Sansa knew that something was happening behind her in the throne room, something that had nothing to do with her. Joffrey’s face was white as a ghost, and all the little noises that had tittered through the room after Ser Meryn drove his fist into her stomach—the whispers, muffled shrieks, even the giggles—were falling silent.
Sansa was sprawled across the floor and she could not have looked away from Joffrey’s face had she wanted to. She scarcely cared what was happening elsewhere. Her life and death lay in Joffrey’s next words. Something was wrong with her; she could barely breathe, and she did not think she could walk. Her back was cold where Ser Meryn had torn her gown open. The welts laid down by the flat of his sword burned against her thighs and back like wildfire.
Suddenly, there was movement nearby, and Sansa realized she was probably making a spectacle of herself as people tried to move past her. But it scarcely mattered. If Sansa was in the way of some lord’s stately progress, they were simply going to have to step over her or drag her aside. Or perhaps Joffrey would just make an end of her with his crossbow. His mother would be displeased if Sansa died, but for all the Queen’s treachery, she had not wanted Sansa’s father beheaded, either. Joffrey did what he liked in the end. He’d proven that by now.
“Your Grace, my lords, ladies.” The seneschal’s voice rang through the throne room, clear as a bell against the hushed silence. “Doran Martell, ruling prince of Dorne, is come to renew his oaths of fealty to his Grace the King. Along with…his retainers.”
Sansa gasped quietly, forcing herself up to her knees. The prince of Dorne, Septa Mordayne’s voice seemed hiss in her ear, on your feet, girl, you must curtsey!
But before Sansa could do more than plant her hands on the floor, there was a strong hand at her elbow, pulling her upright. She nearly flinched, certain it was Ser Meryn again, but when she blinked the tears out of her eyes she found herself face-to-chest with an unfamiliar suit of armor—copper scales that glinted in the sunlight streaming through the windows. She looked up further and saw the face of a handsome young man. His mouth was tipped up at the corners in a sympathetic smile, but something hard and angry burned in his eyes.
“Come along,” he whispered. “We must make way for my prince.”
Sansa scarcely heard Joffrey beginning to make some elaborate apology for the scene at the foot of his throne—“my betrothed wife, you know, in need of correction”— nor did she hear much of Prince Doran’s reply, though his low and gracious tones were just audible from behind the hangings of his palanquin chair, which was held at waist level by four knights.
The other Dornish knight, the one was supporting most of Sansa’s weight against his arm, began to lead her towards the exit leading from the throne room beneath the gallery. Sansa mustered the strength to glance back towards the palanquin before she was out of view.
There, propped upon cushions, she saw a thin man with dark hair, streaked in silver. His cool black eyes lit on her for only the briefest of moments before turning their dark light once more onto the King.
Sansa shuddered, and as soon as she had passed through the doors of the throne room she grasped for the wall, freezing and numb and unable to take another step. The knight at her side muttered a curse under his breath and barked an order at a man standing at attention in the corridor—another Dornish knight, distinctive by the orange cloth wound round his helm.
Sansa thought both knights angry with her at first, and it would have frightened her more if she hadn’t already been so sick with fear. But the second knight only marched up to them and removed his orange cloak; the first knight, the handsome one, covered Sansa with it, so that neither her corset nor the bloody welts on her shoulders were exposed to the open air.
Sansa could have wept for gratitude, but they were strangers here, they did not know. “Ser,” she whispered, “the king will not thank you for this. Nor will he thank your prince.”
The knight smiled at her again, and this time his eyes were warm. “It was Prince Doran sent me,” he said. “May I escort you to chambers?”
“I—” Sansa was not certain how she would make it back to her chambers without help, but she was afraid of this Dornish knight, for all his gallantry. She did not know him, and he did not know that she was but a traitor’s daughter. Who was to say that he would not become angry with her when he learned that he’d wasted his time courting the favor of a girl whose favors were worth less than nothing?
The knight waited for her answer, but as the moment dragged on he seemed to arrive at a decision of his own.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he said, “but truly, I do not think you have the strength to go anywhere under your own power just now. I must carry you. Please do not be alarmed. On my honor, I shall take no liberties.”
So saying, he placed an arm under her legs and swept her off her feet so suddenly that Sansa had no choice but to wind her arms around his neck, or else fall.
Nor did she have any chance about crying out at the sudden pain—in all the places he was gripping her most tightly, the welts from Ser Meryn’s sword were burning their hottest. Miserable, humiliated, she felt the tears soaking her cheeks, but the Dornish knight did not laugh at her or drop her again. Instead, he made a soft, soothing noise of apology under his breath and adjusted his grip, until his arms were no longer pressing into the welts on her thighs or her back.
“You…you are you certain your prince does not require you to attend him?” Sansa managed to ask once she had got her breath back. One of her maids—the one who had tittered loudest when Ser Meryn knocked the wind from her, Sansa remembered—was leading the way back to Sansa’s chambers, but she seemed to be taking them the long way.
“On the contrary, my lady,” said the knight. “I am certain that I am precisely where my prince requires me to be.” His strides were long and confident, as though she weighed no more to him than one of the straw knights the master-at-arms used to train the boys in the yard.
“You do not know who I am,” she protested, her voice feeble, though her urgency gave her strength. “You do not understand. The King does not permit me to receive such attentions—”
“I serve Prince Doran,” said the knight, and though his tone was not harsh, it forbade further argument. “And he knows who you are, Lady Sansa.”
Sansa did not have the strength to argue with him further. He was kind, she thought, and she only hoped he would not come to any harm on her account. Her maids—the Queen’s spies, one and all—were watching him closely, their eyes alight with curiosity, even envy. Let them take a beating from Meryn Trant, Sansa thought viciously. Then they would learn whether the attentions of even the handsomest Dornish knights are sufficient recompense.
When they reached her chambers at last, the maids opened the door for them, and the Dornish knight carried Sansa all the way to her bed, depositing her gently against the pillows. Before she could thank him, or even speak to him, he turned towards the senior of her maids, and told her to send for a maester.
“Ser…” The maid exchanged nervous looks with the other girls. “The King does not…that is, he has never before given instructions…”
Even though Sansa was beginning to feel light headed, she could sense the anger in the knight’s silence.
“Ser, I will be well enough,” she called to him quietly. “I thank you for your kind service. May I know the name of the one to whom I am so obliged?”
The knight continued to stare at the maids a moment longer before turning back to Sansa. “I am Ser Daemon Sand, the Bastard of Godsgrace, my lady,” he said, bowing. “And there is no obligation. I did no more than my duty.”
He bowed again, a little more briefly, to her ladies, before departing the room at a swift clip.
Some ten or twenty minutes later, after Sansa had nearly fallen asleep, there came a knock at her door. When the maid answered it, a young man in maester’s robes and chain entered.
“Lady Sansa.” He bowed. “I am Maester Myles, I have come to tend to your injuries.”
There was a small casket in his hands, of the kind Maester Luwin once used to keep his ointments and potions. Sansa kept her eyes trained on the casket, and avoided looking at her maids.
“The King was most kind to send you,” she said, though even as she said it, she knew that Joffrey had nothing to do with his being here.
The maester arched an eyebrow and began unpacking his casket on her bedside table. “Prince Doran sent me, my lady. The King is…otherwise occupied, or no doubt you would be receiving the benefits of his maester’s attentions.”
Sansa struggled to sit up. Bad enough that she had been whisked from Joffrey’s presence without his leave. This could lead to far more serious consequences.
“Prince Doran is most attentive,” she said. “But I beg you…I tried to tell Ser Daemon…if the King hears of it...”
“That is not my concern, my lady,” said the master, his tones brisk. “I am bound to obey Prince Doran’s commands. Drink this, please.”
Sansa knew it was milk of the poppy, and sensing that she would have no more luck repelling this maester than she had had in repelling Ser Daemon, she chose to drink it straight down. Whatever he was about to do to her, it was bound to be painful, and she would just as soon sleep through it.
“I will leave more for the morning,” the maester said, noting the expression of relief on her face as the potion spread numbing hands over all her hurt places.
“Thank you,” Sansa whispered, even as she collapsed back onto the bed. “Please give Prince Doran my gratitude as well.”
“I shall, my lady.”
Sansa was stiff when she woke the next morning, but she could walk, which made a considerable difference since the last time Joffrey had… Still, grateful though she was to be able to hobble to the privy and back on her own, she returned to bed immediately afterwards. At noon, she rose to bathe and eat a little, but it wasn’t until nightfall, when her maids had been sent to their supper, that she felt able to leave her rooms and go for a walk in the gardens. Her walks were the only thing that relieved the tedium of her days in this place, where she was no longer permitted to so much as embroider or play the harp.
It was just as well that it was dark when she stepped out of doors. There was no grace in the way she moved. She limped, rather than glided, and more than once the toe of her slippers caught on the hem of her dress. She decided to take a seat on the first bench she came to, though it was not nearly as removed from the promenade as she would have wished. She would have preferred above all to go to the godswood, where no one ever spoke to her or even looked at her, but such a walk was impossible in her condition.
Sansa sat with her hands folded respectably in her lip and kept her eyes trained on the cobbles, her loose hair falling like shields on either side of her face. She had been sitting there about twenty minutes when a pair of leathern sandals stepped into view.
“My lady.” Sansa looked up, to find Ser Daemon smiling down on her once more. “I hope I find you in better health and spirits today?”
“Yes, Ser Daemon,” she said, because it was not a lie. Of course, she would have said the same even if it had been a lie. “My thanks for your inquiries. And…and for the maester. That was very kind of you.” The maester might have come to her with Prince Doran’s leave, but she had no doubt that it was the knight who informed the prince that her wounds would receive no care from the King.
Ser Daemon shook his head dismissively. “I know that the hour is late, Lady Sansa, but Prince Doran has sent me to request the honor of a visit from you. Might I escort you to him? He keeps to his rooms while he recovers from the long journey from Dorne.”
All at once, Sansa felt faint again, this time for apprehension. “I am a member of the Queen’s own household,” she said, hearing the strain in her own voice. “Without her leave, I am not permitted—”
“Prince Doran inquired with the Hand of the King earlier, and he gave permission. Does that allay your fears?”
Sansa swallowed. The Queen and Lord Tyrion had no love of one another, it was well known. But while his father was away, Lord Tyrion seemed to do as he liked. And he had been kind to Sansa in the past; perhaps he would keep this visit a secret from the Queen.
“If my Lord Hand has approved it, I can see no objection,” said Sansa carefully. “I would certainly be loath to refuse an invitation from the Prince of Dorne.”
Sansa stood up rather awkwardly—she had to brace her hand on the bench, and she wobbled when she got to her feet. But Ser Daemon seemed to sense the trouble instantly, and no sooner was Sansa upright than she found her arm tucked tightly into his. She had no choice but to lean heavily against him as he led the way to the prince’s chambers, but it made the pain far easier to bear.
Ser Daemon knocked twice at the prince’s door, then entered, as if he was expected. Sansa peered past him to see that a large round table of polished oak sat in the midst of a room that was otherwise mostly bare, save for a few chairs and a cushioned chaise that looked as though it belonged more properly to some lady’s boudoir.
The man Sansa had glimpsed in the palanquin yesterday was now seated near the window in a chair the likes of which Sansa had never see. It was as large as a throne, and at either side were fastened two large wheels wrought of iron and ebony. The prince grasped the wheels with both hands, and in so doing, turned the chair round to face the door.
“Lady Sansa.” He smiled. “Thank you, Daemon, you may leave us.”
Ser Daemon bowed and left, shutting the doors behind him. It was Sansa’s turn to curtsey now, but without Ser Daemon’s arm to cling to, there was a good chance she would stumble—
But before Sansa could make a move, Prince Doran had rolled his chair across the room, until he was close enough to extend her his hand. Sansa’s heart fluttered in her chest, but she offered her own hand and tried not to blush when the prince brushed his lips over the back of it.
“It was very good of you to come and see me,” said Prince Doran, squeezing her hand gently before releasing it. “I know it is scarcely regular for a prince to invite a maiden to dine with him alone at such an hour, but we shall be well-chaperoned, I assure you. In truth, I have been awaiting the opportunity of speaking with you all day, but Daemon tells me that you only recently left your chambers.”
“I…yes, my prince, that is so. I was…resting.”
“Yes, I imagine you were.” Prince Doran’s expression was both thoughtful and gentle, as though he wished to put Sansa at her ease. “My maester tells me that your injuries are more likely to prove painful than severe, though he had some concerns about your rib.”
Her rib…where Ser Meryn drove his fist into her stomach. Sansa’s hand grazed over the bruise automatically. “It does not pain me so much today, my prince,” she said quickly, because of course she could say nothing else.
“Hmm.” Prince Doran glanced over at the chaise, which had been pulled up alongside the table. An extra layer of thick cushions had been arranged atop it, and the prince indicated it with a wave of his hand. “Will you be seated? I have ordered a light supper, which should be served shortly.”
Not knowing what else to do, Sansa arranged herself amongst the cushions silently. It was obvious to her now that the chaise had been brought to this room on purpose for her use, so that she could sit without too much discomfort. She didn’t know what to make of so much thoughtfulness. It was all of a piece with Prince Doran’s attentions to her yesterday, though, Ser Daemon and the maester, and she knew that she should be nothing but grateful.
But she had been in the Red Keep long enough to understand that every kindness, every courtesy, came with a price attached, and Sansa knew so little of the Prince of Dorne that she could not begin to imagine what he could want of her in exchange for all of this. Her uncertainty made her feel anxious and suspicious, and she hated that; she would so much rather have looked at the prince as a friend and opened her heart to him, as she had not dared to do with anyone since her father’s death.
“I scarcely know how to thank you for your many kind attentions, my prince,” she said, choosing her words carefully. All her life she had been told that courtesy was a lady’s armor, but she had not fully understood the truth of it until recently. When one spoke in courtesies—and only in courtesies—it was like speaking an entirely new language, with pitfalls for the unwary in every phrase. “I…I must confess, I do not know what I have done to deserve your notice.”
Prince Doran waved a hand, and there was a merry glint in his eye suddenly that made him seem younger—almost young enough to seem handsome. He was older than her father, and she could tell that he was ill—ill enough to make use of a palanquin and a rolling chair, and there were deep lines, scored by grief or pain, alongside his mouth and his eyes. But as a young man, he must have been quite fetching, and there was so much energy and intelligence in his features that it was hard to look away from them, even now.
“Many years ago, your father performed a great service for my family,” Prince Doran said. “That will suffice should the King or Queen demand explanations from you.”
“I see.” Sansa pleated her skirt between her fingers. She could not recall her father ever mentioning such a service to House Martell. “Was there…some other reason as well?”
Prince Doran smiled, and the light in his eyes became soft and sad.
“Kindness needs no reason,” he said, a note of dismissal in his voice. “I would ask you a personal question, Lady Sansa. My maester is of the opinion that the incident I witnessed yesterday was…not the first of its nature?”
How could he know that, he’s hardly been here a day, Sansa thought, and then she realized. Some of the older welts must have become scars; the maester must have seen them as he dressed her wounds. Sansa had feared as much, listening to her maids whisper when they attended her in the bath, but she had never tried to catch a glimpse in a looking glass. Now she knew for certain. Her shame was permanent. Any man she married—supposing Lord Tyrion ended her betrothal to Joffrey and found her another husband, as he’d once promised—would know how she came by them, or would have to be told. And how will your husband like that, a voice whispered in her ear, having a bride not only disgraced, but disfigured?
“It was not the first time, my prince,” Sansa whispered. “But, truly, the King has his reasons...”
The prince shook his head. “I heard the King’s excuses yesterday. You need make none for him.”
Sansa was spared from having to decide how to answer a remark like that, which Joffrey would have considered borderline treasonous, when the doors opened again, and two maids holding platters of food and wine. They were followed, a few paces behind, by none other than Lord Tyrion. Sansa stiffened and caught her breath.
“Prince Doran.” Tyrion bowed. “I seem to have arrived on the very—Lady Sansa?” He gawked at her for a moment, before offering a belated bow. “Forgive me, my lady, I had not thought… My prince, have I mistaken the hour of our meeting?”
“No, my Lord Hand. I wished for Lady Sansa to take part in our discussions this evening. Please be seated.”
Prince Doran waved Tyrion towards the table. Sansa watched discreetly as Tyrion took the place the prince had indicated for him, and saw that his chair, like Sansa’s, had also been specially selected—the seat was high, with two rungs like a ladder on the sides, so that Tyrion would not be at a disadvantage due to his height. Nor would he be reduced to the indignity of having to sit on a box, or on a stack of books. The implication was not lost on Tyrion, Sansa realized, and she saw that Tyrion was also looking at Sansa’s cushioned chaise, and the prince’s rolling chair. All three seats had been positioned around the circular table in a triangle formation, so that all three of them had a good view of the other two. It is as if we are all equals here in the sight of Dorne, Sansa realized, and there was something in that realization which made her feel afraid and thrilled at the same time.
All three of them, Prince of Dorne, King’s Hand, and disgraced traitor’s daughter, sat quietly while the maids arranged platters and jugs around the table. The foods were unlike any Sansa had ever eaten—flatbreads with soft white cheese applied with a trowel, chickpea paste, roasted peppers and sauces, chunks of lamb on skewers. Tyrion did not hesitate to help himself, but he seemed to be familiar with these dishes. Prince Doran, on the other hand, served Sansa personally, helping her to what seemed to be the choicest portions of each dish. It had been a long time since Sansa was honored thus as dinner, and she had to blink rapidly to keep tears at bay.
“Allow me to say again how very good of you it was to travel all this way from Dorne, my prince,” said Tyrion, when all their plates were full. “It must have been a taxing journey.”
“Your letter took me by surprise. A most…kingly offer, the hand of your own sweet niece Princess Myrcella, for my son Prince Trystane.”
Sansa froze with her hand on the cheese trowel. No one in the court knew of this. Sansa was fairly certain the Queen did not know it. And if she learned of it from Sansa…or worse, if she learned of it later, and discovered that Sansa had not told her…
“Naturally, I felt that such an offer deserved my personal attention,” the prince continued, his eyes flickering ever-so-briefly towards Sansa. “And it seemed to me as well that other matters might be arranged to our mutual satisfaction, were I present to see them through.”
“I see,” said Tyrion, filling his wine goblet. He tapped his finger against the rim for a moment. “I hear curious tidings of your elder son, Prince Quentyn. He is traveling, is he not? And has been, for some time.”
Sansa sensed the tension that followed Tyrion’s comment, but she did not where it was coming from. Was it not common knowledge that Prince Quentyn was away from Dorne? Was this some test, coming from Lord Tyrion? The more time Sansa sat at this table, the less certain she was that she ought to be here. Why had the prince requested her presence? Her appetite had not been strong to begin with—the milk of the poppy had that effect on the stomach sometimes—and now she could not bring herself to take another bite.
“Yes, his mother returned to her birthplace in Essos some years ago, and Quentyn proposed that he visit her, to learn more of his mother’s people.” Prince Doran seemed utterly placid—if his son’s whereabouts had been a secret, it seemed not to perturb him that Tyrion knew of them. “Quentyn will return in time, all the wiser for his journeying, it is to be hoped.” He smiled. “And when he returns, he will be in need of a wife”
Sansa said nothing, but her stomach sank. This, then, was why she had been invited to share a meal with the prince of Dorne and the Hand of the King. There was no reason why Prince Doran would make mention of his son’s needing a wife unless Sansa was the wife he had in mind. But that did not mean that her opinion, or even her reaction, was wanted. Sansa had no say in how the Crown disposed of her hand. Whatever was decided for her, she would have no choice but to obey, and act as though she were grateful. So why did Prince Doran care whether she was present?
Tyrion darted a sharp glance at Sansa and looked back towards Prince Doran. “Is it known when Prince Quentyn will return from his travels?” he asked, his tone delicate.
Prince Doran sighed—a father’s sigh of exasperation, Sansa thought, but at least partly feigned. “He is of that age when a father’s opinion means but little. Sometimes he writes that he will be with us again in a month, other times that he means to take ship to Tyrosh or Pentos. I would not have you think him undutiful, however. I have never yet pressed him to return. If I am to do so, I think it only right to offer him the proper reward as incentive.”
Me. I’m the reward. Sansa’s stomach curdled, and she hoped she would not need to excuse herself hastily for the privy.
“That would seem only fitting,” said Tyrion. “However, in offering your younger son the hand of Princess Myrcella, I seem to have exhausted House Baratheon’s supply of eligible young maidens. Unless Prince Quentyn’s travels have whetted his taste for a more mature bride, in which case…my sister is Queen Regent, and I do not think that any consideration could tempt her to leave her son’s side while he is still so young.”
“I should never dream of parting a mother from her children,” said Prince Doran, so smoothly that Sansa could almost believe for a moment that he honestly regretted that Queen Cersei could not marry Prince Quentyn. “But House Baratheon shelters another maiden, of an age much nearer to my son’s. Not a daughter, perhaps, but a fosterling…”
Sansa’s voice was so hoarse, and the word leapt from her tongue so unexpectedly, that she didn’t realize at first that the silence spreading through the room was her doing. Then she looked up, and saw Prince Doran’s dark, calculating eyes upon her, and realized what she had just said.
She started down at her plate with furious concentration and did everything in her power now to burst into tears.
“Forgive me,” Sansa whispered. “I should not have…”
“No, you probably shouldn’t,” said Prince Doran, the corners of his lips tipped up in a tiny smile. “But you’re not wrong, either. Lady Sansa is a hostage in King’s Landing, Lord Tyrion, but despite the fondest hopes of your sister the Queen, Robb Stark has refused to trade her for Ser Jaime.” The prince’s smile vanishes. “Tell me truly, Lord Tyrion; has your sister not considered sending King Robb Lady Sansa’s head in a basket?”
Sansa was completely still. So still, so small, no one had no reason to notice her. She might as well be a ghost. She was insubstantial.
“My…nephew, and even my sister, may sometimes forget themselves.” Tyrion’s voice was sharp. “But in the eyes of the Crown, Lady Sansa is innocent of wrongdoing. There is no talk of—there is no such talk.”
“But the Crown does not protect Lady Sansa when the King abuses her for his amusement.” There was an answering coolness in Prince Doran’s tone. “It seems to me that there is a difference of opinion, in your family, regarding Lady Sansa’s innocence.”
“Perhaps there is,” said Tyrion. “But I would remind you that Lady Sansa is still, technically, betrothed to the King. I have been searching for alternate arrangements since…since the death of Lord Stark, but nothing suitable has yet presented itself.”
“Lady Sansa is either the daughter of a traitor and a hostage of war, or she is the betrothed of the King.” Prince Doran leaned forward in his chair slightly. “It seems to me that you are attempting to treat her as though she were both. This is bound to lead to…confusion.”
“And you believe that by marrying Lady Sansa to Prince Quentyn we will resolve this confusion?”
Prince Doran tapped his fingernail on the table. “I believe that it might satisfy the Queen’s…warlike nature, if it were pointed out to her that the Lady Sansa is niece to the woman who persuaded my own good brother, Prince Rhaegar, to abandon my sister Elia, to the destruction of her whole family.” He shrugged. “Queen Cersei might not like it, but she should understand as well as anyone that House Martell has first rights to any hostage of Eddard Stark’s bloodline.”
Sansa had been breathing slowly, softly, ever since she had spoken out of turn moments before. Now, as she watched a look of dawning comprehension settle over Lord Tyrion’s face, and saw him nod, quietly, she stopped breathing entirely.
After all, there no longer seemed much point.
Voices faded in and out of Sansa’s hearing as she swayed on her chaise, her vision greying around the edges. There was a nearly empty goblet of watered wine in her hand; she could feel it begin to slip from her fingers, but she could do nothing about it.
“—and any man of suitable rank and character is free to request the honor of her hand, but I will not trade her like chattel—” that was Lord Tyrion, sounding strangely angry, Sansa thought.
“—when Tywin Lannister comes to resume King Joffrey’s service you may find that there is less you can do to protect her…” Prince Doran’s voice was cool, it had never been anything other than cool, like water, like the condensation dripping down Sansa’s goblet and onto her hand.
Tyrion snorted. “—never heard me call a sheep white without naming it black, ‘tis true enough—”
Sansa’s head was spinning. She could feel a faint prickle, like the pins and needles she sometimes got in her arm when she slept, except it was forming like a cluster of mild bee stings just between her eyes.
Lord Tyrion had been kind to her, since his first day in King’s Landing, when he had sought her out and expressed his condolences on her father’s death. Sansa had been suspicious—she could scarcely be otherwise, he was a Lannister—but she had trusted him, a little bit, ever since then. She was a fool…she had come to King’s Landing a fool, and she hadn’t learned at all, she’d learned nothing…
“Lady Sansa.” Suddenly there was a hand gripping her shoulder—a strong grip, a hand with thin, wiry fingers that felt immovable as stone. She found herself leaning into it without meaning to. Only then did she realize that she was nearly listing out of her chair.
Prince Doran had moved his chair closer to hers. The strength of his arm was all that was keeping her upright. Sansa pressed a hand to her forehead, tried to breathe deeply, regain her composure, but she could not take deep breaths. Every time she tried, the bruise over her stomach where Ser Meryn had struck her stabbed like a knife’s blade.
“My lady, I have been forgetting your injuries. It was unpardonable of me. Please, will you lie down? As it happens, the maester left more potion for me to send with you, to take before bed. You shall have some now.”
Sansa had no choice but to allow Lord Tyrion—who had popped off his chair swiftly and now stood at her back, hands close to her shoulders—to draw her gently backwards until her head rested on the bolster of the chaise. Her vision still fuzzy, she looked at Prince Doran, but though she opened her lips she could force no words through them.
The prince’s eyes softened, and then he reached for his belt. Sansa cringed, thinking he was about to unsheathe his dagger, but only reached into his pocket, from which he produced a small vial and a tiny spoon.
Strange, Sansa thought, that though Prince Doran kept to a chair and traveled on a litter, it had never occurred to her that he might be too feeble to hurt her? She wondered if that was because she was so useless, or if Prince Doran was truly more dangerous than he tried to seem.
The prince measured three drops of thick potion into the spoon. He mixed it with the small quantity of watered wine that remained in the bottom of Sansa’s goblet, and then sat there, giving Lord Tyrion a very long look. Eventually, she felt Lord Tyrion’s hands leave her shoulders.
“Drink,” said Prince Doran, holding the goblet close to Sansa’s lips. His voice was kindly, but with the sort of authority that would brook no refusals. “I blame myself for this entirely. I should not have troubled you for your company until you had many more days to rest from your…ordeal. I fear there was not the time.”
Sansa didn’t blame Prince Doran for anything. He was a little like a maester and a little like she’d thought Joffrey was, when they first met—commanding, accustomed to people doing as he told them, but only in the most gallant of ways when it came to her.
Gallant or no, Sansa was just glad he was telling her what to do. She had come here at his invitation, embarrassed herself at his dinner table in front of Lord Tyrion, who was his guest. She preferred that he give her commands to obey—at least then she could do no wrong and no one would be angry with her.
Not here in this room, at least. If the Queen learned that she had been reclining on a chaise in the Prince of Dorne’s personal quarters, Sansa was sure the Queen would brand her a whore so loudly the name would stay with her all her life.
Sansa drank the watered wine and potion in a single gulp. It tasted bitter, and though she would not have complained, the next cup that Prince Doran held to her lips contained sweet honey lemon water. She enjoyed lemon water very much, and though she had not been able to eat much she had drunk two tumblers full of the water already. Prince Doran had noticed—embarrassing though. But the bright taste of the lemons scoured the bitterness from the back of her throat. She managed to give the prince a small smile of thanks.
As soon as Prince Doran turned the wheels of his chair back twice, Lord Tyrion took his place, looking hard into Sansa’s features. Even as the potion spread in a warm wave throughout her body, causing her shoulders to slump visibly, Sansa though he was making a peculiar face. There was something angry, soft, longing, and helpless in his features all at once.
He did not know about what Joffrey did, yesterday, Sansa realized. Or at least, they had told him it was no more than a mild whipping. Maybe he’d heard rumors of worse and dismissed them as exaggerations. Maybe he’d been told it wasn’t the first time, and dismissed it as too sickening to think about.
By the time Lord Tyrion looked at Prince Doran again, some of his previous hostility had disappeared from his face.
“In light of the political unrest sweeping Westeros, I imagine,” he said, “that it would be a great relief to your fatherly feelings, and to Dorne, to have both your sons married suitably to wives of high rank.”
“Yes, that it certainly would be,” said Prince Doran. “A father reaches a certain age when he wishes for nothing more than to see his children’s happiness assured.”
Lord Tyrion was now sitting on the end of the chaise, in the space Sansa’s feet did not reach, so the triangle the three of them formed was now much smaller. Her feet might have reached, had she not been keeping her knees curled up to her chest. She wondered what Lord Tyrion would do if she kicked him by accident.
“Uncles reach that age too,” said Tyrion, “though in my case, that age has been…brought on prematurely by Stannis Baratheon and his threatened siege. It would be a great relief to my family to know that Princess Myrcella was safe in Dorne as soon as may be.” Tyrion cleared his throat, not looking at Sansa. “The Crown would be equally relieved to see Lady Sansa safely bestowed among friends before danger reached the gates of our city.”
The Crown? No, not the Crown. Only Lord Tyrion. But Sansa saw no need to say so. She didn’t know why Lord Tyrion cared for her at all. If she mentioned it, he might stop.
“And it would be Dorne’s delight and honor to receive both of them,” said Doran.
“Yet—as a dutiful uncle, or at least guardian, I feel that I must ask—what if Prince Quentyn does not return from his travels in a…timely manner?”
Prince Doran shrugged. “Lady Sansa is very young.” He looked over to where Sansa lay on the chaise, and it took a great deal of effort for Sansa to focus her eyes on him. “You are not yet three-and-ten, are you, my lady?”
Sansa shook her head.
“Then I see no reason for concern. It will be all the better if she has time to learn the ways of her new home before she is called to take up the duties of a wife.”
“That is true enough. But if, gods forbid, the prince should never return?” said Tyrion pointedly.
“Then my daughter will receive Lady Sansa into her own household and arrange an appropriate match for her at the appropriate time.”
One way or another, Sansa understood the prince to be saying, she will not return to King’s Landing. Give her to us, and she ceases to be your problem.
Sansa should be glad enough for that. Even if they did hate her in Sunspear, keep her as a hostage for her aunt Lyanna’s sake, she did not think anyone in Dorne hated her the way she was hated here. Most likely, they would scarcely think on her. And Sansa doubted she would be beaten, much. Prince Doran hadn’t seemed to like it when Joffrey did it.
Sansa was so sunk in this thought that it took her a moment to realize that Lord Tyrion had turned to look at her, a serious, rather resigned expression on his face.
“What do you say to all this, Sansa?” said Tyrion, his voice as gentle as she had ever heard it. “Dorne is far away, I know, and it…may be that some of its customs will seem strange to you. But…I believe you will be safe there. Safer, perhaps, than you have been her, since…” He shrugged, his mouth twisting a little.
He was asking her. Actually asking her, as though she might refuse, and the refusal mean something. Sansa didn’t know what she was supposed to say, what she was supposed to feel.
Prince Doran spoke next. He rolled his chair closer to hers and folded his hands in his lap, looking down her with strange, soft eyes.
“It is unfair to ask you to consent to anything while you are in this state, and for that I apologize,” he said. “But once again, time makes demands of us that we cannot ignore.”
Sansa understand what he meant this time. There was no telling what either the Queen or Joffrey would do when they learned she had just been betrothed to Prince Doran’s son. The Queen might not care so much, but Joffrey…
“I cannot promise that you will be happy in Dorne, Lady Sansa,” Doran continued, surprising her. “I love my home, and I love my son better still, but you have known much grief for a maiden of your years. Your happiness must rest in your own hands. But I promise you that in Dorne, you will be honored and respected—even loved, I believe. Your own lord father, were he alive to see you bestowed amongst my family, would never have cause to grieve for you. I swear this to you.”
Sansa sifted through the courteous language, finding her thoughts slow and muddled. The poppy juice, or whatever strange fit had come over her before she took it, had made her dull and drowsy. Yet, still, she found that she believed the prince. Perhaps it was only because he made no promises without conditions. If he had sworn she would find happiness in Dorne, she could not have believed him. Instead, he had said she would be respected there. She could believe that; she could believe that Prince Doran would insist on it.
He even remembered that I liked lemon water, she thought, and this, for some reason, was what brought tears to her eyes.
“It is not for me to refuse such an offer from the Prince of Dorne,” she said, hearing her septa’s words come out of her mouth. But that was why she had mimicked and practiced them since she was but a child of three—so that she would know what to say when she had no words of her own.
It seemed to Sansa that Prince Doran would have preferred some warmer answer—maybe some better thanks for the honor he had bestowed on her—but he only nodded, as if content with her acquiescence.
“I would have Lady Sansa depart as soon as possible, but she must have at least a day to regain her strength,” said Prince Doran, turning brusquely back to Lord Tyrion.
“Princess Myrcella cannot depart in such haste,” said Lord Tyrion, equally brusque.
“No, Princess Myrcella must make her journey in all state,” said Prince Doran, agreeably. “And I will wait my own return to accompany her personally. But Lady Sansa cannot have such duties as Princess Myrcella will have to discharge before she leaves her home.”
Coming from the Queen, or almost anyone else, Sansa would know that the comment was meant to hurt. After all, unlike Myrcella, Sansa had not family in King’s Landing to say goodbye to. She had left her own home long ago, and no one in King’s Landing would miss her when she left. But she rather suspected that Prince Doran was thinking the same thing she was. I must escape before Joffrey can stop me.
“Lady Sansa is a ward of the Crown and the eldest daughter of Winterfell,” Tyrion protested. “She cannot be packed off like a thief in the night.”
“No,” said Prince Doran. “Certainly she cannot. Mine own brother Prince Oberyn will take care of all the arrangements for her journey to Sunspear. I will write tonight, and he make haste to sail our ships down Blackwater Bay.”
“Prince…Oberyn.” Tyrion swallowed audibly. “Prince Oberyn is here? In King’s Landing?”
“No, he chose to quarter himself a short distance away. At my request. The city holds…unhappy memories for my family.” Prince Doran gave Tyrion a wintry smile. “But he will have no difficulty arriving in time to escort the first of his two new nieces home.”
Sansa felt again as though she might be ill. She understood well the look on Lord Tyrion’s face. Alone on a ship, with the Red Viper of Dorne? It was well known how much Prince Oberyn hated the Lannisters, hated anyone who had played a role in the death of his sister and her children. And her own father had been King Robert’s best friend. She would be a hostage among the Dornish after all. He will strangle me, or throw me overboard, or…
Yet even as Sansa’s anxiety grew, Lord Tyrion seemed almost to relax, though there was a tartness to his next words. “Yes, I am sure Lady Sansa will be as safe as any woman in the hands of Prince Oberyn.”
“My brother is the father of eight daughters,” said Prince Doran coolly. “The fifth, Elia, is of an age with Lady Sansa. I can see that you know my brother’s reputation. But you have my word, there is no man who will care more for Lady Sansa’s safety or honor.”
“There is always a risk, sending a maid on a long sea voyage on a ship a crewed by men,” said Tyrion. “Will your son accept her as his wife all the same, even if Prince Oberyn’s diligence should fail to prevent…some misfortune?”
He means if I am raped, Sansa thought, the blow falling dully against her weary heart. That is what he means when he says “misfortune”. Like losing one’s luggage overboard in a storm. She thought of Ser Meryn, and then decided she didn’t care. She would make herself not care. Or at least, no one would ever see her care.
“I will overlook your slight on the honor of our Dornish sailors,” said Prince Doran dryly, “and say only that my brother spent some time in his youth sailing aboard a pirate ship. He knows how to keep order on his own vessel.”
Tyrion raised both his hands in a gesture of surrender and turned his attention to his wine glass. Sansa knew, after suffering through many dinners with the royal family, that this meant Lord Tyrion was done speaking of business for the evening. The affair was settled in his eyes, the transaction had been made—and now there was nothing left for Sansa to do then, except lie there, perfectly still, waiting to see what Prince Doran would do next.
“Lady Sansa.” Prince Doran spoke quickly, not allowing her to languish in uncertainty. “I think you must be very tired. I will have my palanquin carry you back to your rooms.”
“Oh.” Sansa was struck, all at once, by the generosity of the offer, and by the spectacle she would create, traveling through the Red Keep in such a manner. “My prince…you are too good, but the King will…”
“You will allow me to deal with the King,” said Prince Doran, and in all the times he had ever spoken to her, she had never heard him sound so cold before. Sansa cast her eyes down and blinked to keep the tears from her eyes.
The prince’s expression warmed a trifle. “I hope to spend some time with you on the morrow, Lady Sansa. I do not mean to send you to Sunspear with unanswered questions. I will see to it that you are better acquainted with your new home.”
“Thank you, my prince,” said Sansa dully.
“I understand that it is your pleasure to walk in the gardens in the evenings? I will join you there, if you will permit.”
She had no choice but to nod and say that she would very pleased to meet him in the gardens tomorrow—just as she had no choice but to rise feebly from the chaise and mount the pillowed palanquin borne by four Dornish knights when it arrived. The prince and Lord Tyrion bid her goodnight as the palanquin glided through the door. It was clear that they still had matters to discuss, matters that she was not invited to take part in.
She could not resent them for it, however. The prince had been right—Sansa was extremely tired. So tired that she was nearly asleep before the palanquin even reached her rooms.
So just like that, I am betrothed to Prince Quentyn of Dorne, she thought vaguely, her head settling on the pillows. I do not even know how old he is. Joffrey was three years older than Sansa—it had seemed the perfect age to her once, just old enough for her husband to know a little more of the world than she did, but not so much older that they had nothing in common.
I hope he’s nothing like Joffrey, was her last thought, before sleep claimed her. I hope he’s forty-five and ugly and has stringy black hair and a scar on his face and…and a good heart. I hope he’s nothing like Joffrey at all.
content warnings for fairly vivid description of the canon abuses Sansa suffered, as retold by an outsider observer
The morning that would see Sansa Stark carried away from King’s Landing aboard the Dornish vessel Nymeria’s Sun was dark, blustery, and ill-omened—or so the crew was saying. Oberyn paid them no mind. A bluster was not a squall, and it would take them most of a day just to sail out of Blackwater Bay. If they had to put into port somewhere, then they would put into port somewhere. What did it matter? His nephew was faffing about in Essos, trying to persuade the Targaryen girl to like the look of him. The little bride he would never marry could wait an extra day or two to reach Sunspear.
Oberyn had never set eyes on Lady Sansa, but men liked to talk, particularly about pretty highborn girls they might or might not every lay eyes on, so he had heard all the tales of her wondrous beauty: how tall and slender she was, how fair and smooth her complexion, how dainty her hands, how sweet her voice, how large and luminous her eyes of blue, how her Tully hair caught the last rays of the sunset like a bonfire all ablaze. In short, Oberyn had heard everything he would expect to hear about a girl who was betrothed to a King—it wasn’t as if the gossips were going to risk any rumors getting back to their future Queen that they had called her nose crooked or her teeth yellow or her face more freckled than fair. Gods knew how much of it was true, but if she was, indeed, all that they said, then Oberyn was looking forward to meeting her—or at least, laying eyes on her. The rumors said nothing about her conversational skills. She could be dull as a plank, for all Oberyn knew.
He was pacing up and down the beach head when at last he spied the retinue emerging from the inner walls of the palace. If you could call it a retinue, that was. Squinting through the blue dawn light, Oberyn could make out the distinctive shape of one who could only be Lord Tyrion Lannister—and walking beside him, leaning heavily on his shoulder, was a figure hooded and cloaked. The figure was unmistakably female in its contours, but the cloak was voluminous—a man’s cloak, Oberyn rather thought—and the hood hung so far down that he could not see the girl’s face.
Apart from these two, Oberyn saw only four other men—and none of them wore Baratheon colors. They were four of Doran’s own knights, including Daemon Sand, who carried a chest of middling size in his arms.
An uneasy feeling began to curl in Oberyn’s chest, but he stepped forward to greet the party anyway.
It is my wish that you take great care with the Lady Sansa, Doran had written, in the letter Oberyn had received only twelve hours ago, the same letter that had fetched him and his ship to this isolated dock. She has been a prisoner in the Red Keep for a long while, and she has suffered in her captivity. She will not trust you easily but she has a gentle heart and she is not unintelligent. Draw her out, but do not overwhelm her.
Oberyn hoped it would never be said that he was the sort of man who set out to frighten maidens for his own amusement. He especially hoped that his own brother knew him better than that. So he interpreted Doran’s instructions as meaning that the girl was nervous about her journey, about marrying a stranger—and, perhaps, nervous about whatever it was that had made Doran decide to take her into his protection and rush her out of King’s Landing, as though she were a maid from a tale being liberated from a high tower by a gallant knight. Oberyn was far more interested in how Doran had come to that decision than he was in the girl herself. Doran was not inclined to act on impulse. He made his plans and he followed through on them, his course as undeviating as the flight of an arrow. He might strike suddenly to grasp an advantage that made itself known—but as far as Oberyn could tell, there was little advantage that Dorne would gain from breaking this child’s betrothal to the King and matching her with Quentyn instead. After all, what on earth were they do with her when Quentyn sent word from Essos that he was married already?
Those were questions for another time, however. For so long as Sansa Stark was his particular charge, Oberyn would do as his brother asked, and be courteous to this browbeaten maid. When he was younger, he might have found the task distasteful—she was a Stark, after all, niece to the Lady Lyanna herself—but this Lady Sansa was still a maiden not yet flowered, and Oberyn was not cruel enough to punish her for offenses committed before she was born.
“Lord Tyrion,” Oberyn called brightly. “Greetings to you this…fine morning.” He tested the air and decided it probably wasn’t raining, only very foggy. “I understand you bring me mine own niece-to-be.”
Lord Tyrion gave him a strange look. “Yes, Prince Oberyn. The King was…unavoidably called away this morning, but he wishes me to convey to you his pleasure and satisfaction that his ward is to be made part of your family and. And he is honorably assured that you will do all that is needed to protect her in his place. Er, Prince Doran likewise bade me send you his greetings. He hopes that his letter reached you in good time.”
“I am here,” said Oberyn simply. “So it must have, must it not? Will you be so good as to introduce me to this fair lady?”
Lord Tyrion’s mouth gave a funny little sideways jerk. He stepped aside, causing the lady to stumble a little when she no longer had the support of his shoulder. Oberyn found himself wondering, amusedly, if the Lady Sansa had drunk a little too deeply to celebrate her betrothal last night. Her feet certainly appeared none too steady.
“Prince Oberyn,” said Lord Tyrion. “Permit me to present to you, Lady Sansa, of House Stark. Lady Sansa, this is Prince Oberyn Martell, the younger brother of Prince Doran, whom you have met. Prince Doran has charged him with seeing you safely to your new home in Dorne.”
The hooded figure—indistinguishable from the cloth that draped it—lifted a hand to her throat, as though she had started to say something, only to find her throat dry. Instead, she dropped a low, impeccably graceful curtsey. The formality took Oberyn off guard, but he could only respond with a similarly deep bow.
“Ah…” Lord Tyrion looked up at Sansa, something tight and worried around his eyes. “Lady Sansa, unfortunately, took a chill late last night whilst praying in the godswood. She finds this morning that any speech pains her throat. It is nothing contagious, of course! No need for your crew to worry. She’ll be quite well in a few days.”
“I see. I am most sorry to hear that you are feeling ill, Lady Sansa.” The little Lannister was lying to him, but there wasn’t much that Oberyn could do about that unless he wanted to force a confrontation—and he would rather be away as soon as possible. “Then let us waste no time in seeing you safely bestowed in your chambers, where you may rest.” A thought struck him; he frowned. “Where is my lady’s luggage?”
“Here, my prince.” Daemon Sand stepped forward, bearing the wooden chest. It was decorated in a beautiful, unsettling carved pattern of runes and trees, which marked it indelibly as a handicraft of the North. It was so small and light that Daemon might easily have tucked it under one arm—it might hold two gowns at most, or a dozen books perhaps. Oberyn glanced around, but there were no more chests, no trunks, not even a sack.
She is a Stark of Winterfell, Oberyn thought, slightly offended on the girl’s behalf, but mostly confused. What have they done with her clothing? Her jewels?
“There was…an accident,” said Lord Tyrion, as though reading Oberyn’s mind. He still spoke in the uncomfortable tones of a man who, though everyone hearing him knew he was lying, must yet continue to lie anyway. “There was a fire in Lady Sansa’s rooms recently. The smoke, unfortunately, ruined most of her wardrobe, and the rest of her things perished in the flames.”
“My lady,” said Oberyn, hiding his deeper unease behind a concern that was not entirely feigned. “This has indeed been a season of misfortunes for you. We shall see what we can do about reversing those fortunes when you reach Sunspear.”
He waited, but of course she did not reply, only curtseyed again. Whatever sort of conversationalist she would make when her throat was healed, Oberyn had to admit that her manners were beautiful.
“Are we not yet awaiting other members of the party?” said Oberyn, after looking around into the silence and fog for a moment. “The Lady Sansa must have companions and maids who travel with her?”
There was a long silence. Lord Tyrion stared uncomfortably at the ground. Eventually, Sansa shook her head slowly.
What, am I to believe that all of her friends and handmaidens perished in this so-called fire as well? Oberyn thought incredulously. He wanted to argue, but he wanted to be gone more. Lady Sansa would just have to empty her own chamber pot for a few days, until Oberyn could figure out some more suitable arrangement.
“In that case, my lady,” he said, “I am sure that Lord Tyrion will want to wish you godspeed, that we might be on our way.”
Oberyn expected her leave-taking of Lord Tyrion to be as perfunctory as the preparations for her departure had been. Clearly the Imp had no great regard for her honor; he couldn’t see why the girl would care any more for him than he for her.
But to Oberyn’s surprise, Lady Sansa turned immediately to Lord Tyrion and gave him her hand. Tyrion kissed it, then surprised Oberyn still more by holding onto it and giving it a tight squeeze.
“I will not charge you to be brave,” said the dwarf, in low tones that Oberyn had to strain to hear. “I know well enough that you possess the courage of ten knights. All I will say is…that I believe you have made a wise decision.” The Imp’s face twisted. “And...Lady Sansa. I am sorry. I should have done far more to protect you. Forgive me.”
Protect her from what? Oberyn wondered. Lady Sansa had suffered, no doubt, but how was the dwarf to have protected her from the sorrow of seeing her father’s head struck off?
Oberyn received a second shock when the girl bent low—tall as she was, she almost had to bend double—and dropped a chaste kiss to Lord Tyrion’s cheek. Then, without a backwards glance, she turned and made her way down the pier. Oberyn quickly darted into place beside her, holding his arm out, and Doran’s men followed automatically behind him.
“If you would humor me, Lady Sansa,” he said. “It is dark, and though the water is not deep here, best you not risk a drenching when you are already chilled.”
Sansa stopped—froze, rather—as though the prospect of taking his arm filled her with terror. Curiously, Daemon stopped as well, casting an uncertain glance at Oberyn over his shoulder.
Then Sansa took a deep breath, and placed her hand on Oberyn’s arm, as lightly as she could. Oberyn felt as though a butterfly had come to rest on his sleeve. Such a delicate grip would not stop her from going over into the water, but Oberyn’s reflexes were quick enough if it came to that. Still, most women were not so hesitant to avail themselves of his strength. Oberyn found himself wondering uneasily if his hasty bath this morning had been insufficient.
“Prince Oberyn,” called Tyrion from the shore.
Oberyn placed his hand over Lady Sansa’s arm automatically and waited for her to step off the pier and onto the deck of the ship. Then he turned to look back at the dwarf.
“If you were to dock briefly at Sandy Wedge, I believe you might find that…tidings await you there.”
“Tidings?” Oberyn frowned.
“Yes. New tidings.” Tyrion frowned. “From the prince your brother.”
Sandy Wedge was but three hours’ sailing from this dock. What on earth could his brother have to say to him in three hours that he could not say to him now? But Lord Tyrion did not wait to answer more questions. He bowed stiffly, and waddled off into the distance. Oberyn hopped down onto the deck and watched him go until he was a dim, invisible shape in the fog. Then the moorings were untethered, they were underway.
Oberyn found Sansa standing stock still, her eyes trained on the deck of the ship. She did not look ahead of her, nor to the sides, where the water was already lapping the sides of the ship.
It was then that Oberyn realized that she was terrified, and his heart wrung with pity for her.
“I shall show you to your cabin,” he said gently. “I am sure you would like to rest. Daemon has already stowed your things there.”
She nodded, once. Oberyn found himself wishing that she would remove her hood. Trying to play host to a girl with no face was rather like trying to charm a septa, or a ghost. But a stiff, chill breeze swept over the deck then and she only pulled the cloak about her more tightly, so Oberyn led her towards her cabin and bowed her inside.
The cabin was Oberyn’s—the only alternative, when he learned they had a girl to transport, was to boot the captain out of his own cabin, something Oberyn would not do on another man’s ship. It was spare, as fit Oberyn’s own tastes when on a sea voyage. Sansa took in the single bunk, the chest, and the washstand on its table with half a glance. He half expected her to shake her head or give him a dismayed look, but she only stood there, eyes trained on the small round window.
In truth, Oberyn was half-ashamed that he could provide no better accommodation for a highborn lady, much less a Martell bride-to-be, and not for the first time he wondered why Lady Sansa was traveling so far ahead of the Princess Myrcella. The ship that would carry Myrcella to Sunspear was far more comfortably furnished than this one. Also, the princess undoubtedly had her own septa and maids, which would relieve Sansa of the discomfort of being the only woman aboard the ship
“I am sorry that there is nothing more suitable to offer you,” he said. “In truth, Nymeria’s Sun was never intended to provide passage to ladies.”
“I see nothing lacking, my prince.” The pained, rasping whisper startled Oberyn so much that his hands jerked. Sansa touched her throat, as though even these few words had hurt her. “Please do not trouble yourself about me. I will make it known if I require aught.”
Oberyn was suddenly uneasy about leaving her alone—surely she needed water for that throat of hers, at least? But she had dismissed him, and he could hardly stay in a maiden’s cabin against her will.
“My lady,” he said, and bowed again, shutting the door.
A second later, Oberyn heard a curious noise—as though Sansa were struggling to lower the bolt on the inside of the door. She probably would not manage it. The wood grew swollen in the damp, and even Oberyn found it a challenge to dislodge it some days. But it troubled him that she had thought to try. Was she truly so frightened of his men? Should he knock again and offer to post a guard at her door? No—that was not likely to be a comfort, not if it was his men who gave her so much unease.
Oberyn shook his head and went to see the captain, to give him his new orders—Sandy Wedge first, then the tip of Stone-dance. That obligation discharged, he went for a stroll on the deck, breathing in the salt air and allowing the wind to ruffle his hair.
He found Daemon, seated on an overturned crate, sharpening his spear. Oberyn pulled up a seat beside him and sat there, silently, waiting. He knew the younger man well enough to know that something was on his mind—that had been obvious since the pier. Furthermore, Oberyn knew Daemon well enough to know that he was bursting to come out with it.
“They promised me a beautiful maiden, and instead delivered me a Silent Sister,” said Oberyn, sighing in mock disappointment. “I feel quite cheated.”
“I thought I heard her speak to you,” said Daemon, not looking up at him.
“Only to thank me, and then to turn me unceremoniously from her cabin.” Oberyn leaned back against the mast and propped his boots up on the railing.
Daemon only grunted, and adjusted the angle of the whetstone.
“Far be it from me to question my brother’s will, but this seems a most mysterious errand he has charged me with,” Oberyn continued. “I am sure that when my brother set out for King’s Landing, he meant to return with but one bride for one of my nephews, not one for each. And why does the Lady Sansa travel so far ahead of the Princess Myrcella? Surely it would have been wiser to send both girls together. This one doesn’t even have a maid of her own.”
“She never had a maid,” said Daemon, re-adjusting his whetstone. “Only the Queen’s spies, surrounding her. They had no love of her, nor her for them.”
Oberyn turned his head slowly and peered at Daemon. “You know the Lady Sansa well.”
“Not well, my prince.” Daemon shrugged.
“My brother’s letter was uninformative, even by his standards,” Oberyn prodded, nudging Daemon’s shoulder.
“Perhaps Prince Doran felt that Lady Sansa had a right to share her secrets in her own time.”
Oberyn arched an eyebrow. Daemon was not normally so short with him. He had been Oberyn’s own squire as a boy, and it had been Oberyn himself who knighted him. After Daemon was of suitable age, they had even been lovers from time to time, when the mood suited them. Daemon was, accordingly, permitted certain liberties of speech that Oberyn did not normally tolerate from knights in his brother’s service.
But this was different. Daemon was troubled, and not by anything Oberyn had done—they had traveled separately to King’s Landing, there had not been time enough for Oberyn to irritate the younger man since their reunion. What could have happened over a mere two days in the capital to disgruntle Daemon so? There was nothing Oberyn could think of, unless…could Daemon have fallen in love with the Lady Sansa? That might account for much prickliness.
Oberyn hid his smile behind his mouth. “They say that Lady Sansa is most beautiful. Was I lied to?”
“She is as fair a maiden as ever I have seen,” said Daemon shortly, not looking up.
“But…?” Oberyn waited.
Daemon sighed heavily. “Forgive me, my prince. I find it difficult to speak lightly of her. Not after these past two days in the capital.”
All the levity fled Oberyn’s body in a single breath, leaving a leaden heaviness in his chest. “Tell me of them,” he said, his soft tone making it no less an order.
Daemon cast the whetstone to one side irritably. He took up a rag and began rubbing oil into the metal haft of his spear. “I know only what I saw, and that was but the smallest part.”
“If you do not tell me now, you will certainly tell me later.” Oberyn smiled grimly. “It is a long voyage. I will soon grow impatient for new tales to while away the hours.”
“This is no tale for anyone’s amusement.” Daemon flung the rag away, as if disgusted. Then he turned to Oberyn, fixing him with intent blue eyes.
“You wished to know why it was that your brother the prince carried away two brides, when he only came for one? That I can answer simply enough. He did it to save the lady’s life. The King nearly killed her before our very eyes.”
Oberyn stared. He did not disbelieve Daemon, but the statement made no sense. Her father had lost his head, yes, and her brother was currently styling himself King in the North, but what had that to do with Sansa?
“Was she suspected of some treason? Surely the King would not have given her to Doran if he thought her guilty of such.”
“No, no treason. I did not speak of execution. I say she was nearly murdered.” His spear sharpened and honed, Daemon turned back to the whetstone, this time taking up his shortsword. “I stood at the prince’s right hand when his litter approached the doors of the throne room. I tried to give our names to the seneschal, but he did not so much as look our way at first. Everyone was staring at the Iron Throne, where the King stood holding a crossbow on the Lady Sansa. It was loaded, primed, and his very eyes were fixed on her heart. And all the while, she only knelt before him, weeping and obeisant.”
Oberyn stared at him. “My brother saw this, you say?”
“He did.” Daemon released a ragged sigh. “Prince Doran commanded us to be silent. We none of us dared to startle the King, lest he loose the quarrel by accident. But then—then the King put the crossbow aside.”
Daemon sucked air between his teeth and set back to sharpening his sword with a new energy.
“He ordered his Kingsguard to beat her. And he was obeyed. One drove his fist into the lady’s stomach. She collapsed, scarce able to breathe, and in the next moment the King ordered that she be stripped naked—”
“Where was Barristan Selmy?”
Oberyn could not, would not believe that Ser Barristan would permit any knight in his charge to beat a helpless maid, whatever the King commanded. He was a true man; no mere King could command him to discard his honor.
“Ser Barristan was not present,” Daemon muttered. “I heard later that he had been stripped of his cloak and dismissed from his position shortly after King Robert’s death.”
Oberyn stared blankly at Daemon. The Kingsguard served for life, they died in their office. It had always been thus.
“The new Lord Commander is none other than the Kingslayer.” Daemon smiled wryly. “But he is Robb Stark’s prisoner now, they say. It might have been better for Stark’s sister if he were not. Say what you will of Jaime Lannister, I do not think that even he would have…”
Daemon looked out over the water, and Oberyn knew that he did not want to say whatever he was going to say next. Subtly, Oberyn nudged closer to him, pressing the warmth of his arm against Daemon’s arm.
“Once the lady had been stripped of her gown, the King ordered her beaten,” said Daemon, in a tight voice, “She took three blows from the flat of a longsword against her naked flesh.”
Oberyn’s pulse was pounding in his temples. “My brother did not see that and stand idly by.”
“When the knight raised his sword the first time, your brother the prince demanded that the seneschal announce him. He thought that his arrival would halt the beating. But it did not. The knight had some taste for his work, it would seem. He scarce paused between blows.”
Daemon had left both sword and stone fall slack in his hands and he gazed down miserably at the deck. “Once the King caught sight of your brother, he forgot about the lady soon enough, but even then he made no provision for Lady Sansa. Even her maids would not help her. She tried to rise when Prince Doran’s litter approached, but she could not. But I felt the prince’s hand touch my shoulder, so I went to her. I helped her from the throne room. A dozen steps, and she collapsed, so I carried her to her chambers, to her own bed. Her maids said—” Daemon choked. “They said that the King did not permit her the attentions of a maester.”
“This was not the first such incident,” Oberyn said, completing the thought for him. Daemon seemed close to tears—for rage, or sorrow, or both, he could not tell. Oberyn gripped the younger man’s shoulder tightly, and Daemon leaned into the grip.
Daemon took a ragged breath. “I returned to Prince Doran and informed him. He sent Maester Myles to attend her.”
Oberyn watched as Daemon began rubbing oil into his sword. “For a copper, I would have opened this knight’s throat at the very foot of the Iron Throne. Kingsguard, he calls himself.” He snorted. “Your great-uncle Prince Lewyn would have shoved a foot of steel up his arse.”
“Which was the knight?” said Oberyn, his own voice calmer than it had any right to be.
“Ser Meryn, they called him. I never learned the name of his house.”
“Doran will know it by now.” Men underestimated his brother, because Doran was the picture of prudence and control. They never guessed the deep vein of passion that ran to the core of his being; his patience made him seem safe, when a wise man would see that it only made him the more dangerous. “Why did he not send a maester? Her wounds will need tending.”
Gods be good, I thought her merely frightened of me, Oberyn realized, remembering how rigid the girl had been, holding onto his arm. She must be suffering agonies. A chill in the throat! She has worn her voice hoarse for weeping, rather.
“Lord Tyrion roused me early and said that we must depart in the greatest possible haste,” said Daemon. “I…I cannot say for certain, but I believe something else must have happened this morning. Something to make Lord Tyrion believe Lady Sansa was in immediate peril. No one would say aught, and Maester Myles would not let me wake Prince Doran, but Lord Tyrion was tearing about in a fury. I nearly pushed the maester aside, but Lord Tyrion looked so serious…and the prince had charged me especially with Lady Sansa’s safety. It occurred to me that King might have…I was afraid to wait for further orders.”
Daemon sat there, stone faced, and it was clear to Oberyn that Daemon was waiting for him to say he had done wrong.
Instead, Oberyn sighed, and rested his hand on the back of Daemon’s neck, fingers sifting through the short curls above his collar.
“Stranger take them all,” said Oberyn, quiet and bitter in his frustration. “My brother wrote yesterday that the Lady Sansa would be slow to trust me. He neglected to mention that she is bound to be terrified of every man who wields a sword.”
“Perhaps,” said Daemon quietly. “Perhaps not. She is not without reason. I saw her twice, and she was courteous and accommodating when I relayed the prince’s invitation to her.”
Oberyn was distracted, thinking through the supplies he carried onboard the ship. He always traveled well-stocked with potions and other necessaries for wound care and minor illnesses—he never traveled with a maester, since he had forged his silver link at the Citadel. His ministrations would suffice until they reached Sandy Wedge, but then—
“Ah,” said Oberyn, letting his head fall back against the mast with a thunk. “Lord Tyrion said there would be further tidings for me from Doran at Sandy Wedge. I suppose those tidings will include a maester.”
“Hopefully a maid as well,” said Daemon, following his line of thought.
“I must go and see her,” said Oberyn, getting to his feet with a sudden energy. “If I cannot give her all she requires, I can at least give her something for the pain. You must accompany me.”
“My prince.” Daemon looked stunned. “I have scarcely exchanged a dozen words with the lady…”
“Yet we have no duenna, so you will have to suffice. And as you say, the lady was courteous to you.” Oberyn grinned. “Judging from all you have described, I would not be surprised if she was half in love with you.”
And why should she not be? Oberyn thought. Daemon was probably the first man who had touched her with a gentle hand since her lord father was struck down.
Daemon stood slowly, an irritable expression on his face. “You did not see her, my prince,” he said. “She was not thinking of me, or of anyone. When I carried her from the throne room, she had breath only to pray for the Mother’s mercy and the Warrior’s protection.”
Oberyn found that this pierced him to the quick, somehow. It was dreadful to think of a maiden calling on the Warrior’s protection when he, the Warrior’s most faithful son, was not there to provide it.
Well. I am here now. Oberyn turned to Daemon and told him to go below and unearth his casket of medicines. Then he went to Sansa’s cabin.
content warning for graphic medical content (description and treatment of burn injuries)
“Lady Sansa.” Oberyn did not knock; he feared the noise would frighten her. “It is I, Oberyn. Ser Daemon is with me. May we enter?”
Oberyn waited what seemed an interminable time. He heard, through the thin cabin walls, the sounds of Lady Sansa rising from her bed: the blanket being moved aside, a creaking of the bunk’s hinges. He also heard, or thought he heard, a muffled cry of pain. Oberyn bit down on the inside of his mouth and waited. The lady could not speak to bid him enter. He would have to proceed cautiously.
Oberyn turned the latch and allowed the door to swing inwards slowly before ever putting a foot over the threshold. Then, once he was sure he had given her enough warning, he proceeded the rest of the way inside. Daemon had rejoined him by now, and Oberyn’s cask of supplies filled both his hands. The casket was small, but it had to be carried upright and level, and Daemon bore it before him as though carrying it on a platter.
Oberyn himself carried a cup and a large carafe of water. If Lady Sansa’s throat was as sore as it sounded, she would need to drink as much as she could bear.
He nearly dropped both carafe and cup when his eyes adjusted to the dim interior light, and he saw the sight before him.
Lady Sansa was attempting to pull the oversized grey cloak back over her shoulders, but she was in too much pain to move quickly. Only half of her body was covered by the cloak. The other half…
“Oh, my lady,” said Daemon, sounding crushed.
The reason for the huge cloak was now obvious. Lady Sansa wore nothing underneath it, save for a sleeping shift. The shift was…it was covered with holes, most of them singed black around the edges. The cap of her left shoulder, the back of her left arm, and part of her shoulder blade were all bare. But instead of revealing smooth white skin, the singed holes in her gown revealed large patches of angry burns, blistered and broken and almost impossible to look upon.
And there was more. The shift was torn down the back, as though someone had frantically tried to wrest it off Sansa’s body. It was probably a well-intentioned gesture—it would have been better to smother the burning clothing with a heavy blanket, but people panicked, and tearing the burning garment off of her was a natural impulse…
Because the shift was so torn, Oberyn and Daemon both could see clearly that, where the skin of her back was not burned, it was covered with dozens of welts. Some were mere scars, already silver-white with age; most were newer and redder. Others…others were clearly fresh, bleeding through day-old bandages.
When Sansa inhaled shakily, Oberyn realized all at once that he had been standing and staring at her for much too long. Gods knew what she must think of him, what she must be fearing. He instantly circled round to where she could see him, careful to keep his hands spread, his posture non-threatening.
“Forgive us, my lady,” said Oberyn. His voice was hoarse. “I did not mean to barge in upon you thus.”
Sansa had ceased her attempts to wrestle the cloak back over her shoulder when Daemon cried out with the shock of seeing her. Now, she sat on the bed, hunched forward, her arms crossed over her breasts. She scarcely seemed to move a muscle, even to breathe.
It was Daemon who broke the spell that had settled over the cabin. He placed Oberyn’s medicine casket down on the end of the bunk, then took the water from Oberyn’s unresisting fingers. Slowly, he approached and knelt to face her.
Oberyn watched as Daemon placed the cup upon the table and filled it from the water carafe. Then he gave the cup to Lady Sansa and closed her trembling fingers around it.
“You should drink, my lady,” he said soberly.
As though she were simply in the habit of obeying orders, no matter who gave them, Lady Sansa raised the cup to her lips. But after one sip, she began gulping the water down, and soon Daemon was refilling the cup for her.
“My lady…” Oberyn knew that Sansa was uncomfortable beneath his scrutiny, but he felt entirely helpless and unable to tear his eyes away from her. Before he quite knew what he was doing, he had removed his amber silk surcoat, embroidered with the sun and spears of House Martell. He held it out, like a veil or a curtain, and offered it to her. She hesitated, then looked up to meet his eyes for the first time.
Her eyes were, indeed, just as large and luminous and blue as the gossips said. Her skin was just as fair, and her hair was just as glorious—and it angered him beyond all reason to see that a lock or two had been singed short.
“Thank you, my prince,” she said, her whisper just a touch less hoarse now. She clutched his coat in his colors to her chest, and it seemed to him that she sat just a bit straighter for it.
“I had not the slightest idea that you were so grievously injured, Lady Sansa,” Oberyn said, trying to pitch his voice as evenly and calmly as possible. He dared not allow the slightest part of his anger to escape the cloak of his control, or all of it might come out, and the resulting rage was bound to terrify her. “In a few hours, we are due to make port where we will receive messengers from my brother. I suspect he has already anticipated our needs, but if not, we will find a maester who is willing to travel with us to Sunspear.”
“My prince,” Sansa whispered, “The King…if we are seen…”
Oberyn filled her water cup again. Now he understood this mysterious throat ailment—it came of the smoke and heat from the flames. She needed iced honey milk and as much cold water as they could keep on ice below.
“The King will not trouble us,” Oberyn told her. “You have my word on that.”
“But he will!” Sansa cried, then seized her throat with one hand and breathed raggedly, features tight with pain. Oberyn jerked forward, nearly grasping her by the shoulders, remembering at the last second that this would only hurt her more.
Sansa gulped water, then clutched the cup to her chest. “I warned Ser Daemon. I tried to…warn the prince. No one believed me.”
Daemon’s eyes tightened, and he looked down. Oberyn looked at her back again, and suddenly, sickeningly, he understood.
“Lady Sansa, Oberyn said heavily. “I would believe this King capable of any monstrousness, I assure you. I only meant that we will not be seen. I will make certain of it.”
He wanted, badly, to ask her how the fire had started, but Oberyn knew. Doran’s message would confirm it, he had no doubt, but Oberyn had seen too much of the world, too much of men, not to guess the truth.
“Lady Sansa,” said Daemon. He was still kneeling at her feet, looking as mild as a golden pup with long ears. “My prince has a maester’s skill in the arts of healing and medicines. He studied at the Citadel itself in his youth. If…if you would permit, Prince Oberyn should see to your wounds now. I—that is, the prince deeply regrets that there are no other ladies on board to attend you, but I give you my word that Prince Oberyn is a man of the greatest honor.”
Oberyn stood very still, afraid that any movement or gesture on his part might seem threatening.
Sansa took another drink of water. Then she gave a very small, very polite smile. “Prince Doran said the same of you, my prince.”
Some of the tension began to ebb from Oberyn’s shoulders—but not all of it.
“Ser Daemon will remain, with your permission,” he said, rolling the sleeves of his linen undershirt to his elbows and turning to the basin to wash his hands. “I shall have need of his assistance.”
He did not look to see her nod, but Daemon was still there when he turned around again, so he took that as a sign that she approved.
“I will be seated on the bed just behind you, my lady,” Oberyn said, moving as he spoke, trying to convey the same air of neutral efficiency he had observed in the maesters who had attended his brother over the years. “I shall have to cut away portions of the shift, but I promise to preserve your modesty. If I hurt you, you must tell me.”
Daemon came to stand next to him at the far end of the bed, holding the casket open for him as Oberyn got to work. Oberyn’s dagger was well oiled, so it made no noise when he drew it from the sheathe, but he felt, rather than heard, the catch of Sansa’s breath as he began cutting through the tatters that clung to her shoulders. Gently, trying to convey apology with his every movement, he brushed aside the half of the heavy cloak that was still covering her on the right side. He made a few more cuts, and the entire back of the shift fell open like a flap.
The next few minutes were tense, the silence broken by nothing by Oberyn’s terse commands for Daemon to hand him linen wraps, large bottles, tiny vials. He tried to keep his thoughts from darkening as he worked, tried to focus on nothing but the task before him.
Burns were a bad business. Improperly treated, they could be as fatal as a foot of steel through the gut. Broken skin was also dangerous, but could at least be treated with Myrrish fire and other remedies. Broken skin which had been burned, however…one could not pour fire on fire. Not without producing agony.
Oberyn had met a woman once, years ago. She had claimed to be from west of Westeros, the only person Oberyn had ever known in all his travels who had ever made that claim. Where she came from, she said, there were neither kings nor princes nor lords; only the rule of law, the same law for all men and all women, however high or low their birth. In this strange and probably nonexistent land she claimed as her home, she held the title of a Doctor of the University of the Southern Mountains. It was a place not unlike the Citadel, judging from her talk, but the learning she had acquired there contradicted much that Oberyn himself had learned, particularly when it came to healing.
Oberyn had argued long hours with her over theories regarding the sources of disease and illness. After a few days, he decided that all her wild stories were just a way of keeping him out of her bed—she had taken more convincing than any woman he had ever met before she would let him touch her. But then one night, in an isolated mountain pass, they had fallen afoul of sell-swords, and she had taken a serious wound to her leg. Blood fever set in a few days later.
Oberyn knew she could not live long. He had wanted to bleed her, but she had looked at him with glassy eyes and called him an idiot. She’d said that if she ever caught him bleeding her, or anyone else, she would cut his throat, for both their sakes. Then she demanded the use of his dagger. She’d heated it in the fire until it glowed as red as the flames, and cauterized the wound in her leg with her own hands.
“Now it is only a burn,” she’d told him afterwards. “The heat has drawn the infection out from beneath the skin, and this will cause the flesh to knit into a scar.” That was when she had shown him the use of greensap. In Dorne, it was used in small quantities to soothe mild sunburn, but she had squeezed thick layers of it over the burn, covered the whole area with honey, and wrapped it loosely in thin gauze. To treat the blood fever, she had drunk nothing but a tea made of yarrow, ginger, and garlic for three days. By the fourth day, the fever had broken. By the fifth, she could walk with the aid of a stick.
Oberyn judged that none of the welts on Sansa’s back were deep enough to warrant Myrrish fire, or gods forbid, boiling wine, but he called up the memory of his old traveling companion as he smeared thick layers of greensap and honey over all the places where Sansa was burned. Her burns, at least, were not so severe as the other had been—had they been treated immediately, the blisters would not have broken, and they might even have healed without scarring. That would not be the case now, however.
He removed the old bandages that Doran’s maester had applied to the welts on her back and covered them with peppermint oil and more bandages. Finally, he placed thin strips of gauze in overlapping layers over nearly the whole of her back, and wound longer strips loosely around her upper arm.
When he was finally finished, he let out a long, deep breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
The whole time he had been working, Sansa had made not a single sound, save for one or two tiny cries muffled so deep in her throat that Oberyn would not have heard them if he had not been listening for them. She was the quietest, the gentlest patient he had ever tended, but he knew it was strength, not submission, that kept her quiet. I know you have the strength of ten knights, Lord Tyrion had said to her before they parted. Oberyn thought of Bretomartis, his mysterious traveling companion, who had claimed no titles but had crowned her head in golden braids. He remembered how her face had not changed expression when she pressed the red-hot knife to the wound on her leg. Oberyn felt as though he could weep; but if Sansa would not, he would not.
“Here,” said Oberyn. It was the first word that any of them had spoken for almost twenty minutes. He tugged at the old grey cloak Sansa had been wearing until it came free—the long hem had been trapped between the bed and the wall, which was why Sansa had been unable to pull it over her in time. And thank the gods for that, or she never would have said a word to us of any of this, Oberyn thought, his anger an unfocused, formless thing.
Oberyn examined the cloak to be certain that it was fairly clean—no doubt it had been wrested off the shoulders of some passerby at random, by Lord Tyrion probably. Then he draped it lightly over Sansa’ bandaged back.
“You must lie on your front or your right side,” he told her gently. “You should not lie on your back until you are healed. Nor should you wear…restrictive clothing.” He would not embarrass her by mentioning corsets to her now; it wasn’t as though she had any, after all. “Mind you don’t pull the cloak too tightly around you, or the bandages will not stay in place. Keep it over your shoulders, though. The body often takes a chill when it has been burned. You may shiver, as with a fever.”
“I will do all that you say,” Sansa whispered. “Thank you, my prince. You have been most kind.”
Oberyn’s mouth twisted. She thinks this a kindness. But after all that Daemon had seen and said…. Yes, of course, she thought it a kindness. No doubt she had been made to think that for her to receive care of any sort was a very great kindness indeed.
“You should rest now,” he said, gesturing to Daemon to pack the bottles back into his casket. “I will bring you more water by and by. It will be some two hours before we make harbor. I shall not wake you until necessary.”
Sansa nodded—Oberyn could see only the bright crown of her red hair, moving up and down. There was a rustle of cloth, and then she wordlessly offered his coat back to him.
“Keep it,” he said roughly. “It is softer to lie on than the bedding on this bunk.”
Sansa released a long, low breath, and Oberyn gestured to Daemon to begin clearing away the detritus of his work—the snips of bandages, the empty vials. He had poured a thimble cup of milk of the poppy into her water before he began work, so he was certain, at least, that she would sleep soon.
“Prince Oberyn,” she said, as he stood from the bed, ready to leave.
“I have not…seen,” she whispered. “But I know…I can tell…”
Oberyn waited, unsure what she was asking.
“Prince Doran never meant to give his son a disfigured bride,” she said at last.
Oberyn took a few steps forward and knelt near the head of the bed, so that he could look upon her. Her lips were blue and her skin was ashen, but he could not say whether it was the poppy, the chill, or only the effects of long sorrow.
“I would understand,” she said. “If he chose…if he no longer…”
Understanding dawned in a flash. “No,” said Oberyn abruptly, getting to feet again.
The look she gave him was one of injured frustration, as though she thought it unkind of him to cut her off when every word cost her so much effort to speak. Oberyn forced himself to stop grinding his teeth and explain.
“My brother would never abandon you for this,” he said, purposefully avoiding mention of Quentyn. “Nor for any reason, I think.”
Sansa’s head jerked up. Was that suspicion he saw in her face, or something subtler? Oberyn gazed at her wide blue eyes and high cheekbones, her tumbled mane of slightly singed copper-red hair. Disfigured, he thought disbelievingly.
In Dorne, she would learn—one way or another—that scars were neither shameful, nor distasteful to look upon.
“You must rest now,” he said again. Daemon had already slipped quietly out of the room and returned with another carafe of water, this one cold, dripping with condensation. He placed it on the table next to Sansa’s bunk. “Ser Daemon will stand guard outside your door. If you need aught, only speak out, and he will hear you.”
Oberyn did not stay to hear her thank him again. He turned on his heel and strode out of the cabin, pausing only to be certain that the door would not slam shut behind him. Then he stalked across the deck to the railing and gripped it tight, hanging his head over the edge. The smell of the sea, the buffeting of the wind—this, he needed.
And if he vomited, as he might well do, better to do it into the water.
Daemon came to join him a moment later. He was still, technically, just outside Sansa’s door, so Oberyn did not berate him for abandoning his post.
“You knew nothing of this?” Oberyn said, without turning around to look upon the younger man.
“Of course not, my prince! We none of us knew. Nor Prince Doran either, I don’t think.” Daemon’s tone was pitiful. “I don’t understand it. I have sometimes heard of ladies who catch their hair alight in the flames of candles, but her hair is not much burnt. And why was she not attended to? Why was she not dressed? Lord Tyrion is not like the King. I thought him fond of the Lady Sansa…”
Visions of Mad King Aerys roasting Rickard Stark alive in his own armor danced behind Oberyn’s eyes. He laughed roughly.
“Whether he likes it or not, my Lord Hand’s duty is to get the King married, eventually. That task will not be made easier if word gets out that his Grace tried to burn his last bride-to-be in her own bed.”
Oberyn heard Daemon take two or three deep breaths, as though he too were struggling with sudden sickness.
“You cannot mean…” he said slowly, but then he fell silent. Daemon was kindly, and cheerful, but not stupid.
They both stood there at the railing for a long moment, listening to the work of the sailors around them. Oberyn watched the waves break against the sides of the ship and tried hard to think of absolutely nothing else.
“Prince Doran is having someone meet us at the harbor,” Daemon said forcefully, when his breathing was again even. “You can send word back to him. He can…he will…”
“Doran will already know by now. Lord Tyrion will have told him.” Oberyn sighed heavily and straightened. “Just as well for us. I would as soon send the lady on to Sunspear and return to the Red Keep myself.”
“My prince…” Daemon sounded torn. “I would go with you, and gladly. But I do not think the Lady Sansa would thank us.”
“No. She is too wise for that. A maiden not yet flowered, and she saw all the while what none of us would open our eyes to.” Oberyn shook his head. “But it is no matter. We need do nothing, so long as Doran knows. He will hold his tongue, and make his list, and sooner or later he will have their heads. One and all.”
Oberyn could feel the skeptical look that Daemon trained on his back, but he ignored it. Better if Daemon continued to think his brother mild and gentle. Better for everyone—especially those who had incurred his vengeance.
Doran sat in his rolling chair and looked out the wide windows onto a vast bay full of blue water, thinking about Sansa Stark. In in his lap, there sat balanced a small writing desk, complete with parchment, ink, quills, and blotting paper. Doran had been trying, and failing, to write a letter to Sansa for the last ten minutes. There were three sheets of crumpled parchment at his feet; they would have to be burned soon. The parchment currently beneath his hand bore Sansa’s name written at the top. He hadn’t yet managed to write anything else.
He had already written one letter, to Oberyn, and it was already rolled into a scroll and sealed in red wax impressed with his signet. That letter had taken only a minute to write, but then, it contained nothing but a list of instructions: I send gold. Lease a new ship with accommodations suitable for Lady Sansa’s long recovery. If she worsens early in the voyage, take her to Pentos. If you are pursued by the King’s ships across the Narrow Sea, make for Tyrosh. Otherwise, press on for as long as Lady Sansa’s strength endures. The Tolands will host you if you make it so far as Dorne. Do not surrender the lady to her former friends under any circumstances.
It was a weighty letter for all its brevity. He knew how his brother thought. Under any circumstances—Doran had given Oberyn tacit permission to burn the King’s ships if that was what it took to keep Lady Sansa safe. Such an act could lead to war.
Doran told himself that he was not, seriously, considering starting a war just to save a child he had known for two days, and that he was merely confident in his brother’s ability to out-sail every ship in the royal navy.
It was not strictly necessary for Doran to write to Sansa at all. A postscript addressed to her at the end of the first letter would have sufficed. But under the circumstances, a mere postscript seemed inadequate. He must say something to the girl. She must be reassured, encouraged…apologized to. Doran was not certain why, each time he tried to convey these sentiments, his words deserted him. It was folly he ill had time for.
He picked up his quill for the fourth time in ten minutes, and let his mind fill with recollections of the girl in whose company he had spent less than six hours over two days.
She had been waiting for him yesterday evening, courteously early, just after the dinner hour. Daemon had pushed Doran’s chair out to the gardens. Sansa was demurely seated on a rough stone bench. Her posture was beautiful, her hands folded correctly in her lap, her eyes cast down to avoid the curious stares of the women who passed, and the hungry stares of the men. One would not have known to look at her that she was in pain.
From a distance, Sansa did not look nearly so young as she was. She was tall, her form womanly and graceful already. From a distance, she could easily be any age between three-and-ten and one-and-twenty.
If, however, she chose to grant one the rare favor of looking into one’s eyes, it was immediately apparent that she was little more than a babe in years. Or perhaps it was more apparent to Doran than it was to others. Grief and suffering had melted away the child-softness of her face, leaving only high cheekbones and eyes the blue of Valyrian steel. Those eyes held little expression. They were like the Wall—a sheer, slippery surface that could not be scaled easily. And like the Wall, to look at those eyes was to grow curious what darkness, what danger lay beyond them.
Lord Tyrion had talked a great deal about Sansa after she retired from their supper. He was in his cups, and he waxed sentimental. Beatings such as Doran had witnessed had apparently been a regular occurrence since Robb Stark was acclaimed King in the North. Sansa was not suspected of any treachery, Tyrion assured him; even if she had been, her every move was watched, and according to her servants she did little but pray and walk in the gardens. The King ordered her beaten merely because it excited him to see her beaten. And Sansa never resisted the beatings, only wept.
“She knows that he likes to see her weeping,” Tyrion had added, and Doran’s feelings on the subject suddenly became more complicated.
When Doran joined Sansa in the gardens, he had asked Daemon to leave them, and Sansa had instantly volunteered to push his chair. The offer had moved him; a strong man would grow tired pushing his chair over uneven, unpaved garden paths, and Sansa was only a child, and hurt besides. Instead, Doran had waited until they were the only two people on the garden path before rising from his chair and insisting that Sansa be seated in his place. Sansa had gawped at him.
“I am quite able to walk,” he had explained, smiling. “There is some pain, but the maesters say that I should take exercise from time to time. I only need something to lean on.” He touched the ebony handles of his chair, to indicate that they would be adequate support.
Sansa had still been reluctant, and in the end Doran had had to take her hand and gently guide her into the seat himself. Then he had asked her where they might talk privately, and Sansa had hesitated, then mentioned the godswood.
The godswood was in the most distant part of the gardens, a circle of trees with a great weirwood in its midst. Doran was fascinated; he had never seen any of the ancient white-and-red trees or their carved, bleeding faces before.
“Do you spend much time praying here?” Doran had asked, lifting a hand to the face, not quite able to touch it.
“I come every morning and night,” said Sansa.
Doran gave her a quick sideways glance. “But not to pray.”
Sansa looked at her hands. “No one else comes here,” she says. “No one else keeps to the old gods.”
Lord Tyrion had assured him that the girl was watched at every moment. Clearly, her watchers were less vigilant, or Sansa was cleverer, than Tyrion realized.
“Would it be improper if I took a seat here?” said Doran, indicating a jutting length of tree root that was bowed in the center, worn nearly smooth by centuries of human touch. Sansa shook her head, and Doran sat.
“I think you were frightened of me when you came to dinner last evening,” he said.
Sansa’s eyes widened, but she did not reply, because Doran had phrased it as a statement, not a question, and she was careful, this maiden.
“Are you less frightened of me now?” he said, trying to make his voice as neutral as possible.
Sansa took her time choosing how to answer. “I am frightened of Joffrey,” she said. “Because he is King. If he were not King—if he were only a highborn boy—I would not fear him. He would still be cruel, but would not be able to do so much harm.” She hesitated. “I think that you, my prince, would…still be able to do much, even if you were not a high lord. But I do not think you are cruel.”
Doran stared at Sansa for for a long moment. She offered him only her profile, and after a moment she bent her head again, which made her hair fall like curtains on either side of her face.
“Do you fear nothing, save cruelty?” he asked, when he had composed himself again.
“It isn’t the cruelty, so much as the not knowing.” Sansa wrung her hands together, a soothing, repetitive motion. “What happened yesterday…if it happened every day, I would…it would be different. But it isn’t every day. He ignores me a great deal of the time. It should be a relief when he ignores me, but it isn’t. I’m always waiting for the next time.”
“Unpredictability,” said Doran. “Chaos. These, you fear.”
“I think so, my prince. When you don’t know what is to come, it makes it difficult, deciding how to act.” She looked at him then, quite unexpectedly, and Doran lost his breath for a moment. “Sometimes I think that hope is worse than fear.”
“Certainly. Hopes that not likely to be realized are a lingering pain in the soul.”
“It is not always easy to tell the difference between a true hope and a false one,” she said, still holding his gaze.
Doran considered his words carefully. “How would you tell the difference, between a false hope and a true?”
Sansa looked back down at her hands. “Men prove their worth by their actions. I suppose the same is true of hopes. We give them a chance…and then they come to pass, or they don’t.”
“It is a hard thing,” said Doran softly, “to give hope a chance, after it has disappointed you so many times.”
Sansa blinked a few times. “Hopelessness is harder,” she said. “Life without hope is impossible.”
Doran had gently steered the conversation onto necessary topics after that. He knew little about Sansa Stark—much less than he should have known before betrothing her to his own son—and though it would have been more meet to question her guardians, he though Sansa more trustworthy. Had she heard aught from her lady mother since her brother Robb was acclaimed King in the North? She had not. What of the maester of Winterfell, or its castellan, or her brothers Bran and Rickon? She had heard nothing from any of them, but she was not allowed to write letters, and she thought that, if any had been sent to her, the Queen must have kept them. Did Sansa feel that the Queen had done her duty, caring for her, since making her a member of her own household? Sansa seemed to feel that the Queen was straining generosity to the breaking point by allowing her food and houseroom—and, of course, by not having her head cut off. Sansa knew the Queen better than Doran did, of course. He was willing to entertain the possibility that, coming from Cersei Lannister, this was extraordinary generosity.
When the crickets began to sing their evening song, Doran began inquiring into her taste in reading, hoping to gain some sense of the education she had received. He discovered that she was a romantic—a secret one. She had learned to hide away her shy hunger for gallantry and chivalry once she realized that such graces would not be extended to the likes of her, not here. She told him frankly that she thought it was better for a monarch to be loved than feared, yet it did not sound like a child’s pious mummery, but more like an assessment borne of observation. It was borne in upon Doran suddenly that this child, shortly to be a member of his own household, knew more about the King of Westeros than any other person alive. He would think Lord Tyrion a fool for letting her go, but he knew that Tyrion had a romantic streak of his own, at least where the girl was concerned. Sansa Stark was probably the only woman who had ever had any use for the dwarf’s chivalry.
“I would ask you to answer me this question truly,” Doran said. “I will not say ‘honestly’, for I do not think it in your nature to lie. But I have no need of courtesies, only frankness. Do you wish to leave King’s Landing and make your home in Dorne?”
She had fidgeted and looked through the copse of sacred trees to the cliff beyond and the bay below.
“The last time I set out on a long journey to a strange land, I lost…everything,” she said. “I do not think I have much to lose anymore.”
No, thought Doran. Only your last hope. But he said nothing. There was no need. He understood her now—better, by far, than he had hoped to when he invited her to speak with him that evening. It was curious that she had brought him to the godswood. These trees, no doubt, had heard many of her silent prayers, and the ground been watered by her tears. They might have conversed just as privately in a sept, but she had chosen to face him in the presence of her own gods, not his. Doran was no great believer in the gods, but he could not escape a certain sense of…presence, in that place. Oberyn, who was far more pious than he, would probably feel bound to make some sort of holy vow, not to fail the fragile trust that Sansa was placing in him. But Doran did not make vows. He made plans.
Suddenly, he found that he had many plans for Sansa Stark.
When the sun set, they made their way back to the Red Keep, and Sansa had insisted on trading places in the chair with him before they were very far away from the godswood. “After all,” she had said, her tones a mixture of mischief and breathtaking artlessness, “You don’t want anyone out there to know how well you can truly walk.”
Ser Daemon was waiting for them when they reached the courtyard. Doran had asked Sansa for the honor of escorting her back to her chambers. He intended for Daemon to stand the first watch, guarding her door that night, and it was as convenient a way of delivering him there as any.
“One last thing,” Doran had said, before parting from her. “Are you certain that you are strong enough to begin this journey tomorrow? It may keep another day or two, if need be.”
Sansa had looked up and down the corridors, and her shoulders hunched nervously before she replied. “If only it will get me away from this place, I am strong enough to swim to Dorne. My prince.”
Doran had been startled into laughter. Sansa had flushed, then smiled. It was the first true smile Doran had yet seen from her, and like a flash of heat lightning it illuminated the sweetness, the vulnerability, and the sorrow she normally concealed in the darkness behind her eyes. For a brief but fervent moment, Doran had wished that she could be married to Quentyn. His son would be well suited to her. And as her own good father, Doran would never be very far from her.
“In the morning, I will be present at the dock, to introduce you to my brother and see you safely aboard your ship,” Doran had said. “Sleep well, my lady.”
“I shall, my prince.” She had given him a strange, intense look. “Thank you,” she had said, and there was something in her manner of speaking that made that pronouncement different from the dozen or so I-thank-you-my-lord-princes she had already spoke to him during the course of their short acquaintance.
Sansa was meant to depart from a small dock inside the Red Keep just after dawn the following morning, but when Doran opened his eyes the following day the sun had fully risen, and there was a smell of smoke in the air. He had peered through the light, trying to clear the cobwebs that the potion always left clinging to his brain, when Lord Tyrion burst into his room unannounced.
“I am sorry to wake you, Prince Doran, but something has happened. It is a matter which urgently requires your attention.”
“Why was I not awakened earlier,” said Doran, looking at the slant of the light pouring in through the windows.
“I am afraid that I have made a terrible mistake,” Tyrion said without answering the question. “But first, let me assure you that only ten minutes ago I saw Sansa safely aboard your brother’s ship. They will make port at Sandy Wedge harbor in some three hours’ time. If it is your will, a fast courier should arrive in time to reach them.”
“And why should I send a courier to my brother?” said Doran blearily.
Lord Tyrion took a deep breath, and it made his chest puff up like a little boy trying not to cry. “In the early hours of the morning, the King discovered that his betrothal to Lady Sansa had been broken and that she was promised to another. He bust into her chambers while she was still abed and set fire to her bedclothes.”
The dwarf looked like death, and there were reddish patches, like mild burns, on the backs and palms of his hands. Doran stared at his hands for a long moment before lifting his eyes, waiting for him to continue.
“Sansa was not, thank the gods, seriously injured, I don’t think. But I had to move very quickly to get her out of the Keep before Joffrey did something even more drastic. There was no time to get her to a maester, or even to pack her belongings. I thought it…prudent to tell Prince Oberyn the bare minimum, until you had the opportunity to communicate with him.”
Doran was no longer tired in the slightest. He glanced into the corner of the room, where his maester stood waiting with a tray, and beckoned him forward. He put one leg out of bed, and then the gouty one, which seemed to pain him less this morning than it usually did.
“Explain this to me again, if you please, my Lord Hand,” said Doran. “I am old, and in the mornings my wits are slow.” The maester handed him a tumbler of lemon water, and Doran drank it all, then, very deliberately, set the glass down on the table. “Explain to me how mine own promised good daughter came to be burned in her very bed, but two days after I had received her into my household and my protection. Explain to me what happened to the guards I posted outside her doors last night. And once you have explained these things to me, I hope you will explain what amends the Crown intends to make to Dorne for the attempted murder of a princess of House Martell.”
Tyrion’s face turned deathly white.
“We take these matters seriously, you see,” said Doran easily, shrugging into his dressing gown. “History has taught us the peril of doing otherwise.”
“I do not deny that it is a most serious matter,” said Tyrion, between gritted teeth.
“Then perhaps you need time to think over your response and discuss these serious matters with the Small Council.” Doran looked away, taking up the tumbler glass again. “Thank you for the information you have provided, Lord Tyrion. We shall speak again soon.”
Doran did not watch Lord Tyrion depart. He heard the door close behind him, and then a sudden grinding and cracking noise, as cool liquid rushed over his hand.
“My prince!” cried his maester. “Your hand…”
Doran glanced down at the remnants of the shattered drinking glass caught between his fingers and his palm. A thin trickle of blood mixed with lemon water and ran down the sleeve of his house coat. Doran had allowed the master to fuss over and wrap the minor cuts and help him into his chair. Then he dismissed him and took up his writing desk and began his letter to Oberyn.
The letter to Sansa was difficult. In the first draft, he found himself offering excuses—only to discard it, because excuses did not befit princes who had promised their protection to maidens who had been so often betrayed by powerful men. The second draft had begun with more promises, but Sansa’s words in the godswood had come back to him: Men prove themselves in their actions.
The third draft was discarded because Doran had only known Sansa for two days, and it was not appropriate for a man in his position to ask such a maiden to relieve his anxieties, however delicately couched his inquiries were.
Doran took up his pen and began the fourth draft by offering Sansa the only gift of worth that still lay in his power to give her: honesty. Once had resolved on this course, his fluency returned to him, and he managed to pen a satisfactory missive in an appropriate space of time. Afterwards, when the letter was scrolled, sealed, and imprinted, he called for the captain of his guard to take charge of it. The servants and messengers of the Red Keep were scarcely to be trusted, after all. Hotah would do whatever he must to see that Doran’s instructions were carried out.
After all was concluded, Doran rang for his secretary and instructed him to arrange for all the bannermen, all the lords and heirs and scions who had accompanied him to King’s Landing, to attend a private supper at a location situated some distance from the Red Keep. He left it to the secretary to scout an appropriate location, requesting only that it also contain chambers adequate to maintain himself and his household for the duration of their stay in the capital.
He would remain in the Red Keep no longer. He could not flout the King’s hospitality overtly, but he could make it plain in the eyes of all observers that he considered Joffrey…unreliable. And he would need to consult with his people in private, or whatever passed for privacy in this city full of spies.
When all the arrangements had been made, Doran exited the Red Keep without fanfare, using his chair rather than his palanquin. On the way out, he made a point of stopping by Sansa’s former chambers. The burnt bedclothes had been stripped away, the windows open to air the smoke, and even her ruined wardrobe and possessions had been cleared away. Only the bare mattress on the bed remained as evidence of what had occurred there: black scorch marks covered the goose-down sack on which Sansa had laid herself to rest the previous night. He found himself remembering what Sansa had said to him the night they dined together, when he had ordered that his palanquin would transport her back to her rooms.
“My prince,” she had whispered, white as a sheet, “the King will…”
Doran had interrupted her. “You will allow me to deal with the King,” he had said. He had compassion for her fears, but she had been in Joffrey’s power for so long that Doran had thought her terror of him exaggerated. With her betrothal to Quentyn sealed, it had seemed necessary, for Sansa’s sake as well as his, to make some show of power.
Doran remained there in Sansa’s doorway, staring into her soot-stained chamber, for so long that his secretary grew visibly uncomfortable. Doran ignored him, and continued to stare awhile longer.
AO3 is having some kind of screwy issue where it generates extra italics tags when I edit the post. I can seem to fix the formatting on the letters, which have randomly non-italicized bits in the middle.
A strong salt wind dragged a few strands of hair loose from Sansa’s braid. Salt mist plastered them to the side of her face. The moon was low, and the creaks and groans of the ship’s timbers were astonishingly loud—louder than the rush of the sea itself, on a night such as this. She held onto the railing and gazed out at the distant water. Maester Adrian had forbidden her to spend more than a few minutes out on the deck when the sun was shining, but it was the hour before dawn now, and the sun would not burn her through her new silk gown for a long while yet.
The Lady Jeyne was due to reach Sunspear on the morrow. They had been sailing for three weeks. Sansa had spent the first twelve days abed in her cabin. It was a pretty little cabin, a far cry from the spare, narrow berth on Nymeria’s Sun where Prince Oberyn had bestowed her the morning of their departure. She had only been aboard Nymeria’s Sun for a few hours, but they had been memorable hours, marked by searing pain and paralyzing terror. I did not think to live, Sansa reminded herself, gazing out at the far blue water, where dolphins sometimes leapt and dived amongst the white-capped waves. Yet here I stand. I have done all that Prince Doran asked of me. I grow hale, I grow strong, and soon I will be in Dorne.
The letter she had received from Prince Doran in Sandy Wedge was creased and smooth from the number of times that Sansa had unfolded it, re-read it, and put it back between the pages of the book she kept it in. She read it almost every single day, though she could scarcely have said why. Most days, she read it just after she woke from dreaming about the fire. The flames always consumed her in her dreams. Yet waking was almost worse than dreaming, because, in the first instant after she opened her eyes, she always expected to see Joffrey standing over her with the torch.
Today, she had taken her letter and slipped from her cabin to breathe fresh air and reassure herself that the warships of the royal navy weren’t bearing down on them in the darkness. She’d escaped the Red Keep, thanks to Lord Tyrion, but not before Joffrey had threatened to have her pursued. On mornings like this, nothing but reading Prince Doran’s letter made it possible for Sansa to breathe through the fear.
She took the parchment from the pocket of her cloak and unfolded it, careful not to let the wind snatch it from her hands.
My time for writing is brief, and so too must this letter be—too brief, indeed, to contain all that I would wish to express.
I have not forgotten that you cautioned me to be wary of the King’s wrath. I failed to heed your wise counsel and now I learn that you have been made to pay the price of my folly.
Lord Tyrion says that the injuries inflicted upon you are not grave in nature. I pray this is so, but it is not my nature to trust solely in prayer. My brother Oberyn will guard and cherish you as if you were his own blood. If there is anything that might bring you comfort, only name it, and Oberyn will see it done.
I know you to be a most dutiful lady and thus I ask this service of you: heal, grow strong, and meet me when I come again to Dorne.
She took a deep breath and folded the letter again, holding it tight against her chest for a moment before tucking it back into her pocket.
Sansa was improving, but she was not yet whole. Every morning the maester came to her cabin and changed the yards of tight bandages wound round her body. She was healing at an acceptable rate, he told her, but the bandages would have to stay on at least a week longer. And there would be scars. There was nothing that the maester or anyone else could do about that, so Sansa tried not to think about it too much. She was past the danger of succumbing to a fever, so unless the ship sank, she would live to see Dorne, as Prince Doran had asked. That was all that truly mattered now. She would live, and when Prince Doran returned to Sunspear with Myrcella, Sansa would ask him for permission to write to Mother with news of her betrothal. Sansa wasn’t entirely certain where Mother and Robb were at the moment, but a letter addressed to her uncle at Riverrun would find its way to them eventually.
The sound of voices in the distance made Sansa tense on reflex. She shouldn’t be out here alone in the darkness without Lyra, the maid who had joined them at Sandy Wedge (along with Maester Adrian, and six extra guards). But she had found that no one seemed to care much what she did here on the ship. It was nothing like the Red Keep, where her every move had been watched. No doubt Prince Oberyn realized that there was little harm she could do from a small vessel in the middle of the Sea of Dorne, especially when she was still recovering. In Sunspear, she would have to mind herself closely once more, but in the mean time, she was grateful for the freedom.
“Lady Sansa?” She hears light boot steps against the deck just behind her. “Why are you not in your cabin? Is aught amiss?”
She turned, trying not to cringe with guilt, to see Prince Oberyn frowning at her through the dim light.
“No, my prince,” she said. “I happened to wake early, that is all.”
“Shall I wake Adrian? If the pain keeps you from sleep—”
“Not at all,” she said quickly. “Truly, I no longer feel much pain.”
Prince Oberyn continued to frown at her, unconvinced. “I had a bad dream,” she admitted. “There is no need to wake the maester.”
“Ah.” His face cleared, and he came to stand next to her at the railing, looking out upon the miles of dark water that stretched before them. “In that case, I will join you for a moment. I always need company after I have bad dreams.”
Sansa’s small, quiet oh of surprise made him give her a quick glance, a small smile on his lips. “In my nightmares, I usually find myself back in the Red Keep. We have that in common, perhaps.”
She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she didn’t.
“Or perhaps your dreams look to the future, not the past?” Sansa could only blink at him. “Are you anxious what will happen when we reach Sunspear?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that either, but she couldn’t just stand there like a mute when he kept asking her questions. In her experience, princes didn’t like it much when she did that.
“I am looking forward to seeing Dorne,” she said. “I am sure it will be very different to anything I have ever seen before.”
“Yes,” he said, and the single word was somehow heavy with meaning. “You will find it very different to what you have been used to.”
Sansa nodded, because that seemed safest.
“What did Doran tell you? You had little opportunity to speak with him, I know, but I hope he took the time to answer some of your questions.”
No, Sansa thought, but then, she couldn’t recall asking Prince Doran any questions. “As you say, my prince, we had little chance to speak. We did meet privately once, but…for the most part, Prince Doran asked questions of me.”
Prince Oberyn laughed. “That is also usually the case when I have audiences with my brother. It suits him to listen while others speak. Well, I shall have to provide what my brother lacked. Ask your questions of me and I shall do my best to answer them.”
To Sansa’s dismay, her mind was instantly swept blank. She had to stare out over the water for a long time before she could think of any questions at all.
“Will it be very long before I meet Prince Quentyn?”
He grew sober. “Yes, I am afraid so. It may be several years. But then, you are only two-and-ten, are you not? You should be older before you marry. I would allow no daughter of mine to wed at such an age.”
Sansa had no desire to be married yet either, but she would like the chance to get to know her future husband before it was time to wed him. On the other hand, she’d had plenty of time to get to know Joffrey, and it had only made her dread their wedding. Perhaps it was better not to know anything about Prince Quentyn in advance. But she could not say so to Prince Oberyn. She doubted he would be pleased if she compared his nephew to Joffrey.
“Are any of your daughters married?” Sansa asked, genuinely curious.
Back when Sansa was unable to leave her bed, Prince Oberyn had come to her cabin for a long visit at least twice a day. During those visits, he’d told her many stories about his daughters, particularly the eldest four, all of whom had different mothers. Sansa had lain abed many days, concentrating on the sound of Prince Oberyn’s voice to help keep the pain at bay. He had told her about, Obara, who was mistress of the spear and one of the best riders in Dorne, Lady Nymeria, whose mother was of the oldest blood in far Volantis, Tyene, to whom Oberyn had passed along his knowledge of potions and poisons, and Sarella, to whom he seemed to have passed along his knowledge of everything else. His younger four were all Sansa’s age or younger, and their mother was his paramour, Ellaria Sand. She hadn’t quite had the nerve to ask what a paramour was—it wasn’t something her septa had seen fit to explain when she was teaching her lord’s children about the great houses of Dorne—but Sansa knew what a Sand was.
Judging from the pride and affection in his voice when he spoke of his family, Prince Oberyn wasn’t the least bit ashamed to be the father of so many bastards. It made Sansa think guiltily of Jon. Growing up, she had heard whispers from some of the older servants at Winterfell that Jon’s mother was Dornish. Would he have been happier growing up a Sand than he had been as a Snow? She was glad that Prince Oberyn did not know anything about her life at Winterfell. He had promised to introduce her to all of his girls, but she doubted he would have been as excited by the prospect if he knew how bastards had been treated in her mother’s household.
“No, none of my girls are wed. They are free to do so if they wish, but I never insisted upon it. Quite the opposite. If they wed, they would leave me, and I would be lost without them.” He heaved a sigh. “Although Sarella may leave me soon in any case. She has a scheme in her head, to spend some time studying in Oldtown. I gave her my leave, but my brother is still thinking about it. I don’t think he wants her to go away either. She is uncommonly clever, Sarella. Useful to have around when there is a question you need answered without listening to a lecture from the maesters.”
“They do seem to enjoy their lectures,” Sansa allowed. She would be due for one herself this morning if she didn’t get back to her cabin before Maester Adrian came to change her bandages.”
Prince Oberyn grinned. “Adrian is something of a tyrant. I knew him, when I was at the Citadel. He was longwinded and pedantic even then. Brilliant, though. I knew you would be in safe hands. The pain is easing, you said?”
“Yes, my prince. The maester says I should be healed entirely within the fortnight.”
“He tells me the same. My brother will be most gratified. He blames himself for what befell you.”
You have been made to pay the price of my folly. “I hope that is not true. It was none of his doing.”
“Doran of all people should know better than to doubt when he is warned that a King is mad.”
There was a harsh note in the prince’s voice that Sansa did not quite understand, and somehow it emboldened her to speak. “I do not know that I would call Joffrey mad.”
“No? Perhaps you are right. Men of sound mind can be crueler than madmen.” He smiled suddenly. “But good men…sometimes they dare cruelties that others cannot dream, when they act in defense of their own.”
Sansa hadn’t the faintest idea what she was supposed to make of that, but it sounded alarming.
“We will stay at the Old Palace in Sunspear until the maester says you are recovered, and then I think you will go to stay at the Water Gardens. That is where Doran spends most of his time, and my younger girls too. Myrcella will remain at the palace with Trystane and his sister and myself.”
“I have heard the Water Gardens are very beautiful,” Sansa said, her voice faltering slightly. She had assumed that Prince Oberyn would remain close by when they reached Dorne. But of course, Prince Doran had only given her into his charge for the duration of their sea voyage. My brother Oberyn will guard and cherish you as if you were his own blood. Sansa remembered thinking once that the Red Viper would sooner strangle her and throw her overboard than see his nephew married to Lyanna Stark’s niece, but he had been more than courteous to her—even warm.
“They are indeed, most beautiful. I grew up there myself, as every prince and princess of my house has done since Daenerys Targaryen wed Prince Maron. Even now I visit at least once a fortnight, to consult with Doran and see the girls.”
Sansa tried not to let her relief show. At least he will not disappear. Nor Ser Daemon.
“And when we reach Sunspear, you shall send a raven to your lady mother, to tell her of these beauties.”
She looked at him, startled. “Truly? Would I be permitted?”
“Of course. Do you not recall? You asked me, many days ago, and I said that the news of your betrothal should not be kept from your family.” He frowned at her.
Sansa did not recall. There was a veil in her memories, dividing the first few days of their voyage from all that came after. She could dimly remember their arrival in Sandy Wedge—opening her eyes to find Prince Oberyn leaning over her, his expression tight and worried, as though he’d been trying unsuccessfully to wake her for a long time. He’d tried to be gentle when he carried her from her cabin to the litter that was waiting to take her to the Lady Jeyne, but the potions he’d given her had dulled her wits more than they had dulled the pain, and she’d fainted shortly after he deposited her on the narrow pallet.
Sansa remembered thinking it strange, how much worse the pain was, suddenly, than it had been before. She’d been numb that morning in the Red Keep when Tyrion threw a cloak over her and commanded her to lean on his shoulder, numb as they walked ahead of Ser Daemon and his brothers-in-arms to the dock where Prince Oberyn awaited them. Tyrion’s words had frozen her blood, that was why she couldn’t feel anything. I cannot contain Joffrey for long, he’d hissed at her. If not for the fact that his legs were so short, she never could have kept up with his furious strides. Forget your clothes, forget your books. You will be a princess of Dorne soon, you will want for nothing.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I don’t remember much about those first few days.”
Prince Oberyn’s expression tightened, but his mouth was soft. “Perhaps that is best. Your suffering was dreadful to witness, though you bore it with all the dignity of a queen.”
Sansa’s cheeks grew hot, and she was grateful that he could not see her blush in the darkness.
“I confess, I wondered greatly at my brother’s decision when he wrote to tell me that he had betrothed you to Quentyn. It is most unlike him to make important decisions so hastily. I wondered less when Daemon told me of the scene that greeted my brother in the throne room upon his arrival, but I did not truly understand until I had known you for a few days. For a maiden of your years, you have the most remarkable composure.”
It had been so long since anyone had praised her so freely that Sansa hadn’t any idea what to say. “You are too kind, Prince Oberyn.”
“I am not known for my kindness.” He grinned. “Ask anyone. My reputation is well established.”
Sansa permitted herself a delicate sniff. “You have been kindness itself to me, so I will have difficulty believing anyone’s report to the contrary.”
Prince Oberyn’s grin turned into a soft smile, and his hand came to rest on her shoulder—the one that wasn’t wrapped in bandages under her clothes. “One day, kindness will not seem so remarkable to you. My brother has made you a part of our family, and we are good to our own. So you will write to your mother when we reach Sunspear. She will have the comfort of knowing that the Lannisters can do no you no more harm, and when she writes back to you, you will have the comfort of her counsel, which you have no doubt sorely missed since the death of your lord father.”
Sansa hesitated for a long moment, but the prince’s warmth made her bold. “If the King were to learn that a raven had traveled from Sunspear to Riverrun, would he not think it treason?” She was being delicate. She knew full well that Joffrey would consider it treason.
“It is no treason for a maiden to write to her mother to say that she is going to be married. And that is what Doran will tell the King if he is foolish enough to ask.”
The wind was very chill this morning. They were very near to Dorne, and Sansa had thought Dorne a warm country, but the nights at sea were as cold as any in King’s Landing. “I…I hope very much that he would not say so to Joffrey’s face.” Else he will lose a head, and I will be to blame. Again.
Prince Oberyn snorted, but then he seemed to sense her unease. His hand, still gripping her shoulder warmly, tightened its grip.
“Never fear. Doran has all the caution and prudence that I lack. He will make his plans, and keep his counsel, and return safely to Dorne with Princess Myrcella.”
“I am looking forward to seeing him again.”
“So I gathered. Tell me, what sweet words did Doran write to you, that you read them so often?”
Sansa felt a bolt of completely inexplicable panic, and her eyes must have widened comically, because Prince Oberyn laughed. “It is no matter to me,” he said. “If he was able to say aught to bring you comfort, I am glad for it. But Doran is a man of few words, so I wondered that he managed as much.”
“He only expressed his wish that I should recover my strength,” Sansa said, a little stiffly. But she found it impossible not to explain herself further. “I never had a friend in King’s Landing until the day I met him. Lord Tyrion tried to be kind, but if it weren’t for Prince Doran I would still be there.”
“Then we must both be grateful to my brother, I suppose. Although I think it would be more fitting to congratulate him. In a matter of days, he managed to betroth both of his sons to the sisters of kings—and both of them younger sons, at that!”
Sansa gripped the railing, her whole body suddenly tense and tight. She inhaled sharply, and Prince Oberyn frowned.
“In King’s Landing,” she said, “no one ever called Robb a king.” She avoided his eyes. “He was only a traitor, like my father—and I had the traitor’s blood.”
Prince Oberyn was quiet for a long moment. He stood looking out over the water with his hand on her shoulder, so close to her that she was warmed by the warmth of this body, and when he at last spoke, she could tell that he had chosen his words with greater care than was usually his wont.
“When this War of the Five Kings began, it was Doran’s ruling that Dorne should have no part in it. The North is far away, as is Dragonstone, and Dorne has been at war with the Reach many times over the centuries. Wait and see, Doran said, and in the mean time, we are the King’s loyal subjects. Then, of course, he received Lord Tyrion’s proposal that Myrcella be wed to Trystane. Excellent timing, on the Imp’s part. A handsome reward for Dorne’s friendship to the Iron Throne.” His smile was crooked. “But since we will be home soon, you might as well know—in Dorne, we are loyal to ourselves.”
It was strange, Sansa thought, that after so many months of being considered as good as a traitor, guarding every action and every word so as to remain above suspicion, she could stand here and listen so calmly while Prince Oberyn spoke treason to her.
“I suppose that explains a few things,” she said quietly.
He looked amused. “Does it?”
Sansa thought of Ser Daemon, and Maester Myles, both of them replying to her warnings about Joffrey by saying that they served Prince Doran. She thought of Prince Doran saying, Allow me to deal with the King.
“What will happen to Myrcella if Joffrey…if Lord Stannis should be victorious?” She did not mention her brother; Robb was not interested in the Iron Throne. But it was the closest she could come to asking what would become of her, should Robb be defeated.
“Nothing,” said Prince Oberyn, without a moment’s hesitation. “She is not to blame for her family’s crimes. You are both under my brother’s protection.”
Sansa could only nod.
“Come,” he said, tugging slightly on her shoulder. “I will see you back to your cabin. It wouldn’t do for the maester to find us here, or we shall incur one of his lectures.”
She took his arm when he offered it, and allowed him to open the cabin door for her. Lyra was still asleep within, thankfully. She was a dreadful snitch when it came to making certain Sansa followed the maester’s orders.
“We shall reach Sunspear by nightfall,” he said. “Try to get some more sleep. It will be the last you sleep in that bed.”
Thank the gods, Sansa thought, then wondered when she had stopped dreading their arrival in Dorne and began awaiting it with eagerness.
“Thank you for joining me, Princess,” said Doran, once Myrcella had been seated at his breakfast table. “Your septa tells me you are feeling better today.”
“Yes, my prince, I am much better,” she says. She paused for a moment, then adds, “The captain says I have my sea legs now.”
Doran smiled. “The Queen said you were a good sailor, and fond of the open water. Still, a long sea voyage takes a hard toll. I myself am quite unused to it, though I traveled enough when I was a younger man.”
They were now a week upon the water, and though Doran had never been fond of long sea voyages, even when he was young, he breathed easier with so much open water between the Maiden’s Wreathe and King’s Landing. He had been obliged to spend two weeks in the capital, attending feasts in honor of Myrcella and Trystane’s betrothal, and that week had been full of tensions. The abrupt dissolution of Sansa Stark’s betrothal to the King had been the subject of furious, breathless gossip wherever Doran seemed to go. Everyone knew about the fire. Some thought that Sansa, desperate with grief, had started it herself, hoping to perish in the flames rather than be parted from the King she loved. Others said she had preferred to be burnt alive rather than take a Dornish husband, a view to which some members of his household had taken some offense.
Yet a surprising number of people seemed to know that the fire was the King’s doing, and Doran had noted with interest that two of Tywin Lannister’s bannermen with eligible daughters near the King’s age had quit the capital suddenly. Lord Tyrion had found it all quite nerve-wracking. Doran had sympathized with his anxieties, even as his people continued to whisper the truth into any pair of listening ears they could find. Whether the seeds his own bannermen were planting would take root or not, Doran could not guess. He knew only that the Lannisters were as poor in true loyalty as they were rich in gold—most men feared them, many profited by them, but none loved them. As a consequence, the throne that Tywin Lannister had won for his family sat on foundations of clay, and clay could only withstand so many tremors before it crumbled back into sand. Dornishmen, it was well known, were surefooted on sand.
“I saw dolphins when I left my cabin,” said Myrcella, spreading soft white cheese over a piece of flatbread. “I didn’t know what they were at first. The captain told me. He said that sometimes, when a sailor falls overboard, dolphins will bear him up so that he does not drown. Is that true?”
Doran smiled. “I have also heard that said, though I have never seen it myself.”
Myrcella was only a few years younger than Sansa, but there was a wide gulf of experience and sorrow between the little girl of almost ten and the maiden of not quite three-and-ten. The princess was less abashed, less fearful of setting a foot wrong than Sansa, and she had been more grieved to leave her old home than frightened of what awaited her in the new one. Doran had paid careful attention to Myrcella since their voyage began, curious whether she had anything in common with her brother the King, but so far he had seen nothing to give him alarm. Rather the contrary: though she carried herself like a princess, not a hostage, there had been moments when she exhibited some of Sansa’s wariness, and Doran reflected that though Sansa had been betrothed to the King for many months, Myrcella had been his sister all her life. She had not cried when taking leave of her family, but there was sorrow in her eyes when she kissed her mother and little Prince Tommen. There had been none when she kissed Joffrey.
“Does Prince Trystane like the water? Has he ever seen a dolphin?”
She was a bright, pretty child, courteous and curious and not unbecomingly proud. Trystane would take to her quickly, Doran had no doubt. It eased his mind to know that his youngest child, at least, would grow up alongside his betrothed, that there would be years of trust and affection between them by the time they were wed. Such was the best foundation for happiness in marriage, he believed. Love alone was nothing compared to trust, as he had learned to his own cost.
“Trystane swims capably. Like all my children, he grew up in the Water Gardens. But he is not the waterman you are, princess. You will have to teach him.”
She grinned, as if charmed by the notion of teaching a boy who was nearly a man grown.
Myrcella would enjoy the Water Gardens too, and she was not yet too old for them. But Doran meant to keep her in Sunspear, because that was where Trystane lived, and because the Water Gardens were where he intended to establish Sansa. Myrcella seemed to admire the older girl, but through no fault of her own her company was likely to remind Sansa of dark days past. Doran meant for Sansa to have a long, untroubled convalescence from her time in King’s Landing. Afterwards, if she wished it, she and Myrcella might be reunited.
When the meal was finished, Myrcella bobbed a curtsey and all but skipped away from the table, trailed by her reproving septa. He thought she was probably on her way to find the ship’s cat and spoil him with morsels stolen from the table. The sailors said that the fat old monster wasn’t catching as many rats these days, and Doran thought he knew whom to blame.
After the servants had cleared the table, Doran took up his walking stick and hobbled across the room to his writing desk. There, he took out the letter he had received from Oberyn, and unfolded it along well-worn creases. He’d read it over several times already, but he kept returning to it, as though some part of him hoped to find the contents altered.
Many thanks for your timely letter and the timelier provisions.
I indeed discovered that our most precious cargo had been badly damaged before it was carried aboard ship, and I greatly wondered how such had come to pass. I mended all that I could, to some small avail. Luckily, here aboard the Lady Jeyne there travels a skilled craftsman who has agreed to enter your service. He will keep close watch, and preserve your treasure if he can.
All your instructions shall be dutifully attended to. Never fear but that all those you care for shall meet you in Dorne upon our return.
Regarding your treasure: a certain person—one of those most nearly concerned in the case—has expressed doubt lest the damage should decrease the desirability of anyone’s possessing it. I assured this person that it would not be less precious to you for a little scorching, but when we meet again perhaps you might convey that sentiment yourself.
Doran did not trust Tyrion Lannister, but he had believed him when he said that Sansa’s injuries were not grave. He did not think the dwarf would have packed her off to Oberyn without a maester if he had known her to be in serious danger; he cherished tender feelings towards the maiden, Doran believed, and no doubt would have married her himself if he had dared stretch his hand to grasp such high fruit. Oberyn was Citadel-trained, better able than Lord Tyrion to assess the seriousness of Sansa’s condition. Badly damaged had a terrifying ring to it, coming from Oberyn—all the more so, since the timing of their separate voyages meant that Doran could not hope to receive further news of Sansa until he was again in Sunspear.
Still, Doran knew his brother well enough to know that he would not have sent assurances if he had believed the case to be hopeless. Between Oberyn and the no doubt well-qualified maester he had pressed into his service, Sansa would be in capable hands.
As to the last few sentences…they troubled Doran as well, but they had not surprised him. Fire disfigured. Doran had known there would be lasting damage, but were she as hideous as Sandor Clegane, she would still be Eddard Stark’s eldest daughter, gracious and sweet-natured, dutiful and intelligent. If the unlikely should come to pass, and Quentyn should indeed marry Sansa, his son would think nothing of her scars, save that he would be grieved for the hurt done to her. And if, in the fullness of time, Doran should have to find some other husband for her, he would choose with the utmost care. He would not bestow her on anyone unworthy.
I assured this person that it would not be less precious to you for a little scorching. Did Sansa truly believe that he would look upon her when he returned to Dorne and pack her back to Lannisters because she was forever marked by the King’s cruelty? She would come to know him better than that, he hoped. Oberyn’s advice was rarely given save in jest, but if his brother believed that assurances from his mouth would quiet Sansa’s fears, she would have them. He did not mean to part with Sansa Stark for a long time.
I pray the gods I have not been unknowingly parted from her already, he thought, and gazed out the window of his cabin at the distant waves, willing to wind to bear all its fury down on the sails. If he was fortunate, he would see Dorne, and his brother, and Sansa, in two weeks. They would feel longer than that, to him.
Every courtier of rank in Sunspear was gathered by the gates of the outer ward of the Old Palace, awaiting the appearance of their prince, whose long journey from King’s Landing across the Sea of Dorne was nearly at an end.
They had all of them been waiting out here in the heat for more than half an hour, while Doran’s litter crept slowly closer. Obara had eventually sat herself down on the sandstone steps and begun whittling the end of a stick into a sharp point. Sarella was tucked knees-up in the shadows of a great pillar, her nose between the pages of an enormous book. Oberyn would rather have liked to join her, but a prince of Dorne had appearances to maintain. Besides, Sansa stood at his right hand, listing against him slightly, and if Oberyn left her on her own, she might well collapse before submitting to the indignity of seating herself upon the ground with so many people looking on.
Oberyn cast a discreet glance from Sansa, at his right, to Trystane, who stood at his left. His nephew would, no doubt, be only too glad to support Sansa in Oberyn’s place. There had been some confusion when first the Lady Jeyne arrived in Sunspear. After all, no one had been expecting the arrival of two new brides for House Martell; when Trystane first came out to greet them two weeks ago, he had taken Sansa for none other than Princess Myrcella. Sansa was clearly older, and her hair was copper, not golden, but Trystane had seen nothing but her beauty. By the time introductions had been made and the misunderstanding cleared up, poor Trystane had looked fairly crushed, as though he were already a fair way towards falling in love with his brother’s betrothed.
Today, Trystane was arrayed in his best finery, as suited a prince waiting to greet the arrival of his betrothed princess. But he was nervous, and Oberyn did not blame him. Were he free to choose, Oberyn had no doubt he would have preferred to claim the hand of the maiden beside him—she, after all, was no stranger to him any longer, and her age was more of a match for his. For his nephew’s sake, Oberyn hoped that the little Lannister princess was indeed the budding beauty she was reported to be, and that she had a gentle heart besides. If so, Oberyn trusted that Trystane would get over his disappointment soon enough.
And in the mean time, poor Quentyn is off courting his dragon lady on the far side of the Narrow Sea, never knowing that Doran has already claimed a gentle beauty in his name, a maiden who would share his love of poems and songs, and grace all the long years of his life with her companionship. If only princes could choose...
It was most unfair to the both of them, and Oberyn was not looking forward to the day when Sansa would have to be informed that the husband she had been promised would never be hers. She had suffered enough disappointment in her short life already. Yet Doran would find some means of making it up to her, Oberyn was sure. Doran was anything but unfeeling towards Sansa. That letter he had sent…Oberyn knew better than most that Doran spoke least when his anger burned hottest. Yet his letter to Oberyn had been positively terse.
Minutes passed. The sun burned hotter, even under the shaded canopy that blocked the fiercest of the sun’s rays from beating down on their heads. Oberyn was just on the verge of ordering that benches and fans be summoned, for the sake of the ladies, when the guards cried out, “The Prince of Dorne!”
Sansa straightened suddenly, no longer leaning against Oberyn’s arm. He looked down at her as she clasped her hands and stared at the ground.
“What is it?” he said. “Are you well, Sansa?”
The question was sheer habit, by now. Her wounds were healed to the limits of the maester’s skill—Oberyn had been permitted a glimpse of her back when the last of the bandages were finally removed, and he had seen for himself that the flesh was again whole, though the scars that had knit it together were fearful to see, red and tender and whorled like tree bark.
She was long past the danger of her injuries, but Oberyn continued to worry for her peace of mind. To be sure, whenever she was asked, Sansa claimed that she was perfectly content, but her flinches and startled gestures spoke for themselves. Alone, with him or Arianne or Ellaria or any of his daughters, she could be relaxed, even cheerful. Yet in a crowd such as this, she had a tendency to efface herself, to all but disappear in plain sight. At such times, Oberyn made it a point to stay close to her—unless duty called him away, and then he sent Daemon to stand at her back. She was safe in Sunspear, with or without a guard, but she did not seem to realize it yet.
“I am well, thank you,” Sansa said quietly. “I am happy that Prince Doran is returned.”
She didn’t look happy, but Oberyn decided not to argue with her.
“The very sight of you will delight my brother’s eyes,” he assured her. “You could scarcely be lovelier, and anyone can see that you are strong and well. Doran could desire nothing more.”
Sansa flushed slightly, perhaps even smiled a bit, but she continued to keep her eyes trained on the ground.
All at once, the gates to the outer ward swung open. Doran’s litter began its slow ascent up the first flight of stairs, to where his household awaited him. The litter was surrounded by figures on horseback—one of them a small girl whose golden curls escaped the long orange veil protecting her fair skin from the sun.
Oberyn took two long strides forward, then fell to one knee. The rest of the crowd followed suit. The litter came to a halt, Areoh Hotah helped Doran down, and Doran, leaning heavily on his walking stick, hobbled slowly, stiffly forward. He paused, smiling down on the small crowd gathered to greet him. Then his eyes fell on Oberyn.
Oberyn leapt to his feet and embraced Doran with arms flung wide, kissing his cheek.
“Brother,” he said. “You look well!”
“Do I?” said Doran. There was a gentle irony in his voice, but his expression was fond.
“You look better than I expected,” Oberyn amended. “Especially after two weeks amongst the lions, and another three weeks at sea.” He wasn’t lying; the fact that Doran was able to walk, even with the aid of a stick, was more than Oberyn had hoped for.
Doran accepted this with a nod and a sigh. “I will not pretend that I am not most grateful to be home once more.”
He started to say something else, but then his eyes lit on something just past Oberyn’s shoulder. Oberyn watched as the weariness in Doran’s expression gave way to wonder, relief—and a hint of trepidation. Sansa, Oberyn realized.
There was a proper order in which the Prince of Dorne ought to receive those who were awaiting him, but as Doran gestured for all to rise, Oberyn took it on himself to lift Sansa to her feet. He placed a careful hand on her back, guiding her forward, and presented her to Doran like she was his own hand-picked welcome home gift.
“Lady Sansa,” Doran breathed, his eyes moving over her with a strange hunger. She curtsied, and Doran kissed her hand, enclosing it in both of his, as though to guard something precious. “Can it really be you?”
Sansa flushed furiously. She was no longer so ashen as she had been when first Oberyn met her, especially with the sun turning her pale skin ruddy, but most days she looked fragile, still, to his eyes. Yet in this instant, there was more life in her face and features than Oberyn had ever glimpsed before. Even her eyes were bright, shimmering with unshed tears. If not for the soft, sweet smile on her lips, Oberyn would have thought her completely overwhelmed.
“My lady,” Doran continued, speaking too quietly for any but the three of them to hear. “All these long weeks with no news of you, I could not help fearing the worst. Yet here you stand before me, as lovely and whole as the Maiden herself. I cannot tell you what joy this brings me.”
Oberyn blinked. He wasn’t surprised by the sentiments—had he not only moments before told Sansa what Doran would feel when he saw her? But he was fairly stunned by the fact that Doran had actually given them voice. For a man so sparing with his words, this was waxing poetic indeed. Oberyn could not help but wonder at it.
“I hope that your voyage was a peaceful one,” Doran added, sounding a little more like himself. “And that you had all you required for your comfort.”
“The journey was indeed peaceful, my prince,” Sansa said softly. “And I had every comfort, by your own gracious generosity.”
“No. That was no generosity on my part. Not when I am repaid tenfold to see you well and safe, here in mine own home.”
By Sansa’s own admission, she and Doran had spent but little time together in the capital. Yet anyone looking at them now would think they had been boon companions for many a month. It had been a long time since even Arianne had looked upon Doran with the tenderness Oberyn saw in Sansa’s features. Arianne was not even present just now; she had remained in the palace to oversee preparations for the welcoming feast.
Doran gave Sansa’s fingers a last squeeze, and Oberyn would swear that he surrendered her hand back to her keeping only with the greatest reluctance. When Sansa stepped back into line, a strange shadow crossed Doran’s face—grief, Oberyn thought, though what had inspired it, he could not guess.
“Princess Myrcella.” The riders had dismounted when Doran’s litter came to a halt, and at the prince’s beckoning, the small girl with the golden curls under an orange veil stepped smartly to his side. “At long last, I may present my family to you. This is mine only brother, Prince Oberyn of Dorne, and the four ladies you see just behind him are my nieces, his daughters—the ladies Obara, Nymeria, Tyene, and Sarella.”
Oberyn glanced over his shoulder just long enough to be certain that everyone was curtsying—even Sarella, who had put aside her book at last. Then he made his own low bow. “Princess,” he said. “My daughters and I are overjoyed to see you safely arrived. You are most welcome to Sunspear.”
Myrcella Baratheon curtsied. A pretty little girl of nine or ten, flanked by her septa and a man of the Kingsguard, she was very like her mother, to the best of Oberyn’s recollection—after all, the last time he’d laid eyes on the Queen, she was a child almost Myrcella’s age.
But though Myrcella had her mother’s golden curls and high cheekbones and green eyes, the expression she wore—one of bright, friendly curiosity, mingled with excited pleasure—made her look as unlike proud, haughty Cersei Lannister as Oberyn was to the Kingslayer. Oberyn found himself winking at the child, and grinned when she suppressed a giggle.
“And this young man, standing next to his uncle, is your own betrothed—my son, Prince Trystane,” Doran added.
Oberyn could practically feel the nervous tension radiating from his nephew, but Trystane managed to step forward and make his bow without tripping or otherwise disgracing himself.
“Princess Myrcella,” Trystane said. His voice hardly cracked at all. “I have long looked forward to meeting you.”
“As have I you, my prince,” said Myrcella promptly. She then proceeded to stare at Trystane for a long moment, with a lack of self-consciousness that only a child of nine or ten could manage without appearing rude.
Trystane seemed unnerved at first, but when he offered her a hesitant smile, Myrcella promptly blushed and grinned back. Soon the two children were beaming at each other, and Oberyn found his tension giving way to pleased satisfaction. Doran, too, was watching them with a softness in his eyes that Oberyn had not glimpsed for many years—not since Elia’s death, perhaps.
“And of course, Princess,” said Doran, when it appeared that Myrcella and Trystane were like to stand there smiling at each other for the rest of the afternoon, “you will remember your old companion, Lady Sansa of House Stark.”
Sansa lifted her head to gaze upon Myrcella, and Oberyn, attuned by now to every nuance of her body language, saw Sansa’s shoulders grow rigid. Yet when she spoke, there was only kindness in her voice.
“It is good to see you again, Princess,” Sansa said, very softly. “I hope the voyage agreed with you.”
“We saw dolphins!” said Myrcella brightly, her smile not dimming in the least, as though Sansa were an old friend, not her family’s former hostage.
Sansa blinked, then she laughed a little. “We saw dolphins too. And a whale, I believe.”
The princess began to speak of other wonders she had glimpsed on her voyage—giant sea turtles, something the sailors had insisted was a mermaid. Yet Sansa, Oberyn could see clearly, was not really listening. For courtesy’s sake, she was trying to appear attentive, but her eyes kept flickering over to the man in the white cloak standing at Myrcella’s shoulder.
Curious, Oberyn found himself looking as well. The knight of the Kingsguard who had accompanied his princess to Dorne was visibly squirming. He wasn’t returning Sansa’s nervous glances—but he was being so careful not to look at her that he might as well have been staring openly.
Suddenly, understanding flashed upon Oberyn like a bolt from the sky. It wasn’t Myrcella who was discomfiting Sansa; it was the knight. Oberyn heard Daemon’s voice as if it were whispering in his ear: The King ordered his Kingsguard to beat her...
Oberyn sucked in a breath so low and sibilant it that was nearly a hiss. Before he quite knew what he was doing, he took a quick, reflexive step forward, coming to stand in between Sansa and the man in white.
“And what have we here,” said Oberyn, grinning with all his teeth. “A noble knight of the Kingsguard, come all this way to guard his princess. You are very welcome to Dorne, I am sure. Your name, ser?”
The knight straightened uncomfortably before making his bow. “Prince Oberyn. I am Ser Arys Oakheart, if it please you.”
Not Ser Meryn, then. Oberyn relaxed slightly. And yet—had any of the Kingsguard not beaten Sansa at the butcher boy’s command? Maybe one or two had escaped that duty, but not, Oberyn thought, Ser Arys. It was plain just to look at him that he was guilty. Perhaps Sansa’s presence in Dorne had not been made known to him before he set out with his princess. Perhaps this hapless knight had believed he was leaving his guilt behind him in King’s Landing, along with all those who might accuse him.
Before these dark thoughts could take deeper root, however, Tyene stepped forward to claim a niece’s privilege and kiss Doran’s brow.
“Uncle,” she said, “I am sure you are weary. Shall we go in, so you can rest before the feast tonight?”
Doran gave her a grateful smile. If he had read any significance into Oberyn’s exchange with Ser Arys, it was not obvious to Oberyn.
“Yes, rest would be most welcome.” He gave Tyene’s hand a fond squeeze, then looked to Oberyn. “Brother, if you would be so good.”
Oberyn was always willing to assist his brother, but he did not like to leave Sansa just then. He looked at the girl behind him, then at Ser Arys, and before he could think of an excuse to keep them far away from one another, Doran spoke again.
“Ser Arys, Septa Farella, my seneschal will show you the way to the Princess’s chambers,” Doran said. “I will not be long in Sunspear—duty calls me to the Water Gardens within the week—so my own apartments in the Sun Tower will be given over for Myrcella’s use.”
Oberyn gave Doran a sharp glance. Did his brother know, or had he merely guessed, that Oberyn had temporarily bestowed Sansa in the Spear Tower, a floor above his own chambers? The Sun Tower was a fair distance from its twin; there was little likelihood of any member of Myrcella’s household encountering Sansa by chance, so long as they remained ensconced there.
As Oberyn stepped forward to give Doran his shoulder to lean on, he glanced back over his shoulder and caught Daemon’s gaze. He flicked his eyes in Sansa’s direction, and Daemon needed no further instruction. Daemon shouldered his way through the crowd and offered Sansa his arm. As the seneschal began to issue directions to the servants, Daemon and Sansa slipped away, leaving Oberyn free to devote his whole attention to Doran.
“I owe you a debt, brother,” said Doran, as they began their laborious trek towards the palace doors. “When I charged you with bringing Lady Sansa alive to Sunspear, I feared I had burdened you with an impossible task.”
“Truly, were you so uneasy?” Oberyn frowned. “I attempted to convey my assurances that all would be well.” Granted, he had written more from fierce determination than from genuine confidence, but Doran didn’t know that.
“You did, and that was some comfort.” Doran winced as they crest the top of the stairs. “Yet you told me a different story than any I had heard before. Lord Tyrion gave me to understand that the Lady Sansa’s injuries were of the most minor sort, and I knew no better—until I heard otherwise from you.”
“I see.” Oberyn considered his words; Doran would not want to be spared, yet there seemed little point grieving his brother by explaining in detail all that Sansa had suffered. “Then, in truth—her injuries were grievous, and she will bear the marks of them all her life. But she is recovered now. You need not fear for her any longer.”
Doran absorbed this expressionlessly. “There was a portion of your letter that I found most mysterious. The final lines…what was it Lady Sansa said to you, to make you write as you did?”
Oberyn had to cast his mind back many weeks to recall what he had written Doran in the conclusion of his letter. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Sansa offered to release us from her betrothal to Quentyn. The scars…she thought, perhaps…”
Doran shook his head, needing to hear no more. “Poor maid,” he whispered. “Mellario once said to me, many years ago, that beauty was apt to be a curse as well as a blessing. I wonder if she was not correct.”
“Sansa is beautiful still,” said Oberyn, a little stiffly.
“Certainly, she is.”
He did not speak again until they reached his solar, where Caleotte was waiting for them. The maester offered Doran potions for his pain, but Doran waved them away and set Hotah to guard the door. Thus, Oberyn found himself alone with his brother for the first time in months. He had wished for nothing else since his own return to Sunspear, yet now, Oberyn found that he did not quite know what to say.
“A toast?” he suggested after a moment, moving to the sideboard. “To celebrate the betrothal of both your younger sons—and to the sisters of kings! A mighty coup, I should think.”
“It was foolishness, and you know it,” said Doran, though he accepted a goblet of strongwine all the same. “Myrcella’s betrothal was one matter. But I had no business claiming Sansa Stark for Dorne. Even if Quentyn does not succeed in his errand…”
Oberyn knew his nephew as well as Doran knew his son. Quentyn would succeed in his quest, or perish in the attempt. In either case, he would not return to Dorne unwed.
“I am sure you had your reasons,” said Oberyn mildly.
“Oh, yes. I had reasons aplenty. Perhaps Sansa told you of them; or if not she, then Ser Daemon.”
“Sansa said but little.” Oberyn snorted. “But yes, Daemon was most forthcoming.”
“All the concessions which my lord of Lannister offered in the betrothal agreement for Princess Myrcella will be honored.” Doran held the wine goblet loosely, as though he cared not at all whether it should spill. “A permanent seat on the Small Council is reserved for me, or my deputy. And in time, we will have justice for Elia.”
“In time,” Oberyn snorted. “They keep a different sort of time in King’s Landing if they think seventeen years not time enough.”
“They would no doubt have kept us waiting for another seventeen years, if they could. But after the King…”
Doran’s hand tightened into a fist. His knuckles were red and swollen, and Oberyn knew that it hurt him even to grip a quill, yet his hand did not relax. “The situation altered somewhat after what was done to Sansa,” he said, after a pause.
Oberyn blinked. Strange, that he had not considered Sansa’s injuries in that light—as much a diplomatic matter, as an insult to her person. But that was why Doran was ruling prince, not him; Doran saw all angles, all injuries, all slights.
“When I offered Quentyn to Sansa, no dowry was mentioned, nor did I demand one,” Doran continued, gazing into the middle distance, his eyes lighting on something past the glass doors of his balcony. “Sansa’s life was her dowry. I saw that the instant I arrived at the doors of the throne room and saw Meryn Trant beating her.”
Oberyn’s own hand tightened around the stem of his goblet. Yet, despite everything, he smiled. I knew Doran would learn his name.
“Yet, the life of the daughter of Eddard Stark was a sufficient prize for me. I did not haggle for her. By the end of my first day in King’s Landing, the betrothal contract was drawn up, signed and sealed. Copies were sent to every great house in Westeros. Upon that instant, Sansa ceased to be a hostage. She became, instead, my ward.”
Doran’s nostrils flared. “She was my ward when King Joffrey ordered his Kingsguard to subdue Ser Mors and Ser Allister, who were guarding her chamber door as she slept. She was my ward when the King stood over her bed in the darkness and tossed a burning torch onto the bedclothes beside her.”
Oberyn swallowed hard and sank slowly onto the chaise next to the sideboard.
“I learned all the truth of the matter, you see, in the days after I wrote to you.” Doran’s voice was as dry as the desert sand, and his smile was drier still. “It was essential to know the truth, you see. Every betrothal comes with concessions. But the attempted murder of my ward, my own son’s promised bride…this required something more. Not concession. Restitution.”
Oberyn leaned his elbows on his knees and gazed up at his brother. “And what manner of restitution was granted?”
“Names, for one.” Doran drank deeply of his strongwine. “Two names. Ser Amory Lorch, for Rhaenys. And Ser Gregor Clegane, for Elia and Aegon.”
Oberyn never knew that he was capable of sitting so still, when all his inward being was stirred to revolt. “Names are not heads,” he said.
“Amory Lorch is with Lord Tywin’s host in the Riverlands, and Gregor Clegane is…abroad. As one of his final acts as Hand of the King, Eddard Stark stripped Clegane of his titles and lands, pronounced him accursed and attainted, and sent his own men to serve the King’s justice on him.”
“The King’s justice?” said Oberyn roughly. “Stark justice, I call it.” His mouth suddenly dry, he drained his goblet. “I have heard it said that, seventeen years ago, Eddard Stark was the only man of Robert Baratheon’s company who cried for justice on Elia’s murderers. I did not believe it then. Yet now…”
“We ought not judge children by their fathers,” said Doran. “Yet all men judge fathers by their children.” He sighed. “Be that as it may, Lord Stark’s men were ordered arrested after he himself was confined to the black cells. None of that company have been seen since, and Clegane is still at liberty. But Lord Tyrion agreed that some more earnest effort was needed to apprehend him, and a man of the Kingsguard volunteered to lead the hunt.”
“A man of the Kingsguard?” Oberyn snorted. “Those same men of chivalry who beat Sansa with their own swords?”
“The one man of the Kingsguard who never did,” Doran corrected him softly. “Sandor Clegane.”
Oberyn gaped. “You set the Hound after his own brother?”
“It is the Hound we have to thank for Sansa’s life. He came upon the King at his crimes, and it was he who put the fire out and informed Lord Tyrion in time for Sansa to make good her escape. I was informed later that the Hound has a peculiar terror of fire, so we must presume that he feels some particular loyalty to Sansa. The King was not best pleased with him for his interference, however, and Lord Tyrion implied that Clegane was only too grateful to leave the capital for a time and go in search of his brother. There is little love between them, I was told.”
Oberyn recalled his thoughts from the outer ward. There may have been one or two who escaped that chore. Yet of all the men who wore the white, Sandor Clegane would have been the man Oberyn thought most likely to take pleasure in carrying out the King’s brutal orders.
“What of Ser Amory?” said Oberyn, half dazed.
“A slightly smaller company of our own good Dornishmen, led by Jynessa Blackmont, is has set out in search of him.”
Oberyn’s eyes widened; Jynessa Blackmont was formidable, but to his knowledge, she had never trained at arms.
“Elia was something of a heroine of hers when she was small,” Doran explained. “Ser Deziel Dalt accompanies Jynessa as her sworn shield.”
Suddenly, the stunned paralysis which had kept Oberyn fastened to his seat gave way to a surge of furious energy. “I should be among them,” he snarled, half to himself.
“No. Sansa needed you. And I need you, here, with me, now. We have discussed this many times before.”
They had; they’d argued about it a thousand times if they’d mentioned it once. Oberyn was obedient to his brother’s will as Prince, but even after so many years he still was not resigned to it.
“So it seems that we stand to gain much from Sansa’s suffering.” Oberyn gave his brother a bitter smile. “Were any restitutions made for her comfort, I wonder?”
“Do you think me heartless?” Doran’s tone was bleak. “Of course I made provisions for Sansa. To begin with, we are all of us excused from attending the King’s wedding. His betrothal to Margaery Tyrell was announced the day I departed the capital. They are to wed four months hence. My gout will take a sudden turn for the worse around that time, however, and my family will not be parted from my side whilst I am so ill.”
“No, of course we will not,” said Oberyn, with a twitch of the lip.
“As to the rest…” Doran averted his gaze. “The rest may not be so much to Sansa’s comfort, after all, but it pertains to her.”
Oberyn felt a chill. “What is it?”
Doran wheeled his chair the rest of the way to the window, and by the way he gazed out at the shadow city, Oberyn knew he was wishing himself back in the Water Gardens, with the children playing before him. Oberyn had seen him sit thus, gazing down at the gardens for an entire day and a night once. It was the day they told him of Elia and the children.
“Sansa Stark has been confirmed as Eddard Stark’s lawful heir, the Lady of Winterfell in her own right, should King Robb fall in battle.”
Oberyn frowned. “I knew they had disinherited King Robb, much good may that do them. But Sansa has two brothers else. One Brandon, and one…Rickard, I believe. Small boys, too young to be tainted by their brother’s treason.”
Doran shook his head without turning his face from the window. “No,” he said heavily. “King Robb lives, but not Prince Brandon, nor Prince Rickon.”
A heavy weight filled Oberyn’s stomach.
“Word reached the capital shortly after your departure. Winterfell has been taken by a host of Ironborn, led by Balon Greyjoy’s heir. He killed the two little princes, and hung their bodies outside the gates.” Doran’s voice was thick with grief, but he plunged on. “He will not keep Winterfell long, however. It was a foolish exploit, the vainglorious act of a young, unseasoned warrior. Northmen are loyal, and the strength of the Ironborn derives from the sea. The Boltons of the Dreadfort will reclaim Winterfell in Robb’s name soon enough. Yet…there are dark rumors from the Riverlands. Robb Stark is a brilliant battle commander, but at the end of the day, he is a boy of sixteen. We must not pin our hopes on his victory.”
Oberyn leaned against the sideboard again, head spinning. “If Robb Stark falls in battle, all the North will proclaim Sansa Lady of Winterfell. Many will likewise proclaim her Queen in the North.” Oberyn shook his head. “Gods be good, Doran. You said the girl came with no dowry. It seems to me she comes with half of Westeros!”
“It is no jesting matter,” said Doran sharply. “You must see how this changes our position. Five weeks ago, the Lannisters gave me a hostage. She no longer held any value for them, not after King Robb refused to trade her for the Kingslayer. They scarcely cared what became of her after Lord Tyrion gave her into your hands. Now everything is different. The North remembers, and in the Riverlands, they continue to fly Stark banners. The man Sansa marries may well become the single most powerful lord in all of Westeros.”
Oberyn blinked, then filled his wine goblet again. “I’m surprised they didn’t ask you to give her back,” he said.
“Oh, they did. Numerous times, with sweeter and sweeter inducements. But how, I asked them, could I assent to Sansa’s return to King’s Landing, when she had barely escaped with her life? What was to stop the King from assaulting her again? They soon ceased to trouble me on the subject.” Doran smiled distantly. “But now that I am come again to Dorne, I expect ravens to arrive shortly, taking up the theme again. They will continue to harp upon it until Sansa marries, I expect.”
Oberyn sipped his wine slowly. “We pledged ourselves to wed the dragons before it was known that there were dragons,” he said. “We took…a certain person’s cause as our own, because he was the nearest kin of royal blood to our sister’s children. But he is dead now, and there is no telling whether his sister will look on our suit with favor. Perhaps…”
“Perhaps,” said Doran, with weary finality. “I have thought of nothing else, these three weeks I have been at sea. Her brother was a friendless babe when you signed the accords with his guardian. But he is dead now, and she is neither a babe, nor friendless. She has dragons, and men the world over seek her favor. What can Quentyn offer her, amidst so many suitors?”
“Family?” Oberyn shrugged. “She has none. Nor has she friends, not in Westeros.”
“She has dragons. She will have friends in plenty, if she is wise enough to tell them from her foes. It may be that she will refuse my son her hand…yet still, she may accept a different sort of alliance. One that would leave Quentyn free to marry when he returned to Dorne.”
Oberyn frowned. “Will you write to him?”
“I would rather he should write to me first, to tell me how matters stand.” Doran sighed heavily. “Yet I fear that even should I write him this very day, his homecoming would be too late for our purposes. When I took Sansa from the Lannisters, I thought only to save the life of an innocent maid—a worthless thing, in the eyes of many. Instead, I find myself possessed of a Queen-in-waiting. If we are to keep her, we must act swiftly. Either Quentyn must return with all speed, or I must arrange a different match for Sansa. You know how I dislike hasty action, but circumstances force my hand.”
Oberyn pushed away from the sideboard and walked over to the window, to stand next to his brother. “She does not yet know that her brothers are dead,” he said.
“No. I spoke of it to no one at sea, so that no one might let it slip by accident on our arrival. I mean to be the one to tell her.”
“She is strong enough in body, but in spirit…” Oberyn sighed. “I would ask that you not speak to her of that and of her marriage in the same breath. Give her time to mourn before her suitors come calling.”
“Of course I would not…” Doran let out a long sigh, hinting at his frustration. “When I leave for the Water Gardens, Sansa will come with me. I will take the time to know her before I decide what her fate must be.”
“You take an eager interest in her welfare,” said Oberyn, not disapprovingly.
Doran shut his eyes, and abruptly he looked ten years older than he really was. When he opened his eyes again, the newly pronounced lines around his eyes and mouth did not fade.
“Had you stood where I stood,” said Doran, “the day I came to the capital…had you heard and seen all that I did…”
“I would have poisoned every last one of them in their sleep, no doubt,” said Oberyn, his tone one of forced flippancy.
“No,” said Doran, with chilling certainty. “You would have died there, fighting all six of the Kingsguard by yourself. This, I know. Had I my legs again, I would have been tempted to do the same.”
Oberyn felt a chill wrack his body, from head to toe. Even when Doran was young and whole, even when he was a name to be reckoned with in the lists and a warrior feared by all those who came to cross blows with him, Oberyn had never heard him speak so.
“Should you not rest?” Oberyn said mildly. Surely it was the strain of his long voyage that had turned his mild brother so warlike.
“Yes,” said Doran, sounding once again like himself: weary, laden with heavy burdens. “But first, I must speak with Sansa. She cannot be ignorant of her brothers’ fate when she attends the feast tonight. Someone may know; someone may speak of it to her.”
“It would be better if she were excused from attending the feast,” Oberyn found himself protesting.
“That,” said Doran, “I will leave to Sansa to decide.”
You guys keep saying that you like Doran's POV best, so here, have 7000+ words of Doran being Doran.
BTW, I cannot tell you what joy your comments bring to my life. I've been having a hard time lately--life stuff, mental health stuff--and sometimes I get a comment from one of you that just changes my day.
For whatever it's worth, a lot of the stuff that I write about Sansa and her reactions to trauma come from a very personal place for me, and I know that's also true for a lot of people who seek out stories that deal with such themes explicitly, so if reading this story makes you want to reach out somehow, please don't hesitate to comment, or even find my Tumblr ask box.
The children who played in the Water Gardens were all under the age of ten—naked, carefree, oblivious to the limitations of their own rank or birth, or the highborn status of their playmates. Sansa was, just barely, too old to join them. Yet ever since she came to the palace a week ago, she had walked in the gardens almost every day, skirting around the edges of the pools, searching for soft, shaded spots amongst the trees, where the children’s roars of victory and shrieks of defeat were muffled by the greenery and hedges. Sometimes, she came with a book in her hand, other times with a piece of embroidery to stitch. More often, she brought nothing with her but her own thoughts, and sat quietly in her secluded refuge from dawn to dusk, gazing out at the sea.
Every day, Doran watched her. He watched all of the children, while he sat and made his plans and read his correspondence, but more often than not he found himself examining the bowers of green for a tell-tale flash of red hair. Whenever he spied Sansa, reading her books and working at her embroidery, a fond smile stole over his face. She was making a brave effort to occupy her mind, to steel herself against the poison of deep grief, and he admired her for it. But when she did not read, when her hands lay empty in her lap and her eyes gazed out upon nothingness, Doran found it difficult to concentrate on business or attend to his letters. He should be doing more for her, he thought. Not that Princes were by nature skilled in the art of counseling grieving ladies. Yet Doran stood in the place of her father now—in the place of all her family—and Sansa deserved better from her family than this…this uselessness.
Princes made terrible fathers, that was all there was to it. Mellario had been certain to drive that point home in the year leading up to her final departure from Dorne. Yet the son I fostered away against your wishes loves me still, Doran thought silently, addressing his distant wife, as though praying to the silent stone idol of some foreign goddess. While the daughter I kept for your sake scarcely bent her cheek to mine when I returned from abroad last week. How did I lose her love, Mellario? Where was my fault? Or do children simply love where they will, their hearts as unknowable as the stars that guide men’s fates?
Yet Arianne was a woman grown, and it was natural that there should be some distance between them, as she tested the limits of her authority as heir to Dorne. Sansa Stark was a child to Doran’s eyes, yet, in that peculiar way of half-grown girls, she was a woman too, at least in the eyes of the world. She was not yet flowered—thank all the gods, and let none of them be in a hurry to bestow that blessing for some time yet—but she was grown enough that men looked upon her with desire, and not solely for her claim in the North.
But if Doran had learned anything from watching Sansa all this week, it was that she was in no fit state to be wed, and would not be for a long time yet, regardless of when she became nubile. Other maidens of her years, Oberyn’s daughter’s, for instance, watched the boys and girls who took their fancy, giggled behind their hands and chattered idly with their friends as they planned their childish love-games. Not Sansa. To see her walk in the gardens, to watch her sit in silence and solitude under the green trees, one would think she was under some sort of spell, her eyes blinded to the company and fellowship of the children who surrounded her.
Doran wondered if he had erred in telling her so quickly what had befallen her brothers Bran and Rickon. But then, he had not known that yet more dire news was wending its way towards Sunspear: Winterfell had burned a week after the death of the two princes. All its smallfolk had been put to the sword, every cook and nurse and stable hand and man-at-arms who had smiled at Sansa when she was a child and called her milady, along with the maester who taught her to read, the castellan who guarded Winterfell in her father’s absence, and only the gods knew how many others…
Doran had not spared Sansa the news of this, either. Perhaps he should have done. Perhaps no maiden of two-and-ten was strong enough to bear up under such redoubled grief. Yet he had taken the gamble, reasoning that any maiden capable of surviving a year of captivity as King Joffrey’s particular pet was strong enough to bear anything. And after all, if Doran had kept it from her, how long before she learned the truth from someone else—and learned, at the same time, that she could not rely upon Doran to be honest with her? Honesty made a bitter gift at times, yet lies, however sweetly told or kindly meant, were but slow poison.
Sansa had not shed a single tear in his presence. Not when he told her of her brothers, not when he told her of Winterfell. She’d listened in demure silence, her face growing steadily whiter, then thanked him for the news and begged his leave to depart. Doran had not wanted to give her leave. He’d wanted to take her hand and seat her next to him on the chaise and tuck her long copper hair back behind her ears. He’d wanted to be present when the tears came, so he could tell her there was no shame in them, so that she would have a shoulder to lean against, a hand to wring as her grief overtook her.
But in seven days of watching Sansa in the gardens, he had never once spied her weeping, not even on the days when she sat still and idle and watched the ocean break against the beach. Perhaps her eyes leaked a few tears when she sat with her back towards his balcony, but if so, they were the quietest sort of tears, and they did not betray her.
If Doran had not glimpsed a different Sansa Stark back in King’s Landing—the clever, mischievous maid who effortlessly penetrated men’s motives and disguises without ever letting slip her own—he might have wondered if the girl was simply unfeeling, too preoccupied by her own uncertain fate to spare much thought for the two little brothers she had not seen in more than a year, much less the men and women who had served her father. But he had seen, and thus knew better.
She did not weep when Meryn Trant beat her, Doran reminded himself. She cried out with the shock of it, and she gasped for air when the wind was knocked from her lungs, but she did not weep. She rose to her feet and left the throne room on Daemon’s arm, as composed as any queen. Only afterwards, when the eyes of the court were no longer upon her, did her strength give way. And even then, Daemon said, her eyes were dry…
Perhaps the trouble did not lay with Sansa, or her manner of grieving. Perhaps the trouble lay with Doran, who grieved for her, and selfishly desired not to grieve alone. He told himself that he wanted nothing from Sansa, that he had bargained for her hand expecting to gain nothing from the transaction save the knowledge that he had deprived Tywin Lannister of another victim. But that wasn’t precisely true. He did want something from her. He wanted her trust; he wanted her to set a few of her careful courtesies aside and speak her heart to him.
I deceived her into coming to Dorne, promising her a husband she will never wed, he thought. I want her to tell me that I did right. I want to believe that I did not do her more harm than good by bringing her here.
Yet Sansa scarcely told him anything. They did speak, once a day. Prior to Sansa’s coming to the Water Gardens, there had never been a custom of formal meals, save for the noon spread of bread and meat for the children at their play. But when Doran was informed that Sansa’s first three days at the palace had seen all of her meal trays returned to the kitchens untouched, he began ordering dinners of cold meat and cheese and fruit to be served at a long trestle table outdoors, just after sundown. Sansa always attended; she had no choice, not when the place of honor at Doran’s right hand was always reserved for her. The will to speak, or to seek company, might well have deserted her, but her courtesies had not. Sansa Stark could not ignore a direct address from the Prince of Dorne—so the Prince of Dorne addressed her as often as he could, on every pretext he could devise, while she carved tender pieces of lamb into smaller and smaller bites and pretended to eat them.
“Maester Myles tells me you borrowed a book from the library,” Doran said one evening, after he had handed her into her seat. “Which volume captured your attention, pray?”
Had Sansa not already been rigid as a statue, she would have frozen in place. “It isn’t a real book,” she said softly, as though she had been caught in some misdeed. “Only a collection of tales and lore. From the North.”
“I see. I confess, I did not know I possessed such a book. Is it one you have read before, perhaps in Winterfell’s library?”
Sansa nibbled a slice of mango, more for the excuse of keeping her mouth occupied than from any real appetite, Doran thought. “If…there was such a book, I never saw it. But many of the tales are familiar. My…one of my father’s servants used to tell them to…to us, when we could not sleep at night.”
Since she had learned of her brothers’ deaths, and the sacking of Winterfell, Sansa had never spoken the names of of any of her kin, living or dead, nor the names of any of her family’s retainers. Doran did not think it was because she had forgotten them.
“Then you must keep the book, as a gift,” said Doran. “I am sure no one who visits my library could appreciate it more than you.”
Sansa hesitated, and for a moment Doran wondered if he had blundered, if the book was more like to be a painful reminder of all she had lost than a treasured memento.
But then she smiled, very faintly, and thanked him. As victories went, it was small enough, but Doran was all too glad to claim it.
Doran was grateful when the second week of Sansa’s stay in the Water Gardens commenced. His brother visited the gardens every fortnight to see Ellaria’s girls and confer with him, and Doran was certain that Oberyn would find the time during his visit to visit Sansa, maybe even make her laugh. They seemed to have become fast friends during their journey to Dorne from King’s Landing, Oberyn evincing a protectiveness towards Sansa that seemed to have steadied her during her first two weeks at Sunspear.
Doran wondered whether his brother might not have a thing or two to say about the fact that she had lapsed into a grieved stupor after only a week on his own watch. After all, Oberyn had cared for her over three weeks at sea while she recovered from life-threatening injuries, and somehow she had been smiling when she greeted Doran in Sunspear for the first time. But the wounds she had sustained while in Doran’s care were of a different sort; no maester, however skilled, could tend to them. Perhaps Oberyn would have known how to counsel her. And yet, as far as Doran remembered, Oberyn’s manner of dealing with shattering grief had involved long bouts of stupefied drunkenness, indiscriminate whoremongering, treason, and exile. Doran might find it convenient to remind him of that, should Oberyn blame him for not calling him to Sansa’s side sooner.
Yet, some three days before Oberyn was due to arrive, the pattern of Sansa’s days changed. Doran was seated on his balcony, watching Sansa hold a book in her lap without reading it, when suddenly a girl from the pools emerged into the clearing and spoke to her. She was one of the oldest girls, old enough to have some sense of propriety—which is to say, she had donned a shift when she left the water, rather than wandering up to Sansa as naked as her nameday. Sansa looked surprised to see her, to say the least, and Doran had briefly been on the point of sending one of the servants down to gently shoo the girl back towards the pools when Sansa changed his mind.
The girl had pointed at the book in Sansa’s lap, and it seemed that she was asking a question. Sansa stared at her for a long moment. Then, the miraculous happened: Sansa gestured to the girl to sit down beside her. And for the next two hours, Doran watched, riveted, as Sansa read to the girl aloud from her book of Northern tales. It was the first time Doran had seen her speak to anyone of her own free will since the day he had told her of her brothers.
That night at dinner, Doran found himself burning with curiosity. What had the child said to Sansa to coax her from her grieving reverie? But he stopped himself from inquiring at the last moment. Sansa knew that he sat and watched the children from his balcony—everyone knew that—but he did not think she was aware that her own sheltered hiding spots were also visible from where he sat. Perhaps it would have been nobler to tell her, perhaps it was an unconscionable invasion of her privacy to watch her as he did, day after day, hour after hour—but if she knew he watched her, she might not come anymore, and where else could she go? He would not have her hide away in her chambers from morning until the evening meal.
Besides, if he was no longer able to watch her, he would no longer have any means of judging how she fared. It wasn’t as though she showed him her true face at dinner. In company, she still wore the pretty, courteous mask of a child without a single original thought in her head. The mask was one of the few possessions she had brought with her from King’s Landing.
Doran could pinpoint almost the exact moment when Sansa Stark had ceased to be an object of his charity, and had become, instead, a subject of his fascination. It had happened in the gardens of the Red Keep, when Sansa had insisted on trading places with him in his rolling chair. You don’t want them to know how well you can really walk, she’d said, with a small, conspiratorial smile on her face, and Doran had recognized her penetrating comment for what it was: a brief offering of trust, a tentative acknowledgment that the two of them had embarked on a partnership that excluded everyone else in the Red Keep. Doran had felt certain that it was the first time Sansa had revealed so much of her true thoughts to anyone since her lord father’s head had been parted from his shoulders. For the rest of that night, all Doran could think of was how to encourage that fragile trust, how to prove to her that it had not been misplaced.
The five weeks after her departure for Dorne had been difficult for Doran, knowing that he might never again have the opportunity to glimpse that rare, unguarded twinkle of mischief in her Valyrian blue eyes.
Her eyes might lack twinkles these days, but it seemed she was not wanting in mischief. The next morning, the little girl from the pools emerged in search of Sansa again. This time, she brought three friends, two girls near her own age and a naked boy aged five or six. Doran’s heart raced as he watched Sansa look up at the four children for a long moment, then point to the ground next to her. Obediently, the children sat in a semi-circle with their knees crossed, and Sansa opened her book of Northern tales again.
When the reading was over, the three newcomers sprinted back away to the pools, but the first girl, the eldest, sat and spoke to Sansa awhile. Sansa turned the book around in her lap so the girl could peer at the pages, and then the girl said something that made Sansa rear back in shock.
A moment later, she was pointing at something in the distance, and the girl jumped up, running in the direction Sansa had indicated. She returned carrying a respectably large stick with a sharp pointed end.
Sansa rose, a little stiffly, dusting her skirts off, and gestured for the girl to stand beside her. She took the stick from the girl’s hand and drew a shape on the ground. When she was finished, she handed the stick back to the girl, and watched with pursed lips as the girl carved her own shape into the earth.
Sansa tilted her head, peering critically at the ground, then nodded her head and proceeded to draw a third shape. And that was when Doran’s breath caught in his throat. Sansa was teaching this girl, this spice-seller’s orphan without family or fortune or future, her letters. She was doing it because she had only just realized that the child could not read, and—thank the gods for this tiny innocence that remained to her—she had been shocked by the knowledge, which cried out to her as a wrong that must be set right.
That night at dinner, Doran had not been able to restrain himself.
“They tell me that, of late, some of the children have been stealing away from the pools to hear you read to them from your collection of dark Northern tales.”
Sansa blinked at him, startled and visibly nervous. Doran realized, suddenly, that he had made a mistake. He had left her to herself since the dire news came from Winterfell, thinking she needed privacy to grieve. But in the mean time, distance had sprung up between them again, and now she was just as afraid of him as she had been the first night he invited her to dine in his rooms in the Red Keep. That will not do, he thought.
“I do read to some of the children, my prince,” she said. “Though we keep well away from the water, and I do not allow any of the children to touch the book. I would never endanger the gift you gave me.”
Doran waved a hand dismissively. “They tell me as well that you have taken Razi, the spice-seller’s daughter, for your pupil. They say you have begun to teach her her letters.”
Doran had watched them carefully the entire afternoon, his letters and reports forgotten. Sansa had guided Razi through the alphabet twice before the gong had called them both away to dinner.
“Yes, my prince,” said Sansa, still looking worried. “Is—is this not permitted? I confess, it never occurred to me to ask anyone.”
“No law forbids it,” said Doran, keeping his voice mild. “But I am curious why you decided to teach her. Has she become so dear to you?”
Sansa shook her head, shoulders still hunched, as if unconsciously braced for blows to come raining down. It stirred Doran to a depth of pity he had not felt in a long time, but he did not know how to stop it, save by going on as he had begun.
“In…the North,” she said, “many of our smallfolk learn to read as children.”
Doran sat patiently, waiting for her to continue.
“The snows come even in summer,” she explained. “There are many poor children who would rather sit by their lord’s fire and learn, than shiver in the cold. Once my—once all of my lord father’s children had learned to read and write, our maester decided to teach the other children as well, a few times a week, as his duties permitted. Sometimes we helped.”
“Impressive,” said Doran. “Especially since it is one thing to lure children to the fireside when it is snowing, and quite another to lure them from the cool water on a hot day.”
“Razi approached me, my prince,” said Sansa. “The credit is not in my teaching, but in her desire to learn.”
“Does she desire that, truly?”
“I think so, yes. She liked the tales I read to her. She wants to be able to read others like them, for herself.”
“Lady Toland.” Doran turned to the lady seated at his left. She was visiting the Water Gardens this week so that her youngest daughter, Teora, might have a few days to visit her old friends at the pools. Teora was ten, but she had flowered early, and now stayed at home with her maester, toiling away the long summer hours at her lessons. “Did you not tell me of late that your daughter sorely misses the company of children her own age?”
“She does indeed.” Nymella Toland gave him a shrewd look through dark eyes. “She’s restless, and when she’s not restless she’s listless. It is most tedious.”
“Lady Sansa has made the acquaintance of a girl Teora’s age from the pools who might benefit from the instruction of a maester,” Doran said, easily, suggestively. “Had you thought of fostering as a means of providing Teora with a companion?”
“I had thought of it, but there are few enough girls of her own age this side of the Greenblood.” Nymella sipped her wine. “Razi the spice-seller’s daughter, is it?”
“An orphan,” said Doran. “Her father was known to me. A respectable tradesman. She is quick and clever and kindhearted. It occurs to me that you might bring her up as a lady-in-waiting to your daughter.”
“Aye, I might.” She nodded gravely. “I thank you for the suggestion, Doran. And you, Lady Sansa. I will speak with the child before I take my leave.”
Sansa, whose eyes had grown round and wide during the exchange, quickly cast her gaze down and nodded. Doran glanced at her at intervals throughout the rest of the meal, but she did not look up again until the guests at Doran’s table began to take their leave.
The next time Doran saw Sansa in her hiding place among the trees she was alone, without her book. Razi had accompanied Nymella and Teora Toland back to Ghost Hill when they departed, but the three other children, those whom Razi had brought with her to hear Sansa’s stories, did not approach Sansa in her absence. Rather, they sneaked away from the pools and came to stand just at the edge of the clearing, to watch Sansa as she sat with her back against a tree and her eyes cast out over the waves. Doran watched as they whispered together, before deciding to turn back and leave Sansa to herself.
A few minutes later, when the children were well away, Sansa drew her legs up and wrapped her arms around them, leaning her forehead against her knees. It was impossible to tell for sure at such a distance, but Doran knew, instinctively, that she was crying. It was the first time in all his days of watching her that he had witnessed tears of any sort, and he knew then that, if he had made one mistake in leaving Sansa to herself for a week and a half, he had compounded it in sending Razi away. Oh, Sansa had professed herself pleased—she understood well what it meant for such a girl, to be fostered as a companion to a daughter of one of the great houses of Dorne. But it seems that she was your companion first, Doran thought, watching Sansa huddle in on herself.
Doran waited until the children at the pools had been summoned for their noon meal, then sent a servant down to the shaded grove where Sansa hid herself. He watched as Sansa greeted the serving woman in evident shock, as though she believed her nook a secret place, unknown to any but the children. Doran watched long enough to see that Sansa was following the woman back to the palace, before he summoned a different servant and ordered that a light meal for two be served at the round table in his solar. Bread, cheese, fruit, and a carafe of lemon water were waiting by the time Sansa arrived.
“Thank you for joining me,” said Doran, reaching for Sansa’s hand. Today was not a day in which he could afford to strain his knee by standing to receive her. He kissed the back of her knuckles and she curtsied, then looked with some confusion to the spread on the table.
“Am I interrupting your meal, my prince?” she said.
Doran took a moment to ponder what circles Sansa must have been made to dance in, back in King’s Landing, if she feared that he would upbraid her for interrupting him when she had done nothing but answer his summons.
“On the contrary,” he said, careful to let neither exasperation nor anger color his tone. “I hoped that you would join me. Will you be seated?”
Areoh Hotah wheeled Doran’s chair to the table, while the servant who had come to wait on them seated Sansa in the chair across from him. Sansa sat obediently, but Doran could see that she was confused. This was, after all, an interruption to the settled order of their days—him watching her from afar, she seeing him only at dinner.
“Your maids tell me that trays sent to your rooms are often returned to the kitchens untouched,” Doran said by way of explanation, gesturing to the servant that Sansa was to be served first. “And I have seen for myself how little you eat at dinner. You will waste away to nothing if you are not checked in these habits.”
Sansa flushed with embarrassment. “I am rarely within the palace during the day,” she said, unaware that he did not need to be told this. “I asked them not to bring any more trays.”
“And what do you do, when you leave your chambers? How do you while away the hours?”
Sansa flushed again. “I…I read. Or I work on my embroidery.” She made no mention of the hours upon hours she sat doing nothing but staring at the ocean.
“Worthy occupations, both,” said Doran, without a trace of irony, “but if you had the time to spare from them, there is another business I would claim you for.”
Sansa looked up quickly. “I am at your disposal, always, my prince. Anything I can do to repay your generosity—”
“Speak nothing of payment,” he said quickly. Too quickly, for such remarks irritated him, though it was hardly Sansa’s fault that she knew no better. “It is I who would be in your debt. I spend the greater part of my working day attending to correspondence. You write a fair hand, I should think?”
The abrupt shift of direction seemed to take Sansa so off-guard that she forgot to be timid. “I—yes, my prince. The Queen once said that I wrote a fair hand.”
“That is good to hear. I myself find it increasingly difficult to master a quill.” He spread his hands casually; the redness and swelling in the joints of his fingers were self-apparent. “I can still write a legible hand when necessary, and I have scribes to assist me at other times. But I would not entrust all of my correspondence to scribes. Some of the letters I receive require a more delicate touch.”
“It would be an honor to assist you in any way,” said Sansa, without hesitation.
“You are most gracious, child.” Doran cleared his throat. “I will send for you on the morrow, if that would suit you.”
Of course it suited her. There was something more than gratitude in her quick compliance with his request. Doran suspected that she was bored; having been taught by her mother how to manage a large keep, and drilled by her septa in every other female accomplishment imaginable, she was not accustomed to long, idle days. And distraction, Doran well knew, could be a bulwark against grief. If he could not offer her counsel, or comfort, he could give her that, at least—distractions, in plenty.
When Oberyn arrived at the Water Gardens the next day, he came directly to Doran’s solar, as was his habit. The sight that presented itself at the doorway arrested his attention, however, and he did not speak immediately. Doran arched an eyebrow at him, but Oberyn ignored him—he was looking at Sansa.
For the better part of the morning, Doran had been seated at the round table, the surface of which was blanketed by scattered sheets of parchment. Near the table, a new article of furniture had recently been added to the room. It was a lady’s writing desk, hand-carved from teak, elegant and sized for a tall, slender young woman. It was, in fact, the desk Elia had once used, taken from her rooms, which had otherwise been preserved intact since the day she left Sunspear to be married in King’s Landing.
Sansa sat there, straight-backed, oblivious to Oberyn’s presence while she perused a letter that Doran had recently received from Lady Jordayne of the Tor.
“I beg your pardon, my prince,” Sansa said, without lifting her head from the page. “May I ask…”
“Yes?” Doran darted a look at Oberyn, bidding him be silent. Oberyn shrugged and crossed his arms, leaning against the door frame, an expression of amused interest on his face.
“Was Lady Jordayne not a Frey before her marriage? One of Lord Walder’s daughters, or nieces?”
“That she was. The eldest daughter of the third Lady Frey, I believe. Why do you ask?”
Sansa hesitated, as though she feared speaking out of turn.
“The squire she speaks of wishing to send to Sunspear, the one who recently left service to a house in the Riverlands…she does not mention his name. Nor the name of the house he served.”
“No, she did not mention their names.” Doran watched her carefully. “But you have some idea who he might be, I take it.”
“I…think so, my prince.”
“Tell me your thoughts, child.”
Sansa flushed. “The Mallisters of Seagard have a squire in their service, the same age as this boy of whom she writes. Wendel Frey, a son of Lord Walder.”
“Do they,” said Doran mildly. “Remind me; to whom does House Mallister owe fealty?”
“To the Tullys of Riverrun,” she said promptly, as though Doran were her septa and she still a child at her books.
“Your own lady mother’s house,” said Doran. “And like so many noble houses of the Riverlands, they fight under your brother’s banner.”
“I believe so, my prince. That is—yes, they do.”
“The gods have blessed Lord Frey with so very many sons and daughters. It is not easy to keep track of all their movements.”
Sansa bowed her head for a moment. “Wendel Frey has a half-brother about the same age. Tion Frey. He is the son of Lady Genna Lannister and cousin to the King.” She stared down at her hands, which were laced together tightly in her lap. “My…my brother Robb has held Tion Frey hostage since the Battle of the Whispering Wood, where he also captured Ser Jaime Lannister.”
Doran wondered, for an instant, how Sansa came to be so well informed about her brother’s campaigns in the Riverlands. His unbroken chain of victories had been nothing less than an unmitigated series of disasters for the Lannisters. One would think, thus, that they would not be spoken of openly in court, much less to King Robb’s own sister.
But then, in a flash, he realized. Of course she knew; each time her brother won a new victory, she had been punished for it. Such sharp lessons remained engraved in the memory for a long time.
“It probably isn’t important…” Sansa began, but before Doran could say anything to the contrary, Oberyn chose that moment to make his presence known.
“Of course it is important,” he said, sauntering into the room. “Especially now you are come to Dorne.”
Sansa gasped quietly and turned in her chair, rising hastily to curtsey. “Prince Oberyn, forgive me, I—”
“My brother was eavesdropping, and eavesdroppers deserve no courtesies,” said Doran. “I agree, however. It is curious that the Freys would remove the boy from service at Seagard. More curious still that they seek to place him with me.”
Neither Doran nor Oberyn said anything for a moment, and Sansa ventured to speak again. “If Lady Genna advised her…her kinswoman that Wendel would be safer here…”
“Yes, safely bestowed here in Sunspear, under the protection of Tywin Lannister’s most loyal allies,” said Oberyn, his voice rich with merriment. “And yet, I should think, a squire who has seen battle alongside brave King Robb would balk if told that he must now serve that King’s enemies.”
“The Freys have much in common with the Lannisters. Family means more to them than service or fealty.” Oberyn knew this; Sansa might very well know it too, but Doran said it for Sansa’s benefit. “Be that as it may, I see no reason to deny Lady Jordayne’s wish that her kinsman squire at Sunspear.”
“No,” said Oberyn. “Yet so long as young Wendel is in Sunspear, Sansa must remain at the Water Gardens. And should Sansa travel to Sunspear, young Wendel will find himself treated to a short stay at the Water Gardens.”
Sansa did not speak, but the cast of her brow spoke her confusion.
“You should not meet,” Oberyn explained to her. “Squires go where they are told to go, but there is no telling what secret purposes he may harbor, unbeknownst to his elders.”
“The Jordaynes are friends to Sunspear,” Doran pointed out. “I do not believe Lady Jordayne would seek to plant an enemy at our bosom.”
“Lady Jordayne, I am certain, seeks nothing but the well-being of her kinsman. All the same, a squire who has left King Robb’s service is no fit companion for the King’s sister. Who knows what he intends—or what he may be coerced into attempting?”
Doran said nothing. He was in agreement with his brother, so there was nothing to say.
“Even so,” said Oberyn to Sansa, a bit more gently, “I will speak to this boy when arrives. If he has any fresh news of your brother or your lady mother, I will make certain that you hear all.”
Sansa’s mouth wavered for an instant. She nodded her thanks to Oberyn. Then, in the next instant, she was all business again.
“Shall I continue to copy out the reply to Lady Jordayne as you spoke it to me?” she asked Doran.
“Yes,” he said. “Only, as an addendum, please extend to Lady Jordayne an invitation to accompany young Wendel to Sunspear when he arrives. I would speak with her face to face.” He paused. “I will leave the wording of the invitation to you—you are no doubt better practiced in such graces than I.”
Sansa nodded, too distracted by her work even to deflect the compliment. She resumed her seat at the desk, taking up her quill again. Doran saw Oberyn give her a long look. Then he turned his eyes on Doran, and gestured toward the hallway.
“If you will excuse us a moment, Lady Sansa,” said Doran, and began to wheel his chair towards the doorway. Oberyn strode forward and took the handles, and they began to make a leisurely tour of the long corridor outside his solar, where guards were posted at intervals along the wall—not so much to defend against threats, as to keep the peace, and redirect noisy children back to the pools where they belonged.
“So,” said Oberyn. “You have made Sansa your amanuensis.”
“She requires some occupation. Left to herself, she pines.”
“That is plain enough. She is half a stone lighter than when I saw her last.” Doran listened for a note of accusation in his brother’s voice, but it did not come. “She took the news from Winterfell hard, I assume.”
“I believe so,” Doran admitted. “But her composure has been nigh unshakeable. It has been the better part of a fortnight, and in all that time she has done nothing but sit in the groves alone and gaze out upon the sea.”
Oberyn was quiet for a long moment. “When they told us of Elia and her children, you stood upon that balcony and watched the children at play for the better part of a month.”
“I do my best work there,” said Doran, not bothering to deny what Oberyn had seen with his own eyes.
“And Sansa had no work to attend to,” said Oberyn. “Otherwise, she would no doubt have mimicked your example to the very gesture. She is much like you, you know.”
“What a strange thing to say.” Doran tried to think of similarities between him and Sansa, but apart from the cruel tragedies that had befallen their siblings, he could think of few things he and the maiden had in common.
“I hope you have given her such comfort as she requires.”
Doran was silent. The day he spoke to her of her brothers, he had sat upon the chaise with an empty seat beside him, an unspoken invitation for Sansa to join him, to seek the comfort of his hand upon hers, as Arianne had once done when she was Sansa’s age. But Sansa had only looked at him, white as bone, thanked him for his tidings, and begged his leave to depart. Since that day, Doran had never had reason to think that his comfort was wanted.
“Doran,” said Oberyn. “Tell me that you have not left her entirely to herself in her grief.”
“I have watched over her every day,” said Doran brusquely. “There was little else I could do. She was not inclined to weep, or speak of things that were beyond mending.”
For the second time, Doran found himself poised to receive an upbraiding, or at least a noise of disapproval from his brother. Doran did not ordinarily suffer Oberyn to do so, but when it came to a few matters, he never ignored his brother’s counsel.
One of those matters was fatherhood. Oberyn had not been charged to raise up a Princess of Dorne; if he had, perhaps Arianne would treat her uncle with the same coolness and distance that she visited on Doran. But when Doran looked at his nieces, it was impossible not to see that all of them, even suspicious, warlike Obara, adored their father. That, Doran envied, though he had never confessed as much.
“What did you write to Sansa in the letter you sent to her at Sandy Wedge?” said Oberyn, taking Doran entirely off guard.
“I scarcely remember,” said Doran, and it was the truth. The only thing he remembered about that letter was his abiding conviction that it had was insufficient. He had penned a dozen more letters to Sansa in his head over the following weeks, and those ghostly missives had filled the hours when he tried in vain to sleep.
“Then you should know,” said Oberyn, “that whatever you said, your words went straight to Sansa’s heart. I spied her reading your letter a dozen times during the voyage to Sunspear. By the time we reached our destination, the parchment was nearly tearing along the folds. I would say that she read it most every day.”
Doran, staring straight ahead, found that he hadn’t the slightest idea what to say to that.
“I had much to do to earn Sansa’s trust,” said Oberyn, into the long silence that followed. “She does not give it easily. But when she does, she gives it wholeheartedly. She had nightmares, you know—terrible ones. I had to sleep in a chair by her bed the first few nights of our voyage. She woke every morning in the early hours, not knowing where she was. She would fight to free herself from the bed, thinking that the King was in the room with her. It took the combined strength of both the maester and myself to hold her down—the maester greatly feared that she would worsen her injuries, and in those days her health was in a most delicate state. He did not dare give her so much as a drop of dreamwine—she had to take milk of the poppy by the spoonful.”
Doran’s stiff fingers curled into a fist. He wondered if she still had nightmares. Sansa’s maids had said nothing of them to him, but perhaps they would not think it necessary. He would have to instruct them more carefully.
“After the first week, her delirium passed, but the nightmares did not, though they were no longer so violent as they had been. She came back to herself more quickly when she woke, so it was no longer necessary for me to keep vigil by her bed. As the weeks passed, I foolishly believed that she was passing the nights in peace. Then I came upon her, alone on the deck in the middle of the night. She was just tucking that letter of yours back into the pocket of her cloak when I hailed her.”
Oberyn allowed a moment for Doran to register this. “Sansa did not lack for friends during our journey. The crew were utterly devoted to her. And she looked after the comfort of all your men, as though she were her own lady mother and the Lady Jeyne were her own keep. By the time we made port, they would have died for her, to a man. Besides all this, she had Daemon, the maester, her maid, and myself, fixed at her side all during her recovery. She might have come to any of us for a kind word or a comforting shoulder when she woke from her nightmares. But she never did. She only read your letter.”
When Doran was again able to speak, he found his throat dry. “What must I do, Oberyn?”
Oberyn gave a small laugh, but Doran bore with the gentle mockery. “Continue as you are doing. Keep her with you. Do not ignore her again. But while I am here, let me take her out riding with Ellaria sometime, so she does not grow blind poring over your correspondence.”
“She has been attending to my correspondence for but a morning, brother.”
“A task she seems admirably suited for. Interesting, wasn’t it? Her thoughts on Ana Jordayne’s letter.”
“Most interesting,” said Doran. He had known, when he invited Sansa to read his letters and copy out his replies, that she might well provide him with new perspective on the southern houses that was unfamiliar to him. She was the daughter of Catelyn Tully, after all. His only uncertainty had been whether Sansa could overcome her timidity long enough to share her perspective.
“All the same,” said Oberyn, “if she is not to marry Quentyn, it might be best to exercise care which letters you allow her to see. After all, you would not want her carrying a head full of Dorne’s most sensitive diplomatic secrets to, High Hermitage, say.”
“High Hermitage?” Doran turned fully around in his chair to give Oberyn an incredulous look. “What in the gods’ names makes you speak of Sansa and High Hermitage?”
“Ser Gerold Dayne has already made inquiries about her.” Oberyn shrugged.
“Has he,” said Doran, his voice dry and cold. He knew that Oberyn sought only to provoke him—his brother’s sentiments regarding the Darkstar were well known, and Doran believed that Oberyn would sooner bury a knife in Gerold Dayne’s throat than permit him to lay a hand on Sansa, much less claim her as a bride.
But Oberyn was warning him, as well; despite Doran’s best efforts, Quentyn’s absence from Dorne had been noted, and though Sansa’s betrothal was likewise a secret of sorts, a man less clever than Gerold Dayne could put two and two together and conclude that Sansa was ultimately destined to wed some other man.
Yet it mattered little, Doran told himself. It was early days yet. Even if Sansa’s betrothal were broken tomorrow, it did not follow that a replacement for Quentyn must be found immediately. The poor maid had not even flowered yet. No girl was married before her thirteenth year in Dorne. His mother the ruling Princess had forbidden it, and Doran had upheld her edict. Unless the case was exceptional, he usually refused permission for maids to be married before they were five-and-ten at least. The maester who had cared for Elia during her childhood had told their mother that brides who were married and brought to bed with their first child before they were six-and-ten were far more likely to lose both the babe and their life than if they had waited only a few years more. The highborn did not always have the luxury of waiting so long, but even if Arianne had not been promised in secret as a babe, Doran would never have permitted her to marry any sooner than sixteen.
Yet some maids must marry sooner, whatever we would wish to the contrary, Doran found himself thinking. And Sansa will be thirteen in three months. She may flower even before then. When that happened, Doran knew that the skies over Sunspear would grow dark, as half the birds in Westeros came to alight in his ravenry.
“You have summoned Arianne to make her visit to the Water Gardens next week, have you not?” said Oberyn, into the long silence that had elapsed.
“Yes,” said Doran.
“I think I will extend my visit long enough to receive her here. It was she who brought to my attention the Darkstar and his interest in Sansa. She was concerned, I believe, for all that she and Sansa have scarcely met. You should speak to her.” Oberyn paused. “She is four-and-twenty, Doran. It is long past time that you spoke to her of many things.”
Doran curled his stiff fingers around the arms of his rolling chair and took a deep, quiet breath. “Perhaps you are right,” he said. “I will think on it.”
Thank you for all the lovely comments last chapter. I was so thrilled, I decided to write another 5000 words from Doran's POV.*
*Doran was not thrilled about this.
It was the hour before noon, on the third day since Arianne’s arrival at the Water Gardens, and Doran was seated in his solar, gazing at the empty writing desk next to the window, where Sansa ought to have been seated.
For the past eight days, Sansa had presented herself to begin the morning’s work within an hour of breaking her fast—she was an early riser, and Doran often had difficulty sleeping, so she sometimes arrived before he had even begun his own morning meal. Her comings and goings had been as consistent and predictable as the tide, and Doran had begun, almost unconsciously, to structure his mornings around her. Her unexplained absence today was…jarring.
Were Sansa any other maiden of two-and-ten, Doran would have assumed that she was merely distracted, that she’d been enticed away into some more amusing pastime. After all, she assisted him of her own free will; Doran had never commanded her presence. But she took her new responsibilities seriously, and more to the point, she was too courteous to simply absent herself without notice. She would have sent a message by one of her maids if she were ill—or more likely, she would have found her way to his solar even if she were unwell, and it would be left to Doran to send her back to her rooms to rest.
For these reasons, her absence weighed on him all through the morning, and finally, shortly before noon, he sent a servant to Sansa’s chambers, to inquire how she fared.
Shara appeared in his solar shortly afterward. She was the most senior of Sansa’s serving women, and she supervised the other two maids, who were only a couple of years older than Sansa. Shara herself had been a handmaiden to Elia when they were both girls. Now Shara was a woman with two grown children, and a grandchild on the way. As Elia might have been, had she lived.
“My prince,” said Shara, “I was about to send word to you. The girls found Lady Sansa absent from her chambers when they came to draw her bath this morning. None of us have seen her today.”
Doran frowned. “At which hour did the maids discover Lady Sansa’s absence?”
“The hour just after dawn, my prince. It is her custom to bathe then.”
“It is now nearly midday,” said Doran, a trifle sharper than he meant to. “Why did you not send word to me sooner?”
Shara hesitated. “I believe the Lady Sansa may have been…upset, when she woke this morning,” she said. “Her chamber was in some disarray.”
Doran stared at her, uncomprehending.
“Prince Oberyn went out riding with the lady Ellaria and Princess Arianne this morning,” she continued. “I had hoped that when they returned, perhaps the Princess would…”
“My daughter is not yet the ruler of Dorne. I ask again, why was I not informed?”
Her chambers in disarray—what could that mean? Sansa was tidy and orderly by nature; her quills and parchment were always neatly returned to the tiny drawers in her writing desk when she left off work.
Shara gave him a look such as most servants in the Water Gardens would not have dared to give their Prince. But then, Shara and Doran had known one another for many years.
“The girls found stains of blood upon Lady Sansa’s sheets when they arrived this morning,” she said flatly. “The sheets had been stripped from the bed and hidden in the privy, but there were stains upon the mattress as well. It looked as if Lady Sansa tried to turn it over and make the bed up again, but the mattress was too heavy for her to lift, so she left it on the floor.”
Had Doran not already been sitting in his rolling chair, he would have needed to take a seat swiftly. He could feel the color leaving his face, and Shara gave him a queer, sympathetic look.
“Some girls take it that way the first time, especially when they have no mother near,” she said. “I thought perhaps the Princess, or Ellaria, might speak with her, offer her some comfort.”
Doran gripped the arms of his chair. He had to wet his throat by swallowing before he could speak again.
“Return to your duties. And Shara—” His voice stopped her just as she was curtseying and backing away. “Speak of this to no one. Nor the maids.”
“My girls do not gossip, my prince,” said Shara primly. “They know better than that.”
When Shara was gone, Doran called for Areo Hotah. The captain of his guard presented himself swiftly, but Doran stared at his hands for a moment before giving him instruction. His hands were no longer so red, nor so swollen at the knuckles, as they had been a week ago. Caleotte was forever telling him that he needed rest, that gout permitted no strain upon the affected joints, but Doran had sought for rest for years and never found it. Not until he found Sansa.
“I wish you to locate the whereabouts of Lady Sansa,” he said. “She is likely within the palace, but search the grounds as well. Your men are to be discreet. When you find her, do not approach or disturb her. Station guards at a distance and report to me.”
“My prince.” Hotah thumped the butt of his spear on the floor and exited. Doran returned to examining his hands.
Mere days ago, he had fretted over the consequences of this very event. Now…he found that his fears had assumed a new dimension. Sansa had vanished; why should she do such a thing? She was sensible, level-headed. Why hide the sheets, why try to conceal the evidence?
Since Doran’s return to Sunspear, he had never seen Sansa give a second look to any man not personally introduced to her by himself or by Oberyn. And even those men had received naught but distant courtesy from her. But Doran had seen many a man look twice at Sansa—and lingeringly, at that.
Marriages in Dorne were sealed with contracts, not maidenheads, and therefore, maidens were not cloistered in Dorne as they were in the six kingdoms. Doran’s own daughter had chosen to take her first lover to bed when she was but fourteen. Doran had not been…pleased, precisely, when she chose to tell him. But in the end, he had done nothing, because it had been none of his business.
Had Sansa some favorite amongst the youths and squires who flitted in and out of the Water Gardens, Doran would not reproach her for doing as Arianne had done, even if she was but two-and-ten. Not so long as the boy was worthy, and of a meet age for her. Not so long as she was willing, and happy.
But Sansa was not of Dorne. She had been brought up with different customs, and would no more think of taking a lover than she would think of walking back to Winterfell. Even if it had been otherwise, Sansa was still in mourning for the deaths of her brothers and the destruction of Winterfell. When she did seek distraction from her mourning, she had turned to the children at the pools, not the squires in the training yards. All in all, Doran thought it exceptionally unlikely that Sansa had lost her heart to some unknown palace youth.
Would Shara know, by sight, the difference between sheets stained with moon blood, and sheets stained by maiden’s blood? Doran had not been able to bring himself to ask her. To speak the fear would have made it into something other than his own private, unfounded terror.
Six weeks ago, in King’s Landing, Doran had sat in his rolling chair, gazing into other chambers that had once belonged to Sansa—chambers that might also be described as disarrayed. In those chambers, the ceiling over the bed had been black with soot. The night before the fire, Doran had conducted Sansa to the door of that very bedchamber and set guards over her, thinking that he was leaving her in safety. He had been mistaken then. Here, in the Water Gardens, Doran had thought Sansa safe everywhere she went. Had he been mistaken once more?
At the back of all these fears was the sound of Oberyn’s voice, low in his ear: Ser Gerold Dayne has made inquiries about Sansa.
Doran knew that Arianne and Ser Gerold were not lovers—he had looked into it—but he did not understand Arianne’s relationship with the man. Gerold Dayne was treacherous; he aspired to his kinsman’s degree of fame, but since he could not match the Sword of the Morning in valor or worthiness, he sought to distinguish himself by other means. I am of the night, Doran had once overheard him remark to some maid or other, in impressive tones, and it had taken all of Doran’s long experience of ruling his face in company to keep himself from laughing. Yet there was nothing humorous about the rumors that followed the Darkstar. If half of them were true, then Ser Gerold was a brute at best, and if Doran had any proof to support them, he would have confined him in Ghaston Grey by now.
If Gerold Dayne truly had the audacity to think himself a match for Sansa Stark, then Doran would not put it past him to concoct some dark scheme of forcing himself on her. Many a girl from north of Dorne would submit meekly enough to a marriage after a rape, to save herself the shame of bearing a bastard.
Doran was certain that no such scheme would succeed with Sansa. She was a Stark of Winterfell, child of a line of kings eight thousand years old. The Darkstar would not drag Sansa Stark before a septon and force her to parrot vows that would make him heir to King Robb’s claim. She was too proud to be broken in such a way. She would hurl herself into the sea first, as Ser Gerold’s own kinswoman had done.
She must be found, Doran thought, his gut clenching, and before he quite knew what he was doing, he had called out for the servant again.
“Find my brother,” he said. “I am told that he went riding with my daughter and with Ellaria this morning. If he is not yet returned, send riders out in search of him.”
“At once, my prince.”
“Wait a moment.” Doran gazed out through the windows. “Is Ser Gerold Dayne in the Water Gardens?”
“He was here for an afternoon several days ago, but he has not returned since.”
Doran nodded, and the servant hurried away. He felt his fears lightening, to a degree—but they did not vanish. Even if Dayne had nothing to do with Sansa’s disappearance, she might still have been taken by someone else. Doran held it as a rule that any plot or scheme that he himself could imagine had already been imagined by others.
Yet the gods were with him that morning; Doran did not have to wait long before Oberyn came striding into his solar, still dressed in his riding clothes. “What is the matter?” he said, frowning.
Doran understood his confusion. He had never sent for Oberyn in such a manner, save at times of great need. The last time had been when Ellaria was brought to bed two months too soon with Loree.
“Sansa is missing,” he said.
Oberyn’s face, flushed with the exertion of the ride, suddenly turned the color of ash. “Taken?” he demanded.
“Maybe not. Shara…believes that Sansa was out of sorts this morning. It is likely that she has only tucked herself into some lonely corner, so that no one will see her weep. At least, we may hope it is no worse than that.”
Oberyn’s brow crinkled. “Yet you are fearful,” he said. “You would not have called me back, otherwise.”
There was no point denying it. He turned his chair away from Oberyn. “A few days ago, you told me that Sansa had found favor, if one could call it such, in the eyes of Ser Gerold Dayne.” Doran began looking through the pigeonholes in Sansa’s writing desk, trying to remember what she had been copying yesterday. “Which men else lift their eyes to her?”
“Every man who has ever set eyes upon her, I daresay. She is a famous beauty, if you did not know.” Oberyn took a few steps closer. “All the men of your household, both here and in Sunspear, gaze upon her as much as they dare. Why do you think I set Daemon to guard her every step before she left for the Water Gardens?”
Doran gritted his teeth. “Who thinks to marry her?”
“That, I could not say. Most men have more restraint than Gerold Dayne. They nurse their ambitions more closely and do not betray themselves with idle words. If I had to make a wager, there are a few names that I might place dragons on. But none of them are in the Water Gardens at present.”
“I see,” said Doran. “Thank you. You relieve me of a burden.”
“Yes, I can tell from the joy in your voice.” Oberyn came up beside him, and his shadow fell over the surface of Sansa’s desk. “What was it upset Sansa so badly that she fled her own rooms? Has there been news of King Robb or Lady Catelyn?”
“Nothing of that nature.”
Oberyn’s eyes bore into the back of his head. “Even when she woke delirious from her nightmares, she did not attempt to flee or hide herself.”
“She was aboard a ship then,” Doran said. “Scant few hiding places to be found there, I should think.”
There was unimpressed silence from Oberyn, which was something of a reversal of their usual dynamic.
“Tell me of Sansa and Ellaria,” Doran said. “Have they become friends, do you think?”
“They have had little opportunity for friendship. But Ellaria thinks highly of her, and Sansa has a sweet, gracious manner with her, and with the girls.”
“Do you think Sansa would trust Ellaria enough to confide in her?”
Oberyn walked all the way around Doran’s chair, until he stood in between Doran and the window. He gave him a look of intense scrutiny.
“I think it unlikely that anyone in Dorne enjoys Sansa’s confidence. We spoke much together, both during the voyage and at Sunspear while we awaited your homecoming, and she made for a charming companion. Yet she never once spoke to me of what was done to her in King’s Landing, though our conversations touched on other matters of great import.” Oberyn paused. “Since you mention it, however, I have spied Sansa sitting apart with Arianne several times in the last few days. Though it seemed to me that Arianne was doing most of the speaking.”
Doran found that this did not ease his worries in the slightest. “What does my daughter say to her?”
“I have heard a rumor that Arianne wishes to hold a nameday celebration to introduce Sansa to the lords and ladies of Dorne. Sansa will be three-and-ten at year’s end.”
“If that is what they seemed to be speaking of, they were almost certainly speaking of something else.” Doran forced himself to look his brother in the face. “Why is Arianne keeping company with Gerold Dayne?”
The somber look on Oberyn’s face was nearly all the answer Doran needed. “I do not know. But I agree that it bodes no good. Have you spoken to Arianne yet?”
“How can I? Anything I tell her, Tyene will eventually know.” Doran’s mouth twisted. “And for all I know, the Darkstar is in her confidence as well.”
“Arianne is no child any longer, brother,” said Oberyn, more heavily than was his wont. “She is a princess, and your heir. If she seems flighty to you it is no doubt because she lacks purpose. She will understand the necessity of silence—if you explain all.”
Doran did not have the strength to worry about his daughter and Sansa at the same time. He put Oberyn’s words away, to mull over later.
“Ask Arianne to come to me,” he said. “Perhaps she will have some idea where Sansa is.”
Oberyn gave him an indecipherable look, but he started for the door. Halfway there, however, he was met by Areo Hotah, who strode into the room with a purposeful expression. He nodded once to Doran, and Doran felt relief melt his very bones.
“You have found the lady?” Oberyn demanded.
“Yes, my prince.”
“Is she safe?”
“She is safe,” said Hotah.
Hotah looked uncomfortable. “She appears unharmed. At Prince Doran’s command, I did not approach her closely.”
Oberyn’s hand stole reflexively to the hilt of his dagger, but Doran simply wheeled his chair forward. Hotah stepped behind him, gripping the handles.
“You will excuse me,” said Doran to Oberyn. “We will speak later.”
Oberyn exhaled slowly, then gave him a tight nod of farewell. Doran could feel his brother’s eyes boring into the back of his head until he was out the door and in the corridor
Doran waited until he was alone with Hotah before he spoke. “Where did you find her?”
“In the western corridor, in the small alcove beneath the statue of Princess Daenerys.”
Doran knew the place well. He thought of Sansa having spent the last six hours stuffed into that tiny crevice in the wall, and then tried very hard to think of nothing at all.
There were two guards posted at the mouth of the western corridor. Another two guards stood sentry at the farthest end of the hallway. If Hotah had done his job—and he always did—Sansa would be unaware of their presence, and thus, unaware that her hiding spot had been discovered.
First I made her take me to her sanctuary in the godswood, Doran reflected. Here, I watched her while she thought herself hidden amongst the trees. Now, I steal in upon her in this lonely nook. Did it not betoken some ill, that Sansa was forever hiding, and Doran forever spying out her hiding places?
Yet he had asked for counsel, and Oberyn had told him to continue as he had been doing—and above all, not to leave Sansa alone. So Doran ignored his misgivings and allowed Hotah to continue pushing him down the corridor until they were within sight of the statue of Daenerys I Targaryen.
“Stand out of hearing,” he told Hotah, taking up the wheels of his chair, and Hotah nodded before departing silently.
So well-oiled were the wheels of Doran’s rolling chair that when he moved it under his own power, over smooth marble floors, without the heavy boot tread of a guard following behind, he moved in almost complete silence. Sansa, who was sitting on the bench under the statue with her back turned towards him, did not hear his approach.
This was a stroke of luck, for his first glimpse of her drove the breath from his lungs, and he knew that everything he felt was visible in his face for anyone to read.
Sansa’s entire wardrobe had been replaced after her arrival in Dorne, everything she owned in King’s Landing having been ruined by smoke and abandoned in her flight from the Red Keep. Generally, she wore gowns that had been styled in the Northern fashion, made from the lighter silks and linens that both men and women wore in Dorne in the summers.
Today, she was wearing a different sort of gown. It was a garment such as Ellaria might wear, or Arianne, if she sought to be provoking. The silk was bright yellow, shot through with thread-of-gold. In the front, it covered Sansa to the collarbones; in the back, it fell open in loose folds nearly to the base of her spine.
There was a reason Sansa never wore such gowns, no matter how hot the days grew. Doran was, even now, staring at those reasons, unable to tear his eyes away from the erratic pattern of stripes etched into the white skin of her back, or the glaring expanse of skin across her upper shoulder that was so red it seemed still to be burning.
There was likewise a reason Sansa had worn this gown today: unlike her Northern attire, it was easily donned without the assistance of a maid, having no laces to draw up in the back. In her eagerness to take flight before her maids came knocking at her chamber door, she had dressed herself as best she could. There was, Doran noticed belatedly, a long scarf hanging loosely from her arms, which indicated that even in her panicked haste she had taken care to hide her scars. Yet she had been here alone for so long that the scarf had slipped unnoticed from her shoulders. She had not noticed, apparently.
It wasn’t that the scars were worse than Doran had imagined them to be. His worst fears had painted an uglier picture by far, particularly before his return to Dorne—but his greatest fear then was that she would die before they were reunited. He had almost forgotten her scars entirely.
He certainly would never forget them again, Doran knew. Her back was as mottled as stained glass. Devastation had been visited here, such a sight proclaimed.
He shut his eyes for a moment, willing himself to remember his purpose. Sansa was not hiding in this forgotten corner of the palace because of the scars upon her back. Doran did not know why Sansa was hiding here. He must find out; that was why he had come.
Doran took a deep breath, steeling himself, and when he opened his eyes again he found Sansa on her feet, looking across the corridor at him with wide, fearful eyes. The shawl was clutched tightly around her shoulders.
“Prince Doran,” she said, faintly. “Forgive me, I did not hear you approach.”
“Sansa.” He wheeled his chair closer, facing her bench. “Sit, please. I did not mean to steal upon you like a thief in the night.”
Sansa sat, and Doran studied her face. Her color was ghastly—white and grey and green all at once.
“Have you been here all this while, without food or water?” he asked. “You should be resting. Are you not in pain?”
Sansa flushed miserably, and it occurred to Doran then that maidens in the North probably did not speak of such matters in the presence of men, and men probably never alluded to them at all.
“Forgive me if I seem indelicate to you,” he said, forcing a rueful smile. “But you must remember that I have a daughter, as well as eight nieces. They speak freely in the presence of their fathers—of some things, at least. Are you in pain?”
Sansa lowered her eyes and shook her head tightly. Doran had never seen a no that looked so much like a yes before.
“I spoke to your maid. She was…most concerned,” he said. “I knew not what to think. It seemed to me that you must have been frightened, but I confess, I do not understand the reason.”
“I apologize, my prince,” said Sansa, her voice trembling. “I…I’ve been very stupid, I’m afraid.”
“Sansa.” Doran inched his chair closer to her. “Look at me, please.”
Obediently, reluctantly, she lifted her face to his.
“Is this something more than it seems?” he said softly. When Sansa only gazed at him in bewilderment, he forced himself to ask the question. “Has anyone hurt you?”
“No!” Sansa’s eyes filled with tears, and she pressed a hand to her mouth, oblivious to the fact that Doran’s shoulders were sinking with relief. “I am so sorry. What must you think of me—and you were expecting me this morning, I was supposed to copy the letters to Lady Toland and the maester of Starfall today—”
“Think nothing of that,” said Doran shortly. “You are not my servant, but a friend who eases my toil.”
Sansa looked away again, and before Doran could think better of it, he reached for her hand. It felt very small and soft in his, her fingers cool where his palm was warm.
“I must know why you are frightened, Sansa. I am Prince of Dorne, and the Water Gardens are the seat of my power. If I cannot protect you here then I am no prince worthy of the name.”
Sansa kept her face averted, but Doran saw how it crumpled, saw her shoulders begin to tremble with silent tears. Doran squeezed her hand, and if she did not look at him, at least she did not try to take it back.
Doran looked to his left, gesturing to the guard that stood nearest the alcove. When he approached, Doran ordered that a rolling tray of food and drink be delivered from the kitchens. In a quieter voice, he further instructed the guard to visit Ellaria, and ask her what else might be done for Sansa’s comfort. Oberyn, he did not doubt, had already told Ellaria all, so there was no need to embarrass Sansa by saying more.
When the guard left, Doran produced a handkerchief from the pocket of his robe. He rarely used handkerchiefs, but his page placed one in his pocket every day, all the same. Doran offered it to Sansa, who accepted it with a grateful murmur, and dabbed the water out of her reddened eyes.
“I…have been dreading this day for a long time,” she said, her voice a thin rasp. “At first, because it meant that I would soon be married to Joffrey. Then…this morning…”
“Speak freely,” he encouraged her. “I will not be angry, I swear it.”
His mother the ruling princess had used to caution her sons against tempting the gods by swearing too soon, and Doran had cause to remember it when Sansa spoke next.
“The Princess Arianne came to me a few days ago. She said that her brother Prince Quentyn has long been secretly engaged to a highborn lady in the Free Cities. She said he will be married when he returns to Dorne.”
Doran hissed out a breath between his teeth so low and quiet that Sansa seemed not to hear it. So that is why Oberyn told me to speak to her, he thought. She knows more than she should, but not enough to be cautious. Arianne had no business telling Sansa any such tale, whether she believed it true or not; but knowing her, she had thought Sansa ill-used, and had decided to place her on her guard.
And what now could Doran say to her? He had been caught in his lie. The lie had been meant to protect her, and he had always intended to tell her the truth in time; yet how little that seemed to matter, looking at her tear-stained face in profile.
“I have no great wish to be wed soon.” Sansa twisted her fingers together in her lap. “Yet, when I thought of having to marry…it no longer seemed so dreadful to me as before. Prince Quentyn is your son. Everyone says how much he is like you. I thought he would be kind, and patient, and gentle. But now…the princess says that I am Robb’s heir, that if he is killed I will inherit the North, that the Lannisters will try to take me back if I am not soon married.” She pressed a hand against her chest, as if to calm a racing heart. “I…I thought I would have more time, but when I woke up this morning…”
Doran leaned forward and gripped her other hand, holding them both firmly in his. “You will have time, Sansa. I mean to give you all the time that I can. You will not be married hastily, nor to a stranger, I promise you.”
At that, Sansa looked at him, a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “Truly?”
“Then is Prince Quentyn…”
“My daughter did not intend to lie to you, but it appears that in her quest to unravel my secrets she has discovered half-truths only.” He sighed. “I did not wish to lie to you either. But I thought to give you a fortnight or so of peace before I troubled you with weighty matters.”
Sansa made no reply. She continued to watch him, silent, scrutinizing, fearful.
“Arianne is right. You are unlikely ever to wed Quentyn. I am sorry that this is the case, for I know that he would be a good husband to you. But he was set out upon his road before you and I ever met.”
She blinked, just once. “Then…why, may I ask…”
“Why did I beg your hand of Lord Tyrion?” Sansa nodded. “That is simply answered. I brought you away from King’s Landing because I would not leave you there as I found you. Pity moved me—and anger, no small amount of that. You deserved a kinder fate than you would have met with as the Queen’s hostage, and I decided that I would help you to escape if I could.”
Sansa exhaled, long and low, and looked aside, chewing at her bottom lip.
“Arianne was right about one thing else,” Doran forced himself to say. “After the King assaulted you, I demanded that the Crown make certain amends for the insult. One of these was that, should King Robb be defeated or killed in battle, Winterfell would belong to you and your children. Should your brother win his war, you will be a princess of the North. If he does not, you will probably be Wardeness, and your husband will be Lord Protector of Winterfell. Lord Tyrion granted these concessions, but he is only the acting Hand of the King. When Lord Tywin returns from the Riverlands, it will not be long before he begins to gaze upon you from afar with eyes narrowed in greed—and only marriage will place you permanently beyond his grasp.”
Sansa nodded slowly. The tears had dried against her skin, leaving faint tracks. Reluctantly, Doran released her hands, and she immediately folded them in her lap again.
“But these are not present troubles,” he continued. “I can keep the Lannisters in their place for some time. I know well that you are no more ready to be a wife today than you were yesterday. Maidens are not married at two-and-ten in Dorne.”
“I will be three-and-ten in two months,” she murmured. “That is the law in Dorne, is it not?”
“I can forestall the Lannisters for longer than two months.” Doran offered her a smile, weak though it was. “How can you think that I would be willing to part with you so soon as that? After all, you are my good right hand.”
To his astonishment, Sansa met his eyes of her own free will, and they seemed to grow warm for an instant, even as she tried to return his smile. But before Doran could say anything more to her, they heard the sound footsteps resounding up the corridor. The food, Doran thought, but when he turned to look for the servant, it was Ellaria he saw, Oberyn trailing a pace or so behind her.
From the sheepish expression on his brother’s face, and the hard cast of Ellaria’s frown, Doran perceived that Oberyn had indeed told Ellaria all, and that she had found Doran’s behavior somehow wanting.
“Doran,” she said, with a slightly forced smile. “I hope you will forgive me, but I had the servants take the meal you ordered to my chambers, instead of…this corridor. I thought Lady Sansa might join me there, and perhaps favor me with her company this afternoon.”
Prince of Dorne he might be, but since Mellario left him many years ago, Ellaria had become the effective chatelaine of the Water Gardens. When it came to certain matters, not even Doran attempted to countermand her say. This, he decided, was one of those matters.
“That was a very kind thought,” he said. “Sansa, it would please me if you would accept Ellaria’s invitation. I promise that we will speak more on these matters at a later time.”
Sansa was so biddable that Doran felt faintly guilty for giving her even an indirect command. His daughter, his nieces, he could trust to be their own advocates if he erred in making decisions for their own good. Sansa was different. He thought she would probably walk into the sea if he explained to her that it was for the good of all. But Shara had been right; she needed a woman’s counsel, and that was one need Doran could not supply himself.
“Come, sweetling,” said Ellaria, reaching for Sansa’s hand as Sansa rose unsteadily from the stone bench. “I have ordered every good thing prepared for us. We will eat until our bellies are round to bursting, and then we will talk.”
Sansa cast faintly alarmed looks, first at Doran, then at Oberyn, who gave her a small smile and a faint shrug. She allowed Ellaria to lead her away; at Doran’s gesture, two guards detached themselves from the walls and followed them.
Oberyn smirk withered and died as he watched them leave. In her haste to obey Doran, Sansa had forgotten her shawl. It lay draped over the bench; Oberyn’s eyes were trained on the open back of Sansa’s gown. He turned his head slowly to look at Doran, a question in his eyes. Doran set his teeth and shook his head. Yes, he had seen; no, he had no wish to discuss it with Oberyn.
“She seems well enough,” said Oberyn, his tone casual. “A bit grey, perhaps, but that is to be expected.”
“Thank you, half-maester, for your sage counsel,” said Doran, backing his chair out of the statue alcove.
“If you did not desire my counsel, you should not have called me home from my morning ride to soothe your fears,” said Oberyn.
Doran sighed, stowing his perturbation away until it could serve some more useful purpose. “Arianne told Sansa that Quentyn is betrothed to a woman in the Free Cities, and that I would soon dispose of her to some stranger. Mine own daughter made her believe me heartless. No wonder she fled.”
Oberyn gave a long, loud sigh. “I did warn you. She is your daughter, Doran. Even if you leave her in the dark, she will not stay there.”
“Yes, you did warn me. May that knowledge warm you during the winter to come.” Doran waved Areo Hotah forward. “I will speak to Arianne tonight. I would have you be there. She will argue less if you are present.”
“No she won’t.” Oberyn’s befuddled look said clearly that he thought Doran mad to say such a thing.
“She will argue less with me,” said Doran, rolling his chair past Oberyn and waving Areo Hotah forward. “And that is all I care for.”
SOOO, my very good friend musicforswimming, with whom I exchange 100+ email chains where we flail about our readings of ASOIAF and bouncing fic ideas off each other, and who is almost entirely responsible for me writing Sansa/Dornish Princes fic in the first place...FINALLY POSTED THE FIRST CHAPTER OF HER OWN SANSA/OBERYN FIC. It is SUPER GREAT, and you will absolutely like it, if that's the sort of thing you like. It's called "in this expected country they know my name" and this is the link: http://archiveofourown.org/works/11746536/chapters/26472099
Content Warning PS: Some fairly rough violence and multiple threats of rape in this chapter.
The hour was past midnight, and Sansa lay wide awake in bed, struggling to forget her latest nightmare. This one was about Lady. Her direwolf had been lying next to her, tucked safely against her side, while Sansa absently stroked the silky fur under her chin. Suddenly, her knuckles had brushed against something hard and her fingers had touched something wet. Heart pounding, she turned Lady over to find Joffrey’s dagger, the one he played with all the time, sticking out of Lady’s breast. Blood, black in the moonlight, stained Lady’s fur, Sansa’s hands, the bedsheets, everything. That was when Sansa realized—Lady had been dead in her arms the whole while. She hadn’t even noticed—she’d been too stupid, too busy day-dreaming to notice that her direwolf, the other half of her soul, was in danger—
She’d woken with a gasp to the sound of Ellaria snoring lightly in the bed beside her. The room was pitch black, not a ray of moonlight to be seen. It was still many hours until dawn, but Sansa knew she would no sleep no more that night.
For a moment, she considered waking Ellaria—wasn’t that what a bedmaid was for, after all, someone you could whisper to in the darkness about things that couldn’t be spoken of in the light of day? But Ellaria was no Jeyne Poole. She was a woman grown, a mother, Prince Oberyn’s paramour, not a maid Sansa’s age.
Ever since the day, six weeks ago, when Ellaria had whisked Sansa away from that very awkward conversation with Prince Doran to ply her with tea and cakes and show her how she could alleviate her stomach pains with a hot brick wrapped in towels, she had become a fixture of Sansa’s life here in the Water Gardens. No one, least of all Sansa, had dared to question it when Ellaria began to fold Sansa into the routine of her days, especially since Ellaria had taken to muttering about the ignorance of men and the thoughtlessness of princes—often in the presence of those very princes. Ellaria insisted that Doran had neglected Sansa shamefully, leaving her so much to herself while she was grieving for her brothers’ deaths. The forcefulness of Ellaria’s reaction had surprised Sansa. It had never crossed her mind that she was being neglected—after all, she was never really a Martell bride-to-be, never truly a member of the Prince’s family. She was, at best, a guest here in the Water Gardens. At worst, she might be a hostage. Sansa had not forgotten what Prince Doran had said to Lord Tyrion that night in King’s Landing: House Martell has first rights to any hostage of Eddard Stark’s bloodline.
Ever since she had learned the truth of her sham betrothal, Sansa had been plagued by fears for her future; her nightmares were but the outward proof of that. Yet Prince Doran still provided for her every comfort. He was still gentle and patient in all his dealings with her. And most bafflingly of all, he still continued to make use of her as his amanuensis.
Sansa was keenly aware that no one who did not occupy a high place in Prince Doran’s trust ought to have been permitted to lay eyes on most of the letters she read or scribed on his behalf. Were she the Prince’s enemy, she might do a good deal of damage with the information that she now possessed. Sansa knew the marital ambitions of almost all of the great houses of Dorne. She knew whose wells were running dry, and the prices that the great lords were willing to pay for access to their neighbor’s wells. She knew that there were large armies amassing in the Boneway and the Prince’s Pass, and she knew which of the greater and lesser houses had dispatched their heirs to join those hosts. She knew how restless some of those houses were, how they urged Doran to give the order to march on Oldtown, on Highgarden, on King’s Landing itself.
No doubt there were letters that Prince Doran kept secret even from her, but Sansa was still fairly certain she knew as much about his private affairs as anyone in the palace, with the possible exception of Prince Oberyn. She knew more, in fact, than she had any right to know. Why had Prince Doran entrusted her with the secrets of his realm when he knew, from the start, that her marriage to Prince Quentyn would never take place? There was only one answer Sansa could think of: Prince Doran might not mean to marry her to his son, but one way or another, he meant to keep her.
Perhaps she would spend the rest of her life as an unmarried ward of House Martell—when she was older, she might be named to some position of high honor, like Alyse Ladybright, who was Lord Treasurer of Dorne. Or perhaps she would be married—to some other man of the Prince’s house. With both Prince Doran’s sons promised to other people, that left only the elder princes—Oberyn, and Doran himself. Prince Oberyn had been with Ellaria for sixteen years and had fathered four children on her, but technically, he was unmarried. Yet, compared to his brother, Prince Doran was practically free. His wife had left Dorne many years ago, never to return, and all their children were grown. If Prince Doran wished to set aside the wife who had abandoned him so that he might marry again, Sansa doubted there was a septon in all of Dorne who would deny him. Compared to forcing his brother to set aside the love of his life and their four children, it might strike both the Prince and the Faith as the least messy of the two options.
Sansa rolled onto her side, her heart pounding in her chest. It felt like madness, even to contemplate the possibility that Prince Doran would wish to marry her. He was past fifty, she was not yet ten-and-three…and as for Prince Oberyn, even if Ellaria was not his wife in all but name, he had daughters by other women who were old enough to be Sansa’s mother.
She tried to calm herself by remembering that she had time. Prince Doran had promised her that, at least. How much time, he did not say, but Sansa would cling to whatever scraps of comfort were available to her.
Suddenly, she could not bear to lie in bed next to Ellaria any longer. She sat up quietly and swung her feet onto the floor, feeling cool marble against her toes. Her dressing gown lay askew on the chaise near the bed; she pulled it on over her sleep shift. Then she padded in bare feet over to the windows that overlooked the balcony. The curtains were parted, so as to let the cool night breeze waft through the room, flushing out the stuffy heat that accumulated through the day. Autumn in Dorne was warmer than the height of summer in the North. Sometimes Sansa thought that was why she had so much trouble sleeping through the nights—the cold air called to her, bade her wake up and soak it in while she could.
Sansa stood at the balcony window for a long time, breathing in the cool air, gazing down on the roofs and spires of the castle that surrounded her. As an unmarried maiden, she had been given rooms in the heart of the palace, far away from any view of the sea. The vista below was all darkness and shadows. Even the balcony was peopled with shadows, though Sansa knew well that it was empty. Her balcony was too small even to fit a bench; its only purpose was to permit the room’s occupant to step outside for the occasional breath of fresh air. Sansa was in dire need of air at the moment, and her hand stole to the latch of the door. But just as she did so, one of the shadows moved.
Sansa froze, a cry for help poised on the tip of her tongue. She swallowed it back, though—after all, what if her eyes were only playing tricks on her? She had no wish to awaken Ellaria for no reason, or make herself look foolish by disturbing the guards.
She stood still as stone, scarcely breathing, watching for further signs of movement. When, at last, the balcony door began to swing open, she tried to call out. But her tongue was just as petrified as the rest of her. All she could do was shuffle backwards slowly, trying to disappear into the deep shadows in the corner of the room.
By the shape of his outline, the intruder was a man—and no common housebreaker or thief, either. A sword and dagger hung from his hips, and his silk cloak billowed behind him in the breeze. He took two steps forward, then froze, head cocked to the side as he listened for movement. Sansa, who was barely breathing, dared to hope that he had not noticed her. But then his head turned slowly, unerringly in her direction, and he spoke.
“Lady Sansa?” His voice was cultured, his tone curious, amused. “I did not expect to find you awake at this hour. It is you, is it not? I hope I have not penetrated the chambers of some other lady by mistake—that would be most awkward.”
He spoke quietly, but he did not whisper, and that was when Sansa realized—the stranger, whoever he was, had no idea that she and Ellaria slept in the same bed most nights. He believed her to be alone in her chambers. For an instant, Sansa considered telling him of his mistake—but to do so would put Ellaria in danger as well, and Sansa would not risk that if she could help it.
Silence stretched out between them, and the stranger tutted.
“Not one word of greeting for the knight who braved such peril to reach you, my lady? I have admired many beautiful women in my time, but never before have I risked life and limb to pay court to them. A kindly maiden would reward my courage with a kiss.”
His words taunted her, but Sansa felt, by some strange instinct, that he did not mean to taunt her. She felt certain that he spoke that way by habit, as though he no longer knew how to sound sincere, even when he wished to do so.
Sansa groped blindly through the chaos of her thoughts to seize at a thin vein of confidence. He had not grabbed her or hurt her—so far, he was only talking. And Sansa knew how to talk to people. Courtesy is a lady’s armor. When she was a child, her courtesy was like the boiled leather that Bran and Rickon and sometimes Arya wore in the training yard, but after a year in King’s Landing, her courtesy was as impermeable as castle-forged steel.
She found herself summoning an imperious tone that would have done Cersei Lannister proud. “How am I to greet you, ser, when I do not know who you are?”
A low, almost surprised-sounding laugh was the response.
“Forgive me. I am indeed remiss. I am Ser Gerold Dayne, my lady. Men call me the Darkstar. We have a mutual friend in Princess Arianne. It was she who told me of you, Lady Sansa—of your great beauty, your innocence, your sorrow. It was also she who told me how her father stole you away to Dorne with the promise of marriage that is never to take place.” He took a step forward, his tread light against the carpet. “Poor, sweet lady—you thought to be a princess yourself, did you not? But now you know the truth. You are like all the rest of us—a piece in the great game that Doran plays in secret.”
Sansa doubted, somehow, that this man was a piece in any of Prince Doran’s plans or schemes. He was dangerous, vainglorious, his very presence here proved that. Only a fool would rely on such a man, and Prince Doran was no fool.
“Twice, men have offered to make a princess of me,” Sansa said, in her coldest voice. “Yet I remain as I was born, a Stark of Winterfell. I am satisfied with the honor of being my father’s daughter.”
Ser Gerold grinned, and the flash of his teeth was the only bright thing in the room.
“I am glad to hear it.” He took a few steps closer to her, and Sansa forced herself to hold her ground. “For I am only the Knight of High Hermitage, and have neither crown nor coronet to offer. But I mean to make you my own lady wife, and I promise, in my demesne you will be treated as no less than a queen.”
Dread seized her like a sudden sickness. She thought wildly of her Aunt Lyanna, kidnapped from her bed by Rhaegar Targaryen, locked in a Dornish tower to die while the realm erupted into war all around her.
“If—if marriage is truly your purpose, then you must speak to Prince Doran,” she said, unable to keep her voice from trembling.
“But I am speaking to you,” said Ser Gerold, advancing another pace. He was close enough now to reach out and touch her. Sansa pulled her robe more tightly around her body. “What business has Doran with the secrets that lovers whisper to each other in the dark?”
“You go too far, ser,” said Sansa, loudly. She had feared to wake Ellaria before, but now she was desperate. Ellaria would know what to do—and Ser Gerold wouldn’t presume to raise a hand to her, surely, not to the mother of the Red Viper’s children. He had to know that Oberyn would tear him limb from limb if he dared. “I must ask you to leave my chambers. Your, your presence here at such an hour is most improper.”
“What, have you maiden blushes to spare still?” said Ser Gerold, sounding curious. He raised a hand to the side of her face, and Sansa flinched as he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Ah, I see that you do. I’m surprised, I confess. King Joffrey’s put it about King’s Landing that he had you a half dozen times while you were betrothed to him.”
“Do not touch me,” Sansa hissed. “I will call the guards.”
Slowly, deliberately, Ser Gerold wound a strand of her hair around his finger. “Go ahead,” he whispered. “They’re all dead, I’m afraid.”
Sansa stared at him, stunned. Then she opened her mouth and screamed for Ellaria.
Instantly, the Darkstar’s hand crashed against her face, heavy as a glove of stone. Sansa saw stars and tasted blood. She staggered sideways, and he grabbed hold of her, pulling her back to his breast, his arm encircling her waist like a bar of iron. With his free hand, he held a dagger to her throat.
“Make no mistake, my lady,” he said, marching them swiftly towards the door. “I came here to fetch home a wife. I will gladly take you however I can get you. But there is something I want even more than I want Winterfell—and that is to live. I will kill anyone who stands in my way, so think on that before you call for more guards. If you betray me, I will not hesitate to cut your own sweet throat. Do you understand me?”
Sansa was breathing so rapidly that she could not form words. Instead, she nodded.
“You’re frightened, I understand.” Ser Gerold kicked the outer door open. “But there’s no need, really. You need only be as obedient as you are beautiful, and you will never suffer any want of gallantry from me.”
An impulse came over Sansa just then. It was easy, pretending that his words had moved her—easy to let herself go limp in his arms, to sag against his chest with a whimper and turn her head as though she wished to press her face into his shoulder for comfort.
Ser Gerold responded predictably. His grip relaxed, and Sansa shifted against him. A moment later, she stomped hard on his instep, then aimed her knee at the codpiece he wasn’t wearing. He hissed out a long breath, cursing, and Sansa tore herself from his grasp, screaming Ellaria’s name as she lunged for the door of the inner chamber.
Two things happened almost at once. Just before she reached for the door latch, an iron grip seized the ends of her long hair, tugging her backwards. Sansa stumbled, just as the door of the bedchamber flew open and Ellaria dashed outside. The long sleeves of her robes trailed past her wrist, but Sansa could see that she was holding a dagger in each hand. Sansa felt the Darkstar freeze in shock for an instant, and that was all the opening Ellaria needed; her knife was a flash of silver in the darkness, and suddenly Sansa was free. Ser Gerold reeled backwards, clutching a handful of Sansa’s severed hair in his fist.
Dimly, through the roaring in Sansa’s ears, she could hear Ellaria screaming for the guards that would never hear her. Ellaria thrust Sansa behind her and snarled at Ser Gerold, her expression wild.
“Leave us,” Ellaria hissed. “While you still can. Oberyn has only been waiting for an excuse to kill you. If he catches you after this, it won’t be quick.”
“Lady Ellaria,” said Ser Gerold, grinning as he righted himself. “I was trying to leave. But I’m not going without what I came for.”
Ellaria backed up a step, closer to Sansa. “He killed the guards,” Sansa whispered in her ear, and she felt Ellaria tense.
“Run, then,” she whispered. “Raise the alarm. This creature will do me no harm. Even he is not so great a fool.”
“Lady Sansa, the Viper’s whore is not nearly as clever as she thinks she is. If you take but a single step towards that door, I will kill her.”
“Then kill me!” Ellaria shouted. “But you will not take Sansa. I know what you are. You will bring her only suffering.”
Sansa stood there, frozen, desperate to flee for safety, too terrified for Ellaria to leave her side. Ellaria looked away from Ser Gerold for just an instant, just long enough to turn a pleading look on Sansa.
The next thing Sansa knew, something fast, bird-like, flew through the air between them. Ellaria blinked once, twice, then slowly sank to her knees. A silver dagger was buried halfway to the hilt in her shoulder. Sansa screamed, but even as she threw herself at Ellaria, Ser Gerold lunged and began to drag her backwards.
“Now, we make our escape,” he hissed in her ear. “And unless you wish to wade to your bridal bed through a sea of blood, you will be silent as a mouse.”
He need not have threatened her. Standing there, staring at Ellaria’s prone form and the pool of blood spreading underneath her, Sansa felt as though she were far away from her own body, moving her arms and legs by instinct. Ser Gerold grasped her to his side, but she scarcely felt it. In her head, she was back in King’s Landing, kneeling once more before the Iron Throne. Joffrey might as well be aiming the crossbow at her again; they were all the same, these men and their arms and their strange, unaccountable appetites.
She was weeping, she could not help that, but she was silent as Ser Gerold led her out the door. She did not fight him. She did not know whether Ellaria was alive or dead. She had only one desire left: that no one else die on her account tonight. Not one servant, not one guard. There was no point, after all protecting Sansa Stark was obviously a lost cause. No matter who championed her, evil men just kept coming for her. I was lost the day I lost Lady, she thought to herself numbly. That was the meaning of my dream. No one could touch me if Lady were by my side.
When they stepped out the door, Sansa expected to see the bodies of the guards Ser Gerold claimed to have killed. But there were no guards to be seen, dead or alive; she wondered if Ser Gerold truly had killed them, or whether he had only paid them to desert their post. He marched Sansa around the corner and down the corridor. Behind them, at a considerable distance, Sansa heard the booted tread of the guards who wandered the castle corridors on their nightly patrol. She was so often awake in the middle of the night that she knew all their customary movements by now. In a few minutes, they would pass Sansa’s chamber, and if they were paying any attention to their duties, they would see the missing guards and realize something was wrong. The alarm would go up then; it remained to be seen whether Ser Gerold could make good his escape first.
Some part of Sansa’s mind noted idly that Ser Gerold was holding her almost the way that a true lover would—her arm linked through his, the tall length of his body pressed against her side. She had not been so close to anyone in many months. He smelled of sandalwood and jasmine—and blood. The corridors were lit by torchlight, and Sansa, looking up, saw his face for the first time. He had silver hair and dark purple eyes, like a Targaryen. He was extraordinarily handsome—beautiful, even, if a man could be beautiful.
Then and there, Sansa decided that, should she live through the night, she would never trust another handsome man again.
A minute or so later, Sansa heard the first sounds of the alarm being raised. It began at the door of her chamber, then gradually, every guard post throughout the castle took up the cry. The Lady Ellaria is wounded, the Lady Sansa is missing—it was strange to hear her name shouted back and forth across the echoing halls and not be able to respond.
Suddenly, Ser Gerold yanked hard on her arm, tugging her into a dark antechamber, the door of which stood slightly ajar. Sansa knew precisely where the antechamber led—she wondered if Ser Gerold did. Had he grown up in the Water Gardens, like so many Dornish children? Or had she learned more about the palace in her three months of living here than Ser Gerold would ever know?
If Sansa were clever, she might very well find some means of leading Ser Gerold out of the castle before he could kill anyone else. Yet if he did escape, what awaited her? Only captivity at High Hermitage—Ser Gerold might call it a marriage, but no power on earth would induce her to stand before a septon and say the vows, claiming him as hers, acknowledging him as her lord. Her bridal chamber would be a dungeon. No one would come for her; no one would know where to look.
Sansa could tell that Ser Gerold was uncertain what to do next. The guards would be here soon enough—no doubt they would check every room in the palace. The castle itself would be sealed off by now, the roads to the lower wards and the shadow city guarded by all the strength of Prince Doran’s garrison.
Either they must leave this room, or Sansa must steel herself for more bloodshed. In an instant, she made up her mind.
“This antechamber leads to Prince Doran’s solar,” she said. She did not look at Ser Gerold as she spoke, but she knew he was listening closely. “In the solar, there is a door to a secret corridor, which leads to a tunnel. The tunnel opens onto the lower ward of the palace. It was built thus so that the Prince and his family might use it to escape in secret, if the palace ever fell to a siege.”
Ser Gerold’s head whipped around. He stared at her through the dim light. He was breathing heavily, as though he were nervous. “You lie,” he said.
“What hour is it?” said Sansa, as though she had not heard him
“The hour of the ghost,” said Ser Gerold warily.
Sansa lifted her chin. “Prince Doran suffers many a sleepless night. His gout is worsening, and the pain keeps him from his bed. Sometimes, when he cannot sleep, he works in his solar until dawn. Yet, if he has not slept for many days, he sometimes permits the maesters to give him dreamwine. Then he sleeps like the dead for hours.”
“Why tell me this?”
“Either Prince Doran is sleeping in his chambers, in which case there will be no one to stop you, or he is awake, and within. Wherever he is, his captain of the guard will be at his side.”
“Hotah?” Darkstar laughed bitterly. “He is a host until himself. You would send me to my death.”
“I am no knight, ser, I know little of such matters. But would not any man prefer to fight one guard, however formidable, rather than ten, or twenty?” Sansa paused, waiting for this barb to find its mark. “Prince Doran may well have sent the captain to discover why the alarm has been raised. If he has done so, then his solar is as good as empty. The Prince is no match for you, after all—he cannot even stand on his own.”
Ser Gerold stared at her for a long moment. Then, without warning, he pushed her back against the wall and leaned in, trapping her with his arms.
“You’re a clever little mouse, aren’t you?” he said. “You would have me flip a coin—dragons, I win, tails…we both die.”
“Just so,” said Sansa. “I am lost regardless. So I have no reason to lie.”
“Must you carry on so?” he said, sounding annoyed, even mildly surprised. “Many a good Dornishwoman would like nothing better than to be the Lady of High Hermitage. This palace is your prison, Lady Sansa. You are the heir to the North, the crown jewel of Doran’s treasure house. He will never let you leave. I, on the other hand—why, I’ve a mind to take you North myself, once we are married. Would you not like that? You’ve brothers yet living, and a mother. Do you not wish to see them again?”
He lies, Sansa told herself sternly. She forced herself to remember Ellaria, falling in the dark, the dagger protruding from her chest. He would say anything to get what he wants from me.
“I have been a prisoner for years, ser,” she said. “If all that remains to me is a choice of jailors, I choose the Prince of Dorne over a soiled knight and a murderer of women.”
Ser Gerold’s eyes glittered in the darkness. He shook his head once, as if despairing of her—then he seized a fistful of her hair again, close to the scalp this time. The pain pricked fresh tears from her eyes as he wheeled them about, holding Sansa’s body before him like a shield.
“Terrible thing, gout,” he said lightly. “Even in his youth, Doran was no Red Viper, but they say he once rivaled Oberyn himself for speed—back when he had his legs, of course, and two good hands. Alas, nowadays his weapon of choice is…prudence.” He laughed. “It’s kept him alive this long, you have to give him that. Perhaps it will help him live to see the morning.” His voice deepened. “Open the door.”
Slowly, hands trembling, Sansa reached for the door. With a twist of the latch, it swung open—to reveal only moonlit darkness inside. Neither Prince Doran nor the captain of his guard were anywhere to be seen. Sansa’s soft cry of dismay betrayed her, and the Darkstar chuckled in her ear.
“I won the toss, it would seem,” he said. “Close the door behind us. Quietly.”
Sansa obeyed, because there was no reason not to. She knew what was coming next. He would kill her now—quickly, if she was lucky. She thought about the last time she had seen her father smile, remembered the feel of her mother’s deft fingers combing out her long braid at night. She thought of Arya and Bran and Rickon—and then she tried hard to think of nothing at all.
“Now this secret door of yours,” said Ser Gerold. “Show me.”
He gave her a shove, and Sansa had no choice but to stumble forwards a step. But she did not move again. She stood in the moonlight that poured in through the balcony windows, and trembled.
“Are you deaf?” Ser Gerold snapped. “I near the end of my patience with your maidenly delicacy.”
Unbidden, a hysterical giggle burbled up from her chest. Slowly, she turned to face him.
“You were right before,” she said. “I lied.”
Ser Gerold stared at her.
“The only way out of this room is back the way we came. There is no secret door, nor any tunnel. There is the balcony, however. You must be a good climber, ser, to have scaled mine. I cannot climb myself, however, so I will not be joining you.”
“I think I will send you down first,” he said through gritted teeth, gripping the sword at his side. “The climb will be perilous, and if I should fall, you might make a fair cushion.”
“If I scream as I fall, the guards will be waiting to catch you.”
“Fair point. I will cut your throat first.”
Sansa backed away, out of the pool of moonlight, into the part of the room where the shadows fell deepest. She groped blindly for something to hide behind, something she could throw at him. He wasn’t chasing her yet—he seemed to have resigned himself to the fact that she had led him into a trap, and all that remained to be decided was whether he would kill her before the guards reached them, or while the horrified guards looked on.
She stumbled and nearly fell when her bare foot caught the leg of a high-backed leather chair. Sansa swallowed her gasp and righted herself—she knew this room as well as she knew any room in the palace, and if only she could maneuver her way to Prince Doran’s desk, there would be letter openers, sharp as any dagger, a bronze sculpture heavy enough to crack a man’s skull. On the other hand, the chair was sturdy, and might well shield her from a sword thrust.
She lingered there for just a moment, and when a warm hand reached up from the depths of the shadowed chair to grasp her own, it was all she could do not to scream. But Sansa knew that hand—the callouses, the swollen knuckles on the first two fingers, the short, blunt nails.
For a moment, all that Sansa could hear was her own breath, suddenly high pitched and frantic. She worried that she was giving herself away—but then, as far as Ser Gerold was concerned, she’d trapped herself just as neatly as she’d trapped him. She had good reason to be afraid. He would consider her terror no more than his due.
“Ah, my lady,” said Ser Gerold, his voice soft, mocking. “It seems that my hopes for our blissful future together are doomed to disappointment. Still, we’ve time enough to share a few sweet moments before one or both of us goes to the gods. Come into my arms, sweetling. Why not? You cannot wish to die a maid, surely?”
Sansa froze, but the warm hand gripping hers only gripped it tighter.
“Ser Gerold,” said Prince Doran. “You have performed many a bold deed this night, it would seem. Do not soil the fine tale the singers will sing of your end by rape.”
All at once, the Darkstar’s smug mask fell away, revealing the fear and fury that lay beneath. “Who speaks?” he snarled. He unsheathed his sword in a flash of moonlight on steel. “Where are you? Step forward and face me!”
“I am facing you,” said the voice. “But to face me, you must come where I am, into the darkness. Surely this will not dismay you? You are of the night, as I believe you are fond of saying. I am only a crippled old man.”
“And I am no fool,” said Ser Gerold. “Where is Hotah?”
“If Hotah were with me, you would be dead already,” said Prince Doran. “Would you be easier if there were light? Lady Sansa, be so good as to light the brace of candles on my desk.”
“Stay where you are,” Ser Gerold ordered, hefting his sword and advancing. “On my honor, I will kill you both.”
Suddenly, Sansa’s hand was empty. By now her eyes were adjusted to the darkness, and she could just make out the shape of Prince Doran’s head and shoulders rising from beneath her. He made not the slightest noise as he got to his feet, and suddenly Sansa remembered that moment in the godswood in King’s Landing, when they had traded places in his rolling chair, and he had pushed her half a mile over rocky ground. You don’t want them to know how well you can actually walk, she’d said, smiling, pleased to think that they shared a secret.
“Was that not always the plan?” said Prince Doran, his voice mild. “Murder, rape, vengeance for that poor thing you call your honor? All because Oberyn warned you away from the Lady Sansa?”
Sansa flinched, but neither man noticed. Ser Gerold took a few more steps into the darkness, grinning and fearless again. He was less than an arm’s length away from Prince Doran now, but Sansa could tell that he had not realized—he was half blinded by the moonlight.
“You do me a disservice,” he said lightly. “I would rather hold a living bride to my bosom than a dead wench. But as the lady seems to prefer a rape to a proper bedding, I—”
Sansa watched as Prince Doran took a single step forward. She did not see his hand move, nor did she see the dagger it gripped. She heard only a wet, sucking sound, as dark steel entered Ser Gerold’s throat just underneath his chin.
The Darkstar choked, bright red blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth. Prince Doran gave the dagger a twist, and a gout of blood welled from between the knight’s lips, staining the back of Doran’s hand.
Ser Gerold staggered backwards, and in one long, slow, terrible movement, collapsed to his knees, then to the floor. Prince Doran stared down at his body, his dark eyes unreadable.
Sansa backed away from them both until she hit the wall. A low, strangled noise escaped her lips, and she clapped her hand over her mouth to stop the scream that was welling there.
She heard footsteps, then a muttered curse. Prince Doran was bracing himself against the back of the chair with a grimace, as though he had started towards her in a rush before remembering that he could not move so quickly without pain. He caught his breath for a second, then stooped slightly, his hand closing around the head of a stout walking stick.
The next thing Sansa knew, Prince Doran was standing over her, lifting a hand to cup the side of her face. Sansa wanted to look away, but she couldn’t; Prince Doran’s ordinarily controlled features were alive with emotion. Anger and anguish brimmed in his dark eyes, and the corner of his mouth twisted in disgust. For a wild moment, Sansa thought he was angry with her—but then his fingertips prodded gently at the tender lump high on her cheekbone. She had forgotten all about Ser Gerold striking her—those first few moments after he entered her bedchamber felt as if they had happened a lifetime ago…
“Ellaria!” Sansa gasped. She clutched at the front of Prince Doran’s tunic. “She took a dagger to the breast—she was protecting me—please, you must help her—”
“Ssh, ssh. Sansa, be still. All is well. Ellaria is being cared for as we speak. The wound is not mortal. The maesters are certain she will recover.”
Sansa’s mouth fell open. She was too afraid to believe him. Prince Doran looked at her, his expression strangely helpless. Then he sighed heavily, and for just an instant, as though giving way to an impulse he was afraid he would later regret, he touched his forehead to hers. His hand was still cupping her face, and Sansa felt hemmed in on all sides by his warmth, the faint fragrance of his perfume. The hand touching her cheek was the hand covered in Ser Gerold’s blood. The copper tang was thick in her nose, but it did not repulse her.
Carefully—it had been so long since last she took comfort from another person’s embrace that she scarcely remembered how it was done—she leaned against Prince Doran’s chest and pressed her face to his shoulder. Relief made her feel weak all over, and she had to fight to keep from swaying on her feet. The edges of her vision were turning grey, so she closed her eyes.
For just a minute, the entire world contracted to the warm dark space where Sansa was hiding her face against Prince Doran’s shoulder. The room around them was filling with noises—the guards had arrived at last, it seemed—but Prince Doran made no move to turn away from her, so Sansa remained where she was, drawing strength and warmth from the solidity of his presence.
At last, she heard Prince Doran speak. Although his mouth was only inches from her ear, his voice sounded as though it was coming from miles away. “A chair for the Lady Sansa,” he was saying. “She is faint.”
I’m not, Sansa tried to protest, and when a pair of strong arms tried to pull her away, she cried out, clinging harder to Prince Doran. She did not know them, they were strangers, she did not trust strangers… But then she heard the one voice she did trust, whispering in her ear, speaking words of comfort that blurred together indistinguishably in one long, buzzing tone. The strong arms returned, pulling her away, but no sooner had they deposited her on the chaise than Prince Doran sat down next to her.
The solar was filled with people now—all the candles were ablaze, the whole room flooded with light—people were looking at her, and what must they think? Her in her torn night shift, hair in disarray, bruises blossoming around her eyes. She tried to hold herself with some dignity, tried at the very least to sit up straight—but soon she was swaying again, and this time when the tears sprang to her eyes they were tears of humiliation. I will disgrace him, she thought, unable to look at Prince Doran, though she could feel his gaze hot on the side of her face.
“Sansa,” he said. “Look at me.”
She tried to look at him, but it was impossible to focus through the tears and the grey mist clouding her pupils.
“You are safe,” he said. His lips parted, and he looked awkward for a moment, as though he wasn’t certain how to say whatever it was he wanted to say. “All that matters is that you are safe.”
She heard him clearly enough, but she did not understand him—not until he touched the side of her face again, and she found herself falling back into the circle of his arms. He does not care who sees us like this, she realized.
It was the last clear thought she had for a long time.
Doran was staring sightlessly at the pages of the book in his lap when a soft rustling noise made him look to his left, where Sansa lay asleep in her bed.
He had sat the night in Sansa’s chambers, while at the opposite end of the same corridor Oberyn sat his own vigil at Ellaria’s bedside. A swift raven had been dispatched to Oberyn with news of the attack in the middle of the night, and he had ridden hell for leather to reach the Water Gardens in less than an hour, with only Ser Daemon to accompany him.
Doran well remembered what his brother’s feelings had been the night they told him about Elia, so he had left Oberyn to himself that night. Oberyn wasn’t interested in talking to him anyway—only in collaring the maester and closeting himself in Ellaria’s chamber. He had not stirred since, and Doran had not gone to see him.
Doran sympathized with his brother’s anxiety, but he was easy in his own mind about Ellaria. The maesters assured him that they expected her to make a full recovery, that she needed watching through the night no more than did Sansa, whose injuries were far less severe.
Yet, there, by Ellaria’s bedside, Oberyn fretted, and here, in Sansa’s chambers, Doran sat, careful to give no sign that he might be fretting. Their mother’s sons were a pair of fools, to be sure. Doran could only imagine what sort of gossip the servants were spreading this morning.
Yet the truth was that Doran had feared to leave Sansa with none but her maids to watch her, despite the maester’s verdict that she was not badly hurt. Bruises and a sprained wrist were easily healed, but she had not been herself last night. Visibly pale and fragile, her eyes nonetheless had been focused, sharp—too sharp, almost. She had watched the dark windows of his solar as though she half believed the Darkstar might burst through them again at any moment. She’d resisted every suggestion that she retire and rest, even after she watched the guards drag Ser Gerold’s cooling corpse from Doran’s solar, even after she’d suffered the maester to set her wrist and apply balms and a poultice to the hideous swelling around her left eye.
As soon as the maester finished looking after her, Sansa had announced that she meant to go to Ellaria. To nurse her, she’d said, and to comfort Loreza and Dorea, should they wake in the night.
Doran had not wanted to argue with her, nor had he wished to command her. He well understood her reluctance to surrender to the vulnerability of sleep. Yet he had feared she would collapse before she could be reasoned with. It was only Oberyn’s impossibly swift arrival from Sunspear that had changed Sansa’s mind. With Oberyn ensconced at Ellaria’s bedside, even Sansa had conceded that Ellaria could do without her for a few hours.
At Doran’s gentle insistence, Sansa had swallowed a spoonful of dreamwine there in his solar, and the potion had swept her legs out from underneath her as soon as she made to rise from the chaise. It had been Ser Daemon who caught her up and bore her in arms to her bed. As part of Doran’s entourage in King’s Landing, Daemon had been by Doran’s side when they saw Sansa beaten by the Kingsguard. It was Daemon whom Doran had dispatched to escort her to safety, Daemon who had pleaded with him to send Myles to her, Daemon who had volunteered to see her safely aboard the ship bound for Dorne—and there, again, he had seen firsthand what Joffrey’s vengeance had wrought in flame upon her skin.
For all these reasons and more, the young knight was nearly as wroth over the Darkstar’s actions as his liege lord—and when he had taken up a position at the guard post outside Sansa’s door, Doran had not questioned him, though Hotah was stationed there already, rendering the presence of any other guard quite redundant.
Everyone in the palace, it seemed to Doran, was trying, in their own ways, to make amends for what had befallen Sansa and Ellaria, and it was scarcely to be wondered at. Not since before Dorne had wed the dragons had there been such injury done to highborn ladies positioned at the very heart of the Prince’s own household. The insult offered to them struck to the very heart of Doran’s honor, and by extension, the honor of every man sworn to him.
Doran had spent most of the night thinking deeply on honor, its worth, and its uses. He was still thinking on it when Sansa showed the first sign of waking.
It was only an hour or so past first light. He had not expected Sansa to stir for hours yet, powerful as the potion was, and as weak as she had been when she swallowed it. Yet, she was undeniably stirring now.
First there came the soft rustle of her shifting body beneath the blankets; then there was another sound, even quieter than the soft movement of the bedclothes. It sounded as though Sansa was holding her breath.
When she exhaled a moment later, it was with a ragged, slightly damp sound, and that was when Doran realized she was weeping.
She lay with her back turned towards him, so it was possible she did not know he was there. He had been by her bedside when at last she had closed her eyes, but she had barely been conscious by that point. Doran had bidden her goodnight and promised to stay near as she slept, but he was not sure she would remember.
Doran spoke as quietly as he could. He did not wish to startle her, but if she had thought to weep in private, he would not sit here listening like some kind of spy.
“Sansa,” he said. “I am here.”
There was a sharp intake of breath, then silence, as though she had stopped breathing altogether.
Slowly, Sansa rolled over and peered at him. She clutched her blankets to her chin and her gleaming hair was fanned out in loose waves across the pillows. She made no attempt to rise, or to speak, but tears made her eyes shine bright as gems.
“Was it an ill dream?” said Doran softly.
Sansa shook her head. The haze of sleep, or potion, must be on her still. Doran knew full well that a Sansa Stark in her right mind would be flushed with mortification, appearing thus before him.
“It hurts,” she whispered. “I don’t understand why. It didn’t hurt yesterday, even before the maesters came.”
Doran silently cursed himself for a fool and seized the bell rope to summon the maid. She appeared within a moment, as though she had been waiting for this call, and Doran instructed her to send for the maester’s boy and the maester’s potions.
No sooner had the first maid departed than a second slipped into the room. Well-trained as she was, she paid Doran not the slightest attention, save to curtsey politely, before tending to her mistress. She approached the bed with a dressing gown in her arms, and like a child, Sansa allowed the maid to help her sit upright. Doran did not avert his eyes quickly enough from the unlaced back of her sleep shift to avoid another glimpse of the scars on Sansa’s back.
What right have I to call myself her guardian? Doran wondered, as Sansa lifted her arms and allowed the maid to wrap the dressing gown around her. From the hour of our first meeting, I have done nothing but watch while she suffered at the hands of other men.
Oh, he had killed Ser Gerold, to be sure. He’d done it without a breath, without a pause; Doran had killed Ser Gerold in his mind while he was still listening through the antechamber door. He had passed sentence the first time Ser Gerold threatened to rape her; by the third time, he was positively thrilling with the desire to carry that sentence out.
But that was no remedy for Sansa’s suffering. He had failed her the instant Ser Gerold climbed through her balcony door, and nothing he did afterwards could change that fact.
Never again would Sansa swallow the sweet lies that he and Oberyn had fed her since she first came into their care. Never again could they look in her the eye and swear that no man would lay hands on her so long as she was under their protection. Her thirteenth nameday would be upon them soon; every great house in Dorne with an eligible male scion would sit up and take notice.
As Sansa’s maid led her behind the changing screen to bathe and dress, Doran rolled his chair out into the sitting room of Sansa’s chambers, where he ordered a light breakfast that he doubted either of them would find much appetite for.
The maid led Sansa back out into the sitting room a few minutes later. Strictly speaking, she still was not properly dressed to receive visitors, though she was perfectly modest. Her sleep shift had been replaced by a beautifully embroidered tunic in sapphire blue silk with orange embroidery, belted loosely around her waist. She was dressed for a day of quiet convalescence in the privacy of her rooms, not for company.
Sansa leaned on her maid’s arm as she crossed the room to the table, where breakfast was waiting. She sat and stared listlessly as the maid place food before her, and served her with a steaming cup of tea. Doran caught the maid’s eye and dismissed her with a silent nod towards the door before he spoke.
“Sansa,” he said. “How are you?”
She pulled her sprained and splinted wrist against her chest, the movement seemingly unconscious. “I am well enough, my prince,” she said. “Will you tell me of Ellaria?”
“She quit her bed two hours ago and is resting in the sun with her ladies, on the terrace outside her chambers. Oberyn is with her, but he will have to take her place in bed soon enough, most likely—he did not sleep at all last night.”
Sansa looked at him then, for the first time. “Did you sleep, my prince?”
“No.” He smiled. “But you know how poorly I sleep on most nights. Speak truth now. Is the pain very bad?”
She dropped her gaze and shook her head, in a manner that might have been convincing to someone who had studied her mannerisms less closely. “I was only dismayed when I opened my eyes. I did not remember what had happened, at first.”
Doran could think of nothing to say. Everything that he could say or do—everything that he was permitted to do for Sansa’s comfort—he was doing already. If he wished to do more, that must remain his own affair.
“I regret this necessity,” he said, “but now, while we are alone, I must speak to you of Gerold Dayne. Gods be good, it is the last time I shall ever have to utter his name in your presence.”
Doran had not thought that Sansa could grow any paler without expiring entirely, but she did. She also stilled, in a way that Doran found painful to watch. He decided to speak plainly, that the matter be done with as swiftly as possible.
“At present, you and I are the only persons who know the truth of how he died—save for one man else. You may remember that Ser Jasper Dalt was the first man of my household guard to reach us. He will accept all credit, and all blame, for Ser Gerold’s death.” Doran hesitated. “I must ask you to swear as Ser Jasper has sworn. No one else must know whose hand dealt the blow that ended Ser Gerold’s life.”
Sansa blinked slowly, her gaze still trained on the table’s surface. “Of course, my prince. I do so swear.”
“Thank you.” Doran relaxed minutely. “I do not think anyone will be so bold as to bid you speak of what transpired between you and Ser Gerold, and if they do I shall certainly make my displeasure known. But if you should feel that you must give an answer, say only that you were in a faint when he met his end.”
“As you say, my prince.”
Quick, dutiful obedience was nothing less than Doran had come to expect from Sansa, but under the circumstances, it needled him. Obedience had been compelled from her at a dagger’s point last night. Doran wanted something else from her, something a prince could ill afford to desire—something like understanding, or approval.
“You are a most astute lady,” he continued. “I am certain you can see the necessity of secrecy.”
“I can see several reasons for it, my prince.”
Her tone was matter of fact, so Doran took the risk. “Tell me what it is you see.”
“House Martell has no need of a blood feud with the Daynes of High Hermitage.” Her reply was slow in coming, as though she were having difficulty forming the words. “You had the right to kill Ser Gerold for abducting me, but his blood is still on your hands. His kin may yet cry for recompense because he was killed by a man of your guard. If they knew it was you, they might rebel against your rule.”
“Just so. Well said.” The corner of his mouth crooked up. “What more?”
Sansa darted a sudden look at him up through her eyelashes. Then, just as suddenly, she looked away again.
“Ser Gerold did not know you were strong enough to—” She stopped, swallowed. “To do as you did. He thought you were too weak even to stand.”
And if he doubted it, you made certain to remind him, Doran thought to himself, remembering all he had overheard. Sansa had led the Darkstar neatly into her trap—but she took no joy of it. For all the wrongs that had been done to her, she was not bloodthirsty. Not yet, anyway.
“If…people knew that their prince had killed Ser Gerold, they would…think differently of him. They would admire you, certainly, but…” Sansa’s shoulders tightened. “They might not underestimate you a second time.”
“Precisely. Ably reasoned.” Doran cocked his head. “Is there anything else?”
“Only an idle thought my prince. Should…should not Prince Oberyn be told all?” She darted another look at him. “I think he will want revenge for Ellaria, and I worry that he may not think it enough that Ser Gerold was killed by one of your guards. Yet if…if he knew that his own elder brother slew the man who hurt Ellaria…then, perhaps, he would feel that honor had been satisfied.”
Doran’s mouth twisted, because it would not do to smile when speaking of such things.
“You have a rare gift for seeing into men’s hearts, Sansa.” She blushed, as he knew she would. “All that you say is true. I do mean to tell Oberyn the truth of the matter. It will calm his rage, which is most needful. And he will tell Ellaria, so that the two of you may speak freely when you are alone together. I suspect you both may need that solace.”
Sansa nodded stiffly, then stared down at her hands. Silence elapsed for almost a minute, which was strange behavior on her part. She was no chatterbox, but now that she was no longer in unfamiliar awe of him, she generally seemed to feel that she had a ladylike duty to prevent awkward silences from arising
As he studied her, however, Doran noticed how white were the knuckles of her interlaced fingers, how hard she bit down on her lower lip. All at once, he felt a fool again. The pain of her injuries is made worse by much talking. Doran had taken such a blow to the face once, when he was a squire about Sansa’s age—an accidental knock received in the training yard from a wooden sword. Ser Gerold, on the other hand, had struck Sansa with a mailed fist; it was a wonder she had not lost her teeth. Doran’s bruises had not been half so impressive as hers, yet still he felt every word he spoke and every bite he took for at least a week after.
He ought to have remembered that, and waited for some more meet time to draw her out.
Since he could say nothing without making the problem worse, he chose instead to make a study of the way that Sansa carried her pain. He wanted to remember what it looked like when she was suffering in silence, in case he ever saw her looking that way again. In case she ever tries to hide her pain from me, he thought vaguely.
Eventually, the silence elapsed to the point that Doran felt that he must either speak some word of comfort, or else take her in his arms, as he had done last night.
“The maester’s boy will be here soon,” he said.
This brought Sansa back to herself. He saw the shimmer of tears in her eyes again, but this time, when she dashed them away, it was with an air of self-disgust.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she muttered. “This is nothing compared to—”
She shut her mouth abruptly and reached for the cup of tea the maid had set before her. She held it near her lips without drinking, as though to shield her face from scrutiny.
Doran looked down at his hands. The right was in agony today, the joints of the first two fingers swollen and scarlet, but that was to be expected. It had been twenty years since he had delivered a mortal blow to an enemy in combat. Two months ago, such a deed would have been beyond him. Two months ago, he did not have the strength to grip a dagger, let alone strike with such swiftness and precision. But then Sansa had come into his life. She had taken over so much of his correspondence that the inflamed joints of his writing hand, finally given a chance to rest, had begun to cool. It had been two weeks ago when he first noticed that his hand had begun to regain some of its former dexterity.
He had, perhaps, saved Sansa’s life, but he had only done so with the strength she had given him. Doran did not know whether he should tell her as much—whether she would find that a comfort.
“I heard all that transpired between you and Ser Gerold after you entered my antechamber,” he said softly. “I know what he intended for you. What he threatened.”
Doran did not expect or truly wish for her to reply. His next words were words of assurance, promises that might ring hollowly in her ears, but that he must make all the same.
But Sansa did not wait to be reassured. “He was not the first man to so threaten me,” she said. “Nor was he the worst.”
Sansa glanced towards the door of the sitting room, as though she expected to hear the tread of ghostly boots marching down the corridor towards them. “The Kingsguard—they said things—did things—things I hope I shall never have to speak of.” She seemed to grow smaller in her chair. “Ser Gerold had nothing new to teach me about the evil that is found in men’s hearts.”
Fortunately for Doran, the boy arrived with the maester’s potions at almost that very instant.
Yet even as the maester’s assistant carefully set the potions before them, Doran’s breast burned with some fervor he had no name for. It was the haunted look in Sansa’s eyes that brought it forth, and the memory of Sansa’s head pressed into his shoulder the night before.
Sansa dutifully swallowed a thimble cup of milk of the poppy, and Doran reached for the somewhat larger cup set before him, his heart racing with the anticipation of relief.
Once the maester’s boy had retreated with his empty vials, Doran decided that he would be foolish to linger any longer. Sansa needed rest; she did not need to sit here with him, dwelling on the evils that had befallen her.
“I regret that I must take my leave of you now,” he said. “I have much and more to do today, and I have tarried too long already. You must rest—allow the potion to do its work. I will see to it that you are not disturbed.”
Sansa’s brow creased faintly. “Must I remain within my chambers all day, my prince?”
Doran’s eyebrows arched. “I would counsel it, but I would not command it. Where else would you wish to go?”
Sansa looked down at her hands. It was then that Doran understood. “If you wish to visit Ellaria for a short time, I see no harm in that. I am certain she would be glad to see you.”
“Do you think so? Truly?”
Her expression was all uncertainty. Doran frowned.
“I have never known her to be other than pleased to see you. Unless…” He studied the cast of her expression a moment longer, and what he saw made his chest hurt.
“Sansa,” he said softly. “What befell her was no fault of yours.”
“Was it not?” Sansa’s voice was hoarse. “He would never have hurt her had she not tried to protect me.”
Doran sighed, weariness and sorrow escaping him in a long breath. “I think perhaps you should see Ellaria. Perhaps she will know better than I how to drive such notions from your head.”
Sansa ducked her head, accepting the gentle chastisement. Doran wheeled his chair towards the door, pausing only for a second to rest a hand on her shoulder.
“If you have need of me, for any reason, only send word, and I will come to you as soon as I may.”
She merely nodded, which told Doran that the potion was working swiftly. Nothing but extremes of pain and weariness could ever make Sansa forget her courtesies for a moment.
“Rest easy,” he said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “My guards stand watch outside your door. They will conduct you safely anywhere you wish to go.”
Only as Doran was leaving did he remember how little Sansa liked guards; they could not make her feel truly safe, not after all she had endured at the hands of such men in King’s Landing. It is the most I can do, he reminded himself, as Hotah fell into step behind him and took up the handles of his chair. To do more, I would have to be other than I am. And I will never be other than I am.
A high-pitched shriek of laughter pierced the barrier between Ellaria’s bedchamber and the sitting room beyond, where Dorea and Loreza had been playing since an hour ago, when Oberyn whisked them out of their mother’s room so that Ellaria could get some sleep.
Only two weeks had passed since Ser Gerold had buried his dagger in Ellaria’s shoulder. But unlike some people, Ellaria wasn’t stubborn about taking the potions that Oberyn prescribed and mixed for her. When the drowsiness overcame, her she surrendered to it gracefully and took her rest. As a result of this sensible behavior, she was nearly healed now. There would be no permanent damage to her arm, save for a ragged scar some four inches long that marred the smooth skin between her shoulder and collar bone. Ellaria’s vanity was not piqued by it; on the contrary, she looked on the scar fondly, and had already announced that she would display it with as much pride as any costly brooch.
A week ago, the maesters had declared Ellaria well enough to share his bed again, but so far he had only lain beside her, molding her body to the shape of it. He kept his arm draped over her stomach and his nose close to her cloud of hair. Most nights, he kept his eyes open, afraid to sleep for more than one reason.
Oberyn’s dreams were haunted by all that might have happened the night the Darkstar abducted Sansa—by all that would have happened, save for luck, or the Mother’s mercy. Ellaria had been astonishingly lucky to face down a knight like the Darkstar and live. Even Oberyn would not have chosen to fight Gerold Dayne in a darkened room, in his nightclothes, with only a pair of daggers to defend him. Ellaria knew her business when it came to daggers, but she knew only what Obara had taught her, years ago, when she was but newly instated as his paramour. She was formidable, but she was no warrior.
It pleased Oberyn that she kept the knives so close by her bedside. It would please Obara even more. Obara had been an awkward girl of fourteen when she gifted Ellaria with those daggers—shy and hesitant, badly intimidated by her father’s new lady. But she had been determined to do Ellaria honor as best she knew how, and the daggers had been the result.
Obara was the eldest of Oberyn’s daughters, and had been with him for the longest, but even after five years at court she was still an anomaly—an eyesore, some said, though they were careful never to let Oberyn hear them. Obara had none of Nymeria or Tyene’s beauty. Even her sly cleverness seemed a poor match for Sarella’s soaring, bookish brilliance. She had no graces, no training in the formalities expected of the Prince of Dorne’s niece, and at times it seemed that only Oberyn saw the value in having a daughter who could wield a spear and sit a horse better than any squire in the training yard. He had never demanded that Obara accommodate herself to courtly expectations. Once or twice, he had wondered if he had done Obara a disservice, in that respect.
Oberyn could still remember Ellaria’s single eye-blink of bewilderment when Obara presented her with the daggers in their tooled leather case. He remembered the tense moment of silence that had followed, in which Ellaria seemed robbed of words. Oberyn had suppressed a cringe, for he could not bear to think of Obara feeling rejected or embarrassed. She tried so hard, and it was his fault she felt so out of place. His fault entirely that she had been taken away from the world she knew, and dropped in this strange, glittering world of princes and paramours.
But then, Ellaria had burst out into a throaty laugh, and her expression had changed to one of genuine delight. She had kissed Obara on the cheek to thank her, and promptly insisted that Obara teach her how to wield the daggers properly. Oberyn would never forget the look on Obara’s face in that moment—relief, mixed with something like hope, as though, if so fine a lady as Ellaria could accept her, perhaps others would too, one day.
One by one, during her first months at his side, Ellaria had taken all his daughters to her bosom: awkward Obara, haughty Nym, suspicious Tyene, aloof Sarella. And in so doing, she had converted Oberyn’s infatuation for her into something deeper, steadier. Into love.
She had known she was no match for the Darkstar when she challenged him. She’d known he could easily kill her. She had defied him anyway, because Ellaria had taken Sansa Stark under her wing just as surely as she had once done with his daughters.
The night Oberyn had arrived from Sunspear to find Ellaria’s bedchamber crowded with maesters and potions and strips of bloody bandage had been the second-worst night of life. It was all the worse because Gerold Dayne was dead. There was no one to punish, save Ellaria, and that he would not do, for all that he had been furious with her—furious with her courage. He had kept his mouth tightly shut those first few days he sat by her bedside, lest some rough word slip past his guard. Lest he seize her and shake her, until she swore to him that she would never do anything like it again.
Oberyn had mostly made his peace with the events of a fortnight ago. But the agony of that first night at her bedside had left its mark on him. Even now, his patience was shorter than it ought to be.
When another burst of shrieking laughter sounded from the sitting room, he was up out of his chair before he knew it. He pushed the door open and leaned into the sitting room, readying his sternest expression of fatherly rebuke.
The girls spun around to face him with identical guilty expressions. Any anger in Oberyn’s breast flickered and died in the face of their visible remorse.
“Go and play outside,” he said, his voice as gentle as he could make it. “You have been too much in doors of late.”
Loreza, the elder of his two youngest girls, looked as distraught as though he had threatened to banish her from the Water Gardens entirely. “But what if Mother wakes up? What if she needs us?”
“If you remain in the gardens below the terrace, I will be able to call to you from the window when she is ready to see you again.”
“But that’s where—” Dorea started to say, before being hastily hushed by her sister. Loree dipped a curtsey, which Doree mimicked; then Loree took her by the hand and dragged her out of the room.
And this is why the gods gave us septas, Oberyn thought grumblingly. But Septa Vayne was with El and Bel, attending to their afternoon lessons, and his youngest girls ate inexperienced young nursemaids alive. The only other person who was able to manage them at all was Sansa, who, out of some inexplicable mercy, often took them off his hands for several hours at a time. But at this hour, she was most likely still with Doran, if not resting from her own hurts. That left only Oberyn.
In truth, with Ellaria sleeping, there was no reason why Oberyn should not leave her to be with their girls. But though Ellaria needed him least when she was sleeping, sleep was when he was most loathe to leave her. Never before had he gazed upon her while she was abed and thought her vulnerable—now he could scarcely see anything save for her vulnerability, and her beauty.
Their family had many enemies, yet Gerold Dayne had come from nowhere. Oberyn had long ago marked the Darkstar as a man who would need killing one day, but that judgment had been impersonal. He had never dreamed that Ser Gerold would be so bold as to bring violence to the Water Gardens.
What other threats, unaccounted for by his imagination, lay in wait for those he loved? That was the thought that kept him tethered to this chamber, sleepless eyes staring into the darkness.
Oberyn scrubbed at his face. He returned to his seat next to the bed and reached for a book. Time passed as he stared at it the pages, never turning a page or reading a word.
He was nearly on the verge of dozing off when, from the open window just behind him, he heard a girl’s pained cry ring out across the gardens. Oberyn tossed the book onto the bed and hurried to the casement, expecting to see one of his daughters tumbled in the dirt and the other one standing over her, looking frightened, or angry.
Instead, he saw Sansa Stark.
He’d thought her with Doran, but he wasn’t truly surprised to see her. Sansa seemed always to be in the periphery of his vision these days, though he had scarcely spoken with her since his return to the Water Gardens, even on the days when she came to invite Loree and Doree to play.
In the night time hours, when Oberyn could not find rest in Ellaria’s bed and so took up brooding in Ellaria’s chair, he wondered sometimes if Sansa was avoiding him. For all her attendance on his family, she always seemed to be slipping out of rooms just as he was entering them. The maesters were keeping him apprised as to the state of Sansa’s recovery—the hideous bruises around her eye were fading, and her arm, badly sprained, was now out of its sling—but Oberyn had found no opportunity to ask Sansa how she was faring otherwise.
Ellaria’s injuries were of the body, and they had been the more serious when they were first inflicted. But Sansa’s true injuries were of a deeper, more lingering nature. Gerold Dayne would have done no more than kill Ellaria; her suffering would have ended with her life. Sansa, however, he meant to abduct, marry by force, and keep as his prisoner for as long as High Hermitage could hold her. It was all the worse because Sansa had experienced such terrors already. She had been a prisoner before—had been offered violence in her own bedchamber before.
She must have been deeply shaken by all that had befallen her, yet she continued to perform her self-appointed duties: visiting Ellaria’s sickbed, playing with their children, and scribing Doran’s correspondence in the mornings. Her placid mask never slipped, and Oberyn sometimes nearly forgot that Ellaria had not been the only victim of the attack.
He had once sat by Sansa’s bed much the way he now sat next to Ellaria’s. He’d watched her hover between life and death, fought at the maester’s side to hold her to life. He had once talked with her in the dark hours of the early morning, achingly conscious of the suffering she had endured, eager to assure her that in Dorne, she would be safe, protected.
What must she think of his promises now? Perhaps she was avoiding him because she was angry with him for failing her. Yet if that were the reason, why did he so often detect the ghost of her perfume lingering in Ellaria’s bedchamber? Why did she take it upon herself to entertain his paramour, his daughters, as though she were a nursemaid and not a highborn lady?
It appeared as if Sansa, Dorea, and Loreza were in the midst of a game of Knights and Maidens. Both his daughters were wielding long, sturdy sticks, the kind that children had been using as makeshift tourney swords since chivalry was invented. It was impossible to tell which one of his daughters was the knight and the other the monster, but Sansa was clearly the maiden in their game. And it seemed as though her knight protector, or her monster, or both, had struck the maiden a stray blow by accident. Hence the sudden cry of pain, and the girl’s guilty looks.
Sansa was clutching her arm—the same arm that she had until recently been wearing in a sling—tight against her chest. Her face was scrunched up in a tight expression of noiseless pain that Oberyn found all too familiar. Loree and Doree had dropped their sticks and were clinging to her skirts. From the sound of it, they were begging her pardon, begging for reassurance that she was alright.
Oberyn watched as Sansa deliberately relax her tight expression. She gave both girls a watery smile and shook her head, as if dismissing the accident. Dismissing her pain.
Doree smiled, then sprang back and took up her stick again, ready to return to their play. Oberyn nearly shouted down at her; then he drew back.
He was doing nothing here, save indulging himself. Ellaria did not need him. His daughters did. So did Sansa, possibly, if only so she could excuse herself. He suspected she would not leave Loree and Doree, unless she knew they were being looked after by another in her place.
Oberyn cast one last, lingering look at the bed to confirm that Ellaria was still fast asleep. Then he left the chamber, instructing the guard at the door to send for the maester’s assistant to sit with her in his absence. He strode out onto the terrace and turned the corner into the gardens, where he bellowed for his daughters’ attention.
“What is this?” he demanded, casting a glance around at the ground until he discovered a stick stout enough to stand up to a few blows. “Lady Sansa, you are beset by two of the fiercest beasts I have ever seen, and with no one to defend you!” He grinned at Loree and Doree. “Never fear; I shall be your champion. At me, you monsters!”
Their remorse forgotten in a flash, the two girls charged at him, shouting gleefully, their sticks raised. Oberyn leapt swiftly in front of Sansa and parried their blows. Typically, children fought each other for the honor of playing the knight, since the game was spoiled if the knight did not win. But his daughters seemed happy enough to growl and spit at him like proper monsters, and Oberyn made certain to howl loudly when Loree managed to land a stinging blow against the back of his calf.
In flashes, Oberyn caught sight of Sansa, who was staring at them, her expression caught between disbelief and amusement. Oberyn began driving the girls farther back, establishing a safe perimeter around the beleaguered maiden. She was in danger of catching another errant blow, and because Oberyn was standing in the knight’s place, if it came at all it would most likely come from him. If Oberyn hit her by accident, she would probably need the maester to set her arm again.
He swung around, and with one blow, he knocked the makeshift swords out of both his daughters’ hands. They protested loudly, but Oberyn only tutted at them.
“You make sorry monsters, and even sorrier knights,” he said. “You are mine own daughters; I cannot allow you to disgrace me this way. Both of you, to the master-at-arms. Tell him it is my wish that you are to have an hours’ practice with him every day.”
Both girls dropped their jaws. Doree recovered first.
“Only an hour?” she said. “Obara trains at least six hours every day!”
Loree jabbed her sister in the ribs, clearly afraid that this greatest of all privileges would be revoked if they asked too many questions.
“If you prove to the master-at-arms that you are fit to advance in your training, you will have more time in the practice yard. Now go, before your mother hears us through the window—she will call for my hide when she hears I have permitted this.”
They started to dash away for the training yard, only to remember themselves, dash back, curtsey to him and to Sansa, then take off at a tear again. Oberyn’s fond smile faded as they disappeared through the gate to the gardens.
Ellaria had never wanted their daughters to be fighters. But their mother had nearly been murdered by Gerold Dayne a fortnight ago, and Sansa had nearly died twice since being taken into the protection of House Martell. The Water Gardens were the seat of his brother’s power; if his family was not safe here, then they were not safe anywhere.
Swordplay was easy to learn in childhood, when everything was still a game. If Loree and Doree wanted to put it aside when they were older, he would not object. But no man who ever came to their beds would find them helpless. Ellaria would understand.
“There,” said Oberyn, strolling a few paces closer to Sansa. “That will earn me their leal devotion for at least a week.”
Sansa was looking after Loree and Doree. There was a soft, wistful smile on her face.
“If they wish to train at arms, then you are very kind to let them to do it. My…my sister had a sword of her own, once. The happiest day of her life was the day my father engaged a master to teach her to use it properly.”
“If you are comparing me to your lord father, then I am flattered. I cannot imagine you often pay any higher compliment.”
Sansa flushed, then darted him a quick, alarmed glance. “Have you quit Ellaria’s bedside? Is she well?”
“She is well, and being looked after. It seemed to me that you stood in greater need of my services.”
Sansa said nothing in reply to this, and Oberyn discreetly cast his gaze over her, forbearing nothing in his scrutiny.
Oberyn knew that the neat, modest gown she wore had been made for her only a few months ago, when she first arrived in Dorne. It had fit her then. Now, the gown hung loosely from her shoulders, as though she had borrowed it from some larger woman. Her face too seemed extremely white, but perhaps that was only in contrast to the vivid yellow-green-purple of her bruises.
Oberyn’s rage rekindled every time he looked upon those bruises, but his feelings were irrelevant. There is no one left to be angry with. Doran has seen to your revenge.
“Walk with me, Sansa,” he said, tucking her uninjured arm into his on sudden impulse. “I have scarcely seen you since I returned to the Water Gardens, for all that you are never elsewhere but with my brother or with Ellaria. When I am not with the one, I am always with the other, yet you and I are never in the same place at the same time. Is this not on purpose? Have I offended you in some way?”
Sansa’s mouth fell open. “Of course not, my prince.”
“Then why do you flee from me the way you ought to have fled from the terrifying spectacle of two of my daughters armed with stout sticks?”
They began strolling down the Vale of Irises, a long maze that made a looping circuit of the entire garden. They would be stuck in one another’s company until they had escaped the maze; that should give Oberyn time enough to tease answers out of her.
Sansa looked as though she had been caught rifling through his pockets for gold. “I thought you would prefer if I did not make idle conversation, my prince,” she said, mortified. “I did not wish to be a nuisance. It is only on your sufferance that I am permitted to see Ellaria, and I wanted to do whatever I could for her.”
“You have done her faithful and loving service. I will not forget it, and neither will she. Why would you think I would ever turn you away from her rooms?”
She nearly stumbled over a loose stone, and Oberyn abruptly had to tighten his grip on her arm. He felt her entire body tense up in response, but he could not bring himself to release her.
“Tell me why,” he said, halting and turning her to face him. Their path was hemmed in by thick shrubs that were taller than he was. There was no one to distract her, or rescue her, or overhear.
“I thought you would be angry with me,” she whispered, looking down until her hair fell forward to hide her face. “He wouldn’t have hurt her if she hadn’t been protecting me. He wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for me.”
“I am not angry with you,” he said, appalled. “Gods be good, Sansa, do you know me so little?”
“But it was my fault,” she cried, and he thought he heard the beginning of tears in her voice. “I have no place here, no purpose. I’m not to marry Prince Quentyn, I’m just a burden on your House, and Loree and Doree almost lost their mother because of me.”
She was crying unmistakably by the end of the outburst. Tremors were running through her body; he could feel them from where he still had hold of her arm. But she made no move to seek comfort of him, though she need only lean forward a bit to rest her head on his shoulder.
Suddenly, Oberyn understood. This was why she had been avoiding him. She was afraid of him, afraid of his anger and what it might move him to say or do to her.
The knowledge made him feel cold and sick, but he knew that he could mend matters easily enough. It was not her fault that she misunderstood him; she was accustomed to cruel men. Had he troubled to speak to her once during the past fortnight, he might have alleviated her fears.
He let go her arm and placed both hands lightly on her shoulders.
“Sansa, look at me.” He waited until she did so, hesitantly; then he smiled. “It is I, Oberyn. The same man who held your hair away from your face when greensickness took you on the journey to Dorne. Do you not remember? We walked the deck together in the early mornings, before the maester could emerge to scold us about the dangers of exposing you to too much sunlight.”
Sansa nodded, and produced a handkerchief from some discreet place upon her person to dab at her eyes.
“I recall that I did most of the speaking during those walks. Yet still I felt that we were friends when we reached Sunspear—more so, by the time Doran stole you away to the Water Gardens. Was I mistaken?”
A small wrinkle formed on her brow, as though she was trying to work out the politest way of saying, no, my prince, you were very kind, but still I am afraid of you.
Oberyn sighed, and dropped his hands, releasing her. “If one of us has a right to be angry with the other, I think it is you who should be angry with me.”
“Oh, no—” She looked shocked.
“Did I not promise you that you would be safe in Dorne?” Oberyn threw his arms wide. “And did Gerold Dayne not make a liar of me?”
“You were far away, you could not have known.”
“But I did know.” He let this sink in for a moment. “We had warning that Ser Gerold might sue for your hand. I chose to warn him off before he could embarrass himself and Doran by asking. I told him, the Knight of High Hermitage is no fit consort for the Lady of Winterfell—though in truth, his birth was the least of it. I would not have entrusted the Darkstar with a dog I was fond of, let alone a gracious maiden who sits at the very heart of my family’s affections.”
Oberyn clasped his hands behind his back and scuffed his toe in a bit of dirt at the edge of the shrubbery. “Perhaps he always planned to abduct you. Or perhaps my warning goaded him. Regardless, we failed you, my lady. If you were angry with us, it would be only just.”
“I am not angry,” she said quickly, sounding positively disturbed. “I don’t—I wouldn’t—”
“Just so. You have a good and gentle heart. I do not claim to be as good as you—my own heart is as flint towards my enemies. But I hope you can believe, at least, that you will never be one of them.”
Oberyn waited for a moment before offering Sansa his arm once more. It was a test, but whether he was testing himself or her, he could not say.
When Sansa threaded her arm through his, he was relieved to discover that she no longer felt so stiff against his side. She was actually letting herself lean against him a bit, as though she needed the support. Oberyn darted a quick glance at her pale face, and wondered why it had never occurred to him before that if he was tired, Sansa must be as worn as old parchment. She was scarcely less often in Ellaria’s rooms than he was, and she was still recovering from shock and injury.
“You said before that you are but a burden to Dorne. I hope that you spoke thus only because you were distraught, and not because you believed it.” He trailed his hand over the hedges. “Doran knew precisely what he was doing when he snatched you away from the Lannisters. You are no burden to us.” He smiled. “If anything, you are stolen treasure.”
“I suppose that explains why Ser Gerold felt he had the right to steal me for himself,” she said, a little stiffly.
Oberyn reached across his body to rest his hand over hers, where it perched so lightly on his arm. “No,” he said flatly. “He did not have the right. You are the Lady of Winterfell; you will be no man’s possession.”
“My brother Robb is Lord of Winterfell,” she reminded him.
“Of course. I only meant that, in the eyes of the Crown, you stand in his place, and that is why the Darkstar tried to take you. But you are precious to us for other reasons. You realize that, I hope.”
Sansa said nothing, but two spots of hectic color stood out high on her cheekbones. Against the pallor of her skin, they were as bright as rouge.
Oberyn thought back to their passage on the Lady Jeyne—how fragile she was, how hurt, yet brave and gracious at the same time. He’d soon come to understand what it was about her that made Daemon Sand want to weep and sharpen his sword at the same time. Oberyn had thought then that he would be willing to do almost anything to stop her ever being hurt again.
His feelings for her ran far deeper than they usually did for anyone he was not kin too. Compared to what he felt for Sansa, most of the women whose beds he shared were no dearer to him than they would be if they were affectionate cats he’d spent a few pleasant minutes stroking and teasing. He’d never felt the way he felt about Sansa Stark towards any woman, save Ellaria, back in the very earliest days of their courtship.
Oberyn wondered if this meant that he would soon be in love with Sansa, and promptly tripped on the garden path.
“Are you all right?” said Sansa, frowning at him.
“Of course,” he said, feeling dazed, as though he’d been too long in the sun. “I lost my footing. A loose stone.”
She would have to marry someone, eventually. She would have to be betrothed as soon as possible, for her own safety. Oberyn contemplated these facts for a moment.
As an experiment, he tried to imagine escorting her down the aisle of a sept. His mind skipped straight to the moment when he would have to permit another man to take her hand from his.
That man, whoever he was, would not know her as Oberyn did. He would not understand what she had suffered, not until he removed her shift on the wedding night and saw her scars. And what would he do then? Would he be kind? Would he sneer at her? Would her bedchamber forever be a place of sorrow?
I must speak with Ellaria, Oberyn decided. Not today, not tomorrow, but soon. She would tell him if this was but some passing madness. She would not let him make a mistake. She loved Sansa well.
And Sansa loves her.
His grip on Sansa’s arm tightened ever so slightly, and he sighed in relief when she did not flinch.
“Uncle!” cried Dorea breathlessly, running into the courtyard where Doran’s court was taking their evening meal. “Ser Jasper helped us fetch Lady Sansa’s nameday gifts! May we present them to her now? Please?”
A short distance off, Loreza stood next to one of Doran’s household knights, a former squire of Oberyn’s, who was holding an unsteady tower of parcels in his arms. Judging by the look on his face, he wasn’t quite certain how he’d ended up in his present condition.
Doran glanced at Dorea’s parents, who were wearing identical expressions of amused exasperation. Then he looked at Sansa. She was exceptionally beautiful today. Ellaria had dressed her in a new gown of pale grey silk, and her hair hung in loose waves down her back, save for a few strands at her temples which were gathered into a braid. Best of all, she was smiling. It was not quite the first time Doran had seen her smile recently, but it was close.
“Very well, Dorea,” he declared solemnly. “As the seneschal of the feast, you may present Lady Sansa with tokens of your esteem.”
At Sansa’s own request, her thirteenth nameday was being celebrated quietly. Dorea and Loreza had festooned the tables with flower garlands, many of which they had woven themselves, and they had insisted on erecting a silken canopy over Sansa’s seat at Doran’s right hand. But the food was no more than the typical fare served at dinners in the Water Gardens, even if the high table was adorned with a platter of lemon cakes larger than any yet seen in Dorne.
The was no music, no dancing, no guests save his own family and a few high lords who just happened to be visiting the palace at the moment. It was, Doran knew, less than Sansa deserved—but it was what she had wanted, and that mattered more.
Only two months ago, Arianne had tried to tempt Sansa with a truly glittering spectacle, a feast graced by all the trappings and entertainments that House Martell could offer its most honored guest. But that was before Ser Gerold came to the Water Gardens in the dark of night and tried to steal Sansa away. Arianne and Doran had passed many long hours in conversation together since that night. She understood, now, the peril that Sansa faced. She understood many things, and Doran was only ashamed that he had not trusted her sooner.
Arianne was sorry to give up her plans for the feast. She had wanted to make amends to Sansa by giving her a nameday celebration fit for legend. But his daughter was nothing if not determined, and Doran suspected that she had found a nameday gift for Sansa that would compensate for everything the party lacked. She would have to wait her turn to present it, however. Oberyn’s daughters were center stage at the moment, their little faces as serious as septas in their determination to do the thing properly.
“Lady Sansa.” Doree and Loree came before Sansa and made a pair of pretty, proper curtsies. “These are your nameday gifts from me and Loree. We made them ourselves.”
“We had help,” Loree added.
“Yes, our septa helped.”
With Ser Jasper’s assistance, they began to place a succession of trinkets before Sansa. Included in the bounty were a number of handkerchiefs, each embroidered with simple motifs in slightly overlarge, slightly crooked stitches. There were tiny figures—dolls, baskets, birds’ nests, wreathes—fashioned rather cleverly from dried river reeds. At last, there was a small rug woven out of bright strips of rag. Doran had a similar rug in his own chambers, next to his bed.
“Lady Dorea, Lady Loreza, these are beautiful. I am quite overwhelmed.” Sansa beamed gracious approval across the table at them, like some great lady receiving offerings from her smallfolk. “You must have worked so hard to make so many lovely things in only the time that has passed since I arrived here.”
Doree and Loree squirmed, grinning.
“Please thank your septa for me as well,” Sansa added, “for her part in helping to make them.”
“She didn’t help that much,” said Doree dismissively.
A ripple of laughter traveled around the table, as Loree gave her sister a small shove and whispered furiously in her ear.
“Thank her for me all the same.” Sansa’s smile was wide enough to crinkle the corners of her eyes. “Perhaps you might help Ser Jasper carry my gifts back inside, so I can admire them later?”
Both girls bobbed their heads furiously, gathered their small creations up, and ran back to the bemused looking knight in the background. Conversation began to resume, and Sansa looked down at her plate, her smile suddenly wistful.
“You have earned my nieces’ devotion, it would seem,” Doran remarked, in a low voice. Sansa had not spoken much since the feast began, but that was partly his fault. She was seated between him and Oberyn, and Oberyn was too gregarious to confine himself to one conversational partner at a feast.
“They are sweet girls.” For a second, it looked as though she would say something else, but she only shook her head and looked down again.
Doran thought he could guess why his youngest nieces had found a willing companion and caregiver in Sansa. She was Eddard Stark’s second child and oldest daughter. Once upon a time, she’d had a younger sister of her own, and two little brothers besides.
Doran’s mother had also had five children, once.
Before he could think what else to say, Doran noticed Oberyn glancing meaningfully in his direction. When their eyes met, Oberyn cleared his throat and got to his feet.
“If I had known that my daughters meant to be so forward, I would have presented mine own gift first, lest mine seem a poor offering in comparison.”
Sansa looked up, startled, and colored. “My prince, you needn’t have—”
“Too late.” Oberyn gave Sansa a smug smile, then made a beckoning gesture towards the door of the palace.
A footman, who must have been standing at the ready all this time, emerged from the darkened doorway. He was pushing something towards the high table on a low, wheeled car. Its cargo was draped in a white cloth, the shape of it huge and ungainly under the covering.
Doran had not the faintest idea what he was looking at, but Sansa apparently did. He heard her breath catch—a sharp little noise that could be expressive of nothing but delight, or disbelief, or both.
Oberyn leveled a grin at Sansa, and without another word, yanked the cloth away.
“A Volantene high harp,” he proclaimed, as the dinner guests broke into admiring applause. “You told me once that you played the harp when you were home in Winterfell. I would have fetched you back your own instrument if I could, but I hope this will do for a substitute.”
Sansa’s lips parted. She rose from her chair unsteadily—Doran checked the impulse to held her up—and took a few steps forward.
Oberyn beamed triumphantly as Sansa reached up to brush the shape of scrollwork along the top of the frame. The harp was nearly as tall as she was, almost as wide as her outstretched arms. She ghosted delicate fingertips over the strings, and the harp hummed.
“I only had a hand harp at Winterfell,” she said quietly. “I have never even seen a high harp, save at the King’s feasts. I fear I will not be able to do justice to such a beautiful instrument.”
“Ah, did I not mention? This gift is from both Ellaria and myself. I provided the instrument. She will provide the instruction.”
“I learned to play the high harp as a girl, during visits to my mother’s home in Lys,” Ellaria said. “I am sorely out of practice, but once I have taught you all that I know, I will find a teacher for us both.”
“I do not know what to say.” Sansa stared at the harp for another moment, as though she still did not believe her eyes. Then she took a breath and turned to Oberyn, giving him her hand. “Your generosity is overwhelming. Both of you. Thank you.”
Oberyn bowed gracefully over her fingers. For just a moment, Doran thought he saw a glint of something in his brother’s eye—an inkling of intent, as though there was something he wanted to say to her, only to change his mind at the last moment.
Doran remained still and silent as the footman wheeled the harp away again and Sansa returned to her seat at his side. Her eyes remained wide and stunned, and she was so quiet that Doran did not realize at first that most of his guests were looking expectantly in his direction. Others were looking to Arianne.
“My daughter,” he said, lifting a hand to where Arianne sat at the foot of the table. Her gift would undoubtedly be splendid, but since Doran’s gift was something only a prince could give, he must go last.
“Lady Sansa, you must forgive me,” said Arianne, rising to be better heard by all the guests. “My gift is not here. But in truth, he has very poor manners and would only have disgraced himself at the table.” There was a smattering of laughter, and Arianne smiled in Sansa’s direction. “Never fear, though. Having been fetched all the way from Hellholt by my cousin Obara, he now awaits your pleasure. You will find him in my father’s stables.”
This announcement was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Harmen Uller’s sand steeds were legendary throughout Dorne. To bestow such an animal upon a maid of thirteen, one not especially known for her skill on horseback, was a princely gesture indeed. He waited until Sansa had finished expressing her thanks, in tones of the greatest wonder, before catching his daughter’s eye and nodding his approval.
Arianne’s confident smile did not waver, but he thought he saw her flush slightly, as though she were pleased. It is good to think that my approval means something to her once more, Doran thought.
Now, it was his turn. Rather than turn to Sansa, he nodded to the woman sitting across from her. She stood and bowed.
“Lady Sansa,” he said, “I think you have met my Alyse Ladybright, my Lord Treasurer?”
She had more than met Alyse, in truth; Sansa had also transcribed her last report, copying Alyse’s tiny, crabbed writing into a large, clear hand that Doran could read without straining his eyes. But Alyse did not know that. No one, not even Oberyn, knew exactly how well-acquainted Sansa was with the most intimate affairs of Doran’s governance.
“I have had that honor,” said Sansa. “Lady Alyse, thank you for attending my nameday feast.”
“It is I who am honored, Lady Sansa.” Alyse gave her a small smile. “As Lord Treasurer of Dorne, I am instructed by Prince Doran to present you with this.” From the sleeve of her voluminous robe of office she produced a scrolled parchment. “My prince has deeded to Lady Sansa of House Stark, for her use and for her lifetime, all the customs and incomes of three wells in the southern reaches of the Prince’s Pass.”
All up and down the table, people burst into furious whispers. Sansa alone was silent, her shock palpable, as Alyse handed the deeds over to her. She stared for a long time at the blob of red wax imprinted by the Martell sun and spear, as though her eyes were too dim to make out the blazon.
Doran spoke before her uncharacteristic silence could draw attention to itself.
“Upon the recent death of the Knight of High Hermitage, his keep and most of his lands reverted to the Daynes of Starfall,” he told her, pitching his voice so that all those nearby could hear. “But these three wells, I attaindered in penalty for his crimes. It is only fitting that they pass to you.”
Whispers became murmurs, their tone grave, yet approving, even satisfied. Doran’s gift was generous, but not excessively so under the circumstances. A prince could scarcely refrain from exacting some vengeance for a crime such as Ser Gerold had committed. Everyone present understood that. And most people present still believed that Sansa was to marry Quentyn, so they would not wonder much at Doran’s open-handedness.
In truth, Doran would just as soon have foregone the attainder. He had already exacted the only price that would answer for Ser Gerold’s crimes. But what it mattered less what Doran did and more what he was seen to do. If he had chosen to let it be known that he had killed the Darkstar himself, it might have been enough. But since he had kept that matter secret, he had been forced to seize lands. Yet he could not keep the wells either, or there was a chance that bad blood might arise between between Sunspear and Starfall—if not now, then in future generations. Wars had been fought on flimsier pretexts.
It had been Arianne who had hit upon the solution. The incomes would belong to Sansa as long as she lived, but after her death, they would pass back to Starfall. In one move, Doran’s honor was avenged, the pride of House Dayne appeased, Sansa’s injuries compensated, and House Martell relieved of the cost of supporting her. Sansa would remain under Doran’s protection, but from now on, she would have gold enough to maintain a small but princely household of her own, if she wished.
To give such a gift carried its own degree of risk. It made Sansa an even more tempting prize for some adventuring bridegroom, since she now possessed a sizeable dowry in her own right, regardless of whether Robb Stark won or lost his war. But Doran had judged the risk worthwhile, because the gift also sent a message: anyone who affronted Sansa would pay, not only with their life, but with their patrimony. Any high lords who might otherwise have turned a willfully blind eye to the schemes of their bolder, more unruly sons would think better of such blindness now.
“I have something else for you as well,” said Doran, as the table quieted again. “Though it was none of my doing and it should earn me no thanks.”
Sansa blinked at him, her confusion obvious.
“I ought to have given this to you when it arrived two days ago, but I kept it for today instead,” he explained. “It seemed to me that you should smile on your nameday. I knew that, even if all else failed, this would accomplish the desired result.”
From a small pocket in the breast of his robe, he retrieved the tightly furled letter stamped with a slightly cracked direwolf seal which had arrived by raven the night before last.
“Forgive me,” he said, “for delaying your joy.”
Sansa took the letter from him with trembling hands. Her eyes were luminous with unshed tears. “There is nothing to forgive, my prince,” she whispered. “You are too good. This is the best gift I could have hoped for.”
“Go.” Doran’s smile softened. “Find some quiet place and read your letter. Your guests can spare you for a time.”
Sansa hesitated for a moment, clearly feeling that it was less than proper for the guest of honor to steal away from her own feast while the guests were still celebrating. Then she rose from her seat, bending down to kiss his cheek. Doran found himself holding his breath as her hair swung forward, brushing against his face.
“Thank you,” she said. “I will return soon.”
Doran twitched his fingers, shooing her away. As he watched her depart, he heard Lady Tolland remark to Lord Qorgyle that Sansa Stark had certainly grown into a beauty since she arrived in Dorne.
“I met Caitlyn Tully once when we were girls, and she was a beauty too,” she said, pouring cream over her cake from a small silver pitcher. “But Lady Sansa has that Northern look about her—skin so fair you can see the blue under her skin, like ice over deep waters. Exquisite, with that hair of hers.”
“And when did you last see ice in great quantity, my lady?” jested Lord Qorgyle, who had already finished off his own cake and was reaching for a second.
“I’ve lived through more winters than you have, my lord,” Lady Tolland said smartly. “And only half of them in Dorne. The waters froze even in the Reach during my last maiden winter.”
Doran thought nothing of it when ten minutes passed, then twenty, with no sign of Sansa returning. No doubt her mother’s letter had moved her deeply, and Doran knew well enough that Sansa did not like to be seen weeping in public. She would no doubt return as soon as she had found a damp cloth for her eyes; she was too dutiful to simply disappear.
Yet half an hour elapsed, and Sansa still did not make her appearance. Doran found himself glancing over at Ellaria, only to see that she was already looking at him, her eyes crinkled with concern.
Their eyes met for a moment, and whatever Ellaria saw in Doran’s face had her rising from her chair, squeezing Oberyn’s shoulder.
“I will just see to Sansa,” she said to Doran. “Perhaps she needs company.”
Some ten or fifteen minutes more passed after Ellaria’s departure. Dusk was turning to nightfall, and the fireflies were beginning to alight on Loree and Doree’s flower garlands. Their subtle glow illuminated the petals like tiny lanterns.
When, at last, Ellaria returned, she was alone.
Doran’s stomach twisted with foreboding as she strode past Oberyn and knelt next to his rolling chair, leaning in to whisper in his ear.
“Something is wrong,” Ellaria said. “Sansa would not speak to me. I asked her to rejoin the feast, but—Doran, I am not certain she even heard me.”
It was the curse of a mind like Doran’s that he did not have to think very hard in order to arrive at a number of possible reasons why Caitlyn Stark’s letter might have left Sansa in the state Ellaria described. The raven might have outpaced reports about the war in the Riverlands. His most recent intelligence indicated that Robb Stark continued to carry all before him, but fortunes changed rapidly in war.
He had saved Sansa’s letter for her nameday because he knew that no gift, however lavish, could make her happier. But if the letter contained ill tidings, then his clever idea might have done nothing more than compound her sorrow.
There was nothing for it; he must go and see to her, quickly. Still, for a moment, Doran did not move. He had been the recipient of enough bad news in his life that he clung instinctively, for as long as he could, to the blessings of ignorance.
“Arianne will preside in my place,” he said to Ellaria, gesturing to the captain of his guard. Hotah promptly detached himself from the shadows to take up the handles of his chair. “If I do not return, make my excuses.”
Ellaria nodded. Between them, Doran knew that she and Arianne would be able to smooth over any awkwardness that might arise once people realized that the three seats at the head of the table had all fallen vacant.
And it would be three, for Oberyn, having divined the import of Ellaria’s whispered message, was already rising, striding across the courtyard in the direction Ellaria had just come from. Doran gritted his teeth, but merely lifted his hand. The wheels of his chair began to turn, and soon he was inside the palace.
Sansa proved easy to find. She had not, as Doran half-feared, hidden herself away in some small crevice. She was sitting in plain view on a bench near the opening of a corridor. Her head was bowed, her long hair hanging forward in an opaque curtain that hid her face.
Oberyn was already kneeling at her feet when Doran reached them, speaking to Sansa in hushed, urgent tones.
“What has happened?” he said pleadingly. “Surely it cannot be so grave that speaking of it would make it any worse.”
Doran found himself staring at the bright crown of Sansa’s hair, which reflected the light from the sconce above it like a halo of fire. A second later, he glanced down at her hands. She was clutching one slip of parchment between her fingers. A second furl of parchment lay on the bench beside her.
Even without looking at either parchment closely, Doran could see that they were written in different hands. Two letters. There had been two letters, rolled together, under one seal, and Doran had not realized.
Only one of the letters was in a woman’s hand.
Doran had noticed the cracks in the direwolf seal, but he had thought nothing of it. Lady Caitlyn was often in the camps with her son, it was said, and soldier’s camps were chaotic. The letter might have been trampled on, the seal broken and the wax melted over a candle flame to seal it again. Doran had assumed as much.
But he had only to look at Sansa’s hunched, lifeless form to know that he had assumed wrongly.
“The second letter,” he said, careful to keep his voice even. “Is it from your brother?”
The word was little more than a breath, so faint that Doran doubted whether he had really heard her at first. She said no more. He waited. Beside him, still kneeling, Oberyn waited.
At last, Sansa extended a trembling hand. Her palm lay flat, the parchment resting there like an offering. This was not her mother’s letter—this was the letter concealed inside the first, the one not written in a woman’s hand, nor in a maester’s.
Oberyn reached for it immediately, and Doran did not stop him. He did not want to read it. He did not want to know what it said.
Oberyn’s narrowed eyes scanned the text once, then twice, then a third time. He was already shaking his head before he spoke.
“No,” he said shortly, the anger in his voice flattened by disbelief. “No, I do not believe it. This is some cruel—some barbaric jest.”
A chill was creeping through Doran’s body. The tips of his fingers felt numb. His heart was slowing, time contracting, the way it sometimes did on the eve of battle. He had been cold and calm in the instant before he killed Gerold Dayne, but there was no one to fight here.
“Sansa.” The determination in Oberyn’s voice was mixed with something else. Helplessness, Doran thought. “If there were any truth to this, we would know. We would surely have heard.”
“Do you think so?”
There was no curiosity in Sansa’s tones, no hope, only blank courtesy. Whatever it was Oberyn could not believe, Sansa had already accepted it as fact.
Oberyn opened his mouth, only to close it again. He looked down at the parchment, his brow creasing.
“Do you know the writing?” he said.
Sansa lifted her head at last, and Doran almost wished that she had not. Her eyes, so luminous during the feast, were now as dull as old glass.
“It is Joffrey’s hand,” she said. “I know it well.”
The sound of that name on Sansa’s lips shattered Doran’s paralysis. He wheeled his chair closer. “Oberyn.”
His brother met his gaze wordlessly, then offered him the parchment. Doran could not bring himself to touch it. “Tell me what it says,” he ordered.
All at once, arrow-swift, Sansa shot to her feet. Oberyn did the same, as though they were joined by a string.
“Forgive me,” she said, backing away from them, stumbling as she tripped over her hem. “Forgive me, I cannot—”
She turned abruptly, clutching her skirts in one hand, and fled down the corridor. Oberyn stared, gawping, before he gave chase, his long legs eating up the gap between them.
From his chair, Doran could do nothing but sit and watch the scene unfold. Sansa reached the end of the long corridor before Oberyn overtook her. At such a distance, their voices reached him only as a muddle of indistinct noise. When Oberyn clutched Sansa’s shoulders, she reacted as though he had reached for her throat. She screamed unintelligible words at him, trying to yank herself free of his grip. When this only made Oberyn hold onto her more tightly, Sansa planted both her hands against his chest and shoved.
Doran glanced down at the floor. The parchment Oberyn had tried to give him had fallen onto the marble next to his chair. He did not want to read it now anymore than he had a minute ago. But his other option was to continue watching as Sansa fought his brother like some wild, wounded animal caught in a snare, and Doran knew he could not bear that for much longer.
He leaned down and caught the parchment up. Unlike Oberyn, he only needed to read it once to believe it.
Greetings on your nameday Lady Sansa. I have a gift for you, it will follow soon. First I send you glad tidings of your family. I know how much you must miss them. Your uncle Edmure is lately married. Alas the wedding feast did not agree with your lady mother or your brother who styled himself King in the North. He was pierced to the heart by his treachery and before the night was done your mother also succumbed to a terrible bleeding in the throat. Your mother was sent to her rest in the Tully fashion, but I mean to send you your brother’s bones that you might grieve for him properly. His head was mislaid but another was found to take its place. I think it a great improvement for now he is a wolf in death as he was in life. Many blessings on this your nameday. I think often of the beauty you once were. Look for my gift soon.
It was signed JOFFREY OF THE HOUSE OF BARATHEON, followed by all of his styles and titles. Yet the boy was not entirely witless; it was not sealed with his imprint, and thus might be plausibly disavowed, in case Doran thought of showing it to anyone else.
Doran looked to the other letter—the one in Lady Caitlyn’s hand. It was lying discarded on the bench, forgotten when Sansa fled. It must have been found with Caitlyn Stark’s things after her death and sent on with other papers to King’s Landing. No doubt Tywin Lannister had glanced at it, seen that it contained nothing he did not already know, and promptly forgotten it. But the King, still smarting from the humiliation of having his betrothal to Sansa ended so abruptly, had found a use for it.
Doran wondered whether Joffrey knew that his vicious little missive would never have been permitted to reach Sansa, if not for the trick with the direwolf seal. Doran would have read any letter that arrived for Sansa before passing it on to her—any letter, save one bearing the seal of her father’s house. If Joffrey had planned it thus, then he had been clever. But perhaps Doran was giving him too much credit. Joffrey probably thought of nothing, save that the deception would magnify Sansa’s suffering a hundredfold.
He found himself stuck on that one point, turning it over and over again in his head. Sansa had been happy; she had been happy when Doran gave her the letter, happy when she left to read it, happy, no doubt, until the moment she finished Lady Caitlyn’s letter and turned her attention to the second parchment. And then, just as Joffrey had intended, all her happiness, all her hope for the future, had been snatched away in a few lines of childish scrawl.
Doran did not believe in making children pay for the sins of their fathers, or their grandfathers. But Joffrey’s crimes—the beatings, the burning, this letter—were his own.
Doran took Lady Caitlyn’s letter and placed it back into his pocket. It was the last letter Sansa would ever have from her family; one day, she would want it again.
He looked again towards the far end of the corridor. Sansa, exhausted or overpowered or both, had finally collapsed into Oberyn’s arms, her knees buckling as though her legs would no longer support her. Oberyn was holding her tightly against his chest, stroking her hair with one hand. From time to time he seemed to whisper in her ear, but Doran could hear nothing, not even the sound of weeping.
Nothing was what Sansa had, now. That was Doran’s doing as much as anyone’s. He’d taken her from King’s Landing to keep her safe, thinking that, one day, he would be able to restore her to her family. But now her family was gone, her brother’s armies fallen. The concessions he’d wrung from Lord Tyrion would be meaningless once Lord Tywin resumed his place as Hand of the King. Winterfell would probably remain in the hands of the Boltons for a long time to come. The crown had no reason to support Sansa’s claim now that the North had been wrested from the hands of the Starks.
Had Doran kept his promise and made Sansa a princess of Dorne, she might, even now, feel that she had something to cling to. The promise of a husband, a family. The knowledge that Dorne was her rightful home. It scarcely mattered what Doran felt for her, what his family felt for her. In absolute terms, she was now no more than an orphaned maid, bereft of patrimony, with only a small dowry to give her some standing in the world.
No, Doran thought. That was not entirely true. She had friends. Powerful friends, who might risk much for her benefit. No, it was not Sansa’s future that Doran feared for.
When they had told him of Elia and the children, it had fallen to Doran to break the news to Oberyn. It had been hard, watching his proud, fierce young brother fall to pieces. Harder still had been keeping him alive in the weeks and months that followed.
Sansa’s future could yet be written. But first there were the hours, the days, the weeks to get through. Doran scarcely knew how to tether her to life when the voices of so many of her dead were calling to her from the Stranger’s dark, peaceful dominion. He only knew that he must. He had lived long and survived much sorrow. But he could not—he would not—survive Sansa.
He would keep her. Whatever the price.
Oberyn came to his solar a few hours later, where Doran was waiting for him on the terrace.
“Sansa?” Doran said, without looking at him.
“I gave her dreamwine. She is sleeping.” Oberyn walked towards him, his tread heavy.
“Is it true?”
“I have no information. But yes, I think it true. If the king meant to torment her with lies, he would have invented a story even crueler than this one.”
Oberyn halted, staring down at him. “How?”
“He once attempted to burn her alive. Let us proceed from the assumption that there is no cruelty he is not capable of, and we will never be surprised.”
The room around them was mostly dark, lit only by a brace of candles on Doran’s desk. But through the balcony windows, a full harvest moon shone down upon them. They regarded it together in silence for a long time.
Doran was a little surprised. He had expected Oberyn to be restless, to pace about and tear his hair and throw things at his walls. His brother was passionate, and since he was a boy it had always been Doran’s job to calm him, counsel him, rein him in when necessary. Yet, outwardly at least, Oberyn was still and quiet. Doran was not certain that he should not find this more worrisome than the alternative.
“What will you do?” Oberyn said at last.
And there it was—the eternal question.
Sometimes it seemed to Doran as if those words had been ringing in his ears since the moment he first ascended the Sun Chair. Their mother’s death had followed hard on the heels of Elia’s murder, and the long illness that preceded it had prevented her from planning her own vengeance. At the very instant when Doran had least wished for the responsibilities of rule—when all he had wanted was the same thing that Oberyn wanted, for hot red justice to flow down like water over Tywin Lannister and all his works—he had been forced to put the man, the brother, aside, and be a prince.
Their mother had trained him well. He knew, even as a younger man, that a prince’s justice was not the same as a brother’s vengeance. It went deeper; it was slower to appear. It ran under the earth like the roots of a tree. For years, the earth above the tree remained undisturbed. But over time, the roots penetrated foundations of stone, crumbling the mightiest castles.
What will Prince Doran do? For the last seventeen years, his people, his family, his own daughter had looked at him as though he did not know his duty. But to speak aught would be to undo everything, to uproot that little tree he planted so long ago. So he had swallowed censure, shame, and his own well-guarded frustration, and waited.
Waiting was not easy. But the strength of his purpose had always been equal to it. Only once in his entire life had he given way to impatience, to impulse—and Mellario had been the result.
Ever since she left him, people had said what a shame it was, how Doran must regret that the one time he had chosen to put his own needs above all else, he had chosen so poorly. He must regret Mellario, they all thought. As if he could regret the fifteen years he had lived hand in hand with the woman he loved. As if he could regret Arianne, or Quentyn, or Trystane. Yes: once, he had been impulsive. It did not follow that he had been unwise. There was more love yet between him and Mellario than existed between many husbands and wives who shared the same bed.
Doran had planted his tree, watered it, and watched it grow. But the Red Keep was not Casterly Rock, and Joffrey Baratheon was not Tywin Lannister. He was only a mad dog, and some day he would have to be put down.
Even a patient man knew that a ravening beat must be slaughtered quickly.
“What will I do,” said Doran slowly. “How will I answer Tywin Lannister for conspiring to murder a boy and his mother at a wedding feast. How will I answer Joffrey, for placing that letter in my hand and striking at Sansa through me.” He blinked once, discovering as he did so that his eyes were dry and hot, as though he had been weeping. “How indeed.”
“You know that Lord Tywin was behind it?” Oberyn stepped around, facing him. His frown was thoughtful. It struck Doran then that Oberyn, too, had learned patience—more than anyone would think to credit him with. “The letter said nothing of who did the killing.”
Doran took his time assembling his answer. Even here, in this room, with only Oberyn listening, he must be guarded.
“There are rules, even in war,” he said. “There is a way in which things are done, and a reason why they are done that way. We uphold guest right. We ransom highborn prisoners and hold them in comfortable chambers, rather than throwing them in dungeons. We treat the wives, daughters, and sisters of our enemies with all courtesy and hold our hand in protection over them for so long as they are in our keeping. We do not hurt children.”
He exhaled slowly. “The man who sets these customs aside does so at his peril. But a man who has done so once is all the more likely to do it again. You said to Sansa that we would know, were there any truth to Joffrey’s story. We know, Oberyn. Our sister was raped, murdered with her children. The slaughter of Sansa’s kin was writ in the same bloody hand. And the boy who burned Sansa in her bed is cut of the same cloth as his grandfather.”
Oberyn stared at him, his eyes widening slightly, as though he were seeing Doran for the first time. “What will you do?” he said again, but there was new curiosity in the question.
“Not I,” said Doran. “You.”
Oberyn arched an eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest.
“You will write to your friend, Lord Willas of House Tyrell. You will enclose Joffrey’s letter, and you will tell him everything there is to know of Sansa’s sufferings at Joffrey’s hands. Spare him nothing—the beatings, the threatened rapes, the fire, tell him all. His sister Margaery is due to wed the king in three months’ time. Remind him that Joffrey knows how near she came to wedding Renly Baratheon, before he joined his banners to his brother’s. He will make her suffer for that, when she is his wife.”
At this, both of Oberyn’s eyebrows shot nearly to his hairline. “If I do that, Willas and his brothers will kill Joffrey themselves before they allow her to marry him.”
“That is a possibility, yes.”
Oberyn studied his face for a long moment. “This most unlike you. One might almost call it rash.”
“I am getting old, Oberyn. I may be running out of chances to be rash. Why not now?”
Slowly, Oberyn shook his head. “No, I know what this is,” he said. “I have seen this before. Killing Joffrey was never part of your schemes before tonight. This is because of Sansa.”
Doran almost denied it, then decided there was no need.
“Joffrey will be a danger to Sansa as long as he lives,” Doran said. “He’s proven that now. Even if he never again lays a hand on her, he will find ways to torment her. And I do not know how much more she can endure.”
Oberyn’s face sagged, suddenly, and all the weariness that Doran had expected to see in his face when first he returned from Sansa’s chambers was suddenly starkly apparent.
“I fear she might not survive this one,” he said heavily. “I have instructed Daemon to bid Sansa’s guards be watchful, lest she attempt to harm herself.”
Doran’s hands were suddenly cold. “Did she speak of—”
“No. She said not a word. Even when she screamed at me. But—I remember how it felt. When it was Elia.”
It was the closest Oberyn had ever come to admitting that he was, in fact, trying to get himself killed seventeen years ago. Doran found himself grimly satisfied with the admission.
“Order the guard doubled,” he said. “And speak to Sansa’s maid Shara. Tell her that I expect Sansa in my solar tomorrow morning at the usual hour.”
Oberyn’s brow creased. “Are you out of your senses? She is half-mad with grief, Doran!”
“I erred, the last time.” Doran looked back out over the moonlit balcony—the same balcony where he had sat, watching Sansa, day after day. “When her younger brothers were murdered. I left her to grieve alone. Ellaria told me I did wrong. I have come to agree with her.”
Oberyn considered him gravely for a moment, then nodded. “She will not be alone,” he said. “We will see to it.”
For the second time that day, Doran thought he saw a glimmer of intent in his brother’s expression, as though there was something more he was trying to bring himself to say. But when he spoke again, it was only to excuse himself. “It would seem I have a letter to write,” he said.
Doran bid his brother goodnight and looked up into the face of the moon, drawing his blanket over his knees. He did not expect to sleep before Sansa appeared in his doorway a few hours from now, but he was in the habit of making an effort.
Chapter warning: suicidal thoughts and gestures.
When Sansa opened her eyes on the morning after her nameday, her gaze fell immediately upon the bottle of dreamwine which Prince Oberyn had given her to drink from the night before.
The bottle sat on the table where her morning meal was usually served, but the hour was so early that her maids had not yet stirred to bring her food. The ornate bottle looked like a jewel, illuminated by the blue light of early dawn. Sansa almost imagined that it glowed, as though the gods had touched it with their blessing.
One spoonful would calm restlessness, Prince Oberyn had explained to her once, back aboard the Lady Jeyne. Two would ensure a deep, restful sleep. Three, and the sleeper might never wake again. Oberyn had given her two last night. Less, perhaps; she was not sure the spoon had been full to the brim when it was fed to her.
Slowly, her limbs as languid and heavy as if she were in a dream, Sansa shifted the bedclothes aside and made her way towards the table. The tiny dosing spoon Oberyn had used lay on the platter next to the bottle. Her hands were already trembling when she reached for it.
The potion was bitter on her tongue. Oberyn had sweetened it with something last night; now she looked, there was the small pot of honey he had used. She poured a second dose and swallowed. What did it matter if it was bitter; so too would every moment of her life be, from this moment onward.
Curiously, she watched her hand as it reached for the bottle a third time. The spoon was clutched in her other hand, ready to receive the third dose. It would be so easy to pour, to swallow, to sleep. After all, what would it matter? Who would be the worse for it? No one, she knew that. There was no one left in this world whom her death might injure. Her Tully relations did not know her. Jon…Jon would likely never even hear of it, so far away as he was, and even if he did… It was Arya Jon had loved. Arya, and Robb, and Bran and Rickon. Even Theon had been more of a companion to him than Sansa ever was.
She stood there for a long moment, holding the spoon in one hand and the bottle in the other. Then her legs began to sway. Her finger fumbled with the bottle, and it fell, unstoppered, onto the platter. She watched with faint disappointment as its contents spilled out in a thick, greenish pool. She could still scrape up a spoonful, she thought, or even lick the platter like a dog; but the thought shamed her, and the first two doses were already working, nudging her back to her bed with gentle hands.
Sansa lay herself down on top of the bedclothes and shut her eyes. All of her thoughts were blanks, and soon the darkness swallowed her.
When Sansa opened her eyes the second time, she found Prince Doran sitting next to her bed, staring down at her with an unreadable expression. Prince Oberyn stood just behind his brother, his eyes rimmed red, as though he had been weeping.
She barely had time to blink at the strangeness of their presence in her bedchamber before Oberyn pushed his way forward, clutching her hand, pressing his fingers hard to the inside of her wrist.
“Sansa.” He looked, and sounded, slightly frantic. “You are awake. Thank the gods. Can you speak?”
Sansa moved her lips and found that her tongue was responsive to her bidding. “Yes,” she whispered.
She did not look at him, and after a moment, with seeming reluctance, Oberyn released her. He scrubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands and paced to the opposite end of the room, leaving her to face Prince Doran’s scrutiny alone.
Sansa’s hair was a long, tangled mess; her face felt puffy and swollen, and she was still wearing her night shift. A day ago, it would have humiliated her to appear before either of the princes in such a state. Now, she found that she did not much care. She pushed herself up against the headboard and reached for a spare pillow, hugging it against her chest.
Prince Oberyn was standing beside her breakfast table, staring down at the bottle of dreamwine, still lying in a sticky pool of spilled potion on the maester’s platter. With one finger, he turned the bottle upright again, then stood there, staring at it, until Sansa looked away.
“We were concerned when you did not appear in my solar this morning,” Prince Doran said, his voice neutral. “We were expecting you.”
Sansa met his eyes, just for a moment. They were crinkled at the corners in a way that made him look sad; but Prince Doran’s face was so much less expressive than Oberyn’s that she was never entirely certain she was reading his looks correctly.
She had entirely forgotten their morning appointment today. The realization made her feel a weak pulse of shame, but it was like hearing someone call her name from another room. She did not even blush. She ought to apologize, she knew.
‘“We’, my prince?” she said instead.
“I invited Oberyn and Arianne to join us,” Prince Doran said. “There are important matters under discussion, and I meant for you to have a voice in our council.” He paused. “Did you sleep very ill last night?”
He was offering her an excuse, a graceful way to explain why she had taken more of the potion than she ought. A day ago Sansa would have been grateful; but a day ago, there would have been nothing for him to explain away.
“I slept deeply,” she admitted. “But when I awoke…” She trailed off, her voice growing smaller. “I did not want to be awake.”
She hadn’t been certain that Oberyn was even listening; but at these words, he abruptly fled the room, striding through the door of her bedchamber into her sitting room. Through the wall, she heard a loud, muffled curse.
“You must forgive my brother,” said Prince Doran, his mouth twisting wryly for a moment. “He is most wroth.”
“I would beg his forgiveness, then.”
It scarcely mattered that she did not understand why he was angry. Princes had their moods, and maidens who were dependent upon their protection gave way to them, or else found themselves battered by the storm of their passions. It had been thus for as long as Sansa had known princes.
“He is not wroth with you, but with himself,” said Prince Doran. “Under the circumstances, he feels he was…careless, not to have taken the dreamwine with him when he left last night.”
This time, Sansa did blush. Apparently, the secret, half-formed impulse that had come over her that morning was no secret at all.
“I only wanted to sleep,” she said feebly.
Prince Doran nodded once. “And are you now rested?”
She must be; she could see by the light streaming through the windows that it was already past noon. She’d never lain abed so long in her life, except for once when she had a fever as a child. Yet despite how long she’d slept, her limbs felt heavy, as though it would require all her strength and more merely to lift an arm or a leg.
She could not bring herself to confess as much to Prince Doran. Instead, she averted her eyes, looking to the open windows of her bedchamber. She could hear the distant cry of gulls through them, and suddenly Sansa found herself picturing the sea, vast and beautiful, sparkling like a field of diamonds and sapphires in the sunlight.
She thought of what Joffrey had written: Your mother was sent to her rest in the Tully fashion. The Tullys honored their ties to the great waters of the Tumblestone and the Red Fork by committing the bones of their dead to the currents. All rivers led to the sea, it was said. Even now, perhaps, her mother’s bones were drifting south, bringing her closer to Sansa than she had ever been, since the day they parted at Winterfell.
Sansa found it easy to imagine herself wading into the warm waters of the Sea of Dorne, swimming for as long as her strength could endure, swimming out to meet her mother. It would be a gentle end, and a fitting one. Sansa was not entitled to a tomb in the crypts of Winterfell, nor had she a husband whose customs she might observe in death. She was only a fatherless maid now, and as such, she belonged with her mother.
Reluctantly, she tore her gaze from the windows.
“There was little chance for us to speak yesterday,” said Prince Doran.
No, there hadn’t been. She had fled from him—from both of them. Prince Oberyn had chased her, and caught her, and taken her to her rooms, but Prince Doran…she didn’t know what Prince Doran had done last night.
“I would not tax you just now with questions,” he said. “But if you are prepared to hear me, there is much that I would say to you.”
Sansa contemplated this. Some part of her recognized how strange it was that she was thinking at all, weighing Prince Doran’s request as though she had a choice in the matter. She could almost hear Septa Mordayne, hissing in her ear: He is the Prince of Dorne, Sansa, you must show him obedience! But the old admonishments held less sway over her now than they had once done. After all, what would he do if she refused him? Cut her head off? Burn her, beat her, as Joffrey had done? He could cut her throat—that was how her mother had died—but he could not sew her direwolf’s head to her body.
Lady, Sansa realized now, had been lucky. Her father had slain her himself. He would have made Lady’s passing swift, easy, compared to how he and all the rest of Sansa’s family had died.
When Bran and Rickon were murdered, the grief had writhed and coiled inside her like a living thing. But this time, it was different. Her grief was gathered like a dark cloud in the corner of her chambers; it would, she knew, follow wherever she went, but all the same it was separate from her. She was empty inside, utterly hollow, but the emptiness was dense, leaving no room for shame, or sorrow—or even fear, it seemed.
Prince Doran was still watching her, but he did not seem angered by her silence.
“I will send Shara to you so that you can dress,” he said eventually, rolling his chair back from her bed. “When you are ready, your guards will bring you to my solar.”
Dumbly, Sansa watched him leave the room. A few seconds later, Shara appeared, bearing a dressing gown in her arms. Her eyes were bright, as though the mere sight of Sansa were cause for tears. Sansa avoided her gaze.
When you are ready, Prince Doran had said. Was she ready? Was she at all curious what it was he had to say to her?
No; curiosity was as distant from her as every other emotion. But she could not stay in bed any longer. And hearing him out would, at least, be something to do.
Shara stood there, until at last, Sansa threw the bedclothes back and forced her legs over the side of the bed.
“I will need water for bathing,” she heard herself say. “The coldest you can find.”
Four guards followed in her train as she made her way down the familiar route to Doran’s solar. When first Sansa came to Dorne, she did not have a formal guard—only Ser Daemon Sand, who seemed to appear from nowhere every time she left her rooms. He had been more like a companion to her than a knight at arms, however, so it had been easy to forget that he knew well how to use the sword that hung at his hip. After she left Sunspear with Prince Doran and came to the Water Gardens, there were usually two men assigned to guard her, though unlike Daemon they kept their distance and rarely spoke to her.
Now, suddenly, there were four.
She did not understand why the number of men in her guard had doubled overnight. Did Prince Doran think there were assassins in Sunspear, charged with murdering the last of the Starks? Who would order such a thing? What would be the point?
When she presented herself at the door of the prince’s solar, Hotah nodded to her exactly the same way he always did. He preceded her into the room, announcing her presence with a thump of his axe. Doran was seated at the round table that overlooked the balcony; he often sat there, rather than at his desk, when Sansa was assisting him in the mornings.
He looked up long enough to dismiss Hotah and wave Sansa forward.
“Be seated, if you please,” Prince Doran said, pushing himself to his feet long enough to hand Sansa into a chair. His knee must be better today, she thought. “Thank you for joining me.”
Shara had dressed her in a sapphire blue Dornish-made gown, the kind that was worn without a corset because it dipped low in the back. Sansa had not questioned, or even noticed, her maid’s choice until she had already left the room. It was no warmer than usual this morning, so doubtless Shara had only been thinking that it would be easier to dress her unresponsive mistress if she did not have to struggle with stays and laces. She hadn’t made much effort with Sansa’s hair, either, only brushed it in loose waves down her back.
Sansa usually carried a shawl to cover the scars on her back when she wore her Dornish gowns, but Shara had not offered her one, and Sansa did not think of it until just now. She was surprised to find that she did not care. It took so much effort to care about things, Sansa was realizing. Indifference was much easier. She might even grow to prefer it.
“I expect you have little appetite at present,” said Prince Doran, pouring a cup of steaming mint tea from his own pot and placing it before her. “You should drink, however.”
He was right on both counts. The idea of food made her stomach turn, but she was thirsty. The tea was too hot to gulp, but she sipped it as quickly as she could bear, and soon Prince Doran was refilling her cup. Then, he turned slightly in his chair to face out over the balcony.
“I have always preferred the Water Gardens to anywhere else in Dorne,” he said. “A prince is always beset by problems, but I feel closer to the answers when I am here.”
A small flock of seagulls swooped onto the balcony all at once, alighting on the walls. A few hopped onto the marble terrace, hunting for crumbs.
“Like you,” Prince Doran continued, “I inherited the high seat of my house in the middle of a war. But I was a man of two-and-thirty already, married, with two children of my own. And unlike you, I was raised to rule. Indeed, I cannot remember a time when I was not aware that Dorne would pass to me after my mother’s death.”
He gave a small, humorless laugh. “Yet, it is a strange thing—when she died at last, I did not think to myself, I have been preparing for this moment for thirty years, I know what I must do. Instead, I thought, why had I not thirty years more? But it would have made no difference. Nothing could have prepared me for the moment when I learned that my sister had been raped and murdered, her children slaughtered like animals. When my mother heard the news, it brought on an apoplexy. She was confined to her bed for five months before she died, while I served as her regent. Avenging my sister ought to have been my mother’s task, but when she fell, it fell to me instead. And I…I was not prepared.”
His voice was thin, whispery, like the faint scratch of pen against parchment.
“I was all but undone by the death of my sister. But I had my home, and family, and a realm to care for besides. I could not waste away, or go mad. Duty would not permit it. My family would not permit it. Though we had lost Elia and her babes, we had each other. And we had…work to do.”
Sansa could think of nothing to say to this, so she was quiet.
“I grieve more for you than you can know, Sansa,” he continued, and there was a slightly rough quality to his voice that suggested the words were more than sentiment. “But it would be arrogance to attempt to offer you any counsel. My brother once suggested that you and I were in some ways alike, but it never seemed so to me. There is a strength in you that humbles me utterly. The griefs you have had to bear, the suffering that has been inflicted on you—in your place, I do not know that I could have survived it. I am old and have known my portion of heartache, but never have I been so alone as you have been. And now, this final blow, after everything else…”
Sansa’s heart began to beat fast. She felt Prince Doran’s words like they were a trembling deep in the earth that resonated up through her feet, her legs, all the way to the hollow place in her chest.
In King’s Landing, no one had cared what she suffered. There, the worst they could do to her was the least the daughter of traitors deserved. That she survived had earned her no praise, no esteem; she was a nuisance, and many people would doubtless have been relieved if she had thrown herself into the sea like Ashara Dayne. Yet here was the Prince of Dorne, professing himself humbled by her. His words could not comfort her for the deaths of her family—they were not meant to—but they stirred something else in her, some answering fierceness. All that he says is true, she thought. I am alive, when I should be dead. I have endured, as the wolves of winter endure.
She had no words for these thoughts, but she found herself watching Prince Doran more closely as he spoke.
“The day that you and Lord Tyrion came to dine with me in the Red Keep, I told you that you would be loved in Dorne,” he said. “I spoke more truly then than I knew. My younger nieces worship you, my daughter is more than passingly fond of you. Ellaria was prepared to die for you, and my brother looks upon you as if you were the earthly vessel of the Maiden’s own grace. Even his squires quarrel amongst themselves for the privilege of saddling your horse, while his knights vie for the honor of a place in your guard.” He paused. “I do not know how to comfort you on a day such as this, so I can only beg you. Let me not lose you to this grief, Sansa. Do not deprive us of another whom we love.”
Her mouth felt, abruptly, very dry. “My prince…” she said.
“Doran.” For the first time since Sansa sat at his table, Prince Doran looked at her over his shoulder. He smiled fleetingly. “You are the Lady of Winterfell now. You must call me by my name. In private, at least.”
“I…I shall try, if that is your wish.”
“It is.” He turned away again. “The day may still come when you are wed to Quentyn. Before I left for King’s Landing, he set out for the Free Cities, to honor a betrothal contract that was made in secret many years ago. But the lady is in ignorance of the promises made between her family and ours. She was orphaned when she was only a babe, and since then she has had many homes, many guardians. It may be that she is already wed to another—or that she will refuse my son, since he is a stranger to her. If this should be the case, and Quentyn should return to Dorne unwed, he will be yours. Assuming you still wish for the marriage, after the deception I practiced on you.”
Sansa was grateful that Doran was not looking at her. His words made her feel a stab of longing that pierced the numb shell encasing her heart. She had never spoken of it, but she had been heartbroken when Arianne confessed that her betrothal to Prince Quentyn was only a ruse. Dorne had seemed such a beautiful place, its people so good and kind… She had not been here for very long before she knew that, short of Robb appearing to whisk her back to Winterfell, her best chance of happiness in this world was to marry Quentyn, so that she might remain close to Oberyn and Ellaria and Doran, always. She had wept in secret for a week after Arianne finally told her the truth.
“Why should she refuse him?” Sansa said quietly. “He is a prince of Dorne. And…everyone says that he is just like you. She would be a fool to turn him away.”
Doran grew very still for a moment.
“Yes,” he said softly. “He can offer her Dorne. That is not nothing.”
Seated in his chair, staring down over the courtyards and pools and terraces of the Water Gardens, Doran seemed immobile as a statue. But it struck Sansa, suddenly, that such restraint did not come naturally to him. Doran might have never been so passionate as Oberyn, but once upon a time, he had no doubt laughed and smiled and frowned as freely as any other man. The manners which made him seem so remote and regal—his inscrutable mien, his unreadable looks—they were nothing more than tricks he had learned, to help him rule. In King’s Landing, Sansa too had learned to smile when she was bid, not when she wanted to. Perhaps that was why she recognized the same in him. There was a longing in Doran when he spoke of Quentyn’s marrying this other lady—a longing that Sansa knew he had not meant to betray.
“This lady must be of great importance to you, or you would not have sent Prince Quentyn so far with so little surety of success.” She would never have said so much, had she not felt a strange need to offer Doran comfort. “I pray that he meets with good fortune.”
“Do you?” There was a hint of curiosity in his voice.
“I would not wish to interfere with a betrothal of such long standing merely to secure my own place here.”
Doran took the wheels of his chair in his hands and turned himself around. The action betrayed an agitation that his expression concealed.
“Your place in Dorne is not dependent on the outcome of Quentyn’s venture.” His voice was sharper than usual, his eyes bright. “I took you from King’s Landing, Sansa. The responsibility I bear for you will not end until my death. Dorne is your home. Will you not be persuaded?”
Sansa opened her mouth, but no reply came. She felt helpless under the intensity of his gaze, uncertain what manner of reassurance he required. I love Dorne, she wanted to say, but I am of Winterfell.
“Never mind.” Doran shook his head, a small twitch of dismissal. Sansa thought he looked wearier than he had a moment before. “The gods know how many times I have failed you already since you came into my keeping. I will not ask you to trust me. All of Westeros will soon have reason to know how precious you are in the eyes of Dorne.”
Was it only an hour ago that Sansa had felt numb, within and without? That had changed; Doran’s words sent a frisson of alarm down her spine.
“I do not understand,” she said.
“The insult the King has offered you will be answered.” Doran averted his gaze once more, but not before Sansa saw the muscle twitching in his jaw. “My brother, my daughter, and I were closeted together all this morning, discussing the ways and means of it.”
“Insult? But Robb, my mother, they died because they were at war, did they not?” Sansa’s voice grew faint. “Do—do you mean to say that I was somehow the cause of—”
“No.” Doran’s head snapped around. “No, Sansa. That is not what I meant.”
She stared at him, afraid to let herself to be convinced.
“Your brother was betrayed to his death because he was unstoppable in open battle, and there are certain people who will sink to any depths in order to achieve their ends.” He looked down at his lap, as though he needed the moment to collect himself. “I was referring to the King’s letter.”
Sansa shook her head, still uncomprehending.
“Joffrey deceived me,” said Doran quietly. “He sent a raven to Sunspear under a false warrant, for no purpose save to convey to you the news of your family’s deaths in the cruelest manner imaginable. I warned Lord Tyrion what would happen. When Joffrey attempted to kill you, I told his uncle. Restrain the King by whatever means necessary, for if he should strike at her a second time, I will not stay my hand.”
He sighed, long and loud. “Lord Tyrion has grown distracted, I think. Stannis Baratheon will take King’s Landing soon, if the Tyrell hosts do not come his aid. He is negotiating the terms of their assistance even now, as I understand it.”
“Then…he will be especially sorry to learn that you are angry with him, I am sure,” said Sansa, carefully. Their conversation had taken a sudden turn into deep waters, and she was unsure whether she was truly meant to hear all that Doran was saying.
“He will be even less pleased when he learns that the Tyrells can spare less than half the men he needs for the defense of the city.”
Sansa blinked at the back of his head. “You…know this?” she ventured. “Though the negotiations have not concluded?”
“I know it,” he said. “Indeed, I have ensured it.”
The terse reply made her stomach clench.
“You need not worry for your friends in King’s Landing.” Doran waved a hand. “Joffrey will keep his throne for the present. The full might of the Tyrell host will appear just as all hope seems to be lost. They shall be heroes—the deliverers of the city. And since Lord Tywin’s armies are still beset by Lord Renly’s host in the Riverlands…let us say, every lion will soon wear a wreathe of roses round their necks. Mace Tyrell will become the King’s Hand, his daughter Lady Margaery will become queen, and soon his son and heir Lord Willas will take a seat upon the Small Council. Lord Willas, you may be interested to hear, is one of Oberyn’s dearest friends. Oberyn set out for Highgarden less than an hour ago, to discuss all these weighty matters with him face to face.”
Sansa stared blankly as Doran poured more tea into Sansa’s cup. She understood less than half of what Doran had just told her, and she did not see what any of it had to do with her, or with Joffrey’s letter. But she did not know if he wanted her to ask, or if she was meant to make do with hints and allusions.
Her mouth felt dry. She drank the tepid tea.
“Lady Margaery’s betrothal to Joffrey was all but sealed by the time I left the capital. Lord Tyrell certainly did not let the grass grow beneath his feet. You had scarcely set sail with Oberyn before Lady Margaery was produced in the city and paraded to advantage before everyone’s eyes. She is within a year or so of your age. Oberyn assures me that her brothers are most devoted to her.”
“If they were truly devoted to her, they would never allow her to marry Joffrey.” The bitter words slipped out before Sansa could stop them.
“And that,” said Doran, his voice suddenly low, as though he feared being overheard, “is why Oberyn has gone to see Willas. He carries with him certain proposals—and the letter that Joffrey wrote to you.”
Sansa felt her face grow hot, though she did not know why. Nothing that Joffrey had written her would remain secret for long—especially the part about Robb and his direwolf. She certainly hadn’t wanted to keep the letter.
“You are troubled,” said Doran. It was the first question he had asked her since she sat at his table.
“Prince Oberyn will tell Lord Willas that Joffrey—that I—”
“He will tell them only enough to ensure that they understand the peril their sister will be in should she marry the King.” Doran voice, stern at first, softened gradually. “He will not shame you, nor expose you to strangers. The least of the injuries Joffrey inflicted upon you is reason enough for Willas to break the betrothal.”
“But you said that Lady Margaery will become—”
“Oberyn will persuade Willas to let the betrothal stand. If the Tyrells do not commit their armies to the defense of King’s Landing, the city will be taken by Stannis Baratheon. And I would rather see the Iron Throne occupied by Jaime Lannister’s bastards than by the brother of the man who stepped over the bodies of my niece and nephew to take his crown.” Doran grimaced, a brief, painful spasm. “There is also Myrcella to consider. If Stannis becomes king, he will demand that I break Trystane’s betrothal to her, and denounce her as a bastard born of incest. I am most unwilling to do that. Myrcella is a sweet, brave child, and Trystane is exceedingly fond of her. I am determined to have her for my good daughter.”
“You wish to help the Tyrells gain power in King’s Landing…so you might protect Myrcella?” Sansa felt a flaring of warmth, and she could not tell whether it was jealousy or not. “But Lady Margaery will still have to marry Joffrey.” Myrcella will remain a princess, but Margaery will become a prisoner.
“Sansa.” Doran pushed his chair closer to hers and laid his hand upon her arm. Either he was very warm, or she was chilled through, because his touch burned like a brand. “You are the most compassionate of souls. Do not fear for Lady Margaery. She will never suffer as you have suffered. I have told you: her family will not permit it. House Tyrell is prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure Margaery’s safety once she is Queen.”
The silence stretched out between them for so long that it began to feel like a dare. Doran was meeting Sansa’s wide-eyed gaze evenly, waiting for something—waiting to see whether Sansa understood.
No. He was waiting to see whether or not she would admit that she understood.
He has spoken treason to me, she realized, nearly startled by how little that alarmed her. In doing so, he has given me a weapon. He is waiting to see if I will give it back to him.
Sansa drained her cup of tea. When it was empty, she stared down at the table. Soon, words came tumbling out of her—words she’d once believed she was incapable of speaking.
“Joffrey ordered me to court a few weeks after he beheaded my father,” she said quietly. “I had been alone in my room all the while, crying, sleeping, not eating. It took two of the Kingsguard and Joffrey himself to force me out of my chambers. All so I could stand in Great Hall and listen to Joffrey mock the smallfolk who had come to hear his judgment.”
As soon as she mentioned the Great Hall, it was as if she were there again, gazing up at the light streaming through the high mullioned windows, trying to ignore all the eyes that gazed on her in turn. She was acutely conscious, suddenly, that her scars were on display, even if no one was standing behind her to see them.
“Afterwards, I tried to slip away quietly, but Joffrey was waiting for me. He made me climb to the very top of the battlements with him. He said he had a surprise for me.” She had expected her voice to tremble, but it didn’t. “I didn’t know the Red Keep so well back then, so I didn’t understand where he was taking me at first. Then…I saw them. My father, my septa, all the men who came with us from Winterfell. Their heads were covered in tar and rotting on spikes.”
She had changed, Sansa realized. Reading Joffrey’s letter had changed her. That was why she could speak of this so calmly. She wasn’t afraid anymore, because she had nothing left to lose. And Doran…there was something about Doran that made her want to be honest with him. She did not think she could say anything that would shock or much surprise him.
“It wasn’t quite as horrible as I’d imagined,” she continued, curling her hand in her lap. “I didn’t want to look at first—Ser Meryn forced me to turn my head. But when I did see them, all I could think was that they didn’t look like themselves. They didn’t even look real. I barely recognized Father.”
Sansa looked out through the balcony windows, conscious of Doran’s steady, patient gaze bearing down on her. His hand lay upon her arm still, and she found she was glad of it.
“The walkway was only sturdy enough for two people, so Sandor and Ser Meryn had to wait at the other end while Joffrey made me approach. There was no rope, nothing to hold onto…nothing to stop someone from falling. I started to feel so strange. Joffrey had ordered Ser Meryn to strike me earlier, but I wasn’t in pain anymore. I wasn’t afraid, I was just…empty. And then…then, I think, I started to reach for Joffrey. I…I told myself I was going to push him, but really…I think I was going to pull him down with me.” Her voice fell to a whisper, as the memories surged into her head, sharp and bright. “Sandor stopped me. He didn’t say anything, but he stopped me. I…often wished he hadn’t.”
“I am glad that he did,” said Doran, his voice rough. “I am glad you did not fall that day.”
“It would have been worth it. To kill him.”
It was strange—she had lived so long under the mantel of having traitor’s blood, she had grown sensitive to the slightest nuances of every word that passed between her lips, lest someone read treachery in a single false syllable. Yet here she sat, confessing treason frankly to the Prince of Dorne, and her only feeling was relief.
Doran’s grip on her arm tightened. Startled, Sansa looked up.
“Your life is much too valuable to throw away on such as Joffrey,” he said softly. “Besides, maidens under my protection need not do their own killing. That is their prince’s duty.”
Sansa shivered abruptly. He was not her prince, nor could he ever be—not now. The Lady of Winterfell could not swear fealty to the Prince of Dorne. Not unless she renounced her claim.
The Boltons hold Winterfell, whispered a voice at the back of her head. Your claim is empty. All you have are three wells in the Prince’s Pass. As a landed lady in Dorne, Prince Doran is your rightful liege. You only have to acknowledge it.
“When will Prince Oberyn return from Highgarden?” she asked instead.
Last night, when it felt as though she were collapsing into a pile of parts like a broken doll, Oberyn had held her so tightly that, for a time, he had felt like the only stable thing in the world. His absence would not be easy to bear; already, she felt the ground beneath her tilting again.
“Soon. Within the fortnight. He will not tarry in Highgarden, for it would not do if he were seen there. Last night we discussed sending a raven—but Arianne pointed out that it would be wisest to commit nothing to parchment.”
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Sansa pulled her arm away. Doran released her without comment, and she folded her arms against her stomach.
“Have you other questions?” he asked mildly.
Sansa nearly shook her head. Then she thought of something. “Do…do you expect to hear from Prince Quentyn soon?”
Doran’s smile was pained. “No.” The smiled faded into thoughtfulness. “Would you be married to Quentyn, then? Despite the trick I played you? You would be well within your rights to spurn us for that.”
“I would never do that,” she said quickly. “I…I do not know your son. But I love his family well. And…if he is as much like you as everyone says, then it might not feel so much like marrying a stranger.”
She meant her final words as a jest, but Doran gazed at her without a hint of humor in his expression.
“You are my ward, Sansa,” he said quietly. “You will always be family.”
But until I am married, someone will always wish to take me away from you. She could not say the words aloud. He blamed himself for Ser Gerold, she knew; he might think she was reproaching him.
“It is kind of you to say so,” she said, and for the first time since last night, she felt tears knotting her throat. “Under the circumstances.”
“No,” said Doran. “It is no kindness. It is…necessary.”
Sansa had no idea what he meant, but she burst into tears anyway. This time, when Doran reached for her hand, she did not pull away.
Content warnings: descriptions of mutilated corpses.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Oberyn was still in the Boneway, having lathered his horses in his haste to return home from the Reach, when he learned that Doran and most of his court had lately moved from the Water Gardens to the palace of Sunspear. Oberyn was just as glad to know this, since he would be able to shave an hour off his journey, and every hour was precious. But it was not until he reached the very gates of the Old Palace that he learned why Doran’s court had moved.
Oberyn hastened from the stables to bathe and change out of his dusty, sweat-stained traveling clothes before making for the room at the base of the Sun Tower that Doran used as his solar on the increasingly rare occasions when he was in the palace. Halfway there, he encountered Daemon Sand, who greeted him with surprise.
“My prince,” he said. “You made good time. We did not look for you until tomorrow or the day after.”
Daemon had not been included in the small circle of people who were informed of Oberyn’s destination, or the purpose of his journey. Only Doran, Arianne, and Sansa knew of that, and even Arianne and Sansa did not know all. But Daemon knew enough of Oberyn’s character, and Sansa’s situation, to make educated guesses. The path Oberyn had traveled might have led him to Oldtown, or Highgarden, or King’s Landing. But he had not been gone long enough to have visited King’s Landing, and there was nothing pressing enough to take him to Oldtown at this time.
Daemon also knew of Oberyn’s friendship with Willas Tyrell; it was the secret buried at the heart of Dorne’s supposed feud with the Reach. Centuries of past warfare between the two kingdoms was easily set aside by more enlightened individuals in the name of peace—but a prince of Dorne crippling the heir to Highgarden in a joust was not so easily forgotten. Everyone knew how much Mace Tyrell and Olenna Redwyne loathed the Red Viper. Few, however, knew what great pains Oberyn had taken to cultivate Willas after the accident. As far as the Lannisters, or indeed the rest of Westeros was concerned, there was nothing but enmity between Sunspear and Highgarden. Both Willas and Oberyn preferred it that way.
“I did my best,” Oberyn grinned. “Is my brother within?” He nodded in the general direction of the solar.
“No—had you not heard? An emissary from King’s Landing is just arrived. He is making his way up from the lower ward as we speak. Had you come through the front gates you would have seen him for yourself. Lady Sansa and Prince Doran and all the court are gathered outside the palace doors to meet him.”
“Sansa is meeting the King’s emissary?” Oberyn barked, unable to contain his incredulity. White heat lanced his chest like a lightning bolt, though whether it was from fear or anger or both, he could not have said. “What in the seven hells is Doran about? She should have been kept at the Water Gardens! To bring her face to face with Joffrey’s errand boy, after all that has—!”
Oberyn sputtered into silence, tugging his hair in frustration. Daemon coughed apologetically.
“Begging your pardon,” he said. “But it was all Lady Sansa’s doing. I registered my protest, believe me. I took personal command of Lady Sansa’s guard detachment after your departure. These past nine days, her well-being has been my only concern. I told Prince Doran plainly that I feared this meeting would only do her harm.” Daemon hesitated. “But it is said that the emissary bears with him Robb Stark’s bones. Sansa told me herself that she was determined to receive them with her own hands. She would not be dissuaded.”
Oberyn’s jaw dropped, but only for a second before he turned away. “Stubborn, self-sacrificial—”
He stopped himself before saying nonsense. It was not nonsense. Or least, no more so than when he insisted on gazing upon Elia’s wasted remains with his own eyes after Jon Arryn returned her to Sunspear.
Of course Sansa would permit no one else to perform this duty in her place. Of course she would willingly suffer every pain and indignity Joffrey hoped to inflict on her through his intermediaries for the chance to lay her brother to rest.
If Oberyn had been here only a few days ago, he might have managed to persuade Sansa to spare herself this ordeal. But he’d arrived too late for that, and now could only be grateful that he had not missed the occasion entirely.
“They are gathered now, you say?” Oberyn said, glancing himself over. “Well, at least I had the chance to bathe.”
Daemon followed Oberyn as he doubled back towards the palace doors at a swift clip. When he pushed past the guards, he was greeted by a sea of backs. Daemon had not been exaggerating when he said that all the court had gathered to receive the King’s emissary.
Oberyn felt a stirring of fierce pride in his countrymen—and behind it, a faint sense of misgiving. Of course, Dorne must be seen to be united. Especially since it was Sansa they were uniting behind. Yet did not such a display of strength betray the very vulnerability it was meant to conceal? Only those who felt themselves to be in danger surrounded themselves with so many friends and allies. Granted, this show of Dornish might was almost certainly Doran’s doing, not Sansa’s, and as such it reflected his brother’s protectiveness, more than Sansa’s insecurity. But Oberyn could not help wondering how Joffrey—or his council—would feel about it when their emissary reported back to them.
Yet, Doran was right to be protective. If Oberyn’s visit to Highgarden had proven one thing to him, it was that Sansa would be in danger until her position in Dorne was regularized. Too many people wanted her. Roose Bolton, Tywin Lannister—even Willas wanted her. Willas had been a suitor of Lady Sansa’s once, Oberyn had discovered, albeit a suitor who never had the chance to make his case to the lady he wished to court. No sooner had Eddard Stark lost his head than Mace Tyrell had guessed that Joffrey’s betrothal to Sansa must soon end. It had seemed to the Fat Flower that the heiress of Winterfell would make a fine match for the heir to Highgarden—almost as fine a match as that of the Rose of Highgarden to the King.
Willas had resisted his father’s urging to press his suit on Sansa at first, on the grounds that Sansa was but one-and-ten at the time—a proper age to be matched with a boy of three-and-ten, supposing that boy were anyone but Joffrey, but a precarious match for a man of seven-and-twenty. Willas had only changed his mind after his father convinced him that Tywin Lannister was not above marrying Sansa himself in hopes of producing a less disappointing heir than the three he currently had on his hands. Willas trusted the Lannisters no more than Oberyn did, so rather than stand idly by while her future rested in their hands, he had given his father license to make inquiries about Sansa on his behalf.
Willas had received more than earful of secondhand gossip about Sansa’s beauty, her gracious nature, and her quiet forbearance under Joffrey’s abuses. Everyone in the capital knew something about it now, thanks to the gossip which Doran’s people had made a point of spreading about King’s Landing. Willas had come to feel quite tenderhearted and solicitous towards Sansa—or at least, whatever notion of Sansa had taken root in his imagination. It had apparently come as something of a disappointment to him when Doran whisked Sansa out of the city before Highgarden could begin to make any formal inquiries on the subject of her marriage.
Whatever jealousy or discomfort Oberyn felt listening to his old friend as he told this tale was beside the point. What mattered was that Willas’s lingering feelings of tenderness for Sansa had made him swift to believe all that Oberyn had come to tell him of her sufferings in King’s Landing. Lady Margaery had already prepared the ground. She had written to Willas of dark rumors that the King had inflicted some sort of grave brutality on Sansa after he learned that their betrothal was ended. Willas perfectly willing to believe the worst of his sister’s husband-to-be—and persuading him to become party to the plans Doran had devised to keep Sansa safe and remove the Lannisters from power in all but name had been child’s play as a result.
But an additional wrinkle had unfolded during their talks, one Oberyn had not anticipated. It was of the utmost importance that he speak with his brother in private, and soon. First, however, he must join the grim ceremony that was taking place outside and do what he could to see Sansa through it.
Oberyn made his way down the broad sandstone steps, courteously excusing himself as he jostled elbows. Soon heads were turning in his direction; whispers of recognition fluttered through the crowd, and courtiers began parting to make way for him.
At the bottom of the stairs was a smaller crowd, composed of familiar and beloved faces—his brother, his niece, Ellaria, four of his own daughters. But Oberyn had scarcely registered their appearance before he found his eyes riveted on the vision that stood just slightly ahead of all the rest, as proud and still as the carved figure on a ship’s masthead.
Sansa was dressed from head to toe in the purest, finest white silk Oberyn had ever seen. Her gown was cut in the Northern style, with full dagged sleeves lined in a silk of such light grey that it shone silver in the sunlight. The gown had a high back and a low bodice, but the silks themselves were Dornish, light enough that the hem of her skirts, and her long, semi-transparent veil, fluttered in the breeze. The veil obscured her hair and face from view entirely. Around her waist she wore a silver belt, engraved with the direwolf of House Stark. A silver circlet—hers to wear by rights now that she was Lady of Winterfell—adorned the top of the white veil like a crown.
Sansa did not appear to notice Oberyn as he made his wary way towards her. Her back was straight as an arrow, her gaze trained down at the gate, searching for signs of activity. She seemed to see no one and nothing else.
Had Oberyn not been expecting to find Sansa here, he doubted he would have recognized her. This cold, resolute maid, adorned in the mourning splendor of her house, aroused every courtly instinct he possessed. He found himself wanting to kneel before her. She looked like something more than a pretty maid of three-and-ten in a fine gown; like something more, even, than a great lady who occupied the high seat of an ancient House. She looked…regal. There was no other word for it.
By now, everyone in Doran’s court certainly knew how Robb Stark had died, how the news of his death had been conveyed to Sansa, and the grisly nature of the gift that the King had promised to send her. The emissary probably had no expectation of ever laying eyes on Sansa herself—he would expect to hear that she was locked in her chamber, weeping her heart out onto the pillows. That, at least, is what Oberyn would expect, in his place. Instead, the emissary would find her standing before him, every aspect of her appearance calculated to remind onlookers that she was not merely Robb Stark’s sister—she was his heir.
But was she claiming Winterfell, or something more than that? The subtext of this display seemed entirely—and intentionally—ambiguous.
Suddenly, a horn blew at the bottom of the stairs. The gates opened. A small retinue began to wind its way up to the courtyard: led by a knight of the Kingsguard in a dusty white cloak, it otherwise consisted of no more than four common-looking pallbearers, probably Dornishmen hired from the docks in Planky Town, carrying a rough wooden box on a litter.
Oberyn was standing closer to Sansa than anyone else. Doran was some paces behind and above her, while Oberyn was only a few feet off to her side—like a guard, though without a guard’s self-effacing mien. So it was probably only Oberyn who heard Sansa’s sharp intake of breath as the emissary’s retinue drew closer.
He assumed the obvious at first. Her brother was in that box, or what was left of him. Anyone would gasp at such a sight. But then, Oberyn remembered the last time he had stood with Sansa on the steps of the Old Palace, the day that Doran had returned from King’s Landing with Princess Myrcella in tow. At first Oberyn had thought it was the little princess herself who had made Sansa look so fearful. Then, he had realized that her gaze was riveted on Arys Oakheart in his white cloak.
Which sworn brother of the Kingsguard was it who now stood at the head of Robb Stark’s cortege? Doran himself had said that the only one of Joffrey’s knights who had never paid insult to Sansa was Sandor Clegane. And this short, round, red-faced little knight was certainly not the famous Hound.
Oberyn watched the knight’s jaw drop slightly as he came to stand before the white-clad figure that awaited him. A trickle of sweat rolled from his forehead to his chin.
“I…seek Prince Doran,” he said weakly.
Sansa was silent.
“I am Doran,” said a low voice from behind her.
Doran was standing on his own two feet for once, albeit with the aid of a cane. Even Oberyn had to admit that he made an impressively magisterial figure, with his embroidered robes, coronet, and impassive expression.
“As I understand it, you come bearing the nameday gift which King Joffrey promised to Lady Stark in his recent letter,” Doran continued, his voice cool. “Lady Stark stands before you. She awaits your presentation.”
The knight recoiled sharply. He looked up at the figure in white, then made a hasty, belated bow. “Forgive me, my lady,” he said. “The veil—I did not know you.”
“Did you not?” Sansa’s voice was hollow. “It has not been so very long since we saw each other last, Ser Meryn. Indeed, you saw so much of me in King’s Landing that I wonder that you could forget. I could not forget you, ser. Not if I tried.”
Oberyn’s hand was curled around the hilt of his dagger before he was conscious of having moved. Ser Meryn. Meryn Trant. Joffrey had sent as his emissary to Dorne none other than the man who had stripped Sansa bare in the Great Hall and beaten her tender flesh with the flat of his sword until she was so wounded she could not walk. Doran had seen him perform the brutal act; Oberyn had seen the wounds he had inflicted on Sansa with his own eyes. With two such witnesses to speak against him, Meryn Trant was doomed. Even Joffrey cannot be stupid enough to imagine that Meryn Trant, having come to Dorne, will escape with his life, Oberyn told himself. One can only assume that the King wishes to free one of his white cloaks for redistribution.
Even as the bloody haze of wrath descended over his vision, Sansa recaptured his attention. She walked towards Ser Meryn, then past him, as though he were not there. If she were repulsed, or afraid of him—and Oberyn thought she must be—she gave no outward sign of it.
Oberyn had never before heard her speak, to anyone, as she had just spoken to Meryn Trant. She still flinched when giving requests (never orders) to servants. Never before had she sounded so cold, so forthright, when alluding to the tortures she had suffered under Joffrey. It was not a subject she spoke of lightly, or at all. If Oberyn had not been forced to gaze upon the field of war that was Sansa’s body after the King had finished with it, he might never have known that Joffrey had ever lifted a hand to her.
Yet here she stood, steady as a rock, not three inches from the man who beaten her half to death not six months ago. Ser Meryn, by contrast, was shifting his weight from foot to foot, as if he needed to piss. Perhaps the true precariousness of his position in Dorne had only just dawned on him.
“Prince Oberyn,” said Sansa, in a voice so low that Oberyn felt as if she spoken in his ear.
Instantly, he strode to her side, deliberately standing in front the knight, blocking Sansa’s view of him. “How may I serve you, Lady Stark?” he said.
“I would have the casket opened.”
Oberyn longed to take her in his arms and beg her not to do this. Robb Stark and his mother had both been mutilated after their deaths. Who knew what horrors the casket might contain?
But then Sansa turned her head and looked up at him. Her veil was so thin and fine that if she had been weeping, the cloth would have been damp. But it was as dry and light as the clouds in the blue sky overhead.
Oberyn looked down into Ser Meryn’s purpling face and willed him to read death in his eyes. “Dismiss the pallbearers,” he commanded. “My brother will see them fed and pay them well for their trouble.”
The pallbearers—they were Dornish, Oberyn had been right—did not wait for Ser Meryn to repeat the order. Gently, they lowered the litter to the ground, then excused themselves, backing away and bowing. Oberyn, Meryn Trant, and Sansa were left alone before the casket, with Doran and all his court gazing down upon them.
Sansa rested her hand briefly upon the rough, unfinished pinewood lid. She knelt for a moment in a graceful pool of white silks, like a nesting swan. Then she rose again and stepped aside.
“Open it,” Oberyn told Meryn Trant.
If he had been purple before, Ser Meryn was now positively blue. Obviously, he’d never expected to take responsibility for this portion of the boy king’s macabre little show. But both Oberyn and Sansa gazed at him fixedly, until, swearing silently under his breath, Ser Meryn turned to the casket and began prying the cheap nails out of the wood with the blade of his dagger.
As soon as he drew the knife from its sheathe, Sansa gave a shudder. Oberyn was only able to detect it because he was standing so close to her that his arm was pressed against hers. His head jerked around, studying Sansa closely. Had this soiled knight ever hurt her with that dagger, he wondered? According to Doran, the Kingsguard had used swords and mailed fists against her—why not a dagger as well?
He took a deep breath in an effort to slow his racing heart. Then he tucked Sansa’s arm into his and angled his body forward ever so slightly, attempting to communicate as well as he could, without words, that even if Meryn Trant were mad enough to turn his weapon against her now, all that would happen was that he would die a little earlier than Oberyn had been planning on. Sansa was safe. She would always be safe, so long as Oberyn was near.
When Ser Meryn had loosened all the nails, he gave the lid of the casket a tug. The thin wooden board cracked slightly as he pulled it free. To Oberyn’s relief, there was no overwhelming stench of decay. The Silent Sisters, at least, had been permitted to do their duty by Robb Stark before he was dispatched from the Riverlands.
Gingerly, Sansa let go of Oberyn’s arm. He wanted to reach for her when she began to walk away from him, but instead he watched helplessly as she stood for a long time, gazing down at her brother’s corpse. After more than a minute passed, however, Oberyn could no longer restrain himself. He stepped up to join her. And then the loudest oath he had ever uttered burst from his lips before he could restrain it.
Joffrey had been telling the truth about the direwolf head. It was indeed sewn to Robb Stark’s body. Furthermore, the arrows which had pierced his chest were piled atop him like an insult, their shafts dark with old blood. Worse than this—if worse was possible—Robb Stark’s head lay at his feet, as though it had been tossed in at the last, a mere afterthought.
Sansa was as motionless and rigid as a marble column beside him. It was Oberyn who was trembling now. Every time he blinked, he seemed to see Elia’s shriveled bones lying before him. But Elia, at least, had been borne home in state, her body cared for as tenderly as if she had yet been living. The men who had carried her had played no direct role in her death, and both had expressed grief and abhorrence at her murder,
What would Oberyn have done if Elia had been returned to his family in a pile of broken pieces, her babes tumbled at her feet like rubbish? He certainly would not have been able to stand there, projecting only blank dignity at the man who had produced them in such condition. But Sansa was clever; she knew perfectly well that every aspect of this display, from her brother’s body to Meryn Trant’s presence, was meant to drive her mad with grief and fear. Ser Meryn, no doubt, had been given strict orders to observe all that Sansa said and did and report back to Joffrey in detail. Sansa was defying him. Even in the midst of devastating grief, she had enough presence of mind to deny Joffrey his sick pleasures.
She was stronger than Oberyn had ever been, and his admiration for her was boundless. But still he lusted to avenge her.
Joffrey shall pay, Oberyn vowed silently. He shall shed heart’s blood for this. He will die in such pain that his face will be as unrecognizable to his family as is the face of the boy in this box.
“May I have the use of your dagger, Prince Oberyn?” Sansa said, jolting him from his reverie.
Oberyn’s hand, which had scarcely left the dagger’s hilt since first he clapped eyes on Ser Meryn, tightened convulsively. It was on the tip of his tongue to refuse her. What if she plunged the dagger into her own heart? What if she plunged it into Ser Meryn’s? If it was the latter she desired, Oberyn would spare her the chore, and gladly. If it were the former…
Sansa, sensing his reluctance, held out her hand. Reluctantly, Oberyn drew the dagger and presented it to her over his arm.
“Thank you.” Sansa took the dagger, and knelt once more at the foot of her brother’s coffin. For a heart-stopping instant, Oberyn thought she really did mean to slay herself. Her brother’s bones would soak up her life’s blood, like some ancient, savage sacrifice meant to restore the dead to life.
Instead, she took her brother’s head between her two hands and gazed at it for a long while. She pressed a kiss to the grey, slack flesh of his lips. Then, with Oberyn’s knife, she severed a lock of his long auburn hair. It was similar in color to Sansa’s, but darker, a brown that shone red in the light.
Sansa leaned forward. Oberyn thought at first that she was taking a cutting from her brother’s bloodstained doublet. Then, she came away with a hank of long, thick, smoke-grey fur, cut from the thick pelt at the base of the direwolf’s head.
Holding the fur and the hair in one hand and the knife in the other, Sansa rose slowly. Then she looked to her left. A maid—one of Sansa’s own handmaidens, Oberyn thought—emerged from the crowd, holding a lacquered box on an embroidered cushion.
The maid opened the lid, and Sansa placed her mementoes inside the box. The maid curtseyed, then vanished back into the crowd. Still holding the dagger, Sansa turned around. Meryn Trant backed up a pace, as though the sight of her bearing a weapon was a vision from his worst nightmares.
“Those who mutilated the bodies of my brother and his direwolf sought to humiliate them both,” she said, her voice clear and steady. “But they were mistaken. It is as King Joffrey said. Robb Stark and Grey Wind were one in life. And in battle. Now they will be one in death. As their souls were joined, so their dust will mingle.”
Sansa’s voice faltered ever so slightly at the end of her speech. When she kept her back turned to the casket, Oberyn realized that she had done all that she had intended to do, and was now waiting for others to take over.
“Close it,” Oberyn said. Then he reached out and gently took his dagger back from Sansa’s hand, squeezing her wrist as he did so. After he returned the knife to his belt, he slipped his hand into Sansa’s. She did not pull away from him.
Meryn Trant stepped forward, awkwardly wrestling the lid with its bent nails back atop the box. When it was done, Oberyn jerked his head to the side, and glared until Ser Meryn paced sideways, out of view.
Oberyn took two steps forward and positioned himself next to one of the litter poles. He turned to face the crowd, looking expectantly up at the sea of faces. No less than a second later, Obara was pushing her way forward. She took up the place beside him, next to the second pole. Moments after that, Trystane and Daemon emerged from the crowd to join them, taking up their rear poles. At Oberyn’s command, the four of them knelt and hoisted the casket containing the bones of the King in the North onto their shoulders.
Sansa stared at Oberyn for a long moment, clearly stunned by the gesture. A moment later, she recovered herself, and began to climb the wide sandstone steps. Oberyn and the litter followed her closely. As they climbed higher, Oberyn noticed that Doran, Arianne, and her cousins were making up the rear of the procession. The rest of the assembled court were hastily making up their minds whether to slip away quietly or follow at a distance.
Oberyn had not been thinking ahead when he made himself a part of this ceremony, but Sansa, at least, knew precisely where she was going. She led them directly to the sept. There, a table, draped in a white embroidered cloth, was waiting to receive the casket. And a septon, bearing the Stranger’s censor aloft as it billowed its sweet smoke, was waiting to bless the bones of the man inside it.
When Sansa knelt at the foot of the shrine to the Seven, Oberyn knelt beside her. Tyene joined them next, then Ellaria, then all the rest of Oberyn’s family. Doran, who had transitioned back to his rolling chair, joined them last.
Glancing around him, Oberyn saw that his family, in their reds and oranges, had fanned out on either side of Sansa like two wings of flame, while Sansa knelt at their center like a white dove. It was improper, even perverse, but suddenly Oberyn imagined himself kneeling here next to Sansa on a very different sort of occasion. Sansa would still be clad in the white and grey of her father’s house, but Oberyn would be waiting with a sun-and-spear embroidered cloak to throw over her shoulders.
The septon was mid-way through his invocation when Sansa’s entire body gave a sudden jerk. She clapped a hand to her chest, as though suddenly stricken by a great pain. She made no sound, but Oberyn did not hesitate to wrap an arm around her waist and pull her close to his side.
The last time he had seen Sansa, she had been a heartbeat away from taking a fatal dose of potion. The gods alone knew what she had suffered in the time he had been absent. He could not fathom how she had found the strength that her carried her through this day so far; he only knew that it was nearing the end of its limits.
All Oberyn wanted—all Oberyn had ever wanted from Sansa—was to be with her when the storm clouds broke, that he might comfort and shelter her to the best of his ability. Now, it was plain to him, if it had not been plain before, that he wanted to carry out this duty for the rest of his life.
Even as the septon waved his smoke over Robb Stark’s body, Oberyn wondered how much longer the ceremony would last. He must speak with Doran, or sooner or later his impetuosity would get the better of him and he would end up saying things he should not say to Sansa.
Not yet, at least.
There was a funeral feast after Robb Stark’s body had been interred in the vaults, but Sansa excused herself to her rooms before it began. Ellaria, to Oberyn’s great relief, followed after her. With Sansa not in attendance, there was no obligation for either Doran or Oberyn to attend the feast, so they didn’t. Instead, they repaired to the solar, where their conversation began almost before Oberyn had finished shutting the door.
“I intend to kill Meryn Trant. We should decide now upon a story that will explain his death satisfactorily to the King’s council.”
Oberyn stared at his brother for so long that Doran frowned at him in concern. “You appear confused,” Doran said. “Perhaps you are overtired from your journey?”
“Forgive me,” said Oberyn. “I simply was not expecting the first words out of your mouth to be the first that were going to come out of mine.”
Doran’s eyebrows flew to his thinning hairline. “Did you think you would need to beg me for this man’s death? This man, who—may I remind you, you were not the one who witnessed him—”
Doran’s head jerked. He began turning his chair to face the balcony, as though eager to conceal his expression from Oberyn’s scrutiny.
“Sansa and I spoke much in your absence,” he said, his tone deceptively mild. “On many topics. Her time in King’s Landing was one of them.” He drummed his fingers tightly against the arm of his chair. “If it were any of his sworn brothers, then, perhaps, I could turn a blind eye—at least until after our friends in Highgarden receive their due. But not this one. The things Sansa has told me of him—no. He shall never leave Dorne. My mind is made up.”
Oberyn could not decide whether he was delighted by the emergence of this sudden, uncharacteristically murderous streak in his placid brother, or disappointed that his own vengeance would have to take second place to his brother’s. Primogeniture had certain privileges, after all.
“You avenged Sansa the last time,” Oberyn pointed out, with forced lightness. “You might let others have a turn.”
“Very well, we will kill him together,” Doran promised patiently. “Tell me now of Lord Willas. How did he take our proposals?”
“Ah. Like a man who has gone three days without water takes a drink from a well. Your people did excellent work in King’s Landing. Sansa Stark is the only thing the gossips whisper about anymore. Her mysterious departure from the city, the state of her bedchamber after… Willas was already desperate for an excuse to free his sister of Joffrey, even before I gave him the bloody details.”
“That is good to hear. Yet I trust you explained to him the importance of…timing?”
“Yes. Willas is content to wait. Little Margaery is watched like a hawk; she will be safe enough until the wedding.”
“Good. Well done. And good timing; we did not expect to see you today.”
“Willas may be sending you a raven soon. I wanted to beat it here.”
Doran’s brow creased with irritation. “The entire point of your making the journey to Highgarden was to avoid the necessity of committing anything to parchment.”
“Not that sort of raven.” Oberyn sank heavily against the sideboard, and after a moment, poured himself a cup of wine. “I think Willas means to to ask you for Sansa’s hand.”
Doran’s face, visible to Oberyn in profile, was wiped blank in an instant. He opened his mouth, then shut it. “I am not inclined to grant that request,” he said stiffly.
Relief made Oberyn’s bones turn to warm honey. He took a long drink to cover his reaction. “Should you not at least put it to Sansa?” some perverse impulse made him say.
“I am her guardian. This is what I guard her from.” Doran sounded uncharacteristically snappish. “After Gerold Dayne—after Meryn Trant—no. I told Sansa she would have time. I told her she would not marry a stranger.”
“Ah.” Tension displaced some of Oberyn’s relief. It did not even occur to him to suggest that Willas might be invited to Dorne, and an acquaintance forged between Sansa and her would-be suitor. “That was kindly done.”
“Kindly done?” Doran barked. “Is it kindness that stops you from finding a husband for El? She is of Sansa’s years.”
Oberyn’s stomach twisted into a knot. He had always pledged never to force husbands on any of his daughters, nor to interfere with any marriage they chose for themselves. But the idea of any man lifting their eyes to Ellaria’s girls made his gorge rise, even if El was, technically, a woman flowered.
“El,” Oberyn said heavily, “is not the heiress of Winterfell. Thank the gods.”
“No, she is not. But the heiress of Winterfell may well have plans of her own. You saw, out there.” Doran jerked his head, as if to indicate the steps of the palace. “That was Sansa’s doing, all of it. When word reached us that Joffrey had sent his emissary, Sansa stopped eating for three days. There is more grey in my hair now than black, as you may have observed.” He gave a small, fleeting smile. “But then, on the fourth day, she came to me with this plan. Offer Joffrey defiance to the outermost limits of what courtesy permits. Give him nothing to gloat over, nothing for his spies to report.”
“Nothing for his spies to report?” said Oberyn slowly. “Doran—you know as well as I that we set eyes upon the Queen in the North today. Soon Joffrey will know it too.”
“I am often uncertain whether Sansa truly understands the effect she has on people,” Doran said quietly, almost to himself. “Her behavior and attire were impeccably correct. If she…gave rise to any other notion, she is not to blame for that.”
“No. She is not, perhaps.”
Doran snorted. “I tell you, I had no hand in it. The clothing she arranged with Arianne’s help. The rest of it—that speech—I do not believe she consulted anyone beforehand. I doubt that she knew what she would do when the casket was opened.” Doran’s eyes shut briefly. “Joffrey may be no Baratheon, but he is the butcher’s boy in his soul.”
“I have often wondered which of the seven hells his soul will go to, when he dies. I can scarcely wait for him to find out.”
“I care not. So long as—” Doran gave a swift, dismissive jerk of his head. “We should not speak of these things. Not yet.”
“No, perhaps not.” Oberyn scratched at the back of his neck, then made a decision. “Well, now that I have told you all the news from Highgarden, I must pray you to excuse me. I traveled with scarcely a break, and I have a pressing need to take to my bed for the next ten hours or more.”
“Certainly.” Doran gave him a faint frown. “Was there nothing else?”
There was, but it would seem that you are in no mood to hear it. Besides, I still haven’t spoken to Ellaria. “I wanted to know how you would receive Willas’s proposal, that was all. He is my friend.”
“Yes,” said Doran, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. “Though not in this particular venture, I would hazard.”
Oberyn shrugged one shoulder lazily, as though speaking of a matter of no consequence. “Willas is chivalrous to a fault. He would make Sansa an admirable husband. But Highgarden is a long way off.” He sipped his wine, then set the cup aside. “Ellaria and the girls would miss her.”
“Yes, I am sure they would,” said Doran, his tone heavy with unspoken meaning. “On that subject—if you would be good enough to spare Ellaria for the rest of the evening, I think it would be best if Sansa did not sleep alone tonight.”
“Ellaria is with her now and I do not expect to see either of them again until the morning.”
“I see. Good. Then rest well, brother. On the morrow, I hope you will be good enough to share any thoughts that may have occurred to you regarding how best to dispose of our guest. I would have it done quickly. His is not a face I ever wish Sansa to set eyes on again.”
Oberyn’s eyebrows arched slightly. “As you say. I will do my utmost.”
He will be dead by morning, Oberyn told himself, as he strode from Doran’s solar. Then, a jaw-cracking yawn overtook him, and he was forced to revise his timetable. He will be dead by the morning after next, he amended. Just as soon as I have slept.
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Once Sansa had changed her clothes and rested for a time, she told Ellaria to leave her and have her reunion with Oberyn. He had been away in Highgarden for more than a week, and there hadn’t been a spare moment since his return for the two of them to be alone together. Ellaria said it didn’t matter, that there would be plenty of time for her to see Oberyn tomorrow, but Sansa insisted. She would do very well on her own for a few hours, and there was no point in other people being unhappy just because Sansa had laid her brother’s bones to rest today.
After a brief debate, and many reassurances on Sansa’s side that she would call for Ellaria if she had need of her, it was agreed that Ellaria would spend the afternoon with Oberyn. After dinner, she would return, and share Sansa’s bed for the night.
When Ellaria had departed, Sansa called for Daemon and asked him if she could spend a little time outdoors, entirely alone, without the hovering presence of either her guards or her maids. She’d expected him to refuse her, with elaborate apologies; instead, he had promised to make arrangements. When Daemon returned for Sansa a few minutes later, it was to escort her to the courtyard overlooked by her own window. There were guards about the perimeter, he explained, but they would keep their distance—close enough to come running if Sansa called for them, but far enough away that she would not see them unless she went looking for them. Sansa thanked him and pronounced herself pleased.
It was strange that she should feel such a longing for solitude all of a sudden. She’d thought she’d had her fill of it in King’s Landing. There, she was unimportant enough to be ignored, not valuable enough to bother keeping safe. In Dorne, by contrast, she was constantly attended. Sansa knew it was a sign of how highly Prince Doran honored her, and she was grateful, she truly was.
Still, there were times when her heart raced, when her breath grew short, when she could not stop her hands from fidgeting—times when the walls of her chamber began closing in around her. The only thing that helped was to throw open her balcony doors and gaze out over the sea, or to stare up in the vastness of the starry night sky, until she felt detached, unrestricted, like a sort of cloud that would scatter in a strong gust of wind.
But Sansa had an inkling that, today at least, people might take it amiss if she spent very long standing out on the edge of her balcony. Ellaria was probably not the only person in the palace who feared that Sansa was fragile, after the events of the morning.
She should be feeling fragile, Sansa thought. She had seen now, with her own eyes, how Robb had been cut down, how his body had been defiled, dishonored. But she was past shock, past horror, even past weeping. Joffrey’s letter had been the worst of it; she had suffered all the she could suffer during the nine days that followed.
Robb was beyond all harm now. And in spite of everything, he had come back to her in the end. She had been given the chance to look after him one last time. She would never be reunited with any other member of her family, living or dead, unless one day, by some miracle, she was allowed to visit Jon at the Wall.
Joffrey had sent Robb’s bones to Dorne because he thought the sight of them would torment her. But Sansa felt nothing but gratitude. She would be able to write Joffrey a very pretty letter of sincere thanks for his nameday gift, which was bound to make him turn purple with rage. She was glad that she would not be there to see it, but the thought made her smile for the first time in almost a fortnight.
Sansa sat on a marble bench situated in the midst of a large courtyard, bordered by high, dense hedges. It was the same courtyard overlooked by Ellaria’s rooms and Prince Doran’s solar, though on different levels, and from opposite sides of the palace. She had brought her embroidery with her, because she could not enjoy solitude or leisure unless her hands were busy. Catelyn Stark had drilled that discipline into her when she was a child of five. Even if it had been otherwise, Sansa had been forced to spend so many hours in fretful idleness in King’s Landing that she had grown to dread boredom almost more than she feared pain.
Losing herself in needlework was easy. It did not keep troublesome thoughts entirely at bay, but so long as her hands were busy, her thoughts darted in and out of her head at random. Like the point of her needle, they surfaced for a moment, trailing the thread of an idea, then plunged back below the surface. They did not linger long enough to trouble her.
I am glad Prince Oberyn was here this morning. Ser Daemon would have been most willing to assist me, but I doubt that Meryn Trant would have taken orders from him.
Was I imagining it, or did Prince Oberyn look disapproving when first he saw me?
I shall make a pouch to hold the lock of Robb’s hair. And another pouch for Grey Wind. No: I shall make one pouch for both.
Sansa heard a faint rustle of movement from behind a thicket of hedges, but she did not look up immediately. The gardens here were full of nesting birds, and they often burst unexpectedly from the greenery in a flash of wings, with a shower of leaves. The scuff of a boot against the paved garden path did make her lift her head, but she expected to see only Daemon, come to speak with her.
It was not Ser Daemon, however. It was Meryn Trant.
He stood before her, red-faced, sweating profusely. That morning his metal helm had gleamed in the sunlight, but since then he had found some dirty white rags to wind round it, as Dornish knights did, to shield it from the sun.
As soon as their eyes met, Ser Meryn pulled his helmet off, and his posture straightened to an almost respectful attention. He had never shown her that sort of deference in King’s Landing, not even when Joffrey was out of sight.
Sansa’s heart beat in her chest like a drum.
“There is no need to call your guards, my lady,” Ser Meryn rasped. “I mean you no harm. I only wish to speak with you.”
Until that moment, Sansa had forgotten that she could call for help. But he was right. This was not King’s Landing. Sansa was a person of importance here. And Daemon, who had seen with his own eyes what Ser Meryn was capable of, would not hesitate to draw steel if he came into the courtyard and saw that Ser Meryn had sneaked past his guards to invade Sansa’s privacy.
Seconds passed, and Sansa did not shout. She did not know how far away her guards were, but she knew exactly how far away she was from Meryn Trant. His broadsword was not at his hip—she had heard Captain Hotah request him to surrender it, after Robb’s funeral—but she knew from experience that he did not need a sword to hurt her.
Joffrey has sent him with orders to chastise me on his behalf one last time. Robb was only half of Joffrey’s nameday gift to me. This is the other half.
Terror, like nothing she had felt since the day her father died, washed over her. But she felt strangely calm. Her thoughts ran slowly; her blood was cool.
Sansa pushed her embroidery aside and got to her feet. If she had to run, it would be easier if she were already standing. If she did not have to run…it was still easier to face him this way. She was taller than Ser Meryn now, she realized, and probably faster, too. And unlike in King’s Landing, no one in Dorne would punish her for running away from him if he tried to lay hands on her.
“Lady Sansa…” Ser Meryn took a step forward, halting when Sansa froze. He pulled his hand back and wet his lips. “Lady Sansa, I beg you to help me.”
Sansa’s hands tightened in a clasp.
“Please, my lady. I know that…in the past…” Impatiently, he wiped at his sweating forehead with the short sleeve of his tunic. “I must ask this of you, or my life is forfeit. The two princes mean to have me killed before I can leave Dorne. You must—” He swallowed. “Will you intercede with them on my behalf?”
She stared at him for a long moment. When she opened her mouth, the words that came out were not the words she had meant to say.
“I am called Lady Stark now,” she said.
Anger flared in his eyes, but it was gone as soon as it appeared.
“Lady Stark.” Ser Meryn took a deep breath, and his face began to look a little less red. “Not an hour ago, a friend gave me warning of Prince Doran’s intentions. He and his brother mean to see me dead. They were overheard discussing it. I am a sworn brother of the Kingsguard, it is a treason against the crown—”
Sansa’s head jerked. Ser Meryn noticed, and instantly, his expression cleared.
“The King will not hear of it from me,” he said quickly. “Nor will Lord Tyrion. All I ask is the prince’s pledge safe conduct as far as the Boneway. In return, I will swear never again to set foot in Dorne.”
“You would truly swear never to return?” said Sansa, unable to keep the disbelief from her voice. “Not even if Joffrey ordered you?”
She expected him to be angry with her for doubting him, but he only shook his head. “I would take the Black before I broke my vow.”
Why should Prince Doran want to kill him? Sansa wondered. And would I mind so very much if he did?
She should mind, she knew—she should feel pity for Ser Meryn, a woman’s pity. But though her body thrummed with the shock of his words, and her heart pounded with fear lest he should lose his patience and grab her suddenly, she was not sure she could pity him. All she could feel when she looked upon him was the desperate longing to flee his presence.
In any case, what could she possibly say to Prince Doran on his behalf? If she could not save her father whom she loved dearly with all her pleading, how could she muster the right words to beg for Meryn Trant’s life?
Sansa squeezed her eyes shut and breathed, in and out.
Ser Meryn might be mistaken. Or his friend might have misheard. Or—she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of this before—he might be lying, on Joffrey’s orders. She wouldn’t put it past Joffrey to test her, to force her to choose between her loyalty to Prince Doran and her loyalty to the crown. If she defied Ser Meryn’s request for mercy, he might arrest her for treason. Prince Doran would have no choice but to let him take her back to the King for judgment, or else risk starting a war.
Sansa did not think Prince Doran was foolish enough to fight the Lannisters solely on her account. But it would grieve him to see her fall back into their hands, she knew that now. Should she not spare him having to make that choice, if she could?
Ser Meryn was finding it hard to stand there quietly and wait for her to arrive at a decision. His eye glinted malignantly when she caught his gaze. Once again, he blinked, and it was gone.
He isn’t sorry for what he did to me, not in the least. But he acts as if he needs me. As if he can’t take the risk offending me. Perhaps it isn’t a trick after all.
She lowered her arms until her sleeves covered her trembling hands, and waited until she had enough breath to speak.
“You mistake my importance in Dorne, Ser Meryn,” she told him. “I am not on such terms with Prince Doran that I would dare to question his judgments, or beg that he alter them. If you truly fear for your life, however, then perhaps you ought to leave Sunspear. You could go now, while everyone’s still at the feast. When you are missed, I will say that I asked you to make haste back to King’s Landing, the sooner to carry my message of gratitude back to Joffrey.”
Meryn Trant gazed at her for a long time. His fists clenched at his sides. Sansa held her breath, prepared to scream if she must.
Then, suddenly, he relaxed again, and his face cleared a little.
“I see that I asked too much,” he said. “But if you will indeed make my excuses to Prince Doran, then I will do as you say, and chance my escape now.”
Sansa was silent.
Ser Meryn put his helmet back on his head. He gave her a jerky little bow, then walked out of the courtyard in the direction he’d appeared from.
Sansa waited until she could no longer hear his footsteps. If he decided to return suddenly, he would not take her unawares.
When a half hour had passed with no further sign of Ser Meryn’s presence, she sat back down. Eventually, she reached for her embroidery and looked down at the sharp silver point of the needle. She did not touch it.
Before long, the sun turned red and began to sink in the sky. The shadows lengthened all around her, and the fireflies began to dance in the twilight.
I should go inside.
The thought occurred to her slowly, as though it had started in her feet and had to travel up through her legs, stomach, and chest to reach her head. But the answering thought came like lightning: If I look Daemon in the face now, I will start crying. If I cry in front of Daemon, he will have the whole story out of me in no time. The guards will give chase and drag Ser Meryn back. I don’t want him captured; I want him as far away from Sunspear as possible.
Slowly, Sansa set her embroidery to one side. She didn’t have to talk to Daemon if she didn’t want to; she didn’t even have to meet his eyes. She would keep her head down, her eyes low, as though she were overwhelmed with grief for Robb. Daemon would be concerned, but he would not make her talk.
She turned and started back down the path towards the palace. She did not pause to pack her skeins and scissors and pincushions back into their casket. Joya would fetch it for her later.
(Even if Ser Meryn proved to be still be lurking in the hedges, he had no reason to hurt Joya.)
Her knees felt watery as she rose. Her legs trembled underneath her. As soon as she stood, she began walking, and as soon as she took her first few steps, she wanted to pick up her skirts and run.
She turned left, out of the courtyard, and hastened down the path to the corner where she knew Daemon was waiting.
She was halfway there when a large hand clamped down on the back of her arm, seizing her in a grip of iron.
Oberyn had been slapped by women before. A woman had menaced him with a dagger once, and at least one of his lovers had actually tried to poison him.
No woman had ever rammed her elbow into his jaw before, however. Oberyn reeled backwards, nearly bowled off of his feet. He grasped at the hedge wall, scattering leaves and disturbing nearby nesting birds, and just managed to stay on his feet.
“Gods be good,” he hissed, touching his fingers to his bleeding lip. “Sansa, what in the seven—”
But when he looked over, Sansa was backing away from him, slowly, as though he were a great wild beast of some kind. Her face was the color of curdled milk; shadows of deepest purple hung beneath her eyes, and her gaze fixed on him almost sightlessly.
If I were one of the Stranger’s demons, she could not look more terrified of me, Oberyn thought, with a sick pang. He had frightened her by coming upon her so suddenly, and no wonder. She had only this morning set eyes on her brother’s butchered remains. Of course her nerves were in a bad state.
“Sansa, forgive me.” He winced, his split lip stinging. “I should not have come upon you unaware. I am a clumsy lout, and no doubt I deserved worse.”
Ten minutes ago, Oberyn had been full of warmth, happiness, and a kind of childlike delight, such as he had not felt since the first time he watched one of his daughters come into the world. Ellaria had come to find him after his conversation with Doran, and in the privacy of her chambers, he had finally had the chance to ask her what he had been meaning to ask her these many weeks now.
Ellaria had given him the answer he’d been hoping for, and Oberyn had whooped and spun her around the room. Then had run here. When he’d seen Sansa stealing out of the courtyard just as he was entering it, he’d called her name, twice. When she did not seem to hear him, he ran up behind her, and tapped her on the back of the arm.
Oberyn wasn’t entirely certain what had happened after that. Only that Sansa had wailed with terror and begun flailing against him so wildly that she seemed to have two extra limbs.
This may be something more than just the effect of looking upon Robb Stark’s broken body, Oberyn thought. Sansa had started lashing out against him before she ever set eyes on him. He could not swear that she had recognized him. Who did she think had reached for her? What was she truly afraid of?
“What is wrong?” he said, gently as he could, considering that he had to spit out a discreet mouthful of blood first. “You are not—”
“Go away!” The words were half scream, half sob, and before Oberyn could react, she picked up her skirts in both hands and fled towards the palace.
Oberyn stared after her, too stunned to even think of following. He stood in place, swaying slightly on his feet, until Daemon and three of his men converged from the four corners of the courtyard, each man with his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Daemon slowed to a halt when he saw there was no one in the courtyard but Oberyn—and an Oberyn with a fat, bleeding lip, at that.
“I thought I heard Lady Stark cry out,” Daemon said, breathless and worried. “Where is she?”
The question, or perhaps the urgency in Daemon’s voice, snapped Oberyn out of his reverie. He set off at a run in the direction Sansa had gone.
Daemon followed him, but Oberyn was the first to reach her. She had not gone very far. Having gained the inside of the palace, she had collapsed in a heap against the far wall.
Daemon waved the rest of the guard back, but just as Oberyn began to crouch down at Sansa’s side, a thunderous shout from down the hall stopped him.
“What is this?” Doran was wheeling his chair at a quick clip, reaching them within seconds. He caught sight of Sansa in a heap on the floor, and his mouth fell open. “Oberyn, what have you done?”
“Nothing!” said Oberyn, stung by Doran’s tone. “I startled her, but she…”
He trailed off, looking down at Sansa. Her face was buried in her hands, and she did not acknowledge any of them. For the first time, Oberyn saw the gash in her arm, the torn place in her pale blue sleeve and the bright stain of red upon the cloth.
“Gods be damned,” he said softly, furiously. “Her arm is bleeding.” She’d gashed herself on his teeth, no doubt. The wound would be festering by tomorrow night if it was not cleansed with Myrrish fire. “Daemon, the maester—”
“Bear Lady Stark into my reception chambers,” Doran cut him off, looking at Daemon. “There is a chaise there where she will be comfortable. Fetch the maester to attend her and do not leave her side while he is with her.”
“Yes, my prince,” said Daemon.
Oberyn watched, trying not to resent his friend too badly as he spoke a few soft words to Sansa and managed to coax a nod out of her. She looped her arms around his neck as Daemon lifted her and began carrying her down the corridor to Doran’s solar.
As soon as the door shut behind them, Doran looked back at Oberyn. He picked up his walking stick, lying across his lap, and hit Oberyn hard against the shin.
“What happened,” Doran hissed.
Oberyn tried to make sense of what he was seeing in Doran’s face as he rubbed at the bruise on his leg. His brother was slow to anger, even slower to express it. He did not lose his temper like this. Not in front of other people, anyway.
“I was on my way to see you,” Oberyn said. “I saw Sansa in the courtyard, alone, as I was passing. I thought something must be amiss, so I ran up to her.” In truth, his head had been so full of what Ellaria had told him that his had been thinking of little else, except his happiness. But looking back, it was strange that she was alone. What had Daemon been about, leaving her unattended for so long?
“You thought something was wrong,” said Doran, his voice sharp. “So you grabbed her like a drunkard pawing at a serving wench in a tavern?”
“I scarcely touched her!” Oberyn tugged at his hair in exasperation. “Something else frightened her. I tell you, she did not know me. She mistook me for someone else.”
“I do not…” Oberyn’s stomach gave a sickening lurch. “Doran, where is Meryn Trant?”
“He is dining privately with Ser Arys Oakheart.”
“The dinner hour is long over.”
Doran stared up at Oberyn. His nostrils flared; his mouth tightened. Then he looked at Areoh Hotah and gave a sharp nod. The captain of his guard thumped the butt of his spear against the marble floor, and marched off in the direction of Princess Myrcella’s quarters in the Sun Tower, where Arys Oakheart had his rooms.
Oberyn expelled a long, weary breath and sank down on a nearby bench. Doran watched him from afar for over a minute. Then he wheeled his chair closer.
“You truly believed that I would harm her,” Oberyn muttered, leaning his forehead against his hands.
“Everything that I know about you declares such a thing to be impossible,” said Doran, his tone still not entirely relaxed. “But I also thought it impossible for any man to steal into my palace and abduct my ward from her own chambers. I thought it impossible for Joffrey to injure her further now that she is in Dorne and under my protection.” He took a deep breath. “Where Sansa’s safety is concerned, I can no longer rely on what I think I know to be true.”
Oberyn found he had nothing to say in response to that. If he had found Sansa in such a state after leaving Doran’s rooms, he too would have questions.
Doran folded his hands in his lap. “What did you wish to speak to me about? I saw you but an hour ago, and when you left me you declared that you were fit for nothing but sleep.”
“I know. I was very tired, I meant to rest. But then Ellaria found me, and we…talked.” Oberyn rubbed his forehead. “Doran—brother—I wish to offer Sansa my hand in marriage. I would have spoken before, but I could say nothing until I knew Ellaria’s feelings on the matter.”
The silence that fell in the corridor then was so complete that it made the hair stand up on the back of Oberyn’s neck. It was like standing in a wood, hearing the birdsong fall silent in all directions, and realizing that something dangerous—something unseen—had come into their midst.
“And what,” said Doran, his voice a strange, dry croak, “did Ellaria have to say?”
“She was delighted.” Despite everything, Oberyn chuckled. “She called me a fool for waiting so long. Nothing would please her but that I come to you directly to ask your blessing.”
“I see.” Doran’s gaze was trained on the doors that led out to the gardens. “You have never shown much interest in marriage. Why now? Why Sansa?”
“I want to protect her.” Oberyn scrunched his eyes shut. The distance in Doran’s voice was unsettling, and Oberyn could not quite bear look at him. “I want every lord in Westeros, and the King who sits on the Iron Throne, to know that the Red Viper has taken Sansa Stark to wife. I want them to tremble at the thought of what I will surely do to them if they dare lift a hand to her ever again.”
Doran went so long without answering that Oberyn looked at him, despite himself. His brother was reckoned difficult to read by most men, but Doran had never been as inscrutable to Oberyn as he was to others. He guarded his face well, but once you grew familiar with his looks, they were as telling as any other man’s.
But there was a blankness in Doran’s face now such as Oberyn had never seen before. It was unnerving.
“Is that the only reason you wish to marry her?” said Doran. “To give her the protection of your name?”
“And my spear, and my sword, and my fist if need be, yes. Why, is that not reason enough?”
A muscle twitched in Doran’s jaw. “Quentyn may still return.”
“Aye, with a bride of silver—”
“Hold your tongue!”
Oberyn leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. Doran looked up and down the hall, as though searching for eavesdroppers, then looked back at Oberyn.
“Nothing is certain, where Quentyn’s ventures are concerned,” Doran said, after a few seconds of tense silence.
“No,” Oberyn agreed. “What is certain is that this King, and his Kingsguard, to say nothing of men like Gerold Dayne, will continue to make merry sport of Sansa until she has a husband. I must take her to wife. Unless, of course, you mean to dispose of her to some other family.
When only more silence greeted this statement, Oberyn gave Doran a sharp sideways look. “You cannot be surprised,” he said. “You must have given some thought to the match. Sansa is dear to you, I know. You must see, this is the only way you can keep her.”
“By giving her to you,” said Doran, in a voice so low it was almost a whisper.
“Well, if you wanted to marry her yourself, you should have accepted Mellario’s offer to divorce you after Arianne came of age.”
Oberyn had intended it as a joke, but his brother’s suddenly bloodless face told him it had not been received as such. Oberyn started to apologize—Doran could be prickly, where Mellario was concerned—but then he stopped, staring at his brother in sudden, shocked awareness.
“You would marry her, wouldn’t you,” Oberyn breathed.
“Do not speak nonsense,” said Doran sharply. “I was a man grown when her father was born.”
Oberyn’s forehead creased. “Yes. And I was a child of seven. I remember hearing of it.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Doran. You understand, I hope, that Sansa would be as safe from me in our marriage bed as she is at your dinner table. I haven’t wanted to fuck a maid of three-and-ten since I was a lad of three-and-ten. She is far too young for bedding.”
“But if you changed your mind, that would be your right,” said Doran smoothly. “Once she was your wife no one would think it amiss.”
Oberyn’s head shot up. “I would not take anything from her that was not freely given,” he said, unable to keep the hurt from his voice. “That has never been my way, Doran.”
Doran grabbed at the wheels of his chair and rolled himself closer to the window. “Have you spoken aught of this to Sansa?”
Oberyn shook his head quickly. “No. I would not do so without your leave.”
“You are quite certain? Is that not how you came to frighten her in the gardens, with too-sudden declarations of your devotion?”
“No,” said Oberyn, between gritted teeth. “I said barely a word to her.”
Doran gaze a lazy wave of his hand, half acceptance, half apology. He looked aside, his brows hanging low over his eyes.
No matter how clever Oberyn grew to think himself, no matter how learned he became, Doran had always been slightly beyond him. He was eleven years the elder, and Oberyn could not remember a time when he had seen Doran as anything but a man grown—though he was, in truth, still a boy when he had first returned to Sunspear from squiring at Salt Shore. Eleven years should make little difference now that Oberyn was a man of two-and-forty, but he was separated from Doran by more than age. Doran was their mother’s heir. The path he would take in life had been carved out for him before he drew his first breath. In Doran, the man and the future prince had always seemed to be one. Doran knew his duties and he fulfilled them with dignity, with surety, and without complaint.
Only twice in his life had the needs of the man won out over the duties of the prince. Once when he married Mellario; once when he changed his mind about fostering Arianne with the Archon of Tyrosh, for Mellario’s sake.
For Mellario, Doran had offended an Archon. For Sansa, he was plotting with the Tyrells to murder the King.
“You love Sansa,” said Oberyn, and this time it wasn’t a question. “Not as a man loves a woman, perhaps, but dearly enough that you cannot bear the thought of parting with her. You’re afraid that if she marries me I will take her away from you.”
Doran said not a word.
“I told you that you and she were much alike, did I not?” Oberyn settled back against the wall comfortably. “I’m surprised it took you this long to see it.”
“She is a child,” said Doran between his teeth. “I find it hard not to grow fond of children I see often, especially when they are as unique as Sansa.”
“Yes. I agree, entirely.” Oberyn smiled. “Have no fear, brother. Sansa will have to share me with Ellaria. It would hardly be fair if I forbade her to continue her intimacy with you.”
“I have not yet given you my assent,” said Doran sharply. “I want your word.”
“On what? You have but to name it.”
Doran took a deep breath, closing his eyes as he slowly exhaled.
“Sansa has romantic notions,” he said. “Or she did, once. Some seed of them may slumber in her still. And she is dutiful. No matter how she tries to persuade you that she is prepared to fulfil her marital obligations—”
“I will refuse, yes, of course.”
“You will continue refusing until she is at least six-and-ten. Even then, you will ask my blessing first.”
“You have my word.”
“And she is not one of Lord Uller’s sand steeds. I cannot give you to her. You must obtain her consent.”
“Gods be good, what sort of slaver do you take me for? Of course I shall ask her for her hand, properly. On bended knee, belike. But you are Sansa’s guardian and mine own liege lord; it seemed prudent to obtain your blessing first, lest I be forced to disappoint her.”
“Your prudence is appreciated.”
“Do I have your blessing?”
“I…” Doran faltered. “Yes. If Sansa will have you, yes. But you understand, do you not—Sansa’s future lies in the North. If our schemes with Highgarden come to fruition, we will retake Winterfell by mid-autumn. Sansa will return to take up her father’s seat. If you are wed—”
“I will have to retake Winterfell from the Boltons for her,” said Oberyn. He had always known that he might one day go North for Sansa’s sake, though it was only these past few weeks that he’d considered doing so as her husband. “The people of the North will only accept a Dornishman as their lady’s lord if he proves himself to them. I shall have to be at the vanguard of the assault.”
“Ellaria, perhaps, did not consider that aspect of the matter,” Doran suggested, in a gentle voice.
“No. No, we spoke of it.” They did not spell out the possibilities in so much grim detail, but after Sansa’s white-veiled appearance that morning, neither of them needed prompting to remember that Winterfell was Sansa’s destiny.
“Did you.” Doran turned to look at him. “How long since you first began to think of Sansa for a wife?”
Oberyn tried to remember. He had fought the inclination at first, thought it shameful. But then Gerold Dayne had come, and Ellaria had been hurt, and Sansa had nursed her… There was something remarkable, Oberyn thought, in the way Sansa devoted so much of her time to caring for others—she, who had suffered such hurt and such sorrow that Oberyn would have given her anything she wanted, if it would but make her smile for a moment.
“Since the Darkstar came,” he said. “The abduction woke me to the value of what he tried to steal from us.”
“Indeed,” Doran breathed.
Silence fell between them. Then Doran began to turn his chair. “You are going to Sansa?” said Oberyn, sitting up.
“Yes, and you are not coming. You made her scream not an hour ago. Find Hotah; he will need you if he manages to discover Meryn Trant.”
“What if Sansa tells you that it was not Ser Meryn who frightened her?”
Doran sighed. “Of course it was him,” he said. “One does not let a tiger into the house and then question how the dog came to be eaten simply because one did not witness the cat feasting.”
“Doran!” His brother was already halfway down the hall to the door of his solar. “Do not you say anything to Sansa, either. Let me plead my own case.”
Doran lifted a hand and gave a negligent wave. Oberyn watched him until he turned into the entrance of the solar and the doors thudded shut behind him. Then he set off for the guardhouse at a swift clip. Let him but catch Meryn Trant alone for an instant; he could not kill him yet, but he could teach him what it felt like to catch a dozen blows from the flat of a sword against his naked flesh.
one more chapter to go. probably.
Ok, looks like there's at least one more chapter, maybe an epilogue. Shout out to musicforswimming, author of the fantastic "in this expected country they know my name", for hand-holding me through this one.
The maester was gone by the time Doran left Oberyn and returned to his solar, but Daemon was still standing guard by the outer door.
“Lady Stark is alone within,” he explained, when Doran arched an eyebrow at him. “She asked for privacy after Maester Caleotte departed.”
“Her wound?” said Doran.
“No more than a scrape, but the maester tended it thoroughly and promised to see her again tomorrow.”
Doran nodded absently and looked past Daemon towards the door of his receiving room. He felt benumbed, save for his knee, which ached like a rotting tooth.
When first he woke this morning, he had groaned at the thought of the miserable day that lay ahead of him. And that was when he had thought that Robb Stark’s funeral was the most taxing ordeal he would have to face. He hadn’t bargained on Meryn Trant. Nor had he anticipated the solemn, heart-stopping splendor of Sansa’s performance before the court. He hadn’t expected to be startled from his evening reading by the sound of Sansa’s strangled cry, winding its way up to him from the gardens beneath his balcony.
Above all, he had not thought that this would be the day when he disposed of Sansa’s hand in marriage to another man. The thought sat heavy in his stomach. He was already wondering if he had not been too hasty in giving Oberyn his blessing. His brother’s request had landed at his feet like the payload of a siege engine, scattering his thoughts to the four winds. In his heart of hearts, Doran could acknowledge the depth of his reluctance to become a figure of only secondary importance in Sansa’s life. But he could scarcely refuse his consent on those grounds. Oberyn already seemed to suspect him of harboring improper feelings for Sansa; if Doran had denied him, it would have looked like selfishness.
Oberyn had daughters old enough to be Sansa’s mother. He had Ellaria, who was already a wife to him in all but name. Yet Doran had already suspected for some time that Sansa’s beauty and vulnerability were preying on Oberyn’s romantic nature. If his brother had been even ten years younger, Doran would have felt compelled to broach the subject of the marriage himself. As it was, he had been waiting, hoping to gain a better understanding of what Sansa’s feelings towards Oberyn might be.
Sansa cared for his brother, that much Doran knew, and she also cared for Oberyn’s paramour and his daughters, which was promising. Still, Doran had held his tongue; it seemed to him that some part of Sansa was still afraid of Oberyn, if only because he was a man, and because he had spent a lifetime cultivating a reputation for violence and ungovernable carnality. It took time to distinguish where the Red Viper left off and the man began. Sansa needed more time. Doran had been determined to give it to her.
The events of the past few months had forced him to rethink his promises. It wasn’t fair to Sansa; she was, without doubt, the worthiest maiden Doran knew. But her mere existence seemed to incite men to shatter vows, break the laws, and forsake decency. Doran himself was no exception: he had killed a man for her with his own hands, and he was, even now, plotting to kill another. If he truly meant to keep Sansa secure, he had no choice but to marry her to someone. And if she must marry…well, there was no man Doran trusted more than Oberyn.
He should be comforted by that knowledge, but if Doran had learned anything since Sansa came into his life, it was that he was not nearly as wise or as patient as he had once thought himself.
“My prince.” Daemon’s discomfited tone of voice brought Doran out of his reverie. “Lady Stark told me something curious.”
“Did she?” said Doran quietly.
“I did not interrogate her,” Daemon said hastily. He knew Doran well enough not to be deceived by his mild tone. “But she told me, before the maester came, that Ser Meryn Trant departed from Sunspear hours ago.”
Doran blinked. “There is more to that tale, I’d warrant.”
“I thought so as well, my prince, but I did not think it my place to question her further.”
Doran sighed, nodded, and waved Daemon off all in a single series of half-hearted gestures. Daemon opened the door for him, then took his post up again.
Alone inside his solar, Doran permitted himself the luxury of scrubbing his hands over his face. Sansa was in the next room. He must be composed before he faced her. He must gather his wits and not overtax her with questions because he could not keep to a point. Priorities, he thought.
The important thing was to find out more about this strange arrangement with Meryn Trant Sansa had mentioned to Daemon, and to determine what had frightened her in the gardens. He suspected that there was but one answer to the two questions, but he must hear it from Sansa’s lips in order to make a proper judgment.
Doran rolled his chair closer to the door of the receiving room and rapped twice with his walking stick. A guard, one of Hotah’s most trusted deputies, opened the door. Doran nodded towards the dim interior of the room. “How is she?”
“Unchanged since the maester left,” said the guard. When Doran continued to look at him inquiringly, he added, “She is resting now.”
“Ask her if she will see me.”
The guard blinked, but he disappeared inside the room. A second later he returned. “Lady Stark begs you to enter.”
Sansa was sitting upright on the chair where she had been lying down moments earlier—there was a blanket crumpled up beside her, cast aside in a hurried heap. Doran appraised her color and found her still to be worryingly white. But her eyes, at least, no longer seemed so terrifyingly distant. She was shaken, but she was no longer out of her wits.
Doran braced himself against the shock to his knee, and used his walking stick to lever himself out of his chair. He took two stiff steps and sat down on the chaise beside Sansa.
She turned slightly to face him, and through the slashed sleeve of her gown, he could glimpse the edge of a clean white bandage.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, before Doran could even draw breath to speak. “I made such a scene and worried everyone, and all for nothing.”
Doran blinked. “We were concerned, certainly,” he said. “Whether it was for nothing remains to be seen. But leave that for the nonce. Are you feeling better now?”
Sansa dropped her gaze to her hands. “I am well enough, thank you.”
“Do you require anything? Wine? I can send for lemon water, if it would refresh you.”
“Thank you, no, I don’t need anything.”
He considered inquiring about the maester’s visit, but he suspected Sansa would be embarrassed, and he could get the information directly from Caleotte later in any case.
Doran scrutinized Sansa for a long moment as he tried to decide how to proceed. She did not appear to be at her best—she was certainly a far cry from the white tower of strength who had greeted Robb Stark’s bones that morning—but he thought she seemed sturdy enough to withstand a few questions.
“I heard you cry out in the garden from my balcony,” said Doran. “I went to look, and I saw you fleeing my brother. Had it been anyone but Oberyn, I would have assumed the worst and ordered him arrested immediately.” He paused. “I could have him arrested still…?”
“Oh no.” Sansa’s face drained of more color than it could afford to lose. “Doran, you must not be angry with him. It was not Prince Oberyn’s fault. I am bitterly ashamed of myself for behaving so savagely towards him. He has never been anything but kind and gallant towards me, and I…”
“It was a jest, Sansa.” Doran gave her a flicker of a smile. “Oberyn should have known better than to startle you when you were alone in the gardens after dark, but if I confined my brother to the dungeons for his every well-intentioned blunder, he would scarcely ever leave them. And my nieces would have something to say about that.”
“I…” Sansa bit her lip and looked down.
“Was there something more to the matter?” Doran prodded, gently as he knew how. “Were you, perhaps, frightened by something other than my brother’s clumsiness?”
Sansa swallowed hard, and for a long moment it seemed as if she would not answer. Her eyes were wider than they had been a second ago, her breathing a bit faster.
“I…had a visitor while I was sitting in the gardens,” she said at last. It seemed as if she had waited to speak until she could be sure that every syllable would come out measured and even. “Ser Meryn Trant came to ask if I would speak with him.”
Doran shut his mouth tightly. Questions thronged to the tip of his tongue, but he restrained them.
Most people, laying eyes on Sansa Stark for the first time, saw nothing but her beauty. It had been different for Doran. The first time he had ever seen Sansa’s face, her features were contorting in silent agony while Meryn Trant’s sword hacked at her exposed back. Doran had thought himself incapable of being shocked by anything after they had told him of Elia and the children seventeen years ago, but the sight of Ser Meryn’s sword, gleaming in the torchlight, the flat smeared with Sansa Stark’s blood, proved him wrong.
He might have felt it less keenly if he hadn’t recognized Sansa so quickly. But long before Doran arrived in the capital, he had learned all there was to be known about the beautiful, red-haired Northern maiden who, like Elia a generation before her, had come to King’s Landing from her faraway home to be wed to the crown prince.
He’d been prepared to set eyes on a fair, red-haired maiden soon after he entered the Great Hall. He just hadn’t expected to find her writhing in agony at the foot of the Iron Throne.
Elia was once a hostage to the crown as well, Doran had thought to himself as he watched Daemon Sand help the trembling Sansa onto her feet. Wounds he thought long-closed felt raw as the day they were made. For the past seventeen years, Doran’s eye had been immovably fixed on a single goal: fire and blood. He’d never given a moment’s thought to the North in all his life. But when Doran looked at Sansa, and immediately found himself wondering whether Elia had once suffered as she did, he realized it was already too late. Sansa Stark’s cause was his own.
That was the day Doran had decided to kill Meryn Trant.
“What business,” said Doran, when he trusted himself to speak calmly again, “did Ser Meryn purport to have with you that gave him the right to impose upon you thus?”
Sansa looked down.
She had changed out of her resplendent white gown and veil. Her maids had picked her hair out of its complicated nest of braids, allowing it to ripple freely down her back. When she hunched forward slightly, head bowed, her hair swung forward over both shoulders like a pair of curtains, hiding her expression from view.
“Ser Daemon said the palace guard was searching for Ser Meryn,” she said quietly, instead of answering his question. “Has he been found?”
Doran frowned, unable to guess which answer Sansa was hoping to hear. “He has not, of yet.”
Sansa nodded. She clasped her hands nervously in her lap. “Ser Meryn came to me because he had a…a favor to ask of me.”
“A favor?” Doran’s eyebrows climbed to his hairline. He could not restrain an incredulous smile, though he was far from amused. “He dared to ask a favor of you?”
“He had no choice, he said. He was frightened for his life.”
Doran’s indignation escaped him in a long hiss of breath. So once again, the failure is mine. Someone must have been listening through the walls when he and Oberyn spoke after the funeral. Doran had been…less composed than usual when he declared to Oberyn that he meant to have Ser Meryn killed. It was scarcely any wonder he had been overheard.
“But what protection did he imagine he might seek from you?” he asked, still every bit as baffled as he was angered.
“Ser Meryn asked me to speak to you. On his behalf.”
“Did he indeed,” Doran breathed. If I find this man, I shall make a present of his body to the maesters of the Citadel. With their keen interest in anatomy, perhaps they can tell me how Meryn Trant comes to have three times a normal man’s portion of gall.
“I told him that I had no power to sway your judgements,” said Sansa hastily. “But…forgive me, my prince, I know it was not my place to do so…I advised him to leave Sunspear straightaway. I—I said I would make his excuses for him. That I would tell you that I had asked him to make haste back to King’s Landing, the sooner to convey my gratitude to Joffrey.”
Doran blinked, irritation warring with admiration. “That was a clever way to be rid of him,” he said.
Sansa ventured a brief, wide-eyed glance at his face. “Truly? I thought you would be angry.”
“Angry? With you?” Doran shook his head. “My only concern was whether he offered you any insult. I am pleased that you were able to see him off swiftly. I never meant for you to be left alone with him for an instant.”
Two bright spots of color stood out on Sansa’s white cheeks. “He offered me no insult,” she said, looking down again hastily. “I…I think he wanted to. But he needed my help and could not risk offending me.”
“No, I suppose he could not.” Doran leaned back in his chair. “He took your advice then? Daemon said you told him that Ser Meryn left the palace several hours ago.”
“He said that he would leave immediately. We spoke for only a few minutes. I think he was in a great hurry to be gone.”
“What hour was this?”
“I’m not sure.” Sansa looked troubled. “After he went away, I lost track of time. I just sat there in the garden, for hours, until suddenly it was dark. I…I hadn’t meant to stay outdoors for so long. I was in such haste to get back to the palace that I left my embroidery in the garden behind me.”
Doran did not wonder why she had not called for her guards. A good ruler did not second-guess the decisions his generals made in the field. He did wonder why she had not fled for the security of the palace as soon as it was safe to do so—but then, he had never known the kind of terror that Sansa must have felt when she was in Ser Meryn’s presence. Sansa herself probably did not understand why she had behaved as she did.
“And I suppose it was at that point, when you were returning to the palace, that my brother chose to make his presence known to you,” said Doran, his voice heavy with irony.
Sansa flushed miserably. When she met his gaze, her eyes were bright and penitent. “I don’t remember what happened,” she said faintly. “I felt someone touch my arm, and then…then I was in the palace corridor, with Ser Daemon.” Her fingers brushed the edge of her bandage. “Did I hurt Prince Oberyn? Daemon said that I struck at him.”
Oberyn would have a fat lip for days, if Doran was not mistaken. “He is quite unhurt,” Doran told her.
“Good.” She looked down again. “And…what of you? Did I…inconvenience you by helping Ser Meryn escape?”
“Inconvenience me?” said Doran slowly. “Why should you ask such a question?”
Sansa’s hands fidgeted in her lap. “You must have had some reason for seeking his life. He…he must have committed some grave offense.”
Doran stared at the top of her bent head for a long moment. He wanted to spare her; not only this, but everything. He wanted to answer her with comforting non-answers, as though she were a child.
Alternatively, he wanted to make her understand, once and for all, that what had been done to her was not merely cruel: it was an outrage. He had said as much to Oberyn before he left for Highgarden: There are rules even in war. The man who sets these customs aside does so at his peril. Sansa did not understand her rights, did not understand what was due to her as Eddard Stark’s eldest daughter, or she would never have asked why Doran should want Meryn Trant dead.
And yet: Sansa was not entirely a child, whatever Doran had protested to Oberyn an hour ago. She was of tender years, and her elders owed her gentleness and patience on that account. But no child could have done what Sansa had done that morning. No child could have arrayed herself like an avatar of the Stranger’s own vengeance and kissed her brother’s severed head before the King’s own emissary and half the high lords of Dorne.
Sansa was a riddle: she was a high lord of Westeros, bereft of her claim; a maiden of three-and-ten who looked upon the world with the far-seeing eyes of the Crone. She was a bride who did not yet know that her bridegroom sought her hand. She stood at the crossroads of the rest of her life, and she could not see it.
If Oberyn thinks himself a fitting husband for Sansa, then by the same token, I must be as well, Doran thought, with a sudden, wild spasm of longing. What difference, after all, between fifty and forty, if we neither of us mean to share her bed? It was I who took her out of the lion’s den, I who killed the Darkstar for her.
There cannot be many years of life remaining to me. If I married Sansa, she would still be young and desirable when she became a widow. She could marry whomever she wished. But now, while she is so young and has so much to learn, I could teach her, protect her, prepare her for what she is to face.
She would not have to share me with anyone. I have no paramour; my children are grown. I am quite alone.
He was grateful that Sansa was not looking at him. He could not entirely rule his expression. His hand became a fist; then his fingers stretched out, reaching for Sansa’s hand.
At the first brush of his fingertips against her knuckles, she looked up at him, startled. But her hand opened automatically, and she permitted Doran to twine his fingers with hers.
If I say nothing, I will lose her. If I speak, I am lost.
“Answer me this question,” Doran heard himself saying. “You are the Lady of Winterfell. One day you may be restored to your father’s halls, and sit in judgment in your father’s seat. You might even have a ward of your own—a young person whom you would be bound to protect and care for in the place of her family.” Doran held Sansa’s wide-eyed gaze for a second or two longer than was comfortable for either of them. “How would you act, Lady Stark, if this ward of yours had been so mistreated by a man as Ser Meryn Trant has mistreated you?”
Sansa flushed over her pallor, but she did not look away. It might only have been his imagination, but Doran thought he could see the very wheels of her mind turning, urging her to pronounce a verdict she did not want to speak.
“If I had such a ward,” she said slowly, “and it fell to me to make such a judgment…I could not spare the man who had hurt her. But I do not think it would give me any pleasure to take his life.”
Doran’s hand tightened around hers involuntarily. “That is where you and I differ,” he said lightly. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to punish Meryn Trant appropriately for all that you have suffered at his hands.” He paused. “And if you loved this ward of yours as well as I do love you, perhaps you would find more satisfaction in vengeance than you can now imagine.”
Sansa’s eyes widened, and Doran realized his blunder. Always before, when he had spoken of love to Sansa, he had spoken in terms of his family’s affection for her. Never before had he lapsed into the first person. It had not seemed proper; it had not seemed necessary. He assumed that Sansa knew the depth of his regard for her.
Yet you do not love Sansa more than you love Arianne, a voice whispered at the back of his head. And ever since she was Sansa’s age, Arianne has been convinced that you hated her. How was Sansa to know any better, when Doran’s own daughter had found him so inscrutable?
He could tell that Sansa was weighing her words, afraid, as always, of saying the wrong thing. Yet he could not tell which part of his statement had thrown her into confusion.
“My lord father was called upon to serve justice on such men from time to time,” she said. “But I do not think he ever took pleasure in it. He…he might have felt differently, I suppose, if…if it were for my sake, or Arya’s.” She swallowed. “But even if he thought it his duty to avenge us, still I think he would feel only grief that the suffering had not been prevented. When he took a life, it was never to satisfy his own feelings, but only to uphold the laws and protect the people.”
Doran did not release her hand. But he felt the sting of her rebuke, all the more keenly because he knew that she had not intended to rebuke him. She was not speaking of Doran. She was thinking only of her father, of the legacy she wished to uphold as his heir.
The wild rush of possessiveness Doran had been feeling only moments earlier flickered and died, like a candle guttering in the wind.
Sansa would marry him if he asked for her hand. Doran knew that without having to put it to the test. He still remembered the answer she had given him in King’s Landing, when he had secured her for Quentyn: It is not for me to refuse such an offer from the Prince of Dorne.
If she was less afraid of him now than she had been back then, she was no less dutiful. The affection she had come to feel for his family—and perhaps even for himself—might make the duty a less onerous one. But there would be no question of her refusing him. Equals they might be, or nearly so, but a prince still came before a lord, just as a grown man came before a young girl. And besides that, she depended on him for everything. Even the income she now claimed as her own had been given to her by Doran. How could she possibly refuse him, even if she wanted to? No matter what assurances Doran gave her, she would feel obligated to give him the answer she thought he wanted.
Other men might look for that sort of meekness and obedience in a wife, but not Doran. Not when it was Sansa, who had meekness and obedience beaten into her. He wanted Sansa to grow in boldness, in self-assurance, in authority. She would need all the daring she could muster, if she was ever to come into her own.
Doran had spent many hours together with Sansa in this very room, discussing the petty minutiae of governing a realm, from feuding lords to the taxation of wells. Like a pupil to her maester, Sansa answered queries, asked questions, ventured opinions, and offered insights. But all of that would change if they married. The fragile, essential bond they had developed would shatter, and something else would take its place. Undue influence would take the place of trust.
Doran could teach her how to rule—but he could only teach her how to rule as he ruled. And that would not serve her, nor would it serve her people. Dorne was a different place; its people had different needs. When he took a life it was to uphold the laws and protect the people. Eddard Stark had lost his father and his brother when House Stark attempted to avenge the abduction of Lady Lyanna. Eddard Stark had tasted all the bitterness that came with the pursuit of vengeance at a very tender age. Doran could well believe what Sansa said, that he took no satisfaction in swinging a sword.
But for seventeen years now, vengeance had been the single aim of Doran’s life. For himself, he had never doubted his course. But what right did he have to make Sansa his creature, to overwrite the lessons in lordship that Sansa had already learned from her father, and from the formidable Catelyn Tully, who was not only the model of a great lady, but had been raised for many years as Hoster Tully’s heir?
The Starks had held the North for eight thousand years. Who was Doran to question their ways, their principles? Who was the Prince of Dorne to mold the heir to the North in his own likeness, when Sansa was herself the daughter of an ancient line of kings?
Oberyn, on the other hand—if Sansa married Oberyn, it would be different. For one thing, Doran thought that his brother might be able to ask Sansa an honest question and get an honest answer in return. A man of forty-two might be scarcely less intimidating to a girl of Sansa’s years than a man of fifty-three. But Oberyn was not the Prince of Dorne. Its people did not live and die on his bare word. And Oberyn was not Sansa’s guardian; it was not Oberyn who provided for her every need.
Oberyn had gone to great lengths to win Sansa’s trust and favor, but she did not feel the same sense of obligation towards him that she felt towards Doran. Sansa might still be wary of his brother, but she did not hold him in awe. Twice now, Sansa had attacked Oberyn in a fury. She had vented her grief, her rage, and her terror against him, without restraint or fear of reprisal. Granted, it had taken Joffrey’s letter and Meryn Trant’s intrusion to reduce her to such extremity. But Doran could not imagine Sansa striking him, no matter what had happened to her, no matter what she was feeling—or what he had done to provoke it.
Sansa and Oberyn could not be true equals, but Doran suspected that Sansa was capable of defending herself against Oberyn when necessary, of pushing back against him at need. And when she could not, Ellaria would be there as her advocate. Ellaria was in no awe of Oberyn whatsoever, and she cherished Sansa.
“Did I say something wrong?” said Sansa, and only then did Doran realize how long he had sat there, saying nothing, clutching Sansa’s hand as though he was afraid someone would snatch it from his grip.
“No, forgive me. I was woolgathering.” Doran’s hand tightened around Sansa’s; then he released her. “Did you know that I met your lord father once?”
Sansa’s mouth fell open. “No! No, I did not.”
Eddard Stark and his companion, the crannogman, had surrendered without a fight to the Daynes of Starfall. The youthful Lord Stark had been noble enough, or mad enough, to carry Arthur Dayne’s sword back to his sister after he had slain him in single combat. When poor young Ashara threw herself into the sea, her enraged elder brother had ordered Stark and Howland Reed confined to their chambers, and sent a raven to Yronwood, where Doran was visiting Quentyn for the week.
Sansa did not need to know all the details, he supposed.
“Perhaps you have heard that your—your aunt, the Lady Lyanna, died here in Dorne, seventeen years ago, in a tower high in the Red Mountains.”
Sansa averted her eyes. “Yes, I know that my Aunt Lyanna died in the Tower of Joy, after she was kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar Targaryen. I know that your family hates her because it was for her sake that Rhaegar left Princess Elia.”
Doran blinked hard. Somehow, it had never occurred to him that, of course, the Starks must tell that story differently. In Dorne, people preferred to believe that Lady Lyanna had been a willing enough companion to Rhaegar—their princess’s death made for a more romantic tale that way. But in the North, they would tell the tale so as to preserve Lady Lyanna’s honor; if any other version was told, it would never have been repeated to her own niece.
“I never hated Lady Lyanna,” Doran said softly. “She was but a girl of five-and-ten when she sadly died. It was Rhaegar who broke his vows to my sister, Rhaegar who abandoned their children, Rhaegar who shamelessly seduced a maiden half his age. He alone bears the guilt of the consequences.”
Sansa’s brow creased, as if she could not make sense of what he was saying. “In…in King’s Landing, you said to Lord Tyrion…Dorne had the first right to any hostage of Eddard Stark’s line.”
Doran’s stomach sank like a stone. “I had forgotten saying that.”
He was lying; he remembered saying it. He’d simply never paused to consider what Sansa must have felt, what she must have feared, when she heard him say it. Sansa had still been more of an idea than a person to him that night of their first meeting.
“I beg your forgiveness,” Doran said. “I should have explained myself at the first opportunity. Sansa, I have never claimed hostage rights over you. You may read the betrothal contract we signed with Lord Tyrion, if you like—I can have it fetched this instant.”
Sansa’s lower lip fluttered until she caught it with her teeth. “But it is well known that House Martell has grievances with House Stark—”
“It is widely assumed. But I am House Martell, and you are House Stark. Does there exist any grievance between us? If so, I beg you to tell me, that I might put it to rights.”
As Sansa stared at him, Doran reached up and smoothed a straying lock of hair behind her ear. He smiled at her, and she gave him a very small, brief smile in return.
Finally looking his feelings for Sansa in the face had liberated Doran. Always before, he had feared to touch her, feared what she might think of him, what others might think of him. But now he had no more secrets from himself. There was nothing hidden in his heart that he could not honestly confess to his own family. He loved Sansa Stark. If he was a younger man, he would be pleased to ask for her hand in marriage. But he was not a younger man, and that was all there was to it.
“If…if I am House Stark and you are House Martell, then…Dorne is the best and greatest friend the North has ever had,” said Sansa, her eyes bright. “And there is nothing but love and loyalty and friendship in the North for Dorne.”
Doran smiled at her, his mouth wide and soft. It stretched muscles in his face that hadn’t moved in months.
“I took you from the Lannisters for one reason, and one reason only,” he said. “But it was not a reason that would be believed by a man who thinks like Tyrion Lannister. He would stall me for months, trying to search out my hidden motive. So when I made my suit for your hand, I flavored it with a hint of vengeance. He was satisfied that he understood what I was really after, and I got what I wanted.”
Sansa’s brow furrowed. “What was the true reason?” she said.
“They were hurting you,” said Doran, calmly. “And I had to make them stop.”
She stared at him for a long moment, her mouth pinched, as though she were trying not to cry. Then, suddenly, she slid towards him across the chaise and wrapped her arms around her neck. Had her grip been less gentle, she might have strangled him.
Doran pressed both his hands against her back and held Sansa against him, welcoming her for as long as she needed him. When she did not draw away immediately, he spoke low into her ear.
“Your father,” said Doran quietly, “was only a few years older than you when we met. Barely a man, and like you in many other ways. He too had been his father’s second child, not brought up to rule. He too gained lordship over Winterfell unexpectedly, because his father and older brother were murdered by wicked kings.” Doran summoned the fading image of Eddard Stark’s youthful face and found himself smiling against Sansa’s hair. “There are times when you are deep in thought, and your brow creases—your father had such a look about him. I have heard how much you favor your lady mother, but still I can see your father in you.”
Sansa sniffled loudly, then drew away from him to dab at her face with a handkerchief she produced from her bodice. She did not move back to the other end of the chaise, however, and the skirts of her gown brushed his leg.
“What did you and my father speak of when you met?” said Sansa. “Can you recall?”
Doran could recall perfectly. He had been, in those days, like a starving man when it came to any scrap of new intelligence about the death of his sister, and Eddard Stark was willing to say much that Doran had never heard before.
“Lord Dayne attempted to present us to one another formally,” said Doran, remembering the creak of the chamber door opening just before he set eyes on the Lord of Winterfell. “But before Lord Arron could speak, your father fell to his knees. He…begged my pardon for not preventing the deaths of my sister and her children.” There had been tears in Lord Stark’s eyes when he said it; but then, he had only just come from burying his own sister. “He said that he had been on his way to the Red Keep expressly to look after her safety, but that he had been diverted—that a messenger told him that I had already found some secret way to spirit Elia out of King’s Landing and back to Dorne.”
Sansa covered her mouth with her hand for a moment. “Poor Father,” she whispered. “He never spoke of Dorne to us. We were all curious about his travels there, because the servants said that my brother Jon’s mother was a Dornishwoman, but the most we could get out of him was that the south was very hot and dry.”
Doran chuckled. “It was, when he was there.” His smile fell away. “Sansa, there is something I should like to ask you, if you are not too tired for more conversation.”
She shook her head. “I am well enough. What did you wish to say?”
Doran found himself hesitating, searching for the right way to approach the subject. “I have been approached by a person who seeks your hand in marriage.”
Sansa did not, as Doran had feared, grow pale or look frightened. But her spine straightened, as though she was preparing herself to be strong. “Who is the person?” she said.
“I would rather not say at present.” He studied Sansa’s expression. “Do you understand the advantages you stand to gain if you marry?”
“I do,” said Sansa, slightly clipped. “But you must tell me the disadvantages.”
Doran’s mouth twisted. “Of marriage in general, or this suitor in particular?”
“The suitor. Men might be able to speak in general terms, but a lady’s happiness in marriage depends entirely on her husband.”
He smiled, amused and heartened by Sansa’s tartness. “He is much older than you,” said Doran.
“I see,” said Sansa.
“He keeps a woman. They have several children. He will not put her aside for you.”
“I…see,” said Sansa.
“There are no other material disadvantages that I am aware of. He is of high birth and noble family, with abundant wealth and a few fine properties.”
“But, is he…” Sansa shrugged helplessly. “Kind?”
“You yourself have told me that he is kind to you.”
Sansa’s mouth fell open.
“I promised you, when we last we spoke on this subject, that I would not ask you to marry a stranger,” Doran said. “It seems to me that you must know Oberyn as well as you know anyone in Dorne by now. I also promised you time, however, and…that promise is proving difficult to keep.”
Sansa looked down at her hands. “I understand.”
“I do. I understand much after spending an hour in Ser Gerold Dayne’s company.”
Doran grimaced. “Yes, I suppose you would have.” He looked out toward the balcony, and the stars glittering beyond it. “Just before I came to you, Oberyn begged permission to ask for your hand. I gave it to him, but I can withdraw it if you like. You need not marry him unless you wish it. You need not even give ear to his proposals.”
Sansa wet her lips. “I needn’t marry him,” she said slowly. “But…I could, if I wished?”
Doran arched eyebrow at her. Sansa flushed, but her gaze was steady. “You must approve of the match, or you would never have mentioned it to me in the first place.”
He conceded the truth with a sigh. “I would not refuse my approval, no. If the both of you truly desired to marry, how could I deny you? But Sansa, think on this carefully. Could you truly be happy as Oberyn’s wife? You know his character, his nature. He is more than three times your age and he will not change his habits to suit you.”
“I have some idea of his habits, after spending so much time in his household,” said Sansa, a hint of a smile softening the corner of her mouth. “They were not so shocking as I had been led to believe. But Ellaria—you said Oberyn would not put her aside?”
“No. Nor will he live apart from his daughters.”
“Good. If it meant his leaving Ellaria or the girls, I should refuse him at once.” Her brow creased. “In all honesty, I could not imagine being married to Oberyn without Ellaria at my side. He can be quite…overwhelming on his own.”
Doran had thought that news of Oberyn’s proposal would bring out Sansa’s vulnerability, not her practicality. He wasn’t sure how to feel about it.
“Am I to take it, then, that you are disposed to accept my brother’s suit?” he said.
“I would not say so as yet.” Her expression grew hastily more guarded. “But…I am willing to hear what he has to say. I was not expecting this proposal. I should like to understand Prince Oberyn better, and…perhaps even ask him a few questions.”
Her last statement was not a question, but her eyes sought Doran’s for approval regardless.
Ask him every question you can think of, Doran answered her silently. Rake him across the coals. Turn his soul inside out. If there is anything in him that is not worthy of you, drag it into the light, so he can mend it.
“I forbid you to marry him unless you are convinced that he can make you happy,” said Doran. His tone was light, but he looked Sansa in the eye until she saw that he was serious. “Do not accept him out of any notion of gratitude, or duty, or expediency.” He leaned forward, until their gazes were level. “You are the Lady of Winterfell. A role of that sort that consumes one’s entire life. I will not rush you into this marriage or any other, for I know too well that it may be the last important decision you are ever free to make for yourself. Consider your happiness alone when you consider Oberyn’s suit.”
Sansa was wide-eyed by the end of this speech, but she nodded.
“Do you think that he loves me at all?” she said, in a small voice.
Doran felt a rush of impossible tenderness. “You are,” he said, “quite difficult not to love, Sansa.”