A sudden rush of light and fresh air jolts her from her troubled sleep. She tries to bury her face in her pillows, only to have her bedclothes ripped off of her violently.
“Up,” Aunt Lyanna says, sitting atop Sansa’s bedside and brushing a curtain of greasy red hair from her face, “You’ve been in bed a week, and court convenes in three hours.”
“So?” Sansa asks, scoffing, “Why should that matter to me? It’s not as if I have a place there anymore.”
“Don’t be absurd,” the queen replies, “Remember who you are. You’re Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell, daughter of the Lord of the North, Granddaughter of the Lord of the Riverlands, Niece to the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and the Lord of the Vale–”
“-The jilted cast-offs of the prince of Dragonstone-”
The queen looks as if she’s about to say something, but appears to think better of it.
“Niece, I am ordering you, as your queen, to get out of bed. You are going to get up, bathe, dress, and walk into the throne room with the pride of a Stark, understand? Show that brat Aegon every inch of what he’s missed out on.”
Sansa feels bile rush to her throat. “Aegon? Aegon is going to be there?”
“Aye,” Lyanna says, getting to her feet and striding to Sansa’s dressing table, “We dragged that spoiled shit and that common slut back to court. And I can assure you, the king is none too pleased with either.”
Two of the five maids Lyanna brought with her help Sansa out of bed and into a tub of steaming water scented with the aroma of almonds and roses. Lady pads over to the side of the tub and nuzzles the hand Sansa hangs over the edge. Sansa strokes her wolf’s ears affectionately. Lady has barely moved from her bedside all week.
Sansa watches her aunt suspiciously as Lyanna goes through her jewel-chest. Her aunt has always been a bit of a mystery to her. To everyone, really. To this day, no one aside from the king and his wife seem to be sure what occurred between them that led to the Rebellion and their marriage. Some claimed Lyanna was abducted and raped, others insisted she ran off with the king in a swirl of rebellion and romance. After four years at court observing the royal couple, Sansa’s been inclined to think it was somewhere in the middle. The two seemed to love one another, but her aunt always seemed rather unsatisfied and melancholy.
Aunt Lyanna was never unkind to Sansa, but their relationship has always been a bit strained. Lyanna had more in common with Sansa’s wild younger sister, Arya, and it was clear before long that the queen would have preferred a girl of Arya’s inclinations to join her at court than Sansa. Queen Lyanna is a wild woman herself, a voracious huntress and rider who adored besting men with a blade. Far, far more than she enjoyed holding court, that was certain. Queen Lyanna had no patience for pomp, pageantry, or the feminine arts, often eschewing gowns for breeches and leaving her ladies to ride out to the kingswood with her two eldest daughters, Visenya and Lyarra, who had similar dispositions.
When Sansa came to court, it was clear that Lyanna expected her to be similar: to look and act like a Northern girl in full. Indeed, apparently she’d gotten the descriptions of her two nieces from her brother’s letters mixed up, and had expected the scabby-kneed tom-boy, not the perfect lady.
Upon discovering the mistake, the queen encouraged Sansa to be more like her ideal: to ride, learn to fight, to hunt like mad. She pushed her niece to pursue every activity designated as more “masculine”, to unexpected results. Aside from taking up the bow and falconry as regular hobbies, Sansa ended up resisting all of her aunt’s martial inclinations. Instead she took the opportunity of the “freedom” her aunt offered her to read everything her Septa back in Winterfell deemed “unfit” for a lady, and became even more engrossed in reading than she’d been prior. She took up statecraft, trade, astronomy, art, and music over swords and lances. And even when hawking, she had a habit of releasing her game that drove her aunt mad.
Ironically, Sansa ended up becoming closer to the king than the Stark queen, something Sansa sensed bothered her aunt as well.
“If you’re going to be a queen and survive a marriage to my spoiled step-son,” Lyanna had told her, “You have to be strong.”
Another thing Lyanna couldn’t stand: the fact that her niece worshipped the ground Aegon walked.
It was no secret that the relationship between the Crown Prince and his Stark step-mother was strained. That was partly why the betrothal was crafted in the first place. Princess Elia, Aegon’s mother and Rhaegar’s first wife, died during Robert’s Rebellion. Rhaegar had left Elia (and their two children) to run off with Aunt Lyanna, sparking the war. Rhaegar won the war, of course, making Lyanna his queen, something that infuriated Houses Martell and Stark. But a betrothal between Prince Viserys and Princess Arianne, the heir to Dorne, and the fact that Elia’s son remained heir to the Iron Throne managed to placate the Martells. House Stark, however, was another story. They feared for Aunt Lyanna’s safety, and that only got worse as Prince Aegon grew up resenting his step-mother, viewing her as a whore who humiliated, killed, and supplanted his mother. The fact that King Rhaegar had sent his son with Lyanna, Prince Jon, off to foster in the Reach at a young age as well didn’t help.
So, to try and bridge the gap and promote a reconciliation between the half-Martell Crown Prince and the House Stark, the betrothal was arranged.
Sansa left her home in the North at age eleven to come to King’s Landing to get to know her future husband. And she thought she had. Aegon, despite his resentment towards her Aunt Lyanna, was always kind, gallant, and lovely to her. He was everything a prince should be: tall, strong, handsome, well-mannered. And Sansa thought he’d come to love her. Despite the fact that their betrothal was set in stone before they’d even met, he’d courted her upon her arrival to the Red Keep, writing her poems and songs, giving her gifts, escorting her to events, and calling her his lady love. As she grew older, he began stealing kisses and even touched her a few times in a way that gave her shivers and even… Well, he did some wicked things to her that often left her dizzy and boneless. Wicked, wicked things he assured her weren’t worth confessing or atoning for, as they were his sins. And not once did he ever let her reciprocate.
Her prince, with his amethyst eyes and mischievous smile, made her life seem like a dream. How many favors had she made him, ones he’s pressed to his lips and proudly worn? How many times had she sworn her love to him, only to have him swear it right back?
She did everything she could to be his ideal bride-to-be. She worshipped him.
Sansa still remembers the last time she saw him. He’d taken off for Dragonstone to prepare it for their use. On their wedding day, Aegon would formally be granted the ancestral seat of the heir to the Iron Throne, and their wedding wasn’t too far off. Before stepping onto the ship, he’d donned the new cloak she’d made him and kissed her fingertips formally. Then as if he couldn’t contain his passion, he grabbed her before all the court and all of Blackwater Bay and kissed her lips deep. Highly improper, but oh-so-thrilling. And then he’d sprinted toward the ship, grinning.
It had left her so dazed that it wasn’t until later that she thought to blush over so many lords and ladies witnessing that kiss.
Aegon wrote to her to say he felt that Dragonstone would require far more modifications than expected for it to be worthy of her. And so he’d requested more funds from the treasury, and sated her with daily letters assuring her of his love. He told her of the things he was building for her, things based on what she missed from Winterfell: a lemon tree orchard, glass gardens, a fancy bathing chamber with a tub that would be as big as the Hot Spring baths from back home, but twice as fine.
Lyanna’s warnings, always taken with a grain of salt, turned true. Word came from Dragonstone. Aegon had eloped with Daena Valeryon, daughter of the Lord of Driftmark, a “dragonseed”, and declared her his princess.
His letter to his father (he didn’t write to Sansa), declared his bride to be of “proper and worthy Valyrian blood, a descendent of our own royal bloodline, with the silver-gold hair and amethyst eyes to prove it. A proper vessel to purify our bloodline and preserve the traits of Old Valyria.”
That wasn’t enough, however. Despite not sending Sansa an explanation, it was clear he intended to send her a message. The date Aegon gave for his clandestine wedding was the same date as Sansa’s fifteenth Name Day, and he’d sent her letters— lying letters— assuring her of his love following that date.
Lyanna was right. Lyanna was right all along.
Not that Sansa felt particularly inclined to turn to her aunt now. Lyanna hadn’t exactly offered Sansa a shoulder to cry on when the news came, preferring instead to devote her time to arguing with her husband and his council. When she did come to visit Sansa before, her manner was patronizing and cloying.
For years, Lyanna warned Sansa not to trust anyone in King’s Landing. Sansa’s all too ready to take that advice now.
Brokenhearted she may be, but Sansa isn’t stupid. There have been rumors for years about how Queen Lyanna desires to see her own son, Prince Jon, supplant his elder half-brother, and that it was partly why King Rhaegar sent Jon to foster in the Reach when he was eight. Sansa’s only ever exchanged light correspondence with her cousin, and though he’s always been kind and courteous in his letters, she always got the odd feeling that she was being condescended to.
Everyone knows the story of Duncan, the Prince of the Dragonflies, who gave up his crown to marry Jenny of the Oldstones. But that was different. Jenny was a common girl with no name or title behind her. Lady Daena is of one of the chief Houses of the Crownlands, a family that has married into House Targaryen multiple times, who shared Valyrian ancestry with the royal family.
If not for the betrothal, she’d probably be considered a fine match for Prince Aegon. And he wouldn’t be the first king of Westeros to have broken a betrothal in his youth— just look at Jaehaerys II.
Not to mention, there’s the precedent set by Rhaegar himself. How could the king justify disinheriting his son for defying his designated match to wed another when… Well…
Everyone in King’s Landing plays a game, Sansa knows that. Even before Aegon jilted her, she knew that. But she’d always thought his game was to raise up his Martell cousins when he took the throne. She never imagined this.
Lyanna is no different.
As Sansa is helped out of the tub, the doors open, and Visenya, her looks as Targaryen as her name, marches in carrying a velvet-wrapped parcel. “It’s ready,” she tells her mother.
Lyanna rises from Sansa’s dressing table, leaving an array of carefully-arranged pieces laying out on the surface. Sansa takes her aunt’s place, watching her royal aunt and cousin unwrap the parcel through the mirror as the maids dry and comb her hair.
Yards of shimmering, silvery-white damask and myrish lace spill out of the velvet, and Sansa’s heart stops. It’s her wedding gown, completed, with a chain of pearls studding the trim.
Lyanna and Visenya smirk at her.
“You’re going to dazzle the room,” Lyanna says, “You’ll look every inch a queen.”
Sansa gazes longingly at the exquisite brocade, then glances back at the surface of the dressing table. Sapphires Aegon gifted her gleam up at her.
She clenches her teeth, furious, and shoves the gems off the table. She stands and turns, glaring at Lyanna and Visenya.
“I will not…” She snaps. Her aunt groans.
“Sansa, you’re a direwolf. You’re a Stark. You must be fierce and strong. I will not let you hide yourself away like–”
“—No!” Sansa shouts again. The whole chamber falls silent. Never once has she raised her voice to anyone, let alone the queen. “I am a wolf! But I am not some doll for you to dress up and parade out. I will not wear the gown of a wedding that shall not be, I will not wear his sapphires. Send my regular maids in and get out.”
Lyanna stares at her, alarmed. “Niece…”
“—I assure you, Aunt Lyanna, you will see me at court, and I will appear every inch a Stark. Now leave.”
She has the gown, the sapphires, and every other bauble Aegon ever gifted her sent to his new bride. When she enters the throne room, she does not need to glitter. She wears an ivory silk with grey velvet trim, with a posey of blue winter roses pinned to her bodice. They match the crown of blossoms atop her head. Yet more of the flowers are pinned to Lady’s collar. She dons no jewels. What need does she have for them when she is literally leading a wolf the size of a horse? The gown is simple, but it shows off her figure better than anything else in her wardrobe, and she never fails to make heads turn when she wears it.
Sansa meets every pitying eye with a smile, and she climbs the dais to take her usual place with her cousins, Visenya and Lyarra. She is still the queen’s niece and lady-in-waiting. The place is still hers.
The king, however, has other plans. He gazes at her appraisingly, and gestures for her to come over to him. Sansa stands before the Iron Throne and curtseys. King Rhaegar surprises her by taking her hands in his. Their eyes meet. His are kind.
“My Sweet Niece, you are very brave. My most profound apologies.”
“You are too kind, Your Grace,” Sansa replies modestly.
Before he can say another word, however, one of the heralds announces the Prince and Princess of Dragonstone, and Sansa hurries to her place.
Aegon and his new bride are escorted by guards. Princess Daena wears the very costume Lyanna intended for Sansa: the gown, the sapphires. Both of them look thoroughly pleased with themselves.
Sansa doesn’t hesitate to meet Aegon’s violet eyes. She does not flinch, though she wishes to. Just seeing him is painful. Seeing the obvious glee with which he presents his new bride is worse. What had Sansa done to make him want to hurt her so?
The two of them kneel before the throne, and for once, King Rhaegar doesn’t immediately gesture for them to rise. Instead, he looks down at his son and new good-daughter with a sad resignation.
“Aegon of House Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone and Lady Daena Valeryon of Driftmark, you are found guilty of entering into an unlawful union, of a violation of sacred vows made before Gods and Men, and endangering the succession, security, and stability of the Iron Throne. Your elopement has not only violated the orders of your king, but done grievous insult to our allies and dishonored a good lady of high birth and morals. In so doing, you have endangered the very peace that the Seven Kingdoms have worked so hard to achieve and severely undermined our most holy relationship with our good vassals. You’ve dishonored your position, you’ve dishonored our people, you’ve dishonored your suitors, you’ve dishonored your Houses, and you’ve dishonored yourselves. Tell me, what do you have to say for yourself, my son?”
Aegon looks up at his father and smiles. “I only followed precedent, Your Grace.”
King Rhaegar rises, incensed. “A precedent of reigniting a war that nearly destroyed our dynasty? A precedent of dishonor?”
“If that is how you see it, Father. I bow to your judgment.”
The throne room erupts in whispers. This is dangerous. Aegon has only managed to place his father’s hypocrisy front and center. He’s trapped the king.
Rhaegar looks at his eldest son sadly and walks down from the dais. He stands over his kneeling son and raises him up. “You’re right, my son. For too long, I have placed the burden of my mistakes on you. I did everything I accuse you of to your mother and her House, and more. And in my efforts to rectify my mistakes, I forced you into my atonement. You don’t deserve that. I violated custom and honor to do as I wished, and the consequences should be mine to shoulder alone. Though I maintain that my queen is blameless in all of this, Elia’s memory deserves better than to have the same injustice done her be rewarded and to have her son forced to bear the responsibility for it. You deserve the same freedom she did, my son. And even though you’ve chosen to emulate the crime I did your mother, you still don’t deserve to endure the consequences of them. I’m sorry, Aegon. All I ask, however, is that you show remorse to the one you did harm.”
Aegon smiles, nods, and turns toward the dais, looking right at Sansa. “My dear Lady of House Stark, I cannot begin to rectify the harm I’ve done you. If there was any way I might spare your heart, I would. You are a lady of the finest qualities, as gracious as you are beautiful, and any man would be lucky to have you. Please know, it was not any failing of yours that prompted my actions, but my own weakness and the fact that I lost my heart to another. I am unworthy of you, My Lady. I know it. I dare not assume your forgiveness, but I humbly beg for it nonetheless.”
He smirks throughout this little speech. Every smug word is yet another blow, another confirmation that he never loved her, that he’d fooled her.
But what does it truly matter? The king has forgiven him. And she’ll never truly escape this humiliation. She will spend the rest of her life the jilted, unwanted woman, expected to serve Prince Aegon and Princess Daena, and later King Aegon and Queen Daena. This will follow her forever.
She’ll still make an excellent match, of course. Her family will have to be appeased, and part of that will be ensuring she have a bright future. But she’ll still always be the subject of the man who purposely broke her heart.
But she’s not going to wilt away. She’s not going to give Aegon the reaction he’s clearly looking for.
Sansa forces a smile to her face, eliciting gasps from the court. “Prince Aegon, I wish you and your new princess every happiness.”
She alights from the dais, moving towards the newlywed, leading Lady to walk beside her. Aegon’s smile falls from his lips, and both he and his new bride look frightened. The throne room rumbles with shock and speculation.
Daena does indeed have purple eyes and silver-gold hair, but her looks end there. She’s got a plain, spotted face. Sansa can’t tell if that makes this better or worse.
Sansa moves before them, stops, and curtseys. She even kisses Princess Daena’s new sapphire ring, and smiles up at her replacement.
“You’ll have to get your royal husband to replace the stones with amethysts to better match your eyes, My Princess,” Sansa says sweetly, “And hopefully you’ll be able to alter the gown to better suit your own origins.”
Both Aegon and Daena go stony-faced. The jewels are sapphires, a precious stone, to match Sansa’s eyes. And the gown Daena wears is basically a giant Stark tapestry. They’d presented themselves to the court draped in a giant tribute to the House Aegon meant to insult, and brought attention to the fact that his new princess would have to downgrade to semi-precious stones in order to free herself of Sansa’s cast-offs and achieve the same personal touch the gift originally had.
King Rhaegar shocks Sansa by taking her hand. “It seems Lyanna’s niece takes after the best parts of Elia more than her own son. Now, Aegon, as I promised, you’ve made amends. And thus, I free you to live the life you want.”
The wildly speculating hall comes to a sudden silence. Sansa’s heart freezes.
“Aegon of House Targaryen,” Rhaegar announces, “I hereby release you from the seat of Dragonstone, the inheritance of the Iron Throne, and all other burdens of leadership and rule of our family name. You are freed from the line of succession and all pertaining duties and responsibilities, as are your future heirs, and you shall henceforth be known as Lord Aegon, Prince of the Blood, with an honored place at court and a fair income to accompany your new rank. You are free to do as you wish with your life.”
The color drains from Aegon’s handsome face. “You… You can’t do this… House Martell…”
“House Martell are still our kin,” Rhaegar replies, “Bonds which are compounded by the union between our brother Viserys and their Princess Arianne. Meanwhile, the Houses Stark, Tully, and Arryn require appeasement. Your brother fills the Stark role, but the ties to the Tullys and Arryns are not guaranteed. At least, not until the proper blood ties are secured.”
“You… You can’t….”
“Yes, Aegon, I can. Don’t worry, you will always have a place at court, if you wish. You and your new bride are of course expected to remain here until Jon arrives and you’ve sworn the proper vows to him. And I will expect you to attend the wedding, as well, and show Lady Sansa the same honor she’s shown you. But after that… Whatever you wish… The world is your oyster. You’re a free man.”
Sansa absorbs the full impact of these words, and everything they mean. She tries not to shake.
Aegon and his new wife begin to howl and curse, but Sansa takes no satisfaction in their fury. Rhaegar orders court done with, and has his son and new good-daughter escorted out. The lords and ladies file out, and Rhaegar turns to Sansa with a sad smile. Aunt Lyanna, grinning from ear to ear, joins them at once.
“You’re to be our daughter after all, Lady Sansa,” King Rhaegar says with a strained, affected warmth. He grips her hand tightly.
Sansa swallows. “Please, Your Graces, I am flattered, but there’s no need for you to do such things on my account.”
“Come now, my lady,” Rhaegar tells her, “I thought you always wanted to be queen.”
The combination of Aegon’s betrayal and observing her aunt for nearly half a decade have made her reconsider. “It isn’t about that, I—”
She just wants to be free of this place, the halls in which Aegon kissed her lips, made her a thousand promises, and broke her heart. The walls built on deceit. She wants to go home, to people who truly loved her.
“—You’ll make a wonderful queen. Probably a far better one than myself,” Lyanna says, letting out a bark of laughter, “You’re made to be one. The perfect lady since age three, as your parents always said.”
“And after all these years, I can hardly let you go, can I? Who will I play duets with?” Rhaegar asks.
“My son isn’t like Aegon, Sansa,” Lyanna tells her, “He’s honest, honorable, and dutiful. He’s like your father. He even looks a bit like Ned.”
Sansa doesn’t want someone like her father, she wants her father.
“Jonny’s a sweetheart!”
Sansa nearly jumps at the sound of Lyarra’s voice. She looks behind her. Both princesses stand there, smiling eagerly. When did they get there?
She feels sick, oh so sick. She hasn’t seen Jon face to face since she was three.
But that’s never mattered, has it? She’s allowed her feelings for Aegon to keep her oblivious all this time. Sansa was never here as family. She’s a hostage. She’s always been a hostage. She was sent here to marry Rhaegar’s heir and secure the loyalties of all of her kin. And she’s going to do that, whether she wants to or not. The political capital she comes with is more important than anything to them. It’s what keeps them in power. And Rhaegar is willing to disown his own son for it.
“I… I suppose I could meet my cousin.”
Her aunt and uncle lean back, pleased.
“We’ve already summoned Jon back to court. He’s due to arrive in three short weeks,” Lyanna says, “In the meantime, though, why don’t we order you a new trousseau?”
“She’s very beautiful,” Sam remarks.
Jon looks at his foster brother, incredulous. He and the ill-favored Tarly son recline in the sumptuous chambers Lord Varner gave the prince. When they arrived at the Roseroad Keep that afternoon, the lord presented Jon with a package from the Red Keep along with the accommodations. It turned out to be a miniature of his new bride-to-be, his cousin, Sansa Stark.
Jon can’t help but wonder, looking down at painted ivory, if this bauble belonged to Aegon a few weeks ago. How many more of his hand-me-downs should he expect? Jon’s already been granted his title, his inheritance, his bride…
The portrait does indeed depict a stunning young woman, with flowing auburn hair, big, blue eyes, creamy skin, high cheekbones, and bow-shaped lips. But Jon has rarely come across a portrait of a highborn maiden that doesn’t possess these same attributes, even if the supposed subject had spots and a lazy eye. That Lady Sansa is pretty, Jon doesn’t doubt, his mother has been saying as much in her letters for years. But he doubts his cousin in the porcelain-doll-goddess this miniature promises.
Not that he cares too much about that. Mother also said Lady Sansa is frivolous, a “perfect lady”, who didn’t care to take advantage of the freedoms offered to her and learn to fight. Mother complained often that Lady Sansa was content to adhere to the rigid, dull lifestyle of a highborn maid, more interested in fashion than adventure. That she fell madly in love with Aegon, and ignored all of his mother’s warnings about him. That she loved silk dresses, handsome knights, songs of romance, and shiny baubles, and that she loathed the sight of blood.
Of course, the moment Aegon threw his birthright aside like a bag of dung, the queen’s descriptions of Lady Sansa became more favorable. Her beauty and virtue were stressed, and Mother assured Jon that the lady “learned her lesson” after being jilted. That she enjoys hawking and has a lovely voice, that she’s “an ideal queen.”
Jon, the unwanted prince, has never desired an “ideal queen” and he’s not sure he wants one now. He’s always preferred girls like his mother and sisters: athletic, unconventional, ready to ride and joust and spar with him.
His cousin is a sweet, if spoiled girl, and he knows she’s blameless in all of this, but not only is she by all accounts a ninny, but even in their scant correspondence over the years he’s detected a certain reticence from her.
Of course, that hardly makes her any different from almost everyone else. Until a few weeks ago, Jon was the family embarrassment, the prince that the king would rather everyone forget. The product of the king’s insults to House Martell, the ashes of Robert’s Rebellion. Too male to be as unthreatening as his sisters, too questionable to be a valuable bargaining chip. Even his legitimacy was questioned. Father had shipped him off to Horn Hill when he was eight, and mostly ignored him since.
Jon is hardly pleased to suddenly find himself the favored son and heir. Sam has always been more a brother to him than Aegon ever was, and Jon made peace with his status a while back. He’d learned not to pin his self-worth on a father and kingdom that didn’t want him and embrace the freedom that being the second son afforded him. Besides, court was a cesspool of deceit and corruption. Why should Jon want any part of that when he could gain his knighthood and use his name and income to forge his own path?
Until, of course, Aegon went and ruined everything.
Now Aegon has the freedom (not that the spoiled tit probably appreciated it), and Jon is saddled with all the responsibility, dragged back to the court of the father that never wanted him, to marry a stranger who will spend the rest of her life comparing him to his fancy, handsome half-brother.
Sure, his mother might be thrilled with this development, but for Jon, it means a life of being the second choice.
Jon holds the miniature down to the eye-level of Ghost, his direwolf. “What do you think, Old Friend?” He asks, “Do we like her?”
The direwolf wags his massive tail in reply.
“Is that for her, or your littermate?” The image depicted Lady Sansa sitting beside her own direwolf, from the same litter Ghost came from. At least that will be interesting. Though the fact that Sansa named her wolf “Lady” is worthy of an eyeroll.
Ghost cocks his head, which could mean anything.
“You should send her something,” Sam suggests.
“There’s no time to have my portrait done,” Jon responds, taking a sip from his tankard of ale.
“Obviously. But you said she like pretty things, right? Send her a piece of jewelry. A necklace or bracelet or something. Maybe something with sapphires, to match her eyes.”
“How am I supposed to get sapphires?” Jon asks.
“You were saving up your pocket money for a new set of blades, remember? But your parents already sent you all the new things you could want. So why don’t you use the money?”
Jon frowns. A good point. Jon had worked hard to earn and save up that gold, only for all of his new princely trappings to arrive just as he was about to reach his goal, rendering the two-year-effort more or less pointless. Something must be done with the gold, he supposes.
“Sapphires?” Jon asks. Sam nods.
“Like her eyes. In all the best romantic stories and poems, a lady’s eyes are mentioned. You can have it sent ahead. It may break the ice. And she did send you something…”
“Fine. We’ll head down to the market tomorrow before we leave.”
Sam helps him select two sapphire cuffs the next morning. “You should write a note.”
Jon isn’t much of a writer. And he’s not sure what to say. But he does it.
These sapphires are the exact color of your eyes.
Jon can barely remember the layout of the Red Keep, it’s been so long. Ten years, more than half his life. His mother’s letters tell him what to expect. Aegon will be there, probably plotting to poison him, because Father insists that the old crown prince pay homage to the new one. To make sure the whole thing is as awkward as possible, Aegon’s new wife will be there as well.
The Dornish courtiers are none too pleased, but Mother says that they blame Aegon as much as they do the Starks, and that many lords and ladies from the Northern Alliance Kingdoms— the North, Vale, and Riverlands– will be there to support them. He’ll be allowed to keep Ghost close by most of the time, since Sansa was permitted to keep Lady. As long as he made sure the wolf behaved, he’d be fine.
He’ll be watched and judged constantly, even by the Stark faction, who will want to make sure their lady is happy following her humiliation. Thousands of eyes will look to find fault with him and declare him an unfit prince.
No pressure, really. With every step closer to King’s Landing, Jon feels the apprehension grow heavier. He doesn’t want this. They don’t want him. So why, why is this happening?
I’ll be keeping Mother safe, he reminds himself. Lyanna Stark was never going to flourish under Aegon VI. But with her son as king, her future is assured. So there’s that.
When they’re at the City Border, his retinue is stopped, and servants swarm around him, pushing him into a tent and the bathtub within said tent, coming at him with scissors and razors and perfumes and silks. Before Jon is fully aware of what has occurred, he’s sitting atop his horse again in black and scarlet brocade, his beard trimmed and perfumed, his normally-unruly curls cut and slicked back, a ruby-studded chain dangling across his chest, and shod in boots shiny enough to render his reflection from the stirrups. Even Ghost has acquired a new collar and a very confused expression.
He looks down at Madrick, his Master of the Guard. “I suppose I’m finally fit to be seen?”
“Indeed,” Madrick confirms before calling for the gates to be opened. He hands Jon a sack of coins.
“What are these for?”
Jon isn’t prepared for the roar that erupts from the crowded streets when he rides in. He’s not prepared to hear his name being called, or for anyone to appear happy to see him. He’s not prepared for the children on their father’s shoulders, reaching their chubby arms out to him. He’s not prepared for the thin, hungry-looking men, women, and urchins to run into his path. Sam has to elbow him in the stomach for him to remember to throw the coins. He’s not prepared to see grey and white direwolf banners amidst the Targaryen flags, or for children to point to Ghost in delight rather than terror. He’s not prepared for the pretty maidens who blush when he looks their way.
The tidal wave of adulation follows him the closer he gets to the Red Keep. By the time those gates open, he’s almost forgotten a lifetime of being the unwanted prince.
The court is assembled on a marble dais, his family at the very front. His sisters and Aunt Daenerys wave at the sight of him, delighted. But it’s his mother’s eyes he finds first: the Stark-grey irises. She grins at him, and he can see the pride there. It warms his heart even more than the crowds.
But then, of course, there’s the King.
My father, Jon reminds himself. He has to do that sometimes. Rhaegar Targaryen has always seemed more his mother’s husband and his king than his father. Even when Jon lived with his family, the king had little time for him. The only remotely father-like warmth Jon ever received was from Ser Barristan Selmy, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Jon looks for the old knight among the crowd, and both men smile upon catching one another’s eyes.
Then, of course, there’s Aegon. Jon feels his older brother’s eyes on him well before he meets that purple gaze. Jon’s hands ball into fists when he beholds his brother. You did this, Jon wants to shout at him, You did this, so don’t you dare hate me for it.
Jon glances at the silver-haired young woman at Aegon’s side. She wears a matching look of loathing, but it’s easily the most remarkable thing about her face. He scans the lines for a sign of his new betrothed, but finds nothing.
Jon dismounts and approaches his family carefully. He has to get this just right.
He walks up the steps, and drops into a kneel seven steps down from his father’s feet.
“My King,” he recites, “It is my honor to come before you.”
All of a sudden, there is a gloved hand under his chin, pushing his gaze upward into a pair of affectionate violet eyes.
“My son!” Rhaegar cries in a tone that makes Jon wonder who he’s speaking to. “My Jon!”
Now he’s being embraced, pulled to his father’s broad, silk-clad chest. Thoroughly confused, the young prince looks into the king’s eyes, half expecting the man to shed tears.
Rhaegar releases him and scans his from head to toe. “You’ve become a fine man, my son,” the king declares, “I couldn’t be prouder.”
“Neither can I. Now, may I please also embrace our son?” Lyanna Stark snipes, though with a smiles on her face and tears glistening at the corners of her eyes. Her hug is warmer and tighter than Rhaegar’s, and Jon returns it gratefully.
“I’ve missed you,” he whispers to her.
“I’ve missed you,” she replies.
Jon embraces his sisters and aunt affectionately, truly thrilled to see them. His Aunt Daenerys is more beautiful than ever, Visenya looks like she could take on an army, and Lyarra is his mother in miniature.
When Aegon comes to shake his hand, the two brothers end up battling for control, trying desperately to make the other give in. It’s not until Lady Daena clears her throat that Aegon lets go and introduces his new wife. Jon kisses her cheek and greets her as ‘Sister.’
She has no chance to reply when the king steps forward and clears his throat. There’s suddenly a cloaked, hooded figure on his arm.
“And now, my son, the person that perhaps, you’ve been most eager to meet,” Rhaegar declares pompously as he reaches for the hood, “Allow me to present the Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell.”
The hood falls and Jon finds himself speechless.
She’s not as pretty as the miniature. She’s prettier. She’s utterly stunning. Up until now, the most beautiful woman Jon has ever seen is Margaery Tyrell, the doe-eyed daughter of the Lord of Highgarden. But even Lady Margaery pales in comparison to the woman before him.
The deep blue of her eyes are like an ocean, and Jon almost feels like he’s drowning in them. Her creamy skin makes his fingers shake with the urge to stroke it. Her hair is a river of silken fire. Strawberry-colored lips frame a dazzling smile.
She drifts into a curtsey dainty and graceful enough to set his teeth on edge. He expects a high-pitched, girlish voice. But when she greets him, it’s with a low, husky, velvet-like tone.
Jon swallows heavily. He can’t tell which is worse: the lump in his throat, or the one stirring in his pants.
She’s for him?
He looks her up and down, amazed, absolutely undone—
—Until his eyes find her wrists.
Her bare wrists. Elegant, slender, and uncovered by the cuffs he spent two years of pocket money on.
Indignation takes over. This is the first time they’ve met. He’d sent her the product of two years of squiring for Randyll fucking Tarly, and she couldn’t even be bothered to wear them?
He observes her perfect smile again. It’s too perfect. It’s fixed. And he realizes that those blue eyes of hers don’t sparkle with a matching joy. She’s not happy to meet him, she’s playing a part.
If anything, now that he observes her more carefully, she looks like she’s been frozen in place, and is in pain, almost.
Jon tries to calm himself. Perhaps the package simply didn’t arrive. He’s jumping to conclusions. He takes a deep breath and presses her knuckles to his lips.
“Sweet Cousin, it is my honor to meet you. I’d been told to expect a beauty, but nothing could have prepared me for this.”
“You are much too kind, My Prince,” she says quietly, “You’re even more handsome than I’d been told.”
There’s something to her tone, and undercurrent, that sets Jon on edge. If he didn’t know any better, he’d guess she was mocking him somehow.
“But not as handsome as some, I suppose,” he replies, watching her carefully.
“As handsome as I could have hoped.”
That was definitely a charged remark. And Jon sees it, clear as day. I didn’t want you.
I didn’t want you, either, he thinks, And neither did he.
Everyone files into the palace, and Jon takes the opportunity to quietly inquire to his betrothed if she received his gift.
“I did,” she replies, “Thank you. It was very kind.”
“I wasn’t sure,” he stresses as they follow his parents through the entry hall, “When I saw your wrists, I feared their delivery had been delayed. It would be a great shame, as I had very much hoped to see the sapphires, considering the expense.”
Her nose actually wrinkles. “Perhaps you’d rather see me wearing a necklace made of coins, if expense is so important to you.”
“Not everyone can drop a pound of gold to buy a lady jewels,” Jon says, “I know things are different at court, but generally, people have to work for their money.”
“Hardly something you’ll have to worry about, I think,” Sansa responds, “You’re clearly happy to try and buy your way into anything that isn’t handed to you.”
Randyll Tarly is a hard-nosed, thin-lipped, cruel, miserly son of a bitch. Ever since Jon set foot at Horn Hill, Lord Tarly made it clear how much of a burden it was to take in “the half-bastard”. Nothing Jon did was ever good enough for the man, especially after Jon dared to befriend and defend Lord Tarly loathed older son, Sam. Jon’s adolescence had been characterized by his guardian’s determination to teach him “humility” and to be a “real soldier.” The man hadn’t even granted Jon his knighthood, despite the years of service and skill Jon had displayed. No, that came from Garlan Tyrell. And even after that, the man had Jon, an anointed knight, mucking the stables and polishing his boots like a lowly squire, all to be paid an absolute pittance.
It took two years for Jon to save up his “wages” (which, given they came from the royal treasury anyways, were more rightfully his now that he’d reached manhood than they were Lord Randyll’s) to acquire gold that most squires were paid in a year. He’d spent that two years all to buy her those bracelets, as it turned out, rather than the blade set he’d wanted. Two years of serving a man who only seemed to find joy in flogging his servants for sneezing in his presence.
He’d practically had to pry every copper penny out of Tarly’s fists.
“Handed to him”, indeed.
“I’m sorry for thinking of you,” he retorts, furious, “I had hoped you’d like them. Perhaps you prefer diamonds. But I thought sapphires might—”
“—Match my eyes?” She interrupts, “Next time, save your gold. I have an entire lockbox of sapphires, courtesy of my last intended. Sure, none of them resemble literal shackles, but it’s a bit on the nose, don’t you think?”
Jon gapes at her, utterly floored by this pronouncement of spoiled entitlement.
“May I remind you,” he hisses, “That I am to be your husband and your king.”
“I don’t need to be reminded of that, I assure you. I know my place.”
“Do you?” He asks, baffled. Mother always said that despite everything, Sansa was sweet. This girl is a monster.
“Oh, yes. My place is wherever I’m put. I’m a good little pawn. I’m just not half as stupid as you all hoped.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t even worry about it,” she replies, pausing to greet a courtier and smile her courtly smile, “I’ll spread my legs, give you sons, manage your court, and charm your vassals. I won’t trouble you or get in the way of your dalliances as long as you show some discretion. I’ll be the perfect queen. I believe in doing my duty. It’s what’s best for Westeros. I’d just prefer it if you don’t assume that I don’t know what this is. I’m to be your queen, not your fool.”
Seven Hells. “No wonder—”
But he stops himself before he says the rest. Not that it matters, he can tell by the look in her eyes that she knows exactly what he almost said.
She says nothing, merely greets and charms the lords and ladies around them until at long last, they’re free to settle in. Before she departs, however, she hisses through clenched teeth. “I’ll never forget.”
His first morning in the Red Keep, he is woken by a delivery. Two guards carry a steel-bound lockbox into his solar and open it before him. Jon is nearly blinded by the cerulean glare of its contents.
There’s a note is curly, angelic script.
This should prove more than enough to compensate for the expense of my new shackles. To ensure that you receive a fair price, I’ve enclosed certificates of appraisal for each piece and a list of merchants who will not cheat you. This should be enough to swell your coffers admirably.
Lady Sansa Stark.
It’s an absurd amount of sapphires. Apparently, Aegon isn’t too imaginative.
Jon instructs his men to pawn them at once, finding it uncomfortable to look upon the small fortune his betrothed sent a moment longer. He ends up using portions of the revenue to send her gifts. She returns them.
He soon learns that his bride hosts sewing circles and small banquets in the Maidenvault. She avoids him, and show little concern as to whether or not he notices. He does.
So does his mother, who is none too pleased.
“If you don’t make her happy, you’re going to spend the entirety of your reign with half the Lords Paramount breathing down your neck,” his mother informs him, “And I can only buy you so much confidence from the Northern faction. The Tullys and Arryns aren’t going to be happy if their lady is miserable. The last time a royal bride was miserable, there was a rebellion. House Targaryen was nearly toppled. And trust me, the Martells are desperate for means to undermine you. You want to sit the Iron Throne with the Seven Kingdoms united behind you, or you’ll end up like your father, basing every decision on pleasing his unruly vassals.”
“How can I make her happy when nothing pleases her?” Jon asks. “I’ve sent her flowers, jewelry, fabric, all the things you said she likes.”
“Jon,” his mother cups his cheek, “Aegon showered her with gifts, too. You’re a good man, give her that instead of things.”
He invites her to take lunch with him. She reschedules four times until finally giving in. He makes sure all her favorites await her on his balcony, and tries to look handsome for her.
She arrives wearing green silk and that fixed smile of hers. Jon sends the servants away and serves her himself.
The direwolves, at least, get along, tails wagging madly as they rush to greet each other.
Jon swallows. “I hear you’ve practically founded your own little court within the Maidenvault.”
“I felt it kind to offer a place for the ladies of the court who prefer silk and songs to sweat and saddle-sores,” she replies, playing with her food, “I hesitated to organize things before, as I didn’t want to presume or step on Her Grace’s toes, so to speak.”
She actually snorts. “Now? What does it matter, now? I’m not going anywhere, and your mother is going to have everything she wants, so I may as well.”
Jon’s eyes narrow. The tone with which she speaks of his mother irritates him, but something holds him back to full-blown fury. There’s a resignation to the way she speaks that is so, so sad.
“I know Her Grace and you have your differences.”
“She thinks I’m a useless, frivolous fool, and always has. She wishes I were my sister, Arya. A proper Northern lass. I’ve been a disappointment to her ever since I arrived,” Sansa interrupts, “I’m sure she’s recounted what a weak, love-struck ninny I am several times. I ignored the warnings of my own blood to fall for a duplicitous prat because he was supposed to be the prince from my dreams. I’ve learned my lesson, better than she expected. But it doesn’t matter now. Her son will be king, her position is secure, and she doesn’t have to worry. I’m still here to secure your family’s position, and I’ll cover all the duties she’s always hated as well. Despite her frustrations with me, Jon, she’s better off with me than with Arya, I assure you.”
Jon stares, eyes wide. He had no idea. “She’s… She’s a good woman.”
“In her own way, yes. She was just a girl when your father stole her heart and won a war for her. She loves him and you madly. But she’s not a girl anymore. And as much as she loves your father, she hates being queen. She’s stuck. And for the last eighteen years she’s carried the guilt of the war, of Elia and Brandon and our grandfather. And she’ll do anything to make sure she’s not the undoing of the man she loves. All the while, being terrified of the man she helped raise, the living reminder of all her youthful impulses wrought. But now her son will be king, and the Seven Kingdoms will stay intact. I’m here, silly, stupid, and weak, maybe, but with all the right connections to bind the rupture her love story caused. Here I am, the daughter of enough fallen enemies, to be married off and save her from all the consequences, heartbroken or not, I’m here. I always will be.”
Jon feels bile rise from his stomach. It terrifies him. Sansa isn’t stupid. Sansa isn’t stupid at all.
He wants to defend his mother, but he has no argument. “I’m sure she cares for you—”
“—I don’t think she’s heartless. I’m sure she pities me. And it’s not her fault that I let Aegon break my heart. She tried to warn me. But I’m still a worthy sacrifice. And your mother has at least been more honest with me than the rest. Everyone, even my parents, were happy to let me believe the lie. I told you, Jon. I know my place. Your family taught it to me. I came here thinking I was the heroine of a song. But I’m a hostage. I’m a literal peace offering.”
“So am I,” Jon replies bitterly.
There’s an awkward pause.
“It’s not the same,” she states, finally.
“No,” he admits, “It isn’t.”
He feels unclean, as if he’s just committed some sort of crime, and he’s staring into the eyes of his victim. But he’s not sure how to apologize or fix it, because he can’t identify exactly what crime he’s committed. He just knows he’s party to this, whether he wishes to be or not.
“You’re going to treat me well, Jon. Because I’m the key to half of Westeros. I know my place. Every bit of it. You need me to keep my family in check. It’ll only become more important with each passing year. So you’re going to give me a place at the table. You’ll be discreet with any infidelities. You won’t keep my children from me. You won’t hurt me, or force yourself on me, or be cruel. You will show me every inch of honor, respect, and credit I am due. I will have a say in every major decision made. I will do my duty and show you respect, honor, and give you my full support. I will bear your children. I will not bear any other man’s bastards. I will charm your vassals and placate my kin. I will reach out to the Martells. I will mend your clothes and your wounds. I will aid you in matters of state. After I’ve born you an heir and a suitable amount of spares, I will be discreet in any liaisons and keep myself from conceiving another man’s child. I will devote myself to the success of your reign and the preservation of our family. And we will both be honest with one another. Is that fair?”
He doesn’t like the bit about the other men. Not one bit.
“No,” he says, fists clenched, “That isn’t fair at all. It’s not fair to you, or to me. It’s not fair to anyone. Why should I have to go looking to other women to find happiness? Why should you have to sacrifice your body to a man you barely know, then restrict yourself? Why should either of us have to build our life together through leverage and threats? Use our families, who, let’s face it, don’t care a wit about us, or at least not as much as they should, to control each other?”
“Because there isn’t an alternative. These are the roles we were born into. And the people of this country need us to fill those roles.”
“No.” Jon shakes his head. “They don’t need that. Jaehaerys the Wise and Good Queen Alysanne loved each other…”
“You can run off and marry for love if you like, Jon. But they’ll just pass the crown to Viserys, and the realm will suffer for it. Your uncle is an utter shit, but at least his marriage secures Dorne.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Jon snaps, rising to his feet and beginning to pace. “I’m marrying you, that’s set in stone. But why should we go into this merely tolerating each other?”
“Because your brother left me broken, Jon. I don’t have a proper heart to give anymore.”
He stops short. “No, I don’t accept that. Aegon is a dog turd. He’s not capable of such a thing. He hurt you, but he couldn’t possibly ruin you. You’re a… You’re you, and he’s just something you stepped in.”
She actually giggles at that. “You think that, maybe, but he… I loved him, Jon.”
“You loved what you thought he was. Because everyone wanted you to feel that way. You were a child when you met him, like my mother was. But you’re not a child anymore. You see so much else, Sansa. Surely you see that.” He walks over to her and kneels by her side, looking into her eyes. “See me. I’m not Aegon. I don’t want to use you, or hurt you, or lie to you. I don’t give a shit about the Iron Throne, or your family. I’d happily see that stupid metal chair melted down and run away to the East. I’d run away with you, if you like. They are trying to force us into things we don’t want. But one thing I think I want is you, if you’ll have me. I’ll take you, and leave everything else.”
“Why, though?” She asks. “Why do you want me?”
“Because you’re beautiful, clever, and just as angry as I am. And you care, Sansa. You are ready to resign yourself to bondage because you want to help others. That’s… That’s incredible.”
“I’m not clever, I’m frivolous and weak. Your mother–”
“You’re just as defiant in your frivolity as my mother is in her armor. If she can’t see that, it’s her loss,” he grins, “If you were really as weak as she claims, you’d have dropped everything and done whatever you can to please her. Instead, you started your own court. That’s inspiring. I didn’t want to be king, but if you wish, I’d like to be king to a queen like that.”
His stomach sinks a bit. He feels like an idiot, and he isn’t even sure what he’s saying, though he means every word. But Sansa’s given no indication that she wants him.
He supposes that’s not too surprising. She’s beautiful. He’s the second choice.
Jon pulls away, embarrassed. He’s made a fool of himself. She’ll never respect him. Maybe if he’s lucky, she’ll pity him.
“You’re sweet,” she says, “A good man.”
Jon cringes. Sweet. That’s something women say about puppies and babies.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “About the bracelets. I just felt so trapped and I was so angry with myself for letting him charm me. And I felt like everyone thought I was stupid enough to fall for it all again… I didn’t want to be bought or tricked. I didn’t want them to be right about me. I was scared.”
“I did it because a friend suggested it,” Jon confesses, “I just looked for whatever had the biggest stones. It didn’t occur to me that they looked like shackles. But I didn’t care. I sent them because I thought you’d be charmed by something shiny. So you weren’t entirely wrong. I got so angry because I’d been saving up before… well… Father sent for me. And I spent the savings on them. But it’s stupid, because as much as I cared, I didn’t care to spend it on something I cared about. It’s… It’s strange, really. I worked so hard, and cared so much about the work I did, then dropped all that work on something I didn’t care to even think about.”
She sighs. “I know what you mean. I spent months working on my wedding dress. But when it was finished, I sent it off to Daena. Can you believe that?”
Sansa utters a bitter laugh. She closes her eyes and leans back in her chair. “I’m not going to run away with you, Jon. There are a lot of people who would suffer if Westeros falls apart, people who are blameless in all this. Our families think we belong to them, but we don’t. We belong to the people that depend on their lords to do their duty. And honestly… I’ve spent my whole life preparing to be queen. It’s all I know. And frankly, I barely know you.”
He turns away, stomach sinking. She’s right, of course. They’re stuck.
“…But I’m willing to stay with you…”
He turns around, heart rising. She smiles at him.
“I know this isn’t the life you expected,” she says gently, “But I’m willing to help you through it. I’m willing to try. Maybe we could fall in love. I’d like to.”