After the breakfast that morning, Oberyn was nearly ready to insult the entire court by missing the dinner. "We have suffered enough, my love, don't you agree?" he said, the sweat drying on his skin. He and Ellaria had made good use of the time.
She laughed, and kissed his cheek, gave a mighty sigh, and finally pulled herself up from their bed. "I agree entirely, my sweet, but alas, that has little to do with how much more we must suffer." She ruffled his hair, and kissed the tip of his nose, but pulled away before he could catch her mouth with his. Ellaria was always playful after their lovemaking; where he was left enervated, generally ready for a pleasant slumber, she was bright and bubbly as a maiden.
"You're always so lively after. Really," he complained, refilling their wine glasses from the flagon beside his bed, sweating with the mellowness of the autumn afternoon, "it seems entirely unfair that I should have such a reputation for lustiness. Left to my own devices, I would go straight to sleep after our business was completed, but my lady is utterly insatiable, and it would hardly be chivalrous to leave her unfulfilled."
Ellaria snorted as she pulled on her shift, sitting back on the bed and turning to him to take the second glass he held out to her. "Yes, you poor creature," she said. "Thank the gods you have forced me from our bed, that we might do our duty in attending the feast."
"The interminable feast," he corrected, sitting up. She had tilted her head to the side that she might comb her fingers through her hair, and he could not resist pressing a kiss against the nape of her neck. Ellaria turned and smiled at him, twined the fingers of her free hand with his, and then gave a sigh of her own and stood again, sipping her wine and calling for her maid.
They arrived before the main part of the throng, but of course they were not the first to arrive. If they had been, his reputation would have been shot to all the hells. Hardly anyone noticed their entrance, apart from a cluster of the pretty little bride's pretty little cousins, who all giggled and murmured amongst themselves as much as was appropriate. Ellaria managed to turn up glasses of some very pleasant wine, and the two of them found a pleasant spot from which to watch, and be seen, without his Lady Sand seeming too offensive by her mere existence.
It was hard to miss the Imp and his lady wife when they arrived; each of them made mock of the other by their presence. That he should have such a wife, who in her loveliness embodied the Maiden herself, with a third of the continent to her name besides, seemed to make a jest of Tyrion Lannister, bookish and noseless, never mind his height; that she should have such a husband, stunted, scarred, twice her age, and half-drunk already, made a jest of Sansa Stark, who was fair and bright and should now only have started, as a dreamy girl, to even think of marriage. And yet each carried themselves with dignity.
At the very moment he was thinking this, someone said beside him, "She is a remarkable creature, is she not? Her bearing is so noble, even now."
He turned, and discovered that the Spider had joined them. "Indeed," he said; there was no danger in acknowledging something the entire court already knew.
"Lord Varys," Ellaria said with a little more warmth than Oberyn had managed. "Yes, though grief tells on the poor girl."
"Ah, of course," Varys clucked. "But even grief, she wears well; such a delicate creature she looks! In fact, it was the Lady Stark I wished to speak of with you. Do forgive the presumption, but I should have felt a villain for neglecting to say anything. I dare say, my lady, that the colors the lady Stark wears this evening might suit you magnificently. To be sure, the two of you look very different...but you are at least alike in the fact of your beauty. Perhaps it is simply the fineness of the silver that strikes me. I think, though, that you might wear such a shade of violet as lines the lady's sleeves quite as well as she. Do you not agree, Prince Oberyn? Why, they should make a splendid pair together, even: imagine them side-by-side, the bright Dornish sun and the pale Northern moon, the differences between the two, and such stark differences — if you will excuse the pun," he said, with a little titter, "only serving to highlight both the other's beauty and her own."
"Are you quite sure you are a eunuch, Lord Varys?" Oberyn asked. "I think you might teach me a thing or two of the enjoyment of women, you speak with such passion."
"You are unkind to tease me so," Varys said, with theatrical sorrow. "Surely you will allow that even a eunuch cannot be entirely ignorant of the concepts of beauty — nor fail to be struck by the idea of two radiant beauties side-by-side."
"Why, ser," Ellaria said, "I almost think you are playing matchmaker." She was always better at feigning innocence than Oberyn.
"Indeed," Oberyn agreed, "had I not given my brother my word that I should cause no more trouble than necessary, I should ask if you wished to see about whisking her off to our chambers after the festivities came to a close. Or, indeed, perhaps before. We have so few redheads in Dorne, you know, Lord Varys."
"As to that, my lord prince," said Varys, with only the slightest change to his tone, "well. The little birds of King's Landing sing such interesting songs. I shall not stoop to gossip as some others in the Keep might, with regard to the lady's marriage — "
By which, of course, he means to remind us of those very rumors. Ellaria's hand tightened just enough in his own to tell him that she had thought the same. "Ah, yes," he said, exchanging a look with her, she frowning just enough for him to play the devil, "I have heard that the Imp has not yet found his way to the — the Throat, do you call it? You know, my lord, those wetlands that are the surest path to the North."
Anyone but himself and Varys, he thought, would be entirely fooled by Ellaria's shocked laughter. "My dear," she scolded him, with one more soft squeeze of his hand.
"The Neck, Prince Oberyn," Varys said, and then added, "though I should hardly call it the surest path. The Twins, after all."
"The Twins," Oberyn repeated, "yes, they are another path, but," he continued, just a little louder than before, perhaps just loud enough, now, that Sansa Stark might hear him, "I cannot imagine any man would wish to deal with the Freys, could he avoid it. No, were I to plan a journey northward, it would be the Neck, whatever routes these Lannisters might advise instead."
Ellaria pressed his hand again, and turned back from the look he'd barely noticed she had cast toward Sansa Stark. "My prince," she said, a little louder than her last scolding, but with laughter still dripping off the words like honey, so none might take any of this too seriously.
"I remarked only on geography," Oberyn said mildly, and nearly missed the gratified glimmer in the eunuch's eye as he gave a little sigh, as if in frustration with the high lords' jests.
"Geography, certainly, my lord prince, but we spoke of fashion originally, if I might impose enough as to beg you to remember," was all he said. "On which note...as I say, Lady Sand, Prince Oberyn — I think you might study the lady closely this evening. Such heavy fabrics would not do for the Dornish clime, of course, but the cut, perhaps in something lighter, would certainly suit. And, as I said, such a striking color, those sleeves! Well worth careful attention, I think, to truly get some sense of the effect."
"I admit, I am always glad for ideas of new finery suitable for my lady," Oberyn said, raising Ellaria's hand to his lips. She smiled, briefly, softly, and then her eyes flicked back toward the lady Sansa. "Well, my dear, and what do you think?"
"I think," she agreed, after a moment more, "that you have quite the eye, Lord Varys. Though you're right that such heavy fabrics would not do in Dorne; I must watch the lady closely, so I might gain some sense of what to tell my dressmaker for the gown itself. I think she could capture the spirit of the thing, if I can give her enough detail."
"Precisely my thought," Varys agreed, and then added, regretfully, "but I have taken far too much of your time already, I suppose. I thank you for indulging my whimsy, but let us be frank: the humble spider has no place among such finery. My lady, Prince Oberyn." And then, having bowed his head graciously, he was gone, as if by sorcery. The most remarkable trick, that — a moment, and then there was only a whiff of perfume and oh, yes, there he was, suddenly just far enough away that you could not catch him without drawing attention to you both.
The message was clear enough: something would happen this night, and Sansa Stark would be a part of it, a part which might be easily missed. "I suppose," he murmured to Ellaria, "we must watch the lady closely. How dreadful it will be, spending hours gazing at a beautiful young maiden."
"A terribly hard duty, that," Ellaria agreed, just as softly, but there was laughter in her voice.
"Why," he said, "and here I was going to complain of how the weather in this city makes everything more difficult. Such a damp night, is it not?"
She laughed more loudly at that, enough that the very maiden in question looked over at them. Poised and perfect she was, but the soft smile on her face did not reach her pretty blue-gray eyes. Oberyn could not help winking at her, hoping it might help that smile along, but she only looked startled, and turned away when Mace Tyrell's little mother tottered up to her.
After the Queen of Thorns was done with her, Ellaria drifted over like a petal on the breeze, tugging Oberyn after her. He made some jest to the Imp, who looked even more miserable than his wife, despite still having living family to his name (or, more likely, Oberyn reflected, because he still had living family to his name). For himself, Oberyn gave the lady only a passing smile and bow. She returned the smile — whatever Ellaria had said to her seemed to have softened, at least a little, those Valyrian steel eyes of hers, though they were still as sad and wise as the Crone's — and curtseyed prettily.
"You look near as lovely as the bride," Oberyn said, unable to resist trying to make her smile truly.
"You are very kind to say so, my prince," she said, but then her husband took her by the elbow and began to guide her inside.
"We are required, my lady," he said, his voice only a little thickened by drink. "Anyhow, I cannot be expected to think my wife safe with the Red Viper of Dorne or his lovely...what do they call female snakes?"
"Female snakes," Oberyn said drily.
"Ah, good, I was afraid there was some special word, and I had drunk too much and forgotten," Lord Tyrion said, casting a smile back over his shoulder, shortly before he was lost in the mass of people moving in.
"The poor dear," Ellaria tutted as they sat, but was interrupted by a servant who saw to their tragically empty wineglasses. After her first sip, she continued, "she has lost one of the amethysts from her hairnet, did you notice? I would have thought a Lannister's jeweler to — "
Startled, she broke off, for Oberyn had nearly choked on his wine.
And seven hells, I'll not be the last to choke tonight, he thought, as Ellaria clapped him on the back and he shook his head, already wheezing out a laugh before anyone could worry. Amethysts. Gods, amethysts, and one missing, and the master of whisperers notes the color of her gown, and bids the Red Viper of Dorne watch the lady closely.
It would not do to be uncertain, of course, and the next time he had a chance, as he leaned in to kiss his lady's cheek and whisper something filthy in her ear, he said instead, "What sort of amethysts? Dark? So dark they are black, except when they catch the light?"
They were black, from where he sat, but the lady had scarce moved throughout the feast. Perhaps they were onyx instead, only...
"Yes," Ellaria said, her hand drifting to his hair, one finger toying with a curl as he nuzzled her neck, the two of them just so wanton that some would avert their pious eyes, and not wanton enough that the rest would be eager to watch. "Black amethysts; perhaps they are only onyx, but her sleeves..."
"Yes," Oberyn agreed, and Ellaria kissed his cheek, in turn, and then his mouth, slow and gentle. They barely opened their lips for one another, and they sat with their foreheads resting against each other's for a long moment before turning back to the meal as the next course was served.
So it was that, when the idiot boy-king began, in the midst of goading his uncle, to cough, Oberyn Martell's and Ellaria Sand's might have been the only eyes that were not on Joffrey or the Imp, but on the latter's lady wife. He squeezed Ellaria's hand, and she squeezed his in return, and as the crowd began to grow louder, laughing as if the entire thing were part of the planned japery, they were able to rise and make their way through the hall, as if needing to find the privy, or perhaps steal a bit of time alone together.
But the king continued to cough. Oberyn and Ellaria did not need to look, they knew what it was that would have the crowd beginning to quiet, to murmur, even as many kept laughing.
The king continued to cough, and Oberyn kept watching Sansa Stark.
She slipped away nearly as quickly as Varys had, as the King's coughing grew quieter, to be replaced by a thin, desperate wheeze of breath. Fortunately, having been warned to pay special attention to the lady's gown, he caught a glimpse of cream, a flash of violet, a gleam of "amethysts", and was able to follow. That made all the difference, as, behind them, the laughter in the Great Hall began to turn to gasps, then to screams. The commotion of hundreds fleeing was a little muted for them by that time, as they followed the lady.
Sansa had managed her dress on her own, though it took time, but what stopped her was her hairnet. It had come off easily enough, but she noticed the missing stone, and then...
He said there was magic in them, she remembered suddenly. Magic and home. That was stupid, that had just been some drunkard's fancy. If they meant home — she could sell the stones, he had said they were precious. The silver and the stones would pay their passage, that was all he meant. Even if one was missing, there were a score of others; those would get her far enough.
But she stood frozen, nonetheless, staring at the empty place where the stone should have been.
When she heard footsteps, she was glad for them, glad for something to stop the thoughts that were beginning to take shape in her mind like swelling storm clouds. She was about to call out when she realized that it wasn't Ser Dontos who approached. The steps were too light, too certain, for the poor drunken fool, and she realized suddenly that there was more than one set, that more than one person was walking, soft and quick and steady, towards her.
She was glad she hadn't called out, but that lasted only a moment longer, for even as she was casting about desperately for someplace she might conceal herself, someone called out to her. "Lady Sansa?"
She knew the voice, but she could not quite place it — until he came into view, and the striking dark woman close behind him. When she recognized them, she gasped. "You?" she blurted out, before remembering herself. Why would it be him, you stupid girl, what would he care for helping you go home? Gods, if they should be here when Dontos arrives, if he should say something... "I beg your pardon, Prince Oberyn, Lady Sand," she said, dipping into a curtsey and hoping the light was dim enough that they could not see her fear.
"Not at all, Lady Stark," he said lightly, but when she chanced a look up, there was something strange in his face, it seemed to her. He knows. But that was stupid, too. There had been others fleeing the Great Hall, too, and anyway, what could he know? She was only missing a stone from her hairnet, that was all. Just be quiet, they will pass by and go back to...
She remembered, then, that the Dornish had settled outside of the Red Keep. There was no reason for them to be in the gardens.
"What he means," the woman said, in her warm voice, "is that the fault is ours, my lady. We took you unawares, which was most unkindly done."
"Oh," was all she managed. They did not pass her by, they only stood and looked at her, and oh, where was Dontos?
"You have changed your clothes, my lady," said the prince. "A shame; your gown suited you. My lady and I thought we might like to see it more closely."
He reached for her, and she thought of all the awful things Joffrey had said about the Dornish, the stories she had heard about Prince Oberyn's appetites — but surely with his lady there, he could not want — except no, the two of them might — but a little part of her was relieved by that thought; if all they wanted was a few kisses — or even more — that would still be less terrible than if he knew, wouldn't it? He was to sit on the Council; if he knew, if he guessed...
Ser Ilyn no longer had Ice at the wedding breakfast, she remembered, but she could not decide if that would be better or worse.
But he did not seize her, or cry for the guards, or embrace her cruelly. He only took the hairnet from her hands, and gazed at it. Sansa felt as if she might fly to pieces at any moment, and she clasped her hands in front of her to stop them shaking.
If he meant to — to do something to her, if he meant to have her, a part of her wished that he would just get it over with. It could not be more terrible than the beatings. And they said that septas and great ladies and whores alike had thrown themselves at him, so perhaps he would even see that she enjoyed it, or — or at least use some strange potion to make her think she enjoyed it, or even just to make her sleep through it, anyway.
Even if he did not, well, he did not have so very long before the guards would find them, so he must needs be quick about it. And once it was over and he left her here, Dontos would find her, and he could deliver her home, as he had promised. She already had so much to weep for when she was safe within Winterfell's walls. Knowing that she would reach a place of safety, it was easier to think of adding one more thing to the list. And just think how the Lannisters would rage, if I finally got with child and it was Oberyn Martell's bastard, she thought, half-hysterical.
But he did not throw her down and ravish her. He did not do much of anything.
"You have lost an amethyst," was all Prince Oberyn said, and when he looked up from it, the strange thing she thought she had seen in his eyes was still there. It was as if he were waiting for something, expecting something from her, but...
It's vengeance for your father, she remembered, suddenly. Dontos had said it, when he gave her the hairnet, and the stormy thoughts that the Prince and his lady had interrupted all loomed above her again.
"No," she whispered, staring at it. If only all he had meant to do was to kiss me, or — or even worse, I could have borne that — gods, he's going to raise the hue and cry, or he's going to rape me and then raise the hue and cry, and then Ser Ilyn —
Joff had a new Valyrian sword as a wedding present from his father that morning, and Ser Ilyn's sword had been plain old steel. It wouldn't even be Ice, that might have been better, at least the last thing I'd feel would be from home —
Her knees had turned to jelly, and she did not realize that she was falling until Lady Sand caught her by the elbow. "My prince, you're frightening her," she murmured, an arm going 'round her shoulders. Her touch was gentle and her hands were warm, as warm and gentle as her lady mother's — no, no, there was something else to her, a strength as well. Her lady mother had been strong, but this was a different strength. Different and yet also familiar, she could almost place it...
"Of course. Yes. My lady," he went on, in the strangest gentle tone, looking at Sansa with those dark eyes, "I imagine you need to recover yourself, and I would that we might linger long enough, but I do not trust that we have the time. Once you are safely situated in my household outside the Keep, we shall try to make sense of this, but in the meantime..."
The bells were ringing all over the city, as they had done for King Robert. Sansa looked once more around the godswood for some sign of Ser Dontos, but there was none, there was only Prince Oberyn, offering to take her out of the Keep. But he was a snake, he was the snake, he was the Viper, and —
She remembered, suddenly, something her lord father had spoken of only rarely, obliquely, and how sad and tired he would sound when he did speak of it. He and the old king, the sad old drunken king, had quarreled, her lady mother had told her one day.
Sansa had begged to go south, again and again and yet again. The Warden of the North should go to court at least once, shouldn't he? And it was meet that he should take his eldest son and daughter when he did, wasn't it? He wouldn't be ashamed of her, she promised, he wouldn't, she would be ever so careful, she was a good girl, just like Robb was a good boy.
They should go south someday, Mother had explained gently, at last, when Sansa was just eleven and Mother had told them that King Robert and half his court were coming to Winterfell. She had told them all about that one morning, but then she asked Robb and Sansa to come with her to her own solar, and break their fast with her, privately.
They should, and of a certainty would, go south someday, Mother explained. Sansa and Robb for certain, at least to visit court, and on the way there or on the way back they would visit Riverrun, to see their mother's home and meet their grandfather and uncle, and perhaps even the Eyrie, where their lord father and King Robert himself had been fostered, and they would meet their aunt and their little cousin Robert, who had returned there after Lord Arryn's death. And probably Bran would be some knight's squire someday, him or Rickon, and Arya...
"Will Arya be a squire too? She'll like that," Robb had said, grinning.
Mother sighed, but the lines at the corners of her eyes grew a little deeper, and her eyes seemed bluer, and they knew that, inside at least, she was smiling. Sansa and Robb looked at each other and then quickly looked away, trying to be as grown-up as Mother and hide their own grins, too.
Smiling at last, at the sight of the both of them, Mother had continued. Well, she said, many little girls were even wilder than Arya, if they could imagine such a thing, but mostly they grew out of such wildness, and even if she didn't, they were queer about things in Dorne, and the heir to Starfall was about Arya's age, and the Daynes especially liked Father, for the sake of certain persons, certain memories...here her eyes grew a little less happy.
"Oh," Mother had said after a moment, sighing and sipping from her own cup, then, with the most beautiful grown-up little twinkle in her eye again, adding a dash of wine to Sansa and Robb's cups of water (no more than a thimbleful for each of them, really, but it had served to make Sansa feel quite grown-up, and even though he rolled his eyes at her, she saw how Robb sat up a little straighter as well), "but listen to me. You two are so grown-up already, I almost forget myself. Ironically, when I forget myself, I become almost a girl again. Perhaps we are all meeting in the middle, hm?"
It almost made Sansa blush, to remember how easily she had believed her, except that Mother must have known how much she wanted to believe her, and Robb too, and said it all for their sakes. She was trying to make us feel better, to make us understand that this was something grown-up she trusted us with. Knowing, now, all that she had explained, she realized too that Mother had been trying to strengthen them, to help them feel safe for what she was about to say.
Yes, Robb and Sansa and one or more of the others would go south sometime, Mother began again. But perhaps not to King's Landing, at least at first. And they must not tell this story to Arya or their little brothers. It was for Mother to tell them such things, to help them understand. "You, especially, my sweetling," she said to Sansa. "And Arya too, when I tell her, but this is why I must tell her. You must understand that what happened was...if you ever fear anything like it from any man..."
She looked then from Sansa, whose hand she was holding, to Robb. "It is terrible, and I would never have either of you know such awful things can happen in the world. The truth is a sword, it seems to me. When her children are still very young, it is a mother's place to shield them from it. But as they grow older, she does better by them to arm them with it instead."
So it was that Sansa and Robb came to learn the full story of what happened fifteen years before. Her lord father and King Robert had been the best of friends — they had grown up together, they had been like brothers; they would have been brothers except for Rhaegar Targaryen stealing away their aunt Lyanna. That should have brought them all the closer together, and it had, mother said, in some ways — they had gone to war together, after all, when Jon Arryn refused to hand over their heads. But at the end, after it was already done, and Rhaegar was dead, then they had parted over what had befallen the Princess Elia and her children. Her lord father could not forgive it.
"Forgive what?" Sansa asked. Robb had her hand held up in his big strong one now, as if to give her strength, but his eyes were huge and bright, and she knew, somehow, that it would be easier for him if she said it. It was something terrible, certainly, that was why he held her hand, but it was more all right for her to be less patient; even if she was almost a lady, she was still littler, and a girl besides.
Mother closed her eyes, and sighed, and then took each of their free hands in one of her own. Gently, softly, quietly, she explained to them what Tywin Lannister's men had done to Princess Elia, and to her babes.
A gentle summer snow had been falling; she could still see the flakes whirling like dancers across the glass of Mother's window as Oberyn Martell met her gaze with his own.
"You hate the Lannisters," she whispered, nearly delirious with mingled terror and hope.
"I do." His dark eyes flashed. The smile he gave did not reach his eyes, and it would have been frightening — it should have been frightening — except that she also knew it from deep in her own heart, a secret place she never let herself remember was there, because she could not risk anyone in the Keep seeing it. But there was some of that strange gentleness in those eyes too, she thought, that fierce gentleness that she had recognized in the Lady Sand's touch, though she still could not place it. "I do," he said again. "I despise them. Lady Stark, if you will place your trust in me now, I swear, by the old gods and the new, that so long as I draw breath they shall not take you unwilling from my protection."
He understood, somehow. He knew what she feared. And he had called her Lady Stark. No one had ever called her that; her mother had been Lady Stark and when she died Sansa was already wed, but no one called her Lady Lannister, either, and that had been a tiny mercy. She was only Sansa, or sometimes Lady Sansa, though whoever called her that usually did so as mockery. I am the Lady of Winterfell, though, the Lady Stark, I am, I am...
Her hand was shaking still as she placed it in his, and though, as he said, they did not have long, he lingered to place his other hand over it. He did not grip it hard, just enough to help the shaking stop. "Here," he said, kneeling to retrieve, with his free hand, the cloak she had dropped.
Lady Sand took it from him before Sansa could, though, and draped it around her shoulders, embracing her briefly while the prince was still holding her hand.
"My ladies?" he asked, and his smile was a little gentler now.
Ladies. That was it, she realized dimly, as they guided her through the shadows, past the guards. The way they spoke to her, the way they touched her, warm and gentle and fiercely protective. They were strange and wild and somehow she felt safer with them than she had since...since before Baelor's sept, since before King Robert died, since the Neck.
Lady would have loved them, that was why she had gone with them. She could almost see her now, padding alongside them, licking the Lady Sand's hand and nipping at the prince's. She used to wrestle with the others, not as often as they did with each other, but she usually won when she did join in, even though she was the smallest of the litter. She would let Lady Sand help me brush her fur, and she would wrestle with Prince Oberyn, and nip at him, and he would laugh and she would bark and wag her tail. The thought made her smile, and when she tried to bite it back, to look as somber and frightened as she ought, she remembered, once more, Joffrey's dead.
Lady, she thought, as they walked right out of the Keep, no one in the crowd even glancing at her. She felt as if, should she look to the side, she would see her wolf trotting politely next to them, pretty and soft and ready to kill any man who tried to stay them. Lady, they have set us free.