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Her Life and Her Death

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They’d taken the island swiftly. The storm had sunk what remained of the Targaryen fleet, and the few surviving loyalists were no match for Stannis’s forces. Eventually, they’d either fallen to the sword, or fallen to their knees.

Before him, a large door marked with the Targaryen sigil stood as a final sentry. And even it yielded to a simple tapping of his knuckles on wood. A woman opened the door, her gaze that of a conquered enemy. Or perhaps her desolation came from another source, and Stannis’s presence only compounded the tragedy. Her arms were stained with blood, as was the sodden rag clutched in her hand. Stannis signaled to his men to remain outside, and entered the room alone.

The former Queen’s eyes, when they lifted from the child suckling at her breast, contained all the dying fire of the Targaryen dynasty. “Her first and last meal, the only thing I can now give her,” she whispered.

 In her youth, the Queen’s gaze had been an inferno; any who’d foolishly impeded her will could attest to that. Years of abuse at her husband’s hand had smothered it into a small flame, but dragons were stubborn creatures, and Rhaella Targaryen had held onto that fire despite what the gods had thrown at her. She had not let the cruelly of life break her; she had reveled in small joys, in the love of her children, the laughter of her grandchild. In the hope for a better future. Or so the rumours, which Stannis generally ignored, had claimed.

Yet now, with Robert crowned King, her family all but dead, her house defeated, and her own life draining away, only embers remained in her gaze. Her arms tensed around the babe, gathering it closer to her breast as if she wished she could take it back into the safety of her body. The three handmaidens surrounding her stirred, their loyalty honed by years of service.

Stannis Baratheon was not a man to pity others; he believed in justice for one’s wrongdoings, and rewards for good work. Yet he could feel the stirring sympathy as he gazed at this proud dragon’s last stand. He felt no ill will towards the Targaryen; in fact, breaking his vow to the crown and supporting his brother’s rebellion had been difficult for Stannis. Yet he had made his choice, and now his duty compelled him to see it through to the end.

“My Lady,” he nodded, voice curt. Her gaze returned to the child, a forlorn smile at the title; a mockery of what she’d once been.

 “I named her Daenerys,” the queen murmured. Her voice was a raw, reedy thing, but there was tenderness in her gaze. “Daenerys Stormborn. A mother’s foolish fancy, that she may grow to follow in her ancestor’s steps—and find happiness.” The queen’s laugh was hollow.

“Are you here to kill her, Stannis Baratheon? A small babe, not even a day old?” She shook her head, and then finally raised her gazed to his, blazing hatred. “Like your Usurper brother, who sanctioned—who rewarded—the murder of my grandchildren!”

Stannis pressed his thin lips tightly together, teeth clenching. Yes, his brother had done as she said. He had seen the corpses of the Targaryen babes, still wrapped in that dishonorable manner, marking the ground before the Iron Throne. No matter how many times that spot was cleaned, the tainted would never abate. While it was a strategically sound move to eliminate any threats to his reign, Robert’s actions were wrong. Stannis felt the shame staining him; unlike his brother, he would not deny the evil of that act.

“That should not have occurred,” Stannis acknowledged, voice cold. But beneath was an entreaty. I had no part in that, his soul whispered, I tried to make it right.  “On behalf of House Baratheon, I–”

“Enough. I cannot absolve you, nor would I. The gods will be your judges. You and your brother and all the dogs that follow him. Words don’t matter, Stannis; only actions. If you want forgiveness, earn it.” The passionate words seemed to steal what little of her energy remained, as she slumped back father into her pillows, hands shaking with the effort to hold the child. One of the handmaidens stepped forwarded, arms outstretched, but was waved away. Despite the dark sheets, Stannis could see the first inklings of just how doomed the former queen was. A stain was spreading on the thick fabric covering her middle. Her face was shinning with sweat, and flushed with fever. The smell of blood permeated the air.

Stannis did not believe in the gods; and even if they were real, he doubted they paid any attention to the foolish games of man. But he did believe that actions spoke, that words were wind. At that moment, he couldn’t deny a growing respect for the dying queen. Blood of dragons indeed.

“Approach me, Stag.” The words were an order, but underneath the bravado, Stannis heard the first signs of desperation. He silently did as bid, coming to stand at her bedside. Arms shaking terribly, she lifted the child towards him. Stannis gazed down, nonplused at the tiny creature being presented to him.

“Your Grace!” one handmaiden protested, lurching forward as if to snatch the child away. As if Stannis was going to draw his sword and run the babe through.

“Silence!” Rhaella ordered, voice sharp as steel. The woman fell back, cowed. Violet eyes turned to Stannis, and he found his earlier assertions incorrect. The queen’s body may be dying, but the dragon fire in her eyes was alive and well. “Take her.”

His hand twitched up automatically at her tone—the voice of a mother…a queen. But he hesitated before taking the child. He had no experience with infants, he had none of his own, and had never had cause to handle one. Suddenly he became aware of the grime on his gloves and clothes, which was a preposterous concern when the child’s wrap was already stained red. “Take her,” the queen said again, weaker this time.

Finally, slowly, he reached out at took the bundle, holding her awkwardly with stiff arms. The babe fussed and twitched, to his faint dismay. What is happening?

Stannis looked back at the queen, feeling a faint sense of dissociation. Just moments ago, he was seizing this castle, assured of his actions and confident in his decisions. Yet now he held a child—a child his brother would surly order dead—and he felt more discomfited than he had in his entire life.

It was the faint amusement that he witnessed on her face that finally Stannis snapped out of his stupor. “What is this? Why have you just…surrendered her? I must take her to the King. And I will obey whatever orders he then gives. So why…?”

She sighed, and her voice was weaker when she answered. “Because I have no other choice. She came too late,” Rhaella murmured, and there was a dry irony in her words, “and I could not send her with Viserys.”

So the prince is gone.

Her sigh was long, tired. “I have heard of you, Stannis Baratheon, child-slayer’s kin.” He stiffened, and the babe fussed again until he yielded his tension. “Your brother’s reputation has traveled far, and I hear you are his exact opposite.” Stannis felt the slight like a slap to the face, reminded of a childhood being overshadowed by his brother. He ground his teeth together.

His ire rose, until she said, “And I thank the gods that you were the one sent to me.”

What?

“You, and not a Lion’s pet. You, and not the Usurper himself.”

“My brother is not a Usurper,” he snapped. He sensed the makings of some plot, as if invisible strings were quietly surrounding him but he could find no way to stop them. “He is the rightful King by right of justice!”

“He is a man whose reign began on the blood of children,” Rhaella said dismissively. “Mark my words, he will never find comfort in that seat.”

Stannis clenched his jaw, mouth opening, but she cut him off. “Do you believe men should pay for the sins of their kin?”

He hesitated, but answered truthfully. “No. A man should only pay for the sin he himself has committed.”

Rhaella exhaled, eyes closing briefly, then met his gaze soberly. As she spoke, her voice grew stronger and stronger. “Her name is Daenerys. Daenerys of House Targaryen. Daenerys Stormborn. Do not forget her name. She is a living, breathing creature, an innocent baby girl, who should not have to suffer for being born daughter to a cruel man and weak woman. And she is now your duty.”

Stannis flinched back, stoic face betraying his shock. “What–”

“Her life, and her death. She is now your responsibility, Stannis of House Baratheon. You have taken this island, and everything on it, and that comes with a price. You will protect it! I, Rhaella of House Targaryen, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, order you to take care of my child. Prove you words. This is my last order in this life. And you will obey.”

Stannis couldn’t move, could barely breath. He had been raised by powerful men, surrounded by commanders and soldiers, had gown up on the battlefield, and faced terror, horror, and starvation during the rebellion. Despite all that, despite the fact the he knew she was no longer queen, Stannis felt the order wrap itself around his limb, felt the weight of a duty that was never supposed to be his drape itself on his shoulders. Suddenly the bundle in his arms felt infinitely heavier.

“You will accompany him,” she ordered the handmaiden who had tried to take the baby earlier. The girl immediately nodded, as helpless to resist as Stannis felt. He suddenly realized that this dying woman was perhaps the strongest person he’d ever met, and that respect tightened his chains.

What am I doing!?

“Wait!” he finally protested, shaking his head to clear his ridiculous thoughts, and swallowing the lump in his throat. “Are you mad?! I cannot—will not—disobey my king!”

She only stared at him, silent, as his heart pounded in his ears. Stannis has never felt so–so…emotional. He was the calm brother, the stoic one, so enduring in the face of a storm, so uncompromising in his convictions, that many doubted he could even feel! The queen sighed again, and this time, when she closed her eyes, she didn’t reopen them. Her arms fell to her side, listless, and Stannis panicked. She couldn’t die and leave this burden upon his head!

“Her life and her death, child-slayer’s kin,” the queen said, her voice only a whisper now, sighing once more. “You want…forgiveness? Earn…it.”

This time, when the queen exhaled, no inhale followed. Stannis stood there for many moments, staring at her unmoving face. She looked much too peaceful for a woman who had caused such upheaval in Stannis’s life. Around him, the three women sobbed.

He looked down at the baby, who began to fuss again, and then around at the room. You have no duty to her, some part of him whispered. Just the ravings of a madwoman. Another mad Targaryen. Give the child to Robert and be done with it.

He thrust the babe at the handmaiden tasked to follow him. She flinched but quickly took the child, holding it protectively to her breast. Stannis breathed deeply, and slowly his mask of rock fell back upon his face. What had he done, shamming himself before strangers?

“You name, girl,” he demanded curtly. She flinched again, much to his annoyance, and shakily said “Myra, m-my Lord.”

“Clean the child, and get ready. We depart in the morning. The rest of you, report to the castellan for new duties and assignments. Tell him to honor the Targaryen funeral tradition and burn the former queen.”

He turned and strode to the door, piecing together his calm, regaining his confidence. Words of a madwoman.

“My Lord, please!” Myra gasped, and Stannis turned, impatience stamped on his harsh face, blue eyes cold. She swallowed thickly, clutching the child closer.

“What?”

The girl licked her lips, bloody hands trembling as she drew the child even closer. The babe began to squirm. “Where are we going?” she whispered.

Outside, the rumbling of an emerging storm began to twist. The baby began to cry, perhaps reminded of her birth, or perhaps finally sick of all the tension in the air. Daenerys Stormborn. Stannis ground his teeth together.

Madwoman.

Earn it.

Her life…

And her death.

“We sail for King’s Landing.”