving Gerold a deliberate look.

As expected, Theon understands the threat. “I don’t know! I don’t know! She said she was visiting, Your Grace, you must believe me, p-please!” Theon makes as if to stand, but Darkstar holds him down. “She wanted to meet my firstborn! And the smallfolk, and know more about Euron. Your Grace!”

“Your firstborn,” Aegon says, ignoring the rest. “And she was playing with children?” Greyjoy nods. Aegon clenches his fist. “But how is she?”

“Your Grace?” Theon Greyjoy looks miserable. Aegon approves.

“How is she?”

There is a pause. “She seemed happy.”

“Happy,” Aegon says, morose. “I see. But how is she?”

“Your… Grace?” Theon gives Aegon a blank look.

“How is my wife?” he asks again, losing patience, of which he has little left after moons and moons of waiting.

“But I already sa—” Theon seems to realize that finishing that sentence is unwise, because he looks down at the floor. “She’s well, Your Grace.”

“How well is she?”

Somehow, the man regains his composure. It has always bothered Aegon how Theon can go from nervous wreck—a remnant from his time spent at the tender mercies of the Bastard of Bolton—to Lord of the Iron Islands. “She seemed happy, Your Grace. Dragonriding appears to have done her well. She told Sylvia a Myrrish noble had lent her a book on High Valyrian six moons ago, the last time she visited the Free Cities. Her dragon looked to be less aggressive than last time I’d seen him. She’s grown taller, I think? But that may just be her boots. I’m unsure, my king.”

“She was happy, then? Truly?”

Theon nods, enthusiastic now. “Ver—”

Aegon does not want to hear it.

“Get out.” 

Even during the worst months of his marriage—or what back then Aegon had perceived as the worst months of his marriage, a mistake he will never again make—he had always dined with Joanna in her apartments, talking about one lord’s petition, another lord’s dispute, how a wedding was coming up, the state of Summerhall and how rebuilding was going. Others had joined them often enough: Jon, Sam, Arya, whatever lords or ladies had gained favor of late. But the majority of the time, Aegon and Joanna had dined with no company, alone. 

Breakfast had been theirs, always, and more often than not they had ended up back in Joanna’s bed afterwards. Even when that had stopped, when she had not suffered his touch, breakfast had been peaceful and cordial.

Once he had finally woken from a fall that had half killed him—that had landed him into a coma; that had come close to crippling him, physically and perhaps mentally—it had taken Aegon less than a week to figure out that eating on his own was a bad idea. His small council had been forced to compensate, and now his lords break their fast with him.

The dismissal of Theon Greyjoy from its ranks did little to change the council’s dynamics, seeing as the man had never been around, but Joanna’s absence is a gaping crater. No one knows how to cover it up.

“Where is she now?” he asks, buttering up a peace of bread. All small council meetings start this way.

“Rhaegal was last spotted at Summerhall, Your Grace. My little birds tell me she’s happy construction is going well. Before that, she passed by Harrenhall. Lady Shella reported that the Queen seems, well… happier.” Varys ignores Aegon when he stabs his knife into the butter dish, making a horrible screeching noise as it hits the bottom. “However, Lady Shella noted she spent an inordinate amount of time playing with a pair of orphans. She wishes to let His Grace know that the Queen might respond favorably to them being taken care of.”

Princess of Harrenhall, Aegon thinks, bitter, for that’s what men call his wife in the Riverlands. Protector of the ruined castle where her birth was set in motion, where my mother’s fate was sealed.

“You may tell Lady Shella her advice is unwarranted, unhelpful and unwanted, Lord Varys.”

Besides Aegon, Jon sighs. He opens his mouth, and from experience Aegon knows he will shift the discussion to other, more productive affairs. Aegon, though, is in a foul mood with all this talk of how happy his wife appears, and so he sends his Hand a cutting glare. Jon remains quiet.

Moons ago, there had been talk of crowning a new Queen, of a second marriage for the sake of heirs. Such suggestions had lasted until Jon had pointed out that not only is his current wife the most blue-blooded woman in the Seven Kingdoms, no. She also has a dragon, and rousing her ire is stupid. Of course, everything then, as it does now, had pointed to Joanna not caring whether Aegon took another wife or not, but the threat of dragonfire kept his councilors from insisting.

It rankles.

“All this talk of children,” Illyrio says, his hands greasy with Aegon knows not what, his eyes kind, “may mean she wants one of her own, my king. We have not attempted to contact her for moons now. It may be time to do so once again.” The man smiles.

Aegon keeps his face impassive. He wants to agree. “No,” he says instead. The last time he had tried to reach Joanna, she had disappeared for two moons, had gone off to the Free Cities and beyond. “The Queen will come back when she wishes to. There’s no need to… pressure her, my lords.”

“As you say, Your Grace,” Lord Tarly says, cautious, and Aegon grimaces. If Aegon had not dismissed Lord Tarly’s son in a fit of rage moons ago, boy may have said the same.

“But that’s enough of Joanna for now,” he lies. It is never going to be enough. A part of Aegon seems to think that the more he talks about her, the faster she will come back. “How are the Stormlands coming along?”

Jon clears his throat. “They’re not in open rebellion anymore,” he says, distaste dripping like venom from his tone. “It was wise of you to think of Mya Stone as an option, Your Grace.”

Ser Rolly coughs to hide a laugh, but then he and Jon had never gotten along.

“Pity we couldn’t find another one of Robert’s bastard girls, though.” Randyll Tarly frowns. “He had one by that Estermont cousin of his. She would have been a better match. A highborn bastard.”

“Be that as it may,” Jon says, not wishing to speak of his new wife. “You may ask the Queen where she hid the man’s other bastards when she returns, but there’s nothing to be done now.”

Indeed there is not. Jon had married a legitimized Mya Baratheon after days of pleading, raging and several attempts at poisoning the girl. But in the end he had bedded her, and now the Stormlands are at peace for all of Jon’s troubles.

It is not that Aegon wants Jon to be miserable, exactly. Aegon wants everyone to be miserable.

It is only fair.

The wedding of Lord Harrold Arryn of the Eyrie and Lady Allyria Dayne of Starfall takes place one cold day at the end of summer—for the end of summer is here, much sooner than anyone expected, and the Citadel had informed the crown if not the other lords—high in a castle that pierces the sky.

“Robert Baratheon grew up here,” Aegon says.

Jon, humorless, nods at him, doing his best to ignore his baseborn wife, who talks to the serving girls and servants all around them like she is friends with them... which she is. She, too, had grown up in the Eyrie, which puts everything into perspective for Aegon.

Robert Baratheon had not simply resided in this castle. No, the Usurper had lived and fucked and gained the affection of lords who had later gone to war with him, for him, for his deluded desire to marry a girl who had repudiated him. Robert Baratheon had lived his life in this place, had walked these halls and bedded serving girls despite being enamored with a woman who, by all accounts, had been as cold to him as the winds that bracketed the white walls of the Eyrie.

Never let it be said that Aegon Targaryen has nothing in common with Robert Baratheon—at least the runaway girl they share.

“The lords of the Vale don’t look happy we’re here,” Aegon tries once again. It does not matter that he points out the obvious. What matters is that Aegon stays here, in the hall, because if he leaves now, Aegon might do something he will regret. Something like going after the serving girl who had placed a platter of lemoncakes in front of him minutes ago, the girl who looks too much like Joanna. Too much to let her go. 

No bastards, he reminds himself. No Blackfyres.

The Eyrie had seen what happened to bastards when their father’s entire family got slaughtered. Mya Stone had become Myaline Baratheon, and her children would rule the Stormlands one day. All the servant girls around him want the same, and Aegon is a King with a wife who hates him.

“The lords of the Vale would rather see my head on a spike than on my shoulders,” Jon tells him. “And they are not unhappy with you. They lost many fighting for the Usurper.”

Aegon disagrees. Yohn Royce is scowling at him in a most threatening manner despite the two Kingsguards at his back.

“Whatever the case, we’ll soon be gone, and the Vale is ours now.”

Jon makes a vague sound of agreement. Frustrated at Jon’s black mood, Aegon gets up, and he is not oblivious to the way every single serving girl perks up. He catches sight of her again, the Joanna lookalike, and decides against leaving. Rather, he makes his way to the end of the hall, falling into a bench opposite Cletus Yronwood, a good friend of his cousin Quentyn’s. He has a thin girl with dark red hair moaning in his lap, but Aegon has little trouble getting rid of her. 

“Leave,” he says, and the girl leaves.

Cletus scowls at him. “Just because you won’t enjoy yourself doesn’t mean everyone else shouldn’t.”

Aegon shrugs, helping himself to a honeycomb cake, pointedly ignoring the strawberry tarts next to it. They are his favorite dessert, but he cannot stand to look at them now, so much had he associated them with Joanna's presence. “It doesn’t,” he concedes, “but that girl looks suspiciously like Sansa Stark, don’t you think?”

Cletus stiffens like a board. “No,” he whispers. It makes for a comical image, and Aegon almost tells him he should learn to lie better. He refrains, since the last time he had told someone else the same, she had turned around and become a harpy.

No, Aegon decides. Best to let Cletus Yronwood dig his own grave.

“I suppose men should enjoy themselves at weddings. Anything’s fair, and better a kitchen drab than a someone else’s wife, yes?”

Cletus narrows his eyes at him. “Are you speaking from experience, Your Grace?”

People had noticed, then, that he had been looking at the bride all night. “No,” he says, and it is not a lie. “But I can’t help but be surprised. It’s their wedding day, after all.” He makes a show out of looking at Allyria, sitting alone on the dais as her husband dances with every woman in the hall but her. She looks so much like Ashara it hurts his heart, so he resolves to do something about it.

“Not all men are as happy on their wedding day as yourself.”

Aegon smiles, glad that people still think Joanna had, at least, married him of her own free will. “I suppose not, Cletus, but go ask her to dance. Your King commands you.” He rises from the bench before Cletus can protest. He is a man on a mission now, and walks right past the serving girl who, at long last, has stopped looking so much like his runaway wife.

The Kingsguard follow him as he makes his way through the Eyrie, silent, but he does not head towards his chambers. He turns into the Smith’s Tower, rising up until he reaches the right room. He stops, somewhat shocked at the sounds coming from beyond.

He would have never believed it of Edric Dayne.

Aegon slants a look at Sers Gerold and Hendry, both knights poised like statues on either side of him, and snorts. Ned Dayne or not, friend or not, when a man’s only living relative gets married to a disgrace of man like Harrold Arryn, someone should be there.

So Aegon opens the door, expecting to find the bride’s nephew with a whore, or a serving girl, or perhaps one of the many shy maidens of the Vale.

Aegon expects a lot of things, but he does not expect Arya Stark.

He shuts the door with a deafening thump , eyes wide. Aegon stays there for long enough to calm himself before entering once more, slamming the door on his Kingsguards’ faces before they can see.

They are both covered—now, anyway.

Aegon walks closer, flinching at the smell of sex, and says the first thing that comes to his mind. “How,” he bites out, “are you going to explain the smell to your husband?” He does not say Willas’ name, hoping that Hendry and Gerold had not seen, hoping that this will remain secret.

Arya will not look at him. “We asked the servants—”

“We?!” He wants to stab something. Maybe himself. Kingship is not for the faint of heart, not for Aegon, not if it involves such intrigue, such lack of... lack of self-preservation from his supposed friends. “So the servants know?” He forces himself to whisper.

“Ned asked the servants to draw a bath. Before.”

“Before,” Aegon says, incredulous. She cannot even say it.

“Yes, before.” Ned brings Arya closer, wrapping one arm around her shoulders as he glares at Aegon, presumably for upsetting his... his lover.

“So this was planned.”

Ned nods, a blush coloring his cheeks.

“Very well.” Very well what? he thinks. Now what? Then a terrible thought sneaks up on him, and unbidden, the possibility of a war crashes down on him. “You’re pregnant.” Aegon looks at Arya, looking at him from beneath the curtain of her hair. “Five moons pregnant. Is that child…?” He cannot finish the thought.

“It’s not Ned’s,” she says in a rush, showing him her tear-streaked face. Apparently she does not realize that she sounds far from reassuring.

“Not Ned’s?” Aegon feels faint. The questions flood out of him. “Is there another lover? How many? Will they keep quiet? Whose child is it? Do they know about the—”

“The child,” Ned tells him, looking more than a little cross, “is her husband’s.”

Some part of Aegon is glad Ned has enough sense not to say the name of her husband. Most of him, however, wants to snap at him, and because his nerves have been shredded, well and truly, he does. “And what, you wish it was yours? Is that it?”

 Ned pulls Arya tighter against him. “The child isn’t mine, Aegon. We were careful.” And Aegon does not know if he should believe him. Ned, unlike Cletus Yronwood, is an exceptionally good liar, and there is no point in asking Arya either—she had learned how to lie at the feet of her cousin. 

“Careful. You’re fucking”—Arya flinches, for all that he is not talking to her—“in your own room, while her husband is in the hall, perhaps wondering where his wife is. And she,” he starts, but thinks better of it, deciding that the following will be more poignant said directly to Arya. “And you, what? Are you going to take a bath, leave your hair as is, and then go fuck your husband after so he doesn’t wonder why ‘your hair looks lopsided, dear?’” He does his best to imitate Willas’ Reach accent.

“Aegon, don’t blame her. It was me, I—”

“No, it was me,” Arya cries out, loud enough to dash away any hope Aegon had of keeping her identity secret from the Kingsguards beyond.

“Arya, it was me, I’m sorr—”

“Spare me,” Aegon snaps, and they both fall silent.

“You must stop this.” He holds up a hand when Ned and Arya start to protest. “You must. Or there will be war.”

“Aegon,” Arya pleads.

“No. Don’t look at me that way, don’t you dare. You were given a choice.” Arya shakes her head, but Aegon continues, “You were given a choice, you were told—I told you, I insisted that you shouldn’t marry him. And you did it anyway.”

“You know why she did, Aegon, please. Leave her be.”

“I do know,” Aegon growls, feeling far too emotional, far too vulnerable in this room. It is as if the gods had seen fit to show him his failures, to throw them in his face. Here it is again: another Stark who had married someone else, another Dayne who had been second best, and perhaps another child of theirs. “And I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to convince you otherwise.” I’m sorry you tried to fix my marriage by ruining your life. “I’m sorry, Arya. I’m sorry about—about your sister, and about everything.”

It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.

It is his fault.

When the white raven comes, Aegon dissolves into laughter. The lords of his small council look at him warily, but Aegon does not care. “Winter is coming, my lords, winter is coming and the Queen isn’t even here to say it at the right time.”

“You’re right, Your Grace,” Jon says, a worried look on his face, and he knows his concern is for Aegon’s sanity, not winter. “There has been word from the Wall—”

“Of course there has. I’m guessing the dead are rising again, Jon, aren’t they?” When Jon nods, Aegon laughs some more. “Saddle my horse, then. I’m to ride North.”

Shortly into their marriage, Joanna had convinced—but that is a strong word for the little she had done, as eager as he had been to please her—Aegon to man the Wall. He had sent enough men to fill all seventeen castles, swelling the ranks of the Night’s Watch to their breaking point. The last time Aegon had crossed the Neck northwards, he had intended to reach the Wall, but Catelyn Stark had forced him to put away those plans. He had worried the woman would send Joanna away before his return, had been afraid his wife-to-be would be all too eager to comply.

Aegon had stayed in Winterfell, impatient, waiting for the seamstresses to finish Joanna's wedding dress. He had never travelled further north, never visited the Wall his wife spoke of, but that had been enough. He had been fallen in love with her stories and songs, the ones not reminding him of her unfortunate relation to Lyanna Stark. “Queen in the North, Queen at the Wall,” they had called her, although more often people call her Dragon Queen now.

Lord Commander Mormont is eager to receive him.

“It’s an honor, Your Grace. A King has not visited the Wall in over a hundred years, Your Grace. We’re honored you've answered our call for assistance,” Lord Commander Mormont tells him when he arrives. “And of course, if you're here to ask after the missing Lord Stark, I assure you the Night’s Watch is doing its best…”

“The missing what?” Why had he not been informed of such a thing? But no, a missing Lord Paramount is much too important for Varys to not inform Aegon, so the question is: how had that pathetic little whore of Ned Stark’s kept such a thing quiet in the North, so quiet the Spider had not heard about it?

Mormont frowns. “Lord Brandon Stark. Lady Catelyn claims her son was kidnapped two moons ago, but we have not succeeded in finding him, Your Gra—”

“Catelyn Stark may claim as she wishes, Lord Commander, but Starks do not get kidnapped . They run away, and you will stop this ridiculous search at once!” By the time he finishes, he is shouting, and the entirety of Castle Black stares at him wide-eyed.

After his outburst, Aegon expects the Lord Commander to launch straight into a rundown of the Wall’s finances to ease the tension. Instead, the man leads him underground, to a large library where a hunched old man sits in front of the hearth. “Your great-great-granduncle, Prince Aemon Targaryen, Your Grace.”

Mormont leaves, Aegon stares, and the raven crows, “Targaryen, Targaryen!”

“Come, child. Allow me.” The man raises a hand towards Aegon, but he does not look at him. Aegon understands why when he kneels in front of his chair, for the man is blind.

Blind, and frail, and sickly and perhaps even mad, but it matters little for he is alive.

A Targaryen.

Aemon Targaryen runs his hands over Aegon’s face, neck and shoulders, wrinkled fingers warm against his skin. “You have your father’s face, Aegon. He came here once to visit me, and now so have his children.”

“Children?” he asks, too shocked by the continued survival of another Targaryen to make sense of his words.

“You and your sister Visenya.” Aegon stiffens at the words, muscles coiling like a spring. His Uncle Aemon feels it under his hands, for he says, “Marriage is a difficult affair sometimes.”

“It is.”

Aegon remembers all those times Joanna had visited the Wall on Rhaegal, all those times he had assumed she had done so to keep herself up to date on the affairs of the North, and feels betrayed. He had not thought she could hurt him more than she already had, but Aegon had been wrong. This is hurt, the knowledge that she had never mentioned this man to him. Had she thought he would not care? Or had she kept it a secret on purpose, to rob him of his chance to meet this ghost of their shared family?

“Come now, sit.” Uncle Aemon motions to an armchair by his side. “Tell me about the realm. For all that Visenya knows about the smallfolk, your Queen knows little of current affairs.”

“Queen!” the raven says, settling on Uncle Aemon’s shoulder. “Queen, Queen, Visenya!” It looks at Aegon with beady black eyes, and Aegon wonders if perhaps Mormont would be willing to trade a few more hundred men for a roasted raven.

Aegon is standing atop the Wall when he hears it: a loud, drumming sound that fills his nightmares; the thumping that, for moons, had accompanied his dreams of falling off a ruined terrace, towards his death, only for his Kingsguard to catch him.

Rhaegal lands in the middle of the field, scaring the men sparring below, but Aegon only has eyes for the tiny dot moving on his back. He turns away, prompting the steward telling him of the Wall’s defences to continue, but he does not listen to him. His heart is beating erratically in his chest, so loud it might be louder than Rhaegal’s wings in flight.

How come the men around me don’t hear it?

Ser Rolly looks at him from the corner of his eye, but Aegon catches it. The men around him look at him in some measure of surprise or another, and Aegon cannot blame them. To them, perhaps it is curious, how his wife has come to the Wall and he will not bother going down to greet her. But surely she does not know he is here. Surely she will leave when she realizes he is.

Joanna does not leave.

Twilight comes and goes, the men around him freeze and Aegon with them, yet Rhaegal remains in the yard. Soon enough the dragon moves towards the forest, where it disappears, but Joanna remains. There is no moon today, no sight to see once the sun slides beneath the horizon, and soon enough he runs out of things on which to grill the men of the Night’s Watch. He has gone through everything: the supposed tunnels beneath the Wall, the stories about the Nightfort, the actual history of the most illustrious Lord Commanders, including a lengthy rundown on the Great Bastard Lord Commander, who is Aegon’s favorite historical figure, truth be told.

Eventually, he concedes that there is nothing else to do but return to Castle Black.

Once they arrive at the King’s Tower, he walks down its halls with care. He catches himself glancing up stairwells until he realizes he is skulking, as if he has done something wrong, which he has not! He has the sudden urge to stomp his way through the tower, but doing so would be childish. It would evoke evoke Joanna’s pity, and that he will not allow.

“Your Grace, the Queen—” Brienne Tarth starts to say when Aegon arrives at his chambers.

“I know.” He frowns. “It’s hard to miss that beast landing.”

Brienne looks alarmed. “But—”

Aegon bids his Kingsguards goodnight, waving away his groom, for he is exhausted.

He cannot recall the last time he has felt this tired—which is why he does not notice her until he out of his doublet, his furs discarded on the floor, and even then it is because she speaks. “Aegon.”

How should a man react when his runaway wife, who is also his sister, surprises him in a room he had expected to be empty?

But then, Aegon thinks bitterly, Lady Brienne tried to warn me.

Aegon swallows back his gasp when Joanna comes up behind him. She slides her arms under his own and settles her hands on his shoulders, hugging him against her. He remains still, not knowing what to do. Should he move? Should he push her away? Closer? What does she want? Why is she here?

They are far away enough from the hearth that he shivers.

Joanna pulls away. Aegon catches himself before he leans back into her. It has been so long since anyone has touched him out of the sparring field, but no, better to limit himself. She will be gone soon enough.

“Did you have supper? You were gone for so long, Lord Mormont held off on the feast…” She hears her moving towards the door, and for a second he feels relief. She will leave—

“Ser Brienne, ask a steward to bring the King and I supper.”

No, she will not leave. Gods forbid Aegon ever gets what he wants.

He finds he cannot look at her face, not even when she sits in front of him, so instead he focuses on her hands. She must realize what he is doing because soon enough she hides them beneath the desk. He focuses on her clothes next, but this proves to be an unsound idea. She wears nothing but a thin shift underneath her furs, and he has no doubt it is deliberate.

Aegon does not know why, though.

Perhaps she means to torture him, tease him with what he cannot have.

I don’t want her, he tells himself. If he reminds himself often enough, it will be true.

“Aegon.” He glances at her lips then. They have the same lips, he notes. Rhaegar Targaryen’s lips. “You haven’t said a word.” Haven’t I? But she is right, he has not. Aegon tries to speak, he does, but his tongue refuses to move. “Aegon.”

Now he does look at her, and she is lovely, her inky hair pulled back her hair in the same style as the first Visenya. In the lamplight, her eyes look violet—like they often had on rainy days, when he took her by the hearth in his chambers, her skin gold. The memories pull at his heart even as he pushes them away, and he feels so angry that she has this hold on him, that she has so much leverage, so he lashes out. “Do you get something out of saying my name so often? This is a new development, I admit. I don’t recall you being so obnoxious before now.”

Joanna does not hesitate, but then she has always been adept at using that sharp tongue of hers. “It is the privilege of sisters to be obnoxious.”

Unfortunately for her, her sharp tongue is a Targaryen trait, not a Stark one, even if Aegon had never turned it on her. “And it is the privilege of wives to be silent. Do your duty, sister, your king commands you. Be quiet.”

“The Dragon King commands me?” Once, that title had been an honor, had been said with respect, but those days are long gone. What is so wrong with the King, people whisper, that the dragon chose his bastard sister? Now the name is used to mock.

“The Barren Queen questions me?” Despite her young age, news of her miscarriage had spread far and wide. Each telling is bloodier than the last, but the assassination attempt had been kept under wraps.

Joanna jumps up from her seat, fury writ across her face. “I’m not barren,” she hisses. “You know I’m not barren!”

“Don’t throw my failures in my face, and I will refrain from doing the same with yours.” Joanna had thought nothing of the smallfolk calling her barren when she had known she was still capable of conceiving. She had said it would not matter when she gave him an heir, but she never had. When she had started to throw girls on his bed, however, the court had wondered. Even now, some believe that the coldness of the King and the Queen’s marriage had been brought about by a maester finally confirming Joanna’s barrenness.

This failure he can lay at her feet without shame. It is hers and hers alone, for she had been the one to keep the truth of the knives sent after her hidden from the court. Joanna has herself to thank for the name, but the miscarriage itself is also her fault.

“It wasn’t my fault!”

“Yes, it was.” Aegon has never said anything with more certainty. “You slipped your Kingsguards. You were with child, a target, and you slipped your guards like the simpleminded wolf bitch you are.” Like her mother, the fool, who had let herself be blinded by his father’s pretty words and prettier face.

“I’m not my mother.”

“I don’t care,” he snarls.

There is silence until Joanna breaks it.

“Aegon. I’m sorry.” She is not, Aegon knows. My wife is never sorry. “We’ve both made mistakes. If you’re willing to forgive, so am I.” She looks at him with a strained smile.

“We’ve both made mistakes?” Aegon laughs. “We have. I should never have married you,” he says, but the lie sours his tongue. Bastard or not, Joanna is a dragonrider. He would not have been able to allow Rhaegal to live had Joanna not been his wife, and because killing a dragon would have been out of the question, he would have married her anyway. Even now, as strained as their marriage is, it is a tie no one but Aegon can break.

And he has no intention of letting her go.

“But you did,” Joanna says, her voice low.

“I did.” What does it matter that he had been manipulated into it? What does it matter that Illyrio and Varys had always known Joanna to be a Targaryen bastard? What does it matter, in the end, that Ashara had known, that Ashara had used her last moments to betray him?

It doesn’t matter.

Joanna steps around the desk, her fingers coming beneath his chin to lift it. “We were happy once, Aegon.” I could love you still, she does not say, and the absence of the words are like fingers clawing at his heart. She doesn't say it because she can't, because she doesn't have a heart. “Come to bed.” She pulls at his shirt, and he goes, weak.

He can hear Arianne’s laughter ringing in his ears.

Joanna’s lips are chapped against his own, a reminder that she had spent more than a year away, gallivanting along his kingdoms on a dragon. “Was there anyone else?” It should not matter, except it does. He does not want her to say yes, but he wants lies between them even less, and so he will reach for the truth even if it is bitter.

“Not since we married,” she murmurs against his lips, arms sliding around his neck. Aegon pulls her closer, pushing her furs off her shoulders. He had known that, had known she had not come to him a maiden, as he had first assumed when he had first met her. It had never mattered to Aegon, and it does not matter to him now. Even so, she had never said as much out loud. “And…?”

“No.” Aegon had only ever been with Joanna. No Blackfyres.

He removes her shift, then her hands slide down his chest to unlace his shirt. They send sparks through him on his bare chest—and lower still. He touches the edge of her smallclothes, hesitating, but then Joanna is pushing him towards the bed. She crawls on with deliberate movements, slow.

Aegon has always thought her beautiful, and now is not the exception. Her eyes are dark when she looks up at him, and he wants her. It is sick, and soon enough she will be gone, taking yet another part of him with her, but the knowledge does not stop him from climbing on top of her, nor does it stop him from kissing down her body until he makes her come apart.

Joanna slips her hands into his hair, nails scrapping against his scalp, making him shiver. She cups his face, a smile on her lips and lust in her gaze. He had always liked to make her like this, pliant and soft beneath him. He used to like the look on her face, had smirked when he caught her appreciating his body, his face.

But not today. Aegon has his father’s face, their father’s face. And so does Joanna, now that he has both the knowledge and access to examine her features properly: her lips, her nose, the tilt of her eyes and their color, which even Aegon does not have—it is their father’s.

Joanna is their father's ghost as much as Aegon is.

“Arianne,” he says, making her frown, “once told me I married you because I was” he smiles, because his cousin had made such an impression that he remembers her words to this day, more than three years later “‘thirsting over a very particular cunt’ like our father before me.” Our, that is their word now. They share so many things Aegon wishes they didn’t: a father, dragon blood in their veins, an entire dynasty of madness and greatness, the ghosts of their dead mothers and philandering father.

Joanna does not react at his vulgarity. He had thought she might at least flinch at the reference to her mother, but no, she brings him closer and kisses him so sweetly he feels something in him breaking.

She’ll be gone soon enough.

Dawn finds Aegon in the sept, a small seven-walled space with a statue for each aspect of the Seven. He had come here with no specific purpose in mind, but he walks up to the statue of the Crone, and then he does not know what to ask for.

What do I want?

Once, he had asked Ashara if the Crone would tell him what to pray for, given that she is the aspect corresponding to guidance. She had been altogether unimpressed with his logic, and had made him sit until he thought of something.

The stray thought had never gone away, however. Tell me what I want.

Ashara had also told him that even Kings cannot command the gods, but then Ashara is dead, buried, and a liar besides.

I want to be happy.

Aegon skips breakfast, knowing what that would bring, and knowing just as well he is not ready for a repeat of the night before. She comes to him atop the Wall, wearing leathers that do not hide the fact that she is the only woman for a league.

“You cancelled the search for Bran,” she says, no greetings. His pretty, little Northern wife would have never been so direct. Aegon smiles. His pretty, little Northern wife had been a lie.

“Yes.” And it would not be reinstated, no matter what. Joanna had lost the ability to make him bend to her will to try to please her the moment she had ridden away on her dragon. She appears to understand this, because she does not try to sway him with kisses and smiles.

Joanna goes for logic instead. “He was kidnapped.”

He wants her to leave, and the fastest way to achieve so is to make her angry. Well aware how she will react, he says, “Name one Stark that has been abducted. I can name at least two that have run off.”

“I’m not a Stark,” she snaps, her temper flaring.

“You’re right.” Aegon gives her a smile so sharp it could have cut through an Other. “You’re a Sand. You can’t be legitimized into your mother’s House.”

“He married her in front of a Heart Tree. They were married and you can’t take that away.” Joanna stomps her foot on the ice beneath her feet.

“Father didn’t live long enough to ensure the marriage was recognized. He was never King, either. There is no precedent for princes having double marriages.”

Joanna gives him a cool look. “They married by my gods and that is enough for me, Aegon. Let’s hear what you’ll say when our child asks. Will you tell him his grandmother was a simpleminded wolf bitch?”

“Let’s hear what you’ll say when he asks about his other grandmother. How will you explain why almost half the Kingsguard was protecting their grandfather’s mistress while his wife and children were in King’s Landing alone and unprotected?” Marriages are political alliances. Husbands and wives do not need to love each other to beget heirs, but parents should love their children.

Did you love Rhaenys and I so little, Father? Did you love us at all?

Rhaegar Targaryen had marched off to war with little thought put into either Aegon or his sister. Aegon is a forgiving person by nature, but he does not know if he can forgive his father for this.

Pity clouds Joanna’s face. She reaches out towards him, but he jerks away from her touch, and so she drops her hand. Joanna sighs. “I’m going beyond the Wall to look for Bran.” Queen in the North, Queen at the Wall, Aegon thinks. She will not be Queen once she crosses this giant barrier of ice. But then he spots Rhaegal’s jade scales in the distance, and he grimaces. Joanna will always be the Dragon Queen.

“So that’s why you’re here.”

“No, you are why I’m here. Bran is why I’m leaving.”

Aegon turns away. “Leave, then.” Good, he thinks, balling the fist she cannot see in sheer frustration. “Maybe your cousin did get taken. Go on, then, hurry. The Dragon Queen will save him.” Leave! He wants to scream at her. He wants her to stay. “Leave.”

Joanna steps closer to him, completely out of hearing range of the two Kingsguards with him today. “Come with me.”

Aegon blinks. “What?” She cannot be asking what he thinks she is asking.

“Come with me.” Joanna grabs his hand, easing open his fist and cradling it between her own.

“I can’t,” he says. His heart is a painful beat in his throat. “You’re going on Rhaegal.”

“Yes.” Joanna nods. “But Rhaegal is a grown dragon, he can carry us both and Bran.” She looks him in the eyes. “I want you to come.”

“It doesn’t like me,” he protests.

“He. And it’s not about liking you.”

Aegon pulls his hand out of her hold, feeling cold. “He flung me off a tower. I nearly died. No,” he decides, “I won’t go with you.”

“Please, Aegon.” She lowers her eyes to the ice, glancing at him from under her eyelashes. They are long and dark like Ashara’s had been, like his own are, except his are silver like their father’s.

He needs to push her away.

“Stop it. You can’t always get what you want doing that. You can’t look at me sweetly and plead and pout to make me do as you like.”

Joanna's voice goes cold like only hers can. “I’m asking you to reconsider like I would ask anyone else. Last time I tried to seduce you into doing my bidding,” she reminds him, leaning into him, “you became cross with me for reasons I still do not understand. You want me to be honest, well, I am.” She lowers her voice, mindful of the Kingsguard, “I want you to come with me beyond the Wall. Rhaegal won’t harm you.”

Aegon wants to believe her, but then he thinks of Rhaegal’s wings thundering over King’s Landing when Joanna flew past the city once. He thinks of how the wind rushed by him when her dragon whipped him high into the air in Dorne, and his heart freezes in his chest. “Why do you want me to go with you?”

“So this isn’t about Rhaegal.” Joanna’s voice is flat.

“No, it is.” Aegon is a King with armies under his command, but Joanna is a Queen with a dragon ready to protect her in a matter of minutes. Their relationship will forever be skewed to her advantage. “Dragons respond to their rider’s feelings. I don’t trust you to keep him from harming me, and I really don’t trust you to not leave me stranded beyond the Wall, without a horse, food or knowledge of the terrain.”

“You don’t trust me.”

“Did you expect anything else, Visenya?” Not Joanna, no, not this Dragon Queen. 


He kisses her before she is supposed to leave the next day, slow and deep. His heart squeezes painfully at the thought of her leaving, but it had been his choice to stay. He has very good personal reasons for staying, and even better political ones. Cousin of the Queen or not, Brandon Stark is a cripple who will never have children, one who has a brother and two sisters besides. Enough to carry the Stark line forward.

“You could still come,” she murmurs.

“I can’t.” He kisses a trail of kisses down her neck, biting the skin between it and her shoulder. “The Reach and the West would try to take back the throne.”

“We wouldn’t be gone long,” she insists, her hands slipping into his breeches, stroking.

Aegon groans. “You’ll have to wait to leave,” he gasps out, fights to breathe back air into his lungs. “If you keep doing that.”

“Once more?” she whispers, biting his ear.

“Once more,” he agrees, pushing her against the wall, his heart too full to think straight.

It is only later, when they are both lying on the bed, half-awake and half-asleep, that he says what has been on his mind since the day before. “You’re lying to me." 

Joanna stiffens on top of him, raising her head to glare at him. “I’m not.”

“Very well,” Aegon concedes. “You’re keeping something from me, then.” She does not deny it, merely keeping her eyes on him. Here in the North, with the braziers low and far, they look the ice cold grey he had first seen them as. “Why are you so willing to bed me now when for moons you wanted nothing to do with me?”

This is hardly the most appropriate time to discuss such things, which is exactly why Aegon had waited so long to bring it up. Joanna can lie with an ease that never ceases to surprise him, but a sated, sleepy Joanna put on the spot is not Joanna at her best, and Aegon can tell when she lies when she is like this.

His wife is not the only one who can use desire as a weapon.

“I want a child,” she says.

“You could have had one with another man.” Someone who’s not your brother. Joanna, unlike Aegon, had grown up in the North, where incest is considered an abomination. By contrast, Aegon had been isolated enough throughout his childhood that he had not even known the word ‘incest’ until his Targaryen heritage was revealed to him.

“You’re my husband, Aegon. Even if I’d run away to Sothoryos, you would have still been my husband before the gods. I don’t want my children to be bastards.”

“You’re lying.” Aegon gives her a small smile, but he is far from amused. “There’s more.”

And I’ll find out if it kills me, I swear it.

Joanna leaves that morning, taking Brienne with her at his insistence.

Aegon watches from the King’s Tower as she disappears into the horizon.

A raven addressed to Aegon comes from Highgarden a moon later, and Aegon is relieved when he reads its contents. Their names are Ned and Jo, Arya had written him, with Stark eyes and the silvery hair of Willas’ Hightower mother. Aegon would have preferred it if the children had come out looking like Tyrells to remove any and all doubt of their legitimacy from his mind, but as long as they do not look like Daynes, there is little to complain about.

Despite Aegon's misgivings, Willas had taken to Arya at once upon meeting her, and Arya’s letter makes it quite clear her husband is ecstatic with the twins. The man, at least, has no idea of his wife’s past affair, and it will remain that way if Aegon has his way.

“Good news?” Aemon asks him.

“Arya Stark gave birth to twins,” he tells Uncle Aemon, sitting down besides him.

“Birth!” Old Mormont’s raven says, flying up to Aegon, who swats it away with practiced ease.

“Visenya will be happy when she returns.”


Aegon says nothing, worry flooding him as it does these days. For how long will she look for the missing boy?

“Let’s hope she does so soon, Uncle.”

But his wife does not return.

Three moons later, Aegon’s patience has run out. He summons the Kingslayer to his solar the day before the man leaves for beyond the Wall. Three of his Kingsguards file in with him, the fourth one staying posted on the other side of the door.

Jaime Lannister takes a seat in front of Aegon’s desk, looking for all the world like he is the King, Aegon the disgraced Kingsguard-turned-Night’s-Watchman.

“Oh? So I rank three white cloaks, what an honor this is. You must have a high opinion of me after all, my king.”

“A very high one,” Aegon says, in all seriousness. Honor does not always go hand-in-hand with skill, and such is the case of Jaime Lannister.

“How may I be of service to you on this fair, cold day at the edge of the world, Your Grace? Perhaps love advice? Don’t be shy.”

“Love advice?” Aegon laughs. What does the Kingslayer know of love?

“I do know what it’s like to love my sister.” Jaime shrugs. “Of course, not all of us have the benefit of being so open about it as yourself…" 

A thousand objections come to Aegon at once, but he bites them all back. “My lord of Lannister,” he says, hoping to end this conversation without bloodshed, “you were sent to the Wall for Kingslaying, not incest.” If anything, I should thank you for handing me back my kingdom. “But that’s not why I’ve summoned you here. When you set out tomorrow, your task will be to look for the Queen. A dragon should not be hard to find among so much snow.”

Perhaps Jamie knows what a perilous situation he is in, for he gives Aegon a nod and exits with little fanfare. The First Ranger rides north with three other men, the best of the best, all from noble Houses, summoned from different castles across the Wall.

But then they do not come back.

Mormont thinks it is a terrible idea. Aegon has no qualms with telling the Lord Commander how little he cares about his opinion.

“Before me, the Night’s Watch was a penal colony. If my wife was here, she would tell me the Night’s Watch ‘takes no part in the affairs of the realm.’” He slams his hand on Mormont’s desk. “Unfortunately for you, my wife isn’t here. That’s precisely the problem, my lord. I’m not of the North, I’m not my wife, I’m not your Queen at the Wall.” Aegon does not smile. He does not enjoy threatening people, but the fact remains that the Night’s Watch is Aegon’s in all but name, and if he must use it to find his Joanna, he will. “I’m not giving you a choice between being cut off from my coffers and doing as I say, thus ensuring your men’s survival. No. I’m giving you a choice between doing as I say or Ser Lyn forcing you to drink a vial of poison. Then you’ll be replaced.”

Mormont’s raven pecks his hand then. Aegon jerks away from it, swearing. “You bloody bird!”

“Bloody, bloody, bloody!”

“I’ll make you bloody,” Aegon mutters under his breath. Doing his best to look dignified after such a spectacle, he straightens. “Well, my lord? Will it be poison for you? Don’t be a fool.”


“Oh, do be quiet.”

Jeor Mormont’s mouth is set in a grim line. “If my best men were unable to find the Queen, a thousand will not either.” 

But I must try. Aegon has to go beyond the Wall to find Joanna, nothing else will do, and he cannot justify the great risk it would be for him to ride out without a massive force as fodder. I should have gone with her.

“Think carefully of what you say next, my lord.”

The commander holds Aegon’s gaze. “I cannot justify—”

“Ser Lyn.”

Hours later, Alliser Thorne becomes acting Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Jeor Mormont is burned that night and given his last rites, his death blamed on a poisoning attempt meant for Aegon himself. No one questions the story, for during his seven-moon-long stay at Castle Black, two previous attempts had been made at the same.

Uncle Aemon knows, though.

“You’re disappointed,” Aegon says after the pyre is lit.

“Kings are meant to be just.” 

“I have to find her,” he says, but he feels ashamed.

“You won’t find her.” Uncle Aemon sounds certain. “No one has returned from any long rangings since summer ended. If a dragon didn’t save Visenya, an army won’t save you.”

Aegon says nothing, grim, but that night he dreams of red skies dripping blood into a boiling sea, drumming thunder all around and above him. Far below him is a crumbling palace of white stone, burning, doomed, but a woman stands on its highest tower, staring at him.

“Blackfyre,” Ashara warns, her silver hair whipping out of her face.

Ned Dayne’s arrival at Castle Black as the men are preparing to depart is not only unexpected but also unwelcome.

“What are you doing here?”

Ned does not deign him with an answer. “Why is it so blasted cold in this place?” He half-falls, half-scrambles off his horse, handing the reins to a steward. “Why are you and Joanna so fond of this—this piece of ice!?” He makes for the closest building, which happens to be the common hall.

Aegon follows after him. “What are you doing here?” He remains standing when Ned kneels in front of the hearth, shaking.

“Arya was worried about Joanna—”

“Ah, but not worried about me, I see.” Aegon cannot resist.

“You don't let her do what she wants. I’d consider yourself lucky she hasn’t tried to stab you with that needle of hers. Or sent Nymeria to do her bidding.”

“Her sister doesn’t let her do what she wants.” His defense is half-hearted, busy as he is thinking of what it means that Ned is here, when he has made it quite clear for years he had not enjoyed his trip North.

They're still having an affair. How could I have been so blind?

“I wouldn’t point that out to Arya’s face next time you see her. She gets awfully protective of Joanna for all that she’s younger.” Ned shudders, then says, “I’m a Dornishman, I’m not meant for this climate!”

“Indeed. You should go back. Now.”

Ned snorts. “And face Arya’s wrath? I think not.”

“Ned, you’re being a fool. You’re the last of your House. You should not be here. It’s dangerous.” And what will people say?

Ned’s face twists in sheer, unrepentant incredulity. “ You are the last of your House, a King with half his kingdoms praying for your death, and you have the gall—”

“Yes, yes, my apologies.” Aegon sighs. “I stand corrected. We’re both fools, but my wife is out there, possibly hurt. Yours isn’t.”

“I don’t have a wife,” Ned reminds him.

“How could I forget?” Aegon dreads the day Willas Tyrell finds out Arya Stark prefers another man’s touch to his own. That he will find out is inevitable: eventually, someone will wonder why Edric Dayne bothered to make a trip to the Wall, and will realize that it had been at the Lady of the Reach’s behest.

It does not take much effort to narrow down the why from there, not when the Queen is no longer believed to be half-Dayne.

When the gate is raised, Aegon urges his horse forward, Alliser Thorne to his right, Ned to his left. The four knights of his Kingsguard currently with him—Lyn Corbray, Rolly Duckfield, Hendry Bracken, Arys Oakheart—follow behind them, Valyrian steel swords at their hips. Five hundred men follow behind them, all armed with dragonglass daggers.

Aegon has no illusions. He does not expect even a quarter of them to survive, not in this war against the dead.

“Valar Morghulis,” Aegon says as he steps out of the tunnel, onto the land beyond the Wall. He thinks of the raven he had sent to Jon after Ned’s arrival the day before, six simple words that mean the world Ned hears him.

“Valar Dohaeris.”

Ready for war in the South.

Chapter Text

It does not take long to spot Rhaegal.

The green dragon slumbers at the top of an icy hill, his scales reflecting the light of the sun, jade and bronze vibrant against the endless white of the blizzard all around them. At first glance, Rhaegal looks a good three feet taller than the last time Aegon saw him. The thought sends a thrill of fear through him, but he tightens his hold on the reins of his garron and ushers it to the bottom of the hill.

For Joanna.

“Your Grace…” Ser Hendry says when Aegon hands him the reins of his horse. “Let someone else wake him, please, Your Grace.” The man curses when Aegon ignores him.

“Stay,” Aegon says. Protests ring out from the knights of the Kingsguard and more than a few of the other men. Aegon will not be dissuaded, though. “Stay,” he repeats. Ned’s voice rises higher than everyone else’s from somewhere to his right, but the wind is so loud he cannot make out his words. “Quiet! We can’t afford to wake him like this!”

He does not wait for a response before he sets forward.

The trek up the hill is difficult. Aegon makes his way through packed snow and ice, but then he steps on something soft, far too soft, and he slams down into ice. He takes a deep breath, fighting to get back his bearings, and tests his leg. Nothing feels broken but only time will tell. As it turns out, the time it takes is short: as soon as he attempts to climb out of the hole he has fallen into, his hand screams in pain.

But it’s the left one.

Grunting, he climbs out, elbows working in tandem to make up for the injury. Once he drags himself up, Aegon waves at the men below, which serves to quiet the screaming that had erupted at his fall. Then he checks the rest of his body for injuries, thankful that nothing but his hand appears to be hurt. When he kneels to examine the hole, he finds it half-filled with fresh snow already. Aegon looks at Rhaegal, judging the size of his legs, almost as tall as a man.

The heat from his body must have melted the ice, he thinks. And that means there will be more.

Instead of walking, he crawls up the hill, well aware that another fall might not be as kind as the first. In this merciless wasteland, broken bones mean death. The cold sneaks up Aegon’s arms and knees, the heat from his body melting the snow that sticks to his clothes, soaking him and making it worse. His teeth chatter as his limbs grow numb, taking more and more effort to move.

What will the court say if I return with missing fingers? If frostbite takes them?

When his hand pokes into fresh snow, Aegon brushes out its outline in order to make his way around the hole. He climbs ever higher, up to the crest of the hill where the ice becomes thinner. Soft snow is a downy layer under Aegon's boots but that, too, gives away to the cold, hard ground where Rhaegal is curled up.

Panic rises inside him like the snow blowing into his eyes. Aegon wants to bolt down the hill out of sheer terror. Unbidden, his eyes slide to the dragon’s tail, the same tail that had flung him into the air more than a year ago. He swallows, forcing himself to rise to his feet.

I can’t go back now.

"Rhaegal." Aegon can barely hear himself over the moaning wind. “RHAEGAL!” he shouts, thinking of what to say, his brain making the transition to High Valyrian. “WAKE!”

The dragon does as he asks. Or maybe Rhaegal does as Rhaegal wants and it happens to be what Aegon wants as well. He pins Aegon with huge, bronze eyes as a growl falls from his throat. For an endless second, Aegon wishes he had listened to Hendry, wishes he had stayed at the Wall, wishes he had never married Joanna or stepped foot in Westeros. Rhaegal is the beast from his nightmares, the most terrifying creature Aegon will ever face. He has never done something so stupid as this in his life, and for what? For a woman who may be dead and does not want him besides?

The moment passes.

“YOUR RIDER!” Aegon tries again, forcing himself to think past the fear. “WHERE IS SHE?” The dragon growls. Aegon leans away from Rhaegal, terrified. This beast is not only dangerous: Aegon knows Rhaegal hates him, has known ever since the dragon had half-succeeded in killing him in Dorne. It is madness on Aegon’s part to attempt to speak to him, and yet... “I WANT TO HELP HER! SHOW ME WHERE SHE IS!”

Rhaegal roars, a deafening sound that turns Aegon’s muscles to water. He slips, his knees hitting the ice with a sickening crunch, but he hardly feels the impact, wide eyes focused on Rhaegal’s. Rhaenyra Targaryen was eaten by her half-brother’s dragon. He prays to the gods history does not repeat itself. When Rhaegal leans closer to him, his heat an unwelcome mercy, Aegon sets his jaw and looks at the dragon with as much fortitude as he can muster. It is not much, he is sure, not with how afraid he is of this particular beast, but he must try.

But then the dragon stops, his jaws closing without tearing Aegon to shreds. Relief floods him despite the unnerving knowledge of Rhaegal’s gaze, but it looks like the dragon will not kill him. Regardless, he stands again, shaking limbs half-frozen, for if he does not try, he will never get anywhere. “VISENYA! JOANNA!” he says, her name on his tongue for the first time since Dorne. “WHERE IS YOUR RIDER?” Where is my wife? Where is my wife? Where is my wife? Where is my wife?

Rhaegal stretches, long limbs melting more of the snow and ice around him as he does. For a fraction of a second, Aegon admires the grace with which he moves, but then he fists his hands in his furs to keep himself from bolting away. The dragon’s eyes slide off Aegon, focusing on the lands beyond. His tail strikes a blow against the frozen ground. Chunks of ice the size of boulders break off and roll down to the base of the hill, where Aegon’s men run to avoid getting flattened.

“RHAEGAL, PLEASE, I ONLY WISH TO SAVE HER!” Perhaps pleading with a dragon is useless—Aegon, after all, does not know if Rhaegal even understands him—but this might be his only chance to find Joanna. “JOA—”

Rhaegal whips his tail towards Aegon, pushing him down and crushing him against the ice. “Rhaegal!” Aegon attempts to say more, but the breath has been knocked out of him. Rhaegal opens his jaw, green and gold flames dancing as they come closer.

Aegon thinks of Harren the Black and the last Gardener King, both of whom had died by dragonfire. He prays to the Seven, but soon his energy wanes. His mind becomes sluggish, his urgency fading as his lungs scream in pain. He is near to passing out when the pressure on his chest goes. Rhaegal's wings create a blizzard of their own as he launches into the air.

There is pure and utter silence around Aegon, a second of incomprehension as the sound of Rhaegal’s wingbeats mix with the howling of the storm. It all collapses when a pale white hand yanks Aegon up by the collar, Ned’s blond hair blowing into his face. “We need to get back! Now!”

Aegon stumbles down the hill, his lungs still burning from Rhaegal’s weight. Ned drags him around the gaping holes in the snow, ice pelting them from above. Aegon’s soaked limbs feel like they might fall off his body. “We’ll never keep up with him!” he screams over the wind.

“It’s not Rhaegal!” Ned screams when he reaches the base of the hill, where the Kingsguard sit atop their horses, poised to defend it from… from something. “It’s the dead!”

A shiver runs down Aegon’s spine.

Aegon tastes blood on his tongue. He mounts his horse as Alliser Thorne directs the men of the Night’s Watch. As the dead near, he thinks of how Joanna had faced down this same army over and over again, until she had thrust a sword through the Great Other’s heart. His knees ache from when he had crumbled onto the ice, and his wrist possesses a heartbeat of its own as it pulses in pain, but he draws Blackfyre anyway. All the doubts melt away as fire roars to life in his veins and steel clashes all around him.

The battle rages on as the blizzard pummels them from all sides, blowing at their torches, darkening the terrain all around them. The sun hides behind the chaos of the storm, and with the darkness comes the freezing cold of hopelessness. It does not matter how many they cut down—the dead rise with hands missing, some of their heads connected to their necks by only thin stretches of skin.

We’re going to die.

“We need to leave!” Ned hacks at a half-rotted child in wildling furs. “Or we won’t make it!”

In the middle of battle, there is no time to argue. Ned is right. “LYN! HENDRY!” The two knights say nothing, but they both draw closer to Aegon. Lyn Corbray skewers a hulking beast in his haste, but the creature leaps with tremendous speed. Aegon feels his grip on Blackfyre slacken for a second, horrified eyes shifting from the black blood dripping off Lady Forlorn to the blue-eyed wight of a direwolf.

“AEGON!” Ned snarls in warning.

The wolf leaps, but for all his shock, Aegon raises his sword and slashes at it at the right moment. It falls, one paw sliced right off the rest of its body. His wrist screams in pain, and Aegon knows he can no longer stall. He sheathes Blackfyre, cursing his injured hand, and turns his horse around, Lyn and Ned at his sides. They cut and slash at the dead as the three of them ride away from the main force of the Night’s Watch, which is even now splintering into groups led by the rest of the white cloaks.

“Don’t look back!”

And Aegon does not.

They enter the forest as the sun slips beneath the long line of mountains to the west. Darkness descends as the blizzard eases its grip on the land, but the bitter cold remains. He only notices when he rides his horse into a clearing and stops, for without the wind chilling him, it is clear that his clothes remain soaked.

Lyn and Ned set about gathering firewood as Aegon dismounts. From his saddlebag, he pulls out the one change of clothes he had brought along. He peels off his clothes garment by garment, replacing them with dry ones as fast as he is able before moving on to the next.

“You’re reckless,” Ned mutters when Aegon sits down next to the fire, having spread out his sodden clothes to allow them to dry. He pulls his furs tighter around him, undoing his braid, and shivers when he runs his good hand through the wet strands. “Did you hurt your arm?”

“My wrist,” Aegon tells him as Lyn joins them. “It’s sprained, I think.” He hisses when Ned sets about bandaging it up.

“You’d think I’m hurting you, by R'hllor,” Ned says. Aegon feels chagrined, but it is not like that is the only part of him that hurts. There are red marks all over his back, chest and legs—the beginning of bruises. They are a dull, echoing pain right now, but he knows he will feel them in full tomorrow.

At least Rhaegal didn’t eat me.

“Here.” Lyn sets down a bag of jerky in front of them. Aegon takes one, biting into what feels like salt personified. “Your Grace,” he starts, surprising Aegon. “The Queen wasn’t with her dragon.”

Aegon’s heartbeat picks up.

“Yes,” Ned says, “but there’s a million reasons why that could be.” He gives Aegon a tight smile. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Lyn furrows his brows. He says nothing more, but he does not have to. Looking for Joanna in an inhospitable land infested by the undead is callous, wasteful and irresponsible. It is not only Aegon’s life at stake, after all, because Aegon’s death would spark a succession crisis.

“We’ll go back when we find my wife,” Aegon insists.

Ned and Lyn glare at each other across the crackling fire. “As you say, Your Grace,” Lyn says at last. “It’ll take first watch.”

When they are done eating, Aegon slips underneath the furs next to Ned. Although it had been awkward to do this when they had first set off north of the Wall half a moon ago, by now it is routine to huddle as close to Ned as possible. In his dreams that night, wind rushes past him as thunder booms and the sky darkens, dripping blood ever blacker. Ashara remains in her tower, her silver hair loose and wild, and her eyes are mad.

“Not you,” she says. “Not you!”

A great black shadow passes over her as screams rise from underneath. The white stone of Ashara’s castle becomes an oily black then an ugly, lifeless grey. “Blackfyre!” Ashara snarls, her heartbreaking face filled with hate and grief. “Not you!” She rushes forward, gripping the railing of her balcony, but her skin turns the same grey as the castle. “NO!”

The castle crumbles. Ashara crumbles.

And then Aegon wakes to two glowing yellow eyes, the direwolf’s front paws crashing into his chest as he screams, waking up Lyn next to him. The wolf snarls when Aegon kicks it off him, his hand moving towards Blackfyre all the while. One giant, clawed paw slams it down on top of the hilt, trapping the sword between his hand and the ground below.

Aegon waits for death, but it does not come.

The direwolf nuzzles at Aegon’s cheek then eases its paw off him. He gasps out a breath when he moves his hand, warm blood trickling down the claw wounds. “Gods,” he whispers. The wolf settles its head on Aegon’s lap, shocking him even further. Aegon waits a heartbeat to push it away, but as soon as it feels his muscles coil, the wolf raises its head to look at him, very clearly warning him that he should not do as he intends. He gulps, terrified and cursing his luck with animals, and searches for help. Ned and Lyn hiss at each other on the opposite side of the clearing.

“Who was on watch?” Aegon says, even though he knows. His voice trembles. He tells himself it is anger, but it is fear.

Ned walks up to Aegon with the ease of a man who has had his lover’s own direwolf slobber all over him. “He was behaving just a minute ago, I swear." He shrugs, appearing guilty. "He looked harmless!”

“A harmless direwolf?” Lyn mocks, his face red with fury.

“Very well, relatively harmless.” Ned gestures at the wolf. “How many domesticated direwolves could there be? All the Starks have direwolves.”

“Her Grace doesn’t,” Lyn says.

Her Grace isn’t a Stark, Aegon almost says.

Aegon takes a deep breath. “She used to.” He runs his bloody fingers through the wolf’s pelt, drawing a low chuff from it, marveling at, well, at having such a fierce creature be at ease with his touch. He does not know what he is doing, petting a wild beast, but when he tries to slide it off him it growls. His leg is beginning to cramp from the animal’s weight, but the wolf is too close to get it off without risking further injury. “The Kingslayer killed him.” This appears to be news to Ned and Lyn, so Aegon continues. “He bit off half the Usurper’s hand before they got him.” Joanna had refused to talk about Ghost at all, but Arya had cooperated in her absence.

“So who’s to say she couldn’t have trained up another one?” Ned crosses his arms. “We know Joanna isn’t with Rhaegal, and he’s too fast to follow around properly, but a direwolf? He could lead us to her.”

“If she’s still alive,” Lyn reminds them.

“She is,” Aegon maintains, and that is the end of it.

The direwolf leads them southeast, farther and farther from Rhaegal. The dragon looks the size of a bird from this distance, his massive form reduced to a dot piercing the pale dawn sky. How many men are still following? How many dead? He has a million questions and doubts, but they must all be saved for after he finds Joanna.

The direwolf nips at Aegon’s sleeve.

“You’re restless today, aren’t you?” He extends out his arm towards him. The direwolf laps at his palm, but Aegon pulls away when he tries to tear his glove off. “Let’s not. You already ruined one pair.” The direwolf whines after him when he mounts his horse. “Are we close?” He gets no answer, but Aegon can feel it.

The wolf is on edge, and so am I.

It gets worse as the day drags on, rushing through the thick trunks of weirwoods as sunset paints the sky red, like in Aegon’s dreams. The last rays of the sun are fading behind the red tops of the trees when Lyn spots a hill. A deathly chill creeps on Aegon as they push forward, the garrons' steps unsure and frightened.

“It’s there. It must be there,” Ned says. He trembles from the cold, by far the most affected of them all, but Aegon can feel it too, leeching the warmth from his body. “It must.”

“Hurry, hurry!” Lyn ushers Aegon forward. Next to him, the wolf snarls. At what, Aegon is not sure at first, but when the dead rise from underneath the snow, he draws his sword without a thought. His left hand has healed by now, but the direwolf’s scratches are still tender. Regardless, he grips Blackfyre and jumps into the fight.

Ned lights a torch on fire while Lyn and Aegon cover him, slashing away at corpses that refuse to stay down. Ned hurls a bottle of oil at a solid wall of them and sets them on fire, giving them enough time to regroup. “We need to leave the horses!” Aegon’s garron bucks, but he holds on to the reins with a pained grunt.

“We do, we never leave this place alive!”

The direwolf leaps, taking off a wight’s arm and clawing at her throat. Aegon rushes forward, cutting down an old man that used to be a black brother and a bear. At his sides, Ned and Lyn hack at the half-rotted bodies in front of them, and slowly they gain upon the hill, step by step. Aegon’s muscles burn from the effort. His hand spasms around his sword’s hilt, distracting him, and when he looks up, a wight is on him, fingers digging into his shoulder. He kicks it off, but it drags him down with it.

Aegon's horse backs away, but when three wights leap on it, it dies and comes back with eyes a terrible blue. He grimaces when he slits its throat. Covered in blood and half blind, a wight pushes him down yet again. Aegon fights it off, but then two are on him, and he fights them off, but three are on him, and then four, and five, and six.

White noise crashes down on him as the wights claw at him, but then someone pulls him up. Aegon takes a deep breath, only for surprise to punch it out of him when he turns his head.

“If you kill one king and then save another, does that mean you get a royal pardon?” Jaime Lannister shoves Blackfyre into Aegon’s shaking hands. “How about a shiny new title? Kingsaver doesn’t have the same ring to it as Kingslayer, I’m afraid, but I’m sure we could work something out.” Jaime kicks a shadowcat then runs it through with his sword.

Grimacing in distaste, Aegon slashes at a wight to his left. An arrow wheezes past him, setting the wildling corpse on fire. Jaime does not give him time to think much more before he hauls him into the mouth of the cave. The air around him is ice cold, and the blood all over him has frozen solid. Ned rushes in next, followed by a tall, blonde woman.

His heart leaps out of his throat when he recognizes Lady Brienne.

“Jo—” He bites his tongue. “Where is she?”

“She’s safe, Your Grace,” Brienne reassures him through her labored breathing. “We’ll take you down to see her as soon as…” The direwolf darts inside, fur frozen stiff. Aegon wraps his cloak around him, worried, but despite the cold, the wolf appears to be unharmed.

“As soon as?”

“Lady Meera and Ser Lyn are still outside, Your Grace. I’ll return with them.” She slips away without waiting for Aegon’s permission, making him frown.

“Lady Meera?” Aegon asks.

Ned shakes his head, indicating he does not know, but the Kingslayer answers. “A crannogwoman.”

“What’s she doing here, then? She’s a lady." Ned sits on the floor, shivering. "Why would anyone subject themselves to this climate?”

Aegon thinks that is a legitimate question, but one for another time. “And why are we here all safe and nice?" Aegon asks. "The wights can’t get in?”

“They can’t. Magic, apparently.” Jaime Lannister sighs. “I’m going out there, they may have gotten trapped.” Jaime squints at Aegon and Ned. “One of you wouldn’t happen to be handy with a bow, would you?” Ned shakes his head, as does Aegon. While he is acceptable with one, his shoulder is screaming in pain. Jaime is not gone for a minute before four figures crash inside, shouting and cursing about a horse.

Aegon looks at Ned, but he seems just as confused as he is. He grows impatient when Lady Brienne and the Kingslayer lay into each other, but fortunately Lyn steps in between them. “The Queen,” he says, sounding about as tired as Aegon feels.

“Of course,” says a slim woman with long brown hair. “This way.”

“And you are?” Aegon lifts his chin to look down his nose at her. He is thoroughly unimpressed by her lack of manners, by everyone’s lack of manners, really. Being away from civilization appears to have that effect on people.

The girl blushes. Aegon would normally attribute this to her finding him attractive, but then again, his hair is loose around his shoulders and red from all the blood. To say nothing of his face and clothes, and—

Gods, I can’t meet Joanna this way.

He is so mortified he almost misses what she says next, “I’m Lady Meera of House Reed, Your Grace. My father is Howland Reed of Greywater Watch—”

“Oh, him,” Aegon says before he can help himself. Meera looks unsure how to take that, but he saves her the trouble of saying anything. “How come you’re so far north?”

“Well.” She looks down at the floor.

“Well?” he prods, surreptitiously running his fingers through the ends of his hair, hoping to untangle it. When his hand comes off caked with blood and Jaime Lannister gives a loud snort, Aegon gives it up. “Well?” He gathers the remains of his dignity as best he can.

“The three-eyed crow… um… my brother Jojen… it’s… difficult to explain… maybe it’s better if… the Queen should tell you about it… surely she’d do a better job at it…”

Aegon narrows his eyes at her, but he nods at her to lead the way. They trek deeper into the cave. Down the tunnel they go, into rooms big and small, all of them run through with twisted roots the color of bone. He prays to the Seven for patience when the tunnel grows so steep he is forced to crawl through, actual bones crunching beneath his palms. By the time he hears the sound of an underground river, he is beyond annoyed, but that all vanishes when he turns around.

In front of him sits a frail, decrepit old man dressed in black with skin and hair white as snow. A single red eye fixes on Aegon like the rubies of Aegon’s crown, long forgotten in King’s Landing. Weirwood roots wrap around and through him, but Aegon only has eyes for the crimson splotch on his cheek.

“You’re Brynden Rivers,” Aegon says, shocked.

“Yes,” the man says in a thin, quiet voice.

“But how?” Two years ago, Aegon had believed himself the last Targaryen, but things had changed much since then. Uncle Aemon, Joanna and now Bloodraven, all of Targaryen blood. Aegon thinks of his dreams, of Ashara’s distraught face framed by silver hair she had never possessed in life, and wonders.

“That can wait. For now… Joanna awaits you.” Something about the way Lord Bloodraven says the words puts Aegon ill at ease, even though they are not threatening per se. It’s his reputation, that’s all. “She’s to your right, go.”

Aegon nods, backing away. His heart thunders in his chest as Bloodraven’s one good eye slides to Blackfyre, where it is strapped to his hip. He forces himself to walk past everyone at a sedate pace, and continues down the dark tunnel, guided by the soft amber light coming from the end. There are no doors in this place, so when he arrives, he can see inside.

Joanna lies on the bed on her side, her long dark hair splayed on the pillow, half-hidden by her furs. The cold fist that had been wrapped around his heart for moons finally eases, and he feels lighter than he has since… since Howland Reed had wrecked his life, really.

It’s been a long two years.

He steps closer. He does not intend to wake her, but she must not have been sleeping at all, for she shifts when his shadow falls over her.

“Aegon?” He blinks away the sudden urge to cry. Kings are stronger than that. She’s safe.

“Yes.” He feels foolish, suddenly. He had thought her in distress, but here she is, under the protection of yet another lost member of their family. In this light, all that he has done to end up here feels disproportionate, wasteful.

“You came,” Joanna whispers. “Let me…” He helps her sit up, placing his hands on her shoulders, doing his best to not get blood on her. The wool of her nightgown is cold as ice. He looks at her questioningly, but she gives him a sad smile. “I’ll explain. Sit first.” Aegon sits on the floor. Her hand reaches out to touch his face, rubbing at the blood, which has melted and dried on his skin. “It’s not your own.”

“No,” he assures her.

She nods at him then pushes back the furs to her legs with a deep sigh. She says something, but all that is lost under the sharp bite of surprise. Joanna looks tired and sickly, and that is alarming, but not as much as the large bump of her belly. He thinks back, adding up the moons since he had last seen her, comparing the time to her last pregnancy. She is much larger now.

He touches the bump, his hands shaking. “When…?”

“In a moon, later and not before.” She places her hands on top of his, pushing his own firmly onto her body. He is absurdly afraid that his touch will harm her in some way, as if Joanna is made out of the thinnest Myrrish glass. “I’m happy you’re here.”

He smiles, something like hope stirring in his chest.

When Aegon leads Joanna to the main chamber, he is surprised to find Brandon Stark sitting in a mossy throne made out of weirwood roots, next to Bloodraven’s.

“Your Grace,” the boy greets him.

“Lord Stark,” Aegon says. “I didn’t expect to find you here.” Or anywhere. Aegon had given the boy up for dead. “Were you… abducted?”

Brandon Stark cocks his head. “No, the Reeds helped me get here.”

Aegon smirks. “Of course. I’ll be sure to inform your lady mother.” I’ll be sure to rub it in her face. He looks at Joanna. “Starks don’t get abducted.”

She scowls at him. “Come,” Joanna pulls at his arm. He sits her on a small, white table by her cousin’s side and takes a seat next to her. Joanna remains silent as the rest of the cave's human inhabitants file in. Ned hugs her when he catches sight of her, but their good mood sours when the Kingslayer strolls in.

“Congratulations are in order, Your Grace,” Jaime tells Aegon. “Why, what would Princess Elia think? She’d be happy, surely?”

Joanna stiffens at the mention of his mother. Underneath the table, he laces their fingers together in an effort to reassure her. “I’m sure she would be,” Aegon says. It is not a lie, even though he is not as certain as he sounds. “Lady Ashara once told me how Mother visited Casterly Rock after your brother Tyrion was born. She said she was quite taken with him, so I expect she’d be delighted with her own grandchild.”

Aegon expects Jaime to snap back a retort, but he grows thoughtful. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Elia truly loved children. She used to spend hours walking around the gardens with Princess Rhaenys when she was in King’s Landing.” Aegon leans forward. Until now, it has never struck him that the Kingslayer had any kind of relationship with his mother. Now that Ashara is gone, there are few Aegon can turn to for stories of Elia Martell. Jaime Lannister is not a credible source—far from it—but he is something. “She spent most of her time in Dragonstone because Aerys loved her little, but she enjoyed the city.”

“Why didn’t my grandfather like her?” He has never heard about this before.

“She was Dornish,” Jaime says simply. That puts an end to their conversation, turning supper into an uncomfortable affair.

“It’s blood stew,” Meera Reed tells him when she hands him a bowl. Despite the name, the dish tastes like regular stew, to Aegon’s relief. The girl remains with them long after everyone else leaves, pouring bowl after bowl for Joanna to eat.

“I can’t,” she says at last, pushing it away. “Thank you, but it’s too much. I’m tired.” She looks at Aegon, reaching out a hand. Sparing one last glance at Meera, he turns to leads Joanna back to her chambers, helping her to the bed. “Stay,” she says when he makes towards the tunnel. “Stay, please.”

Aegon looks at her. He climbs on the bed, winding his arms around her to pull her back against his chest, between his legs. She draws the furs up to her neck. Aegon hisses in pain when she lets her head fall onto his shoulder. “That hurts.” One of the children of the forest had cleaned and bandaged up the wound after he had bathed, but the wight had gouged its fingers deep.

Joanna shifts, brushing her lips against the soft spot underneath his ear. He tightens his arms around her. “I’m sorry.” She raises her hand to caress his cheek. “If I hadn’t left, none of this would have happened.”

Aegon kisses her brow, thrilled that they are being so intimate without sexual contact. “Don’t think that way,” he says. “We’re all safe, and the babe will soon be born. We can take Rhaegal south so you give birth at the Wall. Or Winterfell,” he adds, when her expression turns dark.

“I can’t. Rhaegal won’t let me ride him.” She gives him a tiny smile, her eyes sad, her voice so heartbroken he swallows down his questions. “He doesn’t listen to me anymore, but that’s beside the point. I can’t leave this cave until our child is born.”

“Why?” She cannot give birth here, without maester or midwife. She must know that.

Joanna looks down at her hands. “You’ll think I’m so stupid, Aegon.” He wants to reassure her that no, he will not think her stupid, but the fact is he thinks her staying here is ridiculous, whatever her reason. Lyanna Stark had died in the birthing bed, as had her mother before her. Taking any chances with childbirth is unreasonable when Joanna has such an unfortunate family history.

“I’ll keep an open mind.”

Joanna looks dubious, but she says, “When I crossed the Wall, I started having dreams of Bran, surrounded by so much snow, with Others all around him. I thought I’d be safe with Rhaegal, so I went deep into the Lands of Always Winter, until one day they ambushed Brienne and I.” Aegon bites his tongue. “Fire kills wights, but it turns out it does little to the Others. At least not when they’re surrounded by so much cold. Brienne cut through them and we made it out but…”


“They touched me—”

Aegon tilts her head so that their eyes meet. “They touched you?” Aegon has seen the ravages of war—sacks, razed fields watered with blood, burnt castles—and he has dealt with their aftermaths. He knows what women mean when they say a man has touched them. “They touched you how?” He feels fury, horror, helplessness, all in quick succession. How do you put immortal ice beings on trial for rape?

“No!” Joanna says. “Not that kind of touching, that’s not what I meant at all.” She covers her face with her hands. “Not that.” She gives a telling sniff.

Aegon does not know what to do, where to place his hands, what to say, how to comfort her. This is so unlike her, to allow herself to be vulnerable around him. Even at her worst, when she miscarried, she sent him away once she pulled herself together. Joanna has never truly sought comfort in him, and over the years he has come to expect indifference bordering on rejection.

“I’m sorry.” For bringing it up, for overreacting, for not going with you. For things he has no control over and for things that he does. He pulls her closer, running his hands through her hair, attempting to soothe her. “I’m so sorry, please don’t cry.”

“It’s not your fault, Aegon. It’s just…” She takes a deep breath, raising her head to look at him. He does not know what he sees that makes her sigh. “It’s nothing. They touched me and did something to me. The children say they turn human babes into Others and that’s why they wanted me. Lord Brynden says they wanted to turn me into an Other because I have Stark blood, because there are no female Others. I don’t know who’s right, but I can’t leave until the children sing the cold out of our babe.”

“Are you saying—?” Aegon struggles with his words. “Are you saying our child is an Other?”

Joanna holds his gaze. “They’ll sing him back to what he should have been, Aegon, you’ll see. They sing to me every morning to keep the cold at bay. Trust me. Our babe will be healthy and well.” She sounds more than a little desperate. Aegon wants to break something. He pulls Joanna closer, burying his face in her hair. “Aegon,” she whispers, a broken sob leaving her lips, as if she had not been attempting to reassure him a breath ago. “We’ll be alright, won’t we?”

Aegon takes a deep breath, blinking away tears.

“I hope so.”

Life, even in a cave, becomes routine.

Waking next to Joanna on a regular basis manages to be both stressful and a joy. She is much more affectionate than he remembers her ever being, kissing him with an intensity he finds painful. When he holds her at night, it is simple to forget the pain, but then he steps away and remembers. She had left him alone to deal with their crumbling kingdom after publicly jilting him. During that entire year, his lords had spoken of little but Joanna—Joanna, Aegon’s brilliant dragonriding wife, the same wife who had not deigned to speak to him until she had decided she wanted a child.

I didn’t even rate an explanation.

And yet he cannot stay angry with her, not when she spends half her day on a tub of boiling water to keep the cold away. When she emerges, her skin is a dark pink, and even the feel of wool on her skin makes her cringe in pain. Joanna leaves her chambers for little besides meals, but sometimes she takes the time to visit Bran and Bloodraven.

“Lord Brynden,” Joanna says one day after sitting down. “When will Bran’s training be done?” The boy is off somewhere with Ned and the simpleton, Aegon imagines.

“I can’t predict that, child. The boy must go at his own pace.”

Joanna frowns. “I can’t leave without him. He’s the heir to Winterfell.”

Aegon sets a hand on her shoulder but does not squeeze, mindful of how tender her skin remains. “Lady Stark remains his regent. As long as he remains in good health, it doesn’t matter where he is. He can stay if Lord Bloodraven think it best.”

Far from being pleased, Bloodraven glares at him with his one good eye. Presumably, it is for interrupting. Aegon has tried to figure out why the man has such a marked dislike for him, especially compared to how he dotes on Joanna, but his best guess is the shared bastardy. “Yes, child, listen to… your brother.” The way he spits out the words is offensive. The last person who should be judging incest is a Targaryen bastard who dabbled in it himself, but then it should not surprise him. Brynden Rivers spent a good deal of his life at the Wall, surrounded by Northerners, perhaps atoning for fucking his sister as well.

“But he can’t stay here forever!”

“I assure you, he will leave someday. When the time is right, I will inform the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. You’d come retrieve him. Is that acceptable?”

“How would you inform him? Can you send ravens?” Aegon eyes the man suspiciously. And if you can, why didn’t you send one to me, telling me about the child?

“New?” Joanna says before Bloodraven can answer him. “Did something happen to Lord Mormont?”

Aegon goes still as a corpse when Joanna turns her eyes on him. He examines her expression, trying to figure out whether he should lie or tell the truth. He has no idea whether she had been close to Mormont. “He died, I’m sorry.” Under different circumstances, he would not have hesitated to tell her, but Targaryen women are famous for birthing deformed babes when they fly into a rage.

“He didn’t just die,” Bloodraven reproaches. “You’re a fool.” The man’s voice is little more than a rasp, but it might as well be a scream, for all that it drowns out Aegon’s thoughts. He looks at Bloodraven’s face, at his raven birthmark and his name itself, and knows.

“You bloody bird,” he hisses. Joanna had told him about skinchangers years ago, but since she had difficulty with the skill since Ghost’s death, he had not given it much thought until arriving at this cave a week ago. Even then, he had not thought to connect an ex-Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch with a raven flapping around Mormont, but he should have. This kind of unfortunate coincidence is mundane in Aegon’s life.

“What does he mean, ‘he didn’t just die,’ Aegon?” Joanna narrows her eyes at him.

He glances from Joanna to Bloodraven, noting the latter’s blank face with more than a hint of resentment. “I had to come find you. The man refused to listen to me, I—”

“So you killed him,” Joanna says, her voice flat. “You killed him.”

“I had no choice!” he protests. “Wait!” He grabs her hand when she rises from her seat, but she pulls it away.

“Don’t touch me.” She turns to leave. He goes after her, but she snaps, “Don’t follow me, either!”

Aegon watches her go in silence, furious, and when she disappears into the darkness of the tunnel, he spins around to face Bloodraven. “Did you have to bring it up like this?”

He does not expect a response but Bloodraven gives him one. “What you did was foolish. Mormont was right. How many men died because you wanted to come here?” His eye seems to glow in the candlelight. “Two of your Kingsguard are dead. The third is dying, and the fourth is here. Two came back wights, the third will follow along shortly. And most of the other men with them are wights by now, too, all because you were… worried.”

Aegon takes a step back. “It was necessary, I couldn’t stay at the Wall forever!”

“Necessary, boy? Joanna may appreciate your presence here—although even that I’m no longer certain of—but you’re King. King’s rule. They don’t spend half a year at the Wall waiting for their wives to return. They don't go on suicide missions, specially when they don’t have an heir. They rule. They keep their kingdoms together. They don't grow sullen when things don’t go their way!”

He wants to deny Bloodraven’s words, but he is painfully aware that this man had served as Hand of the King for longer than Aegon has been alive. “Visenya—”

“Oh, you’re pitiful. Call her by her name and stop being such a child about it. Your sentimentality is revolting.”

Aegon balls his fists at his sides. Bloodraven's apathy is revolting, but violence will gain him nothing. “Joanna,” he grinds out, “is irreplaceable, Rhaegal even more so. I came here because I need an heir. If I’d had a child with another woman, thinking Joanna was dead, and then it turned out I was wrong, it would have caused a war.”

“And the way of preventing such a thing happening was to go into danger yourself? So that the Lords Paramount wage a different war over who is to be your successor? How is this any better?”

Aegon looks at Bloodraven, sitting still in his weirwood throne, at a man who has seen nine kings sit the Iron Throne and survived them, and the fight goes out of him. “It isn’t.”

“It isn’t,” Bloodraven agrees. He frowns, making the mushrooms on his forehead rub together. When he next opens his mouth, the words that fall out his mouth appear to be painful to say. “Kingship isn’t an easy task to undertake, but you could do well someday. You have the character for it, if not the proper guidance.”

“And you would provide said guidance?” Aegon asks spitefully.

Bloodraven presses his lips together in anger. “You remind me of Daemon,” he says. “Impertinent, quick to anger, leaping before looking. Yes, you’re much like him.”

“Daemon Blackfyre,” Aegon says. It is an insult if he has ever heard one.

“He could have been a good King, but he was surrounded by the likes of Bittersteel.” Bloodraven’s voice becomes even sharper. “It wasn’t his right to fight for the throne.” Something hangs in the air, accusations Aegon cannot guess at. Bloodraven is old, with so much history behind him. Aegon has not studied Bloodraven's life, has had no time for it, but even if he had, Aegon doubts he would have understood what the man is trying to tell him.

Aegon can almost taste it, whatever truth Bloodraven is dangling before him, but he ends up just shy of grasping it.

“The Blackfyres are no more.”

The day after his fight with Joanna, Meera Reed takes Aegon and Ned exploring around the caves and down into the abyss where the river rushes by, black as midnight. Hodor shuffles behind them, muttering his name over and over again.

“This place is enormous,” Aegon says.

“The children created it using their magic. Leaf said so.” Meera sticks one foot in the water. She wobbles for a second, and Ned grabs her before she topples forward.

“Careful,” Ned warns.

Aegon smiles at such a display of normalcy. “Did the children really shatter the Arm of Dorne, too?”

Meera nods, cheerful.


“Can they still do that? It would be useful to fight against the Others.” Aegon is nothing if not efficient. He may be stuck in this cave until Joanna gives birth, but he sees no reason to waste his time, not when he has an entire new species to study and a war to plan. “It’s alright,” he says when Meera looks at him blankly. “I’ll find out.”

Meera takes Ned up to the bridge, leaving Aegon alone with two cripples in one body.

Aegon steps closer to the river, surreptitiously eyeing the figure behind him. “Brandon,” he says. The boy takes a step back. “Does anyone else know you skinchange into Hodor?”

“How did y—?”

He had figured it out by simple coincidence earlier today, when the boy had slipped and made no sound upon his fall, but Aegon is not about to give that away. “I have my ways. Does anyone else know?”

“Meera… she knows I can.”

“But she doesn’t know how often,” Aegon guesses. The way the boy fidgets makes it clear he is correct. “I won’t tell.”

Brandon slinks farther from him, as if afraid. “You won’t?”

“You’ll fall into the river if you do that again, Brandon.” He smirks when Bran rushes forward, looking between the bend in the river and Aegon’s turned back in amazement.

“How did you do that?”

“Targaryens have gifts of our own.” All of which seem to have skipped me. “You have your gods, and we have ours.” Not that I worship them. “Walk with me,” he tells the boy, finally looking away from the river’s broken surface. “Tell me how your training is going.” Tell me what your training consists of.

Brandon Stark tells him about his training, but from that day on, the boy takes it upon himself to trail behind Aegon, telling him about his family. Mostly, he speaks of things Aegon does not care about, such as how much Sansa loves lemoncakes. Sometimes, though, he talks about Joanna, and Aegon listens. It is a strange but tender thing, the way this boy says his wife’s name with so much cheer. It melts Aegon’s heart the tiniest amount, but it also makes him green with envy.

When Aegon hears about how Arya gave Joanna all her jewels in order to help her escape her impending marriage to the Usurper; how Theon Greyjoy rescued her from a band of pirates; how Robb Stark died protecting her; how Sansa had crowned her above Lady Stark’s objections... that is when he knows that for all that Joanna carries his child, he is nothing but a crown to her.

It is impossible to not arrive at that conclusion, so when she comes to watch him and Lady Brienne spar one day, he does not even turn to look at her.

“I was fostered on Bear Island,” she tells him once Brienne goes.

“You’ve said.” One of the few things you have.

“Why did you kill him?”

“So now you want explanations? Now you want to talk? Is this how it’ll always be? You get upset, you shut me out, and I have to sit tight until you decide you want to deal with me?” He whirls around to face her, sitting primly by the cave’s entrance, one hand resting on her belly. “I’m not a thing to be set down and picked up whenever you choose, Visenya.”

“Joanna,” she corrects him.

Aegon can pick his battles. “As you say.” When she does not reply, he makes to leave, but she speaks up then.

“I’m sorry.” My wife is never sorry. “I don’t mean to make you feel like I don’t care about you,” she says. At any other time he would have denied that he feels anything at all, but he does, and damn her for knowing it.

“And?” he prompts.

“And nothing, Aegon. I can’t talk to you about things until I’ve come to terms with them myself.”

“No.” Aegon shakes his head. “You probably mean that, I’ll give you as much, but it’s not that you can’t. It’s that you won’t. If everyone else can, so can you. It’s the fact that there are no repercussions for running away that allows you to keep doing it. But if that child is a boy,” he says, steel in his voice, “that will be a moot point anyway.”

“So what if the child is a boy? What does that have to do with anything?”

“I just need an heir. Afterwards, you can leave and never come back if that’s your wish. What you do is up to you, but I won’t live like this any longer than I have to. It’s destructive. Do you have any idea how nerve-wracking the past year and a half has been? Do you know,” he snarls, “how close to dying I came in Dorne? Did you bother to ask?”

“I’m sorry about—”

“Sorry?” He laughs. “Do you think that’s enough for trying to kill me?”

“I didn’t! I thought—I thought Rhaegal would shake you off but I didn’t think—”

He turns his back on her, unwilling to let her see how much this all upsets him. She hates to share her hurts with him, even if of late she has been more open about them. He will not paint himself as even more of a fool in front of her eyes. “And just because you didn’t think, would that have made me any less dead?” he snaps.

“If you hate me so much, then why are you here?” Another woman might have cried, but Joanna’s voice is as cold as the North.

“I don’t hate you.” And another man might have lied, but Aegon is so tired of lies. “That’s what you said in Dorne, that I’d hate you, but I don’t. I hate the way you push me away. I hate the way you lie to me. I hate the way you leave and expect me to be willing to talk whenever you want, as if I have no agency and absolutely nothing better to do with my life than wait for you to be ready. But I don’t hate you, certainly not for who your mother is, even if that makes life more complicated than it used to be. Are you going to say you’re sorry now, yet again? I don’t want an apology. I want to try to fix this, if at all possible.”

“And how are we supposed to go about fixing it?” She sounds miserable, so he spins around to face her.

“How often do you tell me the truth, the real truth? Have you ever?” He walks up to her. “Or do you tell me just enough so that I believe you?” He takes a lock of hair, winds it around his finger. Joanna watches him, wordless. “Tell me something I should know. Tell me something real.”

“You don’t want to know the real me, Aegon.” She looks him in the eyes, her grey eyes dead with fear.

“Yes, I do,” he insists. “Give me a chance.”

Joanna takes a deep breath. He braces himself, recognizing the spiteful look in her eyes, and he knows before she speaks that her words are going to hurt them both. “When I returned from Bear Island and Lady Stark was so cold, I told myself I was a true Stark and she was not. I had ice in my veins and she did not, and if I wanted to I could turn into an Other and freeze her lips shut. Then Ghost died and the cold died as well. It was like fire came to life within me from that moment on. I was so quick to anger, so quick to… hurt others.”

“Hurt others,” he echoes. “Hurt who?”

Joanna hesitates. “Aegon, please.”

“You could have chosen any number of things to tell me, but you chose this. So tell me.” She looks away, but he steps in front of her. “Tell me.”

“We’re never going back from this if I do,” she warns.

Aegon meets her eyes. “I don’t want to go back.”

Joanna shuts her eyes. “I killed Tommen Baratheon,” she breathes. “No one knows. I was careful. I… I killed Tommen Baratheon.”

“Tommen Baratheon,” he says, trying to recall what little he knows of the name, but it is next to nothing. The boy, as far as Aegon knows, had been dead for long before his invasion. “Why? What purpose did that serve?”

She does not open her eyes. “He was a child,” she whispers. “He was six.”

A child, just like Rhaenys. “Why kill him?” He takes a step back, the horror of Joanna’s words finally sinking in, but she grabs his wrist and pins him in place with her eyes, not a tear in sight, for all that she appears to regret her actions.

“He was a sacrifice.”

Aegon tugs his arm free of her hold. “A sacrifice for what?”

“I was inside Ghost when Jaime murdered him. I was going mad, out of control, and I scared myself. Robert Baratheon, the Lannisters… they all took so much from me. They hurt me! So I killed their son and begged the old gods for a piece of myself back, but they didn’t return Ghost. They didn’t do anything when I asked them to fix me, when I asked them to give back the ice, but that’s not true, is it? I wanted to be made out of ice so badly, Aegon, and look at me now. I’m turning into an Other, and what of our child? What have I done? I’m cursed!”

Aegon recalls the last time she had said those words to him, as they had both cried for their dead babe. Joanna is not crying now, but strangely enough, he feels like she is seeking comfort, as opposed to before. He wavers between rejection and acceptance, frozen still by her revelation.

“Was it worth it?” She gives a bitter laugh. “The truth?”

His heart is in his throat. “When I found the Usurper in the Black Cells,” he says instead of answering, “I had him tortured.” His limbs had been cut piece by piece and fed to him raw until he died of food poisoning.

There is a beat of silence.

“I know.”

“You always know,” he says, “but I’m not proud of what I had done to him.”

Joanna shakes her head. “It’s not the same. Killing Tommen and Robert—they’re different.”

“Sometimes good people do bad things, Joanna.” Aegon takes her hand—her right, the one she had most likely used to kill an innocent child—and brushes his thumb over the middle of her palm. He breathes in, out, again and again, grief and anger twin heartbeats inside him.

“I’m not good,” she says.

“You don’t have to be.”

There is nothing triumphant about getting to know Joanna, not under these circumstances. “You would have liked me better before,” she tells him the next day after lunch. He knows, by now, that before means before Ghost. He does not understand how the death of a simple animal could have had such a devastating effect on her psyche, but it is clear that it did. Aegon will not question it.

He does not reply to her, well aware of how fruitless it is to attempt to convince her otherwise. Perhaps she is right and he would have liked her better as an innocent girl playing with her wolf, but regardless of Joanna’s preferences, that girl would always have been a lie. A dragon is a dragon, and dragons burn.

He sings her Alysanne and Fair Maids of Summer when she asks for them. When she finds he has no Northern songs for her, Joanna teaches him Brave Danny Flint and Black Pines, which she knows by heart. He tells her about what she had missed since she had last been to King’s Landing: Theon Greyjoy’s dismissal from the small council; Ned and Arya’s unfortunate affair and their possible love children; Cletus Yronwood’s doomed attraction to Sansa; Jon’s unhappy marriage; Mychel Redfort’s ascension to the Kingsguard; and Myrcella Lannister’s general oddness, for the girl cannot find her way around the Red Keep despite having lived in Maegor’s Holdfast for years. They both ignore what they confessed the day before until a terrible thought sneaks up on Aegon.

“Does the Kingslayer know?” That you killed his son?

“No one knows,” she tells him, but Aegon is wary nonetheless. There are two knights of the Kingsguard in the cave, so he makes sure one of them keeps their eyes trained on Jaime Lannister at all times. Nonetheless, the Kingslayer keeps away from Joanna. Aegon sees him little, save at meal times, which are unfailingly awkward.

The way Jaime stares at him, golden brows furrowed over ornery green eyes, makes Aegon uncomfortable for reasons he cannot explain. He’s judging, Aegon knows. Every time the man turns up his nose at him, he thinks of his laughing courtiers calling him the dragon king, mocking him behind his back.

“Rhaegar,” Jaime says one day, when he finds Aegon by the river, “would have been a good king.”

“I’ve been told.” He keeps his eyes trained on Jaime’s reflection, ready to move if the man attempts to make good on his moniker.

“So would your wife.” Would you say the same if you knew she killed your son? he thinks, but keeps silent. “She acts more like him than you do.”

Aegon grits his teeth. “You’re not the first person to tell me so, ser.” Jon has often bemoaned how different he is from Rhaegar Targaryen, although Aegon cannot fathom why this is a bad thing, considering how brooding Kings tend to be bad Kings as well. He thinks of Joanna's buried secrets, of her keeping him at arm's length, and yes, oh yes, he can see how she is their father's daughter.

If she is Rhaegar Targaryen come again, am I her Elia Martell?

Jaime kicks a rock into the river. “You don’t act like Elia, either.”

At this, Aegon rises to his feet, turning to face the Kingslayer. “And were you in my mother’s confidence? My father’s? Did they tell you their most intimate secrets and allow you to attend to them day and night?” He smirks. “Or were you in King’s Landing, a hostage in all but name?”

The Kingslayer does not react at Aegon’s jab. “Yes, not like either of them at all.”

“This will no doubt surprise you, my lord, but Kings raised in obscurity have reason to act markedly different to their parents.”

Jaime curls his lip. “Why, are there many Kings with claims to the Iron Throne in the east? Blackfyre Kings, maybe?”

“Maelys the Monstrous was the last of the Blackfyre pretenders,” he bites out. Jaime Lannister is not the first person to imply Aegon himself is a Blackfyre, and he will not be the last. As a rule, Lord Varys does a remarkable job at keeping such talk out of Aegon’s hearing, but then the Spider is not here to do so.

“Maelys the Monstrous,” Jaime says. “It’s a funny thing, that epithet. As if all Kings are not monstrous and terrible. Aerys, Robert, Joffrey… they were all crowned beasts, rapists with too many rights and too little common sense. Are you any different?”

“You know I’m different.” Aegon steps closer to Jaime. “And that eats you alive. That you were loyal to people who didn’t deserve it and failed people who did.”

Jaime mirrors Aegon. The Kingslayer is an inch taller than Aegon, but it makes no difference. “Aerys Targaryen didn’t deserve my loyalty,” Jaime spits out.

“And my father? My mother?”

Jaime smirks. “You’ll find I never swore any oaths to them.”

Aegon swallows his anger, dismissing the Kingslayer with a glance. He hates Jaime Lannister for his smugness and because, for all that the man is bitter, he regrets little. An honorable man would attempt to repent, but no, not a Lannister. Tyrion, Aegon recalls, had been infuriating as well, but at least he had been entertaining on occasion.

His mood is not helped when that night, upon falling asleep, he finds himself in a ballroom made out of blood red marble and dragonglass columns. Outside, thunder rumbles even though there is no storm and black shadows disturb the night sky. Music rises above the clamor, and silver-haired men and women dance all around him.

Valyrians, he thinks, but then he spots Joanna in the crowd. He makes his way towards her, but she is whirled away by a striking man with indigo eyes. He looks at them, truly looks, and realizes that he is looking at his father and—

Lyanna Stark glares at him, dancing in circles all around Aegon with with his father.

Where is my mother? He cannot spot her, but as he looks, he finds more and more people he recognizes from paintings. Maekar and Dyanna, Jaehaerys and Alysanne, Daemon and Rhaenyra, Aemon and Naerys… they are all looking at him.

“Blackfyre,” they cry. “Blackfyre!”

“No,” Aegon whispers.

“Aegon,” a voice says from behind him. He whirls around. Joanna, her stomach flat, takes his hands and places them on her waist. They skin and spin, but the crush of bodies is never far behind. Targaryens dance closer and closer, until there is no space to move.

Someone pulls at his hair.

“Blackfyre,” Ashara snarls, and he wakes to Joanna whispering his name.

“Aegon, what’s wrong?” She places a hand on his shoulder.

“Just a nightmare,” he says, wondering what exactly Ashara had been doing in a room full of dead Targaryens and their great loves.

“You’ve been having a lot of those.” Joanna eyes him suspiciously.

“It’s nothing to worry about.” He kisses her brow to reassure her, but she looks unconvinced all the same. Sighing, he climbs out of bed. “Did I wake you?”

“No. I couldn’t sleep either.” She holds out a hand, so he helps her sit up then leaves her to her bath, with the children singing all around her. He can hear their lilting voices when he steps into the main cave, coming face to face with Bloodraven.

“You have something to ask,” he asks.

Aegon nods. “Are my dreams real?”

“They may be,” Bloodraven tells him. “It depends. Visions, green dreams, dragon dreams… none of them are easy to understand.” He shifts, making the weirwood going through him groan. “But if you’d like, I’d be willing to help you interpret them.”

Aegon keeps his sneer off his face. “No need. Thank you.” Not that you’re of any help.

“Even if you’re not willing to share,” Bloodraven says as Aegon starts to turn away, “I am. The Seven Kingdoms are falling apart. The grey plague has spread out from Oldtown, Viserion is razing the Crownlands in search of a rider, and Arianne Martell has declared herself Queen of Dorne. You’ve been absent for too long.”

Aegon’s eyes widen. “Arianne would never!”

“Would never?” the man in the tree rasps out. “She has, boy. You should be asking yourself why. Joanna could tell you, but dare you ask?”

Aegon’s heart slams into his chest. “Arianne would never,” he insists. “She’s my family, she’s—”


Aegon clenches his jaw. “You’re a liar and a sorcerer and I have no reason to trust you. You’re keeping children in this cave and using them for your own ends. Do you think Meera is stupid? Do you think she can’t figure out what happened to her brother? Missing,” Aegon scoffs. “Dead, more like. I don’t know what you did, but if you think I’ll trust you over my cousin, you’re delusional.”

Bloodraven curls his lip. “You’re not going to have a choice.” His eyes slide off Aegon, to something behind him.

Aegon twists around, coming face to face with one of the children of the forest, a dagger in her hand. She holds it out for Aegon to take, but he recoils away from her. “What do you want?” He wants to take Joanna away from this cave and never come back. He wants to forget about the famed children of the forest, parasitic weirwoods and cannibalistic greenseers.

“The child is coming.”

“Yes, I know.” And as soon as it is born, I’m leaving.

The woman shakes her dainty head. “The child is coming now. The dragon girl is giving birth,” she adds.

“She was doing well when I left her,” he says, feeling unsteady.

“And she’s still doing well,” the child of the forest agrees. “But unless you want her to birth an Other, you must come with me.”

Aegon protests, but she turns on her heel without listening to his words. He follows after her, stumbling on his feet and crashing into her when she stops inside a dank room littered with bones. Chains hang from the uneven walls, holding in their grip animals and humans both, all in various states of decomposition. Only one chain holds a live animal, a grey wolf with yellow eyes.

Aegon cannot keep up.

“Grey Wind,” he says, rushing forward to help the wounded direwolf, but Leaf stops him.

The child of the forest presses the dagger into his hands and tells him, “Only death can pay for life.”