The servants at Winterfell had a game that a young Sansa Stark did not understand.
If you were to be born again, what would your second life be like? one servant would ask the other; when they were ferrying heavy jugs of beer through the corridors towards a feast of drunken louts with wandering hands, or when they passed each other by in the hallways carrying bedpans that splashed their feet, or while they froze their fingers raw washing linen, or mucked out the stables of a horse that kicked them bloody.
Sansa didn't understand then because she was blind to the hardship of their lives, and because she was young and thus any dreams she had - that of travelling to the south, marrying a handsome knight, or bearing the heirs of a noble house - were still possible for the future; she did not have to wish to start again when she had barely even begun.
But now she understands that game, because she plays it every day at King's Landing.
She thinks it as she is beaten before the court; she wakes with the same question every morning and drifts to sleep each night thinking of its answer; she murmurs it to herself in her rooms after Cersei has informed her gleefully that she is to marry Tyrion, that she is to bear the name of the house that destroyed her own.
And when Joffrey informs her of the murder of her mother and brother, she can't help but wonder – in a haze of unspeakable grief and fury at the gods who would leave her alive to bear this pain alone – whether they too played the same game in the scant few moments before their deaths.
If I were to be born again, what would my second life be like?
She did not ever expect to find a true solution to this question, because that would be impossible – you can never have a second life; the gods have only given you one to use as you see fit, to ruin.
But then one day, a Prince from the south approaches her, and offers her an answer.
Oberyn does not need a woman's eyes to show him that the Stark girl is mistreated when he sees her around court; her face pale, fingernails bitten bloody, too-thin limbs, trembling shoulders, and a wardrobe unfit for a ward of the king.
He does not need any eyes, only his ears, when he first hears her being beaten through the doors of the throne room of the Red Keep; and bursts through with his retinue; having arriven in King's Landing earlier than his raven said he would, for such is his prerogative; and asks why the king has put on this show for his arrival, why the king believes this kind of entertainment would be suitable for a prince of Dorne.
Joffrey is bemused by his entrance and his words, his mocking manner - unsure as to who is being derided by Oberyn and unsettled by the entrance of a titled newcomer to the world he believes he holds in the weak grip of his fist. The king's mouth wobbles into a smirk and he greets Oberyn and tells the traitor at his feet, the girl whose identity Oberyn does not yet know, to leave the king's presence because she has offended him with her snivelling.
Oberyn has much practise at hiding his distaste, his anger, his fury, at the deeds and words and character of others; because he wishes, like the animal of his namesake, to lull his opponent into a calm before he strikes true. But practise does not make it hurt any less, seeing this girl stagger out of the hall, arm around a single handmaiden, bruises and blood smeared across her bare back.
His fists clench in their gloves, he imagines choking this boy king, choking him to the point of brain damage and a broken throat, so that he might then get to work on slowly hurting the rest of his body while he could not speak or scream in pain.
After his audience, Oberyn sends the men and women of his retinue out into the keep and the city to find out things that he does not already know from spies and ravens; handsome and easygoing folk that can pickpocket a secret after only a few conversations and an offer of Arbor wine; and when they return, among many other interesting things, he learns that the girl being beaten was Sansa Stark.
Doran had heard that the Stark girl was being held prisoner at King's Landing, but not anything about her condition; neither of them would have expected the Lannisters to hurt her so openly, craven as the Lannisters were. Yet Oberyn had left Sunspear by ship a moon ago and had only received a scant few important ravens on the journey so it was likely that Doran did know by now.
What would his brother do about poor Sansa Stark, he thinks that evening, as he feasts on meagre King's Landing fare and drowns out its taste with a Dornish red he has brought with him. His brother is naturally cautious, his eyes fixed on the future, his mind full of plans that spool years and decades ahead. His brother plans to put a Targaryen heir on the throne, and the Targareyns will not forget that the Starks allied with the Usurper, that they killed their ancestors. Oberyn's brother would not allow his own sympathy for this girl, large though it would be, to threaten the position of his country and his family.
What would Ellaria do? Would she risk Dorne and her daughters? He does not have her to ask any longer because she left him, and his bed, some moons ago, after eight years of a grand love; her desire for him fading inexplicably as desire can do over time, as if it is a living thing that reaches a natural autumn, a winter, of itself and dies. He is happy to have shared her life for those years, happier still that she has given him four fine daughters. But he is also lonely, for he has gotten used to the constant companionship alongside his customary dalliances; maybe he has gotten old too, and wishes to have the same person waiting for him at home.
Still, sex is a good consolation, he thinks, as the whore between his legs works so diligently to please him. Sex, and friendship, he corrects, as Daemon enters the room and looks at the scene with fond exasperation.
"Couldn't wait a day before getting your cock sucked?" Daemon asks.
"I see no reason to wait," Oberyn says, shrugging, then peaks with a groan in the mouth of the man at his feet. "Perhaps you are just jealous? The Lannisters are quite eager for us to have our pick of the city's whores," he says, nudging the whore out towards the door, waiting for him to leave and the door to be shut, before he adds, "all the better to keep us occupied and out of mischief, wouldn't you think?"
"I don't trust any whore here not to gut me or give me the pox."
"Truthfully, the fear only heightens the pleasure, my friend."
Daemon sits down next to him on the couch and Oberyn drains his cup.
"The Stark girl," Daemon says, "what are we to do?"
"What can we do?" Oberyn says, and picks up his favourite pocket knife to twirl in his hands. "I have been told that a betrothal between her and Tyrion Lannister has been announced a few moments ago at the dinner which we were too travel-weary to attend," he says, and stabs the knife into the fine wood of the table, plucks it out and then smooths his fingertips over the thin indention it has made. "I cannot arrange a Dornish match for her now, the Lannisters would not allow themselves such a shaming."
"If we had gotten here a few days earlier–"
"They would not have freely given her claim to the north to Dorne. Not even the largest dowry would persuade Tywin to do something so stupid."
"Do you have another plan?"
"I have the beginnings of one, but I shall speak with Sansa first, try to gain her trust and friendship over the next few weeks. I shall ask her if she wishes to be rescued from King's Landing, with all that may entail. It shall not be a kidnapping," he says, and stands, "Come, let us venture into the city and see what trouble we can find ourselves tonight before dawn has us in our beds."
He tugs Daemon up and kisses him on the cheek, thankful to have such a friend as he – for any Dornishman who saw the beating of a lady such as Sansa Stark would feel outraged, would express their displeasure, would think of ways in which they might help; and yet few would actually conspire to do anything about it, to risk their necks for the life of a stranger among the quicksands of the lion's den.
The night after her beating was interrupted by the arrival of the retinue from Dorne, Sansa cannot sleep. Shae has found her some dreamwine but it does not soothe the hurt of her back entirely, it does not rest her racing thoughts.
Sansa was not invited to dinner with the Lannisters, she never is anymore, but Cersei still made her aware of the topic of tonight's dinner conversation when she arrived at the door of her chamber to tell her that she was to married, three weeks hence, to Tyrion.
She did not think she had tears left to cry after the Red Wedding (and if she uses that term in her head, she does not have to think of the words 'mother', 'brother', 'Robb', and hear them in her own voice, hear her calling for them in vain); but tears she has shed, until her eyes are now burnt dry and her head aches.
At dawn, she leaves her room before Shae arrives to help her wake, tugging on her loosest dress and draping the threadbare shawl that she was given as a further insult by Cersei one day when the other woman said she looked cold.
There are guards she cannot pass at the entrance doors of the keep, and other guards and knights that might beat her just for fun, but she is allowed to walk in the courtyards, even venture out to the godswood which she has been unable to do for a week now for fear she might split apart at the seams at the memory of home and her lost family – and if she were to go mad, how much harder would Joffrey beat her to get the correct response, how much more vulnerable would she be.
Today she sits in her favourite courtyard of three; it has a fountain in the middle, whose waters are always cold, a walkway of thin trees where birds sometimes perch, and a worn statue of a woman, a queen who has lost her name and origin to history. It is empty of people and she lets her shoulders slouch, tips her head back to stare at the blue sky for just a moment, as if the string holding her head up has been dropped, before walking over to sit on the wide lip of the fountain. She stares into its waters, not leaning over too far lest she sees her own pitiful reflection looking back, and then slips her right hand under the surface. She holds it there, as the cool water begins to freeze the skin of her hand, as it begins to burn and go numb, and she is so busy concentrating on the sensation that she does not notice she is no longer alone.
"Good morrow, Lady Stark," a man's voice says from nearby and she gasps and pulls her hand back into her lap, then turns around to identify him.
It is the Dornish prince who arrived yesterday during her beating and she is ashamed to see him, ashamed that he knows what has been done to her.
She stands up and curtseys, "Good morrow, my prince,"
"Prince Oberyn Martell, at your service, my lady," he says, bowing.
What an odd turn of phrase to use. Does he mock her? She studies his eyes while the hand in her lap burns anew as it comes back to life.
The polite smile on his face vanishes. "My lady, your treatment-" he stops and heaves a breath, "Dorne knew, as the rest of Westeros does, that you were a prisoner in the Red Keep - this is the way of things sometimes, nobles kept confined to a different house's keep for political reasons, as your own family did to the Greyjoy boy. But it is not the way of things, it is not right, to hurt such a ward. To beat them in front of court, to order your kingsguard to do this, to tear your dress from your shoulders. My lady, I hope I do not have to tell you that this is not the way things should be," he leans closer and his voice drops, "that this boy king is a monster. A villain sprung from incest, who should never have been allowed to take the throne."
He leans back again and it is Sansa's turn to pull in a large breath. She is crying, as she often is these days, but also shocked to silence at the boldness of his words, their vehemence, the anger in his eyes.
"Forgive me for not easing into our conversation with pleasantries, my lady," he says, holding out a handkerchief edged in embroidered golden suns, "but I could not bear to begin with a mummery. This is not right, my lady," he shakes his head, "It is unconscionable."
"My prince-" she begins, but her courtesies have left her too. She wipes her eyes with the fingers of her left hand, forgetting that the handkerchief is in her right.
"May I share your seat, my lady?" he asks, his voice a little softer now.
"Please do, my prince."
"I should ask you to call me Oberyn but I do not think you would, when you scarcely know me,"
"You have the right of it," she says, "my prince,"
In some other setting they might have shared a smile at her slip of words, but neither are in a smiling mood.
She fingers the fine cloth in her hands, "Whose embroidery is this?" she murmurs.
She has come to learn that she can avoid bad thoughts, for scant few moments, by focusing on the things she can feel with her hands, the quality of the floor under her feet, a pleasant sound in the distance, or a glimpse of the sky.
"One of my daughters gave it to me before I left Sunspear. I have eight daughters,"
That tugs her out of her ruminations, "Eight daughters, and no sons?"
"No sons, 'tis true. And since my daughters have five different mothers, I know I have only my own blood to blame."
"Does your brother have sons?"
"I do not understand how some siblings seem to inherit everything the same, and others are as different as the moon and the sun." She folds the handkerchief into a tight square. "My sister and I were thus, we had many arguments when we were children."
"But you loved her still,"
"Of course." She hands the handkerchief towards him, and he takes it from her carefully, the skin of his hands feels warm against hers. "I would not want to part you from a gift from your daughter."
"You are thoughtful, my lady, and I shall follow your wishes, but my daughter Tyene would want you to have it, for she knows that she may make me many more besides. Do you embroider still, my lady?"
"I do, poorly, for sometimes my hands shake around the needle," she admits, her voice dipping as a Lannister guard walks past the entrance to the courtyard and she feels her gut tighten in fear.
He cannot tell this poor maiden that he wishes to rescue her until his plan is certain. A flash of a future which does not then arrive, is crueller sometimes than never having any sight, any hope, of the future at all.
Even half-beaten, starved and terrorised, her eyes swollen with crying, she is one of the most beautiful young women he has ever met. A curse of beauty, for if she had been plain then Joffrey should likely have not accepted the betrothal and she would never have travelled to King's Landing.
He takes his leave from her, his own fingers brushing across the square of cloth in his pocket on his walk back to his rooms, as if it would reveal her mind to him.
She was receptive to what he said, she did not beg him to take back his words. He is thankful for this for were she locked still in the kind of trap a mind can create to save a person's sanity - that of believing the best of their attacker and the worst of themselves, that of believing that they are only to blame for their treatment; it would take more than weeks to encourage her to be lucid enough to give her permission for him to take her away.
He has only slept a few hours, he and Daemon came back so late from carousing in whorehouses and inns, and he was woken swiftly by one of his servants who had spied the lady sitting alone in the courtyard, but he does not have time to go back to bed. He has things to do, and then the small council to sit in on. Though he will be making his excuses before long, and promising to send a different prince or noble of Dorne to take his brother's seat. He shall not linger in a place such as this, whose stones bear the blood of his dear sister and her children; the blood of many others besides.
She is to be fitted for her wedding dress, Cersei announces, sweeping into her room that afternoon and making her jerk and prick her thumb with her needle. It is some weeks until the wedding, and the seamstresses of the Red Keep are very swift; so Cersei means to draw the process out, to make the bruise deep and sore.
As she stands there, and submits to tugging and pinching and fabric being tightened uncomfortably in the creases of her body, her mind is with the scene earlier that day, and the singular prince who said such powerful things.
She had asked Shae about him when she had returned to her rooms to find her maid worried that she was not there. Shae said that Prince Oberyn was a rogue, an unmarried man with many mistresses and lovers of both sexes. His nickname was the Red Viper, he was proficient with many poisons and weapons, and he was often unmatched for daring.
He had admitted to her himself that he had eight bastard daughters by five different mothers, though he did not use that word to describe them. The clear lines of the lessons her mother had taught her, and her childhood beliefs, have been smudged by her time at court, and not even in her mother's memory would she go back to thinking in such strict terms. For she has learnt that princes and kings can be monsters, knights dishonourable, women false. Why should she still believe that bastards, like her half-brother Jon, are born bad. They are not at fault for their parents' adultery. Shae has also educated her in the acts that might produce a bastard, or a babe in wedlock, answering every foolish question Sansa had. Sansa does not want, anymore, to be sheltered from the knowledge of the world, because she has found that what she does not know can only hurt her further.
Prince Oberyn spoke to her of treason. Was there a danger for him in this, would her words be believed if she told someone? Perhaps. She can see no reason for him to lie, except to include her in a plot, but to what purpose would this plot be? If he is planning to hurt Joffrey then she is happy to be of use, even if it is to her later downfall. If he is not planning to hurt Joffrey, then it could only be a plot to slander her and she is already known as a traitor.
No, he must have spoken as true as his mien suggested. And she is warmed by his words, as much as her frozen heart can be warmed. To hear someone speak the truth, and say that you are being mistreated, is a powerful thing when you are surrounded by liars, and you fear that have become a liar to yourself as well.
She hopes that they might speak again, this southron prince and her, and he might tell her of his homeland, describe its wonders so that she might imagine it in her mind when she is trying to loosen her thoughts from the life around her.
The dress they are constructing about her is ugly, and Shae agrees from the look on her face. But maybe, Sansa wishes futilely, it will be the kind of ugly that takes many moons to sew, and some other more permanent tragedy might befall her before she has to share a bed with a Lannister and bear his children.
He does not send a raven to his brother asking for his permission, nor his advice; he shall tell him nothing until they are in a room together back in Dorne and safe from eavesdroppers, or men who shoot ravens from the sky and break their codes.
He has his plan for Lady Stark in place now but he is waiting, and thinking on other plots.
He came here to King's Landing for revenge, to kill the man who had dishonoured and killed his sister. To kill him in an open field, face to face, after ordering him to admit what he had done. And he knows the name of that man now, though Tywin has lied that it was someone else; he has seen him, the Mountain, guarding the worthless Lannisters; he has felt his gut shudder with fury, his hands twitch towards weapons he is not allowed to wear in the throne room.
His hands may long to curve around his spear but something about this place, about the walls that still ring with his sister's screams, her unhappiness and sorrow and terror, makes his feet feel heavy and tired, as if he has walked for days through the desert. Now that revenge is in his grasp, it feels hollow, almost worthless for it cannot bring her back, or undo what happened.
This monster, he decides, does not deserve to be killed in a fair fight, yet still he shall die.
One of his retinue does not have the look of Dorne, she is blonde like his daughter Tyene, and pale; and she is a useful agent in lands where the Dornish may not go. She shall be the one to lure the monster to his death, so that Oberyn shall not be observed to be part of the act. Instead, Oberyn shall slip into the room at the last moment to demand the man name the names of the ones he has killed, to watch him die in turn, and then Oberyn shall leave the room, silent like a shadow who was never there. There shall be no reprisals from Tywin and the Lannisters; and Oberyn and his retinue, along with the Stark girl if she wishes it, shall escape from this land of shit and filth and innocent blood spilt by those who spit at the gods.
Oberyn has two small poison bottles on the table in front of him, and both of them will cause a death.
The first will be given tomorrow to the Mountain in his wine, killing him in agony, although afterwards it will look as if he has only drank too deeply and poisoned his own blood.
The second will be offered to Lady Stark, to Sansa. This poison will cause the appearance of death - the appearance of death by deadly pox in fact, with blemishes and blue lumps marring her skin - but after twelve hours and an antidote, she will come alive again, unharmed.
A body dead of the pox will be buried swiftly outside of the city walls, or carted out to be burnt on an open field. They will not linger to check her body carefully; even though the poison slows the heart and lungs and cools the flesh so that it would take many hours of careful watching to see that she still lives. Oberyn will intercept this body in its coffin in the wagon, and steal her back to life and to his ship, and they will leave for Dorne. No one can blame a prince who flees a city where the pox has been discovered.
Simple as this plan is, and daring too - but he does not believe for a moment that it will fail – the effects of this plot will last lifetimes. For once Sansa Stark dies, she shall not be able to be resurrected, and the girl must take a new name, a new identity, must begin a new life.
He will make a promise to her that he will keep her safe; a vow to bind her life to his, and to tie the lives of any children she has to the Martells and Dorne; and in return she will let the girl called Sansa Stark be killed forever.